Parker pulled into his reserved spot at the flower shop; after Alora had dropped him off at his car he'd decided that he should probably check in on things and let Joe know that everything was alright. He felt bad for Joe; he had left him with quite a load and no notice. And he was about to add more to his plate; maybe he’d give him a paid vacation after this was all over.
He walked into the shop and immediately felt all the tension leave his body. This was his home; no matter where he went or what was going on, he always felt at ease when he came here. It wasn’t just that this was his shop, but it was everything about it, especially the flowers. He knew that his grandmother would have been proud of it; he wished she could have seen it.
“Parker!” Joe called out as soon as he heard the chime above the door. “I was starting to get worried.”
Parker smiled and reached out to shake his friend’s hand. “Joe, it’s good to see you. Yeah, I’m sorry that I’ve been out the last few days; I haven’t been feeling well. I was going to call but things have been kind of hectic.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Joe reassured him. “The place has been well taken care of while you were away.”
And it was. The flowers were all pruned back and watered, there was no fallen foliage to be seen—which is actually a majorly vital priority in a shop this style—and he even saw a few plants that had been transplanted.
One of the first things that he learned owning this shop was that the plants growing in the ground had to be potted on a fairly regular basis, otherwise they would grow out of control. So on a rotating basis he would remove certain plants, pot them, leaf and root prune them, and set them out for display. Meanwhile he would till that area of ground, adding anything that he needed to the soil, and let the spot recover for a season. And then he'd put new plants there. If the potted plants didn’t sell by the end of that second season he would rotate them back into the ground in a different area, replacing plants that had already been potted. This worked because it didn’t overly tax the soil—something that a lot of garden stores didn’t seem to take into account—but it also allowed for the plants to grow at a controlled pace, while at the same time allowing them to grow as naturally as possible. It was a system that he had developed over the years and found that it helped to both save space and to produce full, beautiful plants that lasted much longer than simply keeping them potted. Yes, he believed that his grandmother would be proud of this shop.
“I can see that,” Parker acknowledged. “It looks like you have everything under control.”
“Yeah, but the customers haven’t been pleased,” he acknowledged. “You should’ve seen Mrs. Blanchard earlier today; going on about how I’m trying to steal your store, and how I’d never be able to replace you, and yada yada yada.”
Parker smiled. “Well, I hate to do this to you, but it looks like I’m going to have to take a little more time. Something’s popped up and I have to take care of it right away. Do you think you’ll be okay handling things for a little while longer, or should I bring in some help?”
“Are you kidding?” Joe shot out. “This shop is my world; I can hold down the fort for as long as you need, boss.”
“Thanks, Joe,” he responded. “I really appreciate this.”
“Of course; but you know this means a nice bonus at the end of the quarter.”
“Joe, you can have whatever you want,” Parker breathed, relieved. A part of him had been afraid that Joe would say no; he didn’t know if he trusted anyone else to watch over his shop. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“I know,” Joe responded, smiling.
“I’m going to grab some paperwork from the office and take it with me; make sure there are no loose ends lying around. If you need me I’ll be here for a few minutes, otherwise you know how to reach me.”
“Alright, Parker, but I think I can manage.”
Parker smiled and nodded as he walked into his office. He sat down in his chair and breathed a heavy sigh; this had been quite exciting last couple of days. Well, including the blackout—the events of which seemed unlikely that he’d ever find out—it was almost a week. What a week, he thought to himself.
He gazed out the window and into the shop, just breathing in the atmosphere, calming himself and reflecting on the last week. But most of all, he had found himself thinking of Alora, the woman who had dropped everything in an instant to help him; the girl who he now knew in his heart of hearts that he would drop everything to help.
He leaned forward and began sifting through his papers, trying to find the paperwork that was time-sensitive. As he gathered them up and stood to leave he caught his reflection in the window in front of him, and shouted, stumbling back into the wall.
The reflection that he saw in the window was not his own. Light brown eyes stared back at him—far lighter than his—and the deep brown hair was slicked back, a few strands falling in front of his eyes. His cheeks were much defined; in fact, his entire face seemed more chiseled than Parker’s. He was wearing a brown jacket with patches on the sleeves; yet, despite this being a different man’s image, his movements were mocking Parker’s. This was not simply another image staring at him, but this was a different man’s reflection attached to him.
The door to the office swung open, drawing Parker’s focus on Joe.
“What’s wrong?” Joe exclaimed. “What’s going on?”
Parker looked back into the window in front of his desk and saw his own reflection. Pale, glasses crooked, clothes slightly disheveled, but it was him. He stared at it for a moment, analyzing himself.
