“Flowers” by Hannah Clarke
Nichola Goldschmidt ignored nature when she told him to slow down. Lead-heavy rain shattered like falling bottles, each drop exploded into infinite fractures across the road. If there was moonlight, it was too covered to be seen, so the only light was from the yellow streetlights that spilled across the pavement. He drove too fast. The front wheel of his motorbike sliced the puddles in half and sprayed shrapnel behind him in long muddy feathers. If anyone else was as reckless enough to brave the highway, he might have felt almost guilty for speeding. Even the cops weren’t out. He was alone on the highway, save a few truckers here or there. Under his jacket and beneath his helmet, Jim Morrison crooned through stolen earbuds, and Nichola drove faster.
Jackie always called. Jackie was reliable. Nichola had never met a more reliable person in his whole life. Jackie hadn’t called, though. It had been a singular text, one loud enough to haul his ass out on the road.
Nicky, I’m scared.
He swore, swerving around a chunk of roadkill. Jackie hated when people worried, he hated anything serious or dark. It made Nichola more than uneasy. It made him nearly slide off the road.
The shoot was small scale, or so he had been told. It was an exclusive shoot for an exclusive commissioner, that’s what he had been so excited about. Personal photographers paid more. Nichola didn’t ask why, he frankly didn’t care. Jackie’s modeling was Jackie’s business, and if he was happy, so was Nichola. He was scared. Jackie was never scared.
The private road cut off the highway and into the brush. Nichola took a sharp turn, veering so far that he nearly fell. The trees folded up and roofed the road, bare branches scraping and grinding together until the clouds were blocked away. The streetlights drowned in foliage, and with the switch of a song, the pathway was black.
He hit gravel. An oak sprung up and blocked his way, looming a foot from his tire. His bike jerked to a stop. Damn this Goddamned road. The road, now closer to a wide trail than a street, jigsawed its way upwards in switchbacks. Something fluttered in his ribs that made his lip curl. He dropped a string of curses and climbed slower, slower.
A patch of gravel gave way beneath his bike. The wheels lost traction. Nichola swore and dug his heels into the ground, barely stopping his bike from falling back into oblivion.
He turned the key in the ignition, and resigned himself to walk. It couldn’t be that far, he reminded himself, and this did fit the rough description of where Jackie said he was going. His agency wasn’t the one that booked this, maybe that’s why the conditions were so miserable. He wanted a cigarette. Damn the rain.
He walked his bike up the path, kicking gravel with each step. The music in his ears faltered and stopped. No 4g in these parts, then. Figures. The tumble of rain was thick and arrhythmic; every drop made his jacket heavier. If Jackie was screwing with him, Nichola was prepared to be very pissed off. This is what happens when you date male models, he told himself with a scoff, they go and throw themselves into situations like this. Jackie was almost definitely fine. Nichola was over reacting, he knew that. Still.
The house at the top of the hill was bigger than he expected. Jackie’s shoots were normally at studios or galas; corporate venues at the photographer’s convenience. The sprawling beast of a manor home wasn’t a corporate venue. It might have been a classic Victorian once, white and clean, but the artificial wings were so garish that the quaintness was lost. The frankensteined mess was more a plastic surgery addict more than it was a classy socialite. Halls and spires cascaded out from the house in every direction, new additions piled on top of the old in looming stacks. The front of the house was shrouded by a jungle of overgrown flowers, flowers that shouldn’t be in bloom this late in the year. Flowers in every color, every variety clustered and grew in twisted shapes, and the hedges were trimmed to look like people and animals. The entire body of the house was caged by a rod iron gate which had spikes taller than the house itself. Beyond those gates was Jackie’s convertible.
Nichola pulled off his helmet, dark mess of hair falling loose around his face. It’d get wet, but he frankly didn’t give a damn. Jackie was in that house, that was all he needed to care about right now.
There was a buzzer by the gate’s latch, he slammed on it with a tightly clenched fist.
