The rest of the week passed with discussions on my mental health and the theory that the anaesthetic from the dentist had hallucinogenic qualities, making flowers visible to me on that Tuesday morning that weren’t there at all. Nathan loved the idea that the road leading in and out of Suddich was a trigger in my brain for the continued vision I’d thought I’d seen. Your brain sees what you want to see, he’d told me, and mine was hung up on the flowers. He and Otter went from being terrified to amused at the situation, though nothing about it was funny.
Every day, driving to and from school, the tormentors would wave from their stems, safe in their apparent patch of non-existence. By Sunday night though, I was feeling a whole lot calmer about the whole thing. Out of sight, out of mind.
After school on Monday, car all mine for once with a bag packed for Dad’s in the boot, I set off to my second home. I pulled onto our drive in Willow Street, Suddich, to find Angela’s little white Fiat outside. I was not alone. I caught Grace’s eye from her bedroom window as I heaved my bag out the car. She gave a quick wave and disappeared again.
I took a deep breath before I opened the door. There Grace was, standing on the bottom step of the stairs, beaming at me, her front left tooth missing. There was a pink hair clip half way down her tidy chestnut brown waves and I went to take it out. As I did so, she gazed right through me with those huge jade eyes of hers, though her fringe had almost grown into them. I had no idea where she picked it up, but when Grace Angel looked at you, it felt like she absorbed all your secrets.
She did her standard cute blush and smile as I handed her the clip back. “Thanks,” she said, her voice always too sweet and soft. “I thought I’d lost that.”
“You didn’t look very far did you?” I poked her little snub, slightly turned up nose, a smaller replica of Angela’s.
“I stood up and shook out my t-shirt and looked under my rug and everything.”
I dropped my bag to the floor with a huff. “And you probably put your hand on your head as you wondered where it was and it was under your hand. Oh, Gracie, what are we going to do with you?”
She laughed and threw her arms around my waist. It took me a moment to respond and I stroked her soft hair.
“Did you have fun at your mum’s?” she asked as she did every other Monday. I supposed it was a hard concept for her to grasp having seen very little of the world.
“Yes, thank you.”
“I missed you. I wanted to tell you about our tadpoles.”
“You can tell me now.” I picked up my bag again and lugged it up the stairs and into my pale grey room, Grace following at my heels.
“They have their legs now. You know they grow their legs and then their arms?”
I nodded my head as I threw my bag down next to my desk and began rooting around for my slippers.
“People aren’t like that are they?”
“No.” I pulled my slippers on and started emptying the contents of my bag. “Humans grow their arms and legs before they’re born and at the same time as far as I know. Can you image how weird it would be if one day your baby sprouted legs?”
She giggled. “That’d be really creepy.”
Grace continued to chatter away to me about school and her friends while I unpacked and went downstairs to greet Angela.
The entire house was spotless and had been since the day we finished unpacking. Since then, most of the furniture was new and matching. I walked through the dining room and found Angela in the kitchen, scowling at something on her phone. The kitchen was all black and grey. Grey marble worktops with black appliances. Anything that could fit in a cupboard was in a cupboard, leaving the surfaces free.
I glanced up at the grey photo clock as I sat myself at the breakfast bar. It had just gone half past Dad and Angela’s engagement photo. Dad would be home in an hour at half past baby Grace. I had no idea what possessed Angela to get this clock while her daughter was still learning to tell the time. Grace was struggling enough without throwing in holiday past birthday, Christmas to wedding, and Grace past Grace. It had no numbers on it at all and was as helpful to Grace as a regular cluster of photos.
Angela put her phone on the worktop and looked at me at last, smiling her tight-lipped smile. I was still, after twelve years of knowing her, unsure how much she liked me. But I supposed she must’ve been wondering the same about me.
Angela’s buttery ash blonde hair, slim hourglass figure, and round jade eyes made everyone believe she was beautiful without a second glance. Of course, those people didn’t know she straightened her hair everyday to get the perfect look, ate like a bird to keep her weight and figure, and knew how to do her makeup in such a way that meant you couldn’t help but notice those eyes. That and the eyelash extensions.
However, the closer you got to Angela, the more you realised that nobody’s perfect. She had an unfortunate oblong face that had blessed her with one of the hugest foreheads I’d ever seen. Though her lips were shaped in that glamorous way that celebrities’ were, they seemed too small and thin for her face. Her warm honey skin was dry and she spent more money on moisturiser than anyone I knew. Though never confirmed in so many words, I worried time after time that she was underweight.
“Hi,” Angela greeted me before searching in the fridge for something.
“Mum,” Grace spoke before I could. “Abia knew about the tadpole legs.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me? Your big sister knows everything, Gracie.”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head.
“She might even be able to help you with your reading later.”
