Destry’s mind wandered out over the half-frozen lake. He was half-way bundled up for the freezing February weather; the heavy coat, hat, and gloves were warm, but his jeans were not. His butt was so cold he wouldn’t have been surprised if, on getting up, he found himself half-stuck to the metal bench.
Who sat on a metal bench in the middle of winter? A masochist, maybe, or someone with no choice. Destry considered himself the latter but suspected he was also the former. The girl had said she’d meet him here, at about this time. He risked more skin exposure and pulled up his sleeve to get the time. Half past an arm hair. He’d forgotten his watch. And his phone. And his keys–now how was he getting back into his room?
All this for a girl.
No, said the little voice in his head, which he chanced to call his conscience but which sometimes had pretty bad ideas, we’re talking about the girl. Totally not the same thing.
“Totally not,” Destry agreed, although he had his doubts that the girl was even going to show up.
He’d have liked her to show up then, with a casual, “Totally not what?” that would nonetheless startle him out of his snow boots and put a smile on his frozen face. He was fond of telling people that he did not need a scarf with an amazing lumberjack beard like his, but it was a lie. Oh, so much a lie — and his lips were chapped. Gross. Every one of these things reminded him that he was not, as much as he might wish to be, in a movie. Not even a chick flick, which would have been fine since most of the ones he’d seen had at least one sex scene set to sensual, emotionally-touching music.
In any case, he was still alone, and had class in … well, without a watch or phone, he couldn’t be sure how long. Even with his glasses he couldn’t read the clock tower on the City of Glory Municipal Building.
He had seen lots of other things with them, though. Most of them had to do with the girl and all of them had raised questions. Beneath his short black hair was a fairly intelligent mind and a rather overactive imagination. Loud, terrifying cracks rang through his head as he watched the lake ice, which was beautiful and milky-white, but undoubtedly thin. He pushed away the dark thoughts.
The air was sharp with the scent of snow, appropriate considering the ground was covered in a blanket of the stuff. Destry wondered who was the first to compare snow to a fuzzy, warm blanket and whether he’d ever actually touched so much as a flake. There hadn’t been snow on the ground when he met the girl, but he did remember being cold … until she spoke. His chest had warmed intensely and — well, he’d spilled his coffee on himself, that’s what that was.
Then she’d laughed, and it was all over for him. He had cracked a joke about his amazing lumberjack beard that made absolutely no sense given the circumstances, and she had laughed again, after handing over a pile of napkins. It was a laugh like any other — a strange, choking kind of hiccup — but human body chemistry was strange, or maybe human souls were strange, and he’d fallen for her in an instant.
Not in love. No, he didn’t believe in that love-at-first-sight crapola, but he was falling somewhere. After all, the girl wasn’t human. The idea reached over from the left side of his brain, where his factual information was stored, and tickled his imagination on the right. His imagination got a giggle fit and begged for mercy, loving it all the while.
“What are you laughing about?”
Destry blinked at the bare feet that suddenly appeared in his vision. They were nice feet, as far as feet go anyway, wiggling their brown toes against the blindingly white snow. His eyes slid up the legs they were attached to, past the black calf-length leggings, past the tattered jean skirt (bought that way or worn with love?) to the dark line of belly skin peeking out from under a pink camisole and nondescript green army jacket. There was a delay at that station and then his eyes continued up to their destination: the girl’s face. Her large lips were puckered around an iced-coffee-drawing straw and her even larger eyes were fixed on his. They had no iris and no pupil. White marbles. Snowballs. That he knew she was looking at him came more from a sixth sense than from observation.
Between her eyes and lips was a nothing of a nose, probably her most fetching feature but sadly ignored next to the other two main attractions.
Destry opened his mouth and said, “My moustache was telling my beard this awesome joke about a rabbi, a golden axe, and a loblolly pine. I’d ask him to tell it to you, but he’s shy around the ladies.”
“Really,” said the girl, “because you don’t seem to be.”