“Yes?” The voice was metallic and sharply feminine.
Damn it, what the hell should he even say? He cleared his throat, trying and failing to rid his voice of gruffness. “I’m here to pick up Jackson Marks, he’s a model at the shoot here today.” He bit his lip.
He shifted, muddy pebbles grinding beneath his toes in an audible crunch. “Look, it’ll be quick. I’ll be in to get him and out again. Five minutes tops.”
“You know,” the voice clanged, “it’s raining awfully hard. Perhaps you should come inside until the storm breaks.”
“Ah, that’s not necessary, ma’am. . .”
The gate unlocked with a hollow screech before he could finish. Nichola swore and shoved it open, dragging his bike along side. It swung shut behind him with the same screech and locked. He wasn’t leaving anytime soon, then. The weatherman swore by the gospels that it would rain all week. Maybe the crazy buzzer lady didn’t know that. He didn’t dwell.
The pin-up red convertible that Jackie so adored wasn’t as shiny as it was when he left that morning. The hood was smashed in, bumper half torn loose, and the right headlight was cracked down the middle.
Nichola parked his bike and strode over to his boyfriend’s car, a knot lodging deep in his throat. Paint was missing in strips, cherry skinned down to gunmetal, and the crumpled hood made his chest tighten. Jackie.
“That’s such a nasty turn back there. It’s a pity that Jackson’s convertible wrecked, it’s such a pretty thing. We’ll call for a tow in the morning, I suppose.”
Nichola’s head jerked up.
The woman in the doorway was more the suggestion of a girl, her face faded at the edges in the dark. She wore a dress that was pastel pink and too frilly for anyone older than five; it was knee length and round sleeved and certainly not in style. Her hair was pigtailed with ribbon and flowers. Her freckles were drawn by hand. Her face said she was twenty. Her clothing disagreed. She wagged her fingers at him, pursing her lips. “You should come in now.”
He shook his head, before trudging up beside her. She moved for him to enter and slammed the door behind them, locking it with a click.
“My name is Molly, Molly Lennox. If you take a seat in the parlor, I can fetch you something to drink.” She clasped her hands and rocked back and forth.
“I don’t need a drink, thanks.” He was maybe rougher than was necessary. He softened his tone. “Do you know where Jackson is? I need to speak to him. Now.”
“Oh, I’ll tell him to come down in a moment.” She took his sleeve and pulled him into the parlor, her heels clicking with every step. Molly placed a hand on either of his shoulders and gave him a gentle shove into an armchair before waltzing off, humming a Mother Goose tune.
Nichola frowned. The pictures on the walls were all of boys in flower crowns strung up in floral harnesses. He didn’t give them much mind–they were almost completely overshadowed by the horde of flowers. Any surface in the room that could hold a vase held a vase, the vases were each stuffed to maximum capacity with flowers. He felt like he had been crammed into a butterfly exhibit. The air was so sweet that he could feel it on the back of his throat. He didn’t even recognize the flowers, they couldn’t be indigenous to these parts. Every blossom was brilliant and full, every pastel petal perfectly curved.
“Admiring my flowers?”
“Damn it, woman!” Nichola jumped, nails digging into the arms of the chair. “Warn me first. God damn, do you want me to die of a heart attack?”
“My name isn’t woman, it’s Molly. Remember? I brought you some sweet tea.” She took a seat across from him and set a tray down on the coffee table between them. “The tea is homemade, of course, with blossoms I harvest myself. It’s very good, you should try some.”
He crossed his arms, suddenly aware that he was sopping wet in this girl’s parlor. “Ah, I can go without.”
“I insist. You never told me your name, though. What is your name?”
“Nichola Goldschmitt.” He nodded. There were petals floating in a china cup of steaming liquid. It smelled like perfume. He fought a grimace as he lifted the cup to his mouth, trying to force down at least a mouthful. “This is good.” No, it wasn’t.
