Where The Wild Roses Grow – Part V

2019

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?’

            ‘I know.’

            ‘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.’

            ‘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?’

            ‘Ten, yep.’

            ‘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.

            ‘Thank you.’

            ‘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.

            ‘What?’

            ‘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.

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Where The Wild Roses Grow – Part IV

2014

‘She looks beautiful, doesn’t she?’

            ‘She does,’ says Chloe turning to Hannah, offering her a drag of her cigarette which the latter refuses, ‘but then, she always does.’

            ‘Yeah, but that dress. Look at her. She looks like, I dunno, like a beautiful bottle of Champagne. Whereas the four of us look like a bunch of cheap-ass shots of pink Schnapps or something.’ Hannah looks down at her garishly pink bridesmaid ensemble. ‘Rightly so, of course. It is her day after all.’

            ‘Yeah…’ says Chloe as she stubs out the remains of her cigarette on a nearby tree trunk. She awkwardly prods at her hair, sprayed, styled and patterned to within an inch of its life. ‘Ugh. Anyway talking of Champagne, here ladies.’ From her bag she fishes out a small bottle of Champagne and five accompanying flutes. ‘A sneaky one for courage.’

            ‘Mmm, nice. I can’t remember you supplying us with expensive pre-wedding delights at my wedding, all the same!’ Madison takes a glass from Chloe, holding it ready as the drink is poured in.

            ‘Which one?’ asks Hannah with a smirk as she gratefully accepts a glass from Chloe. She takes a sip.

            ‘Which what?’ asks Madison as she fixes the front of her dress, twisting her body uncomfortably in the ill-fitting number.

            ‘Which wedding?’

            ‘Well…’ says Madison, taking a sip and allowing the subtle dig to roll off, ‘well, neither of them come to think about it! You didn’t even come along to the second one!’

            ‘You didn’t invite us!?’ says Chloe. ‘You didn’t invite anyone. Come to think of it you hadn’t even told us you were divorcing…’

            ‘Harry.’

            ‘Harry…let alone that you were now marrying…erm…I want to say Donald…’

            ‘Richard.’

            ‘Yes, Richard. That you were marrying Richard. You can hardly blame us.’

            ‘We’re sorry ok, Maddie’ says Hannah.

            ‘Thank you, Hannah,’ replies Madison primly, almost to the point of pomposity. ‘That’s appreciated.’

            ‘Yeah, we’ll be sure to be there for your third one.’

            Madison whips her gaze towards Hannah in annoyance, narrowing her eyes.

            ‘Cheers babes’ smiles Hannah, pushing her glass to clink with Madison.

            ‘Meh’ says Madison with a knowing shrug of her shoulders.

 

            Chloe looks across at Emma and Rosa as they stroll slowly searching the ground where that old, rusted, disused rollercoaster segment once stood. The ground beneath it only now just beginning to recover its colour, its vibrancy. No doubt searching for the little grave. The one with the bird in it, she thinks. That’ll be long gone now. God, when would that have been? When did Junior High finish? The summer of ‘99. And this is…what…2014. Jesus, 15 years? Seriously!? God. Must be going on five years or so since we were last year. Well, yeah. That was the last time I was in Iowa. Aside from the holidays of course. Yeah, that was just after Rosa…and that was when Emma said…when she, fuck. Why the hell didn’t we push it? Push her? She could have left him, could have been free of him. But now here we are on their fucking wedding day. I knew that prick would manipulate her. I knew he would have gotten wind of it. When did she call telling me about the engagement? Must have only been a few months after we were here for Rosa. No, he knew. He fucking knew he was losing her. I was holding my tongue. I had to. Shit, I’d almost lost her once already. Probably more. Think Chloe, think before you speak. It’s her life. It’s her choice. That’s what I kept telling myself. But hell, if I’d known we’d end up here…

            She looked up at the sky. A sea of blue besides the odd, almost ethereal, wisp of cloud ripping into the canvas here and there. The trees frittered gently amidst the cooling afternoon breeze – a godsend in the sizzling July heat. The slight rocking sound of lapping waves inched their way into the air from the Mississippi. A small gathering of birds performed rapid, precise aerial acrobatics; twisting and turning just slightly above the tops of the highest trees in the park before darting off into the sun-drenched horizon.

            ‘This friggin dress, I swear!’ Madison tugs violently, and one-handed (the other clutching hold of her dwindling champagne), at the bust of her bridesmaid dress. ‘It’s damn near crushing my friggin boobs, I swear!’

            ‘You better hope Richard kept the receipt then Maddie, y’know incase he has to return them. The boobs that is. Or was it Harry that bought you these?’ asks Hannah, following up the remark with a quick sip of her drink.

            ‘Hilarious Hannah. Fucking hilarious. Ugh.’ Madison yanks at her dress again.

            The back and forth shakes Chloe from her reverie.

            ‘Rosa, Emma,’ she shouts, ‘here…’ she holds up the Champagne bottle, clinging onto the remaining two flutes with her fingertips.

            Emma and Rosa look up from their slow, meandering two-person search party. Rosa smiles and takes Emma by the hand, moving towards the other girls. Each of Emma’s steps choreographed to perfection as she weaves in and out and between any potential tripping hazards. Her friend’s hand, holding on tightly to one hand, a significant clump of her wedding dress clutched in the other.

            ‘Y’know, I think I’ll pass Chloe and stick to the water,’ says Rosa, taking a half-drunk bottle of Poland Spring from her bag, ‘I don’t think my Sponsor would be too pleased if he knew I was back off the wagon, do you?’ She laughs.

            ‘Fuck’ mutters Chloe to herself, her expression contorting. ‘You’ll never fucking learn will you.’

            Her self-admonishment ceases however when Rosa mouths ‘It’s ok’ to her through a warm smile as she approaches. Chloe smiles in turn.

            ‘Of course not. Foot in mouth like always, am I right. Em then, come on girl, it’s your big day, surely you’ll partake in a little courage-booster?’ She begins to pour.