She sat down beside him, close enough that he wished his thighs weren’t numb from the bench. She wasn’t human. Humans didn’t have small black horns poking through their mass of long, white hair. He had already considered the idea that she was a demon and dismissed it. Demons got their coffee from Starbucks, not little cafés like The Grace.
“You can see the real me,” she said, making it a statement and not a question.
“What does everyone else see?”
“Whatever they want to. I guess what you want to see is the truth.”
She sipped at her iced coffee until there was only enough left to make gurgling sounds. “That humans aren’t the only people in this world? I don’t know. You’re the one asking the question, and I don’t know what that is. Yet.”
Destry was pretty sure he didn’t either. The foremost question on his mind now was, Isn’t she cold in that getup? and he knew that wasn’t what she meant.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she said, and as she walked past him, he caught a whiff of honeysuckle that made him very glad his ass wasn’t actually stuck to the bench.
The park’s footpaths were salted and shoveled clear of snow, but the girl led him away and into the forest to the north (dropping her empty cup in a trash bin along the way, of course; he didn’t think her the type to litter). Destry stomped his way through the ice-coated five inches of snow while she walked barefooted on top of it. There had been freezing rain after the initial snowstorm, and every branch and twig was encased in a clear shine.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” he said, and paused to admire a frozen maple leaf. Too bad it wouldn’t taste like syrup if he licked it.
“I prefer summer,” said the girl, glancing back at him. “This time of year is the Ice Queen’s domain.” She waited for him to come to her side before moving again.
“Are you a queen?”
“My beard grows quicker,” he said automatically, and winced on the inside. Sometimes he thought his facial hair really did have a mind of its own, and that it thoroughly enjoyed working his jaw to promote itself and embarrass its owner. “If winter has an Ice Queen, then what does summer have?”
The girl — he should stop calling her that, considering she looked to be in her early twenties — paused and sank to a crouch. She dug through the snow to the layer of dead leaves beneath, and then through those until the bare earth was visible. With questing brown fingers she prodded the soil. Destry dropped down beside her, trying not to let his rear touch the snow. Cold he could deal with, but not wet.
A small green shoot was rising from the ground where the girl had touched it. She coaxed the seedling to grow taller, larger, thicker, like a sped-up video clip in a nature documentary. Destry, who actually read National Geographic Magazine instead of just looking at the pictures, was fascinated. The plant was now over a foot in height and sporting a thick flower bud. The girl murmured something in a high tone and touched the bud, which unfurled into its familiar daffodil shape. Destry fingered the camera in his coat pocket, but thought picture-taking somehow inappropriate.
“You’re the Flower Queen?”
“The official title is Blossom Queen. Sounds much more eloquent, doesn’t it?”
“Was that magic?”
“I didn’t think so,” he said thoughtfully, and though she looked surprised by this statement, she smiled.
“I’m starting to understand why you see me,” said the Blossom Queen. She snapped the daffodil’s hollow stem easily and tucked the flower behind his ear. Her fingers were impossibly warm, with a strange, burning heat lingering just beneath the skin. If his face weren’t already red from the cold, it would have turned so.
This close to her, he could smell honeysuckle again, and more. Dew on blackberries. Hot asphalt. That was unexpected, but undoubtedly summery.
Her fingers lingered on his shoulder. Curse how heavy his coat was.
“What’s your name?”
She put a finger over his mouth to stop him from uttering his whole name, which was always a mistake in fairytales. He resisted the urge to lick his chapped lips. Now would not be the best time, and that was why he suddenly wanted to go through the motion. He thought she might taste as lovely as she smelled.
“Destry,” she said, as if trying out the sound on her tongue. “Destry, I’m wondering … even though you’re searching for your own question, would you help me with mine?”
“I’ll try,” he said. “What is it? Your question, I mean.”
Her beautifully full lips, which had been turned up all this time, fell into a frown. “It’s more than words can handle. Giving the wrong answer has proven dangerous — I don’t know that giving the right one will be any different. I just have this feeling you might have that answer.”
