We would run down the lane behind her house. After the rain, when the potholes were filled with water. Flecks of mud stuck to our legs and dried that way. I flicked them off in the bathtub before Dad got home; it’s always that way with fathers, isn’t it? No matter how kind and forgiving and gentle they can be with their children, there are some things you just can’t tell them. You know they won’t always react the way you need them too.
“What are you getting?” Alison’s voice is unravelling, the thread of a sweater well-loved but unable to survive the spin cycle. It’s far away, like I need to pick up the fraying end and following the thread to where she is. “I’ll pay.”
Wendy got covered in mud, too. I was going to rinse her off in the bathtub, was going to soak her fur and then her rub her dry with my towel. I couldn’t get a fresh one from the linen cupboard or Mum would have seen and she would ask even more questions than Dad would have. But I never did. I never washed Wendy.
Alison sighs. “I’ll get you a ginger and lemon tea.”
“That’s for sick people.”
She’s one of those people who doesn’t let much on. Even I could never decipher what each twitch of the eyes or mouth meant, despite years of studying her face, watching her cheeks glow in the spring and nose redden in winter.
But when Alison leans in, her chin crinkles. The kind of crinkle that means she has to cry but doesn’t want me to see. I wonder when it became something she couldn’t control; she never used to be like this. I was the emotional one, which explained my tears in the storm while her face only hardened with determination as we stumbled to escape the lightning.
“You’re here,” she says. “You’re here.”
“Course I am.”
“Mia, we’ve been sitting for twenty minutes.” The crack in her voice matches the thunder. “That’s the first thing you’ve said to me.”
I’d forgotten about the thunder. It never rained, but that day there was hail, and then distant thunder, then lightning, and then the thunder was with us. I was already crying by the time the thunder echoed above our heads.
Alison pulls her lips into hiding, but it doesn’t stop the tremble in her words as she says, “I’ll get your tea.”
We used to drink tea in the forest of evergreens, together, on picnic blankets. Wendy used to come too, sometimes, when Mum was in a good mood. She never drank tea, though, just nibbled the grass in between wriggling away from our grasping hands. (Wendy I mean, not Mum.)
Alison drags the chair from under the table and sits on the edge, on edge. “You’re sick,” she says. “Do you know you’re sick?”
I wasn’t sick before the storm, so it must have happened after. Just a cold, probably, from being stuck in the rain for so long. Maybe I should’ve had a hot shower instead of spending so much time scratching mud off my skin until my legs were raw and red. I made myself bleed, that day, as my nails tore into the dirt and into my pores.
“Why didn’t I wash the mud off Wendy?”
Something in Alison’s gaze grounds me, and our surroundings are too real, too strong. There’s no leaving this world, this conversation. There’s only me and Alison, stuck in a reality that Wendy doesn’t seem to be a part of.
“We lost her in the storm. When the rain came, we ran without thinking.” Alison covers my right hand with her left. “It was years ago, Mia.”
I want to tell her it wasn’t, want to say it was only yesterday that the rain came. Then we could go to the forest right now and find Wendy sitting under an evergreen tree and I could carry her home and wash the mud from her fur. I could hide my mistakes from Mum and Dad and we could all go on as we had before.
But Alison is frowning.
It’s the same frown she was wearing the first time she held Wendy, the day after I was given Wendy as a present. She kept trying to wriggle free from Alison’s childish, uncertain grip, and managed to squirm out of her grasping fingers and onto my toes.
“She’s a rabbit, not a prisoner. Don’t be so rough.” I told her off, firm and cross, as I pulled Wendy close to my chest.
That was the first and last time I saw Alison cry. Until today.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
Alison’s long fingers wrap around her coffee mug. “They say if you’re reminded of the past, you’ll get better.” Her index finger trembles as she wipes a drop of milk from the lip. “But you remember the past and forget you have a present. Every time.”
“Every time.” I pause. “We do this often.”
“And every visit you forget about the one before.”
I meet her eye but I nearly can’t hold the gaze. It’s too much, knowing this happens all the time and I choose to forget, I choose to avoid reality.
“You talk as though there’s something wrong with me.” My voice is quiet.
I see Alison flinging her mug to the ground, where it splits in half, letting the coffee become a river, letting her body express the frustration she feels inside.
But she doesn’t, of course. And when I blink the mug is still tucked inside her palm, half full. Half empty. I let myself wonder, briefly, if she’s thrown her cup to the ground in the past. I let myself wonder, briefly, if that was the flash of a memory rather than imagination. Surely no one can control their anger every second of every day, not when their friend is ignorant to the realities of life.
“We have this conversation every week,” she finally replies. “Yes, yes there’s something wrong with you.” She leans in. “You haven’t seen Wendy in years. Why are you acting like she’s more important than me, who’s with you now, who’s with you nearly every day?”
I inhale, deeply, and by the end my lungs are protesting.
“Do you always buy me tea?”
“Do I always talk about Wendy as though she’s still alive?"
“Do I always tell you I’ll be better next time?”
I sigh. “I’ll be better next time, then.”