by The Honest Liars
It was yellow like the sun, and Charlie had never seen anything like it in his life. He got on one knee to look closer. He wondered if it was warm to the touch, or if it would burn him.
“Maybe it’s a rose,” said Charlie.
“You should get away from it. It’s dangerous,” said Louis, adjusting the glasses on his thin nose.
“There ain’t no roses in Rose City,” said Nathan as he crossed his arms.
Charlie looked at his friends, Nathan and Louis. Nathan was eleven and being a year older made him the authority in their group.
“Maybe it’s a sunflower,” Charlie suggested.
“There aren’t any flowers anymore, you know that,” said Nathan.
Charlie thought it probably was some type of flower, but didn’t say so out loud. Because then he’d need to explain why he thought it was a flower, and that would mean talking about his father. His father had kept a big book with pencil drawings of all kinds of plants, flowers, animals, and other things he remembered from his childhood. Charlie used to love to look at the pictures and names of those strange things as his dad told him stories of how life had been back when he was a little boy. His mom had been furious when she found the book, and his parents had had a huge fight. Charlie never saw that book again, and his dad had never told him anymore stories.
“We should turn it in,” said Louis. “I mean, that’s the law, right?”
Charlie stood up and looked up and down the alley, the shortcut they sometimes took from school back to their apartment building. There was a cracked, dripping pipe directly over the tiny break in the endless concrete and the little flower growing there.
“I don’t want to. I want to take it.” He looked at Louis and then at Nathan.
The older boy just shrugged. “Whatever.”
“We’re going to get in trouble for this,” Louis mumbled as he nudged a pebble with the toe of his immaculately clean sneaker.
“Shut up, Louis,” said Nathan. He yanked a plastic bag out of a nearby dumpster and thrust it at
Charlie. “Here, Charlie. Put it in this.”
Charlie took the dirty white bag and turned back to the flower. He hesitated before touching one bright ruffle with the tip of his finger. It didn’t burn.
“Someone is going to catch us. They’re going to call THOR,” said Louis.
“Shut up, Louis,” said Nathan. “Hurry up, Charlie.”
Charlie let his knapsack slide off his shoulder, unzipped it, and pulled out a thin, plastic ruler. He carefully poked the ruler into the crack so he could work the roots loose. His father had taught him that every flower had roots that went deep into the earth and that they were what kept plants alive. Charlie had stared for a long time at his dad’s sketches of those odd-looking things. As he worked the roots of the flower loose, he was surprised that something so small could be so strong. The flower seemed to resist leaving the only place it had ever known. “Come on, it’s for the best. You’re not safe here,” he whispered. Finally, the strange, white root came out of the crack and he placed the whole thing in the plastic bag, cradling it in his hands.
“What should we do with it?” he asked the others when he stood up. They stared at him blankly.
“I think you should turn it in,” said Louis. “It’s poisonous.”
“Whatever,” said Nathan. “It’s yours now, Charlie. Do whatever you want with it.”
When Charlie got to his little apartment on Yamhill Street, he went straight to his room and closed the door behind him. He was late getting home, but his mother wouldn’t be back from work for another half an hour.
“Where have you been?” his sister yelled from the other room.
“I had to wait for Louis,” he said. He waited to see if he would need more of a story than that, but his sister had apparently lost interest.
He carefully removed the plastic bag from his knapsack, and then took his “sun-flower” from the bag. The stem was soft and a little fuzzy. The leaves looked as if they might be sharp, but they didn’t hurt when he touched them. The golden disc at the top of the plant, though, was what he couldn’t get over. It was like tiny shreds of silk and it had a smell! Sour and sharp at first, but sweeter the longer he sniffed it. He sneezed and then grinned. But how was he going to keep it?
Their civics teacher would always make the whole class repeat the answer aloud every time she asked, “And what does THOR stand for, boys and girls?” “Total Horticulture and Organism Removal,” they’d answer in unison. Everyone knew how important THOR was. It was the government agency that kept people safe by taking away things that could “compromise the health and integrity of our immune systems” (that was a phrase the class had to repeat all the time, too). If they found out about the sun-flower, he’d be in big trouble.
Knowing how to keep any type of plant alive, except grass, was forbidden. But Charlie knew from his father’s stories that plants needed some of the same things as grass did. They needed dirt and water. His father had also sketched containers that he called “pots” and said that’s where plants lived back when they had been allowed in people’s homes. Dirt had been put in the pots to keep the plants standing up straight, and people gave them water because they got thirsty, too. He laid the flower down on his bed and slipped out of his room, closing the door behind him.
He went into the kitchen and opened a few cupboards until he found a small, but deep plastic bowl. Then he wondered about the dirt. He knew that his mother didn’t have any, but maybe she had something that might hold the flower up? He looked under the sink, but there were only bottles of cleaning stuff.