            ‘Actually…actually Chloe I’ll leave it just now if that’s ok. I want to stay clear-headed. My head’s in a mess as it is.’

            ‘Oh, well…’

            ‘Smart thinking Em, smart thinking. All the more for us then isn’t it’ says Madison as she grabs the bottle from Chloe, taking a swig before topping up her glass.

            ‘You are one classy bitch, Madison’ says Hannah.

            ‘Oh fuck off Hannah. Top up?’

            ‘Of course.’ Hannah smiles, that same exaggerated, knowing smile she’d mastered as a child. She curtsies to Madison as her glass fills up. They clink glasses.

            The five stand in silence for a few seconds. Chloe’s face pained slightly although she couldn’t honestly say why. Aside from the obvious.

            ‘Anyway,’ says Hannah, breaking the tension, holding her glass aloft ‘here’s to you Ems. You didn’t quite beat Maddie down the aisle, either time, but I always knew you’d be one of the first to get married.’

            ‘And I’m the classy one…’ Madison murmurs bitterly, holding her own glass aloft.

            Rosa takes the two glasses from Chloe, pouring water from her bottle into both. She hands one to Emma who combines a smile with a small laugh.

            ‘Thanks Han’ smiles Emma. ‘All of you in fact. You’ve always been…I mean I know we struggle to stay in touch at times…but…well, you’re here now…that’s why I wanted us to come here…just to…you know, one last time so…so we…I mean…and you all look…you all look…’

            ‘Fucking awful!’ blurts Hannah, sensing Emma’s need for her to steer the conversation safely away from any potential truly tear-jerking moments. She laughs. ‘Let’s be honest. But hey, at least you get a cleavage in these things, it actually looks like I’ve got tits for once in my life.’

            Emma laughs, her eyes glistening slightly. She wipes them with the back of her hand before taking a sip of water. She senses Chloe’s eyes on her, trying to ignore them. She looks at Hannah.

            ‘You never know Han, it could be you next. Jack must surely be ready to propose one of these days? You’re in Paris in a few weeks, there can’t be many better places in the world to propose can there?’

            ‘Pah.’ Hannah scoffs. ‘I doubt it.’

            ‘Why? What’s wrong?’

            They four of them look at Hannah.

            ‘Oh no no,’ she says, ‘No, nothing, It’s just. I don’t think that’s us you know. I mean, after, what, 16 years now. No, I don’t think that’s us. And a Parisian proposal? No, that’s not Jack, not at all. Knowing him, or knowing us I should say, we’d probably just talk about it one day, decide to do it and that’d be that. Being swept off your feet is something I’ll leave for you girls. That’s not quite poor lil Hannah now, is it.’

            ‘You’re not unhappy though?’ Emma stares at Hannah, a concerned look creeping over her gaze.

            ‘Oh god no, no, not at all. Don’t mind me. It’s…no, this is your day Ems, forget what I’ve said. It’s this sneaky champagne that our good friend Chloe has thrust upon us. It’s making me ramble. Not that that’s any different to usual, of course. It’s good stuff though. I’m not complaining.’ She smiles and winks at Chloe.

            ‘Where is Jack anyway?’ says Madison.

            ‘Probably at the church by now. We were heading there with my Mom and Dad.’

            ‘Hmm, how’s his brother doing these days? He’s not coming to this is he?’

            ‘Aaaand you’re back to being the ‘classy’ one again, young Madison. Whatever would poor Mr Richard think of all this? You brazen hussy.’ Hannah takes another sip.

            ‘Who knows. And who cares. LA’s a long, long way from Burlington, Iowa. Besides he’s probably banging some younger chick as we speak anyway so…’

            ‘Oh dear!’ Hannah gasps in mock exasperation. ‘Is all not perfect in paradise? Never mind, Maddie, there’s thousands of other Producers you can marry out there I suppose.’

            ‘This one, sorry Richard, is actually a Director I’ll have you know, not a Producer.’

            ‘My bad. You really are growing as a human being aren’t you?’ Hannah blows Madison a kiss.

            ‘Bitch’ Madison smiles slightly, taking another sip of her own drink. ‘What about you Chloe?’

            ‘Me?’ Chloe turns her gaze towards Madison, her frown easing off a touch. ‘What about me?’

            ‘Well, when are we going to get introduced to the lovely Sally?’

            ‘Oh, well…’

            ‘Well what? You’re living with her, that’s what you told Rosa isn’t it? Is that true? Up there in that fancy Manhattan apartment of yours. One half of a lesbian power couple on the Upper West Side. And a partner in your own law firm. If I didn’t know you well enough I’d be impressed.’

            ‘We are, yes, living together that is.’ Chloe blushes slightly, despite herself. Fuck sake, she thinks to herself, you’re nearly fucking 30 years old, enough with the childish bashful routine shit.

            ‘Well I’m happy for you. Genuinely’ says Madison, smiling.

            ‘How did your parents take the news?’ asks Rosa, finishing off her glass of water and handing it back to Chloe.

            ‘Well. Surprisingly well, actually. In fact, Sally’s with them right now.’ She drains her glass. A thoughtful look in her eyes. ‘All that time, all that currency, worrying what they would think. What my Mom would think, how my Dad would take it. And all the time all they wanted was for me to be happy. They probably knew the whole time. I think they did. Who knew it would turn out like that. I mean, obviously I knew that but still. I suppose you never really can know, can you.’

            She looks at Emma who stares back at her, wavering halfway between a smile and a tear.

            ‘Anyway,’ says Chloe, ‘enough of all this sentimental bullshit. We’ve got a wedding to take care of, don’t we!’ She takes the bottle from Madison and pours the last remaining drops of it onto the grass.

            ‘We certainly do Ms Maid Of Honour.’ Emma smiles. ‘In fact, no hold on, I wanted…here,’ she walks over to the side of the clearing, that familiar spot, ‘I wanted us each to have a wild rose with us. Y’know, the pink ones. Yes, yes, look, there, there they are.’

