Content warning: suicide
I pray every morning even though I’m not a religious woman.
There is no rhyme to my prayers. I have no reason to believe that unknown deities are watching over me. Or read books discussing deep, philosophical knowledge of the universe that I will only pretend to understand.
But it’s a ritual, part of my morning routine, so I keep it up. It brings me comfort, which I suppose is enough.
My sister, Aubrey, is sitting on my kitchen counter, trying to fix her hair with the murky dishwater as her mirror. She has always been the prettier one, which I’m supposed to be jealous of, but I’m only content.
I don’t like people’s eyes on me.
“What is up with you today?” Aubrey asks, now applying red lipstick that she took from my drawers without permission.
The colour looks better on her anyway.
“Nothing,” I reply, punching the passcode into my phone while pouring myself milk.
“Nothing is bound to mean something,” Aubrey says. She snatches my phone, probably so she can take selfies. “Come on, Maple, tell me,” she whines in a way that mum or dad could never resist.
She always gets what she wants.
“Mum called me yesterday,” I finally say.
“So?” Aubrey pouts at the camera, twirling a ringlet of hair on her forefinger as she snaps the photo.
“What do you mean, ‘so’?” I say, putting the milk in my occasionally-works microwave. “I haven’t talked to her in years.”
“Why?” Aubrey asks. The microwave whirs in the background.
“Because… how could you not know?”
“Do you even know?” Aubrey narrows her eyes – they are long and slim. She pulls off thick eyeliner better than I can. “Sometimes two people are upset at each other for so long that after a while, they forget what they were even upset about.”
“She wants me to go to her house to celebrate your birthday,” I say.
“Wait, I never heard about this,” Aubrey says, visibly offended. “She calls you, but doesn’t call me, even though it’s my birthday.”
“Did you even know it was your birthday?” I get the milk out of the microwave; I hold it from the top because the sides are burning to the touch.
Aubrey presses her fingers to her chin. She looks oddly young in this light. “It is, isn’t it?” she says. “I can’t even tell how much time has passed, isn’t that funny.”
I’m about to reply that it isn’t. Because every morning I wake up, and I live the same day over again. Get up. Pray. Eat breakfast. Catch the train to work. Catch the train back home from work. Eat dinner. Watch tv. Go to bed.
Hours go by. Weeks go by. Months. Years. All the same day.
Suddenly, Aubrey makes an exaggerated gasp. “Why did you heat up the milk?” she butts in before I can say anything.
“Because…” Why did I heat up the milk?
“Don’t tell me you’re still taking mum’s ‘don’t drink cold milk in the morning’ rule seriously,” Aubrey laughs, the sound like the rustling of a windchime.
“It’s not that,” I say.
Aubrey’s expression turns sympathetic. “Oh, are you on your thing?”
“My… thing?” My mind doesn’t quite process it even though it should have.
“Your period, Maple,” Aubrey says. “You know that, right? Every month, you bleed—”
“Yes, yes, I know.” I push the milk off to the side. “What does that have to do with milk?”
“Mum always said that cold food causes bad cramps, you don’t remember?” Aubrey says, head tilted, clearly amused.
“I remember.” I take to draining the dishwater instead of drinking the milk. “And no, it’s not that time of the month.”
“Are you going to go to mum’s?” Aubrey asks, tone oddly sad. “She has to be lonely after dad died.”
“Dad died eight years ago,” I say.
“Still, grief doesn’t just disappear, even with time,” Aubrey taps the counter with her black-manicured nails. “You should go.” Her face brightens again, clapping her hands together. “Ooh, we should go to the city, you can get her something nice, you still have to buy me a present.”
“You’re not meant to know what I’m going to get you,” I say.
“The whole mystery of presents is overrated,” Aubrey says. “I can pick the present out, and you can pay.” I don’t argue back, that’s how Aubrey wants me to buy her a present every year.
I don’t usually come to the CBD in Melbourne out of leisure. I work there throughout the week and rarely find enjoyment out of it.
Aubrey sits in the back seat rather than beside me.
“It’s so quiet,” she says as we’re driving along the Westgate bridge. “Turn on the radio or something.” I don’t like listening to the radio. “What do you do when you’re in the car? Just sit in silence?” She furrows her brows in my rear-view mirror, ready to chide me. “Maple, you need to learn how to enjoy life.”
“This is how I enjoy life,” I say. Most people do things for enjoyment, but somewhere along the way, I found less things I could milk enjoyment from.
Instead, I prefer my silence.
I park at Crown Casino because it’s the cheapest. I always park on level four, then take the elevator down.
“Let’s go and get coffee,” Aubrey says. We walk past a place selling Chinese food and I buy fried squid instead. “Why do you never listen to me?”
“Because… I don’t like coffee,” I say, munching on the fried squid. Maybe I find enjoyment out of it.
