“We’ll be friends forever, won’t we?” asked Piglet.
“Even longer,” replied Pooh.
Smack against the net. Again. And again. And again. I don’t think Zoe had managed to hit the tennis ball over a single time yet. Maybe I’d chosen the wrong person to practice with this weekend. I threw the ball up, hitting a brilliant (if I do say so myself) shot towards her.
“Zoe,” I sighed. “Listen, it’s not that I don’t want to hang out with you…”
“I know, I know, I’m terrible. I’m getting better though, right?”
She served. The ball flew over my head, impossible to reach.
“Zoe, this competition is kind of important. Charlie was going to come later, maybe-”
“Yeah, yeah.” Her eyes practically disappeared into the back of her head. “I’m going.”
She dropped her tennis racket into the spare bin on the way out, still shaking her head at me. I don’t think she was really mad, but with Zoe it was always kind of hard to tell. She turned the keys in her ignition, letting the car rumble underneath her. Maybe she was mad? Maybe it was my fault the car didn’t stop in time, maybe her mind was still stuck on me and “precious Charlie”, maybe –
Wearing black was a mistake. My mum was going to kill me for getting so much flour all over my shirt. I glanced over at Zoe, her face covered in cocoa dust, sleeves rolled up to her elbows as she rolled the cookie dough. I couldn’t help but laugh at the sight.
She turned to me, eyes glinting with mirth. “Abby, this is what baking is. We’re sacrificing ourselves for the greater good of filling our stomachs.”
I snorted, trying hard to take her seriously. She brushed a hand across her face, adding a chocolate chip to the ensemble.
“Z-zoe,” I tried through my laughter. “You’ve got-”
She inspected herself in her phone screen, and let out a shriek of joy. “I look-look like a-” Tears streamed down her face as she tried to choke out her sentence through her laughter. “Like a biscuit,” she burst out.
I doubled over, unable to form words. I tried to wipe it off her face, but we were both laughing too hard to move. She stepped towards me, slipping on the floury floor –
Christmas at Zoe’s was always the highlight of the year. Zoe’s parents did Christmas right. The whole house smelled like pine, the presents were wrapped in matching paper and colour coded bows, something was always being made in the kitchen. There were no screaming children to worry about, or annoying relatives to hide from, or parents who “wouldn’t stand for that attitude.” Santa still came to visit, even as we discussed what Zoe and I were doing after high school, and Alex planned his wedding.
This year was no exception. It was as if they knew that next year couldn’t be the same. Mrs Davis had handmade us all a new stocking to hang over the fireplace. She’d invited my little brothers and sisters over to collect their own tiny boxes of baking, and given chocolates to my parents. She’d set up Zoe’s bedroom with a mound of pillows and blankets, because Christmas Eve never meant sleep for us. It was tradition to stay up as late as we possibly could, even if we knew Santa wasn’t really coming. Maybe it was just an excuse to catch up on all the new gossip.
Alex was always the first to wake up, and he had no qualms in jumping into the pillow fort and begging us to get up and be as enthusiastic as he was. No, we never got up straight away. No, he never allowed us “just five more minutes,” even though it usually took us ten.
Reindeer antlers for Alex, matching Mr and Mrs Claus hats for Mr and Mrs Davis, and elf ears for me and Zoe. We were the perfect Christmas family. No wonder Alex was always in such a rush to start celebrating. This year, I found a burst of energy I usually didn’t have until I’d eaten the huge cooked breakfast.
“Race you,” I challenged Alex. Never one to be left behind, Zoe shot off before Alex even had a chance to accept.
We flew down the stairs, pushing each other in an attempt to win. I bumped Zoe, laughing, and she stumbled, losing her balance. Her face went white as she lurched forwards –
Really, it was nothing special. I wish it was, so at least I knew she was happy. Or sad, or mad, or feeling anything that maybe stuck for longer than the second it took her to fall.
Zoe was going away that weekend, to somewhere stupidly hot and gloriously tropical. She was abandoning me to the freezing winter for “family time,” and I was crazy with envy. For Zoe, this meant one thing, and one thing only – a lot of shopping.
I love my friend, but nothing is worse than Zoe on a shopping spree. She wanted every outfit to be just right, in case she found tanned blondes on the beach. This meant new skirts, new shorts, new togs, new t-shirts, new sunglasses, new jewellery, new towels, even an “adorable” tiny sunscreen pottle. I was bored before we opened the door of the first shop, and I knew we had a hundred to go through before Zoe was happy.
Everyone likes to insist that it was “no one’s fault,” that it was a “tragic accident,” over and over until they think you’re starting to believe it. I know what Zoe would say, though. Zoe would say I should have grabbed her, I should have been there right by her side. Zoe would forgive me, but there’d be no doubt in her mind that I was to blame.
Zoe was running, not because she wanted to go fast, just because she likes to have her hair swishing past her face. I was left behind, ambling along helping her out with her bags. She stopped at the top of the stairs, spinning to call out to me to catch up. She hopped from foot to foot, nails tapping against the railing. She slipped –
No. Keep going.
She slipped, shrieking as she tried to grab hold of something, anything, screaming my name. I raced towards her, but I was never going to get close. That’s where they found her, the police, surrounded by cute outfits and brand-name bags in a heap by the stairs, her best friend in tears by her side. I was almost dragged away by countless people, but I clung to Zoe as if – well, as if her life depended on it. And maybe it did.
“It isn’t your fault,” they tell me, over and over. That’s what Mrs Davis said and she stroked my hair, what Alex says every time we sit in silence by her grave, what family members and friends and people I would never talk to in normal circumstances said to me as I hold her hand and apologise. “It isn’t your fault. There’s nothing you could have done.” She screamed my name though. Mine. I was the only one there to stop it, and it happened. I don’t think she’ll ever forgive me.