Grace crossed her arms. “I don’t want to read the school’s book. I want to read my fairy book. I can read, Mum.”
She chuckled. “I know.” She passed me a glass of lemonade I never asked for. “You know that old book I got from the library when you were last here?”
I took a sip anyway, not wanting to seem rude. “Yeah. She’s finished it hasn’t she?” I looked at Grace, raising my eyebrows in mock surprise. “I don’t believe you. There’s no way.”
Grace’s eyes lit up. “I did! I finished it! And another one!”
“Just like Mummy aren’t you?” Angela kissed her on the top of the head. “Love getting stuck in a book.”
“What’s your favourite book, Abi?” When Grace was learning to talk, the extra ‘a’ on the end of my name was a struggle and I was christened Abi. Once she’d started going to school and met a dozen Abis, Abbis, Abbies, Abys, Abbys, and Abbeys, I was done for. I found it infuriating until recently when I realised it wasn’t going away any time soon.
“I don’t know. I’m not fairytale mad like you are. I like stories about real things.”
“Then how is it a story?”
“You’ll see, Gracie.” Angela laughed. “Why don’t you go and show Abia what you’re reading now?”
She hopped down and sped away at once.
“She acts like she hasn’t seen you in months,” Angela said as she watched her daughter vanish. “She’s so much more animated when you’re home.”
I smiled and felt a beat of love power around my body.
“So how’ve you been?”
“Ange?” I took a deep breath. I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask. “Have you seen the flowers?”
“The flowers?” She narrowed her eyes. “I see a lot of flowers. Are these our flowers? Is there something wrong with the front garden?”
“No.” I held my hand up to stop her storming out there. “The flowers coming into Suddich.”
“I’m sorry, Abia.” She shrugged. “I have no idea. I live and work in Suddich. I don’t often have to leave.”
“Figures,” I muttered. “But when you do leave Suddich next, can you look for them?” I said, louder this time.
“I can. But why?”
“I’m driving myself crazy. I just want someone else to see them.”
“Right.” Her eyes darted around the place, like she didn’t want to look straight at me.
I didn’t blame her.
Grace returned with an over the top dark pink book with a sparkly title and illustrations of girls with wings and crowns on the cover. She then spent the best part of an hour showing me various pictures and reading passages and telling me all about magic and fairies even though I insisted I was busy helping with dinner.
The front door opening and the accompanied, “Hello!”, was music to my ears. Grace rushed off to greet him at once, stopping mid-sentence to do so. Angela chuckled as I dropped my head in my hands and groaned.
“Don’t you like Sasha and her fairy pals?”
“Not in the slightest. The whole clan talk utter nonsense.”
Dad joined us with Grace under his left arm. She was cackling in the least fairy-like fashion I’d ever seen. Dad made Grace look tiny. He was the shape of an inverted triangle, wide at the shoulders and narrow at the waist, though he may have been carrying a little more weight than he’d like. He was tall too, as everyone I was related to seemed to be. He wasn’t as tall as Nathan, but no one was.
Dad smiled his kooky grin in my direction and plopped Grace back to earth before sitting himself at the dining room table. I sat opposite him which caused Grace to take the seat next to me at once, like Angela was going to steal it from her. His glasses steamed up as he stuck his nose over the gravy boat and I laughed. I always did. I think it was the only reason he did it.
I let myself get carried away in Dad’s talk of work and the normality of dinner in Willow Street, trying not to think of certain flora and what they were doing to my sanity. I was more or less successful for the rest of the evening until my mind fell idle. Sitting at my desk in my pyjamas, hair drying from the shower, I was stuck for something to do. I was staring at my desktop background after finishing my conversation with Otter, drumming my fingers against my laptop. I could hear the TV downstairs but I didn’t much fancy curling up on the sofa with Dad and Angela.
I turned around and around on my desk chair, my eyes flickering from the photo frame to the wall art to the poster to the painting. They were all harmless except the painting. The photo frame was the only thing I brought from the old house that still remained. I had never changed the pictures inside and I never wanted to. The wall art was the word ‘dream’ curved out of metal that Angela thought would go well above my bed. The poster was from Mum and told me that Today is a perfect day to start living your dreams. But the painting was teasing me. It was a white canvas with a red flower in some sort of arty style Otter would’ve been able to appreciate. I’d never had any problems with it before but now I hated it.
I stood up, pushing my chair back as I did so, cringing as it crashed against my desk. I stomped over to it but halted as my bare toes felt the rug underneath my feet. The rug, in similar style to the painting, was white with black flowers on it, the black flowers having red centres for another style reason I didn’t understand.
I growled, flinging my wardrobe open and pushing my clothes to one side. I yanked the painting off the wall and shoved it into the back of the wardrobe, slamming the doors shut. I crouched down on the floor, hair falling in my face as I rolled up the rug and thrust it under the bed.
