Nathan and I waited with Otter until her sister Hadley appeared to pick her up. Hadley had returned back from university earlier this afternoon and Otter hadn’t been able to sit still since she’d heard the news. When Hadley pulled up in the space beside my car, Otter squealed and tugged her out of the vehicle, hugging her tighter than I’d seen any two people hug. Hadley had a quick hello for Nathan and me but the rest of her being was focused on her little sister as she giggled, “Tillie, Tillie, Tillie, Tillie!” into her hair.
Otter, Hadley and Asa – the brother between them – were the closest siblings I’d ever known, and it was only moments like this that I wished I wasn’t an only child. Well, the only child of my mother and my father. There seemed a huge difference between having a sister and having a half-sister, though I supposed Grace would go loopy when I returned from university. I couldn’t say I could replicate her enthusiasm like Hadley was Otter’s though.
It wasn’t a huge loss, I had Nathan, a cousin more like a brother and better too because we were only thirty two days apart in age. And what’s more, there was no way I was sharing Mum with anyone else in the universe. I let Auntie Kate off only because she was Mum’s twin and best friend.
Nathan and I settled into my car once Hadley and Otter had left. He slid the passenger seat as far back as it would go, exclaiming in satisfaction as he did so.
“Are you quite done?” I asked as I turned on the ignition and opened my super speedy electric windows. Another bizarre perk that came with this car.
“Yes, though I’m still not entirely comfortable. I fit about as well in this car as I would fit in a pushchair.”
“What a stellar image.” I grimaced. “If you would hurry up and pass your own driving test you wouldn’t have to squeeze in here.”
“True, but what if Mum and Dad buy me the same car? I’ll look like a complete tosser.”
“Or alternatively you could walk to school like any other self-respecting healthy person?”
“Then stop complaining, man child.”
The laugher gave Edward away before the sight of him did, camouflaged in the sea of blazers as he was. “Having fun?” He bent down and leant on the window, poking his head through.
Nathan smacked his hands over Edward’s ears and then slapped him on the cheek. It was playful but all of a sudden I was pleased to be an only child again.
After giving in and getting out to let Edward in on my side, we were at last driving home to Auntie Kate and Uncle Patrick’s. A journey that took us little over five minutes.
As soon as we opened the front door, Bert, their black Labrador, came bounding over like he was still a puppy, snuffling his nose into our trousers as we hustled him inside. Once he’d finished with the boys, he kept nudging my hand to keep stroking him. I did though I didn’t enjoy the waxy feeling his fur left on my hand after five minutes of sitting at my side. I also didn’t appreciate the slobber patch on my favourite grey trousers.
Auntie Kate emerged from the office and I squeezed her tight in a hug. Her and Mum, though as identical twins it was a given, looked exactly alike. The only difference being that Auntie Kate had cut her hair to her shoulders and Mum had hers to her mid back. Other than that though, they were, as the term suggested, identical.
When we were younger, Nathan and I used to be mistaken for brother and sister. Now we were older, Edward and I looked much more similar than Nathan and I ever had. Edward had Auntie Kate’s face where Nathan had Uncle Patrick’s. I had been blessed with more of my mother’s features than my father’s, so I could pass for one of the Walters.
“How’s my favourite niece?” Auntie Kate asked me as we parted.
“Good,” I answered, unsure as to whether or not I’d just lied to her.
“Your mum told me about your exam results, clever girl.”
I blushed. “I just . . . get maths I suppose. I always have.”
“Nay, maybe she can help you out.”
“Excuse me? I’ll have you know a C is a very respectable score in the grand scheme of things and also, Abia’s not even doing my course. She does mechanics.” He stuck out his tongue.
“Then I won’t help.” I crossed my arms.
He scowled at me. “I’m not going to beat you so what’s the point?”
Auntie Kate laughed. “A’ levels aren’t about who wins.”
I raised my eyebrows at Nathan and he shook his head. “You know nothing, Mother dearest.”
She tutted and shook her head.
“Tell me you didn’t compete with Auntie Kim at business studies and we’ll walk away without another word.”
She put her hands on her hips and moved her weight to her right foot, smirking.
“I knew it.” Nathan grabbed my arm and pulled me up the stairs, pointing two fingers at his eyes and back to Auntie Kate.
Before even dropping his bag to the floor, Nathan had turned his PS4 on and thrown me the spare controller. I caught it and crashed onto the brown leather beanbag as he fiddled around with something at his desk.
Nathan’s bedroom was a dull grey-brown colour he’d chosen at the age of fourteen and couldn’t be bothered to repaint. His wooden furniture was the same as he’d always had, the only new additions being his double bed, TV, laptop, PS4, and the beanbag chair I was occupying. Books were stacked around the room, balancing in piles with no immediate categorisation as far as I could tell. Again, his laziness got the better of him as there was a bookcase he could use out on the landing.