“Isn’t it? It’s my favorite, I almost never drink anything else! You’re Jewish, then?” She leaned forward, eyes wide.
He blinked. “. . . Yeah. Why?”
“Goldschmitt is a Jewish surname, of course! I’m very good at knowing things about people, just by meeting them. I’m very intelligent, you see.” She nodded matter of factly, her pigtails swinging. “Particularly for my age. I’m only thirteen!”
Nichola gawked, brows rising in astonishment. He opened his mouth to inform her of how absolutely batshit she was, but nothing came out. He took another sip of the petal tea, wrinkling his nose.
“Flowers are my passion. My Father was a botanist, a very innovative one. Did you know that the Victorians had a whole language of flower? Honey suckles for the bonds of love, apple for temptation, aloe for sorrow, basil for hatred, daisies for innocence, the like. Before my Father’s death, we’d have whole conversations by making each other bouquets, isn’t that darling?” She took a sip of tea large enough to burn her tongue, smiling all the while.
He swallowed. “I didn’t know that. Look, I really need to see Jackson. Where is he?” The petals in his cup bobbed belly up, and he half wondered if these petals were flower language for run and don’t look back.
“Oh, he’s posing in the greenhouse. He’s the redhead, isn’t he?” She swayed, pouting out her bottom lip.
Strawberry blond, actually. “Yeah.” He nodded, putting down the mystery tea. “They’re still posing? I didn’t know these things took so long.”
“Oh, they do sometimes. It’s nothing to worry about. You know, I have the most precious little finger cookies in the world, you should have a few! We can eat them with our tea. They’re made with different blossoms, so it’ll add some variety! I should go fetch a few. . .”
“No. That’s not necessary. I just need to see him. Can I sit in and watch, something like that?”
“It’s rude to interrupt.” She shrank as if he’d struck her, flinching back against the cushions.
He swore. “Damn it, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bark at you.”
She shook her head, pigtails swinging violently. “I’ll fetch the finger cookies.” She was up in an instant, near bouncing out of the room.
He shook his head. Nichola stood up and paced the length of the room, cursing and biting back anxiety. He itched for a cigarette. The room was increasingly constricting, the awful flowers seemed to swell to take up every ounce of space. The smell was gag worthy and much too thick, and Nichola was very close to smashing a vase. Jackie.
“Why did you stand up? Are you going somewhere? Sit down so we can eat our cookies!” Molly slammed a second tray with a clang, her voice pierced through his unease. “They’re good cookies, I promise!”
Nichola went rigid, jaw locking as he sat back down.
She sat across from him with a flounce, snapping the end of a cookie between her teeth. “Try one!”
She stared at him. Her smile didn’t meet her eyes. Molly rose from her chair, fresh cookie in hand, and slinked her way to his side. Before he could think to protest, she placed a hand on his chest and took a seat on his lap, leaning her chest on his. She pressed the cookie to his lips.
Nichola jerked away. “Don’t sit on me. You’ll get wet.”
“I expect to get wet.”
He choked. “Didn’t you say you’re thirteen?”
Molly chuckled, pressing it to his lips again. “So?”
“I’m not nearly that sick. Off.” And I came to fetch my boyfriend, you crazy bitch.
“Just eat it.”
He took a bite, and the crumbles sunk to the bottom of his mouth like wet cement. She stayed perched on his lap, dragging a hand down the planes of his chest. The cookie stayed in his mouth, his tongue too dry to swallow. Nichola shoved her harder than he intended, his heart hammering against his ribcage.
“What was that for?” Molly fell back into the trays, flipping the cookie tray off the table. It clattered to the floor, the gutted bowl spilled crumbs in a scatterplot across the rug. “You’re quite rude, Nichola, I hope you know that!” She stood with a tremble and dusted her dress.
“Sorry. I’m sorry.” He swallowed, his hands balling into fists. She was swaying again, her little smile back full force. “Could you get more? Sorry I was rude. I can be an ass.”
