I don’t advertise my services, but they all know where to find me. I have a little place near the center of town with salmon-colored shutters and a wide front porch full of flowerpots. You can see them from the street, the flowers; they spill out of their pots in all sorts of shapes and colors, like globs of paint on an artist’s palette.
My clients bring them to me. Like I’m the one dying, instead of them. I guess they think of it as payment because I never ask them for money. It’s a transactional thing, what I do, as much as I hate to think of it that way. So now I’m the Flower Woman. I guess there are worse things they could call me.
I’m not the picture of youth that I used to be. Pharmacy-brand hair dye is the only thing keeping my curls from going gray, and years of scoliosis have given me a permanent slouch. Sleep lines have turned my face into an old cracked road. I try to stand up straight and smooth out the creases with makeup when my clients come over. Some of them clean up too, combing their hair (if they still have any) and touching up the sores on their faces with concealer. We’re not fooling anyone, but it’s okay. It’s our little pageant show. We’re actors in an exclusive play, one night only.
I always start with a few candles and a smattering of rose petals, just to set the scene. Sappy, cliché, sure, but it works. I tuck a napkin under the best china plates I own and make sure the forks are aligned just right. The dining room table is this sturdy oak relic from my grandmother’s place, and my clients sit across from me at the other end. The distance is important. Closing that gap is slow, sensual, romantic: they love the sense of foreplay. They don’t have that closeness in quarantine.
Dinner is whatever I have in my pantry, cooked piping hot and simmering with spices. It’s mostly a formality. The really sick ones can’t stomach much more than tepid soup, so they pick at their food and spend the meal chatting instead. Some pretend to take hearty bites to keep up the illusion. Those clients are my favorites. It’s easier to play my part when we’re both following the script.
I flirt, I seduce, I tease that I’m waiting for the right person to come along and ravish me. My old acting coach would have been impressed. She caught the sunburst two months ago, announced she was going into isolation, and went dark on all her social media pages. I thought about calling her up and inviting her over, but it felt wrong to treat her like just another client. I never did check up on her in the end.
After twenty minutes of seduction, I snuff out the candles with my bare fingers and lead my clients upstairs. I keep the lamplight dim so the bedroom is all dark corners and soft shadows, which they seem to like. I guide them to the bed and sit down with them, holding their hands, kissing them a little if their lips are free of sores.
What happens next is different for everyone. Some want to make love, and some want to fuck, and some want to just lie next to a warm body, and some want to hold someone close and cry, and all of that is okay. They came here for intimacy. I give it to them. I grip their frail bodies and rock with them, sway with them, moan with them, cry with them, until morning comes and our little performance comes to an end.
I walk out with them, hand in hand, and then I release them. Once they’re gone, I take the flowers they brought and fill a pot with fresh soil. There are always a few wilted plants, which I water, and some that have shriveled completely, which I throw in the compost bin out back. I always hate to toss them. It’s a small thing, sure, a necessary thing, but it’s mourning all the same.
The early news reports terrified us, of course. Isolated patches of a virus outbreak with a one hundred percent fatality rate. The symptoms ranged from weight loss to fevers to hair coming out in clumps, but always, inevitably, they included those distinctive sores: round blotches with little outward tendrils, like tiny cartoon suns filled with blood and pus. They could bloom all over the body, and once they showed up, death followed within two weeks. No exceptions. The virus had a fancy scientific name, but everyone just called it the sunburst.
The talking heads assured us that less than two percent of the population could catch it, but two percent of eight billion is still a whole hell of a lot of corpses. The world shut down for a while. Like most of our neighbors, Doug and I didn’t leave the house for almost a year. Faceless delivery workers dropped food and toiletries on our doorstep. Screens became our entire world – screens and our little house with the salmon shutters, which had turned into both a sanctuary and a prison. Every night, we huddled together on the couch, turned on the TV, and watched the virus spread from our living room: a morbid ritual we couldn’t quite shake.
The sunburst didn’t discriminate. It spread from rural communities to cities to the heights of Hollywood, cutting swaths in the rich and poor alike. We thought for sure that a vaccine was coming, especially when the Vice President got sick and the entire federal government went into quarantine. Some big brain scientists had to be developing something, right? But the months passed with no major breakthroughs. Eventually we had to accept that the sunburst was here to stay.
I got complacent. So many of us did. The virus hadn’t reached our little town yet, we reasoned, so it really wasn’t so dangerous to shop at the supermarket or see our hair stylist or meet with a few friends for dinner. Doug and I argued about this, often late into the night. He didn’t think my little excursions were worth the risk.
