Flower One: White Rose–Youthfulness

white roses  In Victorian times, flowers were used to communicate coded messages, allowing people to express feelings that could not be spoken out loud. Roses are the flower of love, of course, but white signifies purity and innocence. An innocence that is associated with youth. The first chapter of The Girl Who Spoke Flower introduces my characters as they bask in the last day of summer, the last day to enjoy their youth before they’re catapulted into senior year. Marcus knows nothing will be the same after this day, the last day of the last summer they’ll be able to spend just hanging out as kids. But little does he know, it’s also the day that will flip his life upside down, as he meets the girl who speaks the language of flowers.

FLOWER ONE

Marcus

On the last day of freedom, we bummed around at the beach trying to pick up girls.  Or rather, Tony and Stan were trying to pick up chicks, while Heath and I cracked our ribs laughing at the disdainful cockroach looks they got.  Well-deserved in my opinion.  While their cheesy pick-up lines might make a mouse happy, they did nothing to win over the ladies.

All in all, it could have been the perfect August day, if the knowledge that summer vacation was drawing to a close loomed overhead like an ominous raincloud.

It wasn’t that I hated school.  In fact, I was a closet nerd.  Science was my favorite subject, and last year we’d gotten to dissect frogs.  It had been awesome.  I’d been partnered with Amanda, a cheerleader who tended to get squeamish, so while she’d sat back and squealed through the ordeal, I’d done all the work without complaint.  The guts of an amphibian were a sight to behold.

I was also eager to start up club meetings again.  I was president of the mixed martial arts club that I’d started two years ago.  I was finally building up some members who were more open-minded and ignored the rumors that my friends and I were nothing but a bunch of classless hoodlums.

So no, I didn’t hate the idea of going back to school.  I just hated that this was our senior year—the last year I’d be in school with Tony, Stan, and Heath  This was the last day of the last summer we’d ever be able to hang out without worrying about the future.  Yet, here I was worrying still.

I was the only one going to college.  But my three best buds couldn’t even think about that.  They’d have to continue working as baggers at the local Green-Mart.  While Stan and Tony didn’t care much, I knew it was different for Heath.  He was an awesome artist, and he wished for nothing more than to attend art school.  But he didn’t have the money, and probably never would.

Life really wasn’t fair.  Why was it that some parents spoiled their kids rotten, while other parents never wanted their kids in the first place?  We were all unwanted children.

When Tony was eight, his mother had dropped him off at a hospital and drove away.  He’d waited for her for hours, crying on the street until a policeman finally took notice.  Stan’s mother had passed away from cancer when he was only five.  Nothing, not even his son, had stopped Stan’s dad from descending into the worst kind of depression.  He lost the will to live, and one night, he’d purposely run in front of a car to end his life.

Then there was Heath.  Some garbage man had found him in the dumpster, with his umbilical cord still attached.  Unfortunately, part of his right foot had been left slightly crushed, and now he suffered from a limp.

Nobody had wanted to adopt Heath, not only because of this handicap, but also because he hadn’t started talking until he was five years old.  Personally, I thought he must have a genius mind like Einstein, who was also a late talker.  Only Heath’s genius lay in his art.  He preferred speaking through his artwork rather than using actual words.  But other people didn’t think the same way.  In their minds, a late talker meant something must be wrong with his intelligence.  Nobody wanted someone with both a brain impediment and a physical deformity.

Nobody had wanted Tony or Stan either, but for a different reason.  When Tony and Stan had first faced their parents’ abandonments, they’d been the rebellious sort, throwing tantrums and giving every foster family who’d tried to take them in a ridiculously difficult time.  Family after family gave up on them.  Eventually, even the system gave up on them.

So finally, Heath, Tony, and Stan had been sent to the Remnon Foster House for Children, a home that sheltered unwanted children with no one to care for them until their eighteenth birthdays.

It was there that the three of them met.  Tony and Stan had given Heath a hard time at first, but one day he’d had enough and painted butterflies on their cheeks while they slept.  After that, Tony and Stan never dared pick on him again, and they’d become fast friends.  Something about having friendship, a more stable environment, and Heath, the peacemaker, finally calmed the two rebels.

As for me, although I was the only one of us still living with blood relations, I might as well have been half an orphan, which was probably why I’d become such fast friends with a trio of real orphans.  My mother left when I was two.  She’d suffered from severe depression and as a result, had become addicted to gambling, a fact she hid well.  One day she left my grandparents to babysit me and disappeared.  However, Dad did find out she’d left our family in some serious debt, which he was still trying to pay back to this day.

I knew Dad blamed himself for never seeing the signs of my mom’s depression and gambling addiction, but I couldn’t blame him.  He was a pilot, usually working days at a time away from home.

