Wreath by M.E. Proctor
The close atmosphere of the flower shop troubled Max. The metal tubs and vases lined up on floor-to-ceiling racks surrounded him and made him feel too large for the place. He was conscious of his big feet and wide shoulders, of the bright color of his pants, jacket and shirt – chosen because this was a beach town and being loud was the best disguise. In the cafés and restaurants on the seawall maybe, among the tourists, but not here, in this harmonious retreat, amid a luxurious profusion of flowers, most of them he couldn’t name.
Roses, yeah, he knew roses. He hadn’t bought any in a long time. Who would he buy them for?
The mosaic of colors confused him and he had to strain to focus on the woman. She moved quickly in the fragrant clutter and he thought of animals in the jungle. Leopards. He remembered reading somewhere that their spots hid them so perfectly you could be right next to one and not know it was there, ready to take half your face off with one paw swipe.
Max felt sweat coating his neck, tickling, soaking the collar of his shirt under the jacket. The flower smell clogged his nostrils, announcing a headache in the making. Better get on with it.
The woman turned to him.
“What can I do for you, sir?”
“An arrangement, uh, for a funeral?” Max didn’t know the appropriate vocabulary and cursed himself for not preparing better. He didn’t have to make conversation, usually.
Why did he say funeral? It wasn’t an attempt at humor. There wasn’t a funny bone in his body.
It was these flowers. Where else but a funeral parlor had he ever seen so many flowers? The smell reminded him of open caskets, of wreaths with purple ribbons that said in golden script, To Our Dear Departed. The piles of once vibrant vegetation wilted so fast on top of a fresh grave. Too sweet and cloying. And the metal containers looked like the tin vases that he remembered cleaning when his grandmother took him to visit grandpa at the cemetery on the hill.
“There are options,” the woman said. “Depending on your budget.”
She waited for an answer. When it didn’t come, she went to the counter and pulled out a thick register.
“I have pictures here I can show you. Give you an idea of what we can do.” She leafed through the register, humming.
Max knew she pegged him as a cheap mark. Dressed the way he was, no wonder. He looked like he just walked off a cruise ship. Maybe she thought he shoved his wife off the upper deck ten miles offshore. Goodbye darling. It made him smile.
“Does it matter who it’s for?” he said. “Like, which flowers, which color and such?” He was getting the hang of this. He could see it in the woman’s face. She was paying attention now.
“There are no strict rules,” the woman said. “But people tend to choose roses when there’s a strong personal bond, you know.”
“Love,” Max said.
“It’s for my wife’s uncle. I barely knew the guy. What should I get, mums?”
“It isn’t the season, but lilies and greens, fuchsia for a dash of color. You can’t go wrong with that kind of combination.”
“You know what, do as you think is best,” Max said. He sighed. “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“It’s all right. This isn’t something people do on a daily basis.” She pulled a notepad from a drawer and started writing. She stuck her tongue out when she added up the items.
She was a nice, kind, rather pretty woman. Why the hell was she on the list? What did she do? Who did she upset?
Those were the wrong questions, the kind of questions people like Max should never ask. He got an address, a name, a picture. And instructions. The car was where it was supposed to be, with the gun in the glove box. Of course he wanted to believe there was something rotten among all these flowers, something that reeked like the vases he cleaned for his grandmother. Dead smelled the same, in plants and people, or animals, and that was a fact.
Max buried his hands in his pockets to wipe off the sweat. The gun was in his waistband, in the small of his back. It was heavier than usual and unwieldy because of the suppressor. If he leaned on the counter, he could reach for it without her noticing.
It mattered to him. That she wouldn’t know she was going to die.
About the author:
M.E. Proctor worked as a communication professional and freelance journalist. After forays into SciFi, she’s currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. Her short stories have been published in All Worlds Wayfarer, Bristol Noir, Tilde, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, The Bookends Review, Fiction on the Web, and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas. Twitter: @MEProctor3
Flora, of course, wanted everything perfect for the reception.
She only came into the ancient, colonnaded house through a legal fluke – a will invalidated by lack of witness signature, resulting in the place being put up for sale. Twenty-three years she spent envying that estate, especially the rose garden ringing it like a laurel placed on the hill’s brow; beautiful enough to ensure old Ms. Rathshin won the county’s annual Garden Parade season after season. Regardless of whatever exotic additives Flora hoed into her soil, no matter the varieties of flower she planted, how many ceaseless hours of toil she spent or who she bought compost from, her garden just couldn’t compete. Really, it was silly of her to even try.