So instead of playing Jeopardy (which he watched faithfully every weeknight, shouting out answers and occasionally startling Song, his roomie), he’d be in it. Destry’s life was far from boring. Back home there had been plenty of nature to explore, admire, run over, run from, or poke with sticks. Plenty of hot girls’ panties to snatch off of clotheslines, too. Adjusting to city life was proving even more exciting. What the Blossom Queen was offering him seemed to lie somewhere in between those two worlds and right up his alley.
“Let’s find out,” he said, standing up, “and if I don’t, maybe my moustache does.”
“Do you understand?”
The abandoned liquor store in which they stood had been gutted by fire. The walls were scorched with the dark afterimages of flame. Most of the glass doors to the refrigerated shelves were broken, the racks inside melted. Glass from these and from numerous bottles made the floor sparkle; holes in the decaying roof created natural light bulbs of the sun.
In the center of the room, brambles had pushed their way up from underneath the tiles, if brambles they could be called. The massive olive-green bushes had tendrils as thick as his wrist in some places. Thorns as long as his middle finger and just as offensive crisscrossed one another like hypodermic needles. Their tips were red.
What held his attention, though, was what the brambles surrounded. Encased in a cocoon of glass shards was a woman who looked identical to the Blossom Queen, except that her hair was bright crimson and she was naked. There was a white patch on her chocolate hip that looked like a lily. The cocoon, as far as he could tell, was filled with water, but its occupant was very much alive. Her hair waved as if in unseen currents.
“Who is she?”
“How did you lose yourself like that?”
“The Unseelie High Queen tried to kill me by trapping me in this burning building. It was the only way I could protect myself.”
“Unseelie, Seelie. They’re the two main faery courts in this area. I’m part of the Summer Court, which falls under Seelie ruling. We’re natural enemies. You didn’t know that’s what I am?”
“I didn’t know what you were at all,” he said, “and I didn’t think it mattered.” Faery. She was a faery? He’d read enough fantasy books to know they didn’t all have wings and dresses made of flower petals, but he still hadn’t suspected that at all.
“It doesn’t. What does is that I don’t know how to get me back,” she said, expression solemn. “Quite a few have tried. Most of them got hurt. Two died. None of them succeeded.”
“You can’t get in there?”
“No. I can’t get that close to myself without violating some basic law of spirits and space. Besides, I might drown without someone to break open that shell.”
“And you think I can?” Destry couldn’t take his eyes off of the submerged woman. He wondered if that was what Kerry looked like before she drowned. Beautiful, at peace. A trigger had been pulled in his mind, and the resulting shotgun blast of memories was a little more than he could stand.
“Can you? You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, Destry–”
“Please, call me Des,” he interrupted. “I want to help you, but I have to think some things over.”
“Des, then, and thank you,” she said. He could feel her blank eyes on him, observing. “Is something wrong?”
“No, no. I…I have to go to class now. Could we meet tomorrow? Somewhere warmer, maybe?”
She chuckled, which drew him out of the dark depths of his memories just a little. “How about where we first met, at The Grace? Three o’clock?”
Destry agreed and shuffled back to the University for History of Screenwriting. His mind, however, was not on Woody Allen. The two hour class passed without much consequence and then he was back in his tiny room in Mayberry Tower. The twelfth-floor shoebox had a lovely view of the park, or would if Song wasn’t always leaving food and shiny things on the sill for the crows. He banged on the glass to shoo the noisy black birds away and wondered what might be used to break open the Blossom Queen’s cocoon that others hadn’t already tried. He should have asked her…but he had a feeling that she couldn’t have answered him, anyway.
He had to be prepared, and he had to have everything right. He could not–absolutely could not–watch her drown, if that for some reason became an issue. He had no idea how things would work out, whether the brambles would move to protect her the way he thought they would, or what would happen if he did chance to break the glass.
For homework, he was supposed to be writing a setting description for a science fiction movie. After several failed attempts at alien worlds, Destry settled on a scene from this one and wrote about the glass cocoon in the brambles.
Song, who always read over his work for mistakes, stared at him for a good minute in silence. Squinted, rather. Song’s almond eyes became little more than slits when he was thinking hard.
