The Flower Girl
About seven hours after I’d discovered the Array, no one else had been found who could see the Sunsoul, but a couple of employees of the power company had come to collect John. Almost ten o’clock, and they’d still sent a vehicle from the plant over ten miles away through the sunlight for him.
It was awe inspiring. Who would be willing to drive with that sort of risk? I supposed Tellroan must have good transportation. I wouldn’t even want to be on one of the busesthis close to noon, and those things could be better described as tanks.
I’m sure John was probably a little bit terrified. I doubt he’d thought far enough ahead to realize they’d be taking him straight through to the Tower, no matter what time it was. Long habit had drilled home the fact that going outside anywhere near noon was just inviting a death sentence.
My car might make it. It wasn’t a risk I intended to take though.
But John was gone now, and likely wouldn’t be returning at all unless he lied about being able to see Sunsoul. In which case he’d probably still not be coming back, because that was pretty much a fast track for juvie.
Best. Day. Ever.
“It stayed there for over five hours. Can you believe it? Much longer and we would’ve had to start testing preschoolers!” Monroe was talking while simultaneously chewing a bite of baked chicken.
“Dude. Eat. Then talk,” April commented dryly before I could.
I chuckled and Monroe blushed a little, rubbing a nervous hand through his shaggy dark hair. He was a broad shouldered boy with a little more fat than muscle. His nasally voice never seemed to fit his body type.
“Err, sorry,” he replied lamely, after swallowing his chicken. “I’m just excited! What’s different? What’s changed? The array hasn’t stayed in a fixed spot for more than half an hour since… what four years ago? And now it stays still for hours before jumping! It’s almost like someone’s still piloting it, don’t you think?”
After the initial excitement in the first hour of the day, the rest of it had been boring. I’d gotten the chance to observe the array more than I ever thought I’d want to, and I was already getting sick of hearing about it.
“I really don’t care,” I said, now not even partially amused. I enjoyed stargazing and talking about Fontaine’s Folly as much as anyone but at a certain point I just didn’t want to hear about it anymore. The number of times I’d been told “Congratulations on finding the Array, Noonday!” today was nearly countless. People who didn’t know me from Adam, recognized me now and called me “Noonday” as if it were an actual name. I almost wished I hadn’t found the damn thing.
I hadn’t eaten much for lunch today and the early dinner Monroe and April had wanted just after the last class of the day looked awful too, which was strange. I’d always loved Panini day, but now with it sitting right in front of me, it just didn’t look very good.
Maybe it was the bad dreams, and the general lack of sleep, but I’d just been less hungry lately. Burn victims were supposed to be hungrier, especially after operations like mine. Burn Heals, huge machines which could eradicate and replace burned skin simultaneously had made burn wounds a thing of the past for the most part. All a burn victim had to do was get to the hospital. Most burns were caused by the Sun after all.
I shook my head to stop thinking about it and turned to something else, and found myself pondering money. I was surprised that Dad had mentioned money this morning but I guess maybe the surgery had been a little much. Even Mom’s impressive salary had trouble supporting something that expensive on short notice. Coupled with the bills for Grandma’s move into assisted living after a bad fall last year, it was apparently stretching my parents income. Or at least Dad implied it was. With the way Mom acted, it might be. I sort of doubted it though. They probably just wanted to teach me to be frugal.
I kicked my feet out and stood from the cafeteria table and stretched with a yawn and a glance for the clock. Quarter till’ five. The Sun was probably cooled off enough now that I could get home, but that didn’t matter. I had to visit Clara yet.
“You out, Brandon?” Monroe asked, looking at my tray. “Can I have that?”
I blinked. “Sure. Yeah I’m out,” I replied simply.
Monroe and April shared an odd look. April sat on her hands suddenly, apprehensive about something. Monroe grinned at her, and gave her a prodding nod.
“Uhh… something I should know?”
“No!” April pounced before Monroe could open his mouth. “Ahh, nothing Brandon. Nothing important anyway.”
Monroe rolled his eyes. I wouldn’t ever claim to understand women but April was a friend. I’d grown up with her, and I could at the very least tell when she was hiding something from me. Monroe’s exaggerated eyeroll only made detecting the lie easy mode.
