When Veronica was about five or six, her father started letting her help in the garden. He taught her how to take care of the flowers and other plants; how much water they needed, how to pull up the weeds, the best ways to keep birds from eating the seeds before they could sprout.
The most useful thing she learned, however, was how to prune the bushes. He taught her the proper way to trim back the overgrown parts and remove the bits that had died.
She ended up using that knowledge often in later years.
First it had been Heather Duke, reading to Martha on a bench during recess. Veronica hid behind the old oak tree they were seated under and listened as Duke spoke, enunciating clearly as she’d likely been taught when she started reading. Veronica had felt a tickle at the back of her throat, and ran off before she could erupt into a coughing fit that would no doubt alert them to her eavesdropping. She found a quiet place in the bushes to hide and coughed until she could hardly catch her breath.
The vines curled at the ends, the bright purple of the morning glories beautiful in the dappled sunlight.
Veronica began to panic. She didn’t know what was happening, only that it wasn’t good. Her nails dug into the vines, tearing at them in an attempt to remove the sudden growth as tears built in the corners of her eyes. Pulling at them hurt, so instead she scratched and gnawed at them until the long vines fell to the ground, the severed ends at the back of her throat receding slowly until she could breathe again.
She stood on shaking legs and wandered over to the teacher, told her she wasn’t feeling well, and less than half an hour later, her mother arrived to take her home.
“Are you alright, sweetheart?” her mother had asked once they got home, “You can tell me if something’s bothering you.”
Veronica looked down at her hands and winced. There was still green under her nails.
“I saw something scary.”
“What was it?”
“Flowers,” she muttered, suddenly feeling silly.
Her mother frowned in confusion. “What kind of flowers, honey?”
“Morning glories, I think.” Her hands clenched into fists at the memory. “I started coughing, and then they came out of my mouth. I didn’t have anything to cut them with, so I used my hands.”
Mrs. Sawyer froze, then quickly gathered Veronica up in her arms, holding her tightly. “Oh sweetheart.”
Veronica’s bottom lip trembled. She wanted to cry. “I dunno why it happened. I saw this girl on the playground, and they just…” She bit her lip as fat tears rolled down her cheeks.
Her mother shushed her. “It’s okay, sweetie. As long as you don’t think about it, it won’t happen again.”
Her mother nodded, a sad look in her eye that Veronica couldn’t name, and they sat there until her dad got home.
She’d learned what was happening to her later that afternoon.
“It’s called Hanahaki Disease,” her dad said, “It causes flowers to grow whenever you think about whoever caused them to appear.”
Veronica whimpered, fearful of more flowers coming up.
“It’ll be okay,” he said, “It was just morning glories, right? The vines are thin, so it would take a lot of them to be dangerous. You can manage that.”
“Isn’t there a way to make them go away?” Veronica whined.
“There is,” her mom said, “But it’s dangerous, and it might not work all the way.”
“But,” her dad said, “You can manage it. From what you told us, it sounds like if you trim them back they’ll go away for a while.”
Her mother frowned. “You can’t just expect her to carry pruning shears everywhere.”
Veronica grimaced. “Why’s this even happening?”
Her parents shared a look, before her dad cleared his throat. “It happens when you find your soulmate and they don’t feel the same way you do.”
Veronica blinked. “What’s that mean?”
“It means,” her father sighed, “It means that you’re in love with someone who doesn’t love you back.”
“Yet,” her mother said, “They don’t love you yet. They might, if you wait a while. Sometimes it just takes a bit of time.”
Veronica nodded, hearing every word, but not quite absorbing it.
Her soulmate didn’t love her.
Was there something wrong with her?
Wordlessly, she slipped off the couch and went upstairs to her room, closing the door quietly behind her, and climbed into bed. She later found herself dreaming of old oak trees and books and a girl with dark hair and pretty green eyes and woke up to more morning glories.
She didn’t go to school that day.
In the years that followed, Veronica learned to manage her condition. She’d tried carrying pruning shears with her at first, like her mother had said, but hadn’t been allowed to leave the house with them in her pocket, so she settled for scissors. Whenever she felt the tickle of vines at the back of her throat, she’d use them to trim back the growing plants and shuddered every time as they retreated back down.
As she grew, the instances that she needed her scissors became fewer and farther between, yet she still kept them tucked safely in her pocket.
Even now, as the Heathers stood around her, appraising her, she kept her hand wrapped around them in case she felt the flowers coming up again, fully prepared to dash out of the bathroom should Duke’s piercing green eyes send her into a coughing fit.
Duke sneered up at her. “Of course, you could stand to lose a few pounds.”
Veronica winced at the venom in Duke's voice, the reality of her situation sending a pang of sadness through her heart. Heather didn’t love her. She might never love her.
She breathed in deeply and tried not to think as they talked amongst themselves.
After all, it was for the best if she wanted to avoid having to explain herself as the vines spilled from her throat.