Free Fiction Friday: Flowers and Stones

A contemporary retelling of Diamonds and Toads, one filled with coleslaw, tattoos, and forget-me-nots.

I’m standing at the self-checkout when the first pinpricks race up and down my back. I freeze, an entire cabbage clutched in my grip. For a moment, with the icy sensation against my spine, my mind blanks.

I stare at my hands. Why cabbage?

Oh, yes. Coleslaw. Homemade. It’s been a long week, and I’m in the mood to shred something. Coleslaw is good for that.

I roll the cabbage between my palms like it’s a basketball. With a little finesse, I could give it a spin, land a three-pointer in the open grocery sack at the checkout station across the way.

Another wash of pinpricks reminds me that I’m not the one in the family who does those sorts of things. No pickup games with vegetables or ill-advised tattoos for me. So instead, I scan the cabbage and drop it in my canvas sack—only to have the screen flash at me:

Unexpected item in bagging area.

The light above my station blinks in time with my heart. I stare at the cabbage, in the sack, with dismay. In this case, I’m that unexpected item.

A cashier and then a manager try to scan the cabbage. They struggle to add it manually, fingers jabbing at the screen. Then the manager sends the cashier for a price check. Even then, she can’t add the amount to my bill.

I keep my lips pressed together, not daring to say a word. I know if I speak, I’ll simper like some old-school Disney princess.

And that won’t help.

“You know what?” the manager says, at last, her tone conveying that this is all my fault, although she can’t really explain why. “It’s on us.”

My remaining groceries are waiting, some patiently, like the carrots. Others not so much, like the mint chocolate chip ice cream that’s starting to sweat.

A third wash of pinpricks chases across my skin before the pain centers between my shoulder blades. An urge—to rush to the restroom, rush off and leave everything behind—overwhelms me. I want—need—to find a mirror.

At that moment, I don’t care about anything else. Not my groceries, or even my purse. I’d leave everything behind all so I can yank up my shirt and glimpse the image emerging on my skin.

That urge thrums in my blood until it emerges as a compulsion. I remember to grab my purse, but I leave everything behind in my search for a restroom.

This is a high-end grocery store, with carpet and chandeliers, and enough samples on Fridays to make a meal (which is why I shop here on Fridays). The restroom is well-appointed, with a beveled mirror and infinity sinks.

I crash through the door. I don’t do a stall check. I don’t care if anyone else is here. I plant myself in front of the mirror and yank my shirt up and over my shoulder.

Then I spin, a slow rotation, like a dog trying to catch her own tail. The second I spot the intricate design, it slips from view. At last, I pull out my phone for a selfie.

Just as I snap a photo, a woman walks into the restroom. She halts, dark eyes panicked. Well, yes, she’s just stumbled onto a bit of crazy. I wouldn’t blame her if she backed out slowly, hands raised in a pacifying gesture, and then ran for the manager.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Then her expression softens. Curiosity rather than fear lights her eyes.

“Oh, hey.” Her voice is low and melodic and full of appreciation. “Did you just get some ink?”

Not exactly.

But I nod. “Yeah. Sort of.” As if there’s sort of when it comes to tattoos.

“Let’s see.”

Again, her expression is bright and friendly. So I hold still and let a complete stranger examine the tattoo between my shoulders.

“That’s wicked good,” she says. “Where’d you get it done?”

I have no idea.

I swallow. “A place out in San Francisco. They’re fantastic.”

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s San Francisco. I clamp my mouth shut before I can rhapsodize about a place I’ve never been.

The woman pushes up a sleeve. “Great minds, huh?”

I don’t know what she means, but I nod and admire the triple moon goddess tattoo on her forearm. It’s really well done, and certainly there by choice rather than a surprise, like the one currently stinging my back.

The woman takes another look at my ink, her eyes squinting as if she’s having trouble focusing.

“Is it … fading?” She shakes her head. “No, now it’s …”

I slip my arm back into my shirt before this gets truly awkward. “The lighting.”

Again, I press my lips shut before I can enthuse about the ambiance. Instead, I point to the chandelier above our heads (yes, fancy, even in the restrooms).

She accepts this with a nod. Because, really, what’s her other option? Declare that my tattoo is changing before her eyes?

She heads for a stall. I take that as my cue to leave.

When I reach the self-checkout station, I discover my groceries are bagged and paid for. There’s a note—a kind one, to be sure—suggesting that I find another place to do my Friday grocery shopping.

