Chapter 1: Invisible
"Did you want the red carnations or the purple lilies, ma'am?" I asked with bated breath, my eyes watering. The customer's perfume, a strong gust of watermelon mixed with cherries, was a little too strong for my poor nostrils. Not to mention her hair had clearly been hosed down in a can of hairspray.
"How much are the lilies?" she asked, fishing through the contents of her bright purple handbag.
"Fifteen dollars and twenty two cents," I answered. The girl's eyes boggled. I took note of her spidery lashes, thick from multiple coats of black mascara. She stopped fumbling past a pack of Kleenex and a granola bar, her head snapping up at me in astonishment.
"What?" she shrieked. "But they're so small!"
I sighed, wishing I was spending my Friday night anywhere but here. I wished I was at home, studying for the Geometry exam I had coming up or watching reruns of Starcrossed on TV. Instead, I was here: at the flower shop, right after school, 4:15 on the dot.
"That's our price for the lilies. They're our most popular selection.”
"But the size," the girl pointed out again, placing a hand pointedly on her hip and frowning. I felt my own hip give in, leaning against the counter in defeat. You would think that customers at a flower shop would be friendly and courteous. People who bought flowers were surely people with class and refined taste. Alas, there were customers like this young girl who clearly had never purchased flowers before. Everything about her screamed this assumption of mine: her hand bag with the various makeup brand buttons pinned onto its exterior, the zipper holding a pink Victoria's Secret key chain that glittered in the fluorescent lighting, and her french tip manicured nails that were now clutching onto an envelope sized wallet.
She wasn't a nature shopping kind of girl.
"This is the only-" I tried again, but I was cut off.
"Is everything alright over here?" a warm, familiar voice asked. I froze. Everyone in the whole shop froze, especially the people near the refrigerated section. They were already freezing to begin with.
I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. The young girl no longer seemed as assertive now, her expression blank and her eyes as big as a fish.
"Nina?" the voice asked again. A careful palm pressed into the small of my back. Already knowing full well who the voice belonged to, I looked up at my mother and there was absolutely no question as to why everyone in the shop stopped. She was beautiful.
"She was just wondering about the price for these lilies," I mumbled quietly in her ear, which held dainty pearl earrings.
"Fifteen twenty two," my mom answered promptly to the customer, like reciting the lines of a play.
"And the size," I added. The girl had the nerve to shoot me a glare. I shifted my gaze to the ground.
"This is the only size of our purple lilies," my mom said, sending the girl her wide and gentle smile that everyone was familiar with. "If you want, we'll add in a bottle of our flower spray." The customer was already nodding and smiling back, under the trance of Flora Gregory's Beauty Pageant Spell.
"Flower spray would be wonderful," the girl said cheerfully, shoving her credit card at me with a vengeance while grinning like an angel at my mother, who added the spray bottle into the plastic bag along with the pot of lilies.
"Come again!" she exclaimed, then turned to me, placing a hand on top of my head. "You okay?"
I nodded. "Yeah."
"Let me know if there are any more rough customers." When we looked up, the line had grown longer. People had their cell phones out and were already snapping candid photos of my mother. Later, when they posted them online, they would crop me out of them. I would be completely out of the picture.
"Flora, your shop is beautiful," a woman holding a bouquet of roses called out.
"Like you!" a man balancing three pots of azaleas chimed in. The store was suddenly filled with laughter and chatter, so much that no one noticed me slipping out of my mom's reach. I returned to my place in the back room, where certain flowers had yet to be placed in their rightful pots or trays, then labeled with the correct signs sticking out of the soil. I placed my hands onto the counter, shutting my eyes and taking deep breaths.
This was what I did whenever I felt the invisibility cloaking around me and sticking onto my skin like an uncomfortable sweater. It was happening more often now, this little ritual of deep breathing and envisioning an island somewhere far away, where no one knew who I was. A place I could go to where I could reinvent myself. Of course, no such island existed, unless you were under the Witness Protection Program.
"It's a shame," a woman's voice whispered. I opened my eyes, peering through the white shelves and potted plants only to see a woman in her late forties sporting a sun hat. She was speaking to another woman wearing neon pink lipstick.
"She could have gone far if it weren't for that boyfriend of hers," the neon lipstick woman replied, clicking her tongue. "The pregnancy was scandalous. She never even got to reach the national pageant."
"Have you seen her daughter?" I felt my hands clench tightly together, my fingernails digging into my palms.
"She was that young girl standing next to Flora behind the counter. The small one?"
"No!" Lipstick Woman gasped, pressing her hand against her mouth as she tried to suppress a laugh. A lump was growing in my throat. "She looks nothing like her mother, the poor dear!"
