The rain falls lightly on Crapo Park, Burlington. The trees, their leaves, seem beaten, reluctant to solidify against the rainfall. A steady late-Spring/early-Summer rain. The kind that can overstay its welcome, stubbornly remaining constant throughout a day. The kind that can derail plans, upend outlooks. The moisture clings doggedly to the grass below. An icy blast of wind occasionally meanders in from the Mississippi River beyond the park’s perimeter.
The park itself is quiet. A dog-walker ploughs a lone furrow, quickening their step, on the far side of the expanse, their resentment to the situation and conditions matched only by the exuberance and exaltation of the dog itself.
Tucked away, hundreds of yards or so, beyond the park’s main area, or what would, in kinder weather conditions, be known as its ‘thoroughfare’ of sorts, sits a small clearing by the edge of a dense congregation of trees. Once home to the remains of a derelict, rotting, rusting segment of a rollercoaster – an image, a moment from another time – now the clearing plays host only to a collection of overgrown shrubbery. Grass, weeds, nettles, bushes; all projecting the image of an unkempt entity in dire need of grooming. Now, as in the case of the trees, however their unkemptness is sullied, or dampened down, by the constancy of the rainfall.
Within the clearing itself, four females gather. All four are dressed conservatively, all four dressed in black. Three of the women huddle together under two umbrellas, one of the women is positioned slightly adrift of the other three. She’s crouched down, seemingly pawing or digging at the ground in front of her.
‘I think I’ve got it, you guys.’ Rosa turns to the other three, blinking through the rainfall as it trickles down from her wet hair.
‘Don’t be ridiculous Rosa, it’s been twenty years. It’ll be long gone.’ Chloe sniffs. ‘Let’s get going please, it’s freezing out here and…and…just let’s get back.’
‘No, I swear,’ says Rosa, ‘look, I remember planting one of those roses with it. Y’know, the pink ones, the wild ones.’
‘Can you see that? That can’t have survived all this time?’ Madison asks as she switches the umbrella from one hand to the other, using the liberated hand to brush a strand of hair from her face.
‘I think some of it might have.’
‘Rosa, c’mon, this is just silly, forget it, please’ says Chloe.
‘Chloe, just…just let her, ok.’ Hannah entreats Chloe quietly, placing a hand on her friend’s wrist.
‘But…I mean…it’s not…I mean, it won’t bring…it’s…this is helping no…’
‘Chloe, please.’ Madison turns. ‘You know this place was important to her. Besides, where you would rather be? Back at that house? The one full of tears, the one full of misery? No, that wasn’t her. At least…at least not the real her.’
‘I’d rather be with my wife, Maddie,’ says Chloe. ‘I’d rather be with my wife and my son. I’d rather be with them than be here now, even if it is back at that house. I’d rather be anywhere than here just now, it’s too hard, it’s not…fair…ok, it’s not fair!’
Hannah puts her arm around Chloe’s waist as tears fall from her friend’s eyes. She hugs into her, a single tear inching its way down her own cheek. Madison switches the umbrella between hands again and reaches out for Chloe’s hand with her own. Her mouth clamps shut, twitching as her eyes well. She turns her face away, all the while gripping hold of Chloe’s hand.
‘Guys…’ whispers Rosa, competing quietly with the steady sound of the rain. ‘Guys, look.’
The other three shuffle over to Rosa slowly, a small mass of black moving as one through the slowly-developing overgrown morass. Hannah takes her arm from Chloe’s waist and grabs onto the umbrella, allowing the latter to wipe her eyes with her hand. They halt at Rosa’s back, towering over their friend. They look down at the sodden earth, past their friend’s mud-stained hands.
‘Well I’ll be…’ Madison’s eyes widen.
‘Holy shit, it can’t be’ says Hannah.
Rosa allows herself a smile. ‘I’m pretty sure it is, Han. This feels like the right spot, look the trees are that far away, the dents on the ground just over there where the metal would have been.’
‘Crazy.’ Chloe’s face betrays little emotion, her eyes fixed on the ground, staring straight at the very sparse collection of small blackened bones huddled in the hastily-dug crevasse at their feet.