“For fuck’s sake, Catalina,” he’d say. “This isn’t some seasonal flu. You’re putting both of our lives in danger just so you can wander around town and pretend the whole world’s not burning.”
I understood what he was saying, but he didn’t understand me: how I needed to feel the sun warming my skin; how I needed to wake up and take a walk and breathe in the early morning air; how, as an actor, I needed eyes on me every now and then, even if I couldn’t be on stage. I wasn’t me if I didn’t have those things. I just didn’t know how to explain myself to him without sounding spoiled or petty.
One day I visited the florist to pick up some apology flowers. Pink roses, blue hyacinths, white orchids, the works. So many vibrant colors, all sending the same message: “I’m sorry and I love you.” I barely noticed the florist’s light cough or the reddish bags under his eyes. Doug smiled when I handed him the bouquet, but it wasn’t enough to mend things, and in a few weeks it didn’t matter anyway.
He developed a fever. Nausea, fatigue, crippling chills, all the worst symptoms. We weren’t sure it was the sunburst until he stripped down one night and I saw the distinctive pattern spreading along his back: a yellow pustule with tendrils of blotchy red. I think we were both too stunned to cry. It’s one thing to know that death can come for your neighbors; it’s another to have it blooming in your own home like a horrible, strangling weed.
I drove him to the hospital in nothing but my shoes and a nightgown. The nurses took him in hastily, seeing the sickly sweat on his brow, and ushered me into a dim, sparsely furnished room to quarantine.
They ran blood tests and took a sample of my urine. I waited for them to come back, studying my shaky hands and arms, as if the sunburst might erupt on my skin at any moment. How could this have happened? All these years I’d spent with Doug had shrunk to a pinhole of memory: a kind face in a coffeeshop, a breathy laugh, warm chai tickling my lips. I’d looked into the future then and thought, he’s the one. I saw us marrying, growing old, acting out the perfect love story. It couldn’t end this way. It just couldn’t.
After the longest, loneliest, most nail-biting few hours of my life, a doctor came in and shared the results: I was immune. My body produced the antibodies needed to fend off the sunburst. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, checking the data on her tablet. “We’ve never seen an antibody count quite as high as yours.”
“I don’t care about me,” I said. “What’s going to happen to Doug?”
The doctor tried to keep her face composed behind her mask, but she was tired, they all were, and I could see the exhaustion in her eyes. “He’s not getting better,” she said honestly.
I gripped the legs of my chair in trembling hands and looked at the floor, eyes swimming in the checkerboard pattern of the tiles.
My husband died nine days later. I could only watch him through a window and cry. Cremation was standard, to burn away all traces of the sunburst, so I couldn’t even give him a funeral. I came home to an empty, suffocating house. The apology flowers had withered with no one to water them. I’m sorry, I sobbed, clutching the dried petals. I’m such an idiot. This is all my fault. I let the bouquet sag in its vase until the petals crumbled over the tablecloth. Then I built a fire in the backyard and threw their corpses in.
My first client was Doug’s sister. Lily, like Lily of the Valley, except she brought orchids instead. She was the only member of my extended family who showed up to offer condolences. The rest were too afraid of the virus, or they hated me for getting Doug sick, or some combination of the two. His family and I had been close, and that made this hurt all the more. Losing that closeness felt like a second death.
Lily showed up at my doorstep with a bushel of blue flowers in hand. We sat in the den, I lit an aromatic candle, and we talked for hours about the man we’d both lost. How he’d loved to sing in public, warbly and off-key. How he would quote Marvel movies and Lord of the Rings like a nerdy teenager. How tender he could be, how kind and caring; he made people fall in love with him without even trying. By the time the candle shrank to a glob of melted wax, we were both crying and holding each other’s hands.
She kissed me first. It was messy, hasty, wet with tears and spittle. I kissed her back, and then we fell together onto the couch, hands scrabbling for a grip on each other’s bodies, our fingers warm and probing. I shivered and tugged at her blouse.
“No,” she said, breathing heavily. “Clothes stay on.”
I didn’t argue; we were already naked enough. I was there for her, and she was there for me, and when we came, we came together.
It was only later, as we sat in strips of afternoon sunlight, that she rolled up her sleeve and showed me. The tiniest of sores had sprouted on her arm, like a little red sun. She started weeping and said she was sorry, that she was so scared, and she didn’t know where else to go. I was the only immune person she knew. I kissed her forehead and whispered what I hoped were soothing words, and she shrank into me, like a flower wilting. We held each other until the afternoon turned into dusk, orange light creeping over our faces, and we knew it was time for her to go.