“Is this about Kerry?” he said cautiously. “It’s really creative, man, and it’s good to, you know, get your feelings out. Better than writing angsty poetry. You haven’t, have you? If you have, that’s all cool, I just meant–”
“It’s not about her,” he said, before his scatterbrained roommate could get on a roll.
“Oh, well, all right then. Cool,” he said, and Destry could tell Song didn’t believe him. Something in the anthropology major’s tone. “I’m gonna head down to Steadman and get some chow. Wanna come?”
“No thanks. I’ve got work to do.”
He leaned back in his chair and stared at the movie posters lining his half of the room. Was the answer there? Most movies had similar plots, once you got down to it. But you’re not in a movie, his so-called conscience reminded him. This is real life.
“Art is a mirror of life,” he quoted under his breath. Well, if that was true, then what he had written really was about Kerry, in a way. The Blossom Queen had said he was looking for the truth, but about what? He knew the truth already. She was gone, and he was still here. Life went on.
And so did Jeopardy, which had started five minutes ago. He turned on the television.
“I’ll take In Character for four hundred, Alex.”
“A character that, in the face of danger and adversity, displays courage and the will for self sacrifice.”
“What is…a hero?”
Destry was in love with The Grace. The warm, cozy café was exactly what he imagined when he had first imagined city college life. The Grace was downtown, not part of the University, but a good portion of the clientele seemed to be students. The gold walls were covered with local artwork. The dark cherry tables were always clean, and the seats were comfortably plush, as were the red couches in the back. The live music every other night was a bonus, too.
The Blossom Queen ordered not two but three coffees from the blonde working the counter, with whom she seemed to be on friendly terms. He had a nice beard, too, and Destry got annoyed with himself for the small touch of possessiveness that incurred.
“You shouldn’t give people the evil eye like that,” she said as they sat down with their drinks (a bold cinnamon roast, black, for him, and two hazelnut lattes for her). “He tried to help me, too, so you know. Got a few scars you can’t see under the t-shirt.”
“I know, I know, I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” he said, even though a good marketing campaign never hurt anyone, and a book with a good cover was always more likely to be picked up in a bookstore.
She nodded and took a large sip of her still-steaming coffee. Apparently she was as immune to heat as she was to cold. “Speaking of books, I noticed one of the same books from Beth’s local author shelf in your bag. I haven’t read that one, but it was the featured display for some time last year. Is it any good?”
She pointed at the smallest of the books spilling out of his canvas tote and onto the table. He watched with resigned trepidation as she took it out. Resigned, because he thought maybe all of these pieces–even the painful ones–fit together for a reason. He cleared his throat.
“Yes, um, it’s very good. One of my favorites.”
“Dance in our Graves, by Kerry Matthews,” she read the cover out loud and then flipped it open. “It’s signed. Do you know her?”
“She was my girlfriend.”
“But not any more?”
“She died last year,” he blurted out, regretting the blunt words.
The Blossom Queen laid her hand on his, her body temperatures akin to his coffee mug–he felt the blood beneath her skin the same way he felt the burning hot beverage through the slightly cooler shell of ceramic. Strange, inhuman, but not unpleasant. “I’m sorry,” her mouth said, but her eyes said more. Her eyes, void of color as they were, said that she understood, and for that he was grateful. She put the book away.
“So, did you get your thinking done?”
“Most of it.” He’d been up most of the night, in fact. Song hadn’t said anything about his late-night (or rather, very early morning) pacing, but the way he’d grumbled as he got dressed that morning had been enough. He’d also been late for biology because he was rereading Kerry’s book. Looking for clues.
She bit her lip and fiddled with a spoon. Her body was taut, like a guitar string turned too far and ready to snap. “Are you ready to try today?” she asked, and her normally sunny voice was edged with storm clouds.
He looked at her small hand, still on his and clenching tightly. An image of her inside the glass cocoon arose, and in his mind’s eye, she was awake. Awake and unable to breathe. Unable to get out. Trapped, because he couldn’t break the glass.
“Not today,” he said. Her face fell for a second, but grew comprehending as he continued. “I want … to get to know you better, first. I think that’s important.”