I’d long accepted that my mom wasn’t coming back, but Dad still hoped.  Sometimes he stayed away from home for months at a time, exploring the cities where he traveled in search of her.  He never told me this, but I knew, having once discovered a letter from a private investigator telling Dad to meet him at a café in France, where Dad’s job had just taken him.  He’d stayed there two months straight before finally coming home, carefree on the outside as usual, but his hollow, defeated eyes had betrayed his true hurt.

I lived with my grandparents, and Dad came by when he was off duty, which was extremely rare, maybe once every month or so.  My grandparents were my favorite people in the world.  They didn’t have much money since they were retired and living off social security, but they gave as much as they could.  They set up a college fund with Dad for me—it wasn’t much, but it was enough for me to attend junior college.  Then I would have time to get a job and save enough to transfer.  I owed my family so much, and I wanted to make them proud.

But I just wished my friends could have the same opportunity.

“You look like you just swallowed sand,” Heath commented, jerking me out of my worry-filled reverie.

“Did you?” Tony perked up.  At the shake of my head, he looked disappointed.

I gave him a strange look.  “Why would I have swallowed sand?”

He shrugged.  “Maybe some fell into your water bottle.”  Then he smirked.  “If I dared you to swallow sand, would you do it?”

“Uh…no?”

Tony sighed.  “You never take on any of my dares.”

“Because your dares are dumb,” I snorted.

“All the more fun.”

“Shut it Mercer,” Stan told Tony.  “Your dares are dumb.  We all know Marcus would accept any dare that mattered.”

Stan sorta had this hero worship thing going on for me.  It went back to the day seven years ago when they’d officially made me part of their group.

The kids who lived at Remnon House attended Orchid School District.  I’d seen Stan, Tony, and Heath around but hadn’t paid much attention to them.  The three of them were very close-knit and didn’t open up to anyone else, but nobody had wanted to talk to them either.  The orphan kids were considered something of a taboo.

Then again, so was I.  Having learned kung fu since I was four years old, people tended to view me as a freak.  A freak they feared to the seventh degree.  I’d never felt compelled to prove I was harmless.  People believed what they wanted.

At the time, I thought I liked it that way.  As a loner, I had the free time to read books or practice kung fu without distractions.  So there was no reason I wanted to be friends with the orphans, or vice versa.

But in the fifth grade, that changed.

I’d been practicing the horse stance alone on the grassy field.  Several feet away, on the punch ball court, I observed the school bully, Bulky Ben, better known as The Bulk, calling Heath a crippled freak that belonged in the circus.  Stan and Tony had tried to get him to take it back, but he was about twenty times heavier and almost two feet taller.  The Bulk had started shoving them around, and Heath fell down and hurt his hand.  Tony and Stan had freaked, knowing the importance of an artist’s hands.  While The Bulk laughed and got ready to pound Tony and Stan too, I’d seen enough.

It was the classic David and Goliath battle.  I took The Bulk down with a punch to the gut and another to the face.  Then I’d held his arms painfully behind him until he took back all the things he’d said about Heath.

I’d instantly been admitted to the group.

Although they were all my best friends, truthfully, I was probably the closest to Heath.  Stan and Tony were goof balls, and it was hard to talk seriously with them.  But Heath and I were most similar in our interests and personality, although I definitely had more of a temper.

“Hey, I’m getting bored,” Stan said.

“That’s ‘cause you’ve hit on every girl on the beach with no luck, and you want to leave with at least some dignity, however little is left,” Heath remarked, earning him a playful punch on the shoulder.

“Wanna go to my place for dinner and play Zombie Shooters III?” I asked.

The suggestion was met with unanimous enthusiasm.  I changed out of my swimming trunks into cargo shorts and a black tee, and waited for my friends to finish changing.  After we’d collected our stuff, we loaded everything into my grandparents’ beat-up Honda—it was older than me—and headed to my house.  I drove slowly—the old girl couldn’t go past 45 on a good day.

The sun was about halfway between the sky and horizon, so I guessed it was already late afternoon.  My grandparents were expecting me back for dinner, but I hadn’t told them my friends were coming over.  Not that it mattered.  The gang always came over unannounced, and my grandma always prepared enough food for a king’s feast.

I wondered what we were having.  Maybe stewed chicken and rice?  Or boiled dumplings and fried potstickers?

My stomach rumbled.  I hoped it was dumplings.

“You mind if we drop off at Green-Mart?” Stan interrupted my food thought bubble.  “I just remembered I need to ask Mason to trade shifts with me Tuesday.  I’m auditioning for glee club.”

I nodded my consent, making a sharp U to change courses.  Stan loved music—singing mostly—and this was the last year he could try out.  He’d been too busy working in the past years, but this year, he’d decided to just give it a try, even if it meant cutting down on hours.  I could only imagine everyone’s reaction if Stan made the tryouts.  They’d never dare pick on him, but it would be just another reason for us to be outcasts.  Not that I minded—it was their problem, not ours.

