When the Lilies Turn Orange (Chapter 2)

When the Lilies Turn Orange (Chapter 2)

A Chapter by Raven Held

 

 

Two

 

 

 

Aster

 

 

 

On some days, chance was not so subtle in its workings. On others, it screamed at you right in the face. You could be asked to pair up with that cute guy in Literature class one day and on others, all you did was happen to stand behind him in the queue for a smoothie.

But chance was not all it took to bring people together. When I first met Connell, it was probably chance that threw us there by the nifty kick of coincidence. But had I not decided to say hi to him after that, maybe I would still be myself, my only obsession being flowers; maybe our paths would never have crossed. Sometimes, one simple word could make or break everything teetering precariously on the scales of adolescence.

When Connell walked into dad’s office that day, my lifetime best friend, Roxanne, and I were sitting at the reception desk with the receptionist, Sash, like we always did. After school, if we had no after-school classes or activities, Rox (don’t call her Roxy: she says it’s demeaning. Don’t ask me why) and I either went to the nursery or dad’s office. Don’t ask me why; we just do.

And that day, I happened to be at the reception desk, seated in between Sash and Rox, my head bent over my Math book as I tapped feverishly on the calculator. The world always melted into oblivion when I did Math. Maybe it’s the same for everyone else, I don’t know. But the point is, I was really engrossed in my Trig sums.

Anyway, that day, while I was at the reception desk with Sash and Rox, it just so happened that Connell’s parents decided to pick this day to send their son here. Dad had mentioned something about a ‘very important subject’ the night before. We didn’t ask. We usually don’t; he was always the one who decided what we knew or didn’t know about his work, since some of the patients wanted things to be confidential.

“We’re here to see Doctor Tang. We had an appointment,” a strong male voice rang out as three shadows loomed across the reception desk.

I looked up from my sums. The man had the kind of voice that made everyone turn and pay attention to what he said. His back was so straight you could iron your jeans on it and he had the commanding air of … well, a commanding officer.

You could not find a more Stepford-looking family. It screamed patriarchal in every direction: straight-backed father in business suit, looking like a high-flyer, his ‘do it and mean it’ stare locking onto yours firmly, daring you to break the gaze; the woman was this docile little pet who was decked head to toe either Liz Claiborne or Laura Ashley. Can you say gender stereotypes? I don’t know why but it somehow made me mad. And if it made me mad, I could guess how Rox must be fuming inside. She believes that even though women were scaling society’s achievement ladder, oppression was still a hard-hitting issue in a lot of families.

In the model family – apart from the whole male dominance thing – the only thing that marred the pretty picture was a boy of about seventeen probably, hovering in the back with his mother. She had his arm around his shoulder (though it seemed to be in a rather uncomfortable position, him being so much taller than her) and he had his arms crossed. He shrugged his mom’s arm off and went over to sit at the maroon-coloured couches, picked up an Ikea catalogue and started flipping senselessly. His mother stood stranded at her spot, not knowing what to do.

Before Sash could say anything, dad himself had emerged from his living room (that’s what he calls it; he says it makes it sound homier).

“Keith!” dad called out, smiling, his arms stretched out before him. “Amanda! It’s good to see you both.”

“Jason,” the man called Keith said with evident relief. He rushed forward a and pumped my dad’s hand up and down a few times, which was, I read somewhere, a sign of sincerity, unlike the usual up-down, which was merely a sign of civility.

“Connell,” Keith said in a dangerous voice as he glared at his son sitting on the couch. Amanda looked nervously at Connell too. Sash and I shared a mutual look of disgust.

Connell, in his white printed Nike tee, jeans and Pumas, put the Ikea catalogue back, sighed a little and got up. I wondered what he had to see a psychologist for. He seemed perfectly normal, if a little unwilling. But hell, I’d be unwilling too if my parents dragged me to see a psychologist. Not many people came here with toothy grins plastered on their faces.

“This is my son, Connell,” Keith said to dad. Every sentence that came out of his mouth seemed to be a statement, no questions. Dad smiled politely and initiated a handshake. Connell glanced down at it and held it, his gaze averted from dad’s face.

“It’s only recently that this whole … problem started. We think it might be due to the death of his grandfather. He passed away just about last month, you see, and they were really close….”

Um, did I just say confidential? Because this Keith guy seemed to be very comfortable airing his family businesses right in front of a bunch of strangers like Sash, Rox and me.

