“Are you sure you’re all right?” J’vonte asks as we make our way out of the school.
“I’m fine,” Jackson says, rolling his banged-up shoulder in its socket. “Don’t worry about me.”
“You saved me from being royally fucked,” she says. “If that ball had hit my face, it would’ve broke my nose for sure.”
“I know,” Jackson says. “That’s why I knocked it aside.”
Jackson turns his head to look at me. “What about you?” he asks. “Are you okay?”
I’m still in shock over the whole ordeal. However—I manage to nod, and even say, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Jackson says.
“For dragging you into this mess.”
“There’s nothing for you to apologize for, Oaklynn. I mean, God.” Jackson laughs. “We’re technically adults now. We shouldn’t be acting like kids.”
“You mean they shouldn’t be acting like kids,” J’vonte offers.
“Exactly. They shouldn’t.”
“And now they’ve gone and assaulted you, and nearly took J’vonte’s head off,” I offer. I frown as we come to where we normally leave my friend off and ask, “Are you going to press charges?”
“Over this?” Jackson rolls his shoulder again. “No. I don’t see any point in it. And besides—if the Wells family really is as powerful as you say they are, they’ll just lawyer up and outwit us. I mean… it was technically an accident.”
“Sure it was,” J’vonte says, and rolls her eyes. She considers the bus awaiting her, then says, “Sorry. I gotta go. Feel better, Jackson.”
The girl turns and saunters off, leaving me and Jackson to stand at the edge of the front lawn as the busses turn and roll down the road.
“Well,” Jackson says, “shall we go?”
“I actually can’t,” I reply. “I told my mom I’d help her at the flower shop today.”
“Do you have a ride?”
“Uh… no. I was gonna walk.” I blink as he narrows his eyes at me. “Really. It’s fine. It’s not that far from here.”
“I’m not worried about distance,” he replies, “as much as I am… well…”
“What?” I say, then frown as he sighs. “You really don’t think Easton Wells would try to cause trouble with me now, do you?”
“You never know,” Jackson offers. “I mean, he did just get after-school detention and the possibility of expulsion. He kinda double—“
“—whammied himself by calling you names, tackling me, and throwing the ball at J’vonte.”
“I guess you’re right,” I say, and cross my arms over my chest. I consider the road that I’m meant to walk on—at the streets I will soon be traveling—and nod before adding, “I’ll be okay. It’s you I’m worried about more than anything.”
“I’m okay, Oaklynn. Really. I’m fine.”
“Okay then,” I say. “I’ll talk to you later.”
We walk our separate ways—he to the old road, I to the small town. His footsteps fade the further I walk, and though I want desperately to turn and ensure he is okay, I know that doing so will only make me look small and desperate.
Am I, though? I think. Am I really?
The fact that I like Jackson doesn’t come from the fact that he’s the first guy I’ve really been attracted to. Rather, it is inspired by the way he’s looked out for me since his arrival—for the way he thinks, for the way he cares. He’s even stuck his head out for J’vonte, which says something considering that he could’ve easily just left her to her own devices.
He’s nice. Funny. Caring.
Incredibly good-looking, I think to add, and smile.
There’s no denying that I have feelings for him. Small as they happen to be, my affections toward him have only grown—and, I imagine, will only continue to do.
Which leaves me to wonder:
Can I weather this storm? Can Jackson?
I guess only time will tell.
My mother’s flower shop—otherwise known as the Flora Fantastica—is located on the corner of 3rd Street, and boasts an incredible panorama of windows that offers a distinct look at the road beyond. As I approach, slowly but surely awaiting both civilian and high school traffic, I find myself inhaling the scent of fresh flowers that’ve bloomed late on account of the weather in the area, and smile as a result.
At the doorway, I stop to consider a row of carefully-arranged pink and blue carnations, then enter the store.
“Welcome to Flora Fantastica!” my mother calls from somewhere in back. “I’ll be with you shortly!”
“It’s just me, Mom,” I reply.
“Oh. Oaklynn.” She peeks her head out from the back room. “Hi, honey. How was school?”
“It was… a day,” she replies.
“Give me a moment and you can tell me all about it. Could you start putting the seeds on the rack?”
“Yeah!” I call, heading toward the register.
I drop to my knees to consider the boxes and begin to withdraw packages of seeds from them. While Mom mostly sells flowers, as the local arborist, she also sells fruits and vegetables, which I find myself gathering and arranging into piles so I can place them on the racks standing by the window.