            ‘What’s this for, luck?’ Madison stumbles slightly as she follows Emma, the alcohol serving an early warning signal to her ahead of the day ahead. ‘I could have done with one of those at both of my weddings. Ha!’

            ‘Nice, Maddie,’ laughs Hannah, ‘that’s another solid joke. At this rate you’re making one every five years or so. Not a bad ratio.’

            ‘Hilarious as always, boo.’

            ‘I aim to please.’

            ‘Here, woah, woah.’ Rosa skips over towards Emma. ‘You’re gonna mess your dress up kneeling down Em, let me…’

            ‘Such a sweet girl,’ says Madison as Rosa crouches down towards the wild roses. Emma smiles at her, her hand caressing her back, as she very slowly lifts herself to a standing position. Chloe, at the back of the group, winces slightly.

            ‘Isn’t she just?’ agrees Hannah. ‘Talking of which Rosie, when are you going to rock up with a gorgeous hunk on your arm one of these days? Or senorita, y’know? Whatever you choose.’

            Rosa smiles as she carefully plucks five roses, one a time, being careful not to let the thorns cut into her skin. She chuckles to herself. She hands a rose to Hannah.

            ‘Not for a while Han. Most of the men I meet are ones that go to the same meetings that I go to. And that kind of, fraternising, shall we say, is pretty much frowned upon. And anyway, most of the guys there are as fucked up as I am so that doesn’t exactly make for a great budding romance.’ She hands a rose to Madison.

            ‘What, so there’s been no-one?’ asks Madison.

            ‘No, not no-one. There was one but…’ says Rosa, pausing to hand a rose to Emma.

            ‘But what?’ Madison sniffs her rose before attempting to place it on the bust of her dress.

            ‘But…nothing really. It just didn’t…it just wasn’t. I need to work on myself first and foremost. I might make balancing alcoholism, depression, anxiety and fuck knows what other illnesses, look like a piece of cake but believe me it’s not.’ Rosa hands Chloe her rose. ‘Once I get there, wherever the hell there is, I’ll know but for now, I’m not in a rush.’

            ‘No,’ says Hannah. ‘No Rosa that’s far too mature and sensible an answer. Remember you’re talking to someone there that, going by everything we’ve heard so far today, seems to be hurtling towards her second divorce before the age of 30. You’ll have to rethink it.’

            ‘Ha. Ha.’ Madison drains the last of her glass.

            As Rosa picks her own wild rose, behind her Emma also drains her glass. She smiles faintly as she hands it to Chloe. Their fingertips brush as the glass exchanges hands. Suddenly Chloe clicks. A thousand discordant threads and strings suddenly coalesce in her mind and form a clear, obvious picture. She looks at Emma’s hand and follows it as it recoils to her stomach. She looks back at the glass. The water. The ‘clear head’. The struggle to crouch down and subsequently stand up. Her gaze fixes on her friend’s stomach once more. Lingering there. For mere seconds but for what feels more like an inordinate amount of time.

A lifetime.

She takes off her glasses and slowly shifts her gaze upwards. Her gaze is met by Emma’s. Her friend’s eyes wet with moisture. Infused with an undeniable sadness. A fear. Emma holds a finger, trembling, to her mouth. She mouths a broken ‘shh’ as her head slowly nods.

Where The Wild Roses Grow – Part III

2009

‘So, this is, like, from back in Native American times, is it?’ Madison skips up the rickety wooden stairs onto the porch of the Hawkeye Log Cabin, sitting slightly proudly, and yet equally as ill-at-ease, by the edge of Crapo Park.

The sky above the cabin hangs heavy. Full. More than a suggestion of rain to follow. The early June air, cloying and uncomfortable in its humidity, pertains as much.

‘Hmm, I’m not sure, I think so’ answers Emma almost indifferently. She paws briefly, and nervously, at her newly-shorn, ‘sober’ hairstyle. One that hangs, straight and conservatively, slightly above her shoulders.

‘No, don’t be silly’ says Chloe, glancing up from her cell phone. ‘You think they would have let something like that stand in amongst all of the killing and raping and pillaging of the Natives? No way.’ Hearing the supercilious vein coursing through her words, she attempts to dial it back a touch. ‘I mean, at least I doubt it anyway.’ The ghost of an apologetic smile added on for good measure.

‘Yeah, she’s right,’ says Hannah, ‘Jack took me here once. On a date. We star-crossed lovebirds get to all the romantic places, don’t ya know girls. We probably followed it up with a succulently passion-filled Seven Eleven gourmet meal afterwards.’ She smiles. ‘But yeah, I remember them saying then that it was built or reconstructed as a kind of monument, sometime in like the 1800s, I think.’

‘1910.’

The girls look round at Rosa as she slowly walks up the stairs to join them on the porch.

‘Say again, Rosie?’ says Emma with a smile, two parts genuine and only one part façade, appointing herself the spokesperson for the group. These being almost the first fully-formed syllables Rosa has uttered to them all afternoon.

‘It was built in 1910. I read up on it a while back’ says Rosa.

‘Well, there you go then.’ Hannah smiles. ‘I knew our local Amateur Historian would have the answer.’

Rosa smiles at Hannah faintly before averting her gaze.

‘Why is it closed anyway?’ says Madison, yanking fruitlessly at the door handle. ‘Pretty shitty tourist ‘attraction’ if it’s closed all the time.’ She withdraws her hand, wiping what she perceives, or at least imagines to be, dust and grime or some other source of germ from her neatly manicured fingers.

‘Opens at weekends only I think. And only in the summer.’ Emma scans the information board slightly to the left of the locked door.

‘Another jewel in the crown of Crap-O Park then!’ Madison places the emphasis on the ‘Crap’ as she slowly walks back down the stairs.

‘Talking of ‘crowns’ Madison, is that you making an audacious bid to steal my ‘funny one of the group’ crown? Shame on you.’

‘No, you’re welcome to it, Han. I’ll stick to being the film star of the group. M’kay?’ Madison flashes her an arrogant smile. Hannah laughs. ‘Ok, you do that.’