“Ohh-kay?” I drawled, hoping to prod whatever April wanted to say out of her, but she clamped her mouth shut and stared down at her mostly finished Panini. I shrugged. Whatever it was would probably come out eventually.
“Talk to you guys later then,” I murmured and headed off.
Monroe cackled at something hilarious when I was a little ways away. I even heard him over the din of all the people waiting on the sun to go down, and I think I heard the distinct smack of a hand on a face, but whatever he’d said that had pissed April off so much was unimportant.
I had a hospital to visit.
The walk to the hospital was a pretty long one. It was almost two miles away, but easy enough to reach if you were simply willing to walk there and back. Ever since they finished the moving walkways, getting around was a breeze.
Leaving the cafeteria I cut through the school’s square main halls and made my way towards the exit from the school to the Hub.
The huge hallway, at least four stories high and wide enough to comfortably fit a large interstate inside it, was just beginning to pick up a crowd. In fact, there were places in the Hub that had once actually been parts of highway that had passed right through the area before, though most of them were on the northern corner. The halls were lined with rows of beautiful green trees that were no longer able to survive the harsh sunlight outside. The walls were painted with long mosaics that seemed almost like skilled graffiti stretching all the way up the ceiling. The ceiling itself, though, was painted green, in memory of the land that had lost that vibrant shade so long ago.
The Hub was basically the city of West Steppe itself. An enormously complex single building with offshoots to hundreds of other buildings, connecting them and safely sheltering anyone who wanted to get somewhere nearby in town but didn’t want to risk the outdoors.
The Hub, quite simply was a giant mall. The only difference was that the outlets were more in the line of “School,” “Post Office,” “Hospital,” or even a “Shopping Centre.” Most cities in the midwest that hadn’t been long abandoned now had a Hub or even several, and all of them were permanently under construction as new businesses grew and expanded.
The place would grow even livelier as night came, and not for the first time I lamented the fact that West Steppe wasn’t a “Night Town.” Several cities had begun converting to a sleep-during-the-day lifestyle to avoid the Sun entirely. St. Louis was one. There were… problems with that though.
For one, it made the Hub’s original function almost obsolete. The Hub, which had cost millions to connect the cities various necessities and air condition properly, was madeto function in the depth of the hottest summer noon. That alone had probably swayed the votes in favor of keeping with the traditions of the previous generation.
“Sure would be convenient if we’d switch though,” I murmured to myself as I stepped onto one of the moving walkways and continued at a quick clip. I felt like it would be safer at least, but old folks were slow to change. And maybe as long as we didn’t change our lifestyle, they could still feel like there was a chance the world would go back to how it had once been.
I was walking down the southern edge of the Hub, the fastest route between the school and the hospital, and also the most scenic. As I walked I noticed my mirror reflecting from the marble pillars that occasionally took the place of one of the trees in the pattern.
I couldn’t be called tall, but not really short either. Boringly normal brown hair matched my eyes which held a darker shade of the same. I was what I’d always been. Average. It was even how I thought of myself in regards to everything except sprinting. Put me in long distance and I was toast, but in a sprint there weren’t many that could keep up.
I’d hardly even thought about track since this whole business with Haley and Clara had come up though. I had actually missed a meet with one of the schools from St. Louis while my burns were being healed. Now with the Array on top of all that, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to keep my mind focused where it should be.
“Can you believe it? Four hours! Four whole hours!” I caught a clip of conversation as I passed, and that was mimicked on a hundred other mouths. Everyone was talking about how long the Array had stayed still this time.
“I heard it was five!” Someone yelled in response.
I rolled my eyes, tired of hearing about it now.
People from my own age all the way up to senior citizens sat on the benches or circled the many trees and pillars in small groups, all waiting for their favorite store to open at the shopping center, or a new movie to start in a few hours.
“Noonday! Hey Noonday!” Came a voice from behind me. I studiously ignored it, but began walking faster when it sounded like whoever was shouting that stupid name was trying to catch up to me.
Luckily, my pace and lack of acknowledgement seemed to discourage the follower and I wasn’t bothered again.
I strode in through automatic doors to find the lobby. It was a stark white room, so bright compared to the Hub that I almost had to squint. A small lobby to the right of the door held four nurses in scrubs, that appeared to be taking a short break. I knew one or two of the four of them but only in passing.
