I ended up telling Otter about Kyle’s party last summer while she was off having the time of her life in Portugal. I also felt compelled to tell her what he’d said to me at her party. I felt like the stack of bricks I’d been carrying on my shoulders since last summer evaporated into thin air once I’d finished. From now on there would be no secrets between Otter and I, no matter how difficult they were to say aloud.
After a long debate on whether or not to tell Melissa she was dating some sort of scummy dimwit monster, I made my way back to Suddich. The wind was whistling through the trees and bending the branches. I felt the force of it on my car as I drove.
The flowers were there, same as always, unharmed and not moving. The wind had no effect on them whatsoever. I shuddered as I passed, trying not to think too much about where this was all leading. I was sure now that it must be leading somewhere. Zed wouldn’t have shown up if it wasn’t.
Grace appeared at the door as I pulled up, holding a Disney princess in one hand and waving with the other. The mere look of her was exhausting me. I slapped a smile on my face as I climbed out the car and retrieved my rucksack. She was still wearing the tiara.
“Hi! Was the party good?”
“Otter had a lovely time, thank you. She loved your card,” I said as I shut the front door behind me.
A hint of blush bloomed on Grace’s plump cheeks and she hugged her princess tight.
She followed me up the stairs as I went to put my things away.
“I think it’s getting closer,” she said in my door frame, like she was afraid to come in.
“Gracie.” I put my hand to my forehead. “Can you please stop saying things like that? You’re scaring me.”
“But . . . you told me there was nothing to be afraid of.”
I huffed and spun round to face her. “There isn’t but that doesn’t mean you’re not freaking me out. Can we please not talk about big bad things happening to me?”
“Okay.” She dug her toes into the ground and looked at her feet. “She doesn’t always talk about you. It’s just that one thing.”
“Can you tell her to stop talking about me please? It’s rude to talk about people behind their backs.” Not that I was going to mention that Otter and I had been doing that all morning in one way or another.
“We’re not saying bad things.”
I pushed some fringe off my face. “You keep saying big bad things are going to happen to me, that is bad. Do you know how that makes me feel?” I could hear my tone and pitch rising. “Would you like it if I kept telling you horrible things were going to happen because some man I can see that you can’t see told me so? A man that knows everything about me meaning he knows about you too?”
Grace was breathing as though she’d been holding her breath underwater for a long time. “I don’t wanna upset you.”
“Then why are you saying these things! Why are you being so creepy? It’s not normal! Stop it!” I couldn’t remember ever shouting at her like this before but I couldn’t stop. “I’ve got enough going on without you babbling on about Winnie and doom and big bad things!”
“Hey!” Dad’s voice sounded from the office and he and Angela emerged. “What’s all this?”
Grace shot into her room and slammed the door. All I could do was stand there and clench my fists, breathing heavy and trying not to scream.
“Abia, what on Earth’s gotten into you?” Dad asked.
“You’re scaring her again, aren’t you,” Angela said. “Leave her alone, you know how impressionable she is!”
“Abia.” Dad shook his head. “I expect more from you.”
Hot angry tears were welling in my eyes and I just shook my head, unable to put anything into words.
“She was looking forward to spending the day with you.” Angela was squeaking. “She loves you so much. The least you could do is show her a little kindness.”
“She’s only little. She’s not as clever as you.”
“You shouldn’t punish her for that.”
“Go and apologise right now.”
I couldn’t breathe. All I could see was Angela’s face going red and the disappointment in Dad’s eyes. They seemed too big and I felt small. Tiny.
I pushed past them, shoving Angela to one side as I raced down the stairs blurry eyed. I slammed the front door behind me and sat behind the wheel of my car, begging myself not to burst into tears as I started up the engine and drove away with nothing else but the phone in my pocket and my purse which I’d grabbed off the telephone table.
There was only one place in the universe that I wanted to go and that was back to Cullham. I gripped the steering wheel tight, feeling every bump in the road in my shaking limbs. I sniffed back my tears.
“Come on, Abz,” I said, clearing the lump out of my throat. “Pull it together.”
I stared down at the flowers as I passed them and noticed a white sheet of paper on the back of the sign I’d never seen before. I squinted but I couldn’t make it out from here on the wrong side of the road.
At the next junction, I turned, finding my way down this windy back street for a place to park. There was a little shop or something with an empty car park. I threw my car into a space, jumped out and jogged towards those horrible flowers.