The manager won’t meet my eyes. Because, yes, this has happened before.

I wait until I’m three storefronts away and tuck myself into a corner by the kiddie haircut place that’s closed for the evening. It’s dark and safe, and I concentrate on the brick rather than the fire against my back.

I tug my phone from my jeans pocket. The picture I took earlier is slightly unfocused. But I’ve done this so many times, it hardly matters. I tap and zoom, crop and enhance.

At last, an image emerges.

A triple moon goddess.

The scrollwork is intricate, and the woman in the restroom was right; it really is wicked good.

And this can’t be a coincidence. Something is brewing. That much, I know. Still, as I study the tattoo, I don’t know what it means.

Or what it is my twin, Alyssa, is trying to tell me.

* * *

Finding a tattoo artist in a city the size of San Francisco isn’t hard. Alyssa’s found any number of excellent tattooists in any number of cities.

It’s finding one who won’t remember working their magic on her skin that’s the issue. Another? Finding one the crone doesn’t know about.

Alyssa doesn’t know if an actual crone is shadowing her steps. It’s simply the name she’s given the thing that’s haunted her and Emma since they turned eighteen. The crone knows things she shouldn’t, knows things she can’t.

Every time Alyssa thinks she’s outsmarted this being, something else disrupts her life—or worse, Emma’s.

Moon and Stars Tattoos is surprisingly empty for this time of day. One artist bends over the extended arm of her customer, her brow etched with pure concentration. The others appear on the verge of napping. Through the open door, Alyssa catches strains of something ancient—Fleetwood Mac, she thinks. She’s never been much for music, but it sounds like something her mother would listen to.

Alyssa decides to risk it. Her card is ready, printed fresh this morning. The words: Can’t speak, acute laryngitis should get her into a chair and inked without any issues.

As for the tattoo itself? Alyssa will let her gaze wander the artwork displayed on the walls. The right image will announce itself. If she’s meant to get ink today, meant to warn Emma, that image will lead her to the right artist.

A hush falls on the space as she steps through the door. One of the male artists smirks. Another day, another time, she’d open her mouth and let him have what for. After all, what for is her primary skill. But not today. Today is too important.

One of the women raises an eyebrow. Yes, Alyssa knows. She looks impossibly young. They’ll probably ID her, too.

“Can I help you?” the woman asks. If her eyebrow is skeptical, her voice, at least, is kind.

Alyssa doesn’t mean to be rude (really, it simply happens all on its own), but her gaze is still tracking the images on the wall, searching out the one she needs, and so she barely gives a nod.

It’s the scrollwork she notices first, intricate and refined. It reminds her of the very first tattoo she ever got, the one that was an apology, a love letter to her twin. With a shaky hand, she points.

“That’s one of mine,” the woman says.

Alyssa digs the card from her pocket, praying that the words haven’t transformed into something obscene between this morning and now. Her heart thumps in her chest. Everything feels right, from the music to the tattoo to the woman waiting patiently.

She knows better than to wish too hard. It’s like a beacon, sending her hopes and fears into the world where anyone might pluck them from the sky.

Like the crone.

Even so, her entire being is focused on the card and, at the same time, not. She fills her senses with everything else. Rainbows and unicorns decorating the wall, the music playing low enough the words are a mere suggestion, the scent of anticipation and blood.

The door is three steps away. Depending on what’s now printed on the card, she can make a run for it. A quick break to the left, and it’s all downhill. Not that anyone will chase her. At least, no one ever has. But this could be a first.

Alyssa pulls out the card and hands it to the woman and waits.

And waits.

“Oh, no problem,” the woman says at last. She grins at Alyssa, and her eyes sparkle with delight. “Really, the less you say, the better my work. I’m Samantha, by the way.”

Alyssa digs out her ID and hands it over.

Samantha glances at it. “Nice to meet you, and yeah, I was going to have to card you. You barely look eighteen.”

Alyssa shrugs. The male tattoo artist—the one with the smirk—snorts.

And because Alyssa is feeling triumphant, she sends him a smirk of her own. When he averts his gaze, her triumph doubles.

She follows Samantha to her station. While she waits, Alyssa lets her gaze wander the art on the walls once again until it lands on the triple moon goddess.

This time, her smile is nothing but pure.