I saw Connell burn a hole in his father’s back with a venomous look.

“It’s not a terribly huge problem,” Amanda chipped in timorously. “But sometimes, he tends to get.…” She practically shrank from the death glare her husband shot her, shutting up immediately. I looked at Connell, whose eyes were molten with viscous venom as he stared hatefully at his dad. I don’t blame him. As much as I’m a pretty much non-judgemental person, I can’t help loathing Keith. I mean, who exactly did he think he was? Stalin?

“Well, we’ll just go in and have a little chat, shall we?” dad said cheerily to Connell, as though he was inviting him to a tea session with the palm-reader from the funfair. “Just us alone,” he added firmly to his parents, who made clear their every intention to enter with their son. Way to go, dad.

When Connell and dad disappeared into the ‘living room’ and Connell’s parents left (Amanda walking a few feet behind her husband), Sash muttered to no-one in particular, “Poor kid. I’d be messed up too if I came from such a dysfunctional family.”

“I know,” I replied, grimacing along. “What was up with that Keith guy? Total pig.”

“Maybe he’s suffering from the side-effect of our society being a fusion of gender roles now, and since he can’t figure out why women are slowly starting to gain parity with men in the workplace, he’s trying to cling on to some control in the domestic arena,” Rox mused.

Did I mention that she’s big on gender issues?

“You can see why I don’t have a boyfriend till now,” Sash said, shrugging innocently. “It’s not like I have a lot of nice guys to choose from. Kill me if I ever end up with an a*s like him.”

The reason why Sash was still single at the age of thirty-two was not because the nice guys in the world were all dead. She was too picky. And I don’t know what it’s like to be thirty-two, but I’m pretty sure you can’t afford to ask for someone tall, handsome, rich, charming, has at least two cars and one mansion, and doesn’t smoke, drink, do drugs, or have a penchant for leather or motorcycles.

And it’s not like Sash was Reese Witherspoon or Kate Winslet either. She wasn’t even a Ziyi Zhang. She really shouldn’t be asking for too much.

Which was what I pointed out to her.

“Selection is refinement,” was all she said petulantly.

“Whatever, Sasha,” Rox said.

Of course, you must know that Sash wasn’t her real name. Rox and I called her Sasha, which was the name on her birth cert, just to get a rise out of her.

I could not focus on my Trig sums after that, which was strange, because I found myself wondering what dad and Connell were talking about in there. Dad doesn’t really get a lot of interesting cases. Some depression cases from a housewife or two, or suicidal teenage girls with cuts and burn marks on their arms, or balding middle-aged men who looked like the only times they stepped out of their houses was when they needed to come for therapy, or buy milk and rent old Sylvester Stallone videos.

So when someone like Connell steps in here, without all that sob drama like the girls, or neediness for company like the balding men, it gets my mind hooked, like it’s something whispering at the back of your head if you try to shake it off.

What was dad asking right now? What was Connell saying? Was he even replying? How serious could his problem be to make his parents decide to send him to therapy? Of course, I wouldn’t put it past them to throw their perfectly fine son into therapy. Some people just haven’t got a clue what to spend their money on.

“The answer’s ninety-three-point-five degrees,” Rox’s voice called out in my ear, drawing me back.

I blinked and turned to look at her. She was hovering beside me, peering at the question I was on. “What?”

“I just got the answer. It’s ninety-three point five.”

“Oh,” I said, looking down at my sum. It stared right back at me. “Right. I know that.”

“You’ve been staring at it for the last five minutes or so – which, you realise, is impossible, given how fast you usually fly through your Math sums,” Rox said shrewdly. Sometimes, that girl knows me too well.

“Huh,” I replied absently. “What do you think that guy’s problem is? I mean, he has to have some kind of issue for his parents to send him here, don’t you think?”

“You mean Mr Grumpitude just now with the psycho parents? I don’t know. Why don’t you go ask him if you’re so interested,” Rox said boredly and rolled back to her work.

Sometimes, though curiosity did not necessarily murder the cat (I still don’t get why the cat has to be dragged into this), it could be the one Uno block that rocked the stack and leave it to crumble with an almighty crash.

 

*

 

Even though technically, in our family, we had a rule of not discussing dad’s patients unless he brought it up, I went ahead and asked him about the special subject he had today.