For the two weeks afterward, I kept her orchids in a pot on the front porch, like a signal in case she came back: my house is yours too. She never did, of course, but she must have told someone about our encounter, because one night I found a man standing on my doorstep with sores on his face and a bushel of violets in his hand. He was a friend of Lily’s, he said, and he’d come to pay his respects.
I could have thanked him, taken the flowers, and sent him on his way, but I saw the same desperation in his eyes: the fear that he would slip away with no loved ones by his side, no one to hold him close in his final moments. So I invited him in and made him coffee, and I gave him the closeness he needed.
I only have a few rules, but they’re important.
Rule one: we play it safe. No exceptions. I might be immune to the sunburst, but there are a thousand other diseases I can catch, especially when sex is involved. So no open sores or wounds, and nothing kinky involving bodily fluids. Clients with penises have to wear condoms, and if that’s a dealbreaker then tough luck. That’s only been an issue once or twice though. The sunburst tends to burn away that alpha male arrogance early on.
Rule two: nothing we say or do leaves the bedroom. You can treat me like a priest, whisper secrets and confessions in my ear, and I’ll listen. I’ll offer some placating words and maybe a little roleplay if that’s what you need. But when the night’s over, you take your secrets with you. I don’t spread gossip. I expect my clients to do the same.
Rule three: no repeat customers. This isn’t a friends-with-benefits situation, and it isn’t therapy either. You can’t call me up whenever you need a shoulder to cry on or a hand to jerk you off. This rule is rarely an issue because all of my clients are on their way out anyway.
Rule four (and this is the big one): no falling in love. It’s a rule for me too, as much as it is for them. Maybe even more so.
She showed up on a lazy Saturday, 6pm or so, when I was in the process of microwaving a plate of leftover lasagna. Clients rarely call ahead, so every visit is an exercise in improvisation: a test to see if I can drop everything and primp my hair and put on my sultry face before the second doorbell ring. This time I barely made it. I flung open the door, and there she was, her hand hovering over the button. A hesitant smile creased her face.
“Hello,” she said. She had a rich voice, husky and smooth, like a radio host. “I’m here to see Catalina?”
“That’s me,” I replied.
I assessed her head to toe, paying close attention to her thinning blond hair and the gauntness of her cheeks. No sores on her face, but she’d clearly been sick for a while. She wore a loose-fitting tee with a dancer’s silhouette on the front and jeans that had been washed too many times. She was pretty, and poised, too, like a movie star in her middle age. There was a softness in her eyes, a gentle serenity that hadn’t withered with the rest of her body.
She clutched a bushel of flowers: yellow daisies, still flecked with dirt on their stems. They must have been yanked fresh from her garden. She handed them to me, and I saw the sunburst stippling her wrist and lower arm, the red marks disappearing into her baggy sleeves.
“These are lovely, thanks,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Marigold,” she answered, “but everyone calls me Goldie.” She gestured to the daisies in my hand. “I would have brought actual marigolds, but I couldn’t get the damn things to grow this year.”
Marigold. So she was a flower woman too. I tried out the name Goldie in my head, but it didn’t fit her somehow; she reminded me too much of the plant, all delicate petals and swaying stems.
“Come on in,” I said, stepping aside.
The foyer glowed with dying sunlight, a yellowish orange as rich as Marigold’s namesake. She wandered inside and brushed her fingers along the wall, where I’d replaced old photos of me and Doug with beautiful landscapes I’d never been to. Island shores, misty mountains, sunlit forests: the whole romantic package. Most clients linger on one or two, like a memory they want to revisit. It helps me, later on, if they want to roleplay happier times. I waited to see which one Marigold would choose.
“Looks like you’re running a travel agency,” she said. Her smile was slight, amused. She didn’t linger by any of the photos. Instead, she wandered into the den and took a seat on the plush sofa by the window. I joined her, watching as she crossed her legs and leaned over to stare out into the twilight.
“Anything you’re looking for tonight?” I asked. “I could whip something up if you’re hungry…”
“I’m not here for dinner,” she said. She patted the cushion next to her, her fingers pale and bony. “Come sit with me?”
I obliged, sinking onto the couch with a little squeak of fabric. I tilted my head and brushed my hair behind my ear: a casual preening, almost sexy, with a tiny flirtatious smile to show she had my full attention. Her open hand rested on the cushion, so I reached out and intertwined our fingers.