“Nothing,” he responded breathily.
“But I heard a yell and a loud banging,” Joe protested.
“No, it was nothing,” Parker repeated, hastily gathering his papers and pushing Joe back in the doorway. “Nothing’s wrong. I’ll be in touch, Joe. Thanks again.” He said all this while rushing past his friend and employee without even a second glance.
He hurried outside, pushing past a customer that he didn’t notice even after making contact with them, and into his car. When he put the key in the ignition he simply stopped and allowed himself a moment to breathe. He looked up into the rearview mirror, inspecting himself, reassuring himself that the reflection he saw was his own.
After he felt satisfied he uncontrollably burst into tears; it seemed so real that he could’ve sworn he was seeing another man’s reflection in the glass. Even after the fact, he had a hard time convincing himself that he had imagined it.
Parker composed himself and then began driving home. He didn’t know what was going on, but he was surer now than ever that it was all connected. That was a bittersweet realization, because he knew now that it wasn’t his initial fear—cancer—but it created the awareness that he didn’t know what was going on.
When he got to his apartment, he opened the door and walked straight to the bathroom, where he inspected himself once more in the mirror. Still Parker, he reassured himself. The reflection was the same that he saw each morning, if not a little more ragged and sweaty. He suddenly felt nauseous and leaned over the toilet and started violently vomiting.
After what felt like hours his throat was raw and his stomach was pulsating. He stood up straight—as straight as he could force himself to—and looked into the mirror once more, and then began to wash his face and rinse his mouth.
He began to undress so he could take a shower but stopped when he noticed that the photograph of his mother was missing; the one that he always kept on the bathroom counter. He walked out into his bedroom and looked around, but it was nowhere in sight. He sifted through his nightstands, looked in the box of photos that he kept under his bed, but he couldn’t find it. If he had moved it—which he never had before—then there was no way that he would’ve moved it somewhere not easily located.
Parker walked into the living room and stopped dead in his tracks. They were all gone. The walls and end tables were barren; all the photos of his parents were missing. There were only a few pictures still laid out of him, and one of him and Alora, but every photo that contained his parents was gone.
He ran back into his bedroom and pulled out the box of photos from under his bed again, throwing the lid to the side. He began taking out the stacks of photos, throwing them carelessly after quickly scanning each one. There was not a single photograph of his parents to be found; he got frustrated and hurled the box across the room.
When he looked down he saw a picture of him that had been taken at Disney World when he was a teenager. In the original picture he was standing with a big Mickey Mouse stuffed animal, while his parents stood on either side of him. He remembered that day because it was the last vacation that they had all gone on together; they had asked someone walking by to take the photo for them.
But in this one it was just him, standing center frame, holding the stuffed animal. It didn’t look altered or anything; his parents simply weren’t there.
“Parker?” Alora greeted from his bedroom doorway. Parker looked up at her. “I knocked but you didn’t answer; I got worried.”
Parker lifted the photo for her to see. “They’re gone,” he illustrated, sounding in a half-daze. “All the pictures of my parents are gone.”
“What are you talking about? They’re all over.”
“No,” he affirmed, slowly rising to his feet and shaking the Disney World photo for her to see. “They’re gone. They’ve been…replaced or something. Pictures of only them are gone, and the ones of all of us have been changed somehow; they’re not in them anymore.”
“Parker, you’re scaring me,” Alora breathed cautiously, unconsciously backing away a step. “Why don’t you just take a deep breath and come get a glass of water with me; we can talk this all out.”
He paused, half-crouched, and a pensive expression came over his face. “How did you get in here?” he demanded, not realizing how feverish he looked.
“We stopped and you made me a key on the way to the psychologist appointment,” she explained. “Don’t you remember?”
“No,” he replied in a low but harsh tone, like silk over steel. “That never happened.” He began to slowly walk towards her again, shaking the photo. “It was you; you did this! Where are they?”
Alora was steadily backing away from his approach, feeling behind her for the bedroom door. “Parker, please, you’re scaring me. Stop this. I didn’t do anything.”
“How did you do it?” he demanded softly, still advancing. “Did you sneak in while I was at the shop, switch everything out? I bet I didn’t even ‘black out’; you probably drugged me.”
“Parker, no,” she objected, tears filling her eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re holding a photo of your parents right now.”
“Liar!” he shouted at her. “Enough games, Alora; it’s time for the truth.”
