Planting Carnations

Part 1

“They don’t mind the rain.”

They don’t mind the rain.

He sounds just like him. He uses the same phrases, makes the same emotionless comments. He even has the same tone of voice. Just like him but not him. 

“I don’t do it for them,” I answer, glaring up at him. Sleek black shoes that repel the moisture dripping over them, black pleated pants that drive an edge all the way to his waist where they meet a thick belt and a casually tucked black button down, and a finely ironed white suit jacket. It’s as though he’s torn between dressing for a funeral and entering a music hall. 

“I know,” he replies, stepping closer. “You do it for him.” His grip trembles around the umbrella in his hand, his fingers tightening white. “I don’t know why you’re still waiting for him. You already planted the flowers.”

“They don’t represent his death.” The words were meant to come out with confidence, but I can hear the strain in my voice. Anymore, I don’t even believe that he’s still alive. But he might be, and even if I have to remind myself of that sometimes, I’ll continue to repeat that statement. He might be alive and sitting alone under this storm with no umbrella.

I return my gaze to the garden at my feet. There are fourteen flowers. Six daisies call out to loved ones lost in another place. Four yellow pansies bid farewells to pets that were lost long ago. Three yellow marguerites wave goodbye to elderly partners that traveled before them. And one red carnation reaches for him.

It’s grown since I planted it. Though, what flower wouldn’t have grown in seven years?

I hold the umbrella over them, ignoring the rain dripping down the back of my collar. We weren’t always close when he was alive. Sometimes we fought over his lack of empathy, but he was getting better. He wanted to get better. And then they took him. They. As though I know anything about what happened to him. Did someone take him? Did someone hurt him? Did he leave on his own? 

“They will,” he states the words with finality. 

“Why? Do you have something you want to admit to me?” Of course he doesn’t. He just wants to claw at the last semblance of hope I have in me. Because he’s as cruel as his younger brother used to be. I never wondered where he got it from. His older brother was his role model—for some unknown reason—and he was proud to say it. “Please leave me alone, Adam.”

“Thought I’d remind you that flowers need water to live,” he retorts, scoffing. “We’re not so different in that way, but he differs. The dead don’t need—”

“—Stop!” I scream the word. It’s accentuated by the water streaming down my face, splashing over my lips. It sprays as I react. “Stop! I know he’s been missing a long time. I know he’s probably not coming back. But I don’t need you reminding me of that everytime I come here!” His gaze flicks from my face to my feet, then to the wilting flowers beside us. 

“Come inside,” he demands. 

“And watch them cry on just this one day again?” I argue. “You know how I feel about the way they mourn.”

“You can’t live your life in mourning, Clarice,” he insists. “They mourn that way because it’s the only way they can move beyond it. We remember him once a year, we offer him the food he used to love, and we wish him happiness wherever he ended up.”

“This is how I move forward.” I lower my umbrella over the flowers, tucking it against the stone I’d put in when I was a child. It’s a beautiful marble piece with a rounded edge—once rounded edge. The weather has taken its toll, but the engraved words are still readable. 

For those we love and lost who received no burial. 

It could have been better. I could have written the words to express more love, but they were the heartfelt words of a ten year old kid. That’s why I haven’t thought about replacing the stone or the engraving on it. I wipe at the rain now flooding down my face and lean back. That’s when he glides closer, holding his umbrella over us both. 

“You’re not going anywhere. You’re just standing in place,” he mumbles. “Not because you’re committed to this project, but because you think of him every time you see these flowers. You’re coming here to wrap the wound in your heart. It hasn’t been treated. It hasn’t been sewn. This is self-medicating. It won’t last. Come inside. Grieve with the others. Grieve until your tears run dry.”

“No.” I blink tears and rain from my eyes. “No.”

“Adam! Clarice!” Their mother, Janette. She’s a beautiful woman, full of color and life. She has the mousy brown hair and the deep blue eyes that both brothers have—have and had. What she doesn’t share with them is their cruel tongues. “It’s pouring. Come inside!”

“It’s not just me,” Adam whispers, gesturing me inside with his head. “You’ve given them the umbrella. You’ve saved them from the rain. Him too. You did your duty here, now do your duty to the living.” He lifts his hand to me and waits for me to accept it. They’re truly relentless. They won’t let me mourn in my own way. They won’t let me have a moment to talk to him one on one. They won’t let me remind him of better days when he was around and the only one who dared to speak to me.