She nodded and slipped from the room.
He bolted. Nichola rushed the first door he could clamber to, he closed it behind him with a gasp. The hall was darker, the walls were high. The only decoration was the flowers that lined every inch like soldiers, they had bulbs in every color he’d ever seen and more. Vines arched over the ceiling, roots threatened to burst open vases. Nichola ran. The hall winded in zigzags, and he flew through every door he saw. He wanted as much distance from that bitch as possible, he needed time to rethink and find Jackie.
The eighth door he flung himself behind didn’t connect to another hall or sitting room. In the sprawling mass of the house, this was the most inward he had gone; every outside hall was edging this space.
It was a greenhouse. The heat was so thick that it was nearly smothering, the air was more drenched than the parlor by a landslide. It hung over every twisting shadow, every gnarled shape. The flowers were the size of cars, they honeycombed together and consumed every stitch of floor. The paths were raised and sat on stilts, the guardrails were snared in winding stem. Flowers moved like animals and smelled stronger than anything Nichola had ever experienced. His jacket gained a thousand pounds of weight, every joint he moved was murderous. He didn’t care. He didn‘t care.
The walkway lurched when he jumped on, creeking all the way down his spine. The next step groaned even louder than the last. Nichola gripped the rails and froze, shifting his weight.
Baby steps. Every movement was too slow, gnawing anticipation amplifying every sound. He watched his feet, he studied every toe-heel squeal and moved only as fast as the walk would let him. The flowers beneath were thinner and light starved, the bed of earth peaked through the roots.
They were not roots.
Nails and knuckles and blackened flesh reached from between the trunks of briars, limp and splayed wide open. Elbows, the knobs of knees and toes; blue brown decay bruised the pieces of people that lay beneath. Hair was tied around the bases of stems in fading knots, teeth littered the soil like pebbles. Flowers flossed between naked ribs and out through open pelvises. Skulls were filled with dirt and stacked in mounds, vertebrates were piled around the stilts that held up the pathway. Strips of skin and slabs of meat and stretches of long intestines coiled and composted.
Nichola couldn’t breathe. Every muscle in his frame turned to stone and fused him in place. He saw spots. His chest knotted up, his lungs seizing into knots. His eyes latched on the broken bodies below his feet. His stomach churned. It was too hot, too crushing, the air refused to enter his body.
“There you are! You know, I really should scold you for running off like that! It’s not polite at all. Ah, well, I suppose I could forgive you. Aren’t my flowers beautiful?” Molly’s voice sliced through the heat like a knife. He retched.
Molly clicked up behind him, placing a hand on the small of his back. “I told you my Father was a botanist, didn’t I? These beauties were his crowning achievements. Some of them, at least. I made a few on my own.” She swept her free hand in a broad gesture, letting out a laugh. She leaned over him on tiptoe, heaving her weight onto his back. “Oh, don’t mind the fertilizer. It’s very important, anyway.”
“Jackie.” Nichola rasped, his nails digging into the flesh of his palms.
“Oh? He’s not down there yet. I love male models, they’re so fertile! My Father always prefered women, but I don’t think he’d disapprove. The garden was much smaller when he was alive, and there’s much more meat on boys that girls, generally speaking. The model part is really what matters. Beauty consumes beauty, after all.”
He spun on his heel and snatched her up, his hands locking around her throat. Nichola lifted her slightly off the ground and shook her, his lips curling back over his teeth. “Where. Is. Jackie?”
She snarled and wrenched herself from his grip, falling to the platform with a thud. Molly took off. Nichola started after her, adrenaline electric in his veins. He was faster than her, lunging down the rickety path at full speed.
Molly leaped over a rail and onto the ground, she darted into the brush and slipped from view. Nichola jumped after.
His boot split a femur.