By this point Alora was out of the doorway. She turned to run towards the front door and Parker chased after her. But as soon as he stepped out of his bedroom he stopped and slowly stood up straight. All the photos were still where he remembered; his parents’ faces all over. He stared at them for a moment, and then slowly lifted the crumpled photo in his hand and inspected it; they were still there. Tears began to well in his eyes and he fell to his knees.
“Parker?” Alora uttered warily. “Are you…okay?” She slowly reached out, visibly hesitant to touch him. She was crouching down and the moment that her hand made contact he looked up at her.
“Alora,” he whispered, tears running down his cheeks. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Oh, Parker,” she consoled softly, embracing him as he fell into her arms like a child. They both began sobbing, Parker repeatedly apologizing in-between breaths.
After an eternity had passed and neither had any tears left in them, Alora spoke. “We need to get you to the doctor.”
“No!” Parker shot back, looking up at her. “They’ll lock me up; I can’t let that happen.” Tears began leaking down his cheeks once more. “Please, Alora, don’t let them do that.”
Alora began making shushing noises, as if soothing a child, as she pulled him into her chest and started smoothing his hair down with her hand while he sobbed. “It’s okay, Parker; we’ll figure this out. I won’t let anything happen to you.” She held him until she was sure that he had fallen asleep, and then she lay down with him there on the floor, still holding him in her arms.
When Parker woke it was daylight out--morning, he thought. Alora was not there and he thought the worst. Though, given what he remembered of his behavior the night before he couldn’t blame her for leaving. But then he heard rustling in his bedroom. He got up and went to see what it was, and when he walked in he saw Alora sitting there on the floor, gathering up the photos that he'd thrown everywhere.
He hadn’t realized how much of a mess he had made. Dresser drawers were half-open, one of the nightstand drawers was lying on the floor, and photos were scattered everywhere. Apparently he had swept everything off of his dresser at one point, and a lot of it was stepped on; there was a cologne bottle that was broken on the carpet. He could see the bathroom mirror from where he was standing, and it was shattered as if with a fist; he didn’t remember doing that.
Alora looked up at him; she hadn’t cleaned the makeup off of her cheeks and it was dried in rivulets, as if she had cried tears made out of the blackness of his behavior.
“Alora,” he began softly, tears forming in his eyes once more. “I’m so sorry. I wish there was something that I could say to explain, or to make this better. I feel awful.” He prepared himself for the onslaught of violent words and reprimands—he knew he deserved it—but none came. That surprised him; a lot of things surprised him, including the fact that she was still there.
She stood up and sat on the edge of the bed, gesturing for him to join her. He sat on the opposite end of the bed, not wanting to get too close for fear that she would shy away. But the strangest thing happened instead; she stood up and walked around the bed, sitting beside him. She took his hand in both of hers, lifted it to her lips and gently kissed it, closing her eyes tightly; a single tear fell down her cheek.
“Parker,” she issued, opening her eyes and looking up into his, “My darling Parker.” She reached up with one hand and touched the side of his face. He turned away, not wanting her to dirty herself by touching him after what he’d done. She reached out further and put her hand firmly yet gently on his cheek. “We’ll get through this, together; I promise.”
“How can you say that?” he asked softly, tears swimming in his eyes. “After what I did, how can you say that? How can you still be here?”
“Because I love you,” she assured him, smiling despite her tears, “And we’re going to figure this out, and we’re going to be together; because we deserve that.”
Parker looked down into her eyes at a loss for words; all he could do was stare at her. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything,” she responded. “Everything will be alright.”
“When you say that, I could almost believe it,” he mused, offering a dry chuckle.
“You should believe it, because it’s true.” She inhaled deeply, speaking through her exhale as she continued. “But we have to get some help; we can’t do this on our own.”
“No,” he pleaded softly. “We can’t go to the hospital; they’ll just try to lock me up. They’ll think I’m crazy.” He paused for a moment. “Maybe I am crazy.”
“No,” she reassured him. “You’re not crazy. You just have some things that you need to work out, and neither of us can help you with that. We need to go back to that psychologist; he can help.”
“You promise you won’t leave me there?” he pleaded, sounding evermore like the wounded child; feeling evermore like the wounded child.
“I’ll never leave you, Parker,” she promised softly, reaching up and kissing him. He could taste the salt from her tears on her lips; he could almost imagine that he could feel it burning like the cleansing of holy water over his dark deeds. I don’t deserve this, he thought to himself, his own tears mingling with hers.
He pulled away and spoke his thoughts. “I don’t deserve you; I don’t deserve your love, your forgiveness.”
“It’s not about deserving,” she responded. “It’s about accepting.”