“Why the sudden interest?” dad asked in surprise.

I shrugged insouciantly. “Just wondering … was it that guy called Connell?” I pressed on. Don’t ask me why I was pursuing it so ardently; it’s not as if I know the guy, after all.

“Okay,” dad said, still looking a little surprised. “He and his family just moved into the estate. And … that’s basically all you should know,” he told me carefully. “Do you know him?” When I shook my head, dad said slowly, “Because your sudden interest is … uncharacteristic.”

“Oh yeah? The reason why she’s so interested is probably because the subject is a boy,” Dean quipped up from the kitchen counter, where he was using his laptop.

“The only thing you should be interested in,” I countered, “is how to get Rox to think that you are, in fact, not an idiot.”

A fire was suddenly lit beneath my brother’s face. Even though he was a couple of years older than Rox and me, it still took him some effort to convince Rox that he wasn’t the immature idiot that he always behaved like. It’s kind of tragic, really. I feel for him.

“Faint heart never won fair lady, Dean,” mom said, flitting out of the kitchen with soup.

“His attempts are hardly what you call faint, mom, trust me,” I assured her, and received a whack on the back of my head from Dean.

As I went, “Hey!” with all indignance, dad said firmly, “Alright. Turn that computer off, and no hitting your sister on the head. Let’s have dinner.”

While it was anomalous of me to ask about dad’s day at work, it was perfectly fine for mom to enquire about it. Dad spilled practically everything – at least, it sounded like everything – when mom asked about the special subject he received today.

When I pointed that out to him, all he said was, “It’s not exactly confidential, Raven.”

“Kid’s really messed up,” he now told mom, helping himself to cream of corn. “He says his parents don’t understand. Mom’s of no help at all, unless he needed a hug or someone to cry with. Dad’s more of a military general than an actual dad. And the person he was closest to – his grandfather – just passed away. It’s no wonder he –” He closed his sentence abruptly with that, making a big show of pursing his lips together and slurping his soup noisily.

“No wonder he what?” I asked anyway, even though the conversation was clearly over, according to dad.

Dad looked at me for a long moment. Dean kept flicking his gaze between dad and me.

“It’s confidential,” dad finally said.

“You just said it wasn’t!” I protested.

“Well, the next bit is.”

All through dinner, he kept a wary eye on me.

Just because people say ignorance is bliss doesn’t mean it always rings true. But for me, I’ve been there, done that, and I know there’s a reason why people say, ‘What you don’t know won’t hurt you.’ Sometimes, knowing more than you bargained for doesn’t help to improve things much; it might even make things worse. Sometimes, when you feed someone with too much to know, they grow up too fast.

Maybe I shouldn’t have asked so much that night. But it would have been hard not to have spoken to him eventually. It’s like when you begin to notice somebody, suddenly, he becomes ubiquitous, like that stupid MacDonald’s sign. Knowing him was when everything in my life flipped over. And let me tell you, it was a thousand times more jarring than the whack on the back of my head (courtesy of Dean).

 

*

 

The second time I saw Connell was on Friday, two days later. It was in the most unexpected place I would ever dream of seeing him – my mom’s nursery, Ruth’s Garden (dad had wasted no time in laughing at the stupidity of the name, even though I really don’t quite see the joke in it).

Rox and I had decided to skip the Literary Club meeting that day, since all we ever accomplished during those meetings was when we should meet again to ‘discuss this further’. Discuss what, I had no clue. No-one ever does anything in Literary Club, anyway. You wrote whatever you wanted to write, like book or movie reviews and other whatnot, and if everyone thought it was good enough, or if they received less than ten pieces of work that week, your work got accepted and printed in the Club magazine, to be sold to the student population (since the teachers got theirs for free).

Hey, nobody ever said my school was a luscious cultural plain with flourishing poets and thinkers.

So that day, since we had our afternoon free and it wasn’t like invites to parties were streaming in daily (not that we would go anyway; I mean, we were no Paris Hiltons), Rox and I headed for Ruth’s Garden. Or what I would call Mom’s Garden, which was, if you come to think of it, what it actually is. Rox called it Mrs Tang’s Garden. So did Dominic, who came along that day. He sits beside me in Geography class and always came up with a thousand mind-maps for just one chapter. The biggest one he did on Plate Tectonics was so good he pinned it on his bedroom wall. It had hand-drawn diagrams of stratovolcanoes and the conservative movements of plates and coloured boxes and everything. It’s really no wonder how he receives distinctions for his Geography tests and exams all the time. But Dom was no geek, though. He had gotten really buff over our year-end holidays, when he went to Melbourne and acquired a great tan too.