The girls begin to walk away from the Log Cabin. Emma, glancing up to the gathering clouds, decides to tighten her coat around her slim frame. Hannah looks back at the cabin and sees Chloe still standing on the porch, looking at her phone.

‘Coming, Chlo?’

‘Argh, this shitty phone. I swear, I’ve barely had a signal since coming back here! Might aswell just throw the fucking thing in the Missis…’ Chloe stops herself. As always, aware of her carelessly-uttered words just that split-second or so too late. She looks over at Rosa, trying to detect any reaction, negative or otherwise. Nothing of note. She continues. ‘I might aswell just throw the damn thing in the trash. Ugh.’ She harshly pushes the cell phone into her handbag and marches down the stairs, adjusting her glasses nervously as she walks over to the group, surveying whether the deflection tactic worked or whether it was DOA.

‘Right, let’s go and see how our once-feathered friend is doing, shall we?’ says Hannah with a mischievous smirk bending the corners of her mouth.

‘Fuck. Off.’ Madison’s face drops.

‘Well we never got the chance to last time did we, I’m sure he or she would like us to give him or her a visit after all this time, don’t you?’

‘Ugh. Grow up Han, you weirdo. We’re not little kids anymore. We’re 23, well Chloe’s old and grey and 24, but the rest of us are 23. We’re adults. Some of us are even married,’ she not-so-subtly flashes Hannah her ring finger. Hannah rolls her eyes.

‘Oh, live a little Maddie. I’m sure you can get back to your oh-so-mature Hollywood career when you fly back there in a few days. What was the last one you starred in, again, Killer Alligators vs Strippers, was that it?’ says Hannah.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Absolutely nothing, my dear, absolutely nothing.’

‘Now, now girls.’ Emma interjects.

‘Yeah, leave the fighting to me and Em’ says Chloe, catching up to them. She flashes a weak smile at Emma who returns it in kind.

‘Yeah, anyway let’s make it quick if that’s ok because Andy will be wondering where I’ve gotten to.’

Rosa looks up at Chloe. The latter’s face clenching in an obviously internal tussle between the act of her holding her tongue or saying what needs to be said. She sees Chloe’s chest expand and then retract, the sight of a deep, calming breath intended to force down the words vying for prominence on the tip of her tongue.

She’s getting better at that, thinks Rosa. She’s not perfect yet, as evidenced by that near slip about the Mississippi (Oh imagine the horror if she had finished that word…) but she is improving. The thing is, she’d be right to say something. We all know it, thinks Rosa. We all know Andy’s no good for Emma. We’ve always known it. He’s controlling. He’s jealous. And he’s violent. We all know that he’s hit her, at least once. Probably a lot more. That’s probably why she’s wearing that coat. I mean it’s not a glorious summer’s day or anything but it’s still far too warm for a coat. I think even Emma is starting to see it now. She doesn’t want to be stuck here in Burlington, Iowa for the rest of her life. She used to be infatuated with Andy. Worshipped the ground he walked on. She genuinely did love him. Maybe she still does, I don’t know. But that spark in her eyes, the one she used to have when she spoke about him, that’s gone. I mean, I know 10/11 years is a long time for any relationship but it’s more than that. Take Hannah for instance, she seems happy with Jack, still. Sure, she makes jokes, that’s just Han being Han, but she does seem genuinely content. But with Emma, with Emma it’s different. He’s broken her down. She used to have a smile for everyone but now…well. But we’re not here for Emma’s problems, are we. Oh no no. We’re here for little suicidal Rosa. I’m the focus of today’s reunion.

‘You okay Rosie?’ she feels Chloe’s hand touch her shoulder gently.

Right on cue, Rosa thinks to herself.

‘I’m good Chloe, don’t worry’ she half-turns her head and smiles as the group continue to walk through the park.

Don’t get me wrong, Rosa thinks, it’s coming from a good place. It’s coming from a place of love, I know that. And god I appreciate that. But they just don’t know. They can’t know. In the same way that I don’t or can’t know fully about their problems. About what they’re really going through. Can I? You can talk all you want, you can share all you need, but can anyone really understand entirely what is going on in someone else’s mind. We can view as spectators, yeah, we can read the plot outline, absolutely, but you can never quite know. I mean, how do we know what Emma’s really going through? Is he really hitting her? Does she feel trapped? Scared? Helpless? I don’t know. Is she actually happy? Probably not but who knows. Or Chloe, yeah she’s graduated from Harvard with a first, we all knew she would, but how do we know what kind of pressure she’s putting herself under? Being a Junior in a law firm in New York City can’t be the most relaxed of jobs can it? Plus we know she still hasn’t come out to her parents yet. I know she hasn’t. From this point of view we’ve always known she was gay. Hell, you could see by the way she looked at Emma all those years that she felt something far more than friendship for her. We’ve known, we’ve never even had to discuss it, it just seems natural. Because it is for her. So why not tell her parents? Do they know? Does she think they’ll be disappointed? I mean, they always seemed to push her and put her under so much pressure, in a school and law sense, but surely their daughter’s happiness is a different matter altogether? So, you just don’t know. You never can know.

‘Shit, this walk is bigger than I remember, how fucking big is this park, I don’t remember it being this big!?’ says Madison.

‘That’s because you’re wearing heels the size of tentpoles, Maddie. No wonder you’re struggling to walk. Still, they’re probably the perfect size to be able to kill a Killer Alligator aren’t they should we be so unlucky to stumble across one on the way…’ answers Hannah, wryly.

‘I’m warning you Hannah…’ Madison’s lips purse as she stumbles from one foot to the other.

Rosa smirks and lets out a quiet laugh. Hannah’s always just taken things in her stride, she thinks. Out of all of us she’s always been the one that seems to have it together. She never seems to let anything get to her. To let anything ruffle her feathers. She just seems…well, happy. Content. Satisfied. But then, again, how do we know that’s true? It might just be a cover, a face she’s putting on. Humour is often used as a defence mechanism after all. But is that just me being cynical and projecting my own failure to deflect misery onto her. She seems happy in that office job after getting her Business degree at University. But can anyone truly be happy in a 9-5 office job? Or again is that just how I think of things? I know I can’t but maybe Hannah can, maybe anyone can?