There were some cupboards up above that he couldn’t reach, so he grabbed a chair from the table and carefully carried it over to the nearby counter, watching the hallway as he went. He could hear the television on in the living room and his sister’s shrieking laughter along with it.
He stepped from the chair to the counter and took a look at the cupboard shelves. There were all kinds of boxes and jars and cans. There had to be something at least dirt-like in there—he could remember more than one meal his mother had cooked up that resembled dirt.
One large, white, paper cube caught his eye. Maybe flour might do the trick; it might hold the flower steady. He hefted the bag into his hands and climbed down off the counter. He quietly replaced the chair and then took the flour and plastic bowl down the hall and into his room, closing the door behind him.
Once more in the sanctuary of his bedroom, Charlie put the bowl down on the bed and opened up the bag and tipped it into the bowl. An eruption of pale dust floated through the air, and settled all over Charlie and his crisp sheets.
He picked the sun-flower up and carefully tucked the roots into the soft, powdery makeshift dirt. Charlie patted and smoothed the top back into place, just the way he used to do to his father’s old blanket after he helped him into bed.
“Now you just need some water,” he said to the sun-flower. “You just need water and you’ll feel better, I promise.”
He carried the bowl into the bathroom and stuck it in the sink under the tap. He wondered if it would want hot water or cold water, and he hesitated, not wanting to get it wrong. People take baths in hot water, but flowers aren’t people. He decided to run the water just a little to get it warm.
Just as he started to wet the flour-dirt with warm water, the bathroom door swung open.
“What are you doing in here covered in flour, you little twerp?”
“Nothing,” said Charlie.
“Hey, what’s that in the sink,” she asked pushing Charlie out of the way. “Oh my God, what is that?” she said. “Why did you bring that poisonous thing in here?” she backed away. “Are you crazy? Do you want to get us all sick?”
Charlie opened his mouth, but was paralyzed. Then, the front door opened.
“Mo-om!” yelled his sister, her voice pitching louder as she stretched out the syllables, sounding the alarm.
She backed out of the bathroom just enough for Charlie to slam the door and lock it. He soon heard his mother running down the hall.
“Charlie!” his mother shouted through the door. “What have you got in there? Is it a plant? Charlie, you know how dangerous they are. Let me in!”
“Mom, it’s okay,” said Charlie. “It’s just a little plant. It’s really small.”
“Oh, Charlie, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. We’ve got to get it turned in right away.”
“Dad would’ve let me keep it,” Charlie said.
There was silence on the other side of the door, and then his mother spoke again, her voice quivering a bit. “Charlie, you know aren’t supposed to say things like that.”
“It makes people too sad to talk about those things. Sadness compromises the health and integrity of our immune systems.”
“I don’t care! If you had been the one to die, Dad wouldn’t have let them come and take away all your stuff!”
His mother sounded angry now, “Charlie, you’re going to make us all sick. I’m calling THOR.”
“No!” he cried. He pressed an ear to the door and heard her on the phone, in the other room. He grabbed the bowl, yanked open the door, and dashed down the hallway out the door of his apartment, and then down the front steps of the building. Before he even realized what he had done, he was running up Yamhill Street.
At the corner of his block, Charlie squatted behind a mailbox. With no place else to put it, the small bowl was hidden under his t-shirt. And then he saw the white van with the red letters on the side: THOR. He couldn’t believe how quickly they had arrived. Two people in perfectly white jumpsuits with silver masks and gloves emerged from the side door and marched towards his apartment building.
Charlie waited until they were out of sight and then started racing up Yamhill Street again, the bowl still hidden under his shirt. Where could he go? The sky was pink now. It would be curfew time soon and a chill was growing in the air. He didn’t dare turn around to see if THOR or his mother were coming after him. He knew that if he stayed on this street, he would come to the park by the river. His father and he had walked there every Saturday morning.
And then he was there. The perfect, even swath of deep green grass sloped down to the water’s edge. The river lapped at a strip of mud and rock beyond a chain link fence, and rolled continuously away from him. He wished he could go away with it.
He pulled at his collar and took a peek down his shirt to see how the sun-flower was doing. The yellow tuft seemed somehow smaller, and the leaves drooped. He remembered the day in history class that the teacher had talked about how dangerous trees had been. The teacher explained that tree leaves would go all saggy, turn ugly shades of yellow and brown like huge bruises, and then drop off the trees to litter the ground. The teacher had said that those leaves just lay there rotting after they fell, and little kids, not realizing they could get sick, would actually jump into the piles of rotting leaves. One little girl had to be sent home because she couldn’t stop crying, and the teacher had said they were all very lucky to be much safer nowadays. Charlie had always wondered why his father’s stories seemed so different than the ones he heard in school, but he’d never contradicted the teacher.
