It was an ordinary, uninteresting Tuesday morning when I first spotted the flowers. Sitting in the car, dribbling into a napkin Mum happened to have, the blur of colour ahead peaked my interest. As I gazed upon their bittersweet beauty, I was filled with an unexplainable aching sadness. I pulled myself up a little in the passenger seat to press my face close to the window. Blues, reds, yellows and pinks glared back at me and a lump formed in my throat, though I couldn’t say why. Perhaps I wasn’t reacting as well to the anaesthetic at the dentists as I’d hoped.
I opened my mouth to speak and a string of spit fell out of my mouth. “Shit.” I tried to catch it but to no avail. “Oh cripes.” I remembered to sensor my swearing this time.
Mum chuckled from beside me. “I’m glad I offered to drive you.”
“I can’t control my own saliva production; I don’t think it would be wise to put me in charge of heavy machinery.”
“And cripes? I’m not condoning the swearing but cripes?”
“I can’t swear in front of Grace can I? Angela would have my head.”
She nodded, her soft natural black hair falling over her shoulders, obscuring her thin fabric scarf from view. There was a weird kink in the usual waves where it’d been tied up after her shower this morning. My step-mother Angela was beautiful, but no one held natural beauty like my own mother. I could only wish I’d be lucky enough to age as well as she had.
“What were you even doing to slobber all over your trousers?”
“I was just looking at the new flowers. They weren’t there yesterday.”
Mum gave no reply as she turned into a car park round the back of the school. She shut the engine off and turned to me. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Fine, fine.” I wiped some more, what can only be described as drool, off my lips. They felt as big as a supermodel’s but in reality my mouth was small. It was the weirdest sensation not to be able to feel one entire side of your mouth. Though the situation was getting more dire every minute. I couldn't in fact feel my entire right cheek now.
Mum observed me, wetting her lips. “When’s your first lesson?”
“Not till after break.”
“Good.” Her light eyes lit up. They were a soft mix of blue and grey, the blue shining just a little brighter. Unlike my own eyes which were just the plain grey as grey could be. “I’m not having my only daughter dribble all over the school like Bert.”
She got out of the car, wrapping her cardigan further around herself and I followed, pulling my red plaid rucksack onto my shoulder. I was expecting the weight but after eight or so months at sixth form, the amount of books I carried around still shocked me. I needed to stop letting Otter and Nathan share my locker. Freeloaders.
I didn’t have to ask Mum where we were going. There was only one place to go in Suddich if you asked either of us. That place was Little Angels, the cute little jewellers, Mum’s pride and joy. I swear it was her second child. Better than a partner, a business.
The bell tinkled as we walked in and Jessica smiled her signature close-mouthed smile, tucking some caramel coloured hair behind her ear. Her face said you can trust me, kind customer. Laura looked up from talking a customer through their watch purchase, displaying her thorough knowledge of everything that crossed the threshold of this shop, before getting back to work. My mum had an eye for staff, or an eye for people I should say.
We went into the back and sat on the threadbare sofa that had rested here since before I was born. I dropped my bag off my shoulder with a thump, hoping nothing was getting crushed in there. I leaned back on the old-fashioned pattern – almost vintage, almost ghastly – closing my eyes. All that came to me were the blurred images of those flowers.
I opened my eyes and took the mug from Mum as she sat beside me. She was into inspirational phrases and sayings, they were all over this office-slash-staff-room and they were all over our house. Though she knew my favourite was the tall cream one with DREAM BIG written in multi-colours, so that’s the one she handed over. I held the mug in my hands, warming them, though it was the end of April and the correct temperature in here for once. There was something in my chest squeezing tight at the thought of those flowers sitting on the side of the road.
“Are you tired?” Mum said as she freed her angel wing bracelet from her cardigan before tying up her hair again.
“I dunno.” I had to suck in some spit before saying anything more. “It’s gross. That’s my bigger concern. I dunno when it’s gonna stop.”
Mum held her lips together as she tried not to laugh. “Maybe we should’ve booked the appointment for after school.”
“We didn’t know this little catastrophe was going to happen. It was only a tooth for cripes sake.”
A snigger escaped her sandy pink lips and her smile was that crinkle eye smile I most loved. “If it was anyone else I’d think they were trying to get out of school for the rest of the day.”
“Nathan,” we both said at once. I smirked and shook my head. “But I’m not going to miss maths. Missing one lesson is the equivalent of a disaster according to Mrs Spencer.”
“Would she really rather you drool on her table than not be there?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Yes.”
She put her hands on her wide hips, her pear-shape the most obvious difference between us. That and her warm, tanned skin that was a natural beige. My genetics had given me the very white pale skin of my father. “Teachers are very peculiar aren’t they?”
