Parker was in the hospital with his mother. Everything was so bright that it seemed to be glowing, and the beeping of the heart monitor mixed with the steady hiss of the oxygen generator to create what he’d come to know as a symphony of death.
His mother was lying on the bed looking at him. She was so pale and thin, purple circles surrounding her eyes, and lips cracked and peeling. She wore a scarf around her head. He knew that she only wore it when he was around because he had come in a few times unexpectedly and found her without it. It made his chest tighten to think that even while enduring all this pain and knowledge of imminent death she still thought above-and-foremost of comforting him. Or, at least, shielding him from as much angst as she could.
“Come here, Parker,” she said, lifting a hand that seemed like it must be too heavy for her arm to control. “Come to me, my beautiful baby boy.”
Parker took her hand and sat in a chair beside the bed. Her skin felt cold and clammy, yet despite the moisture it felt like dry leather. The symphony that continued to play in the background offered him both comfort and grief. “I’m here, ma. I’m right here.”
“It’s almost time,” she began, but was interrupted by a coughing fit.
Parker picked up the glass of water on the bedside table and held the straw for her to drink from. “Don’t say that, ma,” he responded shakily.
She interrupted him. “No, I’m right and you know it. I’ve got to go. We both knew that this was coming. I love you so much, and I’m so proud of the man you’re becoming.”
“Ma—” he tried to interject but despite her frail frame and unsteady voice she was still able to pull off the authoritative parent voice which mothers always seem to have.
“Take care of your father,” she continued. “Grieve, but don’t let it consume you.” Tears were streaming down Parker’s face, but oddly enough not his mother’s. It was as if she didn’t have any tears left. “And above all else, my sweet Parker, remember who you are. Never lose that.”
“I won’t,” he replied, tears now freely flowing from his eyes. “I promise.” And then he felt the strongest squeeze of her hand that he’d felt in a long time, and her breath caught in her throat. Then the hand fell limp and a long sigh escaped her lips. Parker broke down sobbing, resting his forehead on her hand, which he still clenched tightly.
He was in the midst of his incoherent sobbing when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He assumed it was a nurse based on the tenderness of it. He looked up and saw the most beautiful woman that he’d ever seen. Wavy auburn hair flowed down her back, and her green eyes stared at him with sympathy.
“Come with me, Parker,” she said. She wasn’t dressed like a nurse, but his mind wasn’t concerned with those details.
He stood up and followed her a few feet away from the bed. The heart monitor was still giving off its shrilling whine. Nurses and a doctor came rushing in and ran past them to attend to his mother. They didn’t even look in their direction, as if Parker and this mystery woman weren’t there at all.
“She’s gone, Parker,” the woman continued. He got the oddest sense of familiarity when she spoke his name.
“What did she mean by not forgetting who I was?” he asked, as if this strange woman would know the answer. And the strange thing was that he believed she did, or, at least, he didn’t think that she didn’t.
“Don’t worry about that,” she answered. “People say strange things when they’re that close to the other side, nonsensical things. But the important thing is that she loved you. Forget the rest of what she said and focus on that.” She then reached up and kissed him on the cheek.
When Parker woke with a start; it was dark outside. He had fallen asleep on the couch listening to music, thinking about Alora. He enjoyed the company of women as much as the next guy, but he had never been infatuated or even truly in lust with a woman, and love was something that he knew next to nothing about in that context. It wasn’t that he didn’t want it, but he had never found a woman who captured him that way. That’s why it was a bit surprising that she'd remained in his thoughts this long.
But that hadn’t stopped the dreams. Unlike the others, he could remember this dream vividly. And he remembered the woman. This time was different in another regard, too. This time the dream was a memory, though altered.
Before he had the chance to think much on it—he had unsuccessfully tried to puzzle out the meaning of the dreams countless times, anyway—he looked over at the clock and realized what time it was. He had less than an hour to meet Alora, and as much as he wanted to sit and dwell on the dream—on his mother—he forced himself to get ready.
Parker jumped out of bed and rushed to take his shower, brush his teeth, and do all of the little things to get ready. He then ran out the door, forgetting his car keys and having to run back in to grab them. He wasn’t nervous, exactly; he was excited. And he didn’t calm down until he was in his designated parking space outside of the shop where he'd first met her earlier that day.
He looked around, breathing a heavy sigh of relief that she wasn’t there yet, and looked at his watch; it was only a few minutes after 11:00. It was at that moment that he began mentally berating himself. You’ll seem like a desperate fool, he scolded himself, getting here before her! What's wrong with you?! But if I had made her wait, I would have seemed like I wasn’t interested. He realized what he was doing; he was letting his thoughts run away from him. Maybe there were some nerves thrown in there with the excitement.
