‘Hey, do you guys think it’s still there?’
‘Do we think…ah fuck,’ Chloe looks down at the hem of her graduation gown, now and forever slightly ripped as she pulls it past an unknown snag on the ground, ‘well that’s me in for a world of pain when I get home. Nothing new there. Do we think what’s still there Em?’
‘The baby bird’ says Emma, removing her graduation cap. Her almost waist-length blonde hair falling from her head as she does so.
‘Well it was when we…shit, when was the last time we were all down here?’
‘Must be two/three years’ says Madison daintily advancing through the overlong grass, holding the hem of her own graduation gown delicately above ground.
‘Time flies when you’re living your best life, don’t it?’ says Hannah with that trademark hint of sarcasm, following closely behind Madison, struggling to conceal her mirth at her friend’s largely unsuccessful foray through the foliage.
‘Yeah, you’re probably right Maddie, must be going on three years or so now’ says Chloe. ‘In fact it was just before…’ she falls silent, censoring herself only just as the words dangle on the precipice. Shit, Chloe, she thinks to herself. Have some fucking decency. Three years. Almost three years to the day, in fact. It was May/June time, she was sure of it. That’s when Rosa’s Dad had committed suicide. Just like that. No note, no nothing. They all knew he’d be struggling for a while after the divorce but hell, no one saw that coming. A bottle of whisky and a bottle of pills. Gone. What could you say? What could anyone say? All we could do was hug Rosa, she thinks, tell her we were there for her. You could tell she knew it but, at the same time, you could tell she knew there was nothing we would be able to do, to quench the need for healing. Shit, that girl. How much can one girl have thrown at her, she thought. ‘In fact, yeah, where is Rosa? Rosa!’
‘She was just behind…ah there she is’ Hannah turns back before seeing Rosa advancing slowly out of the trees, her gown scuffed and scratched after the traipse through the foliage. ‘Hey Rosalita girl, we’re missing you, Emma wants us to get all Edgar Allan Poe and shit and see if that baby bird is still there. Such a nice, pretty blonde girl aswell, you wouldn’t think it would you…it always those ones you have to watch, mark my words Rosie.’
‘What…hmm, yeah’ says Rosa only half glancing up at Hannah, manufacturing a hint of a smile to go along with it. ‘Yeah’.
‘How’s that comedy career going Han?’ says Madison, sarcastically, slowly turning to Hannah before stumbling forward slightly as she turns back, scuffing the heels hidden beneath her gown. ‘Ah shit shit shit!’ A slight squeal of anguish escapes her.
‘About the same as your modelling career, Maddie darling’ Hannah flashes Madison an exaggerated, toothy grin.
‘Bitch’ mutters Madison.
‘Love you too babes’ says Hannah.
Chloe stares past this miniature comedic farce towards Rosa as she slowly moves towards them. She was always the prettiest out of the group, thinks Chloe. Her skin, those curves, that smile. But recently, well, recently there’s a shadow following her around. Her face never lights up anymore. Ever. You can see the whole world weighing down on her. You can tell she doesn’t sleep. Never smiles. She’s aged about ten years in the last two. That must be just over a year now since her brother was killed. Fallujah. Just after the start of that fucking war. Sorry, fucking invasion. They were so close, Rosa and her brother. A team despite the split. I remember him beating the shit out of a couple of guys at school for bullying her. He always stood up for her. Latinas are a rare thing in this community, that’s why they singled her out at times no doubt but once her brother got involved that all stopped. Hell, they were shit scared of him. Strength in numbers or not. And then one month…one month into that fucking war and that’s all it took. Gone. No fucking wonder the light’s gone out of her eyes.
‘Yeah’ she says quietly, ‘almost three years.’
‘Hey Chloe,’ says Emma, smiling and gesture towards her friend’s feet ‘pass me that stick, that branch at your feet.’
‘Ugh, are you actually being serious here Em?’ says Madison.
‘You seriously want to dig out a dead bird? Honestly!? You’re a sick puppy, Emma. Hannah was right.’
‘Oh don’t be so precious Maddie, I’m not going to touch anything, I’m just curious.’
‘God.’ Madison scoffs. ‘Guys, come on, you can’t be on board with this?’ she looks to Hannah and Chloe in turn, glancing back at Rosa only to see her crouched down by the cluster of wild roses a dozen or so yards to the side of the clearing. The clusters’ mass of pink seems to reflect against Rosa’s face, briefly bringing colour to her tired features if only for a split second or so.
‘Meh’ Hannah shrugs.
‘I might have known you’d be like that’ says Madison, ‘Chloe, come on? If the racoons or whatever haven’t been at them then there’ll just be bones down there. It’s fucking gross!’
‘Why not’ shrugs Chloe slowly taking her gaze from Rosa and back towards Emma. ‘If nothing else it’ll give us something to remember this day by.’
‘Oh yeah that’s true Chloe, yeah you’re right there. Y’know besides our ACTUAL graduation!’
‘People graduate from High School all the time Maddie. At least this way some of the ‘Class of ‘04’ might actually be remembered for something a bit less mundane than the usual, trivial high school bullshit.’
‘Oh yeah, great. Let’s all meet up again in ten or fifteen years time and talk about that wonderful day we all become baby bird grave robbers. Yeah that’s not creepy at all.’
‘Come on Mad, it is pretty cool, admit it,’ says Hannah, ‘I mean this kind of shit is how horror movies start. You’re the one that wants the career in film.’
‘Always with the comment, that’s you Han isn’t it?’
‘You know you love me.’ Hannah smiles.
