“The flowers are so pretty, mama. I didn’t know you planted flowers.”
“I didn’t plant anything.”
“Yes you did. They’re out there.”
“They are! I’ll show you.”
I scampered through the sliding glass door with a broken lock and down the porch with steps that would’ve crumbled if I put my full weight on them. We’d only been living in the small splintered house for a week, but it was a step up from our one-room apartment with mold that made my eyes water, so I’d already fallen in love with the place.
When I reached the flower bed, I skidded into it like a baseball player sliding onto a base. There were four bushes of white roses with their petals bunched together, waiting to bloom. I reached past their leaves, toward a single yellow flower, and plucked it from its home.
The thorns pricked my fingers, but I ignored the hot blood. I was too busy watching the petals pop open. One, then the other, then the other. When the flower finished unwrapping itself, I noticed a name imprinted inside. On every petal, written over and over, was Elizabeth Hunter.
I attempted to carry the rose back to my mother to ask her what the name could’ve meant, but the petals disintegrated as soon as I saw the message. They shattered into teeny bits of pollen that made my nose quiver.
My mother didn’t believe me when I told her about it. Neither did Elizabeth Hunter, the petite redhead I met an hour later, during my first day at my new school.
It took me two decades to learn to read the roses. A name hidden in a yellow flower meant I’d eventually become friends with that person. Red roses were reserved for boys I’d date. Orange were for the other boys (and occasional girls) I’d hook up with.
My mother hadn’t tended to the flowers the first time, and she didn’t tend to them any year after that. But their stems always sprouted from the bushes, no matter what season. Always kept their petals huddled together until I wrapped my fingers around them, released a little bit of blood, and yanked.
I didn’t believe in love potions or hexes or black magic, but I did believe in psychic predictions. How could I not, after years of a damn garden foreseeing my social life? Well, not the garden, exactly. Madame Marjorie.
Before we’d taken up residence in the small splintered house, a medium had worked from it. My mother’s bedroom had been the woman’s bedroom, and my bedroom had been the woman’s office. Several of her old clients still knocked on our door, twenty years later, looking for her. They weren’t wrong. She still lived there, in a coffin deep beneath our flower bed. At least, that’s what I assumed. That’s what I felt every time I sat cross-legged in the soil and searched for a colored flower to claim.
I thought I’d seen every shade that the psychic had to offer, but I’d never seen the dark color currently dancing on the end of the stem, bobbing with each breath of wind. Black. The color of death. It had to mean death, right? When my fingers curled around the stem, the petals didn’t unfold one by one like usual. This time, they popped open like a cork shooting from a bottle. Like they knew the wait would be too painful for me.
When I peered inside, I saw the name — Donald Bernstein.
If it had been my mother’s name, or my boyfriend’s name, I would’ve understood it as a warning. That I’d have to be prepared to deal with a heart attack or an unexpected car crash. But Donald Bernstein? I didn’t know anyone by that name, so what the hell would his death have to do with me? Would I kill him? Would he kill me?
I thought back to the other instances when the roses gave me their advice. The reason I’d became friends with Elizabeth Hunter, the redhead in preschool, was because I’d recognized her name from the flower. After hearing it during attendance, I’d walked over to her and introduced myself. If it weren’t for the flower, we might’ve never have spoken. Maybe the garden was guiding me instead of making predictions. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have to kill anyone. If that was what the flower even meant.
The petals disintegrated, like I’d seen them do dozens of times before. I slurped the blood from my hands and tried to figure out what I should be trying to figure out. I decided that, no matter what the flower meant, I wouldn’t get anywhere without doing research on Donald Bernstein. That’s why I typed his name into my phone’s browser, hoping that one of his social media pages would pop up. It did, but since it was set to private, all I could see was his face (wide eyes, grey hair, and a thin mustache), his favorite types of music (Elvis, The Eagles, and Nirvana), and that he tutored (English, Spanish, and French). Not what I needed. After using my nearly maxed-out credit card to access a criminal report website, I found out a bit more:
Last known address located only ten blocks away.
Arrested thirty years back on suspicion of murder.
That was a little while before we bought the house, which meant it was probably around the time Marjorie had died. Or maybe she had been killed? Maybe he had killed her…
No matter how much more searching I did on the internet, I wouldn’t be able to locate the information I wanted. To get that, I’d need to talk to the man in question. So I exited out of my phone’s browser and pulled up the phone app.
Even though I’d been out of high school, and would’ve been out of college if I had the time and the discipline to go, I convinced Donald to give me a tutoring session. Told him I was visiting France with friends and wanted to learn the language. Like I could ever afford France.
