Thereafter

*Movellas Advent Calendar 2014!* *NaNoWriMo 2014* *First Draft* ©Molly Looby There are 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 when another wave of flowers showed up on the outskirts of my home town, I didn't pay much attention apart from a deep aching sadness within. It was only upon mentioning it in passing I realised something was wrong. I spoke to everyone but to no avail. Maybe I was going crazy but . . . I was the only one who could see the flowers.

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12. Twelve

I had to beg Nathan not to tell my mum about what had happened on the roadside. I had to tell him that I was going to forget about it like he’d said and move on.

I was going to do no such thing.

I was quiet as we played on the PS4 and went home after only an hour or so. I couldn’t have Nathan staring at me like that. I had to get out.

For the first time since spotting them, I didn’t look for the flowers as I drove home. I was already gripping the steering wheel tight as though my hands were locked there and gritting my teeth. My car was roaring under the strain of my speed. The clip in the boot was rattling away but I didn’t care. I sped down the road and only slowed a little at the roundabout, the way clear.

Until a sports car shot round and I had to slam my brakes on.

I was jolted forward, the air freshener hitting the windshield and my heart throwing itself at my rib cage. I let out a cry of shock and panic and desperation before bursting into tears. The guy in the car behind beeped and waved some obscene gesture at me but I couldn’t make my legs work on the pedals. I was shaking and now sobbing. I put my hazard lights on and the man behind went around me, slowing down to shout something I had no intention of listening to.

It took a full five minutes before I had enough control over my legs to pull onto the roundabout and carry on home. The rest of the way, I drove slower than I ever had in my life, stopping at every junction and roundabout, not trusting my judgement.

I was imagining a load of flowers and I’d seen a man disappear from right in front of me. My judgement could no longer be trusted.

When I pulled up outside the house, I shut off the engine, unfastened my seatbelt, and let out a full lungful of breath, resting my head on the steering wheel and shutting my eyes. How was I supposed to carry on with my life? Nathan had said I could forget like it was easy. That wasn’t possible. He didn’t understand how much of my life was being ruined by something so harmless. He couldn’t understand. No one could.

There was only one thing for it. I had to talk to Zed again. I needed those answers he said I wasn’t ready for. I must be ready now. I was ready to believe anything, anything at all. As long as it made sense. I just needed everything to be okay again. I needed to be able to move on with my life.

Once I’d dragged myself out of the car and into the house, Mum pulled up, far too chirpy for my liking.

“Hey, how was the exam? I’ve been dying to know!”

“Fine.” I fell onto the sofa and reached for the Xbox remote.

“Have you only just got in?” She sat on the arm of the sofa.

“Yeah. I went round Auntie Kate’s for a bit after the exam.”

“What’s wrong with you?” She pulled on my half ponytail. “You look like someone just killed your puppy.”

“I’m fine. I’m just tired.” It wasn’t a lie. I was so tired I felt like I could sleep through the rest of my life. I just wanted to shut my eyes and cease to exist for the next month or so.

“You hungry?” She stood up and made her way into the kitchen.

I shrugged as I opened my game; not bothering to change the disc, just playing whatever was in there last. I needed to put myself in someone else’s shoes, if possible, for a long time. I let Mum jabber about the shop and her day as I lost myself to the game.

When I smelt the plate of pie and mash Mum had put on the table before fetching her own, my stomach rumbled. My mouth couldn’t agree with my stomach though, according to the rest of my body, I wasn’t at all hungry, though I’d last eaten hours ago. After saving my game and turning the TV off, I had to heave myself up. I glared at my plate as I sat down, having no idea how I was supposed to finish it all.

“Right, Mrs,” Mum announced as she sat down at the table. “Time to tell me what’s wrong.”

“It’s really nothing, Mum. Quite literally it seems, it’s nothing.”

“I don’t care. You haven’t said a word since you got in and anything you have said I’ve had to pull out of you. It’s exhausting, Abia. Now tell me, what is it?”

“Mum, it’s really nothing.” I pushed a piece of chicken around my plate. “Honest.”

“Then you have no excuse. Tell me about the exam.”

“There’s not much to tell. It was a maths exam. Like I said, it was fine. Nathan was a drama queen about it but what else is new?”

“You think you did well?”

“Yeah, as well as I could’ve done. There were only a few questions that confused me but they love tricking you for some reason. Like the exam board doesn’t want anyone a hundred percenting it.”

She chuckled. “Well then we should celebrate. You don’t have an exam tomorrow do you?”

I shook my head. “Not till Monday.”

“We could go out tomorrow?”

I raised my eyebrows. “You’re leaving Laura and Jess in charge of the shop?”

“Why so surprised? They’re perfectly capable ladies, that’s why I hired them.”

“I’m not surprised they can do it, I know they can. I’ll be surprised if you manage a day without stepping through those doors.”