We waited by the entrance for Stan, watching the customers go in and out.  A girl and her well-dressed mother walked past, and although I attempted a smile, they looked at us like we were bugs.  But I was used to that.  Tony flashed off his fake arm tattoo and skull chains just to see their reaction, and the mother protectively pushed her daughter past, both of them looking scared as hell.  I gave Tony a so-not-funny look, but he grinned unrepentantly.

“All done,” Stan said, coming through the door.  “Let’s go.”

We were about to head towards the car when Tony suddenly groaned.  “Oh no.”

My eyes darted down the parking lot, and I groaned too.  The Bulk and his two best pals, Milton and Gavin were walking towards us.

I was about to suggest we make a dash for it.  The Bulk and his cronies never failed to try and pick a fight with us, and I didn’t want trouble the Sunday before school started.

But The Bulk had already spotted us.  “Well, well, if it isn’t Oliver Twist, Mucus Eww, and their girlfriends.”  Oliver Twist was The Bulk’s nickname for Stan for two reasons: one, Stan’s middle name was Oliver, and two, he was an orphan.  It amazed me that The Bulk even knew about that book, but I figured he’d probably been forced to watch the movie for English class.  As for my less than flattering nickname, Mucus Eww, The Bulk thought it was a clever spin-off of my real name, Marcus Lew.

“Let us through,” I said, but The Bulk and friends remained unmoving, blocking our path.  I tried to go around him, but he blocked me again.  “I’ll say this one more time.  Get out of my way.”

“Or what?” he sneered.  “We all know you’re too scared to pick a fight.  Not with it being three against one.”

I knew for a fact I could beat all three of them, and that wasn’t a boast.  But the truth was, I wouldn’t beat them up.  Not unless they tried to hurt my friends first.  Martial arts was for self-defense only.  And The Bulk knew my philosophy, which was why he always tried to make me lose my cool.

“It’s not three against one,” Stan said, coming to stand with me, chest puffed up.  “He has us.”

“That’s right,” Tony echoed.

The Bulk and his friends laughed.  “He’d be better off on his own,” The Bulk said.  “Scrawny arms like yours, we’d just use ‘em to tie Mucus up.  Then with you three wimps out of the way, the crip would go off screaming like Milton’s baby sister.”

I sensed Heath tense at that word, and my face turned to stone.  “Take that back.”

“What, crip?”  The Bulk grinned.  “It’s the truth.  He can’t even run like a normal dude.  Sissified crip.”

I felt my hand twitch, but Heath placed a hand on my shoulder.  He shook his head slightly, telling me to forget it.  But I wasn’t satisfied.  Maybe I couldn’t beat the demon up, but I couldn’t just leave it alone.

Still determined, I said, “You’d better take it back.”  Heath hated being called that word.

“It’s not worth it,” Heath whispered.

He pulled us back, and it took all my willpower to turn around.  I didn’t want to turn this into something huge if Heath didn’t want us to.

“Wimps,” The Bulk sneered.  “I knew ya’d be too scared to make me take it back.  Wouldn’t do anything even if I dared ya to.”  He taunted us.  “That’s right, I dare ya to try and make me take it back.”

The words made me stop in my tracks.

“Don’t do it,” Heath warned, but I’d already turned back around.

“Name it,” I said.  My nostrils flared dangerously.

“Well Mucus,” The Bulk inspected the insides of his fingernails.  “I need something to impress my girlfriend on the first day of school.  I’m thinkin’ flowers.”

I almost snorted.  Girlfriend.  The Bulk had a thing for Miss Cora, our history teacher.  But she’d probably barf in his face if she knew.

“So how do the flowers fit into the dare?” I asked.

“Well, I want special flowers.  Not ones you can get at Green-Mart.  I want a dozen white roses from Poppy Ranch.  The Lockharts call ‘em the Lockhart Winter.  They’re used in Splash and Spray’s Midnight Rose perfume.  It’s Kristin’s favorite.”

How did he know that much about Miss Cora?  Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d been stalking her.

“Break into the Lockhart gardens and bring me a bouquet of fresh roses.  And don’t even think about buying ‘em somewhere.  The Lockhart Winters have a special scent.  That’s why they use ‘em in the perfume.”

“And if I go through with it, you’ll not only take back everything you said today,” I told him.  “You’ll also promise never to pick on Heath or call him any names ever again.”

“Deal,” he replied.  But he didn’t try to shake hands or anything.

“How do I know you’ll keep your end of the bargain?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “I’m betting you’ll risk it anyway, just to hear me apologize to the freak.”

Damn him, he was right.  I’d do anything just for the chance of hearing him apologize to Heath.  It would be so nice not to hear The Bulk throw out a cripple joke at Heath’s expense.

“I’ll bring you the roses tomorrow morning, 7:30 in front of the music room,” I promised.

