The elevator pealed and Malcolm stepped into the lobby of Inglethorpe & Cavendish. He was the first to arrive that Monday morning. Natasha Marakova, the receptionist, usually greeted Malcolm every morning, but today, instead of Natasha’s welcoming presence, a bouquet of roses brightened the room from atop Natasha’s desk.
Malcolm looked closer at the bouquet. “To Natasha, Thank you for a lovely evening. From Gregory,” was printed on a white card tied to one of the ten rose stems.
Malcolm raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and walked down the hall to his office.
Five minutes later, Malcolm heard the elevator ring. Natasha squeed with excitement as she entered the lobby. Moments later, she let out a scream.
Malcolm shoved his chair back from his desk and ran to the lobby.
“Natasha? What’s wrong?” he asked as he entered the lobby.
Before Natasha could answer, he saw that she had pulled one of the rose heads from the bouquet and was plucking the petals off of it.
“Neudacha!” she said.
“Neudacha! Neudacha! Malcolm, this is terrible! Terrible!” Natasha shoved her hands into her armpits and began to shake. “Nichego strashnogo, nichego strashnogo, nichego strashnogo,” she whispered.
Malcolm stood with his mouth open. Eventually, he said the only thing he thought might bring Natasha comfort, “But Gregory seems like a nice guy.”
“I’m dead, Malcolm. I’m dead.”
“In my homeland, when someone gives you an even number of flowers, it means death, Malcolm. You give ten roses to your dead mother at her funeral, not to your new girlfriend.”
Malcolm cracked a nervous smile. “So, is Gregory your boyfriend?”
“Even numbers are for the dead.”
“Natasha, c’mon, that’s just superstition talking.”
“No, Malcolm. This is real.” Natasha broke into a blank stare at the remaining nine roses. After a few moments, it was like Malcolm wasn’t even there.
Malcolm backed off and surrendered to his office. He didn’t know Natasha extremely well, but he did know that her family had emigrated from Russia to the United States shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. They settled in Greensboro because of the city's high tolerance for non-W.A.S.P. cultures. Greensboro had a robust Quaker population. Quakers were, and still are, much more tolerant of the unfamiliar than most religions.
Then, Malcolm smelled something burning.
“Natasha! What are you doing?!”
She had dumped the contents of a metal paper clip tray onto her desk and put the rose petals from the decapitated rose into the tray. Smoke rose from the tray.
“Natasha, you’ll set off the fire alarm.”
“I have to reverse the bad luck.”
“By burning petals?”
“Yes. That’s the only way to do it.” She primed the fire with a Bic Easy Flame wand.
“Tasha, if Mr. Inglethorpe sees you burning shit here in the lobby, he’ll fire you.”
The elevator pealed.
Mr. Inglethorpe marched straight from the elevator, past Malcolm and Natasha, and to his office. Mr. Inglethorpe slammed his door.
“You were saying, Malcolm?”
“OK, so he’s a little preoccupied at the moment.”
The rose petals burnt to an ash and left a pleasant smell, like a floral incense.
“No. He wouldn’t notice, Malcolm. This smells nice, not like smoke.”
Malcolm touched his forehead, partially in thought, mostly in embarrassment.
“Tasha, c’mon, superstitions are just socially co-signed misunderstandings of how the world really works.”
“What are you saying? That I don’t know how the world works?”
“No, I’m not saying that. But I am saying that superstitions are silly and it shouldn’t matter if Gregory gave you an even number of roses.”
“I don’t think so, Malcolm. My father accidentally gave my mother eight roses one time. A year later, he left us.”
“And you think the roses are why your father left?
“Yes, what other explanation could there be? He loved us.”
“How do you know it’s not the other way around?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, how do you know if the reason he gave your mother the eight roses was because he was contemplating leaving her?”
Natasha’s heart began to beat faster.
“Or,” Malcolm continued, “what if your father broke a mirror the week before he left your mother? Could that have been what caused him to leave? Or still, how might the roses and broken mirror have combined to create the particular bad luck you and your family experienced? Or still, what if—
“Can it, Malcolm, you fucking lawyer.”
“All I’m saying, Tasha, is that getting ten roses from Gregory means that Gregory enjoyed your company and would like to see you again. It’s not bad luck. It’s not good luck. It just is. That’s all.”
Natasha pressed her lips together and swallowed.
“Maybe you’re right, Malcolm. I just, well, I grew up with these traditions and . . .”
Mr. Inglethorpe rushed into the lobby.
“Natasha, please take these over to the courthouse at your earliest convenience,” Inglethorpe said, handing her a stack of court filings.
“Right away, Mr. Inglethorpe,” she said.
“Malcolm, what is that smell? It smells . . . nice. Let’s have it smell like this more often,” Inglethorpe said, leaving the lobby, returning to his office.
“Gotta run, Malcolm. Gotta file these. But wait, what was that you said, Mr. I was going to fire me?”
“Sorry, Tash. I was wrong.”
Natasha gathered the stack of papers, placed them in her document satchel, and entered the elevator. As the door closed, she winked at Malcolm.
Malcolm looked out the window at the street below. He saw Tasha on the side walk. She turned and waived to him. She crossed the street, but without looking. A public transit bus came down the road at top speed and mowed her down. Her last thought before the bus mashed her brain into grey and red goo was the image her mother’s face when her mother received the eight roses from her father. It was a look of horror, a look of shock, a look of superstitious awe that never quite left her mind, that is, until the bus ran her down.