“All right. What do you want to know?”
Destry laughed in spite of his melancholy mood. “It’s not that simple,” he said. “I don’t want to know about you, I want to know you.” He could feel the heat rising in his face and the tremors starting in his fingers. This time it wasn’t from the coffee.
They ended up talking for a good three hours, moving to the couches once they’d emptied of high school hipsters. She sat temptingly close the entire time, drinking coffee after coffee, which was apparently her only way of staying awake. They bumped body parts often, and he knew she noticed the way he recoiled sometimes. He liked when she touched him, wanted to touch her, but the reflex was still there, in both mind and body.
She said, after a while, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” he asked, thinking she meant the touching.
“I feel like a ghost,” she said. “Split in two the way I am. This me you’re getting to know … isn’t all of me. I’m a shade, a shadow.” Frustration split the edges of her voice.
“I know what that feels like,” said Destry quietly. Sometimes he still felt that way. He had been honest-to-God in love with Kerry, and she with him. It wasn’t that he needed another person to feel whole. There were just those who made him more aware of what he already was, brought it out, and made it shine.
They made more plans for the week, with times and places and all, before she left sipping yet another latte. Destry watched her white hair brighten against the dirty city snow. Snow. His nose was so full of the Blossom Queen’s summery scents that he’d forgotten it was January.
He didn’t think the answer to her entrapment was in the method. He thought it came from what lay between them.
*GODELIFF STUDENT DROWNS IN TRAGIC LAKE ACCIDENT*
Local author a loss to community and literary world.
by Macbeth Taylor
Anyone who’s been outside within the last month knows that this winter has been one of the coldest in Glory’s history. Anyone who’s been out in the last few days, however, knows that the weather is finally warming up–if forty degrees Fahrenheit can be called warm. Lake Artemis, which has been an outdoor skating rink since late November, is finally starting to thaw.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t thawed quite enough. On the morning of February 28, two days ago, Godeliff University freshman Kerry Colleen Matthews decided to go for an early-morning walk. When the talented young writer, author of the critically acclaimed novel Dance in our Graves, didn’t answer her phone or show up for classes, her friends reported her missing.
Matthews’ body was found underneath an icy section of the lake, amidst evidence that she may have fallen through after walking on the too-thin surface. Interviews with family and friends ruled out suicide.
“She was working on a new book,” said Destry Johannson, the late author’s boyfriend. “She liked doing physical research. It’s what made her writing so amazing, because she really knew what she was talking about.”
Unfortunately, we won’t ever get to read Matthews’ latest creation. A temporary memorial where mourners may leave flowers and mementos has been erected near the spot where her body was found, and a private funeral will be held sometime this week.
Mariah sat down between the archival rows and read the short newspaper article in the silence only a library can offer. The small photograph accompanying the story was a cropped duplicate of the one on Destry’s desk. Now she understood. He wouldn’t talk about her, and sometimes when they were kissing he would suddenly pull away and become solemn. She didn’t think that had anything to do with her being the Blossom Queen, not when he found her abilities so obviously fascinating.
Kerry Matthews was part of his question.
She would find his answer.
After all, she was pretty sure he was hers. There was a connection between them that hadn’t existed with her other would-be saviors. Des was tranquil to the core, and when some passion gripped him, it was a quiet, smoldering emotion that never ceased to inspire some awe in her. Calm. Deep. Yet he understood what it was like to only half-exist.
Instead of flowers, he’d brought her seeds.
“It’s been a month. I thought you would jump all over the idea,” Destry said. The Blossom Queen smiled and the carnations on the table next to them bloomed.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt. I like you an awful lot, Des,” she said
“I like you, too,” he replied. He meant it. She laughed genuinely at all his jokes and knew more about nature than anyone he’d ever met. She hadn’t seen many movies, and so he got to introduce her to that wonderful world of fancy, showing off his own knowledge in the process. Lots of movies had led to lots of sitting close together, which had led to cuddling, which had led to kissing and a few other things. Sometimes it was wonderful; sometimes it hurt. She hurt sometimes, too — he could see it on her face, in the lines of her body –that ghost feeling neither of them could quite escape. “And so does Frank the Beard.”