He motioned to Gavin and Milton, and the three of them began to walk away.  “Remember, I want the real deal.  I’ll be able to tell if ya try and jip me off with some junk flowers from the local florist.  Kristin’s sweet fragrance is fixed in my memory.”

As we watched the jerks walk away, I turned to my friends.  “Well Tony, this is a dare that matters.”

Orchid Beach was actually an island.  We were located about fifteen miles off the coast of Central California.  The island was small, but two very important families lived here.

On one side of Orchid Beach lay Lilac Hills, owned by the Cantins, and on the other side, was Poppy Ranch, where the Lockharts lived.  Both families were disgustingly rich, and both owned the two most well-known perfume companies in the world.  The rest of us called the middle class lived in Orchid Beach City, literally between the two families’ estates.

Fifty years ago, the now deceased Roland Lockhart started a small business in Orchid Beach, producing soaps and perfumes.  His fragrances had been so unique that the company sprung into something huge overnight.  There was probably a Splash and Spray Factory at every mall in the country.  Everyone went there when they needed quick and easy gift ideas.

I could picture their commercials in my head.

Last minute Christmas shopping?  Splash and Spray’s miniature travel lotions and soaps make wonderful stocking stuffers.  Can’t think of what to buy for a friend’s birthday?  Buy an entire pedicure set with Midnight Rose scented bath oils for the perfect at-home spa treatment.

After becoming a millionaire, Lockhart donated a whole bunch of money to Orchid Beach City, so now everyone—from the mayor to the lifeguard—completely sucked up to his surviving widow, Penelope Lockhart, Splash and Spray’s current CEO.  Apparently, they had no surviving children.  Their only son had died in a car accident almost ten years ago.  But they did have a granddaughter, although she was always well-hidden within the mansion and never ventured outside Poppy Ranch.  There were rumors she’d died in the same accident as her father or had some terminal disease and was locked away in the attic.

As for the Cantins, Michael Cantin had been Lockhart’s archrival.  The two families were fierce competitors in the perfume industry.  Cantin had started his company, The Fragrance Stop, just a few years after Lockhart.  At one point, both perfumers had been friends and business partners, but for some reason—I wasn’t clear what—the two of them had a huge falling out.  Cantin’s grudge on Lockhart drove him to build his own factory in the same town.  The Fragrance Stop was probably in most malls in the country as well, but it had never hit it as big as Splash and Spray.

The two families had established expansive gardens to grow their fragrant flowers and herbs, and the smell of those gardens drifted all the way from Lilac Hills and Poppy Ranch to settle in one strong, aromatic cloud directly over Orchid Beach City.

The result was that our city never smelled bad.

I parked the car on a side street, and we walked the rest of the way to Poppy Ranch.

Our first obstacle, as we arrived at the main gate, was to get past the security guard undetected.  Luckily, the guard was occupied with some magazines, most likely dirty ones.  He looked up, as Tony accidently stumbled over a branch in the bushes.  We held our breaths, trying to keep quiet, only breathing again when he turned back to his magazines, and without further incident, we were able to get through the bushes to the other side.

It didn’t take us long to locate the Lockhart Mansion.  It was impossible to miss.

“There’s no way we won’t get caught,” said Stan.

The four of us stood just outside the gates of the mansion, gaping at its size and overall imposing appearance.  The premises were barred by a gate that led into an endless driveway.  The gate reminded me of a river-wide moat protecting a castle from intruders.

The place might as well have been a castle.  Built from a mixture of grayish-blue cobblestone and red brick, the mansion was probably about four stories tall.  While I’d never claim to be an expert in architecture, the style of the house looked like those old English houses with huge courtyards.  The gables were arched, and the white-rimmed windows were encased in brickwork.

Surrounding the house were the most spectacular gardens I’d ever seen.  The green seemed to spread in all directions for eternity.  From what I could see, there were hundreds of kinds of trees—fruit trees, oak trees, maples—and thousands of flowers that I couldn’t have named if I wanted.

“How’re we s’posed to find the rose The Bulk wants?” Tony asked.  “There’s probably a dozen different types of white roses in that garden.”

“First things first,” I said.  “Getting past the high-tech security.”

Already, I could see the security cameras zooming in on us.  They moved every time one of us moved.  I counted three.

“Let’s just forget this,” Heath said.  “I’d rather be playing Zombie Shooters III right now.”

We ignored him.  There was no way we were backing out of that dare now.  I eyed the wall, calculating.  Now that I looked more carefully, it wouldn’t be impossible to jump the gate.  At least not for me.  “I have an idea,” I said, quickly conveying the plan, as the cameras were already following our movements, meaning the security guards were already monitoring our strange behavior.