It takes several minutes for my mother to come out from the back room. Smelling of dirt, she tosses a loose strand of hair from her face by throwing her head back, then says, “So, what happened at school?”
“Oh, the usual. I got called a slut, Easton Wells tackled Jackson Meadows, and then threw a basketball at J’vonte’s head.”
I nod as if this is nothing unusual.
“What the hell is going on, Oaklynn?”
“I don’t know,” I reply, continuing to arrange the packages of seeds onto the racks. “I mean… I don’t know who possessed someone to write it on my locker.”
“Write what on your locker?”
“That I was a slut.”
“And you didn’t tell us this why?”
“Because you’ve had enough to worry about,” I offer, spinning to face her. I force a smile in response and exhale a breath I feel I’ve been holding in for ages. “As to Easton Wells tackling Jackson and throwing the basketball at J’vonte, well… I don’t know. Mrs. Miller didn’t let him off though. She gave him after-school detention for two weeks.”
My mother inhales a sharp breath through her teeth.
“What?” I ask, frowning. “Is something wrong?”
“Your… your father,” she says. “He… mentioned something about a grand opening for another store.”
“Oh God,” I whisper, lowering my eyes. “Oh… my… God.”
“Oaklynn,” my mother says, “this isn’t on you. What he did was his fault.”
“Mister and Missus Wells are going to lose their minds,” I say. “They’re going to lose their minds and go after the two of you.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I say, struggling to hold back the tears that threaten to burst forth. “I should’ve never written my paper on the wolf. I should’ve never tried to make friends with Jackson. I shouldn’t… shouldn’t have—“
This time, the tears come anyway.
Now in the full throes of a panic attack, I lean back against the wall and take long, slow, and deep breaths in order to try and quell the unbearable agony that takes place inside my lungs.
“Breathe, Oaklynn. Breathe, honey.”
“I am!” I say, and inhale another breath. “I just… I just want everything to be normal. For everything to be fine.”
“You can’t help it if some spoiled brat is trying to ruin your life,” she replies, taking hold of my bare upper arms.
I inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, then inhale and exhale again.
When finally the fit seems to settle, I blow a long, hard breath out through my mouth and say, “I’m sorry I freaked out.”
“Don’t be,” she says. “Remember the eye movement trick? Do that.”
“Okay,” I say, crossing my eyes from one corner of the room to another, back to back, one way then the other.
My mother turns and begins to make her way toward the packages of seeds that I’ve spread along the counter. “If you need to take a breather,” she says, “go to the office. If not… just… do whatever. I could use the help, but not at your expense.”
“I’ll help. It’ll take my mind off things anyway.”
“All right.” My mother turns to face me—and though a cloud of unease is passing over her eyes, the determination in them is bold and without remorse. “I won’t let anything happen to you if I can help it, Oaklynn. You know that.”
“Yeah. I know.”
As my mother returns to the back room, I close my eyes, then take another deep breath.
Then I return to my work.
The hours pass with relative ease. During them, I continue to arrange the packets of seeds, fill pots with soil, plant seedlings, and help Mom arrange starts, all with the knowledge that my feelings about Easton Wells’ punishment will soon pass.
It’ll be fine, I remember telling myself at one point, during which I’d spilled a pot of soil and had to sweep it up. Like that soil, things would eventually be taken care of—or, more aptly: swept into the great dustpan that was life.
It is dark by the time we are even close to finishing the nightly cleanup.
“Oaklynn,” my mother says. “Can I ask a huge favor?”
“Sure, Mom. What is it?”
“I left the big pots I was supposed to bring in at home. Call it a stupid mistake, but I completely forgot about them. Can I ask you stay here and watch the store while I go get them?”
“You’re asking me to watch the store?”
“Yeah. I mean… it’d be easier than calling your father to ask him, and, well… you’re an adult now. I know you’ll keep an eye on things.”
“Of course,” I say, and nod. “You can trust me to watch the store.”
“All right. I’m gonna go out back. And remember—call if you need anything.”
“All right,” I say.
With a nod, my mother disappears out the back entrance. A few moments later, I hear her car start up, then her drive off without so much as a pause.
Okay, I think, considering the space around me. I guess I’ll… sweep… or something.