"That hair..." Sunhat Woman snickered, and I tugged self consciously at my brown hair pulled up in a ponytail, which seemed droopy and pathetic now. The women shook their heads in pity before walking out of the shop, sure to continue their conversation at the coffee house down the street or maybe even in their own homes, where no one could hear them gossip. I closed my eyes again, my vision swimming as tears streamed down my cheeks. I tried to picture that island again, that blazing sunset in the horizon, but this time I couldn't. Everyday, everyday it was becoming harder to picture that fictional island, my only peace of mind and getaway.
I lay on my stomach face down, my hand inside a can of Pringles while the other held a pencil scratching steadily against a sheet of binder paper. Silence had finally settled until a tap on my window sounded. I jumped, so startled that I fell off my rose themed bed sheets and hit the hardwood floor. I gritted my teeth in frustration before I looked up and saw who was at the window, all my worries leaving my body.
I tried my best to continue scowling before leaning against the window pane, breathing hard enough to form a small cloud.
Twinkles, I wrote with my index finger. Harrison grinned on the other side, waiting for my message to fade away before breathing against the window pane, too.
Punches, he wrote. I stopped scowling and smiled at him, opening my window. He swung a leg through, his shoe nearly knocking me in the face. I took three steps backward, standard protocol and enough room for my best friend to climb through my window. When he was finally inside, all body parts intact and shoes planted to the floor, he stood up, a whole foot taller than me. I looked up at him, standing on my tip toes and placing my hands triumphantly on my hips.
"You're early," I sarcastically pointed out, raising my eyebrows up at him. It was nearly eight o’clock on a school night. He flicked his black hair into place, stretching. His shirt lifted up a bit and I did my best to not even try and take a peek at his six pack.
"I need help," he said, flopping down onto my bed and covering his face with the giant purple octopus he had won me at the town fair two years ago. His back was crumpling up the math homework I had diligently been working on for nearly half an hour. I swiftly took a step forward and punched him in the shoulder. He shot up, clutching his arm.
"Ow! Jesus, Punches, control the swing, would you?" he howled. I crossed my arms, staring pointedly at my now wrinkled math homework. His gaze followed mine and he smiled sheepishly at me. "Oh." He took them and flattened them with his palms on his knee.
"Oh is right. You better rewrite that for me," I warned.
"I will. Promise," he said, already fishing out a fresh piece of binder paper from my backpack, which lay against the headboard. "After you help me."
"I know for a fact that your Chemistry test isn't until next week," I said, crossing my arms and taking a seat beside him, straightening the purple octopus back in its place.
"It's not school related." He was already scrawling down an equation onto the paper. He looked up at me, wiggling his brows. "But it does have to do with chemistry. Just not the kind in test tubes."
I curled my lip in disgust, shoving him off my bed. "Out!" I shouted, pointing to the window. He hugged my waist and I felt my heart slam into my chest.
"Please," he begged. "You're my wing man."
"Wing woman," I corrected. He rolled his eyes, snorting. I pointed to the window again. "That's it, out Harrison."
"Nina, it's Leslie."
My arm flopped back down to my side. "Janice? Leslie Janice, who is a senior?" He smirked, letting go of my waist. He started pacing around my room, something he always did when he was ready to brag.
"Not only a senior, but captain of the cheerleading team. She was dating a college freshman, but she broke up with him yesterday. For me," he laughed, flexing his arms. I threw a pillow at him, which he artfully dodged.
"You're horrible. And how long did this master plan of yours take?"
"Two weeks," he said, pausing to take a look at himself in my full length mirror. Even in a plain white tee and basketball shorts with little bits of disheveled hair sticking up on his head, he was still the most handsome guy on the planet who had ever set foot into my room. Well, the only guy to set foot in my room, really.
"A little longer than usual," I said before snapping out of it. "No. I refuse to partake in these little schemes of yours."
"How can you call love a scheme, Nina?" he asked, pouting. Darn those brown eyes. I turned away from him, facing the cat calendar on my wall. Harrison had a dating problem: he couldn't get enough. Every girl he dated, he claimed she was The One. True love, he'd say. We were only sophomores in high school yet he was constantly searching for love in the wrong places with the wrong girls. In less than three weeks, he'd only dump them. I blamed the romantic comedies. He blamed his parents’ optimism on romantic relationships in general.
"You still haven't finished rewriting my math homework," I bluntly replied, turning back around once I felt I'd caught my breath and rearranged my heartbeat back to its normal pace.
"I will if you say that you'll help me," he said, taking a step towards me. "Come on, Punches. Help your best friend out. It's real this time, I swear it. I really think I'm in love with her."
I blinked. A girl could only cry so much in one Friday night. "What did you have in mind?" I finally muttered, my shoulders sagging. He let out a whoop, lifting me up into his arms and swinging me around in a circle. I laughed, hitting my hand against his chest and telling him to stop while secretly wishing deep down that he'd never put me down. That he'd forget about Leslie Janice and take me out on a date instead. That, for once, I'd be the one he said he was in love with.