“I can do it if we’re going to do something fun.”

I shook my head. “I’m really okay. I’ll stay home. You can go to work if you like.”

“I might love my job, Abia, but that does not mean I want to spend every hour of my day doing it. I’d much rather spend it with you.”

I smiled. It was small but I felt it pull at my cheeks and heart and that was all I wanted. “Even if we stay in?”

“Even then. Whaddya say?”

“That sounds like perfection.”

After that, I found my food easier to swallow and my heart wasn’t so heavy in my chest. Mum and I curled up on the sofa in our pyjamas and put on a film we’d seen a hundred times before. I could almost forget about the immortal self fixing flowers that didn’t exist and the tall ginger man with mystery surrounding his every step.

Almost.

Thursday was spent much the same as Wednesday night, snuggled on the sofa with Mum. There was no place I’d rather be.

Otter appeared after dinner with a big rucksack and a shopping bag full of chocolate, somewhat suspiciously. I wondered if it was Mum or Nathan’s doing, not that I minded.

I looked round from my place on the sofa when Mum opened the door to Otter sing-songing her name.

“Kimberly, my angel!”

“What’re you doing here?” I asked.

“Nice, Abz, great to see you too. I haven’t seen you in two entire days. But isn’t the answer obvious?” She held up the bag of chocolate. “My exams are over!”

“Lucky sod. I’m only half way done.”

“Well I took the right A’ levels of course. And may I toot my own horn and say I think I’ve done very well indeed? Time for chocolate.”

It turned out having no exams left for the year wasn’t her only motive. If anything her visit was more about one thing. Her upcoming party. It was a week on Friday and she couldn’t shut up about it.

“Why is this such a big deal?” I asked as we opened our second share bag of chocolate.

“Because I’m having loads of people over. There’ll be people there who’ve never seen my house before.”

“Then why do you want them over?”

“I’ve made a lot of new friends this year, I want them all there. Just because you’ve had the same two friends forever doesn’t mean that’s the same for the rest of us.”

“You’re just Little Miss Popular.”

“Not in the conventional way. I’m just nice is all. I like people.”

I pulled a face. “People are confusing and misleading.”

“That’s why you’ve got one friend who likes everyone and another one who has no choice but like you because he’s your relative.”

“I don’t need more. I’m good.”

“You'd still say that if you had no friends.”

I narrowed my eyes at her and she laughed.

“So, I’ve invited Mel mainly so Nathan can drool over her all night and also because I can’t just invite Ky on his own.”

“Wait. You’ve invited Kyle Sutherland?” My stomach tied itself in a knot and my heart began to stutter.

“Yeah, Ky’s great. Mel’s a bit . . . high maintenance but she’s alright.”

I grabbed her arm. “Please don’t invite Kyle. Invite Melissa if you have to but not Kyle.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

Though I told Otter and Nathan everything, I was not going to tell them about what happened at his party last summer. If she invited him there was no telling what he’d say to me. I wasn’t even sure if he’d told Melissa yet. I was guessing he hadn’t because they were still together.

“I just don’t like him.” I crossed my arms. “I’m not a fan of Melissa Greene either.”

“So you don’t want Nay to marry her?”

“Not even a little bit.” I smirked. “She wouldn’t have him anyway.”

“True. But I’m inviting them. You don’t like anyone.”

I felt my lips pout like a child but I couldn’t help myself. A party was going to be difficult enough for me to manoeuvre, let alone having to spend all night dodging Kyle.

“Anyone I’m missing?” she asked after spouting off a list that in my opinion was far too long for anything that was held in a house.

“No one. You’ve invited most of our year.”

“Okay, so food.”

This continued on for some time until we were both sitting on my bed, Otter’s sleeping bag set up on the floor. Whether or not she would end up sleeping in it was a different question.

“Abz,” she said, turning to me, her hazel-green eyes big and open. “I’m not gonna lie, the party wasn’t the only reason I came round.”

“I already expected an ulterior motive. Was it Nathan? Did he talk to you?”

“Yep. This has Nay-Nay written all over it, huh?”

“Just a little.”

“To say he’s worried is an understatement.”

“Well he did watch his cousin lose her mind the other day. I don’t blame him. Did he tell you what happened with the flowers?”

“Yeah, but I want to hear it from you.”

Otter was quiet, her big lips pressed shut as she listened. She nodded along but not once went to interrupt me. She didn’t stop me and demand that I was making it up because it didn’t make sense. That was why Otter was my best friend in the universe. She knew when I needed her to talk but she also knew when I needed her to listen.

“So I’m crazy aren’t I?” I finished. “I mean . . . seeing flowers is one thing. Being able to touch them is another thing. But them fixing themselves and not ageing?”

“I don’t think it’s as bad as you think. Surely this new information only makes it more likely that you made it up.”

“That would be true if Zed hadn’t shown up.”