When I arrived at his house, which looked like it belonged in another neighborhood where kids played with sports cars instead of pistols, I knocked on the stained glass door.
“You must be Sammie,” he said, extending his wrinkled hand to shake. “Come on in.”
He led me through a hall papered with black and white photography and into a study with a glass table for the two of us. “Your house is gorgeous,” I said.
“I actually live a few blocks over on Divine Ave. You know, the little brown house on the corner?”
He kept his eyes down to flip through his paperwork, but his face lightened a few shades.
“Did you grow up here?” I asked. “You might’ve known the lady that lived there before us. Marjorie, I think?”
Again, no answer. “Did you know her?”
He scratched at the bald spot on his head. “I knew of her. The woman who ripped off her customers. My sister was one of them.”
“She was a psychic, right?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
“Yup. She also did aura readings, palm readings, and faith healings. Told my sister she’d cure her. That if she went to the doctors it would reverse the cure. So my sister died.”
The last sentence sounded so casual that it could’ve been mistaken for the punchline of a joke.
“Did she have cancer?” I asked, hands clasped over the table.
“Nope. Hep C. Completely treatable. As long as you take your medication.” He shuffled through the papers again, but then let them drop with a sigh. “I tried to force her. Bribe her. Hide meds in her food. But she was a grown woman. She could make her own decisions. Except, Marjorie made them for her. Just to earn a buck.”
My teeth clamped together. Marjorie had helped raise me. She was like my second mother. My guardian angel. And he was sitting there, insulting her. “Maybe she believed what she was saying.”
Air flew through his nostrils. “No way in hell. She was too clever. She’d actually build trust with her clients. She’d give them free sessions. Make them coffee. Buy them brunch. And a few years later, once she knew she’d always have their business, she’d ask them to pay a big sum of money for some special reading or a faith healing.”
Another sigh escaped his lips. “She pulled off long cons, that one. Knew that big risks ended with big payoffs.”
I had a brief moment of misplaced faith. What if that, the long con, was exactly what she was doing to me? What if she’d sent messages from “the beyond” to build my trust, just so I would grow up to kill the man who (possibly) killed her—but no. No, that couldn’t be it. She cared about me. Looked out for me. More than my own deadbeat, alcoholic, cheats-on-every-man-that-ever-loved-her mother. Every good thing in my life, from my boyfriend to my best friend, was thanks to Marjorie. She helped me find happiness in my hopeless little town. Without her, what did I have?
I inched my hand off of the table and onto my jeans, resting it on the pocket that held the knife I’d packed, just in case. “She was murdered, I’d heard.”
He just looked at me, his head tilting like a confused mutt, so I slid the knife out of my pocket. Wrapped my fingers around the handle, like I’d held the rose stems.
“Why are you really here?” he asked.
“To learn French.”
He grabbed the wrist still atop the table and yanked me closer to him. “Why are you here?”
He tightened his grip, digging his nails into my bone. “She didn’t deserve to live. She was a crook.“ (A mother.) “A liar.” (A saint.) “A murderer.” (A guardian angel.)
I lifted the knife and slashed at his hand, cutting it deeper than skin should ever be cut. He released his grip on me as the blood sputtered down the sides of his arm, like a curtain being drawn at a play. Before he could process what had happened, before he could make a move to defend himself, I jumped onto the table. I Leaned forward. I slit his throat. Again and again and again.
It wasn’t until the crisscross cuts made his head loll backward that I started to regret what I’d done and wonder why the hell I’d done it. Did Donald second guess himself after he’d murdered Marjorie? If his last words were any indication, the answer was no.
The regrets clogged my veins, slowed my heart. Technically, Donald hadn’t even admitted to the crime and I just… I needed to get out of there. I Needed to get home.
When I did, I scanned the garden, and for the first time in my life, I hoped I wouldn’t actually find anything. But I did. Another black rose, the petals long and inky against their virgin white companions.
I dropped to my knees, letting the soil coat my jeans, and reached deep into the bush to pluck the flower. Thorns scraped me up to my elbow, and my blood blossomed on top of Donald’s. The thought of his DNA mingling with mine made me sick. No part of him should’ve been near me. I should’ve never went to that house.
The sight of the black rose made tremors take over my body, because I was powerless when it came to resisting its spell. As much as I wanted to burn the garden to the ground, I wanted to get a peek at the name hidden inside of the rose even more. But no matter what it said, I wouldn’t kill again. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t.
However, when I actually grabbed the flower and watched the petals unfold, I realized that I could.
The knife peeking from my pocket would get a second chance, because that fresh black rose with my blood on the thorns was inscribed with a name.