This was originally published in an anthology Dark Light 3, by CH & BB LLC, May 2012
↓ Bouquet I found when walking the other day that inspired the short fiction: Tossed & Found ↓
It’s a perfect day to visit Momma. Trouble is, it’s also a perfect day to be outside. Outside enjoying herself, not sifting through a bunch of dead memories with Momma, but if Luanne walks over instead of driving, she can get the best of both worlds. It’s only a couple miles up the road—and through an intersection, but a T-bone intersection her route would zig-zag across—and you never know. She might find some flowers on the wayside that would be nice enough to stand-in for a store-bought bouquet. Even when she doesn’t feel like dropping by, she never goes to Momma’s empty-handed, not even once, because Luanne’s a good girl. A thoughtful girl, with old-school manners who just happens to be a little cash poor lately.
You can’t beat Indian Summer. Pulling shut the screen door behind her, she cuts across her patchy front lawn. Also known as half-withered grass & half-dirt, but what could she do? The city’s been on water restriction for months, now, and rolling a Chapstick across her nose and under her eyes, she looks up for scenic relief, breathing the scent of eucalyptus deep into her lungs. The canopy of trees studding her quiet block (and half of the next) shuts out most of unseasonably strong September sun, but the rest of the way is less shaded. Lord knows, you can’t use too much sunscreen, anymore, what with global warming and all, and—her thoughts screech to a halt. Is it still okay to call a hot September Indian Summer? She tries but can’t remember the correct term for Native Americans, and after a minute, finds herself thinking about the horror flick she watched last night, instead. Now that was a good movie. A proper, cowboys, Indians and axe-murderers reel. What was it called again? The Grim West? The Western Reaper?
Her California neighborhood is rural enough to walk in the middle of the street clear up to the thoroughfare, and this is exactly where Luanne walks. The frustrated parade star inside likes the feeling of ownership that comes with her central, promenading position—or maybe it’s the latent rebel—and own it she does, at least until she spies a cluster of daisies growing roadside. Growing on the sidewalk side of grass, too, instead of the lawn side, making them public property as far she’s concerned, and entirely up for finding and keeping. Her step quickens as she envisions the magazines she could buy at the Piggly-Wiggly instead of wasting money on flowers. Flowers that would just droop and die unappreciated anyway, on account of Momma’s lack of discernment, these days. When she reaches the curb and bends to pluck the daisies, though, she hesitates.
At the last second, her questing fingers skip over the loves-me, loves-me-not blooms, and enwrap a discarded scrap of rolled grey satin. Satin that in turn enwraps…a bouquet? Are those petrified petals really a bouquet? She grabs the curiosity and stands in one fluid motion. Fingertips test faux pearl hat pins that anchor the arrangement in place. It feels oddly cool to the touch—practically refrigerated, really—and with a quick glance around, she impulsively decides to keep the weathered treasure, the daisies forgotten.
At the top of the block, she turns right and left in rapid succession. Her route picks up on the other side of the cross street, and while she loses the tree canopy, she gains a shadow, so it’s a reasonable exchange. She likes her ephemeral double, and humming the melody to: Me & My Shadow, she switches between watching it, and examining the creped petals. This stretch of road is always the quietest; rendered so by the myriad traffic laws specific to the church, elementary school and Christian youth center that triangulate the next half mile, and the ambient birdsong and Kepler-effect of exercising in the heat lulls her into a dreamy contemplation.
Why would a woman toss away such a carefully put together bouquet? The socially aware Luanne judicially adds “or man” to her mental query, but it’s a half-hearted addition—the delicate spray is so clearly feminine—and the stretch limo rolling through her imagination right now showcases a womanly forearm distended in disdain. She must have been angry, Luanne decides, and as the flowers soar to join tin cans rattling from the pretend limousine’s bumper, she wonders if it was a bridal bouquet. Probably too small for that. The cans disappear from her mental imaging as she waves to the crossing guard stationed at the cross-walk outside the school.
“No, no. Not crossing over,” Luanne calls out, relieving the orange-vested woman standing at attention from imminent duty. When the flowers incorporate into her walking shadow on the upswing, she mimics the Statue of Liberty’s pose.