“I read about you in an article,” she said. “Back when the theatres were open. You did a limited run of Rent at the Black Box, right?”
“That’s right,” I replied. “I was Mimi.”
It surprised me that she’d done her research; clients rarely do. These nights are supposed to be about them, not me. Marigold shifted on the couch and drew her legs up. Her smile hadn’t budged an inch.
“I guess, as an actress, you must be pretty good at improv,” she said.
So, roleplay – that’s what this was about. I mimicked her smile and posture, making sure to maintain eye contact. Her irises had a brownish tint that made me think of autumn and caramel.
“I’m a little rusty,” I lied, “but maybe you could help me practice?”
“Of course, honey,” she said. She leaned a little closer, her shoulders sloped and relaxed. “It’s just like old times, don’t you remember? When we met at the audition for Our Town.”
I played along. “How could I forget?” I said. “There was that insufferable prick, what was his name – Frank. You and I kept making faces at each other during his audition. We laughed about him later, at the Corner Tap, and it turned into this whole thing about artistic integrity and how more actors needed to be told no once in a while.”
“I’m glad they didn’t say no to you,” she said. “You were wonderful as Emily.”
I pretended to glance away shyly. “You said that on our first date,” I said. “It was really sweet of you. I know you were hoping to play her yourself.”
“Sure,” she said. “But I got over it. How could I be jealous when I saw you up there? You were perfect. I watched you and I thought, this is where she’s meant to be. She’s really going places.”
I looked back at her. Her eyes hadn’t shifted from me at all, but her smile had softened, and her cheeks glowed a rosy red. She was an actress after all; maybe that much of her imagined backstory was true. I wondered if she could blush on cue.
“Well,” I said, “I’m glad I got to go places with you.”
Her eyes fluttered, and she let go of my hand. For a second I thought I’d said the wrong thing. But no. She was reaching behind her, playing the game, getting out her props. She poured an invisible glass for me, holding it out by the stem. I pretended to take it as she prepared another glass for herself. She raised her empty hand in an unmistakable toast. I returned the gesture. The imaginary glasses touched: a phantom clink.
“What are we celebrating?” I asked.
She took a light sip from her glass of air. “Ten happy years, of course,” she replied. “And to all the years that come after.”
I hesitated. The sores along her arm glowed a harsh, swollen red, a reminder that Marigold didn’t have years ahead of her; the rest of her life had shrunk to days, weeks at the most. I knew this was just a show, our little game of pretend, but lying to her made the acid churn in my stomach.
“Go on, honey,” she said. “You can drink your champagne.”
I blinked, then mimed draining the glass. She sat there and watched me. There was a glistening in her eyes, but I couldn’t tell if she was about to cry or if the twilight sun was catching in her irises just right.
“I can’t wait to tell my mother about our engagement,” she said, and for the first time, I thought I heard a hitch in her voice.
I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know why it was her, of all people, who made me break my most important rule. In the end, I guess it was a stupid rule after all. Somewhere in our conversation, the two of us had stopped pretending.
I leaned in and kissed her. She cupped my face in her hands, and her lips were hot, her fingers even hotter, like the fever had spread to her extremities. When we broke apart, I tried on a smile.
“Why wait?” I asked. “Let’s go tell her tonight.”
Her mother had a garden too, an explosion of petals in every color imaginable: pastel pink roses, purple mums, red-tinged carnations, buttery yellow daffodils, and a bushel of white petunias with the faintest tinge of violet. A wooden trellis, overgrown with bright green leaves, stretched from the garden up toward the second story of the house. The place was cozy. In the glow of my headlights, it resembled a woodsy cottage, plucked from the edge of a forest and planted here in the heart of town.
We climbed out of the car. Marigold locked elbows with me, clearly nervous; there was a tremble to her limbs that I doubted was from the fever. I reached over and rubbed her shoulder to reassure her. The driveway was short, and a flight of crumbly stone steps led up to the front door. HAPPINESS BLOOMS HERE, the welcome mat read. The air was thick with the sweet blend of fragrances from the garden.
Marigold rang the doorbell, and the sound echoed through the house like muffled wind chimes. We waited for a minute, hearing the pacing of footsteps from inside. Then the door opened. The woman in the threshold was short and thin, her graying hair coming loose from a tight bun, but I could see the echo of Marigold in her face.
“Goldie?” she said. “I thought you were in quarantine.”
