The shopkeeper's bell rang a frantic ‘ding-a-ling’. Yes, that clattering bell sound followed by the heavy door slamming shut as busy footsteps clambered into the shop. Aspen knew it well. He’d worked here long enough to tell most of what he needed to know just from a customer’s entrance. What'd it be this time? Man in a sweaty business suit who ran here from work looking for a quick anniversary gift? Parents getting a bouquet for their kid’s choir show? Teenager home alone trying to replace the flowers he let die? That happened unnaturally often. Aspen chuckled, oh the stories he could tell about this shop. Hastily, he finished up his arrangements and turned to the customer. He was bewildered by the sight. Now, it wasn’t because of the unkempt spaghetti of dark hair, or how he jittered as he walked, or even the black trench coat the towering giant of a man wore, however unfashionable for late March. But certainly unusual was the face the man made as he visibly attempted to hold in a massive sneeze. His eyes puffed up and red, his face scrunched like a lemon. As his body lurched forward and he clasped his arm to his face, Aspen braced for impact. “Chiu!”
Samson had been told growing up that his sneeze sounded like that of a small kitten. He’d also been told to stay away from flowers as, despite his mothers attempts to cure him with her remedies, he had an incredibly potent allergy to all of them. At the least it was certainly embarrassing to the giant of a man when he began making dainty little squeaks in public. Back in school he’d been teased for it whenever pollen season came. A mask could only do so much with an allergy so intense, and unfortunately he’d forgotten it at work. However a few sniffles were the least of his problems. He looked around the store through watering eyes, desperately searching. Yes, that one! Pink petals reaching into the sky, held by a mud-colored stem. The Sakura flower. He’d been anxiously worrying for this moment all day. He could barely think in his cubicle, hoping there’d be one left, praying he wouldn’t miss his chance. The moment the clock rang five, he darted to the nearest flower shop, and now he was here. And, to his luck, he was alone! None were here to witness his misery. Well, except for him. Samson gulped, trying to hold in his sneeze, as he picked up the flower pot and staggered towards the florist. “Excuse me,” he said, his gravelly voice wobbling over snivels, “How much is this?” The florist stood with a face of shock, his mouth open. “Uh. Are you okay?” Samson nodded, he could feel pressure building behind his eyes. “Yep! Please just tell me.”
“Well, it's a cherry blossom sapling so that’d be-” And then it came, like the meows of the world’s angriest kitten. The look on the florist’s face would’ve been priceless if Samson could see it. Samson began coughing a horrid barking sound, his throat thrown out from the force of the sneeze. Startled into focus, the florist hurried Samson out of the shop, away from the vicious pollen.
Samson couldn’t meet his eyes. It was embarrassing enough to have an episode in front of a stranger, but for the stranger to proceed to shepherd him to the nearest café was something else entirely. What made it worse was the fact that he was cute. Now that his eyes had recovered and he could see better, he saw it clear. A rectangular head with a short tussle of auburn hair over a freckled face. He was still wearing his uniform, a blue t-shirt and white apron, arms propped against the table. Samson took another sip of his complementary iced water. “So… You’re good now? I don’t need to call the hospital?” Samson sighed. “No, I'm fine. Just a pollen allergy, nothing life threatening.” The florist’s eyebrows furrowed again, the face of a concerned dog. “Are you sure? I mean, your coughing sounded really rough.”
“Oh that. Just some lung scarring I think. There’s a lot of junk in the air where I live. Takes its toll over the years.”
A moment of silence passed as Samson took another sip. His cup was running low. He wouldn’t be able to hide behind it much longer.
“By the way, why’d you come to the flower shop if you have such a bad allergy? I’m sure whoever you’re trying to impress would understand if you got something else.”
“Oh. It’s not a gift. Not really. It’s for my sister. Long story.”
“Alright then. How about this? I’ll get the sakura sapling for you, wrap it up pretty, no extra charge. That way you can get home without losing a lung.”
“That… sounds good. Thank you, you don’t have to do this.”
“Doing what I can to help! Any name I can put for you?”
“Well met, Samson! I’m Aspen.”
Aspen extended his hand, shooting a goofy smile across the table. Samson chuckled. All things considered, things could’ve gone worse.
“Nice to meet you Aspen.”
A few days passed, life returning to normalcy for Aspen. Sure there were a handful of extra customers coming for sakura season but that was it. A couple of times he would catch himself giggling, remembering the sneeze that Samson had made. He wondered what he had needed the flower for. It was during one of these moments, staring into space pondering that he saw it. A few feet outside the entrance, donned in a trenchcoat and sloppy hair, waving through the window to get Aspen’s attention. Aspen immediately darted out of the shop. Again met with a face of bewilderment, Samson gave a shy smile. “Hey! Flowers doing good?” And so began a tradition for the two men. Samson would come to the shop, and Aspen would give him a sakura tree. Since it was close to closing anyway, Aspen would close early and invite Samson to the local café. It started as simple curiosity at first, an avenue for Aspen’s silent fascination. “Can I ask something?” Samson frowned. “Sure?”