There were three cameras, one each for my friends to take on.  While I scaled the wall, they would distract the cameras so none saw me.  Then while I searched for the roses, I wanted my friends to hide before the security team came out.  I didn’t want Heath to get caught, considering he couldn’t run as fast as the other two.  Hopefully, no one would notice that I’d gotten inside, and I could escape before they did.

“But that means only you get to go,” Tony complained.

“Marcus is the only one of us who actually has the skills to get over,” Stan said.  “So just let him do his thing so we can get out of here.”  Then he looked at me.  “But you still haven’t answered my question.  How’re you gonna find the rose The Bulk wants?”

I pointed to a tiny sign through the gate next to a bed of daffodils.  It said Narcissus pseudonarcissus, Wild Daffodil.  “They label their plants,” I said.  “I’m sure there’s a special rose garden somewhere in there.  I’ll find the sign that says Lockhart White Rose or whatever it is and—”  I made a cutting motion through the air with my pocket knife.

“Seems like a sound plan,” Stan agreed.  “Be careful of thorns.”

The three of them began moving around, trying to distract the cameras.  I walked backwards a number of paces, stopped, and picked up full speed to charge towards the gate.  I hopped onto a bar of the gate, using it to boost myself up onto the ledge of the stone wall.  Then I swung my feet around and jumped down, landing on the soft grass.

“That was amazing,” I heard Tony gawk in wonder.

“What if someone goes after you?” Heath asked.  “How are we supposed to warn you?  We don’t have cell phones.”

Yeah, that could be a problem.  Why did we all have to be so poor that we couldn’t afford phones?

“Just keep hiding, and don’t get caught,” I told them.  “I’ll be fine.”  At least I hoped so.

I walked across the lawn, wondering where to begin my search.  I wandered through an orchard of some sort—I believed they might be orange trees.  The blossoms smelled like some citrusy summer concoction.  At the end of the orchard, there were more trees—these most likely oak, judging by all the acorns on the ground.  This place was like a forest.

So many trees, but where were the flowers?

I wandered my way through the oak trees, finally coming to a clearing.  And then I saw them.  Roses.  An entire garden of them—yellow, red, pink, white, mixed colored, even purple and black ones.  I ran to them and began searching the signs.  I’d never known how many varieties of roses existed.  I read through some of the names.  The pinks included Autumn Dusk, Angel Face, Pink Prosperity; the reds, American Dream, Sun Flare, Belle Rouge.  There were even yellows and blues and purples with names like Midas Touch, Blue Rosalie, and Sweet Chariot.

And then I came to the whites.  Moondance, Crystal Fairy, Fragrant Wave, and ah ha!  Lockhart Winter.

I didn’t see what was so different about it.  All the white roses were white, and they looked practically identical.  But then I leaned down to cut the first Lockhart Winter off from its bush, and its perfume filled my senses.  As I wasn’t a poet, I couldn’t even find the right words to describe the scent.  It was like…spring rain and midnight and sugary spices all wrapped into one tiny little package.  It paired comfort with danger, innocent first love with fiery seduction.  I didn’t even know how I was coming up with those words, but that fragrance was sure doing something to stir up my brain.

If this was what Splash and Spray put into their Midnight Rose recipe, no wonder the perfume sold like hotcakes.

I jerked out of my daze.  This wasn’t the time to get distracted by a smell of all things.  It wasn’t even like I could eat the rose.  I had to finish my mission and get out of here.

I cut the stems, pulling the roses off the brush until I had a dozen.  I pricked myself several times, but my adrenaline was pumping so hard, I barely felt the pain.  Knowing I didn’t have enough time to remove the thorns, I lifted my shirt and used it to cradle the bouquet.  Then I ran.

Back into the forest, past the oaks, and through the orangery.  And then someone stepped out from under one of the orange trees and blocked my path.  I slowed to a halt, feeling a sense of panic at the realization that I was about to be caught.  Maybe even arrested.  I wondered how much prison time was required for trespassing on private property.

Then I took a real look at the person blocking my way.  To my absolute surprise, I saw that it wasn’t a security guard or even a gardener.  It was a girl.  And she was about my age.

She was a small thing, and she looked a little…untamed, as though she belonged with the creatures of the forest.  She could have been pretty, but I couldn’t tell.  Dirt and mud covered her dress, which I guessed had been green and white in a previous life, but now was a dull, unattractive brown.  Smudges of dirt also dotted her face, and her dark brown hair was uncombed, tousled in wild disarray.  She was holding something—a book.  But all of that ceased to exist as I squinted to get a closer look at her face.

Her eyes caught me off guard.  They were a striking green, more vibrant than any of the shades of green surrounding us.  I saw something in them for a second—a sense of wonder mixed with a good amount of fear.

Who was she?  And what was she afraid of?

She was trembling, her shoulders quaking as though she might have a seizure at any moment.

Then it hit me.  She was scared of me.