He would vomit later, when he had time. He threw himself into the flowers after her, ripping aside stems in his wake. Thorns tore at him as he bulldozed after her, the pain didn’t register in his head as being real.
She had stopped when he found her, her lacey shape faced away. Her chin was raised, her eyes on something above.
Suspended by ribbon and bunches of bloom was Jackie’s naked body. Flower chains crowned his head and bound his limbs like a dragonfly in a spider’s web. His eyes were puffy and closed.
“I’m introducing him to my Father. I buried him right beneath.” Molly was breathless, she rocked to and fro so fast she threatened to tumble over. “You have to greet Father before you’re allowed to be part of our garden.”
Nichola screamed. His voice broke, his hands clutched the sides of his head.
Molly looked back at him, eyes widening in bewilderment. “What was that?”
Jackie’s belly moved against it’s binds. He was breathing.
“You. . . You bitch,” Nichola spat, “get him down now.” He pulled a pocket knife from his jacket and flipped it open, gnashing his teeth in a growl.
“Oh? Are you going to hurt me?” She frowned. He lashed out, taking a swing at her middle. Molly danced back, placing her hand over her mouth in a cartoon gasp. “That is very mean, Nichola!” She stamped a foot. Molly pulled loose a fistful of bulbs from the nearest plant and hurled them at his chest. They burst on impact. The bulbs popped into smoky clouds, and his vision swallowed up in the haze.
Molly was gone. Nichola spun, slashing at the air around him. The tip of his blade slid through nothing, save a stray bloom that dared fall too close. The cloud was poisonous sweet, it pricked at his eyes as he inhaled another mouth full. The world spun, the ground lurching up beneath him. It hit his back hard, his head was pillowed by a discolored torso. The smell of decay at point blank was even stronger than the flowers. It was enough to jar his mind back in place.
Nichola yanked his shirt over his mouth and staggered back to his feet. The thinning clouds were translucent enough to see through, and he could see Jackie dangling like a chandelier overhead.
He stood directly beneath him. Jackie’s hands dangled like a doll’s, his skin didn’t glisten and glow. His cheeks were tearstained and swollen. She’d hit him. The urge to ring Molly’s neck was stronger than he expected.
Jackie was suspended from the thicker flowers only a few feet above him. The ribbons were woven expertly, each individual strand swarming together to build the cocoon. The webbed from even spaces. If he fell, he’d break his back.
Nichola spun, eyes never leaving him. If he hacked down flowers, he had no idea where Jackie would fall. He’d be left dangling from a hand or a foot or his throat. He paced, blade still outstretched. How the hell did that age-confused bitch even hang him up there? Jackie’s body was so thin, his skinny limbs so precariously strung. He didn’t know how long he’d last up there.
The toe of his boot scraped something firm.
Nichola swore and tore his gaze down to the place where he’d rubbed away the soil. He had unearthed a sheet of polished wood. He glanced back up at Jackie and hissed through his teeth. Damn. Below, with further toe scrapping, the letter L appeared on the plank’s surface. He scratched more. L-E-N-N-O-X was printed in illuminated script. It was not a plank. It was a coffin lid.
She introduced every victim to her dead Father before she ripped them to bits.
He tore the coffin open.
Molly’s Father was bone. He must have died a decade ago, back when Molly really was thirteen. The man was carefully arranged, the grime had been wiped from his skull. The skeleton had been dressed in Jackie’s clothes. Nichola grimaced. He peeled off his jacket and pried back the shirt that Nichola himself had lent him, placing them to the side.
Nichola’s hands stopped mid motion. There was a box under the ribs where the lungs must have been. He pulled it loose from it’s bone cage and fumbled with the latch until it sprung open.
The box was close to overflowing with length of rope and weights. A saw wrapped in linen peaked lay to one side at the bottom beside a set of scalpels. Nichola dropped the box in disgust.