Or even Madison. On the face of it, you’d think she has everything. The film career, the husband, the money. The lifestyle. And all the rest of it. But I know she’s not happy. She said as much before. We know how dearly she’d love to ‘make it’ in the movie industry. And yet she’s plugging away doing these bit part roles in these trashy B Movies from time to time. I know Maddie, I know she can’t be happy with that. And that so-called producer husband of hers, Harry, they’re just using each other. What is he, like 54!? She could have anyone, look at her. Any man would give their right arm to be with her and yet is that all she’s seen as? A ditzy, peroxide blonde pinup? She’s not, she never has been. She’s so much more than that. So, is she happy? Can she be, really? She always gives off this selfish, arrogant vibe but we know the real Maddie. The one that shines through when needed. She was the first one to call me, the first one to come and see me at the hospital. I’ll never forget that. She never judged, she never second-guessed, she just showed up. She was just there for me. As a friend. She never asked me why. She never told me I was wrong or that there were other ways to go about things. She was just there. When I needed someone. You see, the other three, you can tell they’re struggling with how to deal with the situation. How do you reconcile yourself with the fact that one of your best or oldest friends walked into the Mississippi River and tried to drown herself only a few months ago? How do you talk to your 23 year old friend who is now, and always will be, by any definition an alcoholic? How do you tell your friend things will be alright when she knows that they can’t or won’t ever be? When she knows that nothing in this world can bring her true joy anymore? When everyone is tinged with a little bit of darkness, of disappointment? When nothing seems to soar much higher than average? Not without her Dad or brother in the world anymore? How do you do that? Even Chloe. I mean, she’s the smartest of the group by a long way. In fact, she’s smarter than most people on this planet I would bet. But she seems to be the one struggling most with this. Because you don’t know. You can’t know. Not truly. But Madison, somehow, beneath all that show, all that makeup and façade, she just knew. What to say, what not to say. And she was the one that managed to round up the others.

‘Oh,’ says Emma, ‘oh no. Look there’s fences up around it.’

The other girls step through the woods and notice the barrier of fencing skirting the ground around the disused rollercoaster segment.

‘Fantastic’ exclaims Madison.

‘About time they got rid of that thing,’ says Chloe, holding her cell phone up the air. Still no reception. ‘Shit.’

‘Yeah, we’ve truly had a rollercoaster of emotions in this spot over the years, haven’t we guys…’

Madison and Chloe look at Hannah and groan in unison.

‘Yep, my bad’ says Hannah, ‘that one was really bad, even for me.’

‘At least the wild roses are still going strong’ says Emma as she walks towards the flurry of pink but the edge of the clearing, now almost completely submerged by a ring of tall grass. ‘That’s something.’

‘Yeah,’ scoffs Madison, ‘I suppose that’s one in the ‘win’ column for good old Crap-O Park.’

‘Cray-Po Park, Madison,’ says Chloe in her best schoolteacher impersonation, ‘it is pronounced ‘cray’ Po Park.’

‘Oh god Chloe, I obviously know that, do you never switch off?’ Madison scowls playfully.

‘Nicolas always used to call it Crap-O Park aswell,’ Rosa smiles at Madison. ‘Anytime I mentioned I was coming here with you guys that’s what he would call it.’

Madison smiles, a hint of sadness within it, as Hannah moves over to Rosa, gently placing her hand on her friend’s wrist. Chloe quickly joins them, caressing Rosa’s back.

‘Guys…’

The four of them turn to look at Emma, apparently in a world of her own, kneeling down by the wild roses. Her back turned to her friends. She delicately runs a finger up and down one of the thorny stems. Almost distractedly. As if in a trance of some kind. She glances up to the skies, again noticing the greying demeanour, again pulling her coat tighter around her body.

‘I need to tell you something…’

‘What is it Em?’ Chloe slowly pulls her hand away from Rosa’s back.

            ‘I’m thinking about leaving Andy.’

Where The Wild Roses Grow – Part II

2004

‘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.

            ‘Serious?’

            ‘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.

            ‘Then why…what…?’

            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…’

            ‘Chloe stop.’

            ‘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.

Where The Wild Roses Grow – Part I

1999

The leaves, as green as they would be all year, glisten in the late May afternoon light as the sun streams down on Crapo Park, Burlington. The park, tucked gently alongside the Mississippi River in the southern Des Moines County region of Iowa, seems at peace. The slightest of breezes tickles the air once in a while, illustrated only by the merest hint of a flutter in the trees that dot the park’s perimeter.

The air is calm, serene. Peppered only by the occasional childish exclamation quickly followed, as is usually the case, by a muted yet stern rebuttal of said child by that same child’s adult guardian. And the odd birdsong, but even these are decidedly muted. The heat simmers, hinting at an ability to strain to hotter extremities but restraining itself all the same. A calm, tantalising dance by nature on the cusp of summer.

Throughout the park children – mainly teens but not all – lie sprawled across the bone-dry grass, slumped in a thousand varying yet, ultimately, common poses. Poses which all point to one simple, undeniable truth; school was out. The 1999 summer vacation was finally here. And whilst others may celebrate such an achievement, or state of being, in a more frivolous manner, reminiscent of an Alice Cooper song and accompanying video, the newly-free schoolkids strewn across Crapo Park choose a form closer in kind to transcendental meditation than heavy rock. They are at peace. Exaltation would come later. For now, the vast majority still bedecked in their school uniforms, the day and moment are theirs to soak up and appreciate. In the near distance the great and mighty Mississippi, equally as calm and content, seems to nod its approval.

Towards the edge of the park, five girls slowly linger close to a long disused and derelict segment of a rollercoaster, the remnant of an amusement park that once operated within the park itself. Their movements seemingly as sluggish, or glacial, as the remainder of the park’s inhabitants but their postures at least render them vertical unlike their horizontal equivalents. Each wearing a red-and-white checked school uniform. One of the girls, Emma, breaks off momentarily from the group and crouches down a touch as a small cluster of vibrantly pink roses catches her eyes.