After finding what turned out to be his phone charger, Nathan disappeared back onto the landing. I knew he’d gone into Edward’s room as there was an exchange of words, Edward’s laughter, and some kind of elaborate threat from Nathan. He returned with Edward’s matching beanbag, exhaled as loud as possible as he threw himself into it, and started the game.
“Didn’t you say you still hadn’t finished your English coursework?” I asked, wanting to talk about something ordinary and boring to make everything seem normal again.
“Then what are you doing?”
“I’m going to finish it tomorrow.”
“Said everybody, ever. Why don’t you finish it now and I can play the campaign? I still haven’t got to the end yet.”
“And you think I can concentrate why you play one of the greatest games of all time? I don’t think so.”
“This is why your mum thinks you need help.”
“Shut up.” He pushed the side of my head and held up his middle finger with his other hand, still holding his remote.
I had to put my hand out to catch myself from falling off the beanbag and mashing my face into the carpet. I narrowed my eyes. “You’re on now.”
For a short while, everything was as it always was. Nathan and I played video games together like there was nothing else in the world worth doing. And sometimes there wasn’t. He teased me as he forever got the upper hand and I tried my hardest to catch up to him.
“Abz?” Nathan paused the game after half an hour or so and turned to me. “What’s wrong?”
I looked at him for a moment before answering. “Nothing.”
“Yeah but I know there’s something. You were quiet at school and you’re being quiet now.”
“I’m not being quiet,” I mumbled. “I’m concentrating.”
He shook his head. “Lies.”
I opened my mouth and shut it again, knowing to continue would be pointless.
“I knew it. I knew it. Now you have to tell me or I’ll go mental wondering what it is.”
I sighed. I knew how that felt. “Okay, but you’ll laugh.”
“You might not laugh but you’ll be somewhere between disappointed and freaked out.”
His soft blue eyes widened a little. “Do go on.”
So I told him about the flowers and that Otter couldn’t see them. Words flowed out of my mouth and once I’d started I couldn’t stop them.
When I’d finished, he was biting his lip and looked deep in thought. “Obviously it’s not the case that you’re the only person in the world who can see them. That doesn’t make sense.” He pulled on his ear. “Otter’s right, there is an explanation but I have no idea what it is.”
“You’re a great help you are.” I wiped my hand across my forehead and down the side of my face, leaning into it. “I thought you would’ve thought of something.”
“I’m working on it. But don’t worry yourself stupid. I believe you.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “You’re Abia, the most practical, logical person I’ve ever come across. Superstitions and weirdness don’t work on you. Of course I believe you. If you said you saw flowers on that road, you saw flowers on that road.”
“I most definitely, one hundred percent, saw flowers on that road.”
“Then you know what? There are probably flowers on that road. I’d take your word over Otter’s any day of the week.”
I let out a huge breath and shut my eyes for a moment. “Thanks, Nay.”
He pulled me close and I wrapped my arms around his huge shoulders, burying my face in his t-shirt that smelt as much as home as my own home did. From nowhere, tears sprung to my eyes and I couldn’t catch my breath. Instead of trying to stop me, or prise me off him, all he did was hold me closer. For once he was quiet, knowing words perhaps weren’t always the answer to everything.
Uncle Patrick arrived home a few minutes later, so I wiped my eyes and went down to greet him. My Uncle Patrick was not quite as tall or big as Nathan, but I still had to go on my tiptoes to hug him properly. I imagined Nathan would grow up to look just like him except with the Butler black hair of our grandmother. Uncle Patrick and Edward had golden brown hair that made it look like our family was split into good and evil.
I stayed in the kitchen, chatting with my auntie and uncle until Mum arrived, fresh from Little Angels. My entire body calmed as I watched her enter the kitchen and I felt the first genuine smile on my face all day. There was something about her that could make even the most preposterous of problems go away.
Eating dinner and laughing with my family, I altogether forgot about the flowers. Not one single thought fell on them until midnight that evening, curled up in bed half asleep. The image drifted into my consciousness bit by bit, colours and shapes. But when I figured out what I was imagining, it shot into focus and I sat up at once, the darkness pressing in around me. I fumbled on the floor for Paddy and clutched him tight as I pulled the covers right up to my ears, as though that could protect me from something that wasn’t even chasing me, something that may not even be real.
Whatever was going on, I felt hunted, haunted. I wanted more than anything for this to go away. I hadn’t been this obsessed since I’d first heard of the Large Hadron Collider and what that could mean for the world of physics. But this was something else. This was stupid, ludicrous even. There was nothing exciting about this, nothing to look forward to. In a few days the flowers would die and that would be the end of it. They would blow away or be taken away or start decomposing in the grass. So what was I worried about?
Why was the image of those bright colours fading and rotting into mulch so terrible? To even think about it was making my stomach churn and my mouth tacky.
