You Don’t Give Me Flowers opened its doors on a Tuesday.
“Nothing happens on Tuesdays,” Marjorie said. “Let’s make something happen on a Tuesday!”
Something certainly did happen that Tuesday. And You Don’t Give Me Flowers never saw another Tuesday.
The epitome of girly girls, I always loved flowers and never wanted anything more than be immersed in them all the time. I’d spend hours in the wildflower field by my house, just lying in the sun—or in the rain, much to my mother’s disapproval. Other kids asked to go to Disney—I wanted to go to the Flower Parade in Holland. I remember seeing an episode of Laverne and Shirley one afternoon when I was about seven; I irritated my mom for weeks, asking if she’d sew a flower onto every shirt I owned, like Laverne’s L. You get the picture.
It wasn’t even a question that I’d open a flower shop one day. I did a couple of years of community college, learned all the business stuff that I’d probably never apply. It was there that I met Marjorie. Money oozed from her pores, all old money—but her father insisted she not end up like her brother, and actually learn to do something. So Marjorie showed up for school but had no idea what she would do when it was over. That’s where I came in. Between my admitted foolishness and over-excitement about my flower ideas, and Marjorie’s no-nonsense skepticism and surprising amount of street smarts for a rich kid, we were sure to make the flower shop work. It was a simple dream, an easy one, a humble one. It wasn’t asking much. And yet…
“I never wanted much,” the voice had said. The thought of its sweetness, the kindness, made me shiver. And I thought of it often. I dreamed of it. Woke sweating from it.
Which was more than I could say for Marjorie.
The romance of finding a building so old and left for dead in a neighborhood now zoned for commercial use was more than I could handle. I never wanted my flower shop in a strip mall, I wanted it to feel like home when my customers walked in.
“Yeah, if they can find us,” Marjorie said teasingly.
“It’s not exactly front and center…”
“It’s front and center for rodents, maybe,” she mumbled, smiling, as she ran her finger over the old the bake case layered in dust. She laughed, the sound bouncing off the peeling and grayed wallpaper, punctuated by the creak of weak floorboards.
I spun around, loving the dust that kicked up around my feet. “This place belonged to an old woman, the neighborhood called her ‘Nana.’ She spent so much time after her husband died making cookies, cupcakes, tea, for the community, just to have some company, that they eventually started coming every day. Local businesses would ask to have meetings here. A grocery store closed down around then, right over there—” I said, pointing out the big front window, “and they gave this bake case to Nana. ‘I’d better fill it up!’ she said.”
“Oh she said that, did she?” Marjorie teased, opening a cabinet. The door fell off.
“Yes,” I insisted, grinning. “Her neighbors had long since started giving her money to support their sweets habit, and so Nana’s was born, right here in her living room. She never even had a cash register.” I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I told the story. I wanted to fill the shop with friendly faces and gorgeous flowers that would have made Nana happy.
“Yeah, well, Nana won’t be cleaning this place up for us, so we’d better get to work.” Marjorie made fun, but everything we chose to fill the shop with, she asked me if I thought Nana would like it. I delighted at how much warmer it made Marjorie, the history that we’d been lucky enough to walk into, the feeling of family that I think she missed in that big mansion on the hill.
With a bunch of upcycled chairs and barrels and tables and crates, any other old yard sale thing I could get my hands on and turn into planters, overflowing with every kind of flower I loved, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers was ready to open. This grungy old home-turned-bakery-turned-flower shop might never make me rich, but it was all I’d ever wanted.
The wooden door still creaked when I opened for our first day—Nana’s same front door with a fresh coat of pink paint. Marjorie wanted it ripped out and replaced with glass, which would only make sense, she said, ‘if we actually wanted to make money.’ Instead I said we could spend money on a nice big sign. “Ten bucks says people still come in looking for cookies,” Marjorie said.
Hours after opening, I was still too thrilled with the bushels of daisies, the roses on trellises, the heady scent of lilacs, the notion that I could fall backward and be caught in a hundred thousand velvet petals, to register that we hadn’t had a customer. Marjorie patted me on the head as she threw on her coat. “I’m going to bring some flowers—flyers—flyers, out and around. You enjoy your garden, Little Miss Sunshine.”
I did. I enjoyed every solitary—very solitary—second of spritzing buds, reading up on vendors in the salvage armchair in the corner, just being where I was meant to be. When I began polishing the bake case, now filled with an enormous, multi-level fairy garden, my first customer walked in.
“Oh, it smells lovely in here!” she exclaimed, the brightest smile I’d ever seen lighting her face, fair cheeks as delicate as the white roses beside her.
