The day has finally come to an end.
It's still raining heavily when I walk outside to lock the doors. As I walk out, I'm greeted by the sound of rain pattering loudly against the overhanging green fabric eaves of my flower shop. The streets are wet and slick, and the reflection of car lights casts mosaic colors against the gray.
It's a foggy day. The towering skyscrapers nearby stand above the fog, their lights glimmering in the distance like jewels.
All around me, people are rushing to get into their cars or grab a taxi. Three young women in suits are laughing as they climb into a taxi, the last one shielding her curly blonde hair with a briefcase. A horn honks loudly nearby, and I break out of my thoughts. I turn back to the glass door and lock it securely, before pulling down the hood of my jacket and making my way to my bicycle.
After I unlock my bike from the bicycle rack, I hitch my foot into the straps above the pedals and start to ride off. It's been raining a lot these past few weeks in Astoria, almost as if fate is trying to tell us something. A bad omen, you know?
Either way, I'm glad just to be home soon, out of this pouring rain and into my cozy apartment, where I can have a bowl of hot soup and pet Sherman, my American Shorthair cat.
I ride my bicycle past crowds of people, who are laughing and talking happily. I pass a club, where I can hear booming music in the distance. Women wearing short, tight and brightly colored dresses are standing outside talking loudly and drunkly. They look like they're having a good time, but they don't look happy.
It's like imitation happiness, which is a bit like imitation meat. Instead of having real happiness, it’s imitation man-made happiness. They’re having fun, but they don’t look happy, if that makes any sense. Then again, the most fun I have is binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix with a cup of tea, so what do I know?
It's Friday night, and people are ready to get off work and start having fun. The city is busy, and everything's alive. Sometimes... I just wish I could join it. But at the same time, I know that I couldn’t.
I'm an introvert. I shouldn't get over-stimulated. Whatever that means. It's something I read about online.
Just as I turn the corner, with my apartment coming in view, my phone begins to ring. I ignore it, getting off my bike before locking it to the bike rack outside of my apartment building.
As I walk into the lobby, I hear the usual hub-bub of thumping footsteps overhead, and people talking and children laughing. Noise.
"Is that you, Jenna?" a hoarse voice asks. I pull down my hoodie and smile at Mrs. Fester, who looks like she just walked off the set of a sitcom. She's wearing a long and multi-colored mumu, along with some sort of silk cap on her head. Her nails are long and red, and her finger leisurely holds a cigarette.
"Hi Mrs. Fester," I say pleasantly. "How are you doing this evening?"
She leans against the doorframe of her apartment and takes a smoke. "Good," she says. "You got a package, sweetheart."
"Oh," I say. "Thank you." She hands me the package, and I take it. It's just a plain package wrapped in brown paper. I wonder what it could be. I don't remember ordering anything online.
"It's been raining a lot," Mrs. Fester says, then she glances out the window, where drips of raining are streaming down against the glass. "You wanna come inside for a cup of hot tea?"
Behind her, I hear the television playing. A child is laughing somewhere in the distance. "John!" Mrs. Fester turns over her shoulder. "Remember to do your homework!"
"Okay, mom!" Mrs. Fester's son yells back from the room.
I laugh. I'm exhausted, and the last thing I want to do is have a cup of tea in Mrs. Fester's apartment. She's just a little... well, intimidating, if you catch my drift.
"I'm okay, Mrs. Fester. Thank you."
"You're welcome, honey," she says, turning back into her apartment. I can hear the television playing loudly in the background. "If ya ever need anything, let me know."
I take the stairs to my apartment, bypassing a crowd of kids playing with marbles, two men standing in front of an open apartment door rapping, and one room, with its door open, showing a woman sitting on her couch, yelling into her phone at her "dead-beat boyfriend who can't support her needs."
And finally, I arrive at apartment number 302, which belongs to yours truly.
As I walk in, my bones tired and my hair wet, I toss my package onto the couch. Sherman comes over to greet me, and he purrs as he rubs himself against my foot. "Aw," I smile. "I missed you too, Sherman. How are we doing today?"