* * *

Everyone in the call center knows to route the worse customer calls to me. They’re not supposed to. It’s not an official policy. If anything, our manager would wring his hands, sweat gathering on his forehead, and insist it isn’t fair.

No one ever listens to him. Since our center has the highest customer satisfaction rating in corporate, he never insists too hard.

At the end of each year, I get a holiday bonus and a plaque.

At the end of each year, I try not to think about the full-ride scholarship I gave up.

Sometimes I pretend I’m Snow White and each caller a dwarf, albeit ones who never made it into the fairy tale (Irate, Belligerent, Passive-Aggressive, Confused, Outraged, Lost, and Arrogant).

Repeat complainers sometimes ask for me by name. A few send me holiday cards.

I’m incapable of saying a bad word to them.

I’m incapable of saying a bad word to anyone.

To compensate, I take out my frustration on inanimate objects. Cabbage, carrots, and a fierce grater all wait for me in my kitchenette. I’m going to shred the heck out of some vegetables.

I’m going to forget about the customer who called me every foul name in the (urban) dictionary before breaking down and admitting that his wife had died. All he wanted was a pair of pants that fit, but since she did all the shopping, he had no idea what to order.

I’m going to forget about the lonely old woman who didn’t want to complain so much as to talk to someone.

I’m going to forget I can still feel the residual burn of the triple moon goddess between my shoulder blades.

At this point, all that remains is a ghost of a tattoo. I’ve watched at least two dozen come and go over the years. Sometimes they’re sophisticated—works of art in their own right. Sometimes Alyssa sends me nothing more than a heart, the red so vibrant you might mistake it for fresh blood.

And sometimes she sends a message.

I’m shredding and wondering what on earth I’ll do with all this coleslaw. I’ll never be able to eat it all on my own, and it’s not like you can freeze coleslaw. My mother, perhaps. Maybe she’s having a luncheon this weekend or some sort of charitable event.

A knock comes on the door of my tiny cottage. Yes, just like an old-school Disney princess, I live in an actual cottage. Although hardly anyone ever knocks on the door.

When I answer, I find my mother backlit by the big house up on the hill. Fairy lights adorn the patio, its slate gleaming as if by magic. In the yard, it’s as if a celestial hand has sprinkled tiny stars along the branches of all the trees that surround what is, in truth, a mansion.

This is not the modest split-level Alyssa and I grew up in. Henry, the man who owns this mansion, is not our father. He is like a prince at the end of a fairy tale, but one with a salt and pepper goatee and round, rimless spectacles. Instead of sweeping away the maiden, Henry fell hard for the matron.

He still can’t fix all that is wrong.

It’s as if my thoughts have brought my mother to the cottage doorstep. In truth, they may have. Above her head, above the house on the hill, a moon rises. Not quite full, but only a few days off.

I look at my mother and blink. For a moment, the young woman from the restroom appears before my eyes. I blink again, and my mother replaces her.

Maiden. Mother.

I’m afraid to blink a third time. So instead, I say, “It’s lovely to see you.”

It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. It’s the only thing I can say to her. We don’t talk, haven’t since Alyssa and I turned eighteen. I don’t mean that in a Lifetime movie sort of way, although the results are nevertheless the same.

My mother stares at me, clutches her throat as if the words she wishes to speak burn.

Perhaps they do.

“I’m making coleslaw,” I say, brightly, as if there aren’t any number of things we should be talking about. “Could you use some? I’m always happy to share.”

Something sparks in my mother’s expression, something that tells me I’m on the right track.

“Are you having guests?” I venture.

“Yes.” The word is no more than a whisper, but it is a word. “Guest.” Relief floods her eyes. She turns, and I follow her gaze to the swollen moon rising above the house.

Guest. Singular.

A full moon.

And then I know.

* * *

Once upon a time, a young woman cradled two daughters inside her, her belly as round as the brilliant full moon.

When the time came, there would be three of them, three to make a family.

But the daughters were too eager, not content to stay put until the time was right. So the young woman sent her hopes, her fears, into the world.

Someone plucked them from the sky.

There would be three of them, three to make a family.

But only until the debt came due.

* * *

On the flight home, Alyssa pretends to sleep. Even with headphones and a book propped in front of her, the guy (and it’s always a guy) next to her will want to talk.

She can’t risk the altercation, the escalation, the plane making an unscheduled landing in the middle of the country, and security escorting her—and the guy—off the plane.

It’s happened before.

