White roses lay twisted together on a blanket of dark mahogany, their thorns protruding and plucking dust mites from the air that gently circulated. Her face smiled at us from a gilded photo frame, all dark brown hair and sharp jawline and green eyes the colour of bell peppers.
‘Erin had loved a little too hard, a little too much and been just a bit too beautiful for this world.’ Callie’s voice broke over the shards of glass lodged in her throat. She swallowed, continued, ‘My Rin had to go somewhere that could match that beauty, that intensity. I say mine but wasn’t she really ours.’ Callie paused for a breath, for a tear to trek a path down her pale cheek. ‘Because everyone here was touched by her in some way and that means that we will always carry a part of her in everything we do. Erin baby girl, you were more than a sister, you were my sunshine and now you will be my stars for your wings were ready, but my heart was not.’
My wrist seemed to pulse as I stared up at one of my sisters speaking for the other. Speaking when I hadn’t been strong enough too. She was right though, that Erin loved just a little too hard. She’d been 5 when she stumbled across a butterfly with wings beating against the biting wind, it’s colours so vibrant and yet seemingly muted against the bright blue canvas of the sky.
‘It needs our help Montana.’ Her hands, still slightly rounded with baby fat, gripped at my arm leaving slight indentations that would later blossom into purple bruises.
‘No Erin, that’s it learning to fly. We need to let it learn.’
She’d been ten when one of her friends skinned their knee on the school playground and she swallowed her dislike of blood to help clean the graze and gentle apply a plaster.
She’d been 15 when she knocked on my bedroom door, music playing too loudly from my speakers because my headphones had snapped the week before and I hadn’t wanted to buy new ones so close to Christmas.
‘What… What?’ I shouted a second time when there was no response to the first. Sighing, I hauled myself up and stretched out the foot I’d been sitting on and opened my door. My features softened when I saw her puffy eyes and face pulled taut in an attempt not to cry.
‘He left when he promised he wouldn’t. He pinky promised and I know that sounds childish, but it was this cute thing we did where he pinky promised forever on Halloween last year and now we do it all the time and every time we don’t say anything but we know exactly what we’re promising each other and he still left.’ She hiccupped and a lone tear fell that then triggered four more.
Taking hold of her left hand I pulled her towards me and wrapped my arms around her, feeling her thin body against my slightly larger frame, and tried to suction all of the heartbreak out of her. But it was never that easy and her tears kept falling, her stomach tight with the grief for all that could’ve been.
‘Try this.’ I disentangled myself from her long arms and reached under my bed for the battered beige shoebox that concealed a bottle of Bacardi nestled up with a bottle of malibu, both cosy amongst three layers of torn white tissue paper.
At the time, when I was pouring a shots worth of white rum into a glass, I honestly truly genuinely thought I was doing her a favour taking the sharp edges of pain off her poor young heart. I never thought that that moment would start a million more stolen moments filled with alcohol that led to one big moment.
Her face contorted into a mix of creases and squints like she’d sucked a lemon and then she coughed before holding out her glass for a second shot. Her body bended and melded to fit the shape of my side as I held her close and we passed the glass back and forth taking sweet sips until the glass was abandoned and we drank straight from the bottle, the dregs dripped onto our tongue as we adamantly held the bottle vertically above our heads, determined not to waste a drop.
I didn’t even blink when less than three weeks later she asked me to buy her a crate of beer for new years eve, she’d been 15 and heartbroken and that was what heartbroken teens did. Me and Callie didn’t think anything of it when another wine glass was added to the dinner table, or she joined us for a whisky before bed. Instead, we enjoyed that our little sister was growing up and joining us in doing grown up things that were still new to us too. Her descent was so gradual it had been like falling asleep, you don’t realise it’s happening until you’ve already blacked out.
She’d been 19 when I heard the door close, and she walked in holding a bunch of white roses. Her favourite had always been buttercream yellow, their petals so thin they were almost translucent. She’d loved sunflowers and yellow cars and honeycomb, all because the colour was the same as her signature yellow roses that decorated her wallpaper and her phone case and the Babygro’s she still kept from when she was a baby.
‘Callie got me these.’ She held them aloft with a gripped hand and a smile.
‘Happy birthday Rin.’ I hugged her tightly, her collarbone digging into my shoulder. ‘I thought you liked yellow roses the most.’ I said, pulling back to see her eager face.
‘I did but Callie looked so happy when she gave them to me, she thought these were my favourite and she said she’d been all over town trying to find just the right ones and that means more than a colour. I honestly think that makes white roses my favourite now.’
It was fitting. Roses symbolised courage and beauty and she was one of the most beautiful souls I’d ever met and white was purity. My pure, strong, beautiful baby sister who had been tainted by me. Who changed her favourite flower after 19 years of loving it because effort and care meant the most to her.
Erin had ordered a new phone case with white roses and decorated her hair with one when she went to festivals, polaroid photos showed her grinning face with the flower knotted into her hair and a bottle of Ciroc vodka in her hand.
Unlike most stories I’d heard of neighbours becoming angrier with the input of alcohol or becoming more withdrawn, Erin didn’t ever lose who she was. She still lit up a party just by being there and had the time to tell us about her day, deleting the brandy poured into her morning coffee and the bottle swigged on her lunch break. And that was what had us fooled. Wasn’t it normal for people our age to drink in excess sometimes? She was still smiling, still going to work.
She’d been 24 when sweat lined her brow, a shiny film coating her forehead and plastering wispy tendrils of brunette hair to her skin. Her nails were broken and filled with half moons of dirt.
‘Rin?’ Callie drew a finger across her face and down the slope of her nose trying to elicit a response, the scent of smoke and whisky lingering in such a heavy way we both knew the scent would work its way into the fabric of our clothes. The bottom half of a honey jack daniels bottle leant against her upper thigh like a drip that had been plugged into her.
‘That’s not the only one.’ I whispered as Erin’s eyelids fluttered and closed again. Callie turned her head a fraction to follow my long bony fingers point towards two crushed beer cans, their metallic blues crunched inwards, and a quarter full white wine bottle, the remnants swilling round the bottle like a restless sea.
It was another year before she drank enough to say goodbye, the words still lingering on her lips as she was pulled in a slow gentle haze to a world beyond this one.
But there was a time within that year when us three sisters went on holiday to Santorini, a beautiful Greek island filled with stark white buildings, blue rooves and 16 hours of sun a day. Our tanned and toned bodies lay on black sand beaches, cocktails perched next to our sand coated sun kissed skin. Erin had dyed her hair blonde for the occasion, the salt and the sea giving her hair a natural wave, Callie adjacent to her with her feet crossed over each other.
It was almost like we could forget what we knew was happening. We laughed when we woke up to a pillow thrown at our heads in sibling jest we’d never grown out of and pretended not to notice that Erin was drinking a cocktail at breakfast whilst we had smoothies. We spent the days lounging around and savouring moments almost like we all knew. And I guess in a way we did. Erin was a ticking time bomb, unable to continue as she was forever. We had a glass of red wine with dinner, she had three… bottles. So yes, we knew.
And now she was forever 25, frozen in time with people telling stories of white roses and festivals when in reality she was so much more than that. She was grief and love and addiction and every emotion heightened.
Callie was still speaking at the front, saying all the words that stuck in my throat as I clasped a singular white rose in my fingers, my elbow brushing against the flask tucked into my jacket pocket, the sound of whisky swishing against its sides comforting.