Rox was always on my case about how Dom was crazy for me. So today, she invited him over too. And now, she was relating yesterday’s encounter with Mr Dictator to him.

“Even worse than Coach Howe with his Track boys?” Dom was asking.

“Even worse,” Rox said, deadpanned, as she toyed with a tuft of her hair at her neckline. Rox keeps her hair short in a spunky way, like that girl Anna in The OC, and sticks glittery hairpins wherever possible. “Heck, I’d need therapy too if I had to live with him,” she added.

“You might be jumping to conclusions too quickly, Rox,” I told her. “Maybe he’s a really nice dad at home who makes popcorn and rent videos and helps out with the dishes.”

“Sure he is,” Rox scoffed. “You should’ve seen him, Dom. It’ll make think Coach Howe was Maria von Trappe or something.”

Dom chuckled and turned to me. “Hey, Raven, listen. Are you doing anything tonight? Because I kind of feel like some pasta tonight, and I don’t know, if you’re free … It’s just dinner, of course. You know, I’ve just suddenly got this pasta fetish.”

Rox was staring patently, wide-eyed, at the two of us, a grin breaking across her face. You could practically see the excitement bubbling inside her, threatening to pour out of her mouth like foam like the fake Frosty at Tanglin Mall during Christmas.

“Um, I’ve got to –”

“Of course she’s free!” Rox blurted, laughing gleefully. “You both just go and have a good time tonight,” she added with a wave, like a mother waving her daughter off to prom.

I scowled at her. It’s not that I can’t stand the thought of sitting in a diner’s with Dom. Don’t get me wrong. Dom’s a great guy and was what many girls would say ‘quite a catch’ (that expression always puts me off, because, really, he’s a guy, not some grouper caught from the sea). But seriously, what’s with the matchmaking? I’m no idiot. I know Rox was probably sending telepathic messages to my brain to invite her and Dean along too, even though ostensibly, she acted like she could care a lot less about Dean.

“Great,” Dom said with a smile that disarmed quite a lot of girls in school, and that Rox also liked to call self-deprecating. “So I’ll pick you up at seven?”

“Seven sounds good,” Rox replied on my behalf as the three of us entered the grand vine-swathed gate that led to the Garden, the sign Ruth’s Garden, wildly conspicuous in wrought gold lettering, sitting on top of it.

The Garden, like my mother, was really beautiful and elaborate – almost to the point of exquisite. You could see how much effort mom took to do up the place and make it burgeon. Passion was not always the dizzying rush of desire or the desperate hunger to realise something. It could, like in the case of my mom, also be the pure, intense love for something so strong that it made you give all you had to it, so that you could see it grow into something so beautiful you would never have dared to dream of it. The fruit of labour, she would say, with no pun intended. We would all cringe at the cliché anyhow.

Even though dad always laughed at how unrealistic and in love with the fantasy of love she was, he could tell how much mom dedicated herself to the nursery. And I know the reason why he always predicts the eventual closure of the garden is actually to ward off the possibility of it. Like a counter-jinx or whatever it is called. Roxanne said it was sweet; Dean said it was lame.

Mom was standing before this huge bonsai with pretty little white flowers in it, dressed in classic cut jeans and a white blouse. It was partly due to her clean cut beauty that got many male folks coming to buy a pot of geranium or two – only to find out that she’s already married for fifteen years with two kids.

“Hey, mom,” I called out.

“Hey, Mrs Tang,” Rox and Dom chorused.

“Hey Roxanne,” mom said, waving. “Dominic, am I right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Dom said cheerily. The three of us embarked on a movie marathon once and mom couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful his lasagne tasted. It was kind of embarrassing.

“We’ll be at the Ladies,” Rox told Dom and hauled me off, leaving mom to bombard him with what she knew about flowers and bonsai. Mom’s not the kind that went, “How was school today?” So, I guess, in that sense, she’s pretty cool.

Rox had pulled me to the corner where the cactuses were, which was just by the main entrance to the Garden.