I couldn’t blame her for being startled.  After all, I was trespassing, and for all she knew, I could be a burglar.  But it seemed that her fear went deeper than that.  She was looking at me like some puppy that had been abused by a previous owner and couldn’t trust another human.

I raised a hand slowly, as though gesturing to a startled doe.  “I won’t hurt you.  All I want are these roses.  So if you’d just let me through—”

Her eyes darted to the roses and widened in further horror.  Her slight intake of breath let me know she was upset, although her face didn’t show it.  Then she adjusted her posture into a stance I knew quite well.  A fighting position.  She wanted to take me down.

“Listen, I know kung fu,” I told her.  “But I don’t fight girls.  It goes against my code of conduct, so if you’ll just—”

That sentence remained unfinished, as I barely registered her foot swinging out in a high circular motion.

“HYYY—YAHHHH!”

Emma

Eek!  I’d just roundhouse kicked a guy in the face!

I squealed and scrambled behind an orange tree to hide.  But when I didn’t hear any movement from the pathway, I risked the nerve to peer out from behind the trunk.

The boy was still there, out cold.  My gaze drifted down to the bundle of his shirt, where the roses had fallen in a careless heap, draping the boy’s body as though he were truly dead and laid out in a coffin.  The anger returned, and I knew I’d done the right thing by kicking him.  How dare he touch my roses!

But then I looked at his body lying on the dirt pathway and started to panic.  I couldn’t just leave him there.  A minute passed, then another.  He still didn’t move.

Cautiously, I forced myself to come out of hiding.

One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, I thought to myself repeatedly.  Then I was standing over the boy.

He wasn’t fat or huge in any way, but he did have a lot of lean muscle, just the right amount for a healthy teenage boy.  He also was fairly tall, at least three heads taller than me.

I knelt down to get a closer look at his face.  He looked a little Asian, half I’d guess.  Thick, dark hair the color of ripened Rubus fruticosis—common name, blackberries—sprouted abundantly on his head like grass.  Only it looked silkier than any grass I’d planted.  He had bushy eyebrows and a solid, obstinate jaw, but his eyes, when they’d still been open and looking at me, had been surprisingly gentle for a thief.  All in all, he had a very distinct profile, the kind that was hard to forget even after just one meeting.  Some girls might even call him beautiful.

It was too bad he was a thief.

I had to get him out of the garden before Grandmother sent someone to find me.  I couldn’t let her know I’d knocked someone out.  Instead of pointing the blame on the boy for trespassing, she’d lecture me for hours on how I completely lacked manners and social skills and needed to start acting more like a proper young lady.

I slapped him across the face, trying to get him to wake up, but he was completely out.  I’d had no idea that kick would be so powerful.  I’d only imitated that move based on one I’d read in one of my favorite manga, a comic about a girl who was so jumpy, she’d knock out anyone who startled her.

“Emma!” a voice called from somewhere in the distance.

It sounded like Marlin, our butler.

Frantically, I slapped the boy again.  He had to wake up now, before Marlin came.  But the boy remained still, his face now marked by two distinguished red palm prints.

“There you are Emma.”  I heard Marlin approach, his breath coming in pants.  “We just caught several intruders, and your grandmother wanted to make sure you were—”  He trailed off, having finally noticed the boy’s prone body.

“So that’s what happened to the fourth guy,” Marlin said.  “Security said they saw four of them.  I suppose I shouldn’t have yelled at them so severely after all.”

There were three other intruders?

What were these guys doing here, and what did they want?  I wondered.

“Come along, Emmaline,” said Marlin.  “I’ll take care of this one.”  He regarded the boy closely.  “Then again, seems you already did.”  He cast me a knowing look.  “Your grandmother’s questioning the other three intruders, but she wants you to clean up for dinner.”

I nodded and turned to run towards the house.  As curious as I was about the four intruders, I knew Marlin wouldn’t tell me anything.  The only way I’d be able to find out anything was to investigate by myself.

I entered the house through the back, careful to tip-toe across the marble tiles of the foyer.  I wondered where Grandmother had put the interlopers.  Nancy, one of the maids, stumbled through the corridor, a bucket in tow.  She was in such a hurry, she almost crashed into me.

“I’m so sorry, Miss,” she said.  “I’ve got to get this ice to your grandmother’s study, and it’s very heavy.”

I gave her a nod and watched her disappear before I allowed a grin to spread across my face.  Why hadn’t I thought of that?  Grandmother’s study, of course.  There was no better place to question the flower snatchers.

Quietly, I made my way to the fourth floor.  Although there were servants everywhere, nobody noticed me.  No one ever noticed me.  I might be Grandmother’s only grandchild and the heiress to Splash and Spray Factory, but I might as well have been a spider on the wall.

Or a wallflower.  I actually liked that word.  I liked flowers, and I liked the idea of being a flower.  And in the secret language of flowers that developed during the Victorian Era, wallflowers had several meanings, all nice ones.  Lasting beauty and faithful during adversity.  Couldn’t go wrong with that.

