"Come for dinner on Friday, Sasha. It's your last meal before you go. Just you and me." Susan says. "I'm not doing anything with eggs though. I got a double yolker the other day, and they still creep me out."
"That'll be lovely. Could you do Thai, do you think?"
"Well, of course I can cook Thai, how do you think I managed there for so long? There isn't a Macdonalds on every street corner. But it is very hot, you know. You probably won't like it."
"Sorry, I just mean, would you?” The phone slips in her damp palm. She grips it tighter and sucks in a breath. “I'd like to give it a try, please. To get ready for my new adventure." Adventure. The word rolls around on her tongue like a lolly with an unfamiliar flavour.
"Oh, Thailand is pretty commercialised these days. It's not exactly off the beaten track any more, at least not where you're going." Susan says. "Anyway, come round at seven. I’ll get rid of Andy and the kids for the night so we can celebrate alone, you setting off on your little adventure."
The dial tone burrs and Susan’s last words echo in Sasha’s ear. Thin lines crease her forehead. Little adventure. How the same words can sound so different in different people's mouths.
* * *
Susan had always been the adventurer when they were kids. She was the one who had climbed the highest trees, and eaten worms on a dare. She had thrown herself from high rocks into the swimming hole adults always warned them away from. That was Susan. Sasha had to be rescued from trees. Sasha hovered, a metre away from the edge of the rocks, before tiptoeing back down the path. She had spat the worm out. How could two girls from the exact same egg be so different? Everyone asked. Sasha looked just like Susan, but otherwise... Sasha took the photos and wrote the diaries. She read books, while Susan made stories happen. It had always been that way, through childhood and teens, well into their twenties. Sasha had always been Susan’s applause.
People say marriage changes things. Susan had met Andy on one of her overseas trips. She had started signing postcards and birthday cards home with both their names. They had explored Africa together, Asia, some time in south America. Sasha had teased them for their alphabetical globe-trotting. They married at the B’s, in Bali, and then Andy wanted to settle back home in New Zealand. They bought an old house to renovate, near the good schools. Near Sasha, who was already wearing her home, her career and marriage, with all the comfort of a snug old cardigan.
Only last week Susan had said marriage was like bedtime cocoa. Sasha’s had turned out to be bread crumbs. The crumbs scattered in the wind and she had to make a new life for herself. The thing with being timid, Sasha discovered, was to name her fear, and watch it disappear like smoke from a barbecue. Baby steps at first, buying a new outfit without asking Susan's opinion. Going to see a film alone at the cinema when no-one could join her. After that, she was off and running, huge strides; skiing weekends with girlfriends, parachute jumps, negotiating a promotion and pay rise at work, deep-sea diving with dates.
On Monday mornings, before work, she would listen to the messages Susan left on her phone over the weekend. "Ring me asap, Sash. Tell me what it was like. I never do anything exciting or risky now."
She loved Susan asking for stories, more stories. A smorgasbord of thrills spread out before her, and she sampled them all, storing every detail to enthrall Susan with later.
And then the opportunity of the Thailand trip came up. It was a twelve-month research project for work, with plenty of time to meet new people, and explore the place. She could have gone anywhere on her OE; the inheritance from their grandparents had made that possible. Susan did; to places most people wouldn't even know on a map. But she only made it as far as Australia. That was the old her. Now? Now, she didn’t hesitate when her boss asked.
"You know they don't speak English, right?" Susan said.
"They won't have internet or cell phone coverage in most places." Susan said.
"How will you find your way around?" Susan said.
All the excuses Sasha had used for too long.
"Sasha..." Susan said.
"Susan," she said, "I'm going. I have to. I've wasted enough opportunities already. Life's too short."
"Yes. Life is short." Susan said. Sasha winced at something she heard in Susan's voice then, like fingernails dragged down a chalkboard. "Very short."
The sound got her planning. She telephoned Andy at work, for help.
"May is probably best." Andy told her. "It's pretty quiet at work then. I'll take some leave and stay home with the kids."
She booked the plane ticket for Susan, 5th May, Wellington to Bangkok, returning 20th May. Perfect timing, she thought, she'd have been there for a few months herself by then, would have found her feet. She bought a notebook and wrote on the front cover, in orange Sharpie, 'Thailand with Susan; things to do.' The pages grew dog-eared and her hand-writing shrank, overflowed sideways into the margins. She stapled the plane ticket in her notebook, to surprise Susan with just before she leaves.
* * *
Friday, she decides, will be the perfect time. After they have eaten, before they need to negotiate goodbyes. She imagines Susan's smile, the one that fills the room with sunshine.
Susan has cooked Thai. Folds of turmeric and cinammon sheer satin drape the room, a hundred candles flicker beacons of warmth. Silk pillows, soft as marshmallows are scattered around a low table, set with porcelain and silver cutlery. And the food; meats she can't even name melt on her tongue. Spices tingle, tantalise. The flavours: sharp, sweet, tart, mellow, mingle and burst on her palate like spring rain. Susan plies dish after amazing dish.
"Oh, this is fantastic, Susan. Thank you so much."
"You'll never taste anything like it again." Susan smiles. A fleck of green chilli clings to the corner of Susan's mouth, making the smile lopsided, eerie.
"You've got to try this one." Susan says, holding out a chunk of meat on chopsticks.
Sasha’s tongue furs as the new taste floods her mouth, acrid and bitter. She glances at Susan's bowl. Only scraps of the entree smear her dish.
"You've hardly eaten." she says.
"Oh, I've had enough." Susan says. And smiles at her. A smile of sharp knives and metal spikes. A smile Sasha has never quite seen before.
"What was in that one?" she says, forcing her words out through splintering glass. She is on fire from the inside out even as her blood freezes in her veins. Susan doesn't speak, just shrugs, a caterpillar lift of her left shoulder.
All she can think as she falls, her hands butterflying at her throat, is how different people can make the same words mean different things. Your last meal, Susan had said.