[Content Warning: Contains mentions and subtle descriptions of death.]
August rain pellets my palm, bracelets my wrist, and trickles down the cliff of my elbow. I retract my hand to under the tree when lightning pierces the sky, awaiting the boom. The morning sun is the same yellow as my chrysanthemums, both glazed with delicate dew. Behind me, buckets of today’s harvest: roses, asters, lilies. My flowers are the only color this cemetery sees, the only color you see.
Most days I wait by the rusted gate to greet visitors with a sympathetic smile and my banner saying ‘A Free Flower for Your Loved and Lost.’ And most days I am met with overwhelming gratitude— handshakes, tear-choked ‘thank you’s, well wishes and prayers— that I just can’t digest.
But today, as clouds curdle and darken, I see her stumble past puddles and towards me. I resist the urge to recoil, to run away.
Lola approaches me with rain-drenched clothes and bloodshot eyes, her hands reaching for mine. Through her glossy vision, she couldn’t see a stranger offering condolences but her daughter whispering words of comfort.
“You look like her,” she says. “My daughter. You have the same smile—“
I don’t, really.
“— and she was just as young.”
No, she was younger. She was in her early thirties and I had just turned forty at the time.
Having chewed my tongue numb, nervous and terrified, I only reply, “Is that so?”
Her grip on my hands doesn’t hurt, but it feels angry. Maybe it’s my guilt mistaking desperation for rage. Desperation, that is, to hold on to a rippling reflection of her daughter in me. Like looking into a swimming pool and thinking the tiles are closer than they actually are. Like jumping in to land, but drowning.
Then, she leans in, murmuring and coughing your name. Her tears stain my shirt, her hands tremble in mine; I hold her like I held you that night.
She grows quieter as she sniffles her sobs silent, rhythmic hiccups inducing rhythmic tremors through her delicate frame. She peers up at me; her green eyes contrasting the red, grief contrasting exhaustion. Much like yours, greener than Lola’s but just as much in pain. Reaching for life and being swindled out of it.
She presses my hands to her cheeks and apologizes, “I’m sorry, hun. I don’t know what came over me.” She steps back and pats herself dry, squeezing the water out of her hair and shirt. “Ah, what a mess,” she murmurs, peeking at me embarrassingly.
I smile to let her know it was more than alright. Her posture relaxes, she smiles back.
“Would you happen to have chrysanthemums?” She asks. “They were my daughter’s favorite.”
I almost blurt out, ‘I know. She told me with her last breath.’ Instead, I nod, reaching for some newspaper and plastic to avoid the flowers getting beat down by the rain. Hopefully the skies will clear soon, though it’s unlikely.
That night had the cleanest sky I had ever seen, stars lost behind city smoke and clouds blended out into obsidian. And while the maroon coated us like caramel on popcorn, I could’ve sat there with you for hours, staring into nothing. Had I met you any other way, we would’ve been friends.
This sky, however, is far from that night’s. And Lola’s warmth radiates different from yours.
I hand her the flowers and she thanks me, says, “She used to bring me bouquets of chrysanthemums when I was at the hospital. It’s part of the reason I haven’t been able to visit. I could barely stand up just two weeks ago.” Even now, she shifts most of her weight onto one leg while the other shivers in, guessing from her sporadic winces, pain.
She tells me of your extroversion as a curious child and your introversion as a modest woman. A soft smile lingers at her lips as she recites a few lines of a poem you wrote of her, regrets how she can’t remember all the verses.
“This is silly, but,” she sighs, twirling the longer tuffs of her pixie-cut hair, “I wish I’d dyed my hair. Just so her last image of me wasn’t so frail and weak.”
“You look lovely, Lola. You always have. I just know it.”
And I do know it because I knew you: head resting against the pavement, green eyes dimming with each passing moment. Your bruised mouth smiled at me despite my mistakes, I was mesmerized by you despite the horror.
“Thank you, hun,” she says, fishing for something in her jacket. She pulls out a metal flask and offers it to me, “Rum? It’s cold. We don’t want you getting sick.”
I freeze in panic.
This was why it was my fault, why I come back to you for forgiveness every day, and why I try to become a better person. That day I realized just how different a person I had crashed into. Your opal necklace, seatbelt-wrapped torso, coffee cup crumpled under shards; my thrifted earrings, my friend’s voice calling out to me from my phone, a bottle of rum shattered by my legs.
“I don’t drink,” I stutter. Never again.
She nods, doubtful, takes a few sips herself, then leans against the bark of the tree. She picks at the skin around her nails, sighs a couple times, before finally asking me, “Why do you do this?” She pulls my banner a little further into the shade, wiping away the unwelcome drops of rain. “Is it because you’ve lost someone? Are you grieving?”
Yes, you. Your sweet words telling me it’s okay, your shallow breaths, your bloodied hands squeezing mine. I grieve for you now and forever.
Instead, I say, “No. Not really.” Because I don’t know how I’d answer the questions that come after this. What if she asks, ‘Who was it?’ I wouldn’t be able to avoid it. I could never lie either. I’d admit, it’s you. It’s you I regret hurting. It’s you I collected in my arms and held till you bled out. It’s you I begged to stay conscious.
I remember the vague questions I asked you, hoping that as long as you were talking, you’d live.
First love? Your mom.
Worst food? Anything spicy.
Favorite flower? Chrysanthemum.
I’d admit it’s you.
Her lips quiver. She shivers against a passing flurry of icy drizzle, the faded shadow of the sun flickering in her eyes. “You really do remind me of my daughter. Needlessly kind,” she says, “Kindness has a look, you know. I think it’s the warmth or some strange familiarity. It’s like meeting someone for the first time and immediately wanting to curl up into them.”
And I agree.
Kindness does have a look; it’s the one I stole from you.
"My daughter was all I had in my life," she continues. Her arms cross loosely around herself, almost forming an empty cradle. "My own little miracle."
I didn't mean to run.
"I'm sorry," I say.
I didn't mean to hide.
"Oh hun, you don't have to be sorry," she says, chuckling softly, probably taking my intentions to be empathetic and selfless.
I wish I hadn't left you alone in the cold.
And now, I can't leave Lola alone in the dark.
"I do," I say, fisting my hands around this opportunity, careful to not let it slip through my fingers a second time. "Lola, I have to tell you something."
I can't comprehend the expression on her painfully familiar face, only the clearing sky and thawing sun overhead. Now that my chest empties its secrets, a new warmth fills it. Now that I turn in your stolen look, I brave my own.