So I didn’t mind being a wallflower.  I liked remaining unnoticed.  It was convenient, and I didn’t have to talk to people.  Small talk made me nervous.  I never knew what to say, and if I did say something, it came out sounding either incredibly awkward or ridiculous.  People ended up looking at me like I was some sort of circus freak.  So to prevent that embarrassment, I preferred not to talk to people at all.

Now flowers were a different story all together.  Flowers didn’t judge me the way people did.  So I talked to them about my day, and they showed their appreciation for me by growing beautiful and strong.  But Grandmother always said my flowers wouldn’t teach me how to interact in the world since they didn’t actually respond when I talked to them.

My rebuttal—manga.  Who needed real human interaction when I could read about it in comics?  I could learn all about how people interacted just by reading.

But of course, Grandmother didn’t agree.  She was actually thinking about sending me to public school just so I could learn some social skills.  I prayed to God that wouldn’t happen.  If I were forced to attend public school, I’d actually have to talk to people my own age.  I had no problem talking to older people like Marlin and Grandmother and Ms. Bipkins, my private tutor.  But I’d rather die than be forced to talk to people my own age and later see them laugh at my awkwardness when they thought I wasn’t looking.

As I approached Grandmother’s study, I heard several voices, all talking at once.  I made out three distinct voices that didn’t belong to Grandmother.  They must be the other three intruders.  Since their voices were all in the low register, I assumed they were all young men, probably friends of the guy I’d knocked out.

I peered through the crack in the door, and sure enough, Grandmother was pacing in front of three guys, as intimidating an interrogator as any detective or police officer I’d read about in the thirty-two volumes of Urban Legend Mysteries.  They were all quite attractive in their own way.  But there was one who stood out among the three.  He was gorgeous.  His golden hair was indescribable—just like Helianthus annuus.  Common name: sunflower.  And since he was closest to the door, I could even see the color of his eyes, which just fascinated me.  Because he had heterochromia.  His irises were not the same color.  While his left eye was green, his right eye appeared violet, reminding me of Calluna vulgaris.  Gray with a tint of violet heather.  Amazing.  Less than one percent of the population had heterochromia.

He was the one talking to Grandmother now.  I strained my ears to listen.

“It’s my fault, ma’am,” he said.  “They accepted the dare for me.  I’m willing to accept any punishment.  Just leave the rest of them out of it.”

“Don’t listen to him.”  This plea came from the tall, African-American kid next to him.  “Heath didn’t want us to do any of this.  So punish us, but not him.”

“That’s right,” the shortest boy of the bunch agreed.  He nodded frantically, as though he’d just gotten a double dose of some energy drink.  His black hair was sticking up in all places, and he was holding something to his eye, which was swelling quite atrociously.  It was a pack of ice.  So that’s why Nancy had been towing that ice bucket.

“I have something in mind,” Grandmother said, her voice stern, but calm.  “It will be a fitting punishment for all four of you.  Since your leader is still unconscious, we’ll wait for him to wake up before I say anything.”  She eyed them severely.  “And if his story doesn’t match up to yours, I’m calling the cops right away.  You’re just lucky I’ve never liked that Benjamin Lyons or his vulgar father, or you’d all be at the station by now.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” the skinny boy said.  And then his head did a double take.  “Wait, did you say our leader is unconscious?  As in Marcus is out cold?”

“Yes,” replied Grandmother.  “He’s sleeping in one of the guest rooms as we speak.”

“But how did he get knocked unconscious?” the beautiful boy asked.  “He was fine when he left us.”

“That’s something I’d like to know too,” Grandmother muttered.  “And I’m about to find out.”  She shifted her gaze to the door, and I jumped, realizing she knew I was there.

“Wait here, boys,” she said, and stood to leave.

I dashed across the hall, hoping I’d make it to my room, but it was too late.

“Wait right there, young lady,” Grandmother called.

I halted, frozen in place.

“Turn around.”

Wincing at the inevitable lecture to come, I did as I was told.  She glided down the corridor towards me, her high heels clicking on the marble floor.

“I need you to confirm something,” she said.  “Marlin is under the impression that you were the cause of that horrid red bump growing on the unconscious boy’s head.”

I remained silent.

“So were you?” her voice rose a smidgeon.

I cleared my throat.  “Maybe,” I whispered.

She looked at me like I was a conundrum she’d never be able to solve and sighed.  “Oh darling, why didn’t you call for help?  What if he hurt you?”  Then she gathered me in her arms, tightly squeezing me.

I blinked, wondering if I’d heard wrong.  She hadn’t said one word about how roundhouse kicking a stranger was not the proper behavior for a young lady.  Instead, she was worrying about my safety.