I blew on my tea and the heat steamed up my glasses. I tutted and waited for them to clear before I went to take a sip. I found it more difficult than I first would've imagined with clumsy lips. “Almost like another race entirely.”
As Mum got to work, I sat there looking over some physics homework until break time, watching as Laura and Jessica scurried in and out making tea and grabbing a biscuit. It was as if my body knew I had maths next period because as soon as I looked at my watch ten minutes before the end of second period, the dribbling stopped. The feeling in my lips hadn’t come back but not slobbering was good enough for me.
I hugged Mum goodbye, still not used to being an inch taller than her. I supposed I would remain that way for the rest of my life, unless I had a late growth spurt, though I was far tall enough already thank you very much.
I hurried through the streets, weaving my way through the black blazers of lesson change as I reached the corridors of school. I shimmied past a row of gaudy red lockers, my shoes squeaking as I turned the corner and raced up the stairs and into the corridor that would lead to the Sixth Form building. Last year, when I was part of the rabble of secondary school, I had no idea how unbearable the corridors would be with children occupying them. I didn’t often have the displeasure of moving around during peak traffic times.
I kept my head down as I walked, not wanting any awkward eye contact with the people going the opposite way. I had to blink several times as I got to the middle as the whole place went dark. The lights had never worked here as far as I was aware. I rubbed my arms as I walked. The heating had never worked either. This corridor was left to the elements. Freezing in the winter, an oven in the summer. We were lucky it was almost May and mild but the sun hadn’t finished heating it up yet today.
Warmth spread through my body as I opened the next set of double doors and made my way into the common room. The queue for the snack bar made it seem as busy as the lower school, but I managed to skirt round the sofas and all the people. The smell of hot paninis made my mouth water and I groaned as I sat down, retrieving a tissue from my pocket and wiping the side of my mouth.
Otter’s hazel-green eyes were on me, a disgusted look turning up her big lips as she shut her book. “I see you’ve had a pleasant morning. What took you so long? I thought you’d be back by second period. I’ve been here all alone. Your cousin wanted to work on his bloody coursework upstairs.” She pointed straight up to the room that was the study area like I didn’t know where she meant. “I’ve had to do work, of all things.”
“I’m sorry I made you do work.” I put the tissue away and knelt down to my locker. We’d chosen this table in the first week because it sat right where my locker was situated. I didn’t know that meant that everyone wanted to use it. I shoved my notebooks in, pulling out Nathan’s jumper he was wearing on Friday and throwing it over Otter who swore and pulled it off at once.
She was flattening the static out of her pastel pink bob as I took my seat once more. I noted her nails were blue today.
“You know not to touch the hair, Abz.” She pulled out her compact mirror and brushed through her fringe.
I tugged on a strand that wasn’t attached and it came away in my fingers. “It’s falling out.”
“It’s fine. Just getting a bit dead.”
“You know how to solve that don’t you. Stop dyeing it.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. When she did this I noticed that they turned in more than mine did. “Don’t tell me how to live my life.”
“What was wrong with the blonde you had when we were little?”
She rolled her eyes like I had no idea what I was talking about. Before she could answer, I heard Nathan’s voice shouting hello over the heads of everyone in the room. Today he was sporting a plain white t-shirt with black sleeves, similar to the one I’d worn yesterday, and black trousers.
I balled the jumper up and threw it to him as he made his way over.
“I knew I’d left it somewhere! Was it at yours?”
“No. It was in my locker. I’d like to point out to both of you that it is my locker and I paid for it.”
“A deposit.” Nathan said as he sat next to me. He made the chairs look too small. Nathan was, in a word, huge. His shoulders were broad, he was taller than anyone I knew, and he was just . . . big. But in no way was he fat. Our whole family was tall but my side didn’t have the hugeness that he did.
“We never saw our deposit from our old lockers.”
“What’re you suggesting?” Otter spat out her silver owl necklace that she’d been chewing. “That we pay you rent money?”
“No, she’s saying we get to use it one day a week and every other weekend.”
Otter laughed. “Yeah, or every other week.”
“Okay.” I slammed my palm on the table as I realised I’d been drumming my fingers. I looked around with blush climbing my cheeks to make sure I hadn’t drawn attention to us. “Just use it. I don’t care.”
“You give up too easy.” Nathan smiled his dorky smile.
“I know who I’m up against.”
The rest of break went by in what felt like thirty seconds and soon enough I was staring up at the greying white board in Mrs Spencer’s classroom. I finished the exercise before everyone else and as there was only five minutes of the lesson left, decided to treat myself by not telling her I needed more work. Instead, I stared at the places plastic had chipped off the graffiti-ridden desks. Some of these desks were old enough that my parents could’ve scrawled their names with all the others. Now though, the areas with missing plastic were black with names and gossip and love hearts.