‘Well,’ says Madison, shaking her umbrella slightly to free it of rain, ‘that is fucking gross.’
‘Same old precious Maddie,’ says Hannah, smiling slightly as she looks at Madison.
‘Aww, and let me guess Han, you think it’s cool? Same old quirky, creepy, doesn’t-give-a-shit Hannah, is that it?’
Hannah laughs a little. ‘No, I wouldn’t say they’re cool. There’s something, I don’t know, poetic or enduring about them. I don’t know. There’s something nice in that they’ve lasted all this time, like us. Through the years. Through all seasons, all weathers etc. Y’know?’
‘Wow, ok steady now mademoiselle,’ says Madison. ‘Poetic. Pfft. Paris really has changed you, hasn’t it?’
‘Ha. Only in the best ways, Maddie my dear.’
‘But we haven’t.’
The three of them look at Chloe, Rosa bringing herself up to a standing position.
‘Sorry Clo?’ says Hannah.
‘I said we haven’t. Have we? We haven’t all ‘lasted through the years’ have we?’
‘Well no, but I meant more that…’
‘Emma didn’t last did she!? That’s why we’re here. We’re here because we, no because I, spent too long trying to ‘do the right thing’, spent too many hours biting my tongue and trying not to fucking say anything when all along we knew he would fucking kill her, didn’t we. Oh, maybe some of you actually didn’t think he was capable of murdering her but we knew he hit her from time to time, didn’t we? We knew he was a psychopath, didn’t we? We knew he was draining the very fucking soul out of our friend didn’t we!? We knew and didn’t do a single thing about it, we knew and yet here we are. She’s gone. So, no we haven’t lasted have we, how the hell can we have ‘lasted’ when we could sit by and watch something like that happen to our best friend? How? HOW!?’
Chloe turns and walks off, unable to hide the flood of tears streaming angrily down her face. Rosa looks at Hannah and Madison before quickly skipping after her.
‘Shit.’ Hannah looks at her feet before looking back up at Madison.
‘I know Han.’ Says Madison.
‘All I meant was that we…fuck I don’t know what I meant. I just meant us as friends, us as our memories, our friendship has endured, y’know. I don’t know.’
‘Has it really though?’
‘What’ asks Hannah.
‘Our friendship. Has it really ‘endured’ or ‘lasted’ as you say?’
‘Well, we’re here. We still talk now and then don’t we, it’s just life finds a way of…happening, y’know.’
‘I know it does Han, I’m not getting at you. But seriously, apart from weddings and fu…,’ Madison takes a breath, ‘…and funerals, when do we ever meet up or catch up anymore. Huh?’
‘No, I know…but.’
‘I mean, when was the last time we were all together? Chloe’s wedding in New York wasn’t it? When was that, four years ago now?’
‘And I know life isn’t lived in five, ten, fifteen year segments, it’s what happens in the minutes and hours between the ‘big’ moments, I realise that. But I mean seriously, do we even know each other anymore?’
‘Of course we do Maddie, maybe not every day intricacies and details but we still…’
‘You didn’t know I’ve moved back to Burlington, did you?’
‘Wha…since when? Why?’
‘A couple of years now. Back living with my parents. Classy, huh? But see, that’s the thing. That’s not on you Han, don’t think I’m blaming you for that. Or that there should be any blame, anyway. I know you’ve been building your life in France and building a life with Henry…’
‘Henri. See my French accent always was bad, that’s maybe why my arthouse film career never quite took off.’
Hannah smiles at Madison, thinking to herself that’s another one for her lifelong joke tally.
‘Your happy little bohemian Parisian life in, what neighbourhood is it again?’
‘Rue Montorgueil…look Maddie that’s not important, I know…’
‘No, listen Han. I’m telling you I couldn’t he happier for you. Yeah, I was shocked you left Jack. We all were. But you did what was right for you. You genuinely seem happy, content. You always seemed to be but this 30-something you is happy, content, on a completely new level. I’m happy for you. Really.’