“He should, he’s been close enough.”
“You want to go now?”
The abandoned liquor store was just how they’d left it in January. The brambles were as thick as ever, their thorns gleaming even where shadow fell. At this time of day, the light from the ceiling holes was angled so that a particularly large ray lit up the glass cocoon. The clear, brown, green, and blue shards sparkled like gem facets. The entrapped Blossom Queen’s hair turned to threads of ruby as strands of diamond light wavered across her dark skin.
The ghost beneath his arm was trembling slightly.
“There’s nothing I can do,” she said. “This is all you.”
He was completely unarmed. Doubtless the others had come with knives, hammers, chisels, and such tools, but Destry had nothing but his bare hands and a packet of sunflower seeds in his left pocket.
As soon as he stepped over the first bramble branch, the thicket began to move. Smooth, hard tendrils slid over one another sinuously, locking thorns here and there but ultimately heading his way. He’d expected something like that and kept picking his way through. In his chest, his heart thudded painfully.
It went into overdrive when the brambles made a suddenly violent thrust upward, towards the ceiling. Instead of picking his way through a thicket, he was now surrounded by a forest of thorns. Plaster chips rained down on his head as the sunlight disappeared. A particularly close thorn left a long scratch on his cheek and knocked his glasses askew on its way up.
“Des? Are you okay?” The Blossom Queen’s voice sounded far-off and faint.
“I’m okay,” he called back, and his voice sounded far too loud. Too alone.
He could still see the illuminated cocoon through a small opening in the bramble-trees. Destry waited for his breathing to return to a semi-normal rate and then pushed on. The first thorns he encountered ripped easily through his flannel shirtsleeves and left thin red lines on his skin. He ignored the stinging pain these caused and tried to be more careful from that point on.
This is how Prince Charming must have felt when he went to rescue Sleeping Beauty, he thought, shaking off a small tendril that was attempting to curl around his ankle. Except he had a sword. My, that would be handy right about now. Or an axe. I guess I’m more the woodsman hero type than the prince.
Handy, but inappropriate. “But you ain’t lookin’ at the whole picture,” said Jessie. “Right now you see me, you only seein’ the beautiful parts — the rose, so to speak. Don’t go forgettin’ that I got thorns, too.” He’d loved Kerry’s main character, still did in fact. She reminded Destry of himself.
These thorns were part of the Blossom Queen, at least her consciousness, and hacking at them would be the same as taking a razor to her wrist. That was the first place the others had failed; they’d focused too much on the gem at the center.
After what felt like hours, Destry found himself squeezing through the thickest of the bramble-trees and into the sunlit clearing that housed the cocoon. Up close, not even the Hope Diamond (the two of them had gone to see it last weekend) could compare to its beauty, and the beauty of what was inside.
She was sleeping, he convinced himself, in some sort of stasis. Not dead. He knew what dead looked like–he’d been the one to identify Kerry’s body at the hospital, since her family lived in upper New York. Yet the expression on the Blossom Queen’s face was so similar, her lips parted slightly in the same expression of surprise. He pressed his hands and forehead against the glass, remembering.
The Blossom Queen opened her eyes. Her entire body convulsed as she awoke and surveyed her surroundings. Destry took a very startled jump backwards as she put her palms to the inside of the cocoon and mouthed his name. A few silver bubbles floated out of her mouth and up.
Trapped. She really was trapped, and he had to get her out. For an intensely long moment, he had no idea how to do that. Then he looked into her eyes, her eyes which were white but never blank, and he remembered his plan.
With shaking hands, he took the packet of sunflower seeds from his pocket and ripped it open. It was the kind meant to be planted, not eaten, and he cursed as quite a few of the white and black seeds fell to the ground. He held what he could tightly and began shoving them into the cracks between the glass shards that made up the cocoon.
