|Mardi lay in blue flannelette pyjamas in the cocoon of her feather quilt, its floral pattern cascading like a soft, bright waterfall across her body to the floor, thinking about her mother.
The glow light bought from a street vendor that evening hung, slowly fading, from her curtain rod. Crumpled wrapping paper festooned with fluorescent hearts and smiley faces lay strewn on the floor, along with the perfectly crafted cardboard packaging which had cradled her birthday I-pad. Tomorrow, she would collect it all up and take it out to the recycling bin. Mum had always nagged Mardi about the state of her room. These days she kept it meticulously tidy.
Late that afternoon she and Dad had caught the ferry across the harbour and been mesmerised by the light shows of "Vivid Sydney", turning the city centre into a magical kaleidoscope. They'd marvelled at fluorescent colours dripping like paint down the State Library walls; at a slideshow of Aboriginal art screened on the Opera House sails.
They had eaten at a restaurant at Circular Quay. The Harbour Bridge was an ever-changing rainbow. They watched it as eddies of cold air made them shiver when it found its way surreptitiously into the outdoor gas heaters' warm circles. They ate pizza and spaghetti amid the aroma of garlic, the bass beat of music, and the hum of thousands of voices as crowds ambled past on the concourse. Mardi stretched mozzarella cheese from between her teeth to nearly the length of her arm, Dad laughing with her despite the reminders, always there, prickling. The waitress had ushered them to a table for three. The empty chair was like the hollow place inside Mardi that no amount of birthday fun could fill. On the ferry the word "mum" in excited high pitched voices had filled the air; mothers held on to little hands and called out to older kids, watchful and vigilant.
Now, Rabbit, Sealy and Edward Bear regarded her glassily as her fingers tapped and stroked the new I-pad's cool screen. She idled through Facebook; liked the posts, punctuated with colourful cake, gift, and heart emojis, from her friends. She yawned, her eyelids heavy. She flicked to her messages. Her lighting fast fingers sent the screen's bright contents flying past, until she reached the messages from Mum, the last more than a year ago.
In those first dark weeks, she had read them often. Their everyday, cheerful contents took her for a few moments to a place where nothing had happened; a place where Mum would at any moment appear in her doorway, blow her a kiss, ask about homework and demand that dirty laundry be brought downstairs. A place where she would be tucked into bed, where Mum would straighten her quilt and sit close while they sang Jingle Bells. Just as they had done every night since that Christmas Eve when they had raced back to the car only minutes after Carols by Candlelight began, rain drenching them through the picnic rug thrown hastily over their heads. They had sung their carols at home, her parents still bursting into snippets of song long after she was in bed as they made mysterious rustlings around the Christmas tree.
Now, for the first time in months, Mum's last message was on her screen. "At shops, back soon. Love you to the moon and back". As always, Mum had ended the message with an array of kisses.
An hour after that text had beeped its way into her phone, the house had been shaking with the heavy booted tread of police. Dad sat unmoving for hours with head in hands, Uncle Tom patting his shoulder awkwardly from time to time, for once at a loss for words. Aunt Sally cried and held Mardi tight, trying to block her eyes and ears from the truth she overheard in snippets of hushed conversation - identify the body, arrange a tow truck, it would have been instant...
Many times Mardi had typed a message, a final punctuation point to end the happy string that had constantly passed between them. But she had never pressed send; it would only reach a phone beeping forlornly into the envelopes and pens in the top drawer of her father's desk. And then Dad would see it ... and worry about her. Eventually, she had stopped reading those precious words. But it was safe now, Mum's phone was gone. Dad had dropped it in a cardboard recycling bin at the Hi Fi store one Saturday morning. No one would receive her message. Her I-pad reflecting its own light show on her face, Mardi typed as tear droplets rainbowed the screen.
"Mum I miss you so much I wish you were here. I had pepperoni and prawn pizza for dinner! It's my birthday today. Dad tried heaps hard to be cheerful. He gave me an I-pad. It's cool. But it wasn't a very happy birthday. I'm not always sad, only sometimes - mostly the times when I am supposed to be happy. I wish you could come back and be my Mum again. You were the best Mum ever".
Reading the word-filled screen several times slowly filled the empty Mum-shaped void with warmth, as if touched by the sun. Mardi hit send, launching the little grey speech bubble off into the world. She put the phone down beside her lava lamp, snuggled down under the quilt, cuddled Claude the purple (greying now) hippo tightly against her and drifted off to sleep.
Katherine wiped her hands on the tea towel hanging neatly on the oven door. She silenced the shriek of the kettle, frowned as she poured water over the lemon and ginger tea bag sagging in her favourite rose-patterned mug. It needed a good scrub, for the tea stains. She carried the steaming beverage into the living room, wandered back into the kitchen, then found herself out on the deck, where, despite the sunshine, she shivered in the southerly breeze.