Perhaps five minutes later her car pulled up next to his, and he looked over at her and waved. A moment later she rolled down her window. After he followed her example she called out,
“So are you going to sit there all night, or what?”
Parker turned off the ignition, got out of his car, and got into her passenger seat. “Where are we going?” he asked, breathing her in.
“You’ll see,” she responded simply. And then she pulled out and started driving.
Parker quickly stopped paying attention to where she was going, as it didn’t really matter to him. What mattered was her. After a healthy dose of awkward silence Parker decided to make conversation.
“So you never told me where you work,” he began. “Close by, I assume.”
“I actually work at the New Age shop down on Williamson,” she answered. “I’m a clerk there.”
“I’ve never been in there. What exactly do you guys sell?”
“Oh, you should definitely check it out,” she stated. “We sell everything from books, to meditation crystals, to charms. It’s really interesting.”
“Wow,” he said honestly. “What got you into that?”
“I’m sorry?” he asked, taken off guard.
Alora pointed in front of them, and for the first time Parker realized that they had parked and were sitting out front of a large building with the words “Ice Skating” on the front. “This is the first part of the night. Are you ready?”
He chuckled. “Let’s do it.” They went in, Parker paid, and they were putting on their skates when he confessed, “I haven’t ice skated in years. I don’t know how good I’ll make you look.”
“Don’t worry,” she shot back, tying her own skates. “It’s like riding a bike. You never forget.”
As soon as they got onto the ice, however, Parker proved her wrong by bringing them both down. After he managed to quell his own laughter slightly—she was still working on hers—he noted,
“‘…Like riding a bike’, huh? I don’t know what kind of bikes you’re used to riding, but mine generally stay under me.”
After she had finally stopped her own laughing long enough, she held onto the wall while helping him stand. “Well, maybe a couple of practice laps will do us both some good before we’re ready to go up against Brian Boitano,” she said, laughing.
It didn’t take long before they were both up and moving, laughing, joking, and doing laps around other skaters, however. Her skills far surpassed his—it seemed she was a frequenter of this very skating rink—but he found his balance quickly enough, and they were soon skating hand-in-hand.
It wasn’t a big skating rink, but there was enough room for a decent amount of people to move around comfortably. There was a concession stand off to the side, which both of them turned down because they were having too much fun.
When they were done, and putting back on their own shoes, he turned to her. “This was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Thank you.”
“The night’s not over yet,” she said, shooting him a smile.
“Well,” he began, standing up and gathering his skates, feeling like his legs were made of water but trying to hide it, “What’s next?”
“You’ll see,” she said in that same coy manner.
The drive was fairly short, and silent. It wasn’t that he didn’t have anything to say, but he was still trying to figure out how he felt about her. He obviously liked her, but for some reason he found himself liking her more and more as time passed, even when they weren’t talking. This wasn’t something that he was used to.
They pulled off the main road onto a dirt one, and Parker turned to her. “Where are we going?”
“You’ll see,” she responded simply.
“You know, in movies, this situation never ends well.”
“Two people in a stranger’s car, and the stranger pulls onto a dirt road in the middle of the night, and when the passenger asks where they’re going the stranger says, ‘you’ll see.’ Usually ends with the passenger missing and his family members crying on some news channel on television.”
“So I’m still just a stranger?” she said. “I thought the whole ‘date’ thing negated me being just a stranger.”
Parker laughed out loud. “That’s what you took from that?” he burst out incredulously. “Well, then, I guess all is well in the world!”
Their laughter tapered off as Alora parked at the edge of a clearing. Parker gasped; it was one of the most beautiful sights he’d ever seen, and he told her as much.
The spot that they were parked was the top of a hill facing down on the entire city. The lights were like tiny sparkling dots twinkling in time with what he could only describe as the heartbeat of the city. At this distance, he couldn’t see any cars or people in the dark, but he could hear the hum of everything. It was as if the city itself were alive.
She turned off the ignition and stared at the sight for a minute. “My father used to bring me out here when I was a little girl,” she told him. “We would sit and talk about everything.”
“He doesn’t worry about you being out here in the middle of nowhere with a strange man?” Parker asked jokingly.
“There’s a police station right down the road,” she returned, smiling. And when Parker looked over, indeed he could see the lights of a building just far enough away that he would have missed it if he weren’t searching. “Besides, my father passed away not that long ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Parker replied solemnly. He knew the pain of losing parents, and he wouldn’t wish that on anyone. “Can I ask how?”
“He drank himself to death,” she shot back, probably more chipper than it should have been. “Actually, it’s the complete opposite. He was a heavy alcoholic, and when he finally quit—he always said he could stop anytime he wanted, and it took 15 years but he finally did—the withdrawals were so bad that he went into convulsions and died.”
“Wow,” Parker noted, “I’m so sorry. That must’ve been tough on you.”