My mind fell on those flowers again and a cold hand of sorrow gripped my heart. I had to find out who’d died. It was the only way to get those blasted plants out of my head.
Fourth period, Otter, Nathan, and I all had a free as we’d made a joint decision to all drop IT after Christmas. A, as it turned out, brilliant decision as not only did we not have to listen to Mr Meechan drone on anymore, but we had four more free periods every week. But even better than that, as these were free periods all together.
As I walked back to the common room with Nathan, who’d been in the classroom next door, a strange fluttering panicked my insides at the idea of asking him about the flowers, which was ridiculous. There was no reasonable explanation for my behaviour. They were only flowers. Most likely, though I couldn’t be certain yet, flowers of respect to whoever had died there. There was nothing strange about that. There were always a host of flowers on the side of the road, whether brand new or shrivelled from weeks of rest. Their appearance, though sad, was never odd. So another wave of flowers on the outskirts of Suddich shouldn’t be on my mind, let alone freak me out.
So then why did it take me until we were sitting down to build up enough courage to ask him about them?
“Nay,” I let out all in one breath. “Who died on the road coming into Suddich?”
“Huh?” He put the play he was studying for English on the table without looking at me.
“Who died? There are new flowers out.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Abz.” He pulled out a highlighter, still not giving me his full attention.
“You haven’t seen them?”
“There are always flowers on that road.” He looked at me now. “How can you know there are new flowers? And if someone did die, we didn’t know them, we would’ve heard about it.”
“They’re definitely new, Nay. I drive on that road every day and they were not there yesterday.”
“Fine, okay.” He pulled the top of his highlighter off and pressed it against his lips as he thought, uninterested in my problem once again.
I heard Otter’s voice just before she appeared in the door, chatting to Vicky Hilsdon about some artist they were studying. Otter looked small standing next to her, but Vicky was nearly as tall as I was, and built in a similar way too. Otter had some generous curves and golden skin. It was verging on yellowy and I wondered, not for the first time, whether she had some exotic lineage she didn’t know about.
The off white vest top with some sort of paining on it and maroon skater skirt combo she was wearing today made her look the perfect shape, though she insisted she wasn’t and I was. I couldn’t agree. I used to be sporty until this year. Tall and slender doesn’t exactly say feminine.
The outfit also succeeded in making her soft pink hair look brighter than it really was. When we were fourteen she’d gone for purple, fifteen blue, and last year green. Apparently the first year of our A’ levels called for pink, though she’d had to cut it to just below her chin at the beginning of this summer as there really was no hope in saving it. I often wondered how much hair she’ll have left when the time came for a new colour.
“Otter?” I asked as she joined us. “Do you know anything about these flowers?”
“What flowers?” Her hard-angled eyebrows came together. “Is this more of Nay’s philosophical cat in a box crap?”
“Schrödinger’s cat is not crap! And it’s not philosophical. It’s a thought experiment and a valid question.”
“Thought experiment,” she scoffed. “If you put a cat in a box with no air holes, it’s dead, stupid.”
“You’re thinking too logically about this. Think about what the question’s really asking.”
“Wait.” I put my hands up to interrupt them both. “To correct you, Nay, it’s not a thought experiment, it’s physics. It’s demonstrating quantum theory and the cat is in fact both dead and alive. And we’re talking about flowers. Not cats.”
“If you come anywhere near my cat with your box I’ll shove your balls into a box and Simba himself will tear them off.”
“Otter, please. Have you seen the flowers on the road coming into Suddich?”
“I’ve seen many flowers on that road in my time.”
“No. Today. New ones.”
She looked up as she thought but shook her head. “Nope. Can’t say for certain. I wasn’t paying that much attention.”
“Someone must’ve seen them.” My voice came out quieter than I expected and Nathan met my eye.
“They’re probably there, Abz, what’re you worried about?”
“Yeah,” Otter agreed. “That or you were seeing things in your drugged state.”
“I just had a tooth out, I didn’t get drugged.”
Nathan gave me a look. “You were a little bit drugged up this morning.”
“I was not.” I hadn’t felt any different than I did every other morning. The only new development was the dribbling problem but he didn’t know about that. My lips were tingling as the feeling returned to them but I hadn’t mentioned that either.
Otter giggled. “You weren’t that focused this morning, Abz. Stop freaking out. Chances are the flowers are there but you’re the first person to notice.”
I nodded, taking a breath to slow my heart. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”
How I hoped she was right.