It’s not as though I have much else to do, all things considering. The homework won’t be due for two days, and besides—it’ll be nice to simply relax and let my mind wander.
I reach for the broom, arrange the dustpan at the far edge of the room, and begin to sweep from the front windows and back.
While I work, slowly but surely gathering the dirt that happens to always be present within an ever-evolving flower shop, I hum a tune under my breath and try to push aside the day’s worries. They aren’t as prevalent as they were before—and haven’t, by any stretch of the imagination, lingered at the forefront of my conscience—and because of that, I find it easy to lose myself in the minor distraction of cleaning.
Everything’s fine, I think. Everything will be fine.
“Just a few more months,” I say, “and all this school stuff will be over.”
No more bullies. No more drama. No more rising early to go to Red Wolf High. Everything will be perfect, then. I can go to college, hopefully with J’vonte and Jackson, and I won’t have to worry about this small town and what its people think ever again.
I nod, then turn to face the windows—
Just in time for three of the front panes to shatter.
The cacophony of falling glass is enough to make me scream.
However—I don’t have time to see what has happened.
One moment, I’m simply standing there.
The next, something bright and flaming is flying into the shop.
The scent of alcohol snakes through the air.
Within moments the shop is catching fire, and everything inside it is being laid to waste.
“NO!” I scream, dropping the broom as I stare into the abyss. “Stop! Stop!”
No one can hear me over the roar of flames, over the screech of the fire alarm.
But what’s worse is that the sprinkler system isn’t engaging.
Something’s wrong—something’s horribly, horribly wrong.
And I am at the center of it.
I spin, seeking out the fire extinguisher, frantic in my attempts to save all my mother’s hard work. Flames lick the floor, skirt along the walls, set ablaze the plants that she’s so carefully tended all summer and then through the fall. My anxiety takes hold; and like a bear caught in a cage, I scream for release.
“Help!” I cry, rushing toward the register, only for flames to erupt behind the back wall. “Somebody please! Help me!”
Flames jump from place to place.
The ceiling begins to crawl with fire.
The smoke, as it starts to rise, makes my head swim, my lungs ache, my chest constrict.
I reach up to cover my mouth and turn toward the front doors, expecting to see a way to freedom, but find that the flames have snarled before me.
Go out back, my inner voice tells me. Run, Oaklynn! Run!
I have just turned and am about to run when another object sails through the window.
This time, flames erupt in my wake as something, and I’m not sure what, strikes the ground.
There’s no denying it now.
I’ll have to either run through the flames or find the fire extinguisher.
The water! I think. I can use the water! I can get out! I can—
My head spins.
I reach up to grab at my throat.
Do something! I think. GO GO GO!
I have just started toward the back door when something appears out my peripheral.
A massive dog—or, at least what I think is a dog—has appeared from the flames.
Is this hell? I wonder.
But before I can think further, the dog takes hold of my pant leg and begins to drag me toward the back of the store.
“Stop!” I cry, smacking at the top of its head as it drags me with such force I fall to my knees. “Let me go! Let me—“
The dog drags me through the store, refusing to let go.
The flames—which, I now realize, have not taken over the rear exit—burst into a frenzy.
With desperate, smoke-filled breaths, I take hold of the animal’s fur and allow it to lead me toward the back of the store.
The sound of sirens begin to echo through my head.
The scent of smoke overwhelms my senses.
The back door, which is ever so close but seems so far away, rises before me.
I manage to stand and push the door open just in time for the dog to drag me out into the back parking lot.
I choke—gasping for air, for sanity, for life.
The dog pulls me back before flames can erupt into my face.
I gasp, startled, and rear my head back just in time to see the animal in full.
It isn’t a dog.
It’s a wolf.
And worst yet: it’s face is distorting.
Within moments, I see fur recede along its hide, its eyes change color, its snout sink back into its face.
It takes only a moment for the transformation to occur, but when it does, I can barely believe my eyes.
A person stands before me.
And it isn’t just anyone.
It’s Jackson Meadows.
“Juh… Jackson,” I say, and cough, my head spinning, my eyes watering.
“It’s okay,” he says, taking hold of my arms and dragging me even further back. “It’s me.”
“How... you… it… we…”
He shakes his head just as the windows looking into the back of the store burst from the heat inside.
All I can do, as the sirens draw forward, is watch in horror as Flora Fantastica goes up in flames.