He paused. Weights, of course there were weights. That’s how Jackie was so level. He sprinted to one of the stalks that held Jackie aloft and circled it. The counterweight was bound at the base. He fell to his knees and started at the knot. The twine unwound and Jackie’s ankle lowered, falling a foot closer to the ground. Nichola snatched at it before it could fall entirely out of place, rewrapping around the stem in a haphazard twist. He moved to the next and lowered his other ankle, repeating with his sides and his wrists.
Jackie hung at a slant, his head still high.
There wasn’t a counterweight for his neck. His head was supported by a rope tied directly to a stalk.
Something in Nichola’s chest broke.
Jackie’s eyelids fluttered. He wheezed, a rattling cough cutting through the silence. Jackie shifted, his hand moved to brush his curls from his brow. The motion jarred his balance, the noose about his neck cut deeper.
“Jackie,” Nichola waved his hand, teeth gnashing together. “Jackie, you hear me? You have to stay still. You must, Goddamn it.”
“Nickey,” he whimpered, straining against his binding. “I can’t see you. . .”
“I’m here. Hush, Babe, I’m here. I’m getting you the hell out of here.” Nichola’s hands balled into fists. “Just don’t move, understood?”
Jackie’s nostrils flared, his jaw set in agreement.
Nichola cursed. His mind rushed too fast, all the details around him blurred into one.
He had an idea. He sprinted back to the stem that bound his wrist and slashed the rope.
Jackie’s arm fell lose. Jackie let out a cry of pain, hissing profanity under his breath. “Nickey, what the hell–”
“Sorry. I’m sorry. Do exactly as I say, okay? This is really important, Jackie. I’m going to hand you my pocketknife. When I say so, and only when I say so, you’re going to cut that rope around your neck. Do you understand?” Nichola reached up for Jackie’s hand, which now dangled about a foot from his head. He pressed the handle of the blade into his palm.
“Yeah. ” Jackie hissed, his voice too small for his tone.
Nichola approached the stalk that held his lover’s neck aloft. The stalk was pale and leathery, every inch of it’s skin was coated with little thorns. He didn’t consider that before he grabbed it. Nichola’s hands burned at contact, every pinprick injected agony up his arm. Nichola bit his tongue. His eyes welled up. With a snarl, he heaved himself up, swinging his legs around for leverage. Barbs pricked through his jeans and into his thighs and calves. The second wave of pain hit hard.
Adrenaline hit. He hurled himself higher up the vine, climbing as high as the rope. The stem swayed, bowing Jackie towards the ground. Nichola threw his weight at the stem and it caved downwards. “Now,” he growled louder than he should have. His hands were bleeding and sticky, they smeared red across the stalk’s white. The rope that bound Jackie snapped, and Nichola leaped to the ground, crushing a ribcage in his wake.
Jackie dangled from his torso and his legs, but somewhere in his misery he must have found the motivation to keep cutting. He freed his other hand and heaved himself upwards to clip free both his ankles. He cut the binds at his middle and fell in a heap.
“Jackie,” Nichola skid to his side, gathering him up in his arms. Nichola kissed his brow and brushed back his hair. There were smudges of his blood on Jackie’s forehead. He sighed, some of the tension leaving his system. “You alright? We need to move, Jackie.”
Jackie mumbled a response.
He tore the flower chains from his chest and snatched up the clothes he’d pulled from the skeleton. He tugged the shirt over Jackie’s body and wrapped him in the jacket. He’d left the pants on the corpse. Nichola set Jackie down as gently as he could muster and twisted to reach back into the coffin.
He pulled the pelvis loose when he yanked off Jackie’s jeans. He shook the denim like he was clearing a table and the bones clattered back into the coffin.
The buckles of her shoes were a breath away from his hand. Behind his ear, something snipped. His blood ceased to circulate.
“You wanted to meet my Father, Nichola?” Molly was breathy, near hysterical in her tone. “Look how rude you’re being!” She laughed, her pitch elevated to the point of squeaking. “But you’re handsome, Nichola. You’ve met him. I’ll just have extra, then! I’ll have extra!”