Sherman meows, and my grin grows wider. From the way he's starting to meow more and more, I know that his food tray is probably empty. Walking into the kitchen, I see that I am right. After refilling his tray, I suddenly remember that someone had called me.
Before checking my phone, I head to the shower and turn it on, waiting for the water to grow warm. It takes a while, usually. While the water warms up, I stride to my bedroom and take out my phone. There's a missing call from Jason, my boyfriend. Or well, sort of my boyfriend. You see, we've been dating for a few years, or so I thought.
We were having dates. I think that, at least, is nonnegotiable. So, one day, he sits down and tells me that he'd rather not put a name on our relationship. "You see all those unhappy people outside, Jenna?" He said, extending his finger towards the window we sat next to. There were some people on the street, some of them homeless, and others working professionals walking by with blank looks on their faces. "They're unhappy, because they put names on things. Let's not put a name on our thing. Let's just let love be love, and whatever we have is perfect just the way it is."
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed with what he said. The thing is, he had been pressuring me to have sex... but I never felt ready. At age twenty-three, I'm still a virgin, and probably the only one among my friends.
My parents have already both passed away. My dad passed away in a car crash when I was fifteen, and my mother passed away four years ago, a few days after my 19th birthday. Both of them died from unnatural causes. There was a faulty part in my dad's car, and my mother is one of the many unsolved murder cases in Astoria today.
My parents started their own flower shop shortly after moving to Astoria. They called it 'Jenna's Flowers', named after my aunt Jenna. I was named after aunt Jenna, too, as you probably guessed.
Apparently, my aunt saved my mom from some tragic accident or something. However, my aunt’s been missing for a few years. My mom hoped that she could have seen Jenna at least once again before passing away, but that wish wasn’t fulfilled.
If you ask me, Aunt Jenna probably passed away a long time ago.
When my dad passed away, the profits from the flower shop were thankfully still enough to support my mom and me.
On the day it happened, I walked into our flower store, after running an errand, and saw my mom face-down one day in the flower shop. The security cameras had been shot, and showed no information on who the attacker might have been. She had been shot multiple times, and I was the first one who found her. Whoever the attacker was (if there was only one, that is), he or she attacked my mother in broad daylight.
Maybe it was just a random robber.
Maybe it was a group of thug kids.
The city’s not really safe.
At the scene of the crime, the attacker or attackers left behind only one thing: a golden locket with the letter L engraved on it. The police said that it was made of real solid gold, and was kept in almost pristine condition, except for a few scratches here and there.
I don’t know if I’ll ever find out, and sometimes, that thought kills me. But I try to move on, and I try be happy and keep the flower shop alive and successful, for the sake of my parents and their memory.
I think what happened to my parents has almost kept me frozen in time, to a place where I don’t want to take a risk, in fear of something happening. I am probably the only remnant left of my mother and father on this planet. I need to be alive. I need to live for a long time, and I want to have children so someone will know about my parents, and me, before I leave this earth.
And so… that’s why I don’t live life ‘dangerously’ as most people would say.
It might be dangerous to keep working in a shop where my own mother was murdered, but I choose to keep this store alive. I want it to be up and alive for many, many generations.
I could have closed down their shop and sold it for a good amount of money to last me a few years. But I chose not to. Instead, I want to keep my parent's legacy.
I remember my father as a strong man who was always there to listen to me, and who played an amazing game of tag. I remember my mother as a warm and caring mother, who always baked me red velvet cupcakes (our tradition) on my birthday. I remember my parents as heroes, they were my heroes, and not victims. That's why I'm keeping the shop alive, and I'll pass it on to my family and afterwards.
As for the whole virginity thing, my mother always told me to wait until I truly felt ready. She had sat me down one day when I was a little over thirteen years old, and said, "Jenna, I need to tell you something important, and I want you to listen to me very closely."