I had no qualms with walking over them this time, nausea jumping into my throat as I did so. My heart seemed to both stop and go at triple time as I caught sight of what the white piece of paper was.
It was a child’s drawing. In perfect condition, like it hadn’t rained since it’d been stuck up there.
My legs buckled.
It was Grace’s drawing.
With a shaking hand, I went to touch it. The dry paper under my finger tips with the bumpy coloured flowers made me whimper and back away, shaking my head.
That couldn’t be Grace’s picture. Grace’s picture was on the fridge in Willow Street. She couldn’t have drawn these flowers. I was the only one who had seen the flowers. And what was it doing here?
I couldn’t breathe as I gazed at the bunches around me and their many tags.
“No.” I whispered it. “No. I’m dreaming. It’s a nightmare. I need to wake up.” I pinched myself, hard. Nothing.
“No.” I cried. “No! This isn’t real! This can’t be real! It doesn’t make sense!”
I went to walk away and spun round again, pulling my hair, needing the pain of it. “Please! This can’t be happening!” My throat hurt from how loud I was shrieking. “This isn’t happening!”
I fell to my knees. “Make it stop!” I squeezed my eyes tight shut to make the world disappear. I wanted to disappear.
My breaths were ragged and hard and I was too numb for tears. I rocked myself back and forth for a few minutes before I had the courage to crawl towards the flowers and face my fate.
I knew I had to. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to face this. But this, after all, was starting to make sense. I needed to get all my information, work on facts. I needed to know what was going on. Though the thought made me dizzy and sick, I had to do it.
I had to read the labels.
I went to the pink tulips I’d tried to stamp on the other day and picked up the tag.
Taken too young. Life’s too short. R.I.P.
My heart drummed faster as I moved along the line, the rest telling a similar story.
It’s been a day and I know we haven’t spoken in years but I miss you. I’d give anything to see your smile again. Love Olivia x
A new star in the sky. I hope you’re at peace – Rebecca
We will never forget you. God bless. Sleep tight.
I had to stop because I couldn’t see. Tears were dripping off my nose and onto the label but the ink didn’t run and the paper didn’t crinkle.
Why was this happening?
You had your whole life ahead of you. It’s not fair. We’ll live it to the full for you. Rest in peace – Josh
My mind was whirring, jumping from one thing to another, trying to explain myself out of this one, trying to come up with an explanation. Any explanation but this.
This didn’t make sense.
What was going on? Why was this happening?
The worst things always happen to the best people. Love Bronte x
I wanted my brain to shut down but it wouldn’t. I was thinking too much. Too fast. I didn’t want to think anymore.
We spoke a few days ago, how short life is and how quickly everything can change. Peace be with you. Love Megan.
I could hardly pick up the tags my hands were trembling so much. They were jumping out of my hands. But I had to read them.
This couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be happening.
This doesn’t seem real. The horror will never sink in. You will be missed. R.I.P. – Alfie
The raging sickness in my stomach was making me swallow again and again to keep it down. My mouth had the tacky texture of vomit. I had to take shallow breaths as I moved on.
Words aren’t enough to describe this tragedy. Shine bright. Love forever, Jasmine x
I was breathing but it was like my lungs weren’t working. The gasping sounds of my breaths were loud and I choked and sobbed and struggled on.
How can life take you away? You were so loved! – Caitlin x
It just didn’t make any sense. None. This couldn’t be happening.
This wasn’t happening!
You were too good for us. I hope the angels take good care of you. Love Beth.
The world seemed to slow.
We’ll never forget the memories. God bless – Will x
I couldn’t hear the cars anymore.
Shocked isn’t strong enough a word, neither is devastated. I hope you’re some place better now. You didn’t deserve this – Vicky x
In fact there was no noise at all.
Taken from our lives but never from our hearts. Love Ky x
Just my heartbeat.
Never forgotten x
It was as though the earth had paused in the most awful moment of my life.
Always in our hearts x
Forever missed x
And then there he was crouching down beside me. He huffed as he sat, pushing some hair off his face. “Amelia.” He shook his head. “Didn’t I tell you not to look?”
“This . . .” I had to gasp for breath. “This can’t be happening. I’m dreaming. Tell me I’m dreaming.”
“This is real and not real all at the same time, Amelia. I’m sorry. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“What’s this? Why me? What’s going on? Why is this happening?” I went to jump up and run but my legs crumpled and Zed caught me. “This isn’t real!”