His head snapped up.
Molly was trembling. Her chest rose and fell in rapid succession, her pupils dilated to take up her entire face. The corners of her mouth curved up her cheeks and her freckles were nearly smeared off. Clutched in her hands, rusty and wicked, was a pair of hedge trimmers. She scissored them open and shut and open and shut. Molly dove for him.
Nichola threw himself back. His back hit something with a crunch.
He was in the coffin. Nichola was crushing Mr. Lennox into pieces.
Molly let out a shriek, her squeal echoed off the glass walls ear splittingly loud. “You’re hurting him!”
He slammed shut the lid on top of him.
All the light in the world swallowed up at once.
There was a moment where time forgot how to turn. The earth stopped spinning beneath him, sound evaded him entirely. It was roomy in the coffin. He had enough space to move, enough space to breathe. Mr. Lennox was uncomfortable. He could not hear Molly. He could not hear Jackie. He heard nothing.
His hands shook, his stomach churned in his gut. Nichola slid his hand into his pocket and pulled forth a cigarette, which he snagged beneath his teeth. He found his lighter and lit it.
Something crashed atop the lid. Nichola jumped, jaw locking around his cigarette. It banged again, again, each impact louder than the last. The tip of her shears pierced the lid, sharp edges only inches from his chest. Again, Molly bore down the scissors, and the hole she punctured jagged wider.
The pounding stopped. Molly howled, and something heavier hit the lid. Nichola jumped, smoke spilling between his lips and saturating the air.
“You’re awful, you both are awful! Horrid, awful people!” Molly’s squeak was hollow through the lid. “I should have already cut you up, I should have, I should have!”
Jackie. Nichola gave the lid a shove, his bloody palms firm against the lid. It resisted, the wood strained against his hands. Nichola cursed and heaved his weight against the top, kicking with all the strength his legs possessed.
The lid flung open, flipping Molly off the top.
Her calf bore a deep gash that stretched from knee to ankle, her blood sunk into the soil and the pores of wood. She hit the ground with a gasp, overgrown scissors still clutched in her hand.
Jackie, bruised and swollen, had Nichola’s knife still outstretched. He panted, eyes narrowed into slits.
Nichola leaped over her and hit the ground hard. He pulled the cigarette from his lips and ground it into her arm. He wanted her to suffer. He wanted her to die.
“Nicky!” Jackie gasped, his mouth slightly agape. “Stop screwing around! Come on!”
He ground his teeth. Nichola stood and crossed to Jackie, scooping him up to a standing position. Jackie swayed, his arms flying around Nichola’s neck. Nichola pulled him along, taking half of Jackie’s weight.
He had no idea where the door was.
“Nicky.” Jackie whispered into his ear. His eyes were behind them. “Nicky, she’s gone.”
He froze. Nichola shook his head and drove on faster, nearly dragging Jackie behind him. “I don’t care. Forget her, we’re getting the hell out of here.”
“Shut up, Jackie.” He barked, ducking under a lowhanging vine. “Look, Babe, I’m sorry. But we have better things to worry about.”
They staggered through the garden as fast as Nichola could bare to take them. His legs burned where the briar had snagged them. Every step was a struggle, and Jackie wasn’t gaining any miracle strength to pull him through.
“You’re hurt, Nicky.”
“So are you.”
Petals fell across their shoulders and victims ground beneath their feet. The storm outside was still raging, every drop like drumming of nails on an impatient hand.
Nichola found the catwalk. The platforms rose overhead and stretched towards safety. He tried to pick up the pace, but his legs were threatening to give out completely. He hobbled forward, breath rushing in too quick. At the end of the path the wall was visible. The door was tangible, it was reachable. He actually smiled, his tongue in his cheek. Only a few more steps.
Jackie stopped. Nichola nearly toppled over from the abruptness, lurching to regain his footing.
