The little, sleepy town of Alegria welcomed its newest member in 50 years with almost no notice what-so-ever. This is an accomplishment for someone who wants to stay hidden in a town that is so bored that massive amounts of people, at least forty of them, drove by the Petersons' place when they heard that they built a greenhouse in their front yard and the big question was, would they be so bold as to grow marijuana in there.
It might have been because she did not come far into the town and asked for a job at Vanessa's Diner, named after the owner, at the edge of town that helped her enter without notice.
The fact that twenty-eight-year-old Flora also captured Vanessa's heart immediately might have had something to do with it too. Flora's innocence and anxiety at starting a new life in a new town made Vanessa wish she actually ventured out and had a daughter like Flora. Not only did Vanessa give Flora a job as dishwasher, but she also offered her a room to rent at her home, which stood directly behind the diner. Thus, Flora never truly had a need to go deep into town.
Now, after living there for two month and with the kindness and support of Vanessa, everyone from town reacted to Flora as if she had always lived there.
That is, everyone except Mateo.
Maybe it was his time in the army or his fondness of Vanessa for giving him a job as a cook as soon as he came back three years ago, but the fact that little was known about Flora ate at him.
Mateo watched Flora taking her break at the edge of Fawna Forest, which was less than ten yards away from the diner. Each day, he was taken by Flora's presence. She had an affinity for 50's retro dresses and often had her hair up in victory rolls. Her job was to wash dishes and clear tables and yet, she walked through the diner like it was her home, greeting and getting to know the regulars. Her conversation seemed timid and yet it had the ability to lift people up. She always felt like an instant friend. Business seemed to boom after Flora floated into Vanessa's Diner. Flora seemed to love it as much as Mateo did.
All of that made her perfect and yet, this one little fact about her nagged at him. He was watching it now and he wished he could be okay with it.
Vanessa thought she heard him grunt.
"Something concerning you?" she asked.
"There's something off about her," he answered.
Vanessa looked out the window. "Flora? She's just quiet. Nothing wrong with that."
"Do you see what she's doing?" Mateo gestured as if he was presenting exhibit A.
Flora was surrounded by a few rabbits, a couple of squirrels, and she had a blue jay on her shoulder. She looked like she was chatting with them as she handed them food and was petting each one.
Mateo perked up as she giggled and noticed her smile that made her seem to glow. "She acts like she knows them. How is she friends with a bunch of woodland creatures?"
Vanessa continued to watch. She pondered his question and answered, "They're not hurting her. She looks like she has a connection with them. Maybe she missed her calling and she was meant to be a veterinarian. She's happy. You can't begrudge her some happiness."
It wasn't that though. Mateo knew there were crazy people in the world. He had met plenty of them and Flora seemed crazy. Crazy people were not on his mind all of the time. Flora was. He imagined Flora's nature was what drew Vanessa to her too. But how could he rationalize wanting to be around someone who thought she could talk to animals?
The next day there was a lull in the lunch crowd. Mateo took the opportunity to get to know Flora better. He found her taking her break with a bowl of apple and banana slices, sitting on a blanket at the edge of the forest.
"Can I join you?"
Flora stared up at Mateo for longer than he expected. She seemed so tiny at this angle and her eyes had an innocence about them. Finally, she answered, "Of course," as she gestured to the blanket. She went back to what she was doing and held out some banana to a skunk.
"That's a skunk."
"Calm voice, please," she suggested to Mateo.
"You're feeding a skunk."
"They're not dangerous. Many people keep them as pets."
"You do know that they can spray you?" Mateo pointed out.
"Only if they get scared, hence, the calm voice,” Flora took a couple of deep breaths while she studied the skunk, “It's fine now though. She is taking her cues from me and she knows I'm not scared of you," Flora smiled as she looked into Mateo's eyes.
"Then why did you take so long to answer me just now?"
Flora pondered Mateo, his rough features and his confusion. "People are more than the words they speak. Everyone says something with body language too. I was taking a moment to read you."
He laughed, "Oh, so what did you read other than I wanted to sit down?"
Flora gave the skunk one last pet before it returned into the forest. "You want something from me. Answers? It's hard to be certain. Also, I make you nervous."
Mateo laughed harder this time and he was glad the skunk had left. "There's no reason for me to be nervous around you."
"True, but you still are."
“I don’t really know you.”
“And you would like to?” Flora asked as she took in his presence. Mateo was struggling with his thoughts. These moments that she took to listen to his body language were the opposite of what the rest of the world seemed to do, like they were always in a hurry. She seemed to make time go slow and he liked it.