Aubrey leans over, pressing her shoulder to mine. “Can I have one?”
“Buy one yourself,” I say, not willing to share.
We walk along the Yarra River, past restaurants where the scraping of knives against porcelain plates hover in the wind. “That smells so good,” Aubrey says.
“Let’s just get the present and leave,” I say. “What do you want?”
“A new leotard would be nice,” Aubrey says.
“You don’t do ballet anymore.” She had once had the dream of becoming a soloist. She had gotten into her dream school, but then… she quit.
“So? I still like to wear them from time to time,” Aubrey says, lifting her leg into an arabesque. She brings her arms back like a pair of wings. I grab her by the wrist, breaking her out of the position. “Why did you do that, I could have twisted my ankle.”
“I…” I don’t want you to fly away. “I’m sorry.”
“Goodness, Maple,” Aubrey says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “When did you become such a downer. You used to be fun.”
“I was never fun.” I spent most of my teenage years locked up in my room, never attending a single party. Those ones where people drink beer out of red plastic cups.
“What about when I used to sneak my boyfriends through the bedroom window, and you would cover for me. One time mum found out and you took the blame. She made you do the dishes for an entire week. Do you remember?”
“No,” I reply. I do remember, but I don’t want to say that I remember. I have no idea why.
We go right, riding up the escalator to the ballet store. There are girls inside. They sit on a circular couches, slipping their unweathered feet into their first pair of Pointe shoes. They must have dreamt for this moment, to reach this milestone.
How many of them will quit in a few years-time when schoolwork weighs on their shoulders, and there is less joy in those plies and pirouettes. How many of them have the vision of performing on a grand stage in front of endless rows where the orchestra plays their part and the spotlight shines on them, and them only.
How many tears will they cry? Sweat? Torn muscles. Blistered, bleeding toes. Failed audition after failed audition. You’re not good enough! Come back when you can do better.
“Excuse me,” an employee says. She balances a blonde fan-bun on her crown, and wears sky-blue leg-warmers over her cheetah-print leggings. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Nothing,” I reply. “Just browsing.” She prances off to the cash register to scan a little girl’s items.
Aubrey frowns. “Rude, she didn’t even say hi to me. I’m the one who does ballet.”
“Did,” I say.
We walk to the corner where the leotards are hanging. We’re the only ones in the area.
“This one looks nice.” Aubrey strokes a bright red leotard with lace and even brighter sequins.
I shake my head. “Not that one.”
“I don’t like red,” I say.
“We’re not shopping for you, Maple” Aubrey says. Her tone makes me want to call her a bitch – it isn’t going to be the first time she’s heard it from me – but I don’t.
“Just pick something else,” I say, growing impatient, as I often do during shopping trips. “Something not red.”
“Fine,” Aubrey says.
The employee from before is eyeing me weirdly. “You okay over there, ma’am?” she asks.
Part of me wants to strike up a conversation. “Yeah, I’m fine, my sister is just being a you-know-what.” Maybe she’ll laugh and agree with me much to Aubrey’s disapproval. Maybe we’ll even exchange phone numbers and go on lunch dates together.
I ignore her instead.
Aubrey stares lovingly at the shelves of Pointe shoes. “New Pointe shoes are always so clean,” she mutters.
“What else could it be?” I ask.
“Nothing, I’m just saying,” Aubrey replies. She picks out a black leotard with lace-roses on the sleeves and back. “This one looks just like the one I always wore to ballet class, even though they told me I couldn’t.”
It does look a lot like that one. She had worn it until the lace unwound and the roses were indistinguishable.
“Do you want me to buy it?” I ask.
“Okay,” Aubrey says. “We’re going with this one.”
I pay with cash and leave without a word. The employee’s eyes were on me the whole time. It was strange; Aubrey is the one that people noticed. She was born to stand out. I was made for melting into crowds.
I don’t buy anything for my mum.
I drive straight to my mum’s house, not even calling ahead to tell her I’m coming. I go out of the city, knowing that my mum hasn’t moved since four years ago when I left home. She still lives by the beach where the squawking of seabirds awaken her.
“We used to go to the beach all the time, remember?” Aubrey says, rolling down the window.
“I know,” I reply.
Aubrey liked to go into the water and swim out until she was almost a dot in the waves. I would call her back, scolding that it’s not safe. What if the currents pull you out to sea? Shark attacks are common. Don’t go out there where anything can take you.
Let’s just sit on the sand, bunch the wet grains between our fingers, and let the foamy waves lap at our toes.
Let’s not look down at the ocean and instead up at the stars.
Mum looks old now with her black hair streaked with white. She has cut it into a bob that hangs shaggily at her chin. She once had silky ebony locks that were long and luscious. Her wrinkles are like creases in cardboard, a permanent line that will never be smoothed.