Adam never saw me until his brother disappeared. 

I ignore his hand and step around him. I’ll do as they ask of me, even though every bone in my body rejects it. Adam follows after me, holding his umbrella over me. Not that it matters, because I’m already drenched. But it’s the action with them. “I love you” could never pass through their lips, but they’ll show it with their tender movements, their guarded glances. 

“Come in, dear.” Janette wraps an arm around my shoulders. “Lord! You’re soaked through. We’ll find something dry for you to change into. Adam—” She turns to address him, but he’s already faded from our sides. In a minute or two he’ll return with a towel or a shawl, something to wrap around my shoulders and prove his worth to me. And I’ll have to smile and accept his gesture, because I know Janette will be watching us. She pushes us together more than anyone. Adam’s feelings for me are well known, not one person in this town could claim they haven’t observed them. At least Adam’s polite about it—the only way he’s ever polite. Their mother, however, is not. 

“Wait here. I’m sure he’ll be right back,” she orders me, though her tone is gentle. “Once you’re dry, join us in the dining room. You haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. We don’t need a fainting spell today.” No, never! A fainting spell. I want to snort at the comment, but I hold back my contempt. This is her son’s seventh year gone, and she’s practically glowing. 

Strong hands drape a towel over my shoulders. “Faint if you want to,” Adam mutters. “Now that we’re inside, I’m reminded why I always end up by the flowers with you.” 

“I want to talk to him,” I explain. “Alone.”

“The others are eating.” It’s his way of saying the room should be empty. I nod, stepping away from him and the others. The funeral home is set up into several different rooms. A dining hall, a viewing room, and a remembrance room. It was an idea I came up with when I suggested the garden. I’m the dark and spooky Clarice, the town’s strange daughter of death. Funeral homes don’t usually run in the family, but they do in mine. My father operates the home, and my mother the graveyard outside. They’re a match made in the rain, where a shovel and several headstones were involved. 

Swallowing down my discomfort, I walk into the remembrance room. Pictures of him smile at me from the shelf, surrounded by red carnations. They were my idea the first year we mourned him. Janette liked the idea, so she continued to order them every year since.

“Ollie,” I whisper, approaching the center photo. It’s the biggest one, set-up against a block that holds it at an angle. “How’s the rain? It isn’t too hard, right? You’re staying warm, aren’t you?” I lift my fingers to the frame, tracing them down the fine wood. I sniffle, though I try to keep the tears in, and wrap the towel tighter around me. “Am I making it hard on you? I know I haven’t been able to let you go…” Clearing my throat, I drop to a seat in front of him. I almost expect him to answer him. 

They won’t drown. 

Every time he saw me holding an umbrella over that garden, he would say that to me. It was one of the lines I begged him to stop saying. I tried to explain to him that I didn’t hold the umbrella for the flowers. I’m always surrounded with death, helping the dead even though they’re gone… It’s a part of me. I did it because it’s just who I am. I wanted to help them. I still want to help them. 

“You’ve always had a talent for gathering people,” I stammer. Even now, even without him facing me, I have a hard time talking to him. I never knew how he was going to react to me, or how my words would be received. Sometimes he’d smile at my stupidity, then the next day he’d be insulted by a stupid comment I hadn’t meant to say. And did he even have a right to be insulted? He insulted me daily. “And making them cry.”

What are you suggesting?

He was like a Victorian novel. The proper speech, the air of superiority, the slight British accent from choosing to pronounce words “properly.” He’d pronounce every part of that word, not even letting a slight slur come through. He didn’t want to sound mundane, normal, like every other high schooler in the town. He had anti-small town syndrome, like most kids who grow up in one do. The world is big, wide, spacious! We want to be free! And yet, most of us end up staying in our small towns and watching them grow into cities right before our eyes.

“I kind of hate you for it,” I admit. “I’ve always kind of hated you.” Just two outcasts sticking to one another because they weren’t accepted by anyone else. That’s why I can’t let him go. That’s why I can’t move beyond him. A sob jolts up my throat, and I let it escape. Tears flood down my cheeks, soaking into the already damp towel. 

