“We can’t have sweets for breakfast!” my sister giggles after, both hands over her mouth, trying to hold the sound in. It’s theatrical, forced yet genuine at the same time.
“Why can’t we?” I whisper, matching the same childish theatrics as I pull in closer, my eyes dodging side to side.
“Because Mummy won’t let us!” It booms as a mixture between squeal and shout, the butt of an imagined joke. Then the giggle turns into full-on laughter as she literally keels over, ruffling her duck-yellow pyjamas that risk slipping down because they’re just too big.
(Do people actually keel over or has she learnt that from TV?).
“I dunno, I don’t think Mummy minds… anymore…”. My voice drops on the last word as I turn away, catching her face momentarily drop. Anymore hangs at the end of the sentence precariously. It doesn’t sound right. As far as she is aware, Mummy’s asleep in the room next-door, tucked under her duvet and for once not snoring. But the truth is… Mummy’s dead in the room next door – it’s not that she doesn’t mind, it’s that she can’t mind anymore.
“Shall we see if we’ve got some Haribo, Evie?” Her face lights back up, a mischievous smile revealing gappy baby teeth. The previous thought drops away – we don’t need to think about Mummy right now.
The sweet box always sits at the top of the cupboard, out of sight and reach from prying eyes and hands. It’s easy enough to reach without help, but I needed an accomplice in the great sweety heist. I hike Evie up, watching her hands greedily wrap around the old Jacob’s cracker box and pull it down, sending plumes of dust spiralling along with it. Even before she’s on the floor, she’s nestled the box against her chest and jimmied the lid off, thrusting her little hands inwards to search for the goods. She takes two small packets of Haribo out, handing me the box before staring down at her treasure.
Mummy’s rule floats like a ghost between us.
“No more than two packets.”
In the strangest sort of way, the faded ebb of words is reassuring. I shake the box as if to say we have plenty more. Eagerly she reaches back in, taking two more packets and then running off to the living room.
Turns out we’re not sharing.
I push aside the accumulated junk and magazines piled high on the counters, making way for the sweet box before heading towards the living room. I find myself hesitating though, caught outside Mum’s bedroom unable to move. Out of habit my hand extends towards the broken door handle, an urge to make sure…
(You know she’s dead…).
My hand drops away. I turn away and move towards the living room to find that Evie has pressed play on her Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom DVD. When she notices me, she turns to look, pulling back the blanket to reveal a section of the couch next to her. Instead, I choose to launch myself at her, a joyful scream ringing out as she warns me that Mummy doesn’t like playing in the living room.
Funny. Mummy’s rule never stopped us before, I suppose the sweets are the real reason.
“But my body isn’t working, I can’t get off,” I pretend, trying to move but failing and flopping back on top of her.
She shrieks, pushing with all her might. I don’t budge as her feet leverage themselves against my thighs while her hands force upwards against my chest. It’s a feeble effort, one that lasts only three seconds. “You’re too heavy,” she moans as she sags hopelessly beneath me.
We stay like this, both our heads turned to the TV because it just feels right. We’re content. It’s been a while since I saw Evie and now it feels right being this close with her, making up for the lost time.
Leaving home as soon as possible was always the intention. Living with Mum and her then-boyfriend was stifling, a constant performance of cheating and fighting. Whenever anything bad happened, mum always found it easier to blame those around her. Lack of money always caused relapses and smacking Evie was always because she was asking for it; the same old story told slightly different over and over again. It was heart-breaking because when she was a good mum, she was amazing; she was also great at being a bad mum though, and that’s the part I saw more often than not. I think she cared for us, but I could never really tell, in any case, she wasn’t a woman built for survival. Rather than bearing it out to the literal end of the world, she phoned to tell me she’d overdosed again and this time no ambulance was coming. I had to travel hundreds of miles from university relying on the generosity of strangers to ensure Evie’s final moments weren’t spent clutching a dead woman and begging for help…
(Let it go…)
When it was announced the world had five days left – a fucking asteroid hurtling towards earth – I didn’t know how I was going to get home, I couldn’t exactly take the train during the apocalypse. The world fell into an anarchy: looting first, destruction second, and somewhere along the line murder became acceptable. As society fell into chaos and families were meant to stick together, apparently, some mums overdosed to make it easier on themselves…
(Let it go…)
Yet despite the chaos, I knew that the longer it took to get home, the longer Evie was by herself. I can’t drive, so I had to hitchhike, relying on the few good souls left (funny, they were always the ones with children). No one could ever take me the full way, but after three days, a combination of walking, running, and the occasional lift meant I finally made it back. Evie had been alone for almost all of it.