Pulling the hair out of my mouth and glasses, I stood there for a moment, panting, trying to regain control of myself. I retreated to my bed and took in the empty space on the wall and the huge expanse of carpet I could now see. I shuffled backwards until I was leaning against my headboard, crushing the cushions. I snatched one out from under me and hugged it to my chest.
As I caught sight of it, I yelped, flinging it across the room, sending its brother with it in an instant.
I jerked my knees up to my chest, body trembling as I stared at where they’d landed in front of my wardrobe. I fumbled for Paddy who I hadn’t felt the need to ferry back and forth for a whole year until now.
It may have seemed an overreaction, but there was no way I was sleeping in a room with flowers everywhere you looked. My nights were disturbed enough as they were. I didn’t need the demons from the roadside looking right at me.
Maybe I really was losing my mind. At least a little part of me was hoping I was, because then at least, this would start to make sense.
After sitting in the tightest ball I could until my legs went numb, I did something I hadn’t done since Christmas. I picked up a book, needing something, anything, to take me away from here. I nestled under my boring grey quilt with a book Otter had raved about until I promised I would read it.
I didn’t hear the TV switch off or Dad and Angela come up the stairs. So when Dad knocked on my door, I cried out in fear, book jumping from my hands and onto the floor with a thunk. Heat rushed around my body as my heart thumped and my breaths were stolen right out my mouth.
“Sorry,” Dad said as he poked his head round the door. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I sat up further and pushed some of my fringe off my face. “It’s okay. I’m just jumpy at the moment. It’s not your fault.”
He came and sat down on the bed, gazing at the floor as though there was a giant hole there. “Didn’t there used to be a rug there?”
“What happened to it?”
“I put it away.”
“Oh.” He looked at me, washed-out grey eyes concerned. “What’s up, Abz?”
I was sick of asking this question but I wasn’t about to stop. “Have you seen the flowers on the side of the road coming into or leaving Suddich?”
“Not that I can think of? Why?”
“I’ve just asked everyone, that’s all.” I tried to hide my disappointment with a yawn. “No one’s noticed them.”
He watched me for a second before asking me again, “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know.” And it was both the truth and a lie all at once.
“What can I do to make it better?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”
“Come on. I think I know when something’s wrong with my daughter. What’s upsetting you?”
“Dad.” I could hear the hysteria rising in my voice. “It’s really nothing.” Even if I had the words to describe what was going on, I wouldn’t know where to start. How do you make someone understand something that made no sense at all?
“Is it school? Is it your mum?”
“No, Dad! It’s nothing.”
He stood up and ran his hand through his short, dark chocolate brown hair. “How am I supposed to help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong?”
“I told you, Dad.” I wrapped my arms around myself. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“But I know you’re lying to me, Abia. What is it?”
“Noth-ing.” I enunciated each syllable with care. “Please.”
“Why don’t you want me to help you?”
“I want to help. I want to make it better.”
“Dad.” I just shook my head. “You can’t make it better.”
He dropped onto the bed once more, frustration draining from his face. “Maybe I can.” The open need to do whatever I asked of him made tears well up in my eyes and I felt my lip wobble. I tried to hold it back but there was no stopping it. I pulled off my glasses and hid my face in my arms.
I was shocked and confused at the contact at first, but when my dad put his arms around me and pulled me close to him, I couldn’t breathe for sobbing. He shushed me in a way I remember him doing when I was small and I wished I was five again and the only girl in his life. Our relationship had gone downhill ever since I realised I was always going to have to share him. I wasn’t okay with that. I didn’t think I ever would be. I didn’t know how to be.
He sat with me until I didn’t need to hiccup air into my lungs to breathe. My chest and stomach ached from crying as I pulled away and wiped my eyes, patting the quilt for my glasses.
“Are you okay?” he asked in the softest voice I’d ever heard escape his mouth.
I nodded, searching for Paddy under the covers once my glasses were back in position.
Dad picked up Otter’s book and placed it on my bedside table. When he saw Paddy’s ear sticking out of the bed, he laughed, picking him up and giving him a quick hug. “I remember you, old bear.” He smiled at me as he gave him back. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
My voice was hoarse as I replied. “I’m having one of those weeks.”
“Well if there’s anything I can do to make it better, you let me know, okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed, breathing in Paddy’s worn fur as I snuggled under the quilt.
“Goodnight, Abia.” Dad turned off the bedside light and kissed me on the forehead like I’d seen Angela do to Grace earlier.
When he got to the door, I shot up, a bizarre nostalgia filling me up. “Dad?”
He turned to me, the door half open, light from the landing spilling onto my naked carpet.
“I love you.”
His entire posture softened. “I love you too, Abz.”
“You did help. I was wrong. Thank you.”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
“You did just enough.”