By Sophie Taylor
The first time I saw you I wore red shoes. They were my first. They were brilliant. Sky-scrapers with bows, bright red, they gleamed and they seemed to be a miracle on that ward of dying people watching me with the machines buzzing around them so much bigger than them. People stared when they saw me. I was so proud.
Thirteen, my first heels. You would love them.
I loved the sounds they made. Maracas and every step was the cha cha. You remember those games we used to play? This time, I was Marylyn Monroe. Every step in those shoes was a wedding dance, I was a princess and those little straps on my feet were my crown.
But I changed my mind that day. I spent the morning before walking up and down in the hallway so I would be able to walk without falling over myself, laughing at the clashes like symbols, but now they just seemed loud and fanatical and slightly mad. A girl in the bed opposite was watching me. She shook her head. I hung my head. I remembered being little again, with you, when we used to be pixies, running through the house, me in my slippers and you in your bare feet, the laughter that was as noisy as those shoes. I glanced down at my feet. I thought of you and your small body hooked up to the monitor, your breaths that were the sound of a spoon scraping the bottom of the ice-cream tub, except it wasn’t sweet at all, there was no sunshine, there never was, in the hospital. You sat in the LED glow through the snowflakes, the leaves that crackled under your feet and the hot, sprawling sky in summer. You forgot the days of the week and sometimes the months. You would be confused when the nurses asked you how old you were. I swallowed. I slipped my shoes off of my feet and held them in my hands instead. I walked the rest of the way in silence.
You gasped when you saw them.
‘Those,’ you gushed. ‘Are gorgeous.’
I smiled once but it was false and we both knew it, it was like that time at Christmas when I wanted to be an angel but you are argued and said no, we should be aliens instead, that was so much more fun. We never could agree, so we decided instead that we should forget about the story and just spend our time running through the sky instead. We bugged Mum and we hung thick sheets of ink-black sugar paper all over the wall and we pretended we could fly. Except I think you forgot, half-way through. One more step and you would rise on the air.
‘Mum gave me some money for my birthday,’ I said. ‘And I bought them.’
Your hands reached forward to touch them, and I pressed them into your palm. You slid your finger under the bow and the open-tow and across the heel, and you sighed.
‘I miss shoes,’ you said.
Mum had been watching us but pretending not to. She glanced up from her newspaper.
‘You’ll be home soon, sweetie,’ she said, as she looked at you. ‘And then you can wear all the heels you want.’
‘Yeah,’ I smiled, and I glanced at Mum and I nodded. ‘Yeah, all the shoes in the world.’
You smiled and I realized your eyes were glimmering like the bows on my shoes. You nodded and you smiled.
‘Shoes like yours,’ you said. ‘Red shoes.’
The next time I saw you it was raining and I was glad. The whole horizon was sobbing, screaming with stabs of lightning across the world. The sky was hanging in slabs and I remembered being little, getting angry with the puzzle pieces that wouldn’t fit together. You fixed them. But you weren’t here to fix them, anymore.
I wasn’t wearing red shoes that day. I was wearing plain black clogs that were as miserable as grief. They made no noise when I walked. I knew why. There were not any words left in my mouth. I had used them all up trying to call you back when you didn’t want to hear me; you always were stubborn. And you used to get away with it all, too. Mum and Dad and Nana would get all annoyed inside and be ready to snap and then they would look up at you and you would just melt them. You did that to people. You made them forget what they were. You made them dance at parties and you made them bake cakes when they were supposed to cook stew. You were like a supernova.
What was the sky supposed to do, without you?
I hid the shoes in my bag. I wanted to show them to you one last time and even though you weren’t there to look, I was hopeful that you were hiding like you did when we were little. I never could find you even then but I knew you would be there, somewhere, in between the cracks of the wall or crouching under the table, your giggles like the apples on a tree you never can reach. You were there even though I couldn’t see you, you were the angel, this time, and I had become an alien on a planet that didn’t want me. Mum was outside and I remembered people would be clamming around her, trying to crush out the sadness like it was a naughty child they could sit on a stair.
I put the red shoes on the ground and I slide the ugly bleak clogs onto the floor. You come back to me, then.
I remember, back before, back before the cancer and the hospital and the pills, back when we were just little children that liked to run barefoot in the sand, back when your hair was long and gold and you would wear it streaming down your back, back when we believed in life. I was five, you were seven. We were shoe-shopping.
‘Can we just go?!’ I moaned. ‘I want to go home.’
‘Shush,’ Mum said. ‘We need to buy you shoes for school.’
‘I don’t care about shoes,’ I groaned. ‘Can’t you just pick one so we can go?’
You weren’t listening to me. You were standing up away from us and fingering the high heels for the grown-ups with your fingers, you were looking at the colours and I realized that you were thinking about being old, being tall and being able to chose your own shoes, your own life. You always were the high-heels type. I never cared. Until you weren’t allowed to walk, until you had to spend days when you used to dance lying in a hospital bed. Then I wore red shoes for you.
‘Ellie,’ you said. ‘How about these?’
You pointed to some black sandals with silver hearts on the side. I shrugged.
‘I just want to go home.’
You stepped closer.
‘Ellie!’ You sighed, frustrated. ‘Ellie,’ you repeated. ‘If you don’t pick some soon, Mum will, and she will pick the most boring, ugliest shoes in the whole store.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Ellie!’ You hissed. You stopped. You looked at me. ‘Shoes,’ you said. ‘You don’t get that many in your life.
You have to make sure that the ones you do wear are special.’ You looked at me. ‘Wear pink shoes. Wear blue shoes. But wear shoes you love, make sure they’re colourful and it doesn’t matter if they’re not sensible, because you only get to walk the walk once, Ellie, and if you do fall it’s better than hobbling along in stupid black boots.’ You sighed. ‘Make them special.’
I’m standing up straight in my red shoes that should have belonged to you, now. There are tears dripping down my cheeks and I’m hoping inside that God realizes that just because angels can fly doesn’t mean they don’t need shoes, real shoes, red shoes, special shoes. I swallow.
‘You’re gone,’ I say, out loud. ‘But don’t worry. I’ll wear these red shoes for you every day and I know that wherever you are, you’ll be okay, because you don’t need shoes to be special. They buried you in your slippers but that’s okay, you’re out there somewhere and you’re in the sky and I know you’re staggering the way you always did, in shoes that are too tall for you in bright blaring colours that no one can ever forget.’