The stem of the sun-flower was slumped over. He hadn’t given it enough water in the bathroom, he was sure of it. If only he could take it down to the river, he could give it all the water it needed. Instead, he stood at the fence and looked out at the water that was so close he could smell it. That’s something his father used to say. “Can you smell the water, Charlie? It smells so fresh. Fresh and free.”
The smell of the river made him remember the last time his father and he had walked down to this park together. He was talking about a lot of stuff that Charlie didn’t understand. He was already sick then, but not so sick he couldn’t still walk around. He said something to Charlie about turning into ashes. Turning into ashes and being sprinkled into the water and becoming part of the wind and the river.
“Of course they don’t allow that anymore, either. Too unhygienic.” he said rolling his eyes. His father had never referred to THOR by name, instead he had always said they.
“But I don’t want you to turn to ash, Dad.”
His father had stooped down to be at eye level with him. Charlie knew it wasn’t an easy thing for him to do and that he would have a hard time standing back up, because of how much his bones hurt.
“Charlie, it’s all right. Everything that is alive dies sometime, but it leaves something behind that remains within you. That’s what they try to prevent, that’s what they hate so much. They want us all to be contained, but it’s impossible. So every time you come here you just think of me and I promise I’ll be here with you, okay?”
“Where dad? Where will you be?”
“I’ll be right here, son,” his father said as he placed his hand on Charlie’s chest.
But now that Charlie was here near the river, all he felt in his chest was a pain, like a burn that kept spreading. Maybe THOR and his mother were right. Maybe it was better not to speak of or even think of the dead, of what had been.
Charlie turned away from the river. There was a public restroom in the park nearby, under one of the bridges. Maybe he could hide there, and there would be a sink where he could get water for his sun-flower.
The restroom was inside a little tiled building. As Charlie tugged the handle to open the door, he looked up and noticed the same border of crisscrossed spikes that he’d asked his father about once. His dad had explained that back in the old days, those had been put up anywhere pigeons liked to sit. The pigeons were long gone, of course. They had gotten rid of them along with the flowers, and every other weed and pest. Charlie went into the bathroom and thought he’d gone blind for a moment. The walls, the floor, the sink and toilet, even the ceiling were white and spotless and gleaming. Not even his mother, on one of her cleaning frenzies that seemed to come all the time these days, could get their bathroom this white and bright.
Charlie couldn’t get warm water to come out of the faucet, so he decided cold water would have to do. He filled up the bowl. The flour became a kind of white mud, and no matter how much he tried to pat the mud, the sun-flower couldn’t stand up straight. Charlie noticed the sun-flower had wrapped its yellow center up tight in green, leafy armor.
“You must be tired,” he whispered. “Even the sun needs to sleep.”
He was usually doing his homework at this time, but he couldn’t go home now. Maybe he wouldn’t ever go home again. He carried the bowl into the large stall at the end, the one with the shiny railings on the wall and placed the bowl on the back of the toilet. He was cold and afraid, but he didn’t feel alone anymore. He had his flower for company, and he had kept it safe. And in the morning, the sun-flower would open again.
The sound of someone opening the door to the restroom woke Charlie up and he slowly uncurled and sat up. When he realized where he was, the first thing he did was look at the sun-flower sitting in its flour-bowl on the back of the toilet. It was still closed and he could see no more of that bright yellow.
The other occupant ran the sink and then left the restroom. He was alone again. “What’s wrong?” he whispered. “What do you need?”
He remembered when they took his father into the white room at the hospital. He was only allowed to see his father once a day and he looked so scared and skinny that Charlie would sneak snacks in under his shirt. It was like they weren’t feeding him at all. Mom was no great cook, but at least when Dad was home she’d fed him and kept him alive.
There was a rumble in Charlie’s belly. He had gone to bed without dinner and now it was time for breakfast. Maybe the sun-flower needed more than water, maybe it needed food too.
“You’re going to have to wait here,” he said. He left the stall locked and crawled under the door, and then went out into the morning sun.
There was a large old clock on the side of one of the buildings across from the park. He was not very good at telling time by those hands. It was either six o’clock or twelve-thirty. It was Friday. If it was six, then he could catch Louis and Nathan on their way to school.
He went to the alley way they passed through on their way home the afternoon before, hoping they would go that way this morning. It was a long walk from the park by the river and he was really hungry.
He waited a while and hid behind the dumpster whenever he saw someone pass by. His heart jumped when he heard Nathan’s voice traveling along the air, dispelling myths about how babies are born.
“…No, Louis, you dumbbutt, it’s not there, it’s down here.”
“Nathan!” he hissed from around the edge of the dumpster. “Louis! C’mere!”
“Charlie,” said Louis, wide-eyed. “What are you doing? You’re in so much trouble! Your mom called my mom last night and I got yelled at.”