“Are you lost? This isn’t the Ladies,” I told her, observing a cactus flower. They’re really pretty. The stamens are like fences protecting this crux that seems to hold a secret. Sometimes, I could get lost in a flower. I know that sounds completely stupid, and dad and Dean will laugh their heads off if I ever told them that, but when you get up close with a flower, you sort of try to figure out why they grow in such a way, like why do flower petals curl and what’s hidden inside a flower bud. At least, I do. Mom will understand.

“Stop staring at that cactus in that creepy way,” Rox said impatiently. “Are you trying to put an eye out?”

“I thought you said you needed a pee,” I said bluntly.

“Goodness, don’t talk like that in front of Dom later tonight on your date!” Rox expostulated dramatically. “And let your hair down tonight. I mean, like, literally. Whatever you do, don’t scrunch it up in a messy, limp ponytail!”

“It’s not a date,” I said.

“It is too,” Rox said flatly. “And since it’s already a date, could you somehow manoeuvre it to become a double date thing?”

I stared at her. “I thought you were playing hard to get,” I reminded her.

“I am. You could just amble past Dean and casually mention it to him and then say I’m going or something …”

“You are unbelievable. If you want to ask my brother out, all you have to do is ask him. You know he’d say yes in a blink. Hell, you’d even make his day. But don’t make me some kind of liaison.”

“I don’t want to do the asking. Girls shouldn’t be the ones asking,” Rox said plainly.

My best friend has to be the most parochial person in the world. Despite her ardent rooting for women to ‘stand out and speak out and show men that we are very much their equal individuals’, she is still pretty conservative about the whole dating thing.

“Sometimes, I don’t know if you’re crazier over him or him over you,” I told her, shaking my head.

“Who’s crazy over whom?” Dean asked from behind me, giving me such a fright that I yelped and almost crashed into a pot of Saguaro cactus beside me. Where had he popped up from?

“Wow, Dean. Put my heart on overdrive, why don’t you?” I said after having recovered from my shock.

“You,” he replied boredly, “are just plain weak. Hey, Roxanne,” he added with a little wave, brightening up considerably.

“Hey,” Rox said coolly – no smile, no wave. I knew she was probably Spanish-dancing inside, though. I had given up trying to figure out how anyone could actually think my brother was – and I quote – ‘hot’. A lot of girls always tried to get me to get his attention (even though the only attention I would get from him is when he wants to know if Rox was coming over for another movie marathon), but sadly, I could only inform them that it would only end in tears, since Dean had been besotted with Rox ever since she came over to our house when I was eleven.

Okay, maybe not then, but close enough, I’m sure.

“Oh, right, Rox,” I said as nonchalantly as her. “You were talking about that double date thing tonight, weren’t you?”

It gave me great satisfaction to see Rox’s eyes widen disbelievingly at my betrayal, probably like a well-fed cow feels as it’s being laid on the slaughter-table (if they actually use a slaughter-table to slaughter a cow), awaiting its imminent death. Oh, vengeance is sweet.

“Double date?” Dean echoed dubiously.

“Yeah,” I chirped. “Rox chooses to call it a date, even though all Dom did was ask me out for pasta tonight. And Rox was thinking, maybe you two would like to come along too?”

Venturing a sideways look at Rox, I saw her face cloud over like a foreboding thundercloud, growling and gathering force. “I will kill you,” she mouthed as Dean stared at me.

“You’re not kidding me with this, are you?” he asked.

“Much as I’d love to be, I’m not.”

“I’m there,” Dean cheeped, grinning at Rox, who nodded.

“Hello?” someone called out from the gate, which was near where we were standing. It sounded self-conscious.

I turned around and did a double-take on the person.

“Isn’t he …?” Rox trailed off.

“Hi,” Connell said uncomfortably, so uncomfortably you’d think he had never spoken to a stranger before. As much as we try to adhere to our parents’ warnings about speaking to strangers, it sometimes just happens.

“Hi,” I said. “Connell, right?”

“How’d you know that?” he said warily, ruffling his hair self-consciously. His other hand was shoved into the pockets of his jeans and he had on a light blue Nike tee-shirt and his usual Pumas today. For him, it always seemed to be Nike, jeans and Pumas. At least, for the two times that I’ve seen him.

“I was in my dad’s office on Wednesday, together with Roxanne here,” I told him, gesturing to Rox, who went, “Hey,” with a wave. That was probably more polite than she had ever been to my brother. Which reminded me. “This is Dean, my brother,” I added.