She feels the stirrings of that impulse—to lean across the middle seat and ask the guy next to her about those three restraining orders. Oh, and some outstanding child support payments as well. It would be gratifying, absolutely, to watch this guy’s complexion go from ruddy to bright red, to have half the passengers cheering him on, half applauding her.

This is how the crone tempts her. Alyssa can’t know these things about this guy. But in every altercation (and there have been several), she’s always been right.

Instead, she channels everything she knows and loves about her sister.

It was Emma, of course, who saved them that first day, who held fast even when Alyssa started spewing hateful words.

She hadn’t meant to say them, of course. But in the last seven years, she never has. She can hear what she says warped, transformed in the air until these mutations reach the ears of the other person. A simple I love you becomes I hate you—and always have.

But the crone never counted on Emma, her sister who should’ve gone on to some Ivy League school, been a doctor or a scientist, or something more.

They say twins have their own language. If so, Alyssa and Emma had long forgotten theirs. But that didn’t stop Emma from picking up on the false notes in Alyssa’s tone. It didn’t stop her brilliant twin from grabbing a pencil and scribbling a message across her calculus homework.

What’s going on?

They spent a blissful Saturday exchanging notes until the crone caught on. It took three days before text messages were ruined, and another five for emojis.

By then, they had a plan. Alyssa would leave. Emma would stay, take care of their mother and explain the situation as best she could.

That was when Alyssa went in for her first tattoo. The intertwined E and A were so beautiful, the letters surrounded by fancy scrollwork and leaves. At the time, Alyssa didn’t think to question why that bit of artwork was on the wall, at eye level, as if waiting for her.

She only knew she had to get it. Alyssa held her breath, worried that there was something too magical about the artwork. It would change before her eyes, and she’d be left with something nasty or obscene on her skin. When it remained—perfect and oh, so beautiful—she hurried home, excited to show Emma.

Alyssa found her twin clutching her ankle, pain and fear flashing in her eyes. Together they sat on the lower bunk and watched as the tattoo faded from Alyssa’s ankle, bloomed on Emma’s, only to vanish entirely after a few minutes.

But during all that, the image remained pure.

And Alyssa knew that no matter where in the world she was, she’d have a way to send Emma a message.

Their mother wasn’t surprised to find Emma burning the goodbye note Alyssa tried to pen before she left—one filled with so many invectives it was hardly a note at all. (It was a silly attempt, but Alyssa had to try.)

Over the years, they’ve peeled back the layers of their story—of crones who might grant wishes but always demand their due in the end.

And, at last, they’ve reached the end.

Now, on this final flight home, Alyssa knows there’s only so much she can channel of Emma. Her sister speaks in flowers, Alyssa in stones. Emma’s words perfume the air, Alyssa’s sting the ears and bite the flesh.

If Emma is often too pure for this world, then Alyssa is well suited for it. Because sometimes the guy sitting in seat 1F deserves what for.

Alyssa knows this, too. This fight, this final confrontation that’s waiting for them, it won’t be the two of them against the crone.

It’s Alyssa versus Emma.

And Alyssa plans to win.

* * *

I’m clutching a gigantic bowl of coleslaw, my arms aching with the effort. With careful steps, I navigate the path to the main house. One distraction and slaw will coat everything—me, the decorative stones Henry has placed by hand, the flowers and shrubs he pampers.

Dusk shrouds the patio. My mother stands on the slate, haloed by those thousand fairy lights. On the table sits slender-stemmed glassware, an elaborate floral arrangement, with sweet, summer wine chilling in silver buckets. It’s the trappings of an evening garden party, and an expensive one, too.

It will all go to waste.

My mother’s hands are clutched beneath her chin, her dress billowing about her. She is as picturesque as any fairy tale princess, except her eyes are huge and wary.

Above the house, a full moon rises. There, in the twilight, the first evening star glimmers.

The night holds its breath. It’s waiting, as we all are, for the crone.

I’ve known all along what Alyssa plans to do. How could I not? Her intent is indelible, present in each and every tattoo she sends me. Now that I’ve received the final one, it’s as if all the pieces have fallen into place.

I know, without consciously knowing. I’m ready because she’s made me that way.

I won’t let her do what she plans on doing.

A ride-share pulls into the circular drive, blaring death metal and spewing exhaust. Alyssa steps out, throws a handful of bills at the driver, and then gives him the finger for good measure. Hands on hips, she surveys the backyard. Her feet are clad in steel-toe boots. Her jeans are worn through at the knees, and the collar of her gray T-shirt hangs loose.

