You see, Wendla’s lived in the south her entire life. She’s used to the humid summer mornings and hundred-degree afternoons by now. In fact, ever since her boss got the storefront renovated so it’s one hundred percent window, she’s gotten even more used to the sun glaring down and making her life a living hell for four months out of the year.
But, as she’s ever so often reminded, Wendla probably won’t ever grow accustomed to how cute girls are in the summer. The customer who just walked in, for example, with should-be-annoying Lennon-frame sunglasses and faded jean shorts is doing a great job reminding her. They linger in front of the door warily, seeming startled by the sound of the bell before shaking it out of their mind. They wear their hair short, cut unevenly but close to the skull in an endearingly self-made manner. Tanned from the summer sun, with dark freckles spattered across their bare shoulders, they look like an absolute vision from a southern postcard.
Wendla is so glad that her job provides health insurance, because her jaw is probably broken from where it hit the floor a minute ago. The customer is tall and handsome, tying up Wendla’s organs in knots when she-- well, they for now-- has to hunch down to check the prices on a display of Tulips by the window. Their smock is loose enough that when they lean down, it brushes the edge of the wooden display. Wendla takes a moment to forget that she works there, just nervously examining the stranger’s actions as she feels a flush work up her neck.
“Hey, you work here, right?” Wendla is spiritually obligated to answer any question this cute girl asks her.
“Yes.” She says intensely. When the stranger’s beautiful, gorgeous, honey golden and whiskey brown and ‘only color Wendla ever wants to see again’ eyes widen, she backtracks. “I- I mean yeah! Yes, resident florist at your service, miss. How can I help?”
The customer looks confused, but smiles all the same, gesturing over to the tulip arrangement casually.
“I have a friend whose anniversary is coming up, and I wanted to get them flowers, but I’m not sure what to choose,” The stranger’s voice is so nice, so warm and genuine, that Wendla almost forgets that actual words are being said and she’s supposed to answer them. Luckily, it’s a question she actually knows how to answer.
“Well, firstly,” She starts off hesitantly, only used to customers asking for her advice in an offhand manner, “You wouldn’t want to get tulips for an anniversary gift. They’re more of a love declaration than a, uh, ‘congrats!’ sort of thing.” They nod in understanding, grinning a bit as they move to lean against the stand. Their expression is open, easygoing, with no hint of malice or dishonesty. Wendla beams. It’s not often someone asks for her opinion and seems genuinely interested.
“Me? I’d say…” Wendla pauses, working out the steps in her mind. “Well, for a bouquet, myrtle might seem like an odd choice, but it actually sends a message of good luck in a marriage! We keep crepe myrtle around here for adornment, I think. That, paired with, ah…” Wendla looks around the shop until she spots what she’s looking for. “Amaryllis. They look good together and smell wonderful.” Turning back to peek at the customer, Wendla notices the stranger stares blankly at her. Immediately, she backtracks.
“Sorry, I know I ramble, I’ll just, uh, pull up a batch of peonies and-”
“No!” The stranger says forcefully, waving their hands a bit frantically. Wendla jumps, shocked- and they seem shocked, too, at the force of their reaction. “I mean, no, I like it. I trust your opinion more than my own, I mean.” They look flustered.
Wendla’s heart is never going to reach a normal BPM again. “Thank you, that means a lot.” She says genuinely, drenching the words in feeling. “I’ll um… get that put together for you then.” The stranger just nods, clearly not over the embarrassment of their outburst before. Wendla tries to hide her grin as she walks away behind the counter.
It was only by virtue of luck and a lifetime of good karma that Wendla ended up working behind the counter during the summer and not picking tomatoes like the other teenagers in her tiny, tiny town. Since before she could remember she had loved flowers. As a toddler, she would press her tiny hands against the pages of field guides and taxonomy books just to look at the vibrant colors, not caring for the complicated words until she was older. Then, the flowers became an escape-- murmuring scientific names under her breath to keep her nerves at bay, spending hours and hours in her tiny little garden when being out with friends was all too much, taking out her rage with weeding when all she wanted to do was punch through the wall. The quaint little flower shop with its working AC was a blessing to work for, even if the boss could only pay her in minimum wage and free snacks. It was a home away from home.
Stocking the Lagerstroemia into the same paper wrapper as the Hippeastrum was therapeutic, even as Wendla could feel the stranger’s eyes boring into her back. The comfort of the florist's and its corny, peeling wallpaper soothed her as it always had, giving her the strength to motion the customer over when she was done.
“Is it-- do you like it?” She asks, nervous to hand over the bundle in her arms as if it were her newborn child.
“I think it’s beautiful,” The stranger says reverently, eyes not leaving Wendla’s face as they speak. Wendla swallows nervously, shifting her feet behind the counter as the stranger seems to be at a loss for words.
“That’ll be all?” She asks, trying to maneuver around the sudden obstacle in the conversation. The customer nods slowly, as if coming out of a trance.
“Yes. No. Actually, um.” They clasp their hands together behind their head, dragging them down their neck nervously. Wendla takes a moment to appreciate the soft curve of their neck before looking up to meet their eyes, a little too hopeful.
“Yes?” She finds herself flush against the counter, almost unintentionally pulled in by the stranger’s sudden gravity.
“Do you…what’s your name?” The stranger asks awkwardly, tongue stumbling over their obvious switch in sentence halfway through. Wendla tries not to look too disappointed.
