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in bloom

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He remembers once as a little boy he brought his momma a bouquet of wildflowers. She'd loved it, had cradled him to her chest and wept tears he could not understand. My sweet little boy, she'd called him, kissing his wispy hair.

 

They'd put them in one of the few vases they owned. Chipped and stained. But on the cluttered kitchen table it had almost looked pretty.

 

Until his father came home as the sun began to set. Shouting. Grabbing the vase and smashing it into the wall. The flowers lay torn on the grown, soaked, scattered amongst shards of porcelain.

 

That night, his momma screamed so loud that he hid under his bed, hands pressed against his ears, crying himself into a restless sleep.

 

 

 

After that, he never brought her flowers again. Didn't have the chance when she burned down to ashes a month later, leaving him behind.

 

Merle left the year after that to join the army.

 

And then it was just him and his father. All alone.

 

Until years later when school was done and finally he was free to be the one to leave this shithole of a town behind. He never looked back. Never returned.

 

Until now.

 

 

 

The house he's renting is quiet, sparsely furnished. A bit of a fixer upper but much larger than his tiny one bedroom apartment in the city.

 

A run-down porch, a small backyard that leads into the thick forest beyond. Creaky stairs and chipping paint. The closest neighbor is a mile away, nobody here to keep him company. Nobody to bother him.

 

It's peaceful in a way the city never was. Never could be.

 

But where the silence of his loneliness used to be filled with the sounds of cars and sirens and people, it's now deafening. Leaving too much room for his thoughts to wander.

 

 

 

He's been back here a week, but it feels like a lifetime already.

 

The old man is long dead. The shed he grew up in torn down. There's nowhere left for him to go to put old demons to rest.

 

No place except one. A place he hasn't seen in over twenty years.

 


 

Maybe he should have just gone to the damn garden center. But the parking lot had been bursting with cars, and he needed to head downtown anyway. The first flower shop he came across had been closed due to a family emergency, and that's how he finds himself here. In a tiny shop tucked away in an alley.

 

It's small and cozy in here. Brick walls covered in slowly fading white paint, worn wooden shelves lined up, filled with potted plants and flower arrangement. It smells like earth, damp and familiar, a hint of coffee mixed with it – there's a chalkboard sign telling him he can buy that here, too.

 

A little bell rings when he enters, the wooden floorboards creaking. He doesn't spot anyone inside and so he walks over the the far wall where old barrels are filled with all sorts of flowers, waiting to be turned into a bouquet.

 

Can I help you?

 

He startles at the sound of a friendly voice behind him, his heart skipping a beat. He turns, scolding himself for acting like a complete freak. It's just the woman who works here. Tall, slender, silver hair that's cropped short.

 

Eh- 'm fine, he stutters, clearing his throat. Thanks. He's quick to dismiss her offer to help, partially because he just wants to be left alone and partly because he doesn't want to bother her. This might be her job, but still. He doesn't want to burden her.

 

Her polite smile turns into something different. A half-smirk, playful almost. You look a little lost, she says, tilting her head and he can't help but huff out something akin to a laugh at that.

 

Yeah, guess I am, he shrugs in defeat, eying the wide array of flowers without having even the slightest clue what would be appropriate.

 

The woman takes a step closer to him, wiping her hands on her dark gray apron. What are you looking for? she asks, sounding cheerful and motivated. He assumes that's good, makes people buy more stuff. But it's intriguing and he finds himself taking in her profile for a moment too long. Sharp cheekbones and freckles dusting her pale skin. Pale blue eyes. Small pearls adorning her ears.

 

Flowers, he mutters in response, only half paying attention.

 

She turns to look at him, raising her brows. Really? she asks dramatically, propping her hands against her hips. Hmm... Not sure we're selling those.

 

He lifts his hand up to his forehead in embarrassment, looking down at his dirt-crusted boots. Stop.

 

She does, but when he looks up again, her smile hasn't faded. Who are they for?

 

My mother, he replies a little too quickly.

 

Oh, that's sweet of you. She looks genuinely pleased to hear it. Do you know if there are any she prefers?

 

All he can do is shrug. There weren't an awful lot of things his momma liked other than wine and cigarettes. Maybe when she was younger she knew how to enjoy other things. But he never got to meet that woman.

 

Well, let's go with something safe then, the woman sighs, a hint of frustration mingling with amusement at his lack of knowledge. He's probably not the first guy to wander in here with nothing to offer but question marks in their eyes. She takes a few seconds to look over the flowers, brows creased in concentration before pointing at a barrel full of flowers bursting with petals. They look like blown up roses, he thinks. How about these? They're simple, most people like them. Do you know her favorite color?

 

Don't think she had- he starts, but once he realizes his choice of word he stops. He doesn’t need to bother her with his sad story about his dead mother. She ain't got one, he replies instead. Hopefully quick enough for her not to notice, but there's a flicker of doubt on her face for just a bare second.