“This is the third sakura sapling you’ve bought. What are you using so many flowers for?”
“Oh, it’s the bark actually.”
Samson gazed into space for a moment, nostalgia and concern wrapping together. “It’s something my mom did for me. When my allergies were worse One season got pretty bad. Could hardly get out of bed. My mom made tea using sakura bark to help relax my throat. It worked pretty well. Now though, well. Things are different.”
Samson’s mind wandered as he continued telling the story of his sakura. He remembered coming home that evening, fumbling the keys as he walked through the door to his crumbling apartment, delicately holding a tree in one arm. He remembered running to the stove, coarsely shaving bark off the tree and scraping it into the boiling water. He grimaced as he recalled walking into the bedroom, blowing on the sakura concoction he held in his hands. He knelt beside the bed, smiling weakly at the little girl lying within the heavy covers. She coughed, a weak yet miserable cough. Like the sound of a wolf trying to claw its way out of her throat. He lifted her head slightly, letting her drink the pink nectar. All the while, Aspen listened intently, letting his coffee grow cold.
“Her name’s Catrina. I’ve been taking care of her since mom died and I guess she has some of my immune system problems. Thankfully no allergies, heh. She’s been sick the past few weeks, and it’s getting worse.”
“Well, is the sakura helping?”
Over the coming weeks their rituals continued as Samson began to appear more and more frequently, now wearing a mask to protect himself better from the dangerous flowers. As they took their seats at the café, they would spend the next few minutes chatting about life, the world, family, anything at all, as Samson waited for the next bus to come. They’d talk about Catrina, the years before when mom was still alive and Samson would bring Catrian to school. They’d sit in silence as Samson continued to stare blankly into space, worrying about his sister, hating every moment he spent away from her. One day Samson came without any money to pay for the sakura. Aspen gave it to him for free, as he began to for the rest of them. Sakura season was quickly closing though, and as the Sakura petals slowly began to wilt, so too did any of the goofy, bumbling energy that had drawn Aspen to Samson in the first place. Though he’d never even met her, Aspen prayed for Catrina, for her health and for her big brother who had been working so hard for her. But pray as he might, things never seemed to get better. The dread set in on the anniversary of the third week since their meeting. Aspen heard the shopkeeper’s bell clang, as the door slammed open and the lurking coated man ran through the door. But this time was different. It was too early, far too early for him to be coming. Aspen’s eyes met Samson’s as a look of terror washed over them both.
Every sense felt heightened. The white of the walls and floors, the clamor of nurses running around, the smell of hand sanitizer. Yet there was nothing Samson could do but wait. He felt a hand fall gently on his shoulder as he sat outside his little sister’s hospital room, waiting to be allowed to go in. All things considered, it could’ve been worse. He was lucky he woke up early that day, early enough to notice how thin his sister’s breathing had become, lucky enough to be able to call the hospital as it only grew weaker. And he was lucky to have him at his side, his stalwart friend. Though they’d only known each other for a few weeks, only talked for a few hours total, Aspen’s presence felt comforting. He was lucky the hospital had been close enough to the flower shop for him to run and get him. After a few more minutes of silence, the doctor came out of the room. The good news was she was stable, for now. The bad news, of course, is what it would take to keep her that way. As the doctor walked away, Samson felt tears well up in his eyes. He couldn’t cry. No, he couldn’t. Tears were a sign of weakness, of failure. He was better than this. Then he met Aspen’s eyes, staring empathetically into his, and he couldn’t take it anymore. After another ten minutes of silent sobbing as Aspen wrapped his arms around him, Samson stood up. His sister might’ve been ok for now, but now a new issue presented itself to him. The blood of society. He slowly began to walk away. “Hey, where are you going?”
“I need to go to work.”
“There’s no way we can afford this. I’m already really late. I need the money.”
“Can you stay with her until I’m back?” He shoved the boxed sakura sapling into his hands. “Please.”
Before Aspen could respond, he was gone. Aspen stared off into the space Samson had been only seconds before. With nothing left to do, he opened the door.
Like the rest of the hospital, the room was a solid monotone white. A single nightstand, stacked with pill bottles and glasses of water. As Aspen got closer he finally got a view of the girl lying in it. She was small, so small she merely sank into the mattress. Her choppy black hair sprawled onto the pillow, as she breathed slowly, a machine attached to her face. As he got closer she opened her eyes. The same shade of amber that Samson had. “Hey there Catrina…. Um, your brother asked me to stay here with you. Don’t worry, I won’t bother you. I’ll just sit here…” Taking a seat to the side of the bed, he began unwrapping the pink pastel package. “Here, I have a gift.” He placed the sakura sapling beside the bed. Wilting and faded, but still beautiful. She tilted her head. “Aspen?”