Concentrating on her projections—physical and otherwise– she holds the stiffened blooms at different angles. She’s an Olympic torch-bearer, now. (Maybe the bouquet was part of an award ceremony.) She cradles them, fluttering her fingertips at the cement. (Maybe it was a beauty contest bunch. They’re awfully modest for that, but they might have been for second place. That would certainly explain their ignoble disposal.) Blotting her brow with the back of her arm, she notices her sweat has grown as cold as ice water, for some reason—and does the satin of the bouquet seem colder now, too? Hmm. She sniffs the preserved beauty, breathing dirt & stale sweetness, pondering the trappings of quinceaneras and proms. The former, maybe, but definitely not the latter. She’s no rocket scientist, but Luanne’s pretty sure it’s too early in the year for prom, and besides. The flower offerings boys bring are generally for the wrist.
Teen-age Latinas tap-dance in her melon as the stretch between her and her destination closes, but when the rows of houses give way to allow for the spacious grounds allotted to Momma and her neighbors, her reverie breaks. Oh, snap. She’s gone and done it now. She’s forgotten to bring fresh flowers to Momma of any kind, roadside or otherwise, so preoccupied was she by her musings, and she’s quick to blame her forgetfulness on the heat instead of her habit of daydreaming. It isn’t as if Momma will chastise her for the blunder, but still. Where were her priorities at?
And who, for heaven’s sake, has come up behind her? Despite the daylight, she prickles with apprehension to notice another shadow has joined her own—a longer, taller and decidedly more insulated shadow, especially considering the heat—and her step quickens ever so perceptibly. She hadn’t taken her eyes off the road for more than a second; a second spent considering the flower beds that edge the grounds of Momma’s place, and goodness! Is he wearing a hoodie sweatshirt or something? Or is his head just Elephant-Man gigantic? Is it even a “he”? Luanne notes an elongated, mushroom-like quality to the trailing shadow, but doesn’t dare look back—Momma raised her right after all, and she has good manners—but it’s plain to see the stranger is easily twice her size. Its length of shaded reflection towers over hers, and she shivers, glancing briefly skyward to explain the sudden, all-enveloping chill, but sees no newly installed trees, awnings or outbuildings casting shade to account for the radical, temperature drop.
As she walks by the guard at the check-in kiosk, she jerks her chin in what she hopes is both a noticeable and an unnoticeable manner; depending on one’s perspective, to let the guard know she’s uncomfortable about the fellow behind her, and would he please check him out as he passes? A lot to try to convey in a simple nod, and apparently too much, since Mr. Stevenson barely glances up from the sports section as she clumsily steps over a speed bump. She could be as inanimate as his charges, for all he cared.
And the grounds crew is no help, either. Two, jump-suited Hispanics drive by in a golf cart loaded down with landscaping equipment, returning her wave and calling out to her in Spanish, but rolling out of sight behind an oleander bush before she’s remembered the word: hola. Well, who could blame her? The shadow is abreast of hers, now, and it’s positively unnerving is what it is, and at least five impossibly long seconds tick by before she’s plucked up enough courage to turn and address the stranger head on.
“Aren’t you hot in that–?” The question dies in her throat, and the sensation of coldness compounds, despite her truncated rhetoric. There’s no one there. (Even her bones are cold!) She glances down at the lawn, heart pounding hard enough to ruffle the fabric of her shirt. The cowled shadow is still there, large and in charge and altogether far too close to hers, and what’s more, it’s brandishing an object in its left hand she hadn’t noticed before. Huh. Is that a walking stick? A walking stick topped with a ridiculously, over-sized grip?
There’s no time to wonder. Luanne runs, the tread of her sneakers sticking to the lush sod that’s replaced the sidewalk beneath her feet, weighing her feet down with sudden soles of dirt and Marathon grass but she stumbles on, rounding the oleander bush the maintenance guys had disappeared behind just as the stick-wielding arm behind her swings.
Before her shadow can be safely swallowed by the pool of darkness cast by the oleander, an evanescent scythe slices its jugular area, separating her actual head from her actual body as neatly as the bouquet of dried flowers drops from her hands to adorn the unmarked headstone at her feet. Feet currently catapulting the business end of a fallen garden hoe to and through her throat, severing her head and shot-putting it outward like a streamered dead-weight. Cold jolts into her in a powerful, shifting force—as displaced earth in an earthquake might move, waving in ever-deepening layers, and now there’s a blinding, electric pain shooting across her neck, and she’s pitching. Her headless torso is pitching into the fresh-dug gravesite hidden by flora until a moment ago, and a final–necessarily fleeting—thought zips through her still pin-wheeling head:
It really is a perfect day to visit Momma.