The next day was Tuesday again, meaning it had been an entire week since I’d first seen those bloody flowers. I was starting to hate the sight of them, though I shouldn’t have to see them again until next week. That was a plus for my dwindling sanity.
I wanted to go over there and stamp on them, kick their colourful heads into the road. I didn’t care who saw. I didn’t care what they thought. If what everyone was saying was true and there weren’t any flowers there, all they’d see was a crazy girl losing her temper. That was better than a girl destroying a tribute to someone’s lost life.
I had a plan. I was going to spend my day asking as many classmates as I dared about the flowers. If by the end of the day I still came up blank, I was going to have to seek professional help.
It was the warmest day of the year so far, so I decided to take a walk around Suddich to attempt to clear my head. I had a lone free first period so no one would miss me. I ended up in Grace’s favourite park, sitting on a bench Nathan and I had written our names on three summers ago. I traced the letters with my finger tips and sighed, letting the warm breeze caress my hair.
When I looked up, I saw a figure in the distance. I narrowed my eyes, trying to decipher who it was and whether or not I should ask them about the freaking fantasy funeral flowers. They were walking in this direction, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. It was a man of about eighteen with bright orange hair. I felt like I’d seen him before and it was when I went to look away, seeing the blur of the orange in my peripheral vision, that I realised where it was that I’d seen him. I snapped my vision back on to him, terrified to blink in case he disappeared. Seeing flowers was one thing, but a person?
How could I have forgotten about him until now?
As he grew closer, his lips pressed into a line and his eyebrows came together. He stopped a few paces from me, hands in his tight fitting jacket. I knew I was staring, but I wasn’t about to give up now.
He was tall, somewhere between Dad and Uncle Patrick’s height but nowhere near as wide. He was skinny and his shoulders didn’t look much broader than mine. His skin was as white as I’d ever seen. It was even paler than mine and Dad’s. I guessed having ginger hair went hand in hand with the lightest skin tones.
Narrowing his eyes, he took a step forward. He looked about himself before doing it again.
He took a deep breath and it seemed a lifetime before he spoke. “Are you looking at me?”
This was the point that any normal person would avert their eyes, apologise, or come up with some sort of excuse. But I’d left normal behind too many days ago for that.
“I’ve seen you before.” The nerves clenched at my stomach only when the words had escaped. I squeezed my nails into my palms.
His hair was whipping in his face at this angle. It was mid-length and fluffy looking with a sort of side fringe bed head thing going on.
“I don’t think so.” He came closer. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“You were by the flowers.”
He blinked and pulled a face that was supposed to make me feel crazy, one eyebrow raised. Nothing a stranger could do could make me feel any crazier than I already felt.
“It was a week ago at about half four, quarter to five. I saw you standing by the flowers that are behind the Welcome to Suddich sign.”
“That’s a bit specific.” He sat next to me, eyes wandering up and down my face.
“I saw you.” My voice was firm.
His eyes were a green colour much clearer than Angela and Grace’s. Almost like the colour of a clear green bottle. He wouldn’t take them off me, like he was looking for something. “I’ve never seen you before,” he repeated, sitting back on the bench and looking to the trees in the distance. His expression hardened.
I opened my mouth and shut it again, looking away from the stranger. I knew it was the same guy. It had to be. I hadn’t seen hair that orange since Ben Jacobs’s in primary school. Not to mention I’d lived in Suddich half the time for five years now, and had been going to school here since I was eleven.
And I’d never seen him before. There was no trace of anything I recognised on his triangle shaped face or in his slightly droopy eyes. So that begged the question, what was he doing here?
Twenty odd questions shot into my mind at once after that one but my short burst of bravado had drained. I didn’t know him. He didn’t know me. But I had seen him before.
He leant forward, resting his elbows on his knees, his head leaning on his fists. He looked almost as concerned as I was, eyebrows low, eyes hard, mouth a tight line.
We sat like that, he in though, me watching him, for what must’ve been close to ten minutes before he sighed and sat up again, meeting my gaze.
“You’ve seen me before?” He made it sound like the mere notion alone was preposterous.
“It was definitely me?”
“It must’ve been you.” I fidgeted until I was sitting on my hands. “You can see the flowers, can’t you?”
He didn’t answer for a few seconds, eyes drinking me in, as though he was considering whether or not to lie to me. He bit his lip, took a breath and answered. “Yes.”
