I shot back, pulling a lungful of air into my body to scream at him but he was gone. I blinked a few times but I was alone.
“No.” I shook my head, feeling the tears sharper than ever before. I spun around the full three-sixty but Zed was nowhere to be seen. “No.” I ran both my hands through my hair, tugging on a few of the strands. I yanked my glasses off and took in a blurry world as I wiped them on my shirt. When I replaced them, everything was as it had been before. He’d vanished.
“No!” I roared. “People don’t vanish! They can’t vanish! This isn’t real!” Tears fell onto my cheeks and I gulped for more air. “This isn’t real.”
I turned around to look at the flowers. “You.” I glared at them. “You’re real. Aren’t you?” I grabbed for one and pulled it free from the bunch. “I can see you. I can touch you.” I held it to my nose. “I can smell you. You’re real.” I laughed and cried at the same time. “You’re a chrysanthemum.” I pushed some fringe out my eyes where it was getting damp. “I wouldn’t even know that unless he’d been here. And he was here. I saw him. I talked to him. He responded. He was real.”
I took a few paces, towards the roundabout and then went back to the flowers.
“How can they not see you? I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense.”
I put my hand over my mouth and took a few seconds to gain my composure. I shut my eyes and concentrated on taking steady breaths and slowing my heart.
An idea sprung from nowhere. I dropped my rucksack to the ground and snatched my phone out of it. I took pictures of the whole scene, including the road. I took pictures of individual flowers and groups of flowers. I took a picture of the orange chrysanthemum in my hand. I held my phone at arm’s length and took a picture of me in front of them, not caring how hideous I no doubt looked. And crazy for that matter.
Just as I’d pressed the capture button, it started to vibrate with a call, making me jump. I wiped my eyes and nose before answering, clearing my throat. It was Otter.
“Just got my phone back from the office. Where are you?”
“I went for a walk.” I tried to sound normal. “I’ll meet you at the car, okay?”
“Okay. Vicky!” she called to who I can only assume was Vicky. “How’d you find it?”
“See you in ten, Abz.” She hung up without another word.
I put my phone back in my bag and picked the orange chrysanthemum off the ground. If the pictures weren’t enough, the physical evidence had to be.
It took me more than half an hour to reach the car but Otter didn’t seem too annoyed. She was leaning on the passenger door chatting to Melissa Greene about the exam, though what they could have discussed for half an hour, I had no idea.
“Hey!” She grinned as she saw me. “It was awesome. Where’ve you been?”
“Long story. Tell you in the car.”
“What’s wrong?” Her forehead creased in concern as I grew closer.
“Like I said, long story.”
“If my Abz is upset, I’m coming home with you.”
“Fine by me, we’ll need more than a car journey to finish this conversation anyway.”
She ran up to me and threw her arms around me in a hug. I went to laugh but instead tears attacked. I squeezed her tight, inhaling her too sweet perfume. She stroked my hair and went to pull away but I didn’t want to part yet. I wanted nothing more than to stay in her arms for the rest of time.
“Abz.” She chuckled as she freed herself. “We can have a cuddle when we get home.”
I sniffed and nodded as we got in the car.
“So . . .” Otter turned the music right down so we could only just hear it. “Did you want to start the story now?”
“No. I think I need time for my brain to settle. Why don’t you tell me about your exam? It went well?”
I didn’t need to say anything more for the whole journey. When we drove past the flowers Otter didn’t take a breath. Like it wasn’t the most puzzling spot in the universe. Like it was just an ordinary patch of grass.
When we pulled up outside my house and I turned the engine off, I was surprised to see Nathan in the door frame, arms crossed like we were his daughters and he’d been waiting up for us for hours.
“Oi, loser!” Otter shouted, breaking that image as she climbed out and slammed the passenger door. “What you doing here?”
“Charming. Great to see you too, Ottillie Jane.”
“Eww.” She stuck her tongue out and shuddered. “Don’t middle name me, Nay-Nay.”
“Anyway, shouldn’t the question be why are you here, Otter?” He put his arm round my shoulder as I went to make my way inside. “I’m just spending some quality time with my big cousin.”
“Please don’t call me big cousin,” I said as I pushed past him.
“Well maybe I’m here to see your big cousin too. She’s a popular lady,” Otter said, pulling off Nathan's beanie hat.
“More than you know,” I muttered.
Mum was on the sofa in the living room, chuckling to herself, laptop on a heart cushion from her bedroom, papers spread out on the floor. She always preferred to work on the sofa than on the redundant desk in the other corner of the room. When she saw me, she put the laptop down and came to give me a hug. I threw my arms around her and pulled her close to me, burying my face in her hair. It felt like more than a week since I’d last seen her. Since I’d been home. I loved my dad with all my heart but Kimberly Angel was my real home.