“Thank you! I mean, yes. Welcome! I’m Neri, and you are my very first customer!”
She put a hand to her bosom, and made a cute little gasp. It made me just love this little old woman. White hair like frosting piled high on her head, licorice-red lipstick that all of her Bingo friends probably told her was too young for her. She had this Mrs. Claus feeling about her, crossed with the Queen of England. I swear, I felt the taste of Earl Grey tea fill my mouth as I watched her touch petal after petal, walking in a sort of haze.
“I always liked the pink ones,” she murmured.
“Pink is my favorite,” I said just as softly, smiling at her. She reached into her chocolate brown purse, pulled out a lace hanky, and dabbed at her eyes. “I’m sorry, are you all right?” I put my hand on her shoulder as she looked down at her shoes.
“Yes, yes, darling,” she said breathily, the scent of sugar wafting from her lips. “Just taken aback with what you’ve done with the place. A breath of fresh air, it is. I always did love flowers…”
“Let me get you a cup of tea, have a seat,” I said, taking her by the arm to lead her to the big puffy armchair in the corner.
“No, no, dear, I’ve taken enough of your time.” She couldn’t look at me.
“It’s not trouble at all.” I bustled off to microwave a cup of hot water. I wish I’d thought to get the stove in working order, could have actual tea parties, I thought, and knew instantly that would be taking it too far. Quaint and cozy gone wrong. I’d be baking cookies so fast if I had an oven in here, people would forget it was a flower shop.
“You always forget me.”
I jumped, the tea cup clattering to the floor, eyes scanning the rundown, naked kitchen for the source of the voice. It reverberated through me painfully, as if I’d swallowed something terrible, the worst medicine in the world years after its expiration date. I doubled over and heard it again.
“You always forget me. I don’t ask for much.”
My mouth went dry, my heart pounded as I relived the sad, sweet voice, coming from what I was certain to be the old oven. From the oven.
Inching my way across the kitchen, heart pounding in my ears and throat, I approached the oven.
“Hello?” I whispered.
Ridiculous. I couldn’t have heard anything, it had to be the woman in the shop front—who I’d left alone for too long. My first customer. Great job.
My hand was on the cold oven door handle, steadier than it had a right to be. I stifled a cry when the back door slammed open with a sudden rush of such frigid air that my teeth instantly chattered. I couldn’t think that it was May, could only look at the oven, and know there was something inside.
The metallic screech as I cracked the oven open rattled me, but I pulled a little more, a little more…
It was hot inside. Thick heat. The back door banged, banged, banged in the shivering wind.
I yanked the door all the way down, my breath coming out in whimpers, hair hanging in my face as if it could shield me…
From the cake.
Gold cake, with whipped frosting that had me licking my lips, and a heady vanilla rum scent. Pink sugar flowers adorned it.
“I never forget you,” the voice snarled, and the oven slammed shut, sending me screeching into the store front.
“I’m…I’m so…sorry,” I huffed, though I’d only run a few steps, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being kicked in the belly. The cold handle, the ancient stove with an actual cake in it, the door, and that voice, the agony and anger but still so gentle…
The woman was gone. I should have known she’d be gone. I was in the kitchen for—how long had I been in the kitchen? The daylight had darkened.
“Oh, it smells lovely in here!”
The door creaked open, just as it had before, and in came the woman.
I felt my mouth gape as she touched the petals the same way she had the first time. A moment passed, and she gasped, putting a hand to her chest just like she had before, though I’d not said my part, as if the whole thing was a choreographed recording.
“I always liked the pink ones,” she murmured, and I stumbled back.
“Me…me too,” I said quietly, but she didn’t hear me. The same movements, the same smiles and opening of the purse…
“You don’t have oleander?” she asked, looking at me as if we’d just met, like we’d never spoken. She didn’t ask this the first time she’d visited.
“Um, no. No, I don’t have any oleander.”
She leaned forward on the bake case, a glint in her eye that made me forget all the sweet things I’d thought of her before, the Earl Grey and Mrs. Claus. “I didn’t ask for much,” she hissed. Rage filled her eyes, and something else that made my stomach turn inside out—
“Neri! What’s wrong?”
Marjorie stood over me where I lay on the floor, and I caught myself gagging, and twisted as if I’d been writhing, seizing.
“Where is she?” I gasped, jumping to my feet and stumbling backwards through the swinging kitchen door.
“Who? Did someone do this to you?” Marjorie had me by the shoulders, looking hard into my eyes, but I could only try to look around her.
“She…she didn’t touch me,” I said. “But she… She wanted oleander.” I turned my head to look at the oven and began to tremble all over. “And there’s a cake.”