“Adam,” I gasp out. “Adam!” I know he’s waiting right outside the room. He always does. And this time I need the comfort. This time, I need the company. He’s right. I need to move beyond Ollie, because if I don’t, I’m going to end up drowning in a sea of resentment. How could he leave me alone with all these strangers? How dare he gather them with me every single year? How dare he make me mourn him?

Those familiar arms drape around my shoulders, holding me to his chest.

“You’re right,” I hiss. “I can’t keep going like this. Even if he’s alive, I can’t keep tightening my hold. Please. Please, help me.”

Part 2

“It’s okay to hate him,” Adam explains, wringing his hands together. “I always just assumed you came here because you loved him.” 

“So you were listening?” I glance at him, uncertain. 

“I—” He doesn’t know how to defend himself, so he doesn’t. Instead, he tugs the white suit jacket from his arms and mashes it between us. “They said it’d be in style. I don’t know why I believed them.” 

“They?” I ask, glad he’s giving me an out to the previous conversation. I’m not ready to explain my relationship with his brother. It’s been seven years, sure, but I haven’t practiced saying the words aloud.

“My parents,” Adam mutters, furrowing his brow. He releases his top button and takes a deep breath before sighing. “They don’t want to mourn anymore. They’re trying to transition this day into a celebration of his life. Like a party. A damned death party. Because if he was coming back, he’d be here by now.”

Stunned, I struggle between resting my hand on his arm and leaving it tucked between my legs. He’s suffering from Ollie’s disappearance more than I ever knew, and more than I ever allowed myself to accept. If I was the only one truly hurt by it, then I was able to wallow in my sorrow. Yet, I’m not the only one Ollie left behind. It’s time I face that. 

“My mother’s facade is crumbling. She acts distant, cold, pained by this day. But I’ve seen the smile she lets through,” Adam continues, unphased by my indecisive reactions. “I should be happy for her. I should be happy she could rise above the devastation and continue planning a future for our family. But I hate her for it. I hate her.”

This time my fingers slip around his forearm, pressing warmth into his skin.

“Is that how you felt about him? The hate. Just hating because.” His fingers rest on top of mine, clutching them. “Because our opinions differ? Because they smile when they should be frowning? Because they think themselves above us?”

“I hated him because he was the only friend I had,” I whisper. “He was the only one who was there for me, but even he didn’t care how I felt. Any opportunity he found to shove me into the dirt, he grabbed with both hands. I was suffocated by his friendship. And then he just leaves me alone?” My teeth clack together in a growl. “I can see his arrogant face: that smirk, the smugness in his eyes, even the defiant quirk in his brows. His gaze was always slightly narrowed like he had to look down at me to see me. But he spoke out for me when others insulted my family and stood beside me when I was hurting.”

“He…” Adam begins but his words fall to silence. 

“He looked up to you,” I tell him. “He said he was like that because you were.”

The muscles in his cheeks tremble, then the ones in his lower lids. I want to assume it means he’s on the verge of tears, but I know better than that. I know that’s a response of guilt in his family. I’ve seen it one too many times now not to know. 

“How stupid,” Adam grumbles, covering his face with both hands. “Why would you want to be like me? I wasn’t worth anything back then.” He half chuckles, half whimpers the words into his palms. It’s followed by a powerful shudder that reverberates through his chest. That, that’s the indication that he’s about to break into tears. He doesn’t usually cry on this day. He waits until the day after, when there’s no one gathered here for Ollie’s sake. His patience affords him the peace to sob on his knees in front of the garden. I doubt he even knows I know. 

“It’s almost midnight,” I announce, stroking my fingers through his hair just once. It’s the only affection I can show him, because if I show more, then he’ll misunderstand my intentions. “Let me send you home.”

“Don’t bother.” He swipes at his eyes with his sleeve before clambering to his feet. “Mother’s bound to still be here. I’ll ride with her.” Clearing his throat, he stoops to pick up his suit jacket and flops it over his arm. He won’t look at me. It isn’t embarrassment, but I have yet to figure out what emotion he’s feeling. There’s no redness in his cheeks, no stuttering in his words. He just won’t look at me, or anything for that matter. His gaze holds on his shoes, staring beyond them.