Ms. Cassy McCaw sat in front of me at the main desk. She was one of the head nurses who I did know and she could only be described as a stout woman. Shoulder length blond hair framed blocky face that had the perpetual tiredness I’d come to associate in nurses and hospital personnel in general. She wasn’t fat, but she clearly had been once. Her loose skin hung grotesquely off her bones, and I’d assumed she was one of many who’d lost weight during the food shortages when the states were still adapting to indoor farming. No matter how ugly or firm she was though, she had a heart that made up for it a hundred times over.
I waved to her and watched her eyes sink a little bit further as she caught sight of me. “Oh… Hello Brandon.”
Something in her tone told me that things weren’t going well.
“Has something happened?” I asked, concerned.
Cassy grimaced and made a glance down the hallway towards Clara’s room. “She’s… getting worse. The burn-heals just don’t seem to work on her, so we’ve had to resort to creams to soothe her. It’s the worst sort of heat stroke I’ve ever seen. I… don’t want to say it’s hopeless but you might’ve gone out into the sun for her for nothing.”
“Dammit…” I sighed in helpless frustration. “Still no visitors?”
“She did have a few today.” She replied a little somberly. “Quite a few, in fact, but they’re all gone now. You should go see her.”
She fished in the desk between us for a visitor’s badge with elastic that had been frayed at the edges by years of use.
I thanked her for the badge before I turned down the long hallway to the room that would hold the burned girl. I imagine visiting her every day and seeing her like this was probably part of the reason for my irritatingly vivid dreams, but I just couldn’t stop.
I opened the door and blinked.
Clara was there alright, her burned body portraying an object lesson of the sun’s effect on human skin. Her face was still that charred mess and her body, covered in a light hospital gown hid fringes of the same.
That wasn’t what shocked me though. What did was the flowers. Loads of them. It was almost as if someone had went to a grocery store and just bought every flower they had. There was no rhyme or reason to them, no specific color or type.
Tulips and Roses, Lilys and Lilacs, and plenty of others were sidled up alongside even some of the rarest of rare flowers like Dandelions and the very small Soolies that had to be gathered into large bundles of short flowers and have their green leaves picked one at a time in order for their subtle pink tinge to show.
The girl’s hand, lying peacefully on her chest, clasped one of the yellow tulips as if it had been placed there.
Flowers on their own were rare these days and had to be brought down from the north or grown in gardens. Of course everyone had gardens and most people usually grew one or two little patches of some flower or other in them, all year round. They’d usually keep them for special occasions but these almost felt as if they’d been grown specifically for Clara.
I even had my own little plot in the darkhouse back home.
So many, though…
“W-wow,” I breathed in unexpected awe. “Who could do this?”
For most of the past week I’d been afraid that Clara had no family at all. Now I feared she might have an overabundance.
Even now I could hardly believe the casual way in which I’d seen her walk out that door. Just opened it and slipped right out into the sunlight. She’d done it almost nonchalantly. Not like a girl who was trying to commit suicide at all. That girl must have felt so alone. Or, so I had thought. Now, what she’d done made even less sense. She had someone —surely many someones— who cared for her deeply. What could have caused her to abandon that so senselessly?
I walked over to one of several chairs and took a seat right next to her. She looked so… hurt. Even in her sleep she seemed in pain.
Clara had always been a thin girl. She was short, with brown hair that she had dyed early this past September to an almost comical shade of red. She’d never been the type of girl to stand out or make waves but she certainly had when she came to school withthat change.
She apparently hadn’t liked it though, as only a short few weeks later she’d dyed it again. Staring at her now, I could see a thin trace of the platinum color of fuzz growing on her scarred head.
Could it be that her hair had always been that almost white color? It had seemed so natural when it was brown…
She wasn’t a person I’d ever paid much attention to though. Different Division; She was in E, while I was in B. I’d barely even known her, other than that she was a musical student, who didn’t have many friends. Clara was very much into her violin and not much else.
“Why can’t they fix you, Clara? What’s wrong?” I asked her sleeping form. She was peaceful at the moment, but even in her sleep I could see pain in her features and couldn’t help but feel like it was somehow my fault.