“I’m Wendla. Wendla Bergmann?” Her voice unintentionally lilts up at the end, questioning whether or not this stranger could find fault with her name. Girls make her ridiculous.
“Wendla.” The stranger tries out, name sounding odd without the drawling vowels and lazy tone the people in her town have. “Do you go by Wendy?” They ask pleasantly. Wendla squares her shoulders slightly, meeting their eyes confidently.
“Nope. It’s just Wendla round here.” She says boldly. The stranger smiles bright enough to put the sun to shame.
“Good. Wendla suits you.” The stranger says, and Wendla can feel her heart swell up and push all her other organs to the pit of her stomach at their satisfied tone. They stick out a hand to shake, ignoring that Wendla’s still carrying the bouquet in one arm. “I’m Ilse.”
Ilse. Ilse. It sounds like something from a folktale, the kind of stories full of faeries and tricksters and all sorts of things her mother would tell her about. Wendla thinks it suits the stranger, with their washed out look and close cropped hair. She takes her hand, shaking it slowly before just letting their hands rest over the counter. The stranger laughs, nervously, before pulling back gently.
“Do you-- uh, I hope I’m not being creepy, but where--” Isle fumbles, twisting her fingers together.
“Right down the street, closer to city hall. Where all those old balconied buildings are?” Wendla interrupts as kindly as possible, already able to tell that Ilse has a problem with her point running away from them. Ilse’s expression falters for only a moment before perking right back up, but Wendla still catches it, feeling dismay wash over her and set her skin on fire with embarrassment. She clearly hadn’t wanted to know where she lived-- she was just going to ask for directions someplace, or maybe Ilse had been hoping that she wasn’t a local, wasn’t actually from this hick town playing at being worldly--
“Good! I mean, that’s good. Chill.” Ilse says brightly, cutting off Wendla’s mental tirade. “I’m only in town for the week, but maybe I could, uh, stop by or something? If I needed a local’s help navigating?”
Wendla decides not to tell her that the entire town is made up of a trailer park, a tomato farm, and a highway-- instead she nods, slowly but gaining momentum as she thrusts the bouquet towards Ilse just to hide her smile.
“Yes! That’d be-- I’d love to help! Here, let me--” Wendla scrambles around for a pen, ducking beneath the counter. Finding one (bright green, stopped up), she whips her head up, dark curls flying into her face in her haste. “Let me ring you up, so I can write our number on the receipt… It’d be best to call ahead.”
Ilse’s smile could melt chocolate. “Yeah, yeah of course, yeah,” She only roots around in her wallet for a second before shoving crumpled bills onto the counter. Ilse struggles with the bundle as Wendla rings her up, writing her landline on the back of the receipt in cramped, blocky handwriting.
“Here you go,” She says, suddenly nervous that their time together is about to end. It seems almost unreal, with the afternoon sun lighting up the dusty shop in a yellow glow. Half of Ilse’s face is illuminated by the huge glass windows of the storefront, while the rest is in shadow. It feels as if either of them make a move to leave, some sort of spell will be broken, or the sun will simply sink down until Wendla’s world is back to its usual swatches of grey. She wonders, for a minute, if Ilse feels the same-- if this girl in her oversized clothes and bad haircut fears going back to a world where every day is just more of the same with no end-- before correcting herself. Ilse is from out of town, and wears colored sunglasses, and has patches on her bags that speak of festivals and pride and opinions. A girl like that has a life to look forward too, not to put up with.
“Thats-- um, your change.” She says to fill the silence. Her words sound lame and empty to her own ears.
“Thanks, yeah…” Ilse says. For the first time, Wendla sees her face fall, lacking the roundness of her constant smile. Her sharp cheekbones are more pronounced without the joy in her expression, and she only allows her eyes a moment to trace them down to the sharp contour of her jaw. Looking back up to meet Ilse’s eyes, time slips down the drain for a second in her unwillingness to let this stranger, this hope for something more, out of her sight. “Well, I’ll call you tomo--”
Then the storebell rings.
They both jump a foot in the air, Ilse stiffening and pulling her sunglasses down from their perch to cover her eyes. Wendla pries herself off the ceiling to wave numbly at Father Wheelan, trying to hide the sudden lump in her throat as she sees Ilse push her way out of the store. Father Wheelan says something to her in greeting, probably, but all Wendla can see is the speedy, but soft smile Ilse spares her before she leaves, lingering at the doorframe.
Wendla feels her throat clog up as Different walks right out of her grasp.
“Wendla, girly, did you hear me? Who was that?” Father Wheelan’s voice is wet and gross from years of chewing tobacco wrecking his gums and throat beyond repair. His square jaw is clenched, now, mouth set in a firm line as he waits for her to dutifully respond.
“Just someone passin’ through, Father.” She says, voice blank. Father Wheelan grumbles, fist clenching and unclenching around his cross necklace. Wagging his finger at her like in one of his sermons he looks at her seriously.
“I hate the types who pass through here from the city. Don’t understand a lick of what we do for ‘em and like to make fun of the way we live. Out here. Wendla, listen to me wholly, here: the type of flavor out of towners bring in shouldn’t get you hung up. You don’t know what kind of new sins they have far from here.”
Wendla nods, smiling blankly at Father Wheelan even as she feels her skin split open and her insides return to the ground. Lagerstroemia. Hippeastrum. “Thank you, Father Wheelan, I miss your advice since my mama stopped visitin’. Now, is it Tulips for your daughter again?”