 

Well, then, she sighs. How about pink? I could add some greens. A few daisies. She sounds enthusiastic, almost like she can already picture it coming together in her head and it's the most intriguing thing. How does that sound?

 

He couldn't picture it even if he tried, has a moment of doubt that she's going to pick a bunch of daisies from the park outside like the girls used to do in school. But this is her job, so he should probably trust her. Good, I guess, he says, trying not to sound like a complete asshole.

 

She nods happily, grabbing a few flowers and he quickly learns that daisies come in different sizes and these are not the ones kids make flower crowns out of. He follows her a few steps over to a well-worn work bench, watching as she assembles the bouquet with practiced ease.

 

It does look pretty when it's done. Colorful. Joyful. All things his mother never was.

 

Thanks, he mutters when she turns back to him, wearing that polite smile again.

 

No worries, she assures him, wrapping the bouquet in some brown paper and heading over to the till. They cost a damn fortune but he doesn’t say a word, pays mostly with loose change because his wallet is about to fall apart from the weight of it all.

 

There you go, she says then, holding out the bouquet. He reaches for it, his fingers briefly brushing against hers as he does. They both freeze for a moment, their eyes meeting. His heart skips a beat in his chest but then she quickly pulls her hand away. Have a nice day.

 


 

His mother's grave is hidden away at the very back of the graveyard underneath an ancient willow. The stone is covered in moss and dirt, the name and dates beginning to fade. He ground is covered in fallen leafs, dried grass and woven undergrowth.

 

It hurts to see it like this.

 

She deserves more.

 

Putting down the bouquet, Daryl kneels on the dry ground. Tries to remember the sound of his mother's voice. The touch of her hand. But all those things have faded from his memory over the years. She's just a phantom now. Kept alive by a few random, meaningless and vague memories he has left of her.

 

Still, he makes a silent promise to take better care of her grave. To come back and tend to it.

 

In the breeze that rustles through the tree above, he can almost hear her voice.

 

My sweet little boy.

 


 

He did not plan to come back here. But it's just a little over a week later that he passes the small shop again. Pots of flowers put up in front of the door, fairy lights shimmering in the large window.

 

The bells rings when he steps inside, the smell he enjoyed so much last time filling his lungs. Hello, a familiar voice greets him, and the woman with the silver hair rounds the counter, smiling at him. Did she like the flowers?

 

Huh? he asks, confused about the question. Still lingering in the doorway he takes a step inside, careful not to knock over a small display of garden globes that are lined up against the wall.

 

Your mother, the woman explains, leaning her hip against the counter and crossing her arms in front of her chest. Did she like them?

 

She must be confusing him with someone else. There's just no way she'd still know who he is.

 

Ya remember that? he asks, hating that he sounds so damn surprised by it.

 

She nods, just a slight tilt of her head. I have a good memory, she explains, but there's something else lingering behind her smile. Something he can't quite put a finger on. So, did she?

 

He sighs, feeling like an ass for lying about this in the first place. Slowly, he takes a few steps towards her, letting his eyes roam over an old bench that's loaded with tiny succulents. Or at least he thinks that's what they're called. She- She would've. I guess. He stops, looks up at her. She's- eh. She's dead, he explains, tongue dry, and he instantly regrets saying it when the woman's eyes widen and she presses her fingers to her mouth.

 

Oh my God, I am so sorry, I didn't know-

 

's all right, he interrupts her. Last thing he wanted was to make her feel like shit. Been dead since I was a kid. He says it matter-of-factly like that somehow makes things better. It does, in its own sick way. The grief he feels isn't fresh anymore.

 

Still, the woman looks like she just stepped on his toes and slapped him in the face. Oh. So the flowers were-

 

For her grave, he finishes for her with a stiff nod. He's starting to feel nervous, like a deer in the fucking headlights with her staring at him like this and this part of his own sad story presented like he's on stage performing some goddamned tragedy. Restlessly, his fingers drum against his thighs.

 

Really, I'm so sorry, the woman repeats, sounding genuinely concerned that she hurt him or was insensitive. He recoils at the thought of her breaking a sweat over him like this.

 

Y'ain't gotta be, he assures her, dismissively waving his hand before burying both of them in his pockets. Couldn't have known. Was gonna buy some more flowers.

 

She somehow seems relieved to hear that, almost like she was scared he'd run off and never come back. It's a valid fear considering him and he knows that, nearly laughs at how accurate it is. But then she smiles, a little softer and a little gentler than before. All right. We can do that. She doesn't move over towards the flowers, though. Instead, she points up to the chalkboard on the wall. Would you like some coffee?

 

The scent of it is mouthwatering but his stomach still clenches nervously and so he shakes his head. Thanks.

 


 

Have a nice day. Her voice sounds bright and polite when he steps into the shop, the little bell greeting him. A man passes him, wearing a plaid shirt and holding a bouquet of red roses. He keeps his head down on the way out.

 

Daryl wipes some sweat off his forehead. It's a damn hot day, hotter than usual, and he feels like his shirt is glued to his back. It's pleasantly cool in here, though, and the change in temperature is a blessing.