It had been a warm afternoon, and we were having caramel apples. I could hear some bees buzzing out of the window. "Yes, momma?"
"When you're older, boys will start paying attention to you, and obviously..."
"Oh mom," I interrupted her. "Not this again."
"Yes this again!" she said, almost looking offended. Then she went to lecture me for about twenty minutes on waiting till I really felt ready, and not letting any man take advantage of me or treat me for less than I was worth. "And if you had a sister," she said. "I'd tell her the same thing."
So yes, that's why I didn't want to do anything with Jason yet. I just didn't feel ready and I still don't.
I still feel lonely though. I want to have someone in my life, you know? So I stay with him. Even though I help him pay half of his rent every month, among other things.
I call Jason, just as the water is heating up.
“Hey sweetie,” I say. “What’s up?”
“Hi Jenna,” Jason says. “How’s your day going?”
“Fine,” I sigh. “Tired.”
“Aw,” he waits. “I guess that means I can’t pick up my laundry today?”
“I totally forgot, Jason,” I say, cringing at the thought of Jason’s dirty laundry sitting in the back of my flower shop, probably stinking up the whole place. “It’s at the store!”
“Ahh… no problem…” he says. But from the tone of his voice, I can tell that there’s a problem.
“Jason,” I stride out into the living room to see Sherman happily eating away at his dinner. “What’s your problem? Do you want me to go back to the store in the pouring rain and grab your laundry?”
“Well, I need to have something to wear tomorrow.”
“For what?” I ask.
“There’s a new tournament for Immortals Among Us. I have to be dressed on my A-game, Jenna, I have to!”
“Really.” His voice is tense, almost like a little boy’s. “Come on, Jenna,” he says. “Pleeeaseee…”
“Oh, ugh,” I glance back at the warm, running shower. Gosh, it looks so inviting. I just want to wash this rain, dirt and sweat off me before slipping into my pajamas and drinking a bowl of hot soup in front of the television. But Jason’s just not giving up.
“Do you really, really need it today?” I ask. “Can’t you pick it up from the store on your way here?”
“But you live closer to the store.”
“I don’t want to go into the rain, Jason.”
“Fine.” He mumbles. “I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”
He hangs up before I can finish. Grr. I glare at my phone and toss it onto the bed before turning off the water in the shower. Great.
Thirty minutes later, I’m in the laundry room at my apartment, helping Jason do his dirty laundry while he’s upstairs in my room, watching Seinfeld.
“Is this yours?”
I turn around. A man with dark black hair is holding up a jug of laundry detergent in his hand.
“No, sorry.” I say. I turn back to my magazine, just as he says, “ah, alright.”
I’m getting engrossed into an article about this new makeup technique called “strobing”, just when the man speaks up again.
“Someone left it behind,” he whistles. “It’s almost full too, what a waste of a money.”
“They’ll probably come back for it,” I reply, smiling over my shoulder.
He shrugs. “Probably not. There’s a lot of people in this building, and not a lot of them are as nice as me.”
I laugh at this. We smile at each other for a moment, and when I take a second look and realize that he’s actually quite attractive, I break away shyly.
I’m sitting here, exhausted, with greasy hair wet from rain and sweat, with no makeup on my face. I’m also wearing sweatpants and a gray tanktop. And for some reason, life decides to have a handsome man strike up a conversation with me just at this very moment.
Well, not that it matters. I have a boyfriend.
“Right,” I say awkwardly, trying to appear interested in my magazine. “Well, you can just leave it with Mrs. Fester at the front. She’s the landlady.”
“Ah, the one who looks like Mimi from the Drew Carey Show?”
“Don’t say that!” I laugh.
“You have to admit it…”
“Okay,” I grin. “Maybe just a little.”
I turn back and realize that he has the most stunning blue eyes. When he smiles, his eyes squint, as if he’s trying to suppress just how happy he’s feeling.
“I’m Tory, by the way.”
“Jenna,” I reach out to shake his hand.
“What floor are you on?” I ask.