‘Hey, guys’, she says, still staring at the roses as she loosens her ponytail, allowing her luscious blonde hair to temporarily cascade down below her shoulders, before instantly rearranging and retying it again, ‘what are these?’

‘What are what?’

Hannah, the smallest of the group, turns, as do the other three, to look towards Emma.

‘These’ says Emma, pointing to the roses.

‘Well…roses. Duh!’ Madison screws up her face as she walks towards her friend.

‘No,’ sighs Emma, with a knowing exasperation, ‘I know they’re roses but what kind?’

‘Oh’

‘Do we still say ‘duh’? I mean, is ‘duh’ still a thing?’ says Hannah.

‘What?’ Madison looks across at Hannah.

‘Duh! I mean really Maddie, we HAVE just finished Junior High,’ says Hannah in her best sarcastic sorority girl impression, ‘I mean we are, like, High Schoolers now. Is that not a bit immature? We’re 13 girlfriend, not 9 anymore.’

‘Whatever.’ Madison turns and crouches down alongside Emma as the latter prods gently at the pink stems of the flowers.

‘They’re wild roses Em’ says Rosa as she approaches slightly behind the other three.

‘Wild roses?’ Emma turns, smiling.

‘Yeah.’ Rosa returns the smile.

‘Yeah, Rosa’s right’ Chloe crosses behind Emma and crouches by her other side. She stumbles slightly as she does, leaning her hand on Emma’s back for support before just as quickly drawing it away. Emma turns to her, placing her hand on her arm slightly in a silent gesture of support. Solidarity. Friendship. Chloe stares at her smile, glancing down at Emma’s hand on her skin. She returns the smile briefly, awkwardly, before shaking her hand free. Acutely aware of the heat rising to her cheeks. ‘Yeah…wild roses. That’s the state flower of Iowa.’

‘Hmm’ says Emma turning back to look at the roses, resplendent beneath the sun’s glare, ‘well they’re beautiful. Aren’t they?’

Madison’s frown returns as she looks at the other three nodding their heads’ gently in agreement. She turns to Emma, glances at her hair before brushing her own brunette locks behind her ear.

‘Well,’ she says, ‘they’re only flowers aren’t they? I mean, like, a flower’s a flower.’

‘Oh, don’t be a downer Maddie’ says Hannah. ‘They are beautiful’

‘Well I might have known you’d say the same, Han.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Hannah looks at Madison with a wry smile, a knowing glance sitting neatly outwith the bounds of seriousness. ‘And why’s that?’

‘Well two words,’ says Madison. ‘Andy and Jack.’

‘That’s three words’

Madison rolls her eyes at Hannah’s retort. An eyeroll heavy with the weight of experience, one well-versed in Hannah’s light-hearted replies. Emma turns her head towards Madison, still smiling but blushing slightly, at the mention of ‘Andy’. On her far side Chloe’s expression visibly darkens. She pulls herself up off the ground quickly, harshly brushing fragments of grass and bracken from her dress. Rosa, still standing, smiles tentatively before looking into the distance, only half-listening to the conversation.

‘God, you know what I mean Han. The two of you are both loved up. So nice pretty flowers and all that shit is catnip to you just now. You’re probably both already dreaming up scenarios where your ‘boyfriends’ turn up at your door with a bunch of pink roses.’

‘Don’t be silly Maddie’ says Emma as she stands up.

‘Yeah, green isn’t a nice colour on you Maddie’ says Hannah, laughing slightly.

‘Oh shut up Hannah, as if I’m jealous. I could get nearly any boy at that school!’

‘And you probably already have’ mutters Hannah.

‘What?’ says Madison, straining to hear.

‘I said, ‘that’s true’

‘Oh.’

‘Yeah so what’s the problem?’ asks Emma. ‘Anyway, me and Andy aren’t, we’re only just, maybe, seeing, like, what might…we’re not really…’

‘I don’t like him.’

The girls turn to look at Chloe. A determination laced with more than a twitch of nervousness spreads across her face.

‘What?’ Emma’s smile fades slowly as she looks at her friend.

‘I…I don’t like him Em. You…you know I don’t.’ Chloe adjusts her glasses slightly.

The other three girls look at each other as a silence descends upon the group. Emma continues to stare at Chloe with something resembling disappointment. Although as the silence lingers the disappointment appears to give way to a building anger. Hannah gestures to Madison, almost in mime, urging her to say something conciliatory, to turn back the clock as it were. Rosa shrugs as Madison turns to her.

‘Look…look guys I was only…’

‘No Maddie, I want to know why,’ says Emma, refusing to take her eyes off Chloe, ‘I want to know why my best friend feels like it’s ok to diss my boyfriend.’

‘You just said he wasn’t your boyfriend’ says Chloe, herself growing in rigidity.

‘Forget what I said, what’s your problem Chloe?’

‘He is.’

‘Why?’

‘You know why?’

‘No I don’t know why. That’s why I’m asking you…’

‘He’s bad news.’

‘He’s bad news?’

‘He’s immature, he’s a jerk and you heard how violent he was when…’

‘Stop it!’

‘No Emma, you asked me why and I’m telling you why. He’s not good for you, he’s…’

‘Chloe…’ says Hannah.

‘No Hannah, it’s ok, it’s ok’ says Emma, ‘it is just jealousy isn’t it? You’ve not got a boyfriend of your own – in fact you’ve never ever shown any interest in getting one – and you can’t stand to think that your best friend might be taken away from you. That’s it isn’t it?’

‘No Em,’ a sadness creeps into Chloe’s eyes as she shakes her head slowly, ‘no. It’s not just me thinking this. Is it Madison? Hannah?’

‘Woah woah Chloe, don’t drag me into this’ says Hannah, her arms up in protest. ‘I’ve never…’

‘Even Rosa. And Rosa hardly says a bad word about anyone, does she. Rosa?’

