I was in the air when she died. Gliding over the Black Sea, too far above the clouds to see the glistening blue breaking up hours of land mass beneath my feet. Struggling to sleep with a deflating neck pillow and a restless mind.
I was three hours into my first leg when she drew her last breath. The air stewards emptied my uneaten meal into the grey bin as her soul emptied her body. I wouldn’t know this until I connected to Wi-Fi in Dubai and my phone started vibrating. A beating heart in lieu of the one growing cold in her chest. I realised before I opened the messages.
Dad answered on the first ring. I knew he’d been drinking by the way he slurred my name. He was raspy as if he’d already screamed his voice away. Said she asked for me in her delirium before she went. I wished he hadn’t told me that. I couldn’t help but picture how strange my name must’ve sounded between death’s rattle. It was two in the morning there. I realise now that he’d waited up to tell me.
When I opened Instagram, her face rushed out at me from my screen. Mostly the same photo, and I wondered why that one. She hated the way her hair looked that day. I felt a sting of jealousy. All these people knew she died before I did and had time to go over the idea in their heads. Had extra hours to get used to a world without her in it, to feel the weight of her loss and put it into words online, to ‘care’ react everyone else doing the same.
Now, I see it as a kindness that the rest of the world knew about the worst moment of my life before I did. I was able to spend an extra few hours with her alive, because I knew no better. Those hours had been the worst of my life. The torture of not knowing. Until the moment I did know and immediately yearned to run back, capture them in a tiny jar, live in them forever.
I was trapped in a three-hour stopover with nothing to look forward to but another ten-hour flight. No company but grief and jet lag. I watched the mirage across the tarmac, the arid landscape catapulting me back to endless summers in the empty creek bed behind our house. Pretending to dive in and almost twisting our ankles with no water to catch our fall. Pressing our palms above our heads and imagining cool water refracting the scorching sun off our backs.
All heat looks the same when it cuts through the air.
Mum used to joke that my sister could cry enough tears to end the drought. I’d laugh at that, picturing her bending over a disused rainwater tank, now overflowing, the farmers cheering. When Mum died the joke fell flat. I held my sister and stroked her hair, knowing the only softness in our life had dissipated, and that my grubby, scabbed hands would make a poor substitute.
Only I was allowed to tease her for crying so much as a kid. When a boy at school joined in, I bust his lip and earned three days off. No one teased her again after that. I was her protector, even when I was her adversary. Once, I convinced her to climb into a suitcase then zipped it up and sat on top, refusing to let her out. Her wailing scared me so much that I started sobbing myself.
When she woke up with blood on her sheets, I told her it was okay, congrats, it’s a good thing, believe it or not. I showed her how to use pads with wings and warned her to stay away from boys who don’t respect her, because we didn’t need anything trapping us in this shitty town longer than we had to be.
Years later, when she forgot my warning, I emptied my small savings account, the one in charge of our escape, and waited outside the clinic for her. Held her in my arms and stroked her hair again. Used her vulnerability to coax out which guy was responsible. When she fell asleep, I marched down to the pub and bust his lip open for a second time.
She was the first person who I told I liked girls. She laughed out loud – as if she knew before I did. She warned me not to fall in love with the girl across the road, whose morning schedule I matched for the brief wave while leaving the house. She reminded me that we didn’t need more reasons trapping us in this shitty town longer than we needed to be.
I ignored her warning as she’d ignored mine, and when my heart was broken, she held me in her arms and stroked my hair. That’s when I told her I was done, I was sick of drowning in this town with no sea breeze, where people whispered behind my back about who I kissed and where the poverty line wasn’t a tragedy but a badge of honour.
I asked her to come with me and reminded her of our pact. As she bit her lip, I knew she was thinking of our Dad who could barely hug us but who would crumble without waking up to us in the next room every day. I knew then she would stay, that deep down I’d always known she would stay, and felt my heart break again.
When I told her I’d booked my flight, she cried and told me I was selfish. She barely spoke to me on the drive to the airport, a four-hour trip twisted endlessly longer by tension. She kept her eyes down and gave me the briefest of hugs, telling Dad she’d wait in the ute. I pictured the moment she got home and into our room, ripping up the letter I left on her bed.
I boarded that plane with my carry-on luggage weighed down by sadness. As the pilot ascended over the Indian Ocean, granting me the out I’d so desperately craved, I wanted to scramble into the cockpit and beg them to take me back. Take me back to the sister who hated me for following my heart over her duty. Land the plane in her arms and let her wrap me up like the nights I’d climb into her bed, awoken by a nightmare, and lie that my bed was cold because older sisters aren’t meant to get scared.