“I don’t live here,” he shrugs. “I’m helping my friend out with his laundry.”
I almost gasp. “Well,” I say. “I’m here helping my friend out with his laundry too.”
“You must be a good friend,” he says, raising his eyebrow.
I shrug. “Well,” I say, “he is my boyfriend.”
Tory doesn’t flinch. “Well, you must be a really good girlfriend. Why isn’t he here doing his own laundry?” He smirks.
“Why isn’t your friend here doing his own laundry?” I counter, getting up to retrieve Jason’s clothes from the dryer.
“He broke his leg in a skiing accident.”
“Ah.” I say. I’m getting a little irritated at how this guy is insinuating that Jason’s lazy or something. Jason is not lazy.
“Now,” Tory says. “Your turn.”
I shrug. “The laundry machine in his building is broken.”
“But why isn’t he here helping you?”
“Like I said, it’s broken.” My voice is now dripping with irritation. I don’t like him coming at Jason like that.
“Did he sprain his ankle?”
I roll my eyes. “Tory, didn’t we just meet fifteen minutes ago?”
He smiles, and I’m suddenly caught in his gaze. I feel something different… something that I don’t think I’ve ever felt with Jason, or anyone else, before. I look away, feeling the heat on my face.
“It’s… complicated.” I finally say.
“Alright,” he replies.
I load Jason’s clothes into the hamper before walking towards the exit. “It was nice to meet you, Tory.”
“It was nice to meet you too, Jenna,” he smiles. When I look away, I can’t help but feel a hint of regret.
“What the hell!”
I hear those words just as I’m nearing the door of my apartment. “What’s going on?” I run in, and place the hamper on the floor.
Jason’s holding a dead cat in his hands. I rear back, almost throwing up. He tosses it on the floor, and I look a little to the right and see that an open package. That brown package that Mrs. Fester had given me.
The inside of the package is dotted with dried, crusty blood.
The cat lays on the floor of my apartment, died with its neck twisted at an unnatural angle.
I throw up in my mouth.
“What… where did you find that?” I ask. But it’s obvious.
“It was in that package by your kitchen,” Jason’s face is white. “What the hell is this? Did you order this?”
“No!” I hiss. “Get it out of my apartment!”
Jason grabs a bunch of towels and grabs the dead cat in his hands, before quickly running past me out into the hallway.
When he comes back later, his face is red and he’s breathing heavily. “That’s disgusting,” he says. He walks over to the restroom and starts to wash his hands.
“Who would do this?” I ask.
“It was probably just a prank…” Jason says, from the restroom.
“You really think so?” I feel a chill coming down my spine.
“Yeah,” he replies. “Bored teenagers, you know.”
“I guess…” I shiver, thinking of that dead cat, and I go over to Sherman, who’s hiding in a corner of the kitchen. He’s tense when I go over to him, but he eventually relaxes and strides towards my arms, albeit a bit cautiously. I stroke him as Jason comes out.
He sighs and looks at the hamper. “Thanks for helping me with my laundry, J.”
“You’re welcome,” I reply. I think of what Tory said, and I feel a flash of resentment. When I look at Jason’s smiling face, I suddenly feel guilty for feeling resentful. I’m his girlfriend. This is what I should do, right?
We hug, and then kiss. After Jason leaves, taking the bloody cardboard in his hands to throw it out, it’s just me and Sherman.
I look into Sherman’s cute face, and say, “Sherman, people in this city are crazy.”
He blinks back at me, as if to say, ‘you think?’
Just then, the doorbell rings. There’s a knock, and I put Sherman down. It’s probably Jason. I open the door.
“What is it, honey-“
On the floor, there’s a silver plate with a red cupcake on it. It’s a red velvet cupcake.
A white notecard sits next to it:
HAPPY 24TH BIRTHDAY JENNA
I turn the card over. On the back, there’s a picture of a dead cat… the one that I had thrown out. Then the words:
YOU WON’T LIVE TO SEE YOUR NEXT ONE. I PROMISE.