Aubrey sits by the window to look at the sea.
“Maple, I… didn’t think you would come,” Mum says.
“Aubrey told me to come.” I wish I can take back those words because Mum’s expression is one of such sadness. “It’s not like I didn’t want to come, it’s just… we haven’t talked to each other in years.”
“Why is that, Maple?” Mum asks, in that gentle, earnest voice.
“Yeah, why is that, Maple?” Aubrey echoes, chin on her palm.
“Because…” I look at Aubrey with one hand on the newly-bought leotard. “Aubrey.”
Aubrey lifts her head. “Why are you saying my name? I never told you not to talk to Mum.”
My mum touches her rough fingers to my wrist – those fingers that repaired any torn bits of clothing, grazed knees, or teary eyes. “Maple,” she whispers, like my name is something sacred she cannot say aloud. “Is Aubrey here right now?”
I can see her so clearly by the window. But I swallow, and instead say, “No.”
“Why?” Mum asks.
My eyes focus on that road just in front of the beach.
A car hurtling through the rain. A girl wanting to die who steps fearlessly onto the road. Then another girl, younger, wearing a red dress, running to chase her, calling her name.
Then, a push.
It brings the girl off her feet as she tumbles through the air. She lands on the grass, but crawls her way back to the road, hands slipping in the mud as the car skids to a halt.
All the girl can do is cry and scream.
A whir of red and blue.
The heart machine beeps as it flatlines.
“Maple, Maple, please I’m asking you.” The only thing she can see is white walls. White clothing. A white wrist-tag.
“I’m going to play with Aubrey,” the girl says as the nurse bandages her bleeding arms.
“How old is Aubrey?” the nurse asks.
“Six,” the girl replies.
“And how old are you?” the nurse holds the girl’s hands oh-so-gently.
“I’m nine,” the girl replies.
“Maple,” the nurse strokes her hair. “You’re nineteen.”
How old is the girl then if her sister is nineteen? Sixteen. Sweet Sixteen. A time when an adolescent like her finally opens her buds and shows her beauty to the world. Not get snipped by a careless gardener.
“Why isn’t Aubrey here right now?” Mum voice finally breaks through the whiteness.
“I’m twenty-four,” I say, glancing back at Aubrey. “She still looks sixteen.” She wore red on the day she died.
“Maple, are you well?” Mum asks.
She sounds like the nurse. Maybe she is the nurse. “Aubrey is dead,” I say.
Aubrey shoots out of the seat. “How dare you! I am very much alive.”
“You still haven’t let her go,” Mum says.
“You have to let her go,” the nurse says. “The Aubrey you see is not actually there, Maple.”
“Yes, she is. She is there,” I say. “But she is dead.”
Aubrey sighs at the sea. “I suppose I am, huh.” She shrugs like it’s nothing. “I had a fun time while I was alive. It was short. But it was fun.”
“How could you say that!” I scream, ignoring my mum’s hands pulling me back. “I was the one who wanted to die, you have no idea, I wanted to die, and you took that away from me!”
I lunge over the table to grab her, take her by the sleeve and tug her to me. I know my hands will reach through air, the fabric of her silk shirt will slip between my fingers, and I will realise once again, that I am alone.
I don’t want that.
I don’t want to be alone.
I don’t want to wake up every morning to pray in a world where she’s not here.
“Maple, I’m sorry,” Aubrey says, imaginary fingers brushing my scarred skin. If only her touch can be magic, to make my skin baby-smooth again. Do I want that? For her to erase it all. Those wounds I have fought hard to earn.
“Maple, please look at me.” My eyes twitch, droplets of tears leak saltily down my cheeks. Mum wipes them away like her fingers won’t be burned. That my red-hot flesh won’t make her skin blister and bubble. “I know Aubrey’s death has been the hardest on you.”
I still see Aubrey staring at the beach. The evening rays of sun seep through the window, reaching to take her into its grasp.
“No,” I whisper. “No, please.”
Mum’s arms are wrapped around me. Don’t think I don’t remember those nights where you cried, woke up screaming Aubrey’s name. You must’ve clutched your heart once, wishing that it had been me rather than Aubrey.
Because that was what I wanted for so long.
So I ignored her phone calls and messages, thinking that if I just faded from her life, it would all be fine. Even though I still don’t drink cold milk in the morning because she told me not to, or eat cold things when it’s time for me to bleed each month.
“We’re here for her,” Mum says. “She will always be in your heart, Maple. She won’t ever leave, as long as you don’t let her.”
I don’t want her in her heart, to gnaw at the ventricles and arteries until it bursts. She already makes my heart want to stop beating. What else does she want?
There is girl bobbing along the ocean shore. I want to reach for her, to pull her back, tell her that it’s not safe. But all I can do is watch in my mum’s arms, wondering if there will be someone to save her.
If she drowns.