“How do you do this?” Mateo knew his question was vague but he wasn’t even sure what he was asking.
“Someone’s coming,” Flora sounded gleeful and a deer came out through the trees, “Ah, did you smell the apples? Here you go.” She laughed as the deer licked her face and then turned her attention back to Mateo, “How do I do what? Talk to animals?”
Mateo chuckled and considered pointing out that no one can talk to animals, but he did not want to end their conversation when it had just gotten started. “No. How do you stay so tranquil? It’s like…”
“It’s like I’m happy,” Flora jumped in.
“Is this happy? I don’t think I’ve seen someone be happy before.”
“You tease me.”
“I meant it to be a joke but now that I think about it, happy people are not that easy to find,” Mateo thought about himself and how easily he would get annoyed. Each day the annoyance has been disappearing little by little. Could she be contagious?
Flora gave the deer another apple slice as she rested next to her. Flora enjoyed petting her as she looked to Mateo. “I was in so much pain years ago. It felt like a headache that had two settings, low grinding or explosion.”
“That sounds terrible,” Mateo breathed.
“I lived in a big city and had help from the best doctors and I was still suffering. One day I thought that a weekend trip to the country might help me relax. It did. After a few more trips, I noticed the country made me better and the city made me sicker,” Flora confessed.
“Well, that’s wonderful.”
“But there was more,” Flora confided to Mateo, “The pain was going away but something was missing. So I traveled further until I got to a forest, this forest. And I could hear them. Not only was the pain completely gone but I also felt exhilarated. It was the most amazing feeling ever.”
Mateo paused and took in what she said, “You could hear them? Who could you hear?’
Flora put her face near the deer and the deer gave her cheek a lick, “The animals in this forest.”
Mateo’s mind raced. She just admitted it. She’s insane.
He felt Flora take his hand as she looked up at him. “You’re such a wonderful listener. I feel so free right now. I feel like I can tell you everything.”
He looked into her beautiful, joyful eyes and for a moment thought, I need to help her. I can’t let her go on believing that she talks to animals.
That thought was immediately replaced with, I need to kiss her, and he did.
For two weeks, Mateo’s favorite time of day was the lull during the lunch crowd. He would take his break with Flora on her blanket near the forest. Her calm nature soothed him and he found himself not being angry at the world anymore.
He rationalized her claim of talking to animals as her seeing the world differently. She was so calm that animals were probably not scared of her. It had nothing to do with talking. What she saw as talking must have been as simple as pets being able to sense whether a person was kind or cruel. He was overjoyed to be around her and if she wanted to claim she talked to animals, he would smile and let it go.
They sat on the blanket watching most of the lunch crowd return to their cars, as a truck was driving up the main road. It was too tall for some of the trees nearby. "I don't think he can clear those branches," Flora said.
"He'll just shake them. He won't hurt the tree," Mateo reassured her.
Mateo was right, but neither of them knew of a beehive that was deep in the branches. The truck knocked it down.
"Oh no, the customers," Mateo exclaimed. Some of the patrons were near the demolished hive.
Mateo ran towards the diner to get the hose. The water will chase them away.
Mateo hoped Flora had followed him to safety but as he looked back, he saw her walking towards the chaos. Fear shot through him, “Flora, no!”
He saw her raise one hand in the air and wiggle her fingers. The bees, who had looked like a black cloud around the diner patrons, all focused on Flora and flew to her. Mateo was horrified. The entire hive was approaching her and there was no way for him to get to her on time. She was covered with every last bee and she just stood there, no screaming, no running. How? Mateo thought.
The bees began to collect on Flora’s dress, uncovering her head and arms. She brought down her arm and revealed a giant bee in the palm of her hand. Even with his limited knowledge of bees, Mateo knew that must have been the queen. Everyone, including Mateo gathered, in shock.
“It’s okay,” Flora reassured them in her calm voice, “It’s scary when your house gets knocked down.”
Some nervous laughter came from the crowd.
Flora looked up at Mateo and held up her palm, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Mateo, in awe of how peaceful Flora looked with a whole hive of bees on her, answered, “So beautiful.”
Flora looked around and focused on the direction of where she usually sits for lunch. There was an oak tree five feet from her spot. She brought her palm close to her and said, “That is probably the best place to build your hive. There are no roads over there.”
She gave the queen a little pet on her back and held up her arm again. The queen led the way as the entire hive flew to the oak tree, leaving Flora’s dress in a spinning wave and returning her back to her original retro style.
Flora watched the bees dreamily while Mateo watched Flora in amazement. She’s not crazy, he thought, She’s every bit as wonderful as she appeared.