“He talks about you. When he gives me the tea. He saves the petals and puts them in my hair, then talks about you. He talks about how nice you are.”
“Oh yeah? What does he say?”
“He talks about the café, and the wrappers. He talks about everything. He seems happier now.”
“I’m glad I could help you both. Thank you, Catrina.”
Within a minute Catrina was asleep again, breathing deeply. Aspen simply sat by her side, waiting.
The door opened, and a tall tired figure stumbled into the room. Immediately, Aspen turned, grabbed Samson by the sleeve and pulled him back out again. “I have a plan.”
As the last weekend of the Sakura season came, the street flooded with guests from all across the city, coming to see the pink petals floating throughout the sky. Donations were optional, but highly appreciated, and thankfully most were kind enough to oblige. As the parade progressed, crowds of flower-bearing citizens frolicking across the concrete, Samson crawled through the mess of people. He clutched his left hand tight around Catrina’s, making sure not to lose her in the flood. Every so often someone in the crowd would notice him and his sister, wishing her good health and applauding his bravery in supporting her, and congratulating him for the successful parade. Samson smiled and said his thanks, but really it wasn’t him who needed to be thanked. Of course, Aspen had arranged the whole thing. The amount of influential parents and wealthy businessmen whose families he’d helped save with his flowers had amounted to a lot of owed favors, as it turns out. With a mix of business-like persuasion and his bright charm, he had managed to pull in a mass of both donations and support for his grand plan. Samson remembered that conversation they’d had when Aspen first proposed it, the feelings of exasperation and disbelief. It’s never going to work, he said, and now here it was. He turned back again to check on Catrina. She was smiling wider than he’d ever seen her. Though she still needed to use her breathing machine occasionally, she was mostly well now. It was getting enough money to pay for the medication that had been the issue, and with this performance, for now that could be a worry of the past. Samson hadn’t wanted her out of bed quite yet, but she insisted on seeing the grand parade. Peeking over the heads of the relatively short festival attendees around him, he spotted a speck of auburn hair a few dozen feet away, topped with a crown of sakura petals. He looked back at Catrina. “Want a lift?”
As Aspen socialized with the community leaders and townsfolk alike, he spotted the figure of a little girl waving vigorously over the top of the crowd, and just below that, a mess of black dusty hair. He excused himself briefly, before moving into the crowd to join them. As they met, the crowd forming a ring of people, laughter, and flowers around them, Aspen gazed into Samson’s eyes and smiled, before taking his flower crown and placing it on Catrina’s head. Samson smiled from underneath his mask. They’d paid good money to get a mask for him, to ensure that no pollen could get to his nose, alongside a pair of air-tight goggles to protect his eyes, and some allergy medicine just in case. He looked goofy, but Aspen wouldn’t have it any other way. “How about we get out of this crowd for a bit?” Samson nodded. “Sure thing.” Finding a quiet space a street down from the procession, for the first time in hours, Samson took off his mask to breathe. After catching his breath, he turned to his little sister at his side. “Do you have something to tell Aspen?” In a moment, Catrina darted forward and wrapped her arms around the florist, uttering but two words. “Thank you.” Samson smiled and repeated. “Thank you.” Aspen smirked, a mischievous smirk, before locking eyes with Samson. “Of course. But you owe me, you know?” Samson stared, slightly shocked, then sighed. He’d gotten used to Aspen’s brand of existence. “Alright. What do you want me to do?”
“Oh not much. Just, come by some time. I know you don’t need any flowers anymore but, it’d be nice to have some company.”
Samson thought to himself for a moment, staring down at Catrina who gazed up at him with knowing eyes. He let out a laugh. “You know, I think I’d like that. Maybe we could hit the café sometime.”
“I think that’d be wonderful.”
“Should we head back to the party?”
Aspen looked down at Catrina. “What do you think, flower girl?”
“Let’s go party!” she decried with fervor and joy.
And so hand in hand, the three walked back into the crowd of life. Though the sakura season would soon end, much like the flowers that brought them together they would continue to grow, only now with each other at their side. As season by season passed, their relationship would simply change. The roses of the first date, the first true date. The sunflower-styled ring that Samson would propose with. The tulips Catrina would throw around during the wedding ceremony. The peony Aspen would tuck into Samson’s suit, having finally gotten him out of that old trench coat. Perhaps in the future, the two men would reminisce on these days when they had first met and fallen in love. Perhaps one day, but for now the two simply enjoyed one another’s company as they reveled in the glory of life.