Instead, I slept a little, read a little, watched terrible movies, and after almost thirty hours of travel, allowed myself to feel a shiver of excitement as the plane coasted over London’s landmarks. Even the air steward craned his neck to get a glimpse through the smattering rain. When I arrived at my hostel, ready to start a new life with the bag on my back, I felt such a wave of emotion that I cried in the shower. Salty tears met mineralised water and trickled down my body through the drain.
My sister didn’t hate me the whole time we were apart. At first, it was short replies and she was always too busy for a phone call. Busy? In that dead-end town? I knew better than to push it. In time, she softened and started dropping titbits about her job, local gossip and her mates. Short, tiny crumbs of her life that I crawled hungrily on the floor to collect.
In return, I gave her the kindness of not sharing too much of mine. I’d done more living in my first year there than the twenty I’d spent with her. I didn’t share how much I loved strangers banding together to help mothers with prams up the Tube steps. Or the queer raves where I met people from all over the world who became my first real community. Instead, I told her about the sideways rain. How even after a year, I couldn’t shake the feeling of relief every time I saw the skies opening up.
Thousands of kilometres and a ten-hour time difference confirmed that our relationship was never to be the same. We’d gone from dancing in each other’s shadows to weeks without speaking. But time carved us out a new one. My sister started talking about joining me. I was elated at the idea, twirling it around constantly in my palm, picturing her mind exploding at the realms of possibility outside our tiny town.
Instead, I was to be reunited with a sister in a box.
I tried to find familiarity in this pale stranger. Her bottom lip still jutted out slightly, like it did in the schoolyard when she’d follow my friends around begging to play with us. Or when I caught her rolling Dad’s ute silently down the driveway in the middle of the night, about to sneak off to see a boy. Same pout, but no defiance. Just lipstick covering the blue beneath. She hated lipstick. If she could see herself now, I thought, she’d roll in her grave – oh.
The hardest bit – harder than the funeral, the speeches and the montage – was seeing Dad at the airport. Hands in his pockets and sunken shoulders. Had I ever properly watched him cry? As I held him in my arms, I immediately felt like the parent again, emptying beer bottles into the recycling, keeping aside part of my wage for his rent. The weight of responsibility overtook my grief and for a second I cursed myself for ever returning. I hated myself immediately after.
The car windscreen wipers squeaked from years of disuse as I was greeted by a landscape at odds with memory. As kids we prayed for rain to settle the dust, to muddy up and smooth the coarse rocks that provided the backdrop for our childhood. After I left, La Niña answered our prayers with spite. Flood markers underwater. Entire harvests destroyed. Seeing it now, the town made no sense to me. Like I’d arrived in the wrong part of the country. I wore gumboots when we buried her, and trekked mud into the house during the wake.
Afterwards, I escaped out onto the verandah, sick of everyone asking me about my new life, the one I didn’t know I could ever return to now. I felt the humidity on my skin and listened to the rain as the fly screen banged shut behind me. The girl across the road, who still lived across the road because nobody ever leaves this shitty fucking town, stood next to me. Her pinkie finger grazed against mine on the railing. I looked down at it and said nothing.
When we slept together later, holed up in her room covered in the same posters she’d had as a teenager, I felt nothing. All I could think about was my sister in the ground and how quickly the now fertile soil above her would cause her coffin to rot. Could she drown in there?
I was jolted back into the realm of the living by the familiar tingle that started to creep over my body. Once I came, my eyes opened like the skies in both the homes I’d ever known. The girl who’d once broken my heart tried her best to mend it now. She held my head in her arms and stroked my hair and I felt ashamed for closing my eyes and pretending it was my sister.
After, I walked the path to the back of our house, to the empty creek bed of my childhood, where I am now. Water has spilt over the natural limitations of the bed, rushing faster than we ever could have imagined as kids. Muddy foam cascades recklessly, colliding with itself and bubbling, as if each wave were racing the next. I’m convinced the deafening roar isn’t water at all, but my own guilt and grief screaming in my head.
Immune to risk like I’m twelve years old again, I peel off my clothes and walk to the edge, feeling wet at my toes. No need to make believe now. I dive in, a wave of panic hitting me as I feel the strength of the current. Then, calm. Palms together again, held above head. A fish released from the hook, ready to shoot off. I hold my head underwater.
Just for a second, I tell myself.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.