‘Besides,’ says Chloe, treading on her gown slightly as she hands the branch to Emma, ‘this could be the last time we see each for a long time. Nice to have a memory.’
‘Last time?’ Madison ends the struggle with her dress and heels combination, deciding to sit down on the grass a few yards from Emma, lifting her gown gently as she lowers herself to the ground.
‘Well yeah, you’ll be going to LA soon; I’ll have to travel to Massachusetts in the next few weeks to familiarise myself with the place before I start at Harvard in the Fall; Hannah’s moving up north to UOI soon; Ems is off to NYU; Rosa’s…’
‘I’m not Chloe…’
‘Rosa’s going to…what?’ Chloe looks down at Emma. Confusion cascading over her face.
‘I said I’m not going’ replies Emma, quietly. ‘To NYU. I’m not going.’
‘But…’ Chloe raises an eyebrow in incredulity, ‘but you were accepted…you read us the letter?’
‘I know.’ Emma pokes lightly at the ground, scraping away tiny shards of dirt each time.
Madison and Hannah look at each other, both their faces sharing a fraction of the confusion currently adorning Chloe’s expression. Between them Rosa slowly appears, her expression muted. Hannah looks down and sees flecks of blood on one of Rosa’s fingers. Alarmed, she silently gestures towards it and looks at her friend. Rosa lifts her other hand which delicately and precisely holds onto a wild rose. She indicates the thorns of the stem. Hannah lifts her head slightly in acknowledgment.
‘We decided it was best if I stayed here. For a while anyway.’
‘We?!’ Chloe’s anger begins to rise.
‘Yes Chloe, ‘we’, please don’t start, you know I…’
‘You and Andy!? That’s ‘we’ is it!?’
‘Chloe, please, I said…
‘No Emma, no. Not ‘please’. This is your fucking life! Not his. He’s controlling you, why can’t you see it? It’s NY-friggin-U! If he’s insecure about it that’s his problem, this has been your dream for years! Emma, please listen to yourself…’
‘No Emma… I mean…NYU…I mean…guys, come on, this time, please?’
‘Chloe, she’s asked you to stop’ says Hannah.
‘Han, come on, this isn’t right!’ says Chloe. ‘Maddie? Rosa?’
‘If this is what makes her happy, Chloe, I mean, I guess I don’t understand it but…Emma’s our friend so…’ says Madison, allowing her sentence to peter out.
‘But she’s not happy, how can she be!?’
‘But that’s not your decision to make Chloe, it’s Emma’s’ says Hannah, smiling weakly at the two in a poor effort to placate the situation.
‘Seriously Han!? Rosa, please, please Rosa, you can see this for what it is, surely?’
Rosa looks up at Chloe, that same exhaustion etched upon her face. She looks at Emma, sensing the hurt and struggle in her gaze. She sighs sadly.
‘You just said it yourself Chloe, it’s her life, no-one else’s’ she says, looking down sadly at her feet, only just catching the merest flash of Emma’s sad smile of gratitude.
‘Look Chloe, Andy just thought it would be better for us if we stayed together. At least until he gets some money together and then we can both travel to New York together. And then maybe I can start my studies again. I mean…’
‘Maybe’ Chloe scoffs. ‘Maybe. That’s the word he used isn’t it? ‘Maybe’. He’s controlling you Emma, you know it, you recognise it, you just don’t want to see it.’ She takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes as the condensation of anger creeps along her eyelids.
‘No Chloe, stop it. Please. Look, Hannah’s staying in Iowa, she’s staying with Jack and you’re not shouting and screaming at her! So why just me?’
‘But Hannah’s always wanted to go to UOI! That’s always been her plan, she’s not changed it at the last minute because she’s been pressured into it by someone else! Oh, and as a little side note, Jack’s not a total scumbag! He’s a good guy and you’re fucking Andy is anything but!’
‘STOP IT!’ screams Emma. She collapses to the ground, tears falling from her eyes. Hannah and Madison move towards her, followed by Rosa. The former two comfort her, their arms around their friend as she convulses in grief. Rosa stands next to them, the wild rose still clutched in her hand. She looks on, a blankness in her eyes. She takes off her graduation cap, her black silky hair unravelling under the sweltering early-evening heat.
Chloe looks at the four of them, cleaning the lenses of her glasses before placing them back on her face. ‘I can’t…’ she begins, ‘no, I can’t.’ She turns and begins to walk away, caring little for the hem of her gown dragging through the grass, dirt and thorny nettles.
‘Chloe wait…’ says Hannah, looking up.
‘Chloe, come on, look…’ echoes Madison.
She stops suddenly. Begins to turn her head before halting it, choosing not to. Choosing instead to conceal her reddening eyes and cheeks.
‘No’ she shouts, ‘No, I won’t. I’m done. I can’t keep doing this. Everyone can see what’s happening here. You’re making it out like I’m being a shitty friend here. Well no! It’s not me that’s being the shitty friend. NO! I’m the one telling the truth, saying what should be said. I’m not doing this anymore. Not again. I’m done.’
She strides off into the trees and through Crapo Park, sweat beginning to trickle from her forehead. In her wake the huddled mass of a consoling Hannah, Madison and a crouching, tearful Emma appear locked in a freeze frame, immovable, unable to react to the moment.
Beside them Rosa still stands, clutching the wild rose in her hand. The thorns digging into her skin, creating fresh puncture marks. Her face displays no acknowledgement of this fact. She feels the heat of the sun scraping down her body, pulsating uncomfortably against her flesh. Her gown, the foliage, the afternoon scratches at her bones. In the distance she hears the quiet benevolent whisper of the mighty Mississippi River.