By Elle Boyd-
Meredith sees hanging plants in the window and walks in without noticing the name of the shop. Inside is a jungle of colourful flowers, all in full bloom. She expects to be assaulted by the smell of roses, hibiscus, lilies, but instead she smells plastic and air freshener. She reaches out and touches a bouquet of marigolds, running their delicate petals between her fingers.
They are fake.
She pulls her hand away and tries one of the hanging plants in the window. Fake. Looking around the store, she wonders if any of them are real. There is a man behind the cash counter arranging more fake flowers in a vase. He looks up as she approaches. The first thing she notices is the colour of his eyes: a fascinating dark blue. She’s never seen eyes this colour before. Like the colour of the ocean when standing on the deck of a ship and scanning the horizon.
Then she notices his short stature, his wavy dark hair–perfect for running her fingers through–and also that he’s staring as intently at her as she is at him.
“I ...” Her voice falters. She clears her throat and tries again. “I was looking for ... plants.” She makes a third attempt. “Real plants.”
The man stares at her for another moment, then at the flowers he has been arranging. “We only have artificial, sorry. There’s a nursery up the road, about five blocks.”
A very hairy older man in a sweat-stained white shirt comes behind the counter and says something in another language to the man at the cash, who responds in English and calls him Dad. The father walks away and the son follows. He turns back to Meredith and says, “Sorry, I’ll be right back,” then disappears into the jungle.
Meredith wonders what kind of father-in-law that man would make, then wonders why the hell her mind went there. Is this love at first sight? Or does she just really like the son’s eyes? He appears quite young. Possibly too young for her?
He returns to the counter after a few minutes, apologizes again, and tells her the name of the nursery up the road. Meredith thanks him, her eyes resting on a pen and phone message pad on the counter. Before she loses her nerve and without saying a word, she grabs the pen, scribbles down her first name and phone number, then flees the store.
She hurries home and carries her cordless phone around the apartment with her, just in case he calls right away. He doesn’t. He doesn’t call the next day either. She finds herself trying to explain the man to her best friend, how tongue-tied she’d become, how she still holds out hope he will call.
Meredith has the option of returning to the store, checking for a wedding ring this time–how could she not have looked?–perhaps asking him out herself. He could have lost the paper with her number, his father could have taken it, he could have accidentally thrown it out. Any number of things. All she has to do is walk back in the store.
Her own insecurities get in the way. She is far too shy, and the thought of learning he’s married or engaged or living with someone terrifies her. So she keeps hope alive as long as she can, beyond all reason, until her best friend tells her to shut up about him, it’s been months, get over it.
Meredith has never been a big fan of shopping. Her husband, though–he loves it. He swears he hates it, but getting him out of a store without buying something is a struggle. He makes it difficult to save for anything, even retirement. They’ll have pensions from their jobs, sure, but they won’t be enough. It isn’t like they’re raking in the big bucks.
The mall will close soon and they still haven’t found what they’re searching for. There is no pleasing her mother-in-law so Meredith’s heart isn’t in it. Like she’d told her husband, they could pick anything, it doesn’t matter, his mother will just return it anyway. They are going back to the jewellery store in which they’d started to give it one last look.
Meredith’s husband begins reading some joke from his cell phone, something about two strangers being mistaken for brothers, when she sees him coming toward her. The man from the fake flower shop. Her stomach drops to her knees and her mouth forms a little O. He is with another man, taller with a bit of a paunch. Her man, shorter but slender in a tight-fitting black shirt and black pants, looks at her with those dark-ocean-blue eyes that now have faint crow’s feet in the corners. Does he remember her? She turns her head, her whole body as he passes.
“Meredith?” her husband says. She has stopped walking, just stands gazing after them as they round a corner and disappear. “Honey?”
She turns back to her husband. “I have to pee,” she says. “Wait here, I’ll be back in a minute.” She speed-walks after them, hurries around the corner and there he is, heading for the exit and out of her life. She stops, fights the urge to call after him–she doesn’t know his name anyway. If her husband wasn’t with her she would keep going, would break into a run and catch up to him, but she is tethered. Meredith watches him push open the exit door, wills him to please, please turn around and remember her, acknowledge her. That’s all she needs to know she never should have given up hope, that he’d never forgotten her either. Just one glance.
Meredith’s niece doesn’t want real flowers for her wedding. Wasteful, she’d said. Well what exactly does she plan to do with the artificial ones when she’s done with them, plant them in the ground? She knows this is a pity invite, that her sister suggested Meredith be included in the wedding somehow, that she needs to get out of the house she’d fought her ex tooth and nail to keep, a distraction that will hopefully smooth the frown lines creasing her forehead these days. Fat chance.
Meredith had balked at entering; having never noted the name of the store she hadn’t recognized it when her niece told her where they’re going, and frankly The One That Got Away (as she’s taken to calling him in her head) hadn’t even come to mind until she stood on the sidewalk staring at the houseplants in the window, butterflies battering her stomach, but then mashing down the strange mix of anticipation and fear with the cold reality of how much time has passed and how dumpy she looks now.
Her niece, a look of confusion on her face, takes Meredith by the arm and pulls her into the store.
It seems to have fallen on hard times. Stock is now sparse, the jungle culled and less colourful. The cash has been moved against one wall and shelves of cheap knickknacks take up too much space. Meredith’s niece looks around. “Not much here,” she says. Perhaps she’ll end up with real flowers after all. Meredith can only hope.
A young man stands at the counter playing on his phone. Meredith approaches, tries to keep her breathing steady, not sure what to say or do when she comes face-to-face with him. He looks up and she realizes this person is a stranger, or a half-stranger: his eyes are the same deep shadowy blue, but have a sleepy quality to them. The hair is wrong, the chin is wrong, but the resemblance is there, and of course she knows it has to be his son. She lets out a long breath, shoulders slumping as if the air has gone out of them.
“Can I help you?” he asks. Meredith takes in his short stature and wishes terribly for a time machine. This could have been her son too. The young man’s father could be lurking in the store somewhere, he could come up behind his son–or worse, behind her–and recognize her, explain why he hadn’t called, apologize for all the lost time, and would she like to grab dinner after–
Meredith shakes her head, then nods. “I’d like to get this.” She grabs a small cactus in a pretty ceramic pot and slides it in front of her. She has no idea if it’s real or not; bright pink blossoms adorn each segment, so she assumes they are just as make-believe as everything else in this store.
She buys the plant, refuses a bag and carries her cactus over to her niece, who decides to look for her flowers another day.
On a whim Meredith takes her out for lunch, to an overpriced steakhouse. She places the cactus in the centre of their table and admires it throughout the meal, smiles at it and touches it. Her niece asks about it, what makes it so great? but Meredith ignores the question and leaves the little plant with the tip. The server catches up with them as they step out on the sidewalk, holding out the cactus and asking if Meredith knows she’d left it behind.
Elle lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, with her husband and their cat overlord. Her work has appeared in Otherverse Magazine, Black Hole Comics, and Airgonaut. Elle can be found on Twitter @TheElleBoyd.