Rosa sighs, a tiredness infecting her expression, and looks at both Emma and Chloe in turn, ‘look guys, I don’t think we should be doing this just now, it’s not…’

‘No Rosa, I really think we should’ says Emma peeling her stare from Chloe and wheeling round to look at the other three, her eyes welling. ‘You really all think this? You really all don’t like Andy? I mean, even you Hannah?! Not once have I said anything bad about Jack. Not once. And…and…and for you to…’

‘Look Em…’ says Hannah, stepping towards Emma.

Her approach is halted almost immediately by a sudden and sickening bang.

The girls, each one of them, jump slightly. Emma and Madison both let out jolted screams. A shiver runs through Chloe. The bang sounded metallic. It was close. Very close. Even though the thud seemed dull it also seemed to reverberate ever so briefly. They slowly turn and look at the disused rollercoaster segment.

‘Oh god’ Rosa covers her mouth in shock as she runs quickly over to the grass and weed strewn metal graveyard, evidently noticing something on the ground beneath it.

The other four look at each other quizzically, an uneasy truce rapidly replacing the previous enmity that has infused the group. They slowly, uneasily begin walking toward their friend.

‘What is it Rosa?’ says Madison.

‘Rosa? Rosa, what is it?’ Chloe asks concernedly as she approaches.

As they approach they see their friend crouched, almost exactly as Emma was only minutes before. Only as they step closer they see the sun’s gaze highlight a tear dripping down her Latina skin.

‘Oh god, what is it Rosa?’ says Emma, breaking into a slight run alongside Hannah as they clamber to be with her.

‘Look’ she says, nodding down towards the ground at her feet.

‘Oh no’ whispers Hannah, her hand covering her mouth.

The other three follow suit as they stare down at the small, by the girls’ reckoning, baby bird twitching futilely through its death throes by Rosa’s feet. Shards of blood stain the bird’s dark neck and white stomach, the impact of the collision painted in garish horror-like strands across its perspiring frame.

Hannah and Emma both instinctively place their hands on Rosa’s shoulders as the small bird appears to breath its last, lying in profile on a small patch of dirt within the overgrown foliage around the rollercoaster. Beside them Chloe and Madison hold and caress each other’s hands briefly in an unspoken display of friendship. They both crouch down, Madison trying not to look at the bird, as they hug into Rosa.

‘Poor little thing’ says Hannah, piercing the silence, desperately fighting within herself against the urge to break the tension with a pithy remark.

‘Oh Rosa, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s just a little bird’ Emma leans into Rosa to embrace her as the latter’s sobs increase tenfold.

‘No’ says Rosa covering her eyes, wiping at the tears as they continue to stream from her face. ‘No, it’s not the bird. It’s not the bird.’

Emma looks around at the other three, receiving blank stares.

‘What is it then?’

‘It’s…my parents…my parents are splitting up…my Mom’s kicked my Dad out…the other night…he…he…my brother and me, we just…we just…’

‘Oh honey’ Emma hugs back into Rosa as the others follow suit. The sun beats down on the rusting metallic fragments above them as they form something resembling a protective cocoon around their tearful friend. Grasping onto her, and each other, tightly as her sobs increase before eventually dissipating. They stand up.

‘You know, parents are overrated anyway Rosie,’ says Hannah, failing against the previously-quelled urge, ‘I mean my Dad’s an asshole, I’d love to get a break from him now and again. And my Mom come to think of it…’

Rosa looks up at her, staring Hannah in the eye. The other three freeze, unsure which direction the conversation will career into next. Rosa laughs. A snotty, relieved laugh, one that bursts through the stagnant, symmetrical waterfall silhouette of tears adorning both her cheeks. The others (Hannah in particular, if she was being honest) breathe a sigh of relief. Rosa smiles at Hannah. A thank you transcending volume and language.

‘You know’ says Rosa, a sudden flurry of energy flowing through her, ‘you know what we should do? We should bury it. We should bury the poor thing right here. It’s such a shame to see it there on the ground. Any animal could come for it later tonight. What do you say guys?’

‘Of course, we should’ smiles Emma, her eyes glistening with warmth.

‘Why not’ smiles Hannah in turn.

‘Sure…of course we should, sure…’ says Chloe hesitantly, turning to Madison.

‘Yaaay…’ mutters Madison through gritted teeth, a slight look of disgust distorting her face.

‘Ok, great’ says Rosa, ‘I’ll go and find some branches or something to dig, Chloe and Madison, you can come help me? Ems and Hannah, you stay here, make sure nothing gets to it? Ok?’

‘Yaaay again…’ says Madison, once again through gritted teeth.

As the five splits into their agreed three and two mini-groups Chloe hangs back slightly as Madison and Rosa stride forward into the denser part of the wooded area. She catches Emma’s eye whilst Hannah leans down towards the bird, prodding it slightly with a piece of tree branch. The two stare at each other from a slight distance. Chloe’s eyes water slightly, her glasses magnifying the impact, as she mouths ‘I’m sorry’ to her friend. A smile slowly creeps across Emma’s face. She nods. Chloe smiles.

Chloe turns and walks after Rosa and Madison as the afternoon sun begins to dip over Burlington, Iowa. In the near distance the Mississippi River makes itself heard, only slightly, as the coastal breeze begins to flex its muscles.

The Fairy Glen

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‘Ooh’

Amy felt a twinge announce itself from within her kneecap as she crouched down. One of the many twinges, creaks and aches that seemed to be peppering her body as she edged closer towards the dreaded ‘old age’. She used her hands to steady herself against the ground. The grass was mostly dry now. Only the barest remnants of moisture survived from the morning’s thin blanket of frost. Drying out just in time for another night’s worth of chill, she thought as the light began to fade around her. She completed the manoeuvre, allowing her knees to connect with the earth.