“Oh! This is where you’ve been,” Janette exclaims as we step out into the hallway. “I had a feeling you two were together.” Adam doesn’t reply. He just strides past her, watching the steps he’s taking along the hardwood floor. And I follow his trembling form, wanting to reassure him just for a moment. I’ve never been there for him. For seven years, he’s reached out for him, looked out for me, shared the loss with me, and I just resented him. Sure, he has a way of saying hurtful words, the way Ollie used to. But they came from a good place. 

“Adam!” I shout, hard-pressed to keep up with his long stride. We’re standing just outside the funeral home in the darkness. It’s not raining anymore, but I can still smell its residue in the air. “It’s okay to hate them!” 

That halts him. His head turns as though he’s going to eye me over his shoulder, but his gaze remains downcast.

“Is it?” he confirms, his jaw clenching.

“It is.” I continue to his side and wrap my arms around his shoulders. “Eventually, we have to move beyond it. For now, it’s okay. I could never speak my peace to Ollie. I could never dissect my emotions with him. That’s why I need your help. But you, you can. Just tell her you’re not ready. I know it doesn’t solve everything, not even close, but it might solve enough.”

“What’s going on?” Janette hurries through the door behind us, her heels clacking on the sidewalk. 

“We can talk about this tomorrow,” I whisper, leaning back from him. “When you come back to the garden.”

“When I—” He interrupts himself with a sharp inhale. Now he looks a bit embarrassed. I wish I could better understand the emotions he was feeling. I wish I had a fuller understanding of his emotions in general. Because his emotions are complex, and he’s not usually as open about them as he was tonight. “Hate” was the easy explanation for how he feels about his mother. I know, because I felt that same complicated “hate” for his brother. 

It isn’t purely hate, and that’s why it’s okay.

“What’s wrong?” Janette’s voice rises in volume, convinced we didn’t hear her the first time.

“It’s been an emotional day,” Adam states. “For most of us.” His blue eyes lift, boring into me for a split second before his back is to me again. He heads for the car, not even waiting for his mother to join him nor bothering to answer her. She huffs in annoyance but jogs to keep up with him. His father is the last in line, gliding through like a ghost. 

“Have a good night. Drive safe!” I call after them. Lifting my hand in a wave, I feel the towel around my shoulders slide down my back. In everything that’s happened today, I almost forgot I’d even gotten soaked to the bone. Janette returns my wave, cheerily chattering to her husband in the process.

I understand where Adam’s coming from. It’s hard to see them smile today. 

Once they leave, the parking lot is empty, save for my father’s old pick up. In typical fashion, he likely won’t head home tonight. He’ll spend all night sitting alone in the eating hall. Not because he was close with Ollie, but because he and my mother are surviving in two separate worlds right now. And I survive in a third world, one where it’s always raining. 

Walking back inside, I lock the door and head for the eating hall. 

“Did they leave?” My father asks, turning to greet me in a tight hug. Instead of sitting at the tables, he always just stands in the doorway. It’s like he’s inspecting the room for damage, but unable to find any. So he just keeps looking.

I nod. 

“You spent an awful lot of time with Adam today,” my father continues, leading me out of the dining hall. We walk down the hallway with slow steps, taking our time getting to wherever my father is leading us. “You don’t usually let him comfort you like that. Did something change today?”

“Yeah, something,” I agree. “Something in me, not between us.”

“You say that but—” he begins, but I talk over him.

“—I say it because it’s true. I could never consider Ollie’s role model to be anything but…but…” I don’t know how to continue the statement. In honesty, I don’t mind that Adam was once Ollie’s role model. I know Adam used to be a worse person than he is now. He’s grown immeasurably from the young boy who once hated everyone. His tongue is still as sharp as ever, but his intentions aren’t. 

“But he’s not Ollie’s role model anymore,” my father offers. “Is that why we’re conflicted?” 

We’re not conflicted about anything,” I argue. I’m the one who’s conflicted. 

“I know a thing or two about relationships, my dear,” he continues. “They take effort, more effort than you can bring yourself to put in sometimes. And his effort never seems to wane. So it’s your turn. Make sure I’m not the one here to greet him tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I relent. I had planned to be the one here with him tomorrow anyway.

“You don’t have to give up on Ollie,” my dad then mutters. “He could still be alive. It’s not giving up to wish him goodbye.” Isn’t it? If I wish him goodbye, then I’m saying that he and I won’t see each other again. 

Goodbyes are meant to be permanent.