“Really?” said Charlie. He looked at Nathan.
Nathan nodded gravely. “Yeah, she called my mom too. So where is the… where is it?”
“I had to hide it. But I think it’s sick. I think it needs food.”
“That doesn’t sound right,” said Louis. “A flower eats food?”
“Shut up, Louis,” said Nathan. “Sorry, Charlie. I don’t have any food to give you.” Nathan bought lunch at the cafeteria, just like Charlie did. His mom stopped making lunches after his father got sick.
They looked at Louis, who was carrying his lunchbox. “Where is it right now?” asked Louis. “Can we go to see it?” Louis’s voice trembled a little, but he stood still and looked right at Charlie.
“We don’t want to know where it is,” said Nathan before Charlie could speak. “It’s better if we don’t know. Louis here will squeal to everyone.”
“No I won’t!” Louis pouted and looked from Nathan to Charlie. He sighed and held out his lunchbox. “Here, just take it.”
“The whole thing? Are you sure?”
“Yeah, it’s okay. I’ll just tell the teacher someone beat me up and took it.”
Charlie nodded and took the lunchbox. The fib wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Louis was losing lunchboxes all the time.
“C’mon, Louis,” said Nathan. “We’ll be late. Later, Charlie. Good luck.”
Charlie could feel a hot tear run down his cheek. Another night spent in the lonely restroom. He had shared Louis’ lunch with the sun-flower, breaking up pieces of bread and sprinkling it around the bowl and spreading jelly on top of the flour and then pouring juice on top. Louis always had jelly sandwiches with no peanut butter because peanuts were so poisonous to him they could kill him if he just touched them.
When he woke, Charlie stifled the urge to cry out at the sight of what had happened to the sun-flower. Although it had opened again, the ruffled yellow blossom had been replaced with a round tuft of white whiskers. It was like the flower had grown old overnight. After a moment, this didn’t seem all that odd to Charlie. His father’s hair, once dark like his, had turned grayer every day that he was sick. Before the end, it was nearly as white as the sun-flower was now.
The flower had not eaten the food he gave it, and now the flour-dirt was sticky and smelled funny. “What do I do?” he asked himself. He stared at the sun-flower for a long time. He knew what to do.
He carried the bowl out of the stall but just as he’d almost passed the sink, the restroom door opened. He quickly turned to face the sink, to cover the sight of the flower with his body. He looked into the mirror and saw the man behind him looking right back at him, his face twisted in open-mouthed horror.
“Poison! That’s poisonous!” he said, his voice trembling. “Call THOR! Somebody call THOR!”
“No!” cried Charlie, but the man had already fled the restroom.
Charlie bolted out the door and started running through the park. He looked over one shoulder and saw the man talking to a couple of those white suits. How could he have been so stupid? The people in white suits were scouring the park for infestation, like they did every Saturday. How easy it was to forget their presence when it was so familiar. The man from the restroom pointed in his direction and the white suits turned to look.
Charlie ran. He ran as fast as he could but his legs hurt from sleeping on the tiles of the restroom and he felt like he was running in slow motion, like he was in a bad dream and he just couldn’t run away fast enough.
The sun was coming up over the river, but it wasn’t golden and warm today. Gray clouds hid the light. He grabbed the chain-link fence with one hand and panted, cradling the bowl in his other hand. The fence was tall, too tall. He could never climb it and even if he could, it had sharp points all along the top.
“Hey kid! Stop right there!” Charlie didn’t look back but the voice was close. They were coming.
“Throw it into the river,” he said to himself. “That’s what I have to do. I have to throw him into the water so he becomes one with the river. That’s what he wants me to do.”
A breeze rolling off the water made the white-haired flower quiver.
Large gloved hands grabbed Charlie at his sides, under his arms, and pulled him back. He raised the bowl up high and stretched his arms toward the river, wriggling and straining against the man. The breeze he’d felt a moment before became a gust, and pulled a few of the white hairs from the head of the once sunny flower. Charlie gasped. Another surge of wind tugged the rest of the tufted hair from his flower, and it was left bald and bobbing in the wind. Nothing had ever looked deader to Charlie. His stomach clenched with fear and failure, Charlie tore his eyes away from the skeleton of his flower, and looked toward the river, wishing once more that he could float away on the ceaseless current. But he saw something that made his heart leap a little.
Suspended over the water, like tiny stars, were the hairs from the flower. The wind had stopped, just for a moment, and they hung still in the air before drifting down to settle gently on top of the endless waves. Charlie’s eyes widened and his arms went slack as he dropped the plastic bowl holding the body of the flower. He looked down at it, sideways, as a stiff plastic suit carried him away, and noticed one of the white hairs resting in the grass just beyond the fence.
© 2011 Kerrie Farris, Livia Montana, Jason LaPier