“Fuck. Why would you do that? I know Haley was a jerk but she didn’t say anything so horrible to make you… ugh.” I breathed. My guilt had washed away slightly over the past week but as I watched her deteriorate more and more as days passed, I found it rekindling. Her breaths were slow and sharp. Not at all normal.
She was dying. I’d been in the sun almost every bit as long as she, though, and I’d barely walked away with second degree burns. It bothered me. I knew I must’ve imagined it.Knew that I couldn’t possibly have seen what I’d thought but… for some reason, I recalled with perfect clarity that the girl had not started burning herself until themoment I reached her.
I jumped as the voice at the door seemed to come without warning. I jerked my eyes away from Clara and found tall, slim woman standing in the doorway. A pair of half-moon glasses rested upon a pointed nose. Her face was as narrow as her body, and she wore a dark sweater and long black pants. Her dark skin made me certain she wasn’t family to Clara but something about the way she regarded me, as if I were beneath her, made me think she didn’t care much about either of us.
“You are Mr. Meadows, the boy who… saved Clara, are you not?” the woman said with a grimace. She had a clipped way of speaking that made Mr. Bales’ sternness seem like a meek kitten.
I didn’t like her, almost immediately. Something about the sarcastic way she spoke put my hackles up. “I suppose, I am. Who are you?”
“Who I am is none of your concern.”
I growled. “Bullshit. Clara’s been here for a week and a half, and only now she gets visitors? If you know her then what took you so long?”
She ignored me in favor of approaching the girl. “You’ve interrupted a great many things of which you are unaware, Brandon Meadows. It would be best if you stopped visiting Clara.”
How does she know who I am?
It was only then that I realized the woman held a single flower of her own. I blinked when I looked at it. I’d never seen a flower that looked anything like the one the woman held. A long green stem was the only normal thing about it. Long wispy white petals stretched out and up to meet at the top, making what appeared to be a small cage for a thin red bud of some sort, held in the middle.
The woman didn’t hesitate as she approached Clara and immediately grabbed the tulip in the girl’s hand and slid it out of Clara’s loose grip, carelessly tossing it to the floor.
“Hey!” I hissed as I watched the woman methodically place the strange flower in the same place in Clara’s hand.
“I’m sorry if I have been curt, Mr. Meadows. You are not helping her by visiting. She will become better in time, but you must leave her be.”
“Why!?” I exclaimed. I didn’t remember standing up but suddenly I was. “Who are you!” I demanded again.
For the first time, the woman’s eyes softened a little as she looked at the burn victim on the bed before us. I watched her hand trail from the flower up to very gently caress Clara’s forehead. Much to my shock, the comatose girl’s breathing seemed to ease almost instantly.
“C-Clara! What did you do!?”
The woman smiled and looked at me with dark, piercing eyes. “For Clara’s sake. Please… stop visiting her for a time, Brandon. She will be well.”
There was a small note of care in the woman’s tone now, where before there had been nothing but sternness. Perhaps she was not used to showing it. Her words though… She knew something.
“Why should I trust you?” I said, my anger losing its grip, as I watched Clara’s breathing seem to finally ease a little.
“Because I know what she is, and how she rescued you. You are already caught up in things you can’t understand. Best you try enjoy the few remaining days of ignorance while you can.”
“What’s that supposed to mean!?”
“You did not save Clara, Mr. Meadows. She saved you. And in the doing, made youmore.”
I shivered as the woman confirmed suspicions that I desperately wanted to not believe.
“This… is my fault?” I asked, trying to ignore the lump in my throat as I glanced back down at her. She almost seemed to be smiling. Could the flower be doing that somehow?
“Yes. As I am sure you have begun to suspect, she would have been fine had you not intervened.”
I winced. That was blunt. The lump grew rather than diminished.
“H-How? What is she?”
“That is not for you to know. You will leave now and you may return in four days. She will be ready to see you then.”
I twitched. I wanted to yell at her, tell the woman to fuck off and I’d visit whenever I could but something about her tone made me agree before I even realized what was happening. I tore my eyes away from Clara. Thinking that it might’ve been my fault and having it confirmed were two very different things.
I pounded out of the hospital, practically throwing the visitor’s badge at a shocked Nurse McCaw as I passed. My eyes were wet, and my throat filled to bursting with the immobile lump of guilt lodged there.
Fuck… just. Fuck.