 

He forgets all about that though when he sees her. Holding a few red roses, she looks up. He's probably imagining shit but he could bet her face lights up a little when she recognizes him. Hey, she greets, and he has a feeling she's usually more formal with customers.

 

Hey, he mutters, feeling his cheeks warm up a little and he looks away from her, staring at the wall behind her instead.

 

Back for more? she asks and his eyes widen. He nearly splutters but she catches on quickly. Flowers, she clarifies, a glint in her eyes that makes him shudder. Back for more flowers?

 

He clears his throat, wonders why on Earth he's too much of an idiot to just talk to her without fumbling and stumbling. It's really no wonder he hasn't gotten laid in over a decade. Not that he's thinking about her like that. He's not. At least, he's telling himself not to. Yeah. He keeps his answer short, afraid of making even more of a fool of himself.

 

She crosses her arms in front of her chest, let's that sweet smile linger as she tilts her head. Let me guess. My choice?

 

Probably better, he mutters. If he starts choosing, it's probably going to end up being a mess. She has an eye for this. Knows which colors and shapes work together. Can create something beautiful from scratch and watching her do it is soothing and mesmerizing. Maybe she's the reason he's back here again. Not the flowers.

 

Probably, she chuckles. Putting the roses away, she starts to ghost her hands over some of the other flowers. She picks up a few pale pink ones and a couple of white ones, holding them up against each other. When she speaks again, it catches him off guard. Are you new in town? she asks, looking over her shoulder. There's so much curiosity in her gaze that he doesn't instantly reply, forcing her to keep talking. I've never seen you around before.

 

Sort of, he answers, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Grew up here. Moved away after high school, he explains, words sharp and quick.

 

Pleased with her choices, she makes her way over to the work bench. What made you come back?

 

It's a pretty personal question, he thinks. Not one he'd usually answer. But her voice works like a spell and he's talking before he can stop himself. Work. 'm a mechanic, he explains when her lips part and he's sure she's about to ask him what he does for a living. Took over the shop down on Quarry Lane.

 

Her forehead creases for a moment in deep thought as she arranges the flowers. Mr. Horvath's shop?

 

He nods, taking a few steps closer because it seems ridiculous to have this conversation with half the shop between them. I went there a few times, she tells him, adding a few leaf-like things to his bouquet. I was so sorry when I heard about his wife. Do you know each other?

 

Dale's wife Irma had passed away from cancer earlier this year. She'd been a kind, warm woman. Always wearing a smile. Caring for others so purely.

 

Used to work there after school, Daryl explains. He has fond memories of his time spent at the shop – some of the only good memories he has of growing up here. During summers. That sorta thing. Dale had given him the opportunity to learn in his shop, to help out where he could and gather as much knowledge as possible. He'd spent every afternoon there, every day during the summer.

 

It's thanks to Dale he decided to become a mechanic. To pass up Merle's offer to come and live with him. In many ways, he's pretty sure he owes Dale his life. So, when he'd called and asked if he'd be interested to take over the shop, he couldn't decline. Even if it meant coming back here.

 

The woman pulls him out of his thoughts when she's suddenly standing right in front of him, her blue eyes looking up at him. Sparkling like the first peak of blue sky between the clouds. Here, she says, holding out the bouquet for him.

 

Pretty, he murmurs, and he realizes his mistake immediately when her eyes widen a little and her pink lips part in surprise. He's an idiot. Staring at her like an absolute freak. The flowers, he quickly clarifies, but somehow that only makes him sound like more of a jerk. I mean- ya pretty, too. Shit. He ducks his head, having half the mind to just dump the damn flowers and get out of here. Forget it.

 

She surprises him then. Thank you, she says in a soft voice, almost fragile, and he watches her as she heads to the till. For some reason, she doesn't seem to be put off at all.

 

Coffee today? she asks as he pulls out his wallet, a hopeful smile on her face.

 

Nah, thanks, he declines. Part of him is tempted to accept her offer if only to spend a few more minutes here. But the larger part feels humiliated enough for one day and is eager to get out of here.

 

She frowns a little, but it barely lasts a second.

 

Here. He hands her the money and waits for his change, taking a second to smell the flowers. Sweet and breezy. A perfect contrast to this hot day.

 

When he has stuffed his wallet back into his back pocket he offers her an awkward not, quickly turning around to head back out into the heat.

 

Hey! she calls when he's just about to open the door, his hand hovering over the brass knob. He turns to look at her, seeing a ray of sunlight falling in through the slanted windows behind the counter. Dust dances in the light like shimmering stars and it falls on her pale face, making her skin glow. I'm Carol.

 

It takes him a moment to process what she said. He doesn't understand why she'd tell him that. But he cherishes the knowledge all the same. Carol. It suits her.

 

Daryl, he tells her, suddenly wishing he had a more exciting name. Anything to make him more interesting than he really is.

 

But Carol smiles all the same, and he catches it again, that miniscule moment where her face seems to light up. Have a nice day, Daryl.