“I missed you too,” she whispered to me. “How was it?”
“Fine but I’m glad to be home. Grace is freaking me out.”
“Kids are pretty freaky.” Her eyes moved to Nathan as she said it.
I laughed and my chest ached from it. “So what’s he doing here?”
“Apparently you owe him help with maths or something. He’s been here annoying me for hours.”
“Figures. How’d he even get here?”
“Auntie Kate came over earlier and brought him with her.”
“I’m not roped in to taking him back am I?”
She shrugged. “These aren’t my plans.”
“They’re not mine either.”
“Well I bought pizza so he’s invited himself for dinner too. There’s enough for Otter if she wants to stay.”
“No doubt she does.”
I turned round to find them still locked in their verbal battle. I managed to interrupt them with one word. “Pizza?”
They both looked up and nodded as though they hadn’t eaten since Friday. The two followed me upstairs still bickering until my bedroom door was shut. I didn’t want to worry Mum with this.
“I’m never going to pass this exam, am I?” Nathan huffed as he threw himself on my bed.
Otter grabbed the cushion off my bed. It was blue like the sky with a few white clouds on it and like my wall art in Willow Street, had the word ‘DREAM’ on it. Otter hit Nathan round the head with it as she sat beside him. “You could always dream.”
“Shut up.” He rubbed his head. “At least you’ve got one of yours out the way.”
“An extra point for lit-lang. You’re losing this battle, literature lover.”
“Why’re you even here?” he groaned. “To sabotage my university application?”
“No.” She crossed her legs under her. “Abz wanted to talk to me. I assume you can listen too. Unless it’s about you. Go for it either way, Abz.”
Nathan scowled at her as I dropped into my blue desk chair.
“It’s not about you, Nay.” I sighed and shut my eyes, twirling back and forth for a moment. “It’s about Zed.”
“What?” they both exclaimed at the same time.
I opened my eyes and sat up. “I saw him today, while you were in your exam, Otter. We talked. I . . . it doesn’t make any sense.”
“What did he say to you?” Nathan asked.
“A lot but yet nothing much at all. He was chattering away to me but not giving anything away about himself. Though he insisted he was telling the truth the entire time.”
“About what?” Otter pulled the cushion into her lap.
There was no point trying to hide it. “The flowers. He said he knew why no one else can see them. He said he knows people who can see them but he can’t tell me yet. He said I’m not ready.”
“Abz.” Nathan shuffled forwards. “This sounds dodgier than ever. What were you doing talking to him?”
“Was that what you meant when you told me you’d gone for a walk?” Otter cut in. “Was that why it took you so long to get back to the car?”
“He followed me. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t want to talk to him. He followed me.”
“He followed you?” Nathan’s face screwed up in disgust.
“Yeah.” I nodded. “He’d gone when I talked to you on the phone, Otter. It took me so long to get back because I was on the other side of Suddich. I was looking at the flowers.”
Otter’s hand went to her forehead as though information was ready to burst free. “Hold up. You somehow managed to get yourself to the sign and then this random Zed guy showed up. Do you even realise how stupid that was? Abz, anything could’ve happened!”
“The flowers are real.” My heart started up its race in my chest. “I can prove it.” I realised only when I went to show them the flower that it wasn’t in my hand anymore. I had been holding it . . . I jumped up, searching the floor of my bedroom but it wasn’t there.
“No,” I whispered.
I couldn’t remember having it in the car either. I didn’t put it anywhere. I must’ve dropped it. I thought back to my journey from the sign back to the car and then I realised my mistake. I’d hugged Otter and wanted to hold her close. I’d forgotten about my important cargo and now it was gone.
“I dropped it.”
Otter and Nathan exchanged a glance.
“I brought a flower back but I dropped it in the car park. I was going to show you.”
“It doesn’t matter, Abz,” Otter said. “I want to hear about what this guy was saying to you. I couldn’t give a crap about the flowers anymore.”
“No, no. I can prove it. I took a picture on my phone.”
“Where?” Nathan took my phone clean out of my hand before I could even put the password in. It didn’t seem to matter. At some point he’d learnt it without my knowledge. Again.
Otter and Nathan’s faces were pressed together as they stared at my phone. I stood watching them, arms crossed. I’d never wanted anything more than for them to look up, meet my eye and admit they were wrong. The flowers were real. They knew that now. I wasn’t crazy.