She sighed – a sigh skirting on the outer rim of contentment – and took in the view around her. One that had become increasingly familiar, but no less beguiling, with each time she visited this place. The Fairy Glen in the village of Uig, one of the Isle Of Skye’s most well known, or lesser known (depending on which websites or travel guides one chose to peruse), attractions. Around her the almost-geometrically perfect hills rose and fell, weaving up and down the landscape. Trees, almost all shorn of their leaves, added a slightly macabre decoration. Some at the base of the hills, perched precariously on the edges of ponds, others seemingly stopping for a breath after clambering halfway up the very same hills. It was a strange place. One of beauty. One of peace. A place both bewitching and spiritual, depending on what angle your mind chose to approach it from. A thousand versions and distortions of the same image to a thousand different people. By day, throughout all seasons, even now in Winter, sporadic, isolated groups of – what she’d guessed were – tourists would make their way through the long, winding, single track road to arrive at this place. Abandoning their cars, buses, bikes and whatever else on one of many grassy verges to traipse around the sight. To breath in its wonder, its allure, its peace. But for now, it was just her. Amy. Her alone. It always was at this time of the evening. Everyone else likely curled up in the warmth and safety of their holiday accommodation or deep within the frothy firmament of their second or third drink of the evening in one of the island’s many local establishments.

‘And so it begins…’ she murmured to herself, leaning down to pick up a rock in the process. She lifted her head once again, this time taking in the sight spread out on the ground immediately in front of her.

Rocks. Hundreds of them. Scattered out in various poses. Some clustered in formations, others piled on top of each other, depicting, to all intents and purposes, figures – torsos, arms, heads. In the fading light, in this place of basic isolation, the formations, the figures, could trouble a more delicate soul, their gothic outlines and contorted features ready and willing to twist and turn their way into the darker corners of a mind. But not to Amy. She smiled. Pleased. Pleased at the sight. Pleased of her previous night’s work. Almost sorry that she would have to pick each formation, figure and message apart and begin again anew. But that she would. As she did every night. She shook her head, smiling, discarding the foolish thoughts.

‘At it again I see?’

The voice crept out of the evening air as Amy applied the final rock on a new, fragile, figure. She looked up, her hands slowly withdrawing from the rock in question, careful not to knock it from its perch. No-one. She squinted her eyes into the distance, afraid the light was combining with her own failing eyesight. No-one. A different tactic was required, she decided.

‘Hello? Sorry what?’ she announced to no one or direction in particular.

‘I said, at it again I see?’

A man, a tallish man with a full grey head of hair and thick-rimmed glasses, stepped out from behind a nearby ridge, holding on to the crooked branch of lonely tree as he slowly ushered himself down a slight gradient.

Amy smiled.

‘Oh, it’s only you Alasdair.’ She turned her face back down to the rocks at her feet and continued arranging them, physically formulating the vision in her head onto the soil in front of her.

‘Aye, it’s only me, dear. As always.’

His voice was soft. Calm. At one with the pervading atmosphere of the place. He approached her and stood above her, his hands on his hips.

‘Every night this is Amy, every night. Rain, shine or bloody freezing. Always at it.’

‘That I am, yes. You are correct.’

Her answer was solid but not without warmth. Sure but with no lack of kindness.

‘Well, I for one don’t understand it. But that’s just me.’

‘No,’ she replied, ‘you never did, did you?’ she let out a slight laugh as she continued to smile, arranging the rocks in what appeared to be an elongated curve.

‘You’ll spook some people you know that? Yeah, of course, some of the weirder folk will think its creepy in a ‘good’ way and some of the kids with the more vivid imaginations will genuinely think it’s the fairies that are up to this every night, but the others? You’ll be scaring them Amy, ever think about that?’

‘Oh be quiet Alasdair, you silly old man. It’s the same every night.’ Her smile remained etched on her face as she began to place rocks in a crooked V formation conjoined with the ones already in place.

Alasdair held his hands up.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘like I say, I don’t understand it, but that’s just me.’

‘Look,’ said Amy, beginning another long curved line of rocks, ‘I tell you this every night so I’ll tell you again. And whether you understand it this time or not matters not because I’ll just keep repeating it every night you ask, ok? Look, sometimes I think people like the idea that even though you can’t see them, it’s good to know that people or things are happening and going on without your knowledge. That the world is still ticking despite your own troubles.’ She took a slight intake of breath. ‘That even though you can’t see them you know someone is watching out for you. I know I like it. It’s a…well, it’s a nice feeling, ok? It’s comforting to feel.’

As her words fell silent Amy placed the last rock in place and lifted herself slowly from the ground. That twinge called out once again. This time she gritted her teeth, only slightly skewing that omnipresent smile. She looked down at the formation of rocks arranged on the ground in front of her. A love heart. Strong, solid, robust.

‘What do you think then Alasdair?’ she asked, slowly reaching out her hand behind, clutching for his.

But he was gone. She felt a slight sag in her chest but the smile, as always, remained. She glanced up at the horizon, the darkness further encroaching on the surroundings. She padded at her winter coat tamely as she felt the evening’s chill suddenly creep into her bones.

‘Until tomorrow then, my dear’ she whispered hoarsely as she turned and walked back down the uneven hill towards her small red car parked on the winding road below.

Her small red car that she and her late husband had driven up and down the island on mini adventures throughout their many years together.

Her small red car with the picture of a young Amy and a young Alasdair, fresh-faced and newly married, tucked away in the glove compartment, the two of them kneeling together beside a collection of rocks arranged into the shape of love heart at the very same Fairy Glen in the village of Uig thirty some years earlier.

Lighthouses

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Within corners of the past
the salt stings sores left open
and looking back, re-reading my tales
I see a light that mocks,
that shines and yet turns dark
in unending sequence,
unaltering, repeat, the same,
pointing towards me,
pointing blame.

But I see clearly now friendship
fastened around my wrist in patterns,
which did not, to me, let tell of its romance,
and while the lights,
in their merry dance and mark
provided beacons to those who pass,
to me, I saw nothing,
and so the spark that sets the fire
was lost deep within the waves
and slowly I let slip
that long-ago
abandoned ship.