A puff of air escaped my mouth in a sound of relief and disbelief. I felt my mouth turn up at the corners and tears sting in my eyes. “So . . . I’m not going crazy?” I laughed. “The flowers are real?” I put my hand over my mouth, shaking my head, the feeling of elation singing in my chest. I felt like for the first time in a week, I could breathe again. “The flowers are real. I’m not crazy.”
“You’re not crazy.” He grinned and it was a big easy-going smile. “But that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve never met before.”
“No.” I couldn’t stop smiling. “We haven’t. I was in the car. That’s why you haven’t seen me before.”
“Did you know them well? The person who died?” I pushed some hair back from my face, an anxious gnawing in my stomach that I should tread with caution. Death wasn’t a subject I was comfortable with. I didn’t know anyone who was for that matter.
“No. I barely knew them at all actually. But we’re big fans of . . . celebrating someone’s life where I come from. I was simply paying my respects while it was quiet.” He looked out to the tree line again.
“But you’re the only person I’ve seen there.”
He didn’t look at me as he spoke. “I was the last one to hear about it it seems.”
“Other people can see the flowers too? I know this sounds stupid but it’s not just me and you, is it?”
He shook his head before meeting my eye again. “No. It’s not just us.”
“Do you know anyone who can’t see them?”
“No,” he answered again before offering his hand. “I’m Zed by the way.”
“Zed,” I repeated, not taking his hand, unease seeping through my body.
“Yeah, why? Is that hard to believe?”
I crossed my arms over my chest, not knowing how to answer.
He lowered his hand but didn’t stop watching me. “What is it?”
“I – I don’t know you. You could be anyone.”
“That’s why I’m introducing myself, so you know who I am.”
I shook my head and stood up to put some distance between me and this man I had now sobered up enough to realise was a complete stranger to me. “What are you doing here?”
“I was just walking, enjoying the sun. Like you I assume.”
“No, I mean, in Suddich.” I was breathing so fast it was difficult to get the words out. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I’m new here. It’s a bizarre little town don’t you think?” His voice was honeyed but I didn’t trust it.
“What do you want?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You were the one staring at me like a maniac.”
I scrutinised him for a moment. He didn’t look suspicious and it was broad daylight but I wasn’t taking any chances. I took a few steps back.
His smile dropped as he continued to watch me. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
I kept moving until I felt I was far enough away to spin round and sprint in the direction of school. I heard Zed’s voice on the wind shouting some sort of farewell as I ran.
I skidded into the common room to find a flustered Otter with her phone pressed against her ear. She growled and threw it on the table as she saw me.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Weren’t you supposed to be in a lesson?” I wheezed as I joined her.
“We got cover work. I’ve been calling and calling you.”
“It was in my bag.” Sure enough, I fished my phone out of the front pocket and I had three texts and five missed calls from her. “Sorry.”
“So where have you been?”
“I just went to the park. It’s warm out.”
“Why? For a jog?”
“No. I was just sitting with my thoughts.”
She looked me up and down. “So why are you all out of breath?”
“I was running.”
“Thanks, genius.” She rolled her eyes. “Why were you running?”
“There was this creepy guy there.” Creepy was perhaps a bit harsh but it worked for my purposes.
She laughed. “So there was this poor guy in the park who you took one look at and bolted?”
“No. He was talking to me. It was really . . . strange.”
“Was it some old perv walking his dog, telling you about the good old days?”
“No. He was about our age.”
“Okay . . .” She chewed the end of her pen. “He was probably checking you out.” She shrugged. “You just didn’t compute it in your big ol’ science brain.” She tapped me on the head with the pen, leaving a wet patch.
“Eww.” I wiped it off, scowling at her. “He was not checking me out.”
“Let me be the judge of that.” She crossed her arms and leant on the table, her owl necklace hitting the plastic with a pleasant tappity tap. “What did you talk about?”
It dawned on me then that I’d never mentioned the boy by the flowers before. Not to anyone. “Well, you know the flowers?”
She groaned. “Yikes. That was what you talked about? Do you have any other topics of conversation or is that just your go-to?”
“No, no, no. Listen. Last week when Mum drove me home, I saw a boy standing by the flowers.”
“This is new.”
“I’d completely forgotten about it until I saw him again.”
“Wait. They guy you talked to in the park was the flower guy?”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“He had the exact same hair. Proper ginger. And I think he was wearing the same jacket.”
“It was just a ginger guy, Abz, what is wrong with you?” She went to look back to her work.
I grabbed her wrist and felt her skin jump underneath me. “Otter, you don’t understand.”
Her eyes met mine.
“He can see the flowers too.”