“Hey,” Connell replied, not exactly meeting their eyes. I wondered what he had to be so shy for. Then again, maybe he was just pissed off. I had never seen him actually smile before.

“So … what can I do for you?” I asked uncertainly. Did he come because he recognised me and wanted to talk to me … or to Rox? If so, why would he act like he didn’t know us at first? And how did he even know where to look for us?

“You – you work here?” he asked, equally uncertain.

Which was strange, because if he didn’t know that I worked here (well, sort of), how did he even know to come here to look for me?

If he was looking for me, of course.

“Yeah, sort of. I mean, my mom’s the owner,” I told him.

It wasn’t until he spoke that I understood his purpose here – which, I admit, not only dismayed me a little, but also gave me another shock.

“Oh. Okay, well, I’d like some pink carnation, Lily of the Valley … and yellow tulips, please?” he said.

I recited mentally. When I was young, mom gave me a flower at the end of every day and I’d think hard about what she taught me and tell her what every flower meant. She didn’t ask, but it made her happy when I could remember, so I did it every night. I still do it, in fact.

Pink carnations. That meant ‘I’ll never forget you’. Lily of the Valley – sweetness, return to happiness, ‘you’ve made my life complete’. And yellow tulips meant ‘there’s sunshine in your smile’.

He was probably giving them to his girlfriend, whoever she was. If he even had one, that is, with that stony, silent attitude of his. But it seemed kind of overdoing it. Did he think he was trying to choke up her house with flowers? Like what mom said, when it comes to flowers, less is really more, sometimes.

“Do you have it?” Connell asked, snapping me out of my thoughts.

“Um – yeah, sure. Follow me,” I told him, mentally reprimanding myself. It really wasn’t any of my business what he bought or whom he bought it for. Loads of guys came here to buy flowers.

Only perhaps not so much at one go. Maybe he was buying them for more than one girl? He wasn’t hideous (in fact, if I hadn’t known better, I’d say he was really ‘quite a catch’) and some girls – okay, a lot of girls – like the strong, silent bad boy ‘tude type. So who knows?

Whatever. It’s not my case anyway.

Mom was entertaining an old couple, who must have entered by the other side gates, at the bonsais. I gestured at Connell, mouthed to her, ‘Customer,’ and she, nodding, went back to telling the couple about our bonsais.

I led Connell to the Lilies first.

“So …” I said, and left it at that. He didn’t make any move to take it upon himself to engage himself in a conversation. Rox would probably call him ‘socially impaired’. I had quite a number of stuff I wanted to ask him, but seeing as how he couldn’t even remember me initially, I decided it would probably make mom lose one potential customer if I fired a barrage of questions at him straight.

“So.…” I tried again, after getting the Lilies and moving on to the carnations. “Who’re these for?” I asked, trying to sound casually chirpy like mom always did. Except that I sounded forced and falsified.

Connell stared at me for a long while, long enough to make me feel like a stupid busybody for asking. I was about to apologise for asking when he finally said brusquely, “I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

“Yeah, sure, no, no, it isn’t, of course,” I babbled with a stupid little chuckle like I was actually laughing at my stupidity. “It’s just – I just wanted to make some conversation … Guess you don’t appreciate that,” I muttered to myself. He said nothing. Great. Now I’ve managed to present myself as a fool in front of someone.

“I want yellow tulips,” he said flatly.

I looked at the flower I had laid in the orange basket: Lily of the Valleys, pink carnations … red tulips.

“Sorry,” I said and exchanged the red tulips for the yellow ones. “Why do you want so many flowers for anyway? Is your mom having a tea party tomorrow or something?” As soon as I said it, I felt the blaze of mortification burn my insides. Could I have sounded any more patronising?

Instead of just telling me to mind my own business, Connell whirled about to face me straight in the face. “If you met my mother yesterday, you should know that she’s not the kind who throws tea parties. Don’t you dare take a snub at her.”

“Um … okay. Sorry.”

What else could I have said? I know, because your dad is such a psychotic control freak? The belligerence he took on just at my mention of his mom made me nervous.

“Because my dad’s a total control freak,” he said, seeming to have read my mind like a book. The glint in his eyes told me that he knew that was what I’d been thinking.

“Was your dad the one who decided to send you for therapy?” I asked. I couldn’t help it; I had to know.