“There she is.” Jackie pointed between the cracks in the path. His jaw fell slack.
She stood at the end of the catwalk. She was guarding the door, trembling and giggling as she played with her shears.
They were trapped.
“I’m sorry, Jackie.” A knot formed in Nichola’s throat. “Goddamn, I’m sorry.”
“Stop that.” Jackie wheezed, leaning into Nichola’s side. He nuzzled Nichola’s neck, his grip on him tightening. “Wait. You were smoking, weren’t you? I saw you smoking.”
Nichola blinked. “Does it even matter? Damn it, Jackie, this is not the time to talk about quitting–”
“Give me your lighter.”
Nichola looked down at him and frowned.
Jackie thrust his hand into Nichola’s pocket and dragged out his lighter. Jackie unfurled himself from around Nichola’s shoulders and limped from under the walkway. He held out his arm. A flicker of flame glowed from the top of his lighter. Jackie kissed the fire to the stalk of a flower and moved to the next, lighting two, three, four stems.
The fire moved fast. The infected flowers went up like sparklers, contagious fire spreading from one petal to petal. The fire grew. It spread.
Molly’s scream could have broken the glass ceiling; she hollered so loud that Nichola’s skull nearly shattered. He seized Jackie by the waist and yanked him back to his side, pulling him down the catwalk’s underbelly as fast as he could muster. The sweetness and the smoke fused into a monstrous haze. Clouds of black rose to stain the ceiling and the crackle of fire soon smothered the pounding of the rain.
She ran over top of them, back at the fire’s source. A flower crashed across the platform behind her, and the boards above them blazed into life.
The door was in sight.
Nichola reached for the handle and let out a roar of surprise. The knob was white-hot and seared his palm. He jerked away, nearly vomiting at the sizzle of his skin frying. He shook his head and locked his jaw before body checking the door with all of his weight. Twice. Thrice.
It broke off the latch and Nichola staggered through, Jackie clasped to his side. Smoke poured into the hallway, leaking into larger house. Nichola pulled his shirt back over his nose and reached to do the same for Jackie. Smoke was noxious. They were not dying because of goddamned smoke.
The house was a maze.
They were going to suffocate.
“Left,” Jackie coughed. “Go left!”
He did as instructed, opening doors with the hand that he could still bare to move.
“Forward, then left again.” They weaved through door after door, breaking vases and leaving streaks of blood in their wake.
The parlor door was left open, a fresh tray of cookies sitting in place of the broken one. The portraits of Jackie’s predecessors watched with blank faces from behind the mounds of flora.
Nichola hoped it wasn’t the smoke that killed her. He hoped it was the flame.
They unlocked the front door and nearly fell out into the rain. It fell in grateful sheets.
“I’ll buy you a new one.” Nichola mounted his motorcycle. It wasn’t starting. He swore, slamming his fists on the handles. Jackie straddled behind him and reached around, starting it with a sigh. Nichola exhaled. He gave his helmet to Jackie.
They called the police from the motel, they shared the shower and exhausted a first aid kit. Jackie sat on Nichola’s lap now, their shirtless bodies were still slightly damp. Nichola pulled the flowers from Jackie’s hair bit by bit, each one found their place in a waste bin. He kissed the back of his neck.
“Nicky, do you think that she could have got out of there?” Jackie’s voice was still raw, but it was fuller than the hour before. He flipped his hair, another fistful of petals raining loose.
Nichola closed his eyes. “No.”
“But what if she did?”
“She didn’t, Babe. She died. That bitch is burning in hell for what she did to you.”
Jackie sighed, leaning back into Nichola’s arms. “I don’t know about that.”
Nichola was silent.
“It’s just,” Jackie rolled his shoulders as Nichola kissed them, “It just doesn’t make sense. Think about it, Nicky.”
He paused mid kiss.
“What if there was another exit?”
May 28, 2015 • #fiction