Marjorie’s tone was worried, but dumbfounded. “What. The hell.”
I stood up straight, pushed back my hair, cleared my throat, like it would make me seem sensible. “A cake, a hot, fresh cake, appeared in the oven. The back door opened by itself too, and a freezing cold breeze came in, like ice. And the woman, she came back, and…” I felt myself going hysterical again, so I stopped. Because trying to get past the damn cake part was enough convincing to do.
“Honey, I think it’s time to close up for the day. We haven’t made a nickel, and obviously you’re super overtired, huh? You’ve worked so hard to get this place right.”
“I’m not overtired. Well, maybe I am, but this stuff happened. Look in the oven, Marjorie. Seriously.”
She sighed deeply, and went straight to the oven, no questions asked. She opened it fast, and I tried to control my breathing, tried not to take in the delicious scent and the warmth.
“Neri, nothing is in here.”
I couldn’t say anything.
“Come on. We’re taking off, and tomorrow I’ll bring you a coffee when we open.”
“You never bring me anything!”
We both jumped, Marjorie screeching. “What the hell was that?!”
“I told you! I think it’s that woman who was here, I heard that voice!”
“We’re getting out of here.”
She grabbed my hand and we ran through the kitchen door, but stopped dead in our tracks.
“I always liked the pink ones,” the voice said from nowhere. And all around us in the darkened room, was nothing but pink oleander, all my flowers gone. “I never wanted much, but you always forgot me.”
“Who are you?!” Marjorie screamed. Sweat poured down her face.
The oleander moved. Closed in, came closer and closer. We moved with it, tighter and tighter together, gripping each other’s arms, until we backed into the bake case and released each other, startled.
The case was filled with cakes just like the one I’d seen in the oven, fresh and inviting, begging to be eaten, and the oleander came closer every second. Marjorie sunk to the floor, crying. I knelt beside her, lifted her up with me, and when I did—
There she was. The same woman, behind the bake case. I screamed, but she only smiled at me. It was a warm smile, like a grandmother, like I felt about her the first time, the scent of Earl Grey and sweetness about her.
“Nana?” I choked out.
She smiled and nodded at me—but not at Marjorie. “I always wanted flowers,” Nana said, her voice an echo in the room. “I made you all the sweets you loved, and you never gave me what I loved. I always wanted the pink ones.” It was clear Nana wasn’t seeing Marjorie as her eyes bore into my friend, whimpering at my side. “I never asked for much,” she growled. She clawed the top of the bake case with talon-like fingernails, cracking the glass in streaks as she leaned forward, her neck hideously long, her teeth bared unnaturally, the delicious scent about her turning rancid. “I got my OWN!” she wailed.
Marjorie fell to the ground, sobbing inconsolably, fumbling backwards across the floor as Nana appeared in front of her, holding a slice of cake with that mouth-watering frosting, and tiny pink sugar flowers all around it.
“Marjorie! Don’t eat it!” I cried, as my friend met a dead stop at the door and could go no further. Nana came at her in flicks and flashes, never walking only appearing, disappearing. Then Nana was upon her.
Marjorie kicked and gurgled as Nana shoved the cake into her mouth, and I stood frozen, unable to believe what I was seeing. Marjorie tried to grab the old woman, but her hands went right through the cute little tweed suit, passed right inside the chocolate brown purse.
But the cake was real enough.
“Oleander,” I whispered.
Marjorie gasped painfully, I could feel the constricting of her throat as if it were my own. I felt her limbs chill, then freeze, then numb completely. My insides screamed as I watched her convulse on the floor, the oleander creeping ever closer to her and away from me, and when my tears came, when I couldn’t feel her pain anymore, I only watched her die.
I ran to her, the scent of oleander and death stinging my nose. “Marjorie!” I sat her up as best I could, refusing to leave her in the miserable puddle of bodily fluids, contorted, on the floor. “Marjorie, I’ll get help.” I rocked her, my tears mixing with the frothy fluid bubbling from her mouth.
“I never wanted much,” Nana’s voice rang out.
“What have you done, you rotten old monster!” I cried out to the room filled with the poisonous oleander. “What did you do to her?”