Beyond her perennial success in the Parade, Ms. Rathshin enjoyed a ghoulish local reputation. Some averred she died years before but crawled back out of her grave, intent on keeping her house and gardens for all eternity. Ergo, her actual death the previous year came accompanied by a sense of surreal expectation, especially since her body was interred on the premises. Surely she’d be back by Monday, tottering about the roses dead-heading, chasing off children and visitors with her pruning shears? But the old bat stayed firmly in the ground, much to Flora’s relief. She paid a substantial amount of her late husband’s fortune to acquire the old pile and, far more importantly, the grounds.
Now it was August, time once again for the annual Garden Parade. And Flora, of course, wanted everything perfect for the reception.
She spent the last three days manically trimming away at the roses. Magnificent, sprawling plants, rising tall as a man; bees drowsed in their ruffled blossoms, blood reds and bile yellows and a strange kind of pinkish color, like opening lips. Flora never liked roses, preferring the mutability of marigolds, cosmos, and other annuals. Dedicating herself to tending Rathshin’s plot robbed her of the usual joy she found in gardening, but it would all be worth it when that snooty regional chapter of the American Horticultural Society finally presented her with the Green Ribbon!
The cook helped her set up a table with refreshments, a cluster of brightly-colored balloons tethered overhead. Punch, finger foods, scones, a floral arrangement – good. Bright sun, blossoming roses–Flora felt almost sick with their scent–and the house all spic-and-span, windows polished and gleaming, granite facade scrubbed pristine. Surely she would receive the ribbon not just for appropriating Ms. Rathshin’s efforts, but for all the improvements resulting from her own hard work and sweat. Not that hard work and sweat ever got me anywhere before…
Frowning, Flora accidentally clipped off a clump of roses. They fell and entangled in a lower bower; she swore, reaching in with one gloved hand. Overbalancing, she toppled forward, tearing up her sleeves and blouse on inch-long thorns as branches whipped across her face, leaving a trail of bloody scratches.
“Damn you, Rathshin!” she snarled through a huff, then scrambled backward, pulling up a root-like creeper which clung to her stocking’s hem. Something round and pale popped out of the dirt, dragged along by the green tangle, rolling into the sunlight and grinning at Flora’s bleeding face with a sense, though no conscious intent, of sardonicism.
Flora mostly managed to avoid thinking about the clusters of metatarsals she dug up over the last few months, the pieces of finger bone and chunks of vertebrae and, at least twice, whole femurs she dismissed as leftovers from an old barbecue pit. It was all quite inconvenient, finding these bits of mortal remains, taxing Flora’s well-honed abilities of denial to their limit. She prayed her rosary and dumped the bones out back, where quite a sizable pile built up. So far, however, she hadn’t found anything obviously, absolutely, without any shadow of a doubt human.
Now the skull grinned up at her, empty sockets clogged with soil and rose roots, crown showing where the victim’s head was split open by multiple blows of some sharp implement. Irrefutable proof of murder, discovered just before the board arrived with dour faces and clicking pens, truffle-hunting for any imperfection in the garden Rathshin maintained to sumptuous supremacy! At last, Flora knew her secret.
“Oh no,” she said, seemingly speaking to the skull, “you’re not robbing me of that ribbon again, you bitch!” Grabbing her trowel, she hastily covered up the grisly find, tamping down the earth just as five neutral-colored cars pulled up the long driveway, sunlight glinting from their tinted windows.
“Really, Flora, I have to say you’ve done wonders. The grounds look splendid, that’s always a given. But the house! Why, you wouldn’t think it was the same place at all. Wide open to the world, not shut up and cramped, with every window shade rolled down… All it did was make people talk, spreading those vicious rumors about visitors who came and never left. Such poppycock! Ms. Rathshin must be rolling in her grave out of gratitude. I’ve heard she was buried on the property, only clause of the will they honored – but as far from the rose garden as possible, what a queer choice! You’d think… ah, but who knows what went on in that mind of hers? Of course there’s no question as to your receiving the Green Ribbon.”
About the author:
Scott J. Couturier is a poet & prose writer of the Weird, macabre, & darkly fantastic. Currently he works as a copy & content editor for Mission Point Press, living an obscure reverie in the wilds of northern Michigan with his partner/live-in editor & two cats.
Free flash fiction on the first and third weeks of the month.