‘Thank you. But what is content, I mean true happiness isn’t measured in status or employment, or symbols or, what, I don’t know…’
‘I know Han. All I’m trying to say is, yes, there’s love there but we’re all different people. We’re all leading such different lives. Whether it’s you in Paris or Chloe in New York. Or even Rosa. I’ve been back in Iowa for this long and yet this week is the first time I’ve spoken to her since then. I mean, I thought about going to one of her book tour events a few months ago but for some reason I just…it just didn’t seem right. I don’t know why. Probably because I don’t like parading the twice-divorced shitshow car wreck that is my life in front of anyone, let alone my best friends.’
‘You’re not a shitshow Maddie.’
‘Ha. Well maybe not an all-dazzling, all-sparkling, up-in-lights premiere shitshow perhaps, but I could give a good matinee performance, that’s for sure.’
Hannah smiles at her again. ‘Your jokes are improving a hell of a lot, that’s something anyway.’
Madison returns the smile. ‘Yeah,’ she says, ‘that’s something. C’mon.’ She loops her hand through Hannah’s as they hunch together, their umbrellas colliding slightly, and slowly walk over to Rosa and Chloe. The former fully embracing the latter as they kneel on the ground.
Hannah places her hand gently on Chloe’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry Clo, I really didn’t mean to…’
Chloe arches her arm in a triangular shape and reaches back to place her hand on Hannah’s. ‘I know,’ she whispers in a broken voice. ‘It’s just, we should have, I mean we could’ve said…’
‘Maybe you’re right,’ says Rosa, ‘but once little Tommy came along I don’t think there was ever any chance that Ems would leave Andy. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.’
Madison nods her head slowly. ‘Sadly, you’re right I think Rosie.’
‘Maybe…’ says Chloe as she slowly starts to stand up, wiping the tears beneath her glasses once again.
‘At least he’s going away for a long, long time,’ says Madison, ‘I only wish it were you prosecuting the bastard, Chloe.’
‘Ha,’ scoffs Chloe. ‘I don’t think I’d be able to restrain myself in the court room. I mean it’d be satisfying leaping over the dock and scratching the fucker to pieces, but I don’t think he’s worth ruining my career for, do you.’
‘Meh, I could think of worse ways of ruining a career,’ Madison smirks knowingly, ‘most of which I’ve probably done, But if worst comes to worst Rosa could always base one of her books on you, couldn’t she, make you into a cult star or something,’
‘Now there’s a thought.’ Rosa smiles.
‘In fact, why not write a story about the five of us Rosie,’ says Hannah. ‘People love reading fiction that contains flawed and fucked-up characters. What better basis to start with?’
‘Apart from herself of course,’ Chloe interjects, blowing her nose quietly with a tissue. ‘Rosa seems to be the least fucked up of the lot of us, these days.’
‘Oh yeah,’ laughs Rosa, ‘my high-rolling Des Moines lifestyle really compares with Han’s bohemian Parisian fever dream or your high-powered New York family life or Maddie’s LA adventure. Lucky me.’
‘Actually…’ begins Madison.
‘No but she’s right,’ interrupts Hannah quickly, placing a hand on Madison’s arm, ‘from where you were to where you are now Rosie…well, we’re all proud of you. I know I am. What is that, ten years sober now?’
‘God, if I had to try ten years sober in Paris I think I’d last about ten hours at most.’
‘Try ten minutes in Manhattan’ says Chloe.
‘Thanks guys.’ Rosa smiles. ‘But I can assure you, at the risk of ruining this sweet moment, that I’m still just as big a fuck up as I was or as any of you think you are. That’s a fact. Being sober isn’t a magic cure-all. I still get depression. I still think about finishing that walk into the Mississippi at times. Not as much, no, but sometimes. It just makes things a bit…easier. Clearer.’
‘Well we’re proud of you all the same’ says Hannah, smiling.
‘And if you ever have the urge to join Emma in Aspen Grove Cemetery then promise me one thing,’ says Chloe, ‘you promise me that you’ll call me, no matter the time, no matter the place. Call. I don’t care if I’m in bed, if I’m the middle of a case, if I’m shopping, if I’m…whatever the fuck I’m doing…you call.’
‘I will. Thank you. But I’ll be fine.’ Rosa steps towards Chloe. The two hug. ‘I promise I’ll be ok.’
‘Make sure you are.’ Chloe tightens her arms around Rosa, burying her head into her shoulder.