Nana’s image at the bake case appeared, less sharp and real, but she spoke to me as if she were right there with me. “I only ever wanted flowers. He never brought me anything, my husband. He loved sweets, oh how he loved them!” She clasped her hands together with the confused memory, smiling. Smiling, as I held the dead body of my friend. “I loved to make him cakes, and cookies, banana cream pie, he did so love banana cream pie. Never put on an ounce, you know that? My Henry never put on a pound though he ate like the dickens.” She wiped the bake case absently. “But he never gave me anything. Stopped even saying thank you.” Nana snapped her neck up nastily to meet my eyes, the anger returning, erasing her lightness. “I never asked for much. I only ever wanted flowers. I especially liked the pink ones!” she bellowed. Her neck twisted, creaked, cracked, like the old wooden floor, like the tea cup I’d dropped in the kitchen.
She said nothing else, but I saw. I saw it like a black-and-white silent film, Nana bringing her own pink flowers home: oleander. Highly toxic. Poison that destroyed a nervous system, strangled the heart.
“My heart had been strangled, he’d let me become nothing!”
I couldn’t help it, I felt sorry for Nana. “I’m sorry he did that to you.”
“He killed me slowly. I was much kinder.”
I watched the image of Nana crushing the tiny oleander petals with a mortar and pestle, saw her stir them into Henry’s favorite cake batter, listened to her humming as she made the pink sugar flowers to adorn the cake with. Henry’s last cake.
Then, even lonelier than she was before, Nana made cakes for the neighbors, cookies for her friends, and her home became this bakery. And then it became You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.
“Why did you do this to her?” I whispered, unable to look down at Marjorie.
I yelped as Nana appeared at my side on the floor. Soft and kind again, not the ghostly horror she really was. Nana placed her hand on Marjorie’s clammy gray forehead, and she clucked, as if to say, “what a shame.”
“You killed her,” I said through gritted teeth.
Nana gasped, her hand to her bosom again. Tears sprung to her eyes, shining against the hollows. “No,” she murmured. “No, no, no.” She shook her head wildly, becoming a blur, until she faded away completely, leaving her moans behind her.
And me, with Marjorie.
I couldn’t think that on the other side of the door against my back was my car, and streetlights, and grocery stores. That I would have to call the police, that they would ask me to wait for someone to take Marjorie away. That I would open the door again tomorrow? How could I ever? I felt too real for that world out there, and not real at all anymore.
I collapsed on top of my friend, and it was then that the oleander surrounded me like a blanket. I couldn’t even try to get away, though I knew it could do horrible things to me, starting with my skin, then take me just as it had Marjorie.
But that’s not what happened.
Gently I was pulled away from Marjorie, not too far—not further than I wanted to be, I still needed to be near her—but just enough that the oleander could crawl around her, cover her like a shroud, cradle her in a delicate cocoon. It couldn’t hurt her anymore, it wouldn’t. And it wouldn’t hurt me. It curled around my arms, comforting me, and turned my head away softly. When I dared to look back to my friend, the oleander was fading, slipping back and away, and morphed slowly into my flowers, the ones I had painstakingly chosen. A journey back in time before death moved in.
The floor cracked beneath us, the aged, creaking wood suddenly giving way. I wanted to cry, but there was nothing left. The floorboards caved…opened, really, carefully separated so as to strip the violence from such a violent event, and lowered Marjorie down in her cloak of poisonous flowers. Then it closed up behind her.
I’m ashamed of how I handled the rest. How I couldn’t call the police, how I just couldn’t find the strength to leave that place and go out into the real world, how taking the steps to get Marjorie the attention she needed and then going to the police station, or home, or the hospital, or wherever, just was unthinkable to me. So I stayed there.
I finally slipped into unconsciousness, watching the sun come up outside the windows, the filtered light dancing on the flower petals, glinting off the bake case. Cakes still lined the shelves inside.
When I woke, daylight blazed through the windows, the heat of it on my skin grotesquely sticky. For a second I felt Marjorie still in my arms, and jumped to my feet, wiping myself off as if I could get away from the dried blood, the vomit, the sadness. I stumbled into a shelf of roses, sending them careening into the front window.
The rickety old window should have smashed into a million pieces. But it didn’t.
I touched the glass, felt the cracks in it, and when I gathered enough courage, I knocked on the window pane. The man right on the sidewalk in front of me didn’t turn around. I don’t know what I would have done if he had—what would I say. Just open the door and take his flower order? Tell him my business partner was dead in the basement? But he didn’t see me, didn’t hear me.
I tried the door, knowing that it wouldn’t open. I didn’t want it to.
I stay here now. Close to Marjorie, surrounded by flowers and pastries. I watch the seasons change with a smile on my face, cozy in my armchair in the corner, with Nana to keep me company. The oven works now—she makes me as many sweets as I want, and I never seem to put on a pound. The tea kettle whistles most of the day, and I rest in a bed of pink flowers when I need a break. But I don’t often need a break.
I don’t ask for much.