Back in the house she procrastinated around her antique-white painted rooms, eventually returning to Carrie's. She placed her mug carefully over a ring of faded varnish on the bureau, sighed, and made her third attempt that morning to start the activity yet again promised to herself. She picked things up randomly, feeling them (the fuzzy bathrobe collar) reading them (the funny little diary notes), smelling them (the Carrie smell was gone). It had been three years, and Carrie's presence was slipping away, even with all her things still here, untouched.
One hand around the lukewarm mug, Katherine resumed her wandering. It would have been Carrie's birthday yesterday.
In the kitchen, she tapped absently at her phone which she spotted on the counter by the toaster where it had been since yesterday evening. There had been no need to take it to the restaurant. It rarely rang outside of work hours; friends needed an emotional investment. But last night, amid soft music, candle light, excellent wine and the company of her sister and brother in law and their friend Dave ("coincidentally" recently divorced), she had gently dampened, lest they turn into happiness, little eddies of enjoyment which wriggled up inside her.
If Carrie had lived she would be a slave to the device now, she supposed, needing to be available for pick-ups - from friend's houses, or parties perhaps. Maybe things would get a bit out of hand with alcohol, maybe someone would have drugs ... Carrie would call, Katherine would be ready. I'll come right away. But she never had that chance.
To her surprise a message alert was on the screen, arrived last night, number unknown.
I miss you ... pepperoni and prawn pizza ... my birthday today ... only sad when I'm supposed to be happy ... best Mum ever. Katherine breathed in confusion and sighed out understanding. She lent against the wall and sank slowly to the floor, where she could contemplate, without falling any further, this message from a child she didn't know - whose favourite pizza was Carrie's favourite, who shared Carrie's birthday, who had lost her mother. What would it have been like if things had been the other way around? What if Carrie had lost her? That thought was almost unbearable. Her heart ached for this child, who, in other circumstances, could have been Carrie.
It was the easiest and the hardest thing to write.
"I think about you every day. You are not alone, I am with you. Whenever you are sad I hug you, whenever you laugh I laugh with you. I remember everything we used to do together, and the memories always make me smile. Even though we can't be together any more we are always together in my heart. So whenever you feel sad, just think about me, hold me in your heart, and know that I am hugging you xxxx."
The message wooshed on its way. She saw it flying over hill tops and swaying trees, dodging birds and helicopters and aircraft, to land as a blue speech bubble on a young girl's phone. Somewhere.
Her mind kicked out of neutral, the tears flowed. Her buttocks numbed on the cold slate floor. When finally she stood her legs were stiff, her breathing ragged, she could feel the tears drying on her cheeks. But her step felt lighter as she opened the screeching sliding door and went out on to the deck. The sun was much lower but the wind had dropped. She calmed her breath in the perfect afternoon, rested her eyes on the familiar view of blue hills over red tiled rooftops. Finally she smiled. She would love Carrie forever and care for her in her thoughts. She didn't need to feel guilty about living her life.
Katherine returned to Carrie's room and began sorting her clothes into piles.
Mardi heard the consecutive beep of her phone and ding of her I-pad for the hundredth time that day. She lay on her bed, sock clad feet resting on the wall. She had been cooped up for hours now, Dad popping in his head occasionally. "It's nice outside, why don't you come out for a bit? We can walk down to the beach" he cajoled.
But Mum was still on her mind; her face reddened as she remembered texting a ghost.
She and Beth had been messaging back and forth. Kelly had been sending photos of her trip - she and both her parents at the top of the Eiffel tower; in a café; in a glittering horse-drawn carriage. She braced for another one, or for Beth beseeching her to "please come over and hang out with me, I am soooo bored".
She read the text message twenty, thirty times. You are not alone ... I laugh with you ... just think about me ... I'm hugging you.
She ran outside. It was a beautiful day, her father grubbing around in the vegetable patch.
"Dad, let's go for that walk to the beach".
They gathered shoes and hats, smoothed sunblock on their faces.
As they walked past bright borders of chrysanthemums to the road, Mardi spoke.
"Dad, you know, there is no way in the world Mum would leave us alone. She will always be here. Because of memories, she will live on forever, won't she?"
"That she will" said Dad, "that she surely will". His eyes glistened as he smiled down at her.
"I understand now. It's OK to laugh, it's OK to be happy. And when if I feel sad, I only have to think of her, to know that she loves me always".
Dad took her hand, held it tight. The sun was warm on their backs as they made their way down the hill, the ocean sparkling its endless blue, undulating fabric before them.
"When we get back, can Beth please come over for dinner?"
"Of course", said Dad.
Second Place in "Newbies ONLY Short Story & Poem Contest" October 2016