‘Besides,’ says Rosa, giggling slightly, ‘I don’t think Sally would be too pleased if I woke up her and Freddie in the middle of the night would she.’
‘Which reminds me,’ says Chloe, withdrawing from Rosa, ‘I’ve left my beautiful, loving wife in a room full of mourners and our two-year-old son. If we stay here any longer I reckon her supply of empathy for me might well run low fairly quickly.’
‘Good point. Come to think of it I’d better give Henri a call, he’ll be wanting to know how things are going’ say Hannah.
‘Ha.’ Madison chuckles.
‘No, nothing. Just ‘On-ri’. The way you say his name. It sounds so…well, French. Authentic. You actually sound like you belong in France.’
‘Ha. Well you should hear me over there. I still sound like an uneducated American to the rest of them, I bet. They wouldn’t be quick to point that out either.’
‘I bet,’ says Madison. ‘Does he know Jack’s here today?’
‘He…well, he must…maybe…he would assume…young Madison my dear, a woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets. He’ll just have to accept things as they are.’
‘Isn’t that a line from a film? That ocean part?’ asks Chloe, dabbing at the makeup threatening to break free across her cheekbones.
‘Titanic.’ Madison nods. ‘In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve used that in auditions over the years.’
‘Oh, well there you are then,’ says Hannah with a sly smile, ‘my philosophising is as good as any high-profile Hollywood writer’s.’
‘Yeah, you aren’t wrong there…’ scoffs Madison in a tone built on the foundation of numerous personal recollections. ‘Nice and relevant with your film references aswell Han, what was that, like, 21/22 years ago or something? Classy.’
‘I’m glad you agree, ma cherie,’ says Hannah, ‘but as much as I, like any lazy stereotypical Parisian worth their weight in clichés, think there is something romantic about strolling in the rain, the authentically American part of me is saying ‘not so much’. I’m with Chloe, let’s go back shall we.’
‘For once Han, I agree with you.’ Madison loops her arm through Hannah’s once again. A move so natural, so telegraphed.
‘Yeah, probably for the…in fact, no, wait a minute’ says Rosa, stopping herself before walking back to the scene of the small decades old hand-dug grave. ‘Just one more thing.’
She reaches into her handbag whilst kicking bits of dirt into the small hole, covering the blackened bones. From her bag she pulls a piece of paper and a flower, flattened. A flattened wild rose. The other three approach.
‘What’s that?’ asks Madison.
Rosa holds up the rose and the funeral notice with Emma’s name and picture on the front. The years ‘1986 – 2019’ inscribed below her beautiful smiling face. The other three well up. Madison and Hannah, on opposite sides of Chloe, both place her hands round the latter’s back. A mixture of tears and rain trickles down Rosa’s face as she nods. Wordless. Silent. Unspoken. Carefully she wraps the flattened wild rose in the funeral notice. She places it in the small grave before delicately shovelling dirt on top of it with her hands. Eventually she stands up, treading the dirt down with her dirt-splattered shoes. She turns and moves towards the other three as the four of them embrace beneath the two umbrellas.
Quiet sobs fill the air, peppered by the steady rainfall and the sound of violent waves angrily lashing across the nearby Mississippi River.
‘Ah shit,’ shouts Rosa suddenly, a look of shock on her face ‘shit Maddie, I’m sorry.’ She looks at her dirt-stained hand and then at the muddy handprint on the back of Madison’s dress. Madison swivels her head slightly, assessing the damage.
‘Meh,’ she says, shrugging. ‘Fuck it. Black was never my colour anyway.’
Rosa’s shock relaxes into a gentle grin as she looks at Madison’s patently unbothered expression. Hannah and Chloe both laugh quietly, taking each other’s hand and slowly caressing the other’s in the process.
The four women huddle together, two each to one umbrella, as they shuffle, slowly at first and then quickly as the rainfall starts to increase, out of the clearing, through the trees and across the vast expanse of Crapo Park.
Above the park, and despite the rain, a small bird, quite alone and isolated in the world, swings through the air elegantly, visibly enjoying its freedom, carving its imprint onto the late-afternoon skyline.