“Eh, that’s life, right?” she responded. “Besides, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. By the time he died him we weren’t as close as we used to be. The alcohol took its toll on his life long before he died.”
After a moment of silence, Parker decided to steer the conversation in a lighter direction. “So you were telling me before we went skating that you worked in a New Age shop. What got you into that?”
“My parents were hippies,” she said. “They were actually pre-hippy hippies; they did the Mother Earth thing long before it was ‘cool’. And I guess I got some of that from them. And if that wasn't enough, I had lost a pair of earrings—they were an heirloom from my great grandmother—and a friend of mine found them for me using a crystal she got from that shop.”
“Really?” he responded incredulously. Parker liked to consider himself very open-minded, but there were just some things that he found hard to believe. Still, he was interested in her and what she had to say. “I didn’t know people could do things like that.”
She chuckled. “You don’t believe me.” Parker tried to protest, but she cut him off. “That’s alright. I don’t expect or want anyone to believe in anything one way or another. It’s the message of it all that I care about.”
“What message?” he asked.
“The idea that we should all love one another and care for each other; the message that, in the end, we are all brothers and sisters in this world. ‘Make love, not war’; you know, all the hippy stuff. That’s what I love, and that’s what I want to share with the world.”
“You have no idea how amazing you are, do you?” Parker asked, staring into her eyes. He thought for the hundredth time that he would be content to get lost in those eyes. He cleared his throat, realizing what he said and where they were. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
She cut him off. “No, don’t be sorry. It seems like my life with guys has been a string of bad luck, and it’s nice to find a guy who’s actually sincere; a guy who actually cares.”
“I’m sure you say that to all of us,” Parker joked, trying to regain his composure.
Alora cleared her throat and said, “So you work in that flower shop?”
“I own it, actually,” he answered.
“You own it?” she asked dubiously. “But you’re so young to own a business. And a flower shop?”
“Well, it’s a long story as to how I came across it,” he began, “But basically I bought it with an inheritance. And as for it being a flower shop…”
She laughed. “Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. It’s just that you don’t generally think of men owning flower shops.”
“Well this one does,” he said. “I like flowers; they’re soothing to me.”
“Do you mind if I ask who this mystery person is? The one who got you so interested in flowers.”
“My grandmother,” he replied. “She was without a doubt the greatest person I’ve ever known. I wish you could’ve met her; you two would’ve gotten along great.” He chuckled.
“I wish I could’ve met her too. Tell me about her.”
“She owned this huge estate out in the middle of nowhere—the driveway was literally a mile long—and I used to go there every summer. I remember each morning for breakfast she would bring me a new flower from her garden and quiz me about it; what family it was from, what its characteristics were, where it natively grew, everything. But it was never a chore. It was never something that I got bored of, because I loved her so much and even as a kid I knew that it was all part of the same agenda for both of us: To spend time together.”
“That’s nice,” she whispered. “She sounds like a really amazing person.”
“She was,” he responded. “When she died I was destroyed. It’s embarrassing to say, but I think it affected me more when she died than when either of my parents did. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my parents, but it was different with her. She was my best friend; she was my everything.”
“I’m so sorry,” she consoled. “I had no idea about your parents.”
“It’s okay. It was a long time ago.” He cleared his throat, realizing how melancholy the conversation had grown. He changed the subject. “So tell me about you. Are you from here?”
And that’s how it went for nearly two hours. They talked about life, and loss, about their pasts and their ambitions. They talked about everything they could think of, and then talked some more. They just…talked. But, as with all good things, the night eventually had to come to an end.
As she drove him back to the flower shop—she had explained to him that she had to work early the next day—he told her that he wanted to see her again.
“Of course,” she responded. “This was great; I don’t think I’ve laughed that much in a long time.”
Parker pulled the receipt from the skating rink out of his pocket and wrote his phone number on the back, and then he put it in the center console of her car. “Call me,” he said simply.
She pulled into the parking lot of the flower shop next to his car. Now that he was actually paying attention he realized where they were. For a long moment they just sat there, looking at each other. Finally, Parker reached for the door handle.
“Wait,” Alora said, and he stoppe. She leaned in and kissed him. Nothing exaggerated or overt, but a deliberate, meaningful kiss. “I hope this can become something.”
“Me too.” And with that, he opened the door and got out.
She waited until he was in his car before backing out and driving away. Parker sat in his car with the key in the ignition for what seemed like an eternity, simply replaying the evening in his mind. It was a simple evening, but he felt like it was the best one that he’d ever had. It felt like he was waking up after a very long sleep and this was the first full day that he’d lived.
The moment passed eventually, and he shook himself out of his stupor. All at once he wanted to kick his feet and shake back and forth, filled to the brim with an excitement that he hadn’t felt in a while. His stomach was doing backflips. He wasn’t sure what this feeling was—maybe it was love—but he liked it.