When Jack set out to buy a red dahlia on the morning of the 29th of March, he didn’t expect he only had hours left to live. But even if he would have known he still would have bought it, because it was for Lisa. And he’d do anything for Lisa.
He hit the cool, hard dirt of his barn, just as the sun began setting. It had been a lukewarm day with a cutting breeze, and with each laboured breath, with each wet wheeze, he felt himself grow colder.
There was a warm patch on his chest, and another pooling around his back and shoulders. And there was a biting heat somewhere inside him – through his ribcage, through his lung.
The pain was insistent and growing more severe, but it was tempered by his dimming mind. A part of him had always wondered what it felt like to get shot. Then he turned his attention to Lisa.
This was their anniversary – the most important day of the year, in his mind. Going through their ritual gave him life. It was a renewal of things, of vows – of everything. Could this really be the end? He saw his increasingly limp fingers still held the red dahlia.
The clerk at the florists had told him that the red dahlia was special, which he knew. She told him it signified loyalty, an undying devotion. Jack chuckled, because this he also knew.
“And undying love,” he added.
He first met Lisa twenty one years ago, and it had taken him a full year to muster up the courage to approach her. But she’d been with him ever since. Through the good times and the bad, and every spring, on the 29th of March, he bought her a red dahlia and re-enacted their first encounter.
It meant the world to him. It reminded him what being alive felt like.
“It also signifies inner strength,” the clerk said.
That was new for Jack, but he liked it. Inner strength was good. Any strength was good, for a man growing increasingly old in a world that refused to understand him. Maybe he could muster that inner strength now, to do what he had to.
He forced his eyes open and grit his teeth. He could hear shouting in the dark barn, all around his property. Every breath hurt – but then he heard it. A woman sobbed.
With a herculean grunt, he rolled onto his side. Lisa screamed, and the men’s voices rose to shouting. He could see shadows running towards him, with handguns pointing his way. How many were there? Why were they here? Why on this of all days?
A flashlight momentarily blinded him and the figures drew closer. Every movement was torture, and he felt so weak, an iceberg halfway melted. But he wouldn’t give up. Inner strength. The red dahlia. Lisa’s flower.
He spotted his powered hedge trimmer laying nearby. If he could just reach it, maybe he’d have a fighting chance.
They were both fighters, weren’t they? Every one of the past nineteen years, Lisa had protested against the anniversary. She was playing, of course. She didn’t mean it. But she’d act like it didn’t interest her. That was just her role though, playing hard to get. The trouble was, she seemed harder to get each year. She was made for freedom, thrived on it.
Couldn’t live without it.
Maybe she was right, in a way. He looked forward to each 29th of March, and it did invigorate him, but it was never quite the same as the first time. Maybe it was like any other kind of relationship, wilting with time. It needed constant effort and work to keep alive. Constant renewal.
Jack knew that. Jack knew he had to go through the motions, even if the magic wasn’t quite as real today as the previous day. Even if her skin wasn’t quite as smooth, nor her voice as melodic. Even if his joints hurt. He had to, because there was always a chance at recapturing that initial rush. He owed it to himself, and to Lisa, to at least try.
Maybe he did have inner strength after all. A lesser man might have cut his losses and walked away. A flighty animal, light and soft and without roots. No, that wasn’t the life for Jack. He always preferred to settle down and weather the storm.
It was during a storm he first saw Lisa. The way her wild red hair whipped in the wind. Everyone else ran for cover, but she laughed with a clear, beautiful voice, and danced to the tune of storm clouds. She was part wind, an alluring creature half-fey, and he knew then that she would be his. Even though she could not be held, even though she needed to be free, she would be his too. He’d be the one that truly set her free.
And a year later, he did. He still remembered the taste of her lips, how it felt to run his hands through her silken hair. Her supple neck.
Jack reached for the hedge trimmer and rose to one knee with a roar. Lisa was his, and he wouldn’t let these interlopers, these murderers, to come between them. They shouted at him as he struggled to his feet. There were flashes of light, bangs. He yanked the trimmer’s pull cord and the machine came to life.
He knew that this was probably it for him. A rational part of him realized he’d lost a lot of blood and wasn’t done dripping. But maybe, just maybe, if he could muster enough of that inner strength, he could still set Lisa free.
Just one more time.
Something hot cut into Jack’s arm, the world’s fattest hornet. He shrugged it off with another roar. There were people all around him, all of them with their little guns and their little vests, all of them standing between him and her. And there she was, at the other end of the barn.
Her eyes were wide and her skin was pale, and she was so terribly frightened. And her hair, clammy and stuck to her scalp. And black, yes. This year’s Lisa had black hair.
He raised his trimmer high and surged towards her and all the little ants around him screamed and flashed their flashlights and badges and fired their weapons. Metal tore into his flesh but he felt none of it – until he was suddenly on his back again, his legs no longer listening to reason.
He had failed. Red blossomed in his vision. So much red, like the first time he had set Lisa free. It had been a different hedge trimmer back then too, but she ended up so light, so unburdened, so at peace. So perfect. And when he set her free, he set himself free too, truly living for the first time.
The eighteen Lisas that followed her could never live up to the original. And this last one? Oh, he had failed her, the poor dear. She remained burdened. And now, there was so much red.
Red like Lisa’s hair.
Red like the dahlia.