Connell scowled at the mention of therapy. Or maybe it was the mention of his dad, I don’t know. “Gee, I suppose so, since he’s the one who makes all the decisions in the family.” His tone was the same as that adopted by Rox when she saw Dean gulp down a whole carton of milk before his hockey practice and then wipe his mouth with his shirt.

We made our way to the main office (which was more of a gift shop actually), where the counter and sweet little note-cards and everything else were sold. It was nice to walk around the Garden. Especially early in the morning, where you’d feel fresh and positive about life, and all the flowers awake from their stupor and spread their fragrance, or dead in the night, when everything kind of slows down and you spend some time alone with your thoughts and all the plants around you seem to keep you company, breathing silently, pensively.

“I’m sorry if I sound intrusive, but I was wondering how bad things can be for your dad to send you for therapy,” I told him as he took the basket from my hands.

“You’d be better off not knowing,” was all he muttered with his jaw clenched. He looked away, feigning interest in the décor of the Garden, with its wooden flooring and leafy vines trailing along the wooden pillars. He seemed ashamed of this topic, so I dropped it like it was a chick writhing uncomfortably in my palms.

When we entered the office (or gift shop, whichever you prefer to call it, since the office was in the gift shop), Martin was over by the bookshelves arranging the books on gardening. He waved when he saw me. 

“Any cards for you?” I asked Connell as I went over to the counter to total up his purchase. He nodded as an afterthought and waited. I realised he was waiting for me to pick one for him and left the flowers on the counter.

“I need to know who the recipient is. Like, a girl or your mom or … you know …”

“Don’t you have a neutral one, like have a nice day, or something?” he asked, riffling through the cutesy little note-cards with me. I fished it out for him.

“Three,” he told me, and I pulled those out of the rack.

“That’d be sixty-seven dollars and eighty cents,” I said. “How would you like your flowers wrapped?”

“Excuse me?”

“Like, do you want them bunched up together or strictly separated?” I explained as Martin came over after re-arranging the books.

“I guess … separated will be fine,” Connell said, his cluelessness evident in his shrug. He waited as Martin and I wrapped up his flowers and put them into our personally-designed Ruth’s Garden paper-bag. “Thanks,” he said after he paid for the flowers in cash. The lavender-coloured wrapping paper crinkled like dried leaves. I loved that sound.

My gaze followed him to the door of the office as he left. He was tall and his back was broad and his tee-shirt rested snugly on it.

He turned back. “I didn’t catch your name,” he told me and waited.

“It’s Raven,” I said, smiling a little. “My name’s Raven.”

His reply was a very eloquent, very interested, “Mm.” And then he left.

Even though the office was air-conditioned, mom insisted on keeping one window opened, to which reasons I cannot fathom. She says she hates the stuffiness of being in an enclosed air-conditioned area. So from that opened window, not only could I see Connell leave the Garden and join a group of people waiting outside a minivan, I could also hear what they were saying, since the van was parked right outside the gates.

“Here. Got the flowers,” Connell was saying as he thrust the paper-bag into a guy’s hands. He seemed a little older than him and had a pierced lip. He punched Connell’s upper arm with a bracing smile.

“Well done, Connell,” a girl in a dangerously low-waisted pair of jeans said, patting his shoulder as she sipped her Coke. The drowse-inducing afternoon sun weighed down on her eyelids as they all filed into the minivan.

I didn’t get it. All the guy did was run up here and buy a bunch of flowers. Did he need a medal of valour for that?

It wasn’t until I finally learnt of the circumstances that I understood why running that simple errand was conceived as such a feat for him.

You know when you squint too hard at something and everything suddenly seems blurry to you and when you snap back to focus, you felt that that thing seemed uncomfortable at whichever spot it was lying on? That was how it felt for me when I saw the minivan rumble away down the drive, shrinking to a spot in the distance until it disappeared round the bend after the Stop sign. When Connell was here, the lines and contours were blurred. And when he left, things snapped back to focus and everything seemed wrong without him here.

 



© 2008 Raven Held


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Added on February 15, 2008


Author

Raven Held
Raven Held

Singapore, Singapore



About
Aspiring author, dreamer, TV addict, fed with a steady diet of grapes, green tea and supernatural fiction. I have five novels under my belt and is working on her sixth. more..

Writing
The Secret The Secret

A Story by Raven Held


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A Story by Raven Held