Marigold shifted beside me. “I was,” she said. “Dr. Hart said I could take a day to visit you though, since you’re immune. It’s, um, well. It’s a special occasion.”
Her mother’s eyes flicked over to me, registering our interlocked arms, the way our shoulders brushed as we leaned into each other. She didn’t smile, but she didn’t look upset either.
“Who’s this?” she asked.
“That’s why I’m here,” Marigold replied. “Mom, I wanted you to meet my fiancée, Catalina.”
I didn’t miss the slightest of eyebrow quirks, the subtle wrinkling of her mother’s brow. “Pleased to meet you,” I said. Handshakes had become poor etiquette during the outbreak, so I offered her the usual nod of greeting. It took her a second to nod back.
“Well, this is a surprise,” she said. “Come in, of course.” She retreated down the entrance hall, beckoning us to follow her. “I don’t have much in the way of alcohol, but we can celebrate with a nice cup of tea, maybe.”
Marigold squeezed my arm as we entered the house. Flower pressings and pinned butterflies in glass frames hung from hooks on the wall, and everything smelled vaguely of nutmeg. The kitchen was bright and filled with cabinets and spice racks. Marigold’s mother placed a kettle onto the stove, then opened the fridge and pulled out half a loaf of bread in plastic wrap. “I made this the other day,” she said. “Banana bread with cinnamon. It might be a little stale, but it’s something.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Marigold said. Her mother cut her a slice, and she let go of my arm to take the plate. I thanked the woman as she handed me my own piece. Marigold took a seat at the kitchen table, so I did the same. Her mother stared at us for a minute, silent and stoic, before the kettle whistled and she bustled over to pour us our tea.
“How long have you been together, Goldie?” she asked. The question was directed at her daughter, but she looked at me as she said it.
“Oh, well, about five years now?” Marigold replied. She stirred a spoon idly in her tea. “Catalina was an actress too, before the outbreak, and we met at an audition. She asked me out to dinner. It was one of those whirlwind romances, you know, a real love story.” Her eyes found mine, and she smiled, but there was no blush in her cheeks this time. I reached across the table and took her hand.
“That’s right,” I said. “We’re lucky we found each other. If we had to go through quarantine all alone…” I went quiet. It had occurred to me, too late, that her mother might have been a widow like me. That she’d endured the same awful loneliness I’d known before my days as the Flower Woman.
Across from me, Marigold hadn’t touched her banana bread, and she sipped from her tea with a look of faint queasiness. Her mother noticed her hesitation and said, “Not hungry?”
“Oh, we had a big dinner before coming over,” Marigold lied. “I don’t want to stuff myself.” She averted her eyes from me and said, “I’d like to use the bathroom though.”
“The downstairs toilet is broken,” her mother said. “Just use the one in the guest room.”
Marigold set down her teacup, smiled thinly at me, and slipped away down a side hallway. Her mother watched her go before turning to me. She took a sip from her own cup and eyed me shrewdly.
“I don’t know who you are,” she said, “but you’re not my daughter’s fiancée. Are you?”
“No,” I sighed. The aroma of the tea washed over me, cardamom and vanilla, but the smell wasn’t comforting. It reminded me of the coffeeshop where I’d met Doug, the one we always came back to, laughing over cups of morning chai. Marigold and I didn’t have history like that. We could pretend, we could invent memories of love and joy and heartbreak and triumph, but it was no substitute for the real thing.
Marigold’s mother placed down her cup. “I love Goldie,” she said, “but I know she doesn’t have much time left. She’s not going to get married. She isn’t going to have a big ceremony or go on a honeymoon or raise a child. If you’ve promised her all that, you’re being cruel.”
“She knows there won’t be a wedding,” I said. “We both do. I’m just… I’m here to bring her a little happiness before she goes.”
“Do you love her?” she asked sharply.
The question startled me. It hung in the air, like a delicate soap bubble that would pop at the wrong answer. But footsteps sounded out from the hallway before I could speak.
Marigold appeared in the threshold, wiping her hands, her cheeks gaunt and blotchy. She wobbled a bit in the doorway. “I’m sorry, I think we’d better go,” she said to her mother. “It’s late, and you must be tired, and we really should have waited to tell you all this anyway –”
“No, stay,” her mother said. She picked up her teacup and cradled it in her hands. “Spend the night. You two can sleep in the guest room. I’ll make a nice big breakfast in the morning and we can celebrate properly.”