The Blossom Queen looked at him quizzically, panic starting to show in her face and body. She mouthed his name again and this time Destry saw not his new lover but the old. Kerry, trapped under the ice and begging him to break it, break it please, let her out, don’t let me drown–
“You have to save yourself,” he said, returning to reality with difficulty. “When you lose yourself, you’re the only one who can get you back in the end! It’s no one else’s decision but yours!”
She curled up and pounded on the glass, not quite understanding.
“Make them grow! I’ve brought you the means, now save yourself!” He was shouting, not because he thought she couldn’t hear him, but because he was terrified that this plan wouldn’t work. “Trust me!”
Those words wouldn’t have worked for just anybody, but for Destry they did. The Blossom Queen closed her eyes and splayed her fingers, concentrating. The sunflower seeds sprouted roots first, which with the pervasive power of nature, pushed their way through the cracks and into the water-filled interior of the cocoon. Several small cracking sounds rang out as the seeds burst and began to grow.
There was a terse moment where the faery queen faltered as her air supply grew low. Her body jerked into a scrunched position and the brambles responded by moving in closer on the cocoon. Destry felt more than one thorn in his back, but he was past caring.
He’d often imagined that Kerry had invited him on that walk, that he’d been there to pull her out of the lake, or even to stop her from walking on the ice altogether. The movie clips rolled through his mind as he watched the one being enacted in front of him. He pressed his hands against hers, against the glass and among the newly grown sunflowers, their buds bursting to–
–open. The sunflowers bloomed into a dozen miniature suns and the cocoon shattered. The water that doused him was bath-temperature, not at all the cold shock he was expecting, and the Blossom Queen was even warmer. He caught her and staggered backwards, but this time there were no thorns to stab him in the back. The brambles had retreated when the glass broke, drawing onto themselves before blackening and shriveling into dust. Thus Destry fell backwards with his queen onto a thick, glass-filled paste that, come time, would leave them both unpleasantly crusty.
“Oh! You did it! Des, I’m me again!” the Blossom Queen said with unabashed joy. Where her skin touched the floor, flowers sprouted. Mostly she was touching him, though. He tried to sit up and she hugged him tighter. “Oh, I could make love to you right now!”
Destry laughed. “Maybe later,” he said, even though part of him (especially a certain part) was very much up for the job. “How do you feel?”
“Amazing. Achy. It’s been over a decade since….” She left her sentence unfinished and said, in a much calmer voice, “How about you? How do you feel?”
He had to think about that. “Whole. Free. Relieved? Is it weird that I should feel relieved?” That was the dominant feeling floating around his scratched and stabbed body (now that the adrenaline was leaving him, the pain was returning). He hadn’t saved Kerry, but he had saved someone.
She placed a hand on his chest and said, “You’ve been carrying around a whole lot of hurt. The answer to your question, Des, is yes, we can heal. It may hurt and there may be scars, but our hearts can heal all the same. You’ve just taken a big step towards that. I’m sure Kerry is watching you through her butterfly’s eyelashes right now, and smiling.”
“You read her book.”
“I read her book. Now, I believe we’re in need of some clothes…”
“I am, I don’t know about you–”
“I thought you said maybe later?”
“I amend that: certainly later.”
By the time they got back to Mayberry Tower, Destry’s face was frozen in a permanent smile. Of course, most of him was frozen. Trekking across town in wet clothes in February (and without a jacket, which he had given to the girl) had been…enlightening. Yes, he would look at it that way.
Once upstairs, they took a hot shower and curled up in his twin dorm bed, which was extra long but also narrow, as if Housing and Residence Life thought all their students were basketball players. Destry, who was on the chubby side, was thankful for that just this once; the Blossom Queen was like his own personal heater and delighting in the fact that she could fully feel again. It was therefore a good thing to have her so close.
“By the way,” she said, “my name is Mariah. I couldn’t remember it when I was a ghost.”
“Pretty name for a pretty girl,” Destry said. He used to tell Kerry that whenever she complained about her unisex moniker. While it didn’t hurt as much to think of her, a fair amount of pain still lingered. He reached over to the dresser and turned her photograph down. No more dwelling in the past.
His heart was healing.