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Today would have been her sixteenth birthday, but whose counting except for me? Mother is pretending to page through a magazine from two years ago, but I can tell the tiny print is just slipping through her eyes, not registering. Father is pretending to pour her a glass of wine, but I know he's just emptying it down his own throat when he thinks we're not looking. Sometimes I feel like our family isn't a real family at all, we're all just playing a game of house. Strangers sitting under a tiny roof pretending we are all connected. Except there is one piece missing.
Everyone else seemed to have moved on. At first I had tried to catch up with them, to keep the pace that just kept getting faster and faster with every passing day after the accident. But I would trip over my own feet every time I thought I heard her laugh, or saw her smile in the mirror behind me, or forget and call her name, then remember I was talking to the dead by doing so. In the end I crumpled back into a ball, so that I wouldn't fall and hurt myself anymore.
You wouldn't know that we were a family that had lost its youngest child. We carry our baggage under our eyes. Drown our grief in a bottle. And hold the worst moments for our nightmares. But walking into the house, you can feel it. That absence of someone very special, replaced with utter loss.
It was only last year that we had frosted a strawberry cake for her birthday together and counted out fifteen candles and one for good luck, but it feels like yesterday. Now the only candles we can light her are celebrating the years she's been stripped from our lives, not the ones she's spent beside us. I don't know why, but thinking about that, makes me start crying.
It starts as a choke caught in the silence, wondering if it's safe to come out. Then it erupts into great heaving sobs, like enormous boulders tumbling off the edge of a cliff. My mother's neck cranes toward me, her willowy hands wring together.
“Why are you crying, Julia?” she accuses. I shake my head and feel tears fly off my cheeks.
“Tell us,” my father slurs. “Tell us what's the matter.”
“Birthday candles,” I whisper. “She would have wanted them.” I feel the thin ice I have been walking on all along finally break under me. My mother's face crumples like paper and then she explodes.
“You have no right!” she spits. “No right to talk about her! She's dead because of you. And dead girls don't get to have birthday parties. She got that taken away from her because of you.” The last word is a knife, that sinks deeper and deeper every time she uses it. My father hobbles toward her and messily wraps his arms around her waist. He looks up at me and I can see the emotion plain on his face as if he had spoken it. Regret.
“I'm sorry,” I gasp, but all the apologies in the world won't solve anything. Nothing anyone says matters, if it's not her voice speaking.
I dash out the door feeling my feet pound into the Earth, so hard I might just fall right into it, into another world where guilt doesn't eat me alive.
Last winter, Aria had forgotten to set the alarm clock and we both slept in. I had just gotten my license and our parents relied on me to drive to the high school. I was a good driver, stopped at all the signs, followed the speed limit to a tee, and always kept my eyes on the road. But it was 8:05 and I had a math test that morning.
“Julia, you're going to kill us!” Aria said, gripping the dash board like a life raft.
“If you could remember a simple task, then we wouldn't be in this mess!” I snap. I hear the shrill ring of my phone and dig through my bag to get it. Using my chin, I flip it open to read the message from my friend, Seneca. I start typing a response for her to ask our teacher for extra time for the test and feel my hand drift slight to the side with the steering wheel. My eyes flick to the road and see the thick trunk of a tree directly in my path. I jerk the wheel to the left and hear the tires scream. The last thing I see is the fear flooding Aria's eyes, her mouth open in a multitude of words she will never get to say, replaced with a silent scream, and the tree coming closer and closer behind her.
At the convenience store I buy a lighter, sixteen candles, and one for good luck.
“Birthday party?” the cashier, an old man with crooked teeth and and freckles spilled over his bald head asks. “Yeah,” I pulling the corners of my mouth into a smile, as if his words aren't stripping another layer off of me. Sometimes I think one day, there will be nothing left except my rotten core.
When I leave, rain is cracking down on the sidewalk like bullets raining from the sky. By the time I get to the graveyard, I'm soaked through my clothes. I shiver as cold winds crisscross over the empty grounds and slap me in the face.
I kneel down at the grave and begin digging in the candles. The grass is so soft from the rain that it molds through my fingers like clay. All seventeen candles are lined around the grave when I realize I can't light them in the pouring rain.
I hurl the empty candle box through the air where it hits another grave and pools in the mud. I'm kicking and screaming and crying. My legs fold under me and without really thinking, I start praying, something I haven't done since her death. Suddenly I feel the pounding on my back decrease to a spit and then nothing at all. I look up and catch the glint of the moon, just a slither like a smile before it disappears behind the clouds again. Her smile.
I light the candles as fast as I can until the grave glows silver. Then I run my fingers over the grooves that spell out her name and the inscription. Aria Winter. November 15th, 1996- January 24th, 2012. Forever and always, the music in our hearts. She really was music too. She was always belting out the newest Adele song or blasting oldies through her speakers. Her voice was like a piano high-pitched and fast when she was excited, low and sluggish when she was upset. When we fought, her shouts were a symphony that woke all the neighbors.
“Happy Birthday, sis,” I say. “I guess you can't make a wish, but I have something in mind if that's okay?” I lean down close to the flame, feeling the warmth pressing on my cheeks. The melting wax stains the mud blue and pink. “I wish it had been me,” I whisper, closing my eyes. It's not fair because I know it wouldn't have been her wish, but it's everyone else's. Especially mine.