She looks like she did the day she left, and not a minute older.

At the sight of her, my chest constricts; my heart is tender and raw.

If the past seven years don’t show on my face, I feel them in my bones. Like Sleeping Beauty, I long for a hundred-year nap. I’m tired of this relentless niceness. It is false and draining, and I can’t imagine another seven minutes living this way, never mind years.

That’s why I plan to stop Alyssa. I will step into the void, offer myself as a sacrifice to the crone. She wants more. She wants blood.

She can have mine.

My gaze meets Alyssa’s. Her tough-girl stance shifts. I wonder if she can read my intent in the same way, if it’s in the blood and always has been.

The crone materializes equal distance between us.

I don’t drop the bowl of coleslaw, but I let it slip through my grip. My fingers guide it to the ground, where the soil swallows it up. A cackle rings in my ears, unsettling and scornful. The slaw, of course, was a mere pretense.

I have not fooled the crone.

To my surprise, she is not the hideously-bent creature from any number of tales. She is not any one creature.

I blink and see my manager from work. I blink again, and the sales clerk from the grocery store appears before my eyes. A third time, my guidance counselor from high school, the one who urged me to apply to Harvard.

Is the crone everyone and no one at the same time? I dart a look toward Alyssa. Her eyes are narrowed, brow furrowed in confusion. I wonder what it is she sees. Missed opportunities? A truncated life, or one denied?

And because I am looking at Alyssa, I see the moment she decides. It’s there in the way the soles of her boots churn the earth, the tightening of her fists. I start my run a split second before she does.

I will win.

I think this as I gain ground. I think this as I pull ever closer. What will happen when my body meets the crone’s? I’m not sure. I only know I need to reach her first.

The full moon shines down on the backyard, revealing a pathway to the crone. She is everyone and everything I cannot have. She is everyone and everything Alyssa’s been denied.

I’m so close, hands extended, fingertips yearning, when something white and billowing brushes past me, the figure lithe and quick.

Our mother.

She reaches the crone before I can, before Alyssa can. When the two collide, the night explodes into a million stars. A wave washes through me. There’s a loosening—in my heart, my throat. I feel words, real words, in my mouth.

I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to reach out and bring my mother back.

When those million stars fade and only the moon illuminates our backyard, nothing remains of my mother or the crone. In their wake, we discover a patch of rich earth surrounded by quartz and agates.

We stand there, me, Alyssa, and Henry, and marvel as seedlings push through the soil, sprout, and bloom as if moonlight alone sustains them. Daisies and roses, slender lilies, and flowers I don’t know the names of, but certainly, Henry does.

At last, around the border, a flock of forget-me-nots blossom. Henry kneels, gathers a handful, and says:

“As if I could, my love. As if I could.”

* * *

Henry is like a prince in a fairy tale.

He smooths the way for Emma to start college. When she balks, Alyssa prods and cajoles, poking her sister relentlessly until—at last—she enrolls in the honors program.

Whenever Emma falters, Alyssa says, “Don’t you dare waste that brilliant brain of yours.”

Henry smooths the way for Alyssa, too. She agrees—reluctantly—to take classes of her own at the community college. One each semester. She navigates the strange language of profit and loss statements, of double-entry accounting. Until she’s fluent, Henry will keep the books for her, make sure the taxes are paid on time.

The first artist (other than herself) to step through the doors of Flowers & Stones Tattoos is Samantha from San Francisco. The first customer (other than herself) is a woman who wears a triple moon goddess on her forearm.

Her storefront is a cozy, safe place in this world. She handles the rude customers by channeling Emma. The ones who are lost, who stare at the walls until their gaze lands on the artwork they need? Those customers she tends to with care. Alyssa sends them into the world again, armed, she hopes, to fight their own battles.

When the E and A tattoo doesn’t bloom on Emma’s ankle, Alyssa drags her to Flowers & Stones. While Samantha works on Emma, Alyssa swears she feels the residual burn against her skin.

On weekends, she, Emma, and Henry gather. The garden overflows with blossoms and fragrances. The quartz and agates gleam in the sunshine. A sapling takes root, flourishes in less than a season to shade the chair where Henry rests each evening.

They are three, Alyssa thinks.

Three to make a family.

Flowers and Stones was written especially for the (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

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