I got up and helped steady Marigold in the doorway. Up close, I could see the tiniest beads of sweat freckling her neck and forehead, and feel the clamminess of her palms against mine. She wouldn’t look at me directly. I turned to face her mother, seeing her taut cheeks slacken, her shrewd eyes softening.
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s very kind of you, um…”
“Shelly,” she said. “If you’re going to be my daughter-in-law, you might as well call me Shelly.”
Marigold squeezed my hand, leaving her mother with a faint smile, and led me down the side hall. She didn’t speak as we climbed the winding stairs to the second-floor landing, but when we were fully alone, safe in the empty guest room, she sank onto the bed and began to cry. I took a seat beside her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her breath heaving. “I’m a fucking mess and I shouldn’t have dragged you into this. I shouldn’t have even come to your place. This isn’t fair to you at all.”
“Hey,” I said, kneading her shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. This was my idea, remember? I’m glad I’m spending this time with you. I just want you to be happy.”
She glanced at me. Her eyes were bleary and a deep red around the edges, like she’d developed an infection there.
“How do you do it?” she asked. “All these people who come to you… you’re probably the last person they ever touch, ever get close to. You let them in and then you just let them go. How do you live with that?”
I held her face in my hands, brushing a loose strand of her thinning hair with my thumb. Tears streaked her face, and I leaned in to kiss each one, lips gentle on her frail skin. She let out a little sigh when I pulled away.
“Death is small,” I said. “It’s just a moment. We can’t be so afraid of it that we miss all the other moments along the way.”
This time she was the one to kiss me. Her hands were hot, feverish, and she clutched at me like she was afraid I’d disappear if she lost her grip. She fell backwards onto the bed, pulling me with her. I kissed her back, slipping out of my shirt, kicking my heels onto the floor, and she did the same. The sunburst grew in patches across her bare chest and arms. One sore had crawled across her left breast: a small bump of a thing, barely even there.
She held me with what little strength she had; her touch was tender, careful. Her kisses tasted vaguely of copper, like she’d bitten her tongue. I moved down her body and caressed her skin where the sunburst hadn’t reached yet. She trembled when I reached between her legs, and I trembled too, like she was touching me in the same way.
We fucked first, hot and lustful, and then fucking turned to making love, and then we were just holding each other, breathing on each other’s necks, heartbeats thumping a fraction out of sync. I wanted to hold her forever. I wanted to wipe her sores away, and kiss her until our lips went numb, and stay up all night exploring the contours of her body: saying I love you without the words.
The feel of something slick and wet on my hands woke me. I opened my eyes to the moonlit bedroom, cool breeze tickling my skin through the open window, and lifted my hands into the light. They were streaked with blood, fresh and damp. I sat up in bed and stared at the red stains on my palms. Then I looked over at Marigold.
She lay facing the bedroom door, the covers rumpled around her waist, leaving her back exposed. The sores along her spine had burst in her sleep, drenching the sheets in blood and pus. I placed a hesitant hand on her hip.
“Marigold?” I whispered.
I couldn’t bring myself to roll her over. The slope of her shoulders was so relaxed and gentle, she might have been sleeping. I leaned forward to stroke her hair and saw a dribble of blood on the sheets near her open mouth. Her eyes were closed. I let her go, leaving a handprint as red as a crime scene on her waist.
I retreated to the bathroom to wash my shaky hands. Little rivulets swirled down the drain with each scrub. The face in the mirror looked like a different woman, and maybe she was. I wiped my hands on the towel beside the sink. Then I returned to the bedroom and pulled on my clothes.
I could hear movement from downstairs: a chair scraping, floorboards creaking, tea pouring into an empty cup. The rituals of the sleepless. I could have gone down there, told Shelly the truth, held her like I’d held so many who suffered. I could have kept her house from being empty again. I could have done so many things that I didn’t do. In the end, I guess I was tired of acting.
The trellis was sturdy, and it held my weight. I inched my way out the open window and climbed down like a teenager in some cliché romance. With a foot to go, I let myself fall, my heels wobbling in the loose dirt of Shelly’s garden. The kitchen light was on, but the curtains were drawn and the window was firmly shut.
I knelt down in the flowerbeds, running my fingers along a set of sunset-orange petals, almost buried in the sea of color. The flowers were small, barely blossomed, but they were alive all the same. I scooped one of them up in a handful of dirt, making sure to keep its roots intact. I’d find it a nice pot when I got home, and a place on the porch where the speck of orange could be seen from the street, and you could bloom there a bit longer: my little flower, my Marigold. My house is yours too.
© 2022 David Farrow