She stared at me, rosy pink lips parted. She had to wet them before speaking again. “What?”
“He can see the flowers.”
“How . . . how can you know that? Did you ask him?”
“And he just agreed?”
“You don’t get it, Otter. I’m not going crazy.”
“Abz.” She took my hand, shaking her head. “You can’t know that he saw them. What if he only said it because he thought that’s what you wanted to hear?”
“He said he knew them. The person who died there.” I was almost pleading with her.
“Oh really? Did he say how he knew them? Did he look sad?”
“I –” I paused, stopping. “No. He didn’t.”
She gave me a sad smile. “I think you need to keep away from that guy, Abz.”
“Yeah.” I gave a shaky laugh, trying to clear my head. “I think you’re right.”
“Did you talk about anything else?”
I thought for a moment and shook my head. “No.”
“You were right. That was a creepy encounter.” She rested back on her chair and smoothed her thumb over her owl pendant, nails green today. “So did you get out of sight and then dash back over here?”
“I backed away a bit and just, turned and ran. Once I realised I was talking to a man I’d never met before.”
“Not to mention in the middle of an empty park, right?”
“Yeah.” I cringed. “He said his name was Zed.”
“Totally sounds like a fake name. Good job on running. I would’ve too.”
“Yeah. I just got this feeling that something wasn’t right and I should get out.”
“I’m glad you trusted your gut. You’re not prone to which is a bit scary but I think it served you right in this case.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right.”
I let her get on with her cover work as I considered every word that’d passed between me and Zed. I didn’t blame him for wondering why I was staring, but the rest of the conversation didn’t make sense. Otter was making me doubt the one thing that’d made me happy in a week. The idea that someone else could see the flowers. The confirmation that I hadn’t made them up. They were real. I wasn’t having delusions.
I couldn’t believe that to be false just yet. Why would he say he could see them if he couldn’t? And he seemed to know exactly what I was talking about, a luxury I hadn’t had from anyone else. He must’ve known something more and I wished I’d been braver and asked. He’d said he wouldn’t hurt me and I wanted to believe him.
When Nathan appeared for the free period our entire year shared with us, I had to recount the whole thing again word perfect from what I could remember. I also had to describe Zed in as much detail as possible.
“Nah.” Nathan bit his lip. “I don’t think I know who you mean.”
“It doesn’t really matter. I won’t be seeing him again.”
“I’m still gonna be on the lookout. I bet I could scare the crap outta him if I wanted to.” He grinned at the prospect. “Hey!” he put on a gravelly voice. “What’cha want from Abia? Wait,” he returned to his normal voice. “You didn’t tell him your name did you?”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t even shake his hand. I wasn’t gonna announce my name like some sort of . . . Grace.”
He chuckled. “Well I hope he was lying about the flowers.”
“What? You want me to be insane?”
“No, of course not. But the more people who think you’re mental, the more weight there is to our theory.”
I huffed and started tapping my fingers on the desk.
“Come on. We’ve got to be right.”
I shook my head. “Let’s just not talk about it anymore.”
“God!” Otter snapped her book shut. “It’s about freaking time! If you get me flowers for my birthday, Abia Angel, I’m going to shove them up your arse.”
Nathan snorted into his hand. “Please, please get her flowers, Abz.”
“Your birthday’s not for another two weeks.”
“Precisely sixteen day I think you’ll find. If we’re quite done spending every waking moment on those bloody plants I think the next thing for us to obsess about is my birthday. I’m going to have a party on the Saturday, you guys free?”
“As a bird,” Nathan said.
Otter narrowed her eyes. “You don’t want to check that?”
“When do I do anything?”
“Never, but it’s just my luck that you’ll happen to be busy on the one night I’ve actually set aside for something.”
Nathan opened his mouth to reassure her some more when she turned to me, cutting over him.
“You’ll drag him with you, won’t you?”
I nodded. “It’ll be my week in Suddich so I’ll even drive him. I don’t care if he’s half naked, I’m bringing him.”
I soon realised how much I must’ve been boring Otter and Nathan with my incessant talk of the flowers. If it was anything like Otter babbling about her party, it was unbearable.
Maybe I could stop now and go back to my life. Zed had said we weren’t the only ones who could see the flowers and I wanted with every fibre in my body for that to be the truth. But something still didn’t feel right. I didn’t know whether it was our strange conversation or Otter and Nathan’s scepticism but something told me I couldn’t put this to bed yet.
Even if Zed could see the flowers, why couldn’t they?