“Yeah, that’s a little weird, there’s no denying that. But . . . maybe he’s a mind reader.”

“He isn’t because no one can read minds.”

She chuckled. “No one else can see these flowers and you’re telling me that mind reading is stupid?”

I shrugged. “Just because this has shaken everything I know, doesn’t mean I’ve stopped believing everything I know. There’s plausible and then there’s ridiculous.”

“I know, I know. But . . .” She went to grab her necklace and her hand fell in her lap as she found it not there. She’d taken it off when she’d changed into her grey owl pyjamas. “Can’t you help but think something . . . supernatural is going on here?”

“No.”

“No? Just like that?”

“I believe in truth and reason. I’m not about to change that.”

“How do you explain it then?”

“I don’t. I know there’s an explanation out there somewhere and I’m going to find it. I’m not about to blame this on something stupid that doesn’t exist.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I know you’ve been watching too much TV.”

She chuckled. “You’re stronger than you think if you can let this go unexplained rather than jump to a ridiculous conclusion just to make yourself feel better.”

I shrugged. “It’s just not me to do that. Am I getting increasingly freaked out? Yes. Do I think some boogie man is messing with me? No.”

“Unless it’s Zed.” Her hard angled eyebrows went up on her forehead.

I bit my lip. “Could be I guess. But how is he doing it? I’ve looked up magic tricks and disappearing acts but nothing comes close to what he did.”

“Maybe he’s just really good?”

“If it’s him and that’s all it is, I could grab him and kiss him.”

“Then punch him in the face right?”

“Obviously.” I smirked. “But if it is him, why me?”

“I dunno. You’re pretty weird and interesting.”

I shook my head. “I gotta talk to him again. I know he knows more than he’s told me. He said it himself.”

Otter’s eyebrows came together. “I don’t trust that guy, Abz. It’s weird.”

“I don’t trust him either but I have to know what’s going on. Even if he just makes it up, that gives me something else to think about. I’m going mad here. I feel like I’ve explored all my options.”

“I’d feel better if I could be there.”

“Me too but I have no way to contact him. I have no idea if I’ll even see him again.”

“I’m pretty sure you will.”

“Yeah, something’s telling me that as well.”

“If it helps, I get why Nathan was scared but I also get why you acted how you did. Man, if it was me . . .”

I laughed. “I don’t even want to imagine.”

Otter did a decent job of distracting me from my apparent supernatural problems until she left after lunch the next day. Then, once again, I found myself alone. I did my best to dive into my maths and physics but that wasn’t enough of a distraction. Neither was the Xbox or TV. I rattled around the house all day waiting for Mum to come home. Not that I had anything to say to her when she did return.

I set up on the floor of my room, taking apart an old kid’s cassette tape player. It was one of the first things I’d successfully taken apart and fixed again. It’d been more fun to reduce the thing to its bare bones than to listen to a tape on it.

When I was surrounded by bits and pieces and deciding where to start, my phone rang. I was expecting Otter or Nathan but it was Angela’s picture I saw.

Breath shot into my lungs and anxiety ate me up. I held my phone in my hand, staring at the screen. I didn’t want to answer. I knew it might have been serious and it might have been Angela but I also knew it could be Grace.  I couldn’t stomach talking to Grace again, my nerves couldn’t take it. As if I didn’t have enough to scare me. I didn’t need Grace telling me that something big and bad was coming and she was terrified.

It stopped ringing and I blew out the breath I’d been holding, resting my head in my hands. I didn’t know if it made me a terrible sister to have ignored Grace’s call but I didn’t care. I didn’t need to be sister of the year. I didn’t even want to be.

The skeleton of my old cassette player jumped out of my hands and clattered on top of all its bits and pieces when my phone rang again.

I growled as I picked it up. “What?”

“Abi!” It was Grace alright.

I gripped the phone tighter, speaking through my teeth. “I’m busy, Grace.”

“I thought something had happened to you!”

“I’m fine.”

“You didn’t pick up your phone.”

“Like I said, I’m busy. Can you make this quick?”

“The big thing’s getting closer.”

I didn’t let her childish fantasy get to me this time. “I’m not in the mood, Grace. Nothing’s going to happen. Can I go?”

“She doesn’t believe me,” she whispered.

I felt my nose crinkle. “Who are you talking to?”

“Winnie.”

“Oh right, of course.”

“She says that something is coming.”

“Well she would agree with you wouldn’t she? Can you and Winnie please leave me alone now? You’ll see me on Monday. You can warn me all about this thing then.”

“Okay.” She was quiet and my heart gave a little leap as I realised I’d upset her.

“I’m sorry, Grace, I’m just not in the mood to chat right now. Was there anything you needed me for?”

“No. I was just checking you were okay.”

“Well I’m just fine. Same as usual. I’ll see you on Monday, okay?”

She said only this before hanging up, “It’s coming. And there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”

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