I brought my legs up closer to my chest, Paddy between my stomach and knees. I shut my eyes and concentrated on breathing, focusing on making every breath as even as possible and trying to replicate the rhythm of sleep.
I don’t know if I slept at all but I felt as though I hadn’t. I lay there with my eyes closed thinking about everything and anything that I could to calm my raging brain to a point where I could rest.
I coasted through the morning, forgetting my conversations as soon as they were over. I saw the flowers again. Just the same as yesterday, picture perfect. They were starting to make me feel sick.
“I’ve been thinking,” Nathan said as he joined me for our second period free. It was just the two of us as Otter was in art and the crowd that occupied the fraying sofas were out enjoying the sunshine. “And maybe the reflection off your windows was blocking Otter’s view of the flowers.”
I laughed but it felt heavy and wrong. “I’ve made you just as obsessed as I am. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” He waved it away. “I love stuff like this. So if it’s not the windows, it’s the sun.”
I nodded. “Or I thought maybe it was the sign.”
“The Welcome to Suddich sign. They’re just after it. Literally just after.”
“Excellent.” He clapped his hands together. “I told you I was working on it. So, as for the origin, they appeared on Tuesday, right?”
“Yeah. I don’t like that you chose the word appeared though, like they're some sort of magic flowers.”
“You know what I mean.” He picked my pen off the desk and started turning it over in his hands. “Have there been any alterations since you first saw them? Any more, for example?”
I thought for a moment but shook my head. “No. I’ve never thought about it, but no. They always look exactly the same. Like no one’s been there since. Nothing’s been moved, nothing’s been added.”
“It’s more likely it’s an anniversary then. If it were a recent death people would be putting flowers down all the time.”
He pointed the pen at me. “Also makes sense as to why nobody knows what you’re talking about. It’s because no one knows about it.”
“It sounds so simple when you say it all like that.”
“I told you not to worry. By the end of the day this’ll all be over.”
I felt my eyebrows furrow together. “It will? Why’s that?”
“Because you’re going to take me to them and I’m going to see them.”
I held my breath and gave a sharp nod.
He clasped my hand and shook. “It’s a deal.”
The rest of the day went by as it should have and all at once Otter, Nathan, and I were in my car and ready to go. Otter and Nathan were so focused on the flowers that they didn’t even argue. Otter climbed into the back without a word and Nathan didn’t complain about the lack of space.
“Okay.” Nathan turned in his seat. “We go up that road, out of Suddich, look at the flowers, turn all the way around the roundabout, see the flowers again, and then you take me home.”
“This gives us two attempts with two different angels, cutting out the sun and the reflection and the sign as reasons not to see them.”
Otter leant forward. “We’re going to see these bloody flowers if it’s the last thing we do. I couldn’t stop thinking about them last night.”
“Me either,” Nathan and I said together.
There was quiet until I had to voice my only concern. “What if we don’t see them?”
Otter and Nathan looked to one another and seemed to agree something with a look I couldn’t decipher from a half glance.
“Then they’ve been taken away,” Otter said.
“They won’t stay forever,” Nathan agreed.
“No.” I gripped the steering wheel tighter. “What if they’re there and you guys don’t see them?”
Otter gave me a look full of pity. “We’re going to see them, Abz.”
“But what if you don’t?”
“Abia,” Nathan’s voice was firm. “We’ll see them.”
Then there was hush in the car as we turned onto the road leading in and out of Suddich. I could see the blink of colour in the distance almost at once. “There!” I felt the need to shout it and point. “Right at the back of the sign!”
Otter and Nathan remained quiet as the flowers disappeared in my rear-view mirror.
“So?” My heart was pumping so hard it was hard to breathe. “You saw them right?”
Nathan held up his hand to silence me but I caught the look on his face and felt all the colour and heat drain from my face and into the pit of my stomach.
“You didn’t see them?” I whispered, shaking my head and looking for Otter in my rear-view mirror. “Otter?” She was staring straight ahead, squeezing her owl pendant tight in her hand. “Otter?” It was like she didn’t hear me at all. I could hear my breaths puffing in and out and there was a pounding in my ears. “Ottillie?” It came out as a squeak but I had her attention. Her eyes were on mine through the mirror. “You saw them?” I blinked away the tears. “Didn’t you?”
She gave no answer either way as we reached the roundabout and headed back towards Suddich.
Nathan cleared his throat and pushed himself up a little in his chair. “It will’ve been one of those anomalies we talked about. The sun or the reflection or the sign.”
I didn’t believe him for a second.
This time, as we passed the Welcome to Suddich sign, the complete human noiselessness was overwhelming. All I could hear was the thundering of my own heart. I slowed the car to thirty miles per hour, earning an angry beep from whoever was stuck behind us.
The lack of sighs of relief or laughter or changes in facial expressions told me everything I needed to know. Neither of them had seen the flowers. No one had.
No one but me.