My life could continue as if all this had never happened. Zed or no Zed.
When Nathan looked up, Otter taking the phone, squinting closer to the screen, his face wasn’t one of apology. It was one of blank open pity.
All I could think was, no.
“Abia, there are no flowers in those pictures.”
“No, that’s impossible.”
“There’s one of your hand and one of you in front of the sign but there aren’t any flowers.”
“But that’s impossible.”
Otter’s face matched Nathan’s as she handed the phone back. I grabbed it from her and scrolled through the pictures, mouth hanging open.
They were right. I’d taken pictures of an empty patch of grass, my empty hand, and one me looking crazed and unstable, standing by the sign.
It was all I could do to go back and forth through the pictures again and again, shaking my head.
“This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. How can I explain this? How can anyone explain this? I picked one. I held one! That’s not my imagination is it? It can’t be. How can my mind be that good? It can’t!”
“Abia.” Otter held her hand out but I didn’t want to take it.
I ran my hands through my hair. My breaths were shallow and coming fast. My vision was going blurry. I couldn’t understand. This didn’t make sense.
“Abia, calm down.” Nathan had stood and come towards me.
I shook my head, fighting back a scream. Everything spun. I couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t happening.
And then I was in Nathan’s arms, my face in his chest and Otter was hugging my back. I squeezed my eyes and angry hot tears that’d puddled there fell down my face. Unattractive sobbing burst free from my mouth as I fought for breath, head still dizzy.
They didn’t say a word. They held me close. They didn’t let go.
“They’re real,” I gasped into a zombie face on Nathan’s t-shirt.
“Shh.” He squeezed harder and Otter started stroking my hair.
“It’s not just me.” I gulped for more air. “Zed.” I sniffed and it was a revolting sound. My friends ignored it. “He . . . he saw them.”
Otter pulled back a bit. “How do you know that?”
I freed myself from Nathan’s grip to turn round and look at her. I didn’t bother to wipe away my tears. “He told me what types they were, pointing to them.”
“What?” Nathan seized my arm and spun me back round.
“I wouldn’t believe him until he did that. He could definitely see them.”
“But . . .” Otter sat back down on the bed. “That doesn’t make sense.
I went to sit next to her, Nathan joining my other side. “That’s what I was trying to say.”
Nathan rubbed his hand across his forehead and down his face. “Did he say anything . . . I dunno . . . weird?”
My heart wasn’t slowing but I could breathe again. I didn’t have to think for something to burst into my mind. “He . . . he told me not to get too close.”
I shook my head. “He said out of respect but . . . now I don’t believe him. He said he hadn’t lied but I don’t know anything about him.”
“Was there any way, any way at all, that he could’ve drugged you, Abz? That would make this entire thing make sense.”
“No.” My eyebrows furrowed together. “And even if he had, how do you explain that he could see the exact same flowers? And how do you explain him disappearing?”
“He disappeared?” Nathan’s face was growing red. “He can’t have just disappeared.”
“He did! He leant down, whispered in my ear, and vanished!”
Nathan jumped up. “He can’t have vanished! That’s stupid, Abia! You can’t truly believe that he just disappeared into thin air!”
“Nay,” Otter said. “We weren’t there. Stop.”
“No! Otter, do you hear her? This is crazy!”
“He was this close to my face, Nathan.” I held up a finger and my thumb less than an inch apart. “And then he was gone. Nowhere to be seen.”
“No. That’s not right. Abia, you’re so practical! How can you believe that?”
“Only because I was right there. The laws of physics don’t seem to work in that damn spot. You don’t think I’ve wondered what the hell’s going on? You don’t think I’ve told myself I’m losing my mind?”
“This is mental!” Nathan was pulling at his hair now.
“Maybe I’m just mental now,” I whispered.
“No, you’re not mental, Abz.” Otter put her arm around me.
“He must’ve drugged you.” Nathan was back on that, pacing the floor. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. He waited until you were alone and drugged you and followed you. The flowers aren’t there, you just thought they were. He left and the drugs wore off and you don’t remember him leaving.”
I shook my head. He was wrong. I wasn’t about to explain myself. I didn’t want any more yelling. I was done with yelling. There was nothing to argue about. I’d held an orange chrysanthemum in my hand.
“He may be right, Abz. But whatever happened, you’re not crazy.”
“I don’t care.”
Otter and Nathan looked at one another.
“I saw those flowers. Zed saw the flowers. We had a conversation. He vanished. That’s all I wanted to say.”
Otter and Nathan didn’t get more than a few words out of me for the rest of the night.