“Scream.” He nodded. “It’ll make it easier. I know from experience.”
He helped me to stand and I let go of his hand when I was steady. I couldn’t focus on one single thing. Everything seemed blurred or warped. Shirking or growing in an unnatural way.
This wasn’t happening.
I pulled in the biggest breath of my life, feeling my lungs expand and my chest stick out. I sucked air in until my lungs were bursting, until I could almost feel my ribs.
I shut my eyes tight, feeling the burn of squashing them so tight with my eyelids alone. My forehead was crinkled in concentration and so was my nose.
And then I screamed.
I had never heard a sound so loud in all my life. I’m sure cars must’ve been looking at the crazy girl on the side of the road but I didn’t care. They didn’t know. They couldn’t know.
How could they when I didn’t even believe it?
I screamed until I could make no more sound. Then I took another breath and continued. The universe wasn’t fair and I wanted it to know how much it’d broken me.
I dropped to my hands and knees in a hacking cough and Zed rubbed my back, quiet for once. As I took a breath in, I choked and felt it all the way to my stomach. I drew breath out of the pit of my lungs, my stomach dragging something too and I couldn’t breathe because I was being sick and crying and choking and losing my mind.
I wanted to stop. Stop thinking. Stop crying. Stop everything. I wanted to stop.
I wanted to stop.
I rolled over to one side when I could see again, and Zed was sitting next to me, peering down. I liked the feel of the grass on my back, the way it was crunchy and soft all at the same time. That gorgeous earthy smell and the way it stained clothes. Almost like a souvenir.
“What’s going on?” I whispered.
“I think you know.” Zed was quiet.
I shook my head. “I’m making it up. I’m in a coma or I’m delusional or someone force fed me drugs.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“But this isn’t real.”
“It is, Amelia.”
A terrible calm descended and I sat up to look at the flowers. I couldn’t decide whether they were the most stunning things I’d ever seen or the ugliest. Was it possible they were both all at the same time?
I struggled to standing and tiptoed my way to the orange chrysanthemums. I held the label in my hand, blinking away tears. I took a huge breath and flipped the label.
It was blank.
“Zed, this one’s blank.”
He came over to join me, taking it out of my hand. “So it is. It’s undecided.” He motioned to the other flowers. “Shows how predictable most people are.”
I’d been staring at the colours for so long that now only the white and cream paper bits stuck out. There were five envelopes with five letters inside and I was terrified to break them open. It felt wrong. Disrespectful.
But that was ridiculous.
“What about the letters?” I had to ask. “Are they blank?”
He shook his head. “No. But they’re anything but predictable. You can open them if you like. We’re the only ones here.”
A “No!” shot out my mouth before I could even think. “I can’t . . . I just . . . I can’t.”
He took my hand and we stared for a while.
“How did you know I was here?” I asked, wanting to hide from the truth for just one minute.
I needed a minute to get my brain in order.
I needed a moment for life to be normal again.
For the last time.
“I knew you’d be coming soon. I just didn’t know when.”
“Is it your job to be here?”
“No. I knew you’d need me.”
I was about to argue but I shut my mouth again. We both knew it was a lie.
“What made you look?” He was almost whispering.
He nodded. “Weird isn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s on my fridge.”
I felt like I should smile but I could not. “You know everything.”
“It’s not too bad, Amelia.”
I looked into those sincere green bottle eyes. “How can you say that?”
He chuckled but it was sad. “Look at me.”
I took a breath, let go of his hand and stepped forward. “I think I need to do it now.”
His eyebrows came together.
“So far I’ve only guessed at what these are. I’m pretty sure I know now but . . . nothing has made it certain.”
“Ah.” He shut his eyes and breathed in long and deep. “Do you want me to leave you alone?”
“No!” I reached out for him and he took my hand and gave it a pulse. “You’re going to have to answer my questions.”
He grinned but it didn’t seem wrong. “You’re very particular, Abia Angel.”
My name shocked me back in reality because this was it. This stranger only I could see knew my name. Knew everything about me.
I had to do it.
Stop being a coward.
Just one more label.
One more label.
I went to the middle to one I hadn’t yet seen. It was attached to some sort of daisy hybrid. My heart was beating like a stampede. My breaths were coming like gun fire. My hands were slick with sweat and so was my forehead.
I flipped it over.
Abia, a true angel now.
Breath left me and everything stopped. There was no breeze, no noise, no nothing.
But of course. It all made sense now.
The flowers were for me.