For three days she had cried, begged my mum to get up, knocked on my long-gone neighbour’s door for help, and everything else her four-year-old brain could think of. When I finally arrived home, I found her curled atop mum, apparently not even the smell of rancid vomit and shit could pull her away. She just laid there, gently stroking mum’s hair and humming quietly in her ear.
When I called Evie’s name, she raised her head and as her bottom lip quivered, she simply said, “Why won’t Mummy get up?”
I didn’t reply. What could I say? I simply fell to my knees and opened my arms.
Begrudgingly she crawled away from mum and ran to me, tripping into my arms. There we stayed and for the first time in three days, I let myself cry. I cried for mum, Evie, and for the fact that I had less than forty-eight hours before everything ceased to exist. I had to make Evie’s last moments the best of her life, and I wasn’t sure how. What I did know was that she needed to be cleaned up first before any of that started.
It’s funny, I never expected my first priority would be bathing my sister to rinse my mum’s vomit from her hair. Yet there we were, her in the bath, me on its edge, splashing about in the water, playing with floating ducks, quacking loudly at each other and even making bubble beards. In its own way, it was perfect in bringing us back together, a distraction from the pain we both felt.
The episode of Ben and Holly, one about shooting stars and aliens, finishes. Finally, she turns her head back to me. “Can you get off me now?”
I sigh. “I think if you feed me a sweetie, I might be able to.”
“I can’t! You’re lying on me.”
It’s sound logic.
“Well, promise me you’ll give me one if I get up.”
She thinks about it for a second, before doing a forced sigh. “Fine!” she says like a mardy teen, even with a forced roll of the eyes. It’s perfect – attitude at four, she really has got character.
(I would have loved to see you grow up).
I get off and, as promised, she holds out a sweet reluctantly. I gobble it up as I move next to her, wrapping one arm over her shoulder and down her side to bring her in closer to me. We sit like this for hours watching Ben and Holly.
Eventually, we give up with TV as she stands and drags me along to her bedroom. She grabs her mismatched teddies and sits them in a wonky circle while declaring we’re having a tea party. It’s hard to find a space among the landfill of second-hand toys, and I see the hesitation in her face as she worries about whether I’m going to tell her to clean up first. I say nothing, kicking toys to the side and finding my seat. As she serves the tea, she carefully hands me a chipped teacup with coffee stains in the bottom. No doubt she’s stolen it from mum when she wasn’t paying attention. I gulp the tea, declaring it the best in the world and we continue playing like this for hours.
After playing, I cook her the remaining food in the pantry – cold beans on stale crumpets. She’s not ecstatic about it but she doesn’t complain, eating it rather slowly as she rambles about anything of interest. When she’s done, it’s more playing and eventually more TV.
Long after she’s fallen asleep in my arms, my watch vibrates surreptitiously. I set it for five minutes before touchdown. I have five minutes left with my sister, but I don’t bother waking her, instead, staring down with a smile as I hear the quiet whistle of her snore.
It’s peaceful. I hope it stays like this. I’m naïve to think it will.
In the final two minutes, a loud bang rings across the horizon shaking the walls and causing the TV to topple over with a horrific crash. Windows smash in the distance as birds take restless flight, and the quiet hush of silence abruptly ends.
Evie startles awake and she grips me tightly.
(I am too).
“Why are you scared?” I try to stay calm – to be the big brother she needs.
She doesn’t reply, but I can feel her tears against my t-shirt.
(Does she know what’s happening?)
I pull her closer, now rocking backwards and forwards because it’s something I remember my mum doing. We stay like this as the point of impact grows to meet us. I wonder where it hit, how long we really have.
(Does it matter?)
Her sharp little nails dig into my flesh.
“Hey… Hey, look at me,” I say.
She looks up, the little wells of tears bubbling in each corner that adds a glisten to already beautiful brown eyes. Our eyes are the same shade, and I don’t think I’ve ever really noticed this before. I’ve noticed the colour, but never the shade.
“Let’s count to ten, and when we’re done, we’ll run and wake mummy up”.
“You promise?” it’s a whisper, a crack in her voice that speaks the volumes of fear.
I smile, “I promise”.
“I love you, Evie.”
“I love you too.”
We start counting.
A memory flashes forward: mum’s sober and Evie and I bury her beneath the sand at the beach. She’s laughing, something she rarely did.
I look to the window and see the night sky painted in a blistering swirl of crimson. Birds erratically fly in any direction, racing futilely to try and flee an end that nothing can escape.
“five, six, seven…”
Another memory – my favourite one. Evie on a swing, yelling, “higher, higher, I want to go higher,” as I push her, watching her legs kick out, to escape gravity and reach the sky. You could never push her high enough.
I see the end now, it’s oddly beautiful.