“I just don’t understand,” she said.  “You’ve never taken a self-defense class in your life, and from what his friends tell me, he’s an expert in martial arts.  So where did you learn how to knock him down?”

“From a manga,” I said.  “It worked for Mina, so I figured it would work for me.  And it did.”  I smiled proudly.

She held me back, looking into my eyes.  Shock was written all over her face.  “You imitated a kick because it worked for a fictional character?”

I nodded, wondering why she was acting so surprised.  “I also looked it up in a book called Self-Defense Moves for the Brave of Heart: Volume Two.  I’ve just never tried it until today.”

She shook her head in disbelief.  “I never thought you’d have to be taught common sense as well as social skills.  This just proves that what I’m about to do is the right thing.”  She smoothed my hair.  “Darling, those stories you read are fiction.  That means they aren’t real.”

I frowned.  Why was she telling me this? “I know that.”

“So because they aren’t real, they don’t happen in real life.  This means Mina might be able to successfully knock out a villain without any formal martial arts training, but it doesn’t mean you can.  Fictional characters tend to be able to do some things that aren’t possible in reality.”

“But it did work,” I protested.

“Because he probably didn’t want to hurt you,” Grandmother said.  “Which actually works in his favor.  I’m thinking his friends really are telling the truth, and they didn’t mean to cause any harm.”  She said this part more for her own benefit than for mine.  “What I’m trying to say is,” she continued, “If he wanted to hurt you, he could have.  You were able to knock him unconscious because you took him off guard.  In other words, that kick was lucky.  Do you understand?”

I thought about what she said and slowly nodded.  It sort of made sense.  The boy’s hands had been occupied with the roses, after all, so he couldn’t have defended himself.

“So if you ever find yourself in a similar situation again, make sure you call for help,” Grandmother said.  “And don’t try to fight the burglar on your own.  All right?”

“Yes, Grandmother.”  Then the recorder in my brain rewound, playing back something she’d said earlier.  “Grandmother, what did you mean this proves what you’re about to do is the right thing?  What are you about to do?”

Grandmother smiled, her eyes glinting oddly.  I wondered what it meant.  I’d never been too good at reading emotions, unless the person was horrified because of something I’d just said.  That I was used to by now.  “Emma, you’re very smart.”

“I know.”  She didn’t need to tell me that.  I could memorize a whole chapter of The History of Nineteen Century Garden Landscaping within an hour and repeat it word for word.

“But you’re not street smart,” Grandmother said.  “That whole stunt you pulled today proves it.  Most sixteen year-old girls wouldn’t try and take down a burglar by themselves.”

There she went.  Here was finally the lecture I’d been waiting for.

“You also lack social skills, as we’ve talked about many times before,” she persisted.  “You take things too literally and don’t understand jokes.  You don’t interact with anyone your own age.  It’s not healthy, and it’s about time you stop living in that private world of yours, choosing only to talk to flowers and reading manga.  So I’ve decided you need help.”

Help how?  I was too afraid to ask.  Please don’t send me to public school, I chanted repeatedly in my head, willing her to change her mind.

“There are a few changes coming your way, Emma,” she said.  “I’ve decided to hire someone to help you become less…awkward.  Hopefully, with some help, you’ll start living in the real world again.  I just have to find a way to make him agree…”  She trailed off, her mind busy at work, hashing out whatever scheme she was up to now.  She was so conniving that it was a little scary at times.  But I guessed that was why our company was so successful.

Then she suddenly remembered I was there and beamed, patting my hand.  “Don’t you worry.”

Just then, one of the servants approached.  “Ma’am, the boy is beginning to wake.”

“All right Rudy, I’ll be right there.”  She waved a hand to dismiss me, before starting down the hall.  “Go and change for dinner.”

As I walked to my room, I had a horrible vibe about all of this.  I usually didn’t trust bad vibes or ominous feelings and all that stuff.  They were just a result of gas being released into the stomach due to anxiety.

All the same, I had this strange intuition that my life was about to change drastically.  Grandmother hadn’t mentioned anything about public school yet, but she had said she wanted me to interact with people my age.

That meant she’d be forcing me to talk to strangers.

I usually avoided strangers all together, choosing not to attend any public outing or social event unless Grandmother made me.  But if I absolutely had to attend, I pretended to be Emma Hartley, daughter of one of Splash and Spray’s employees.  I was ashamed to let anyone know that the heiress of Splash and Spray wasn’t an elegant, beautiful young lady, but an awkward, shy girl who always said the wrong thing.  I didn’t want to see their disappointed looks when they found out the real heiress was a far cry from the one in their imaginations.

Angrily, I thought of that guy I’d kicked and his three friends.  This was all their fault.  If they hadn’t broken in, I wouldn’t have had to kick that guy, and Grandmother wouldn’t have had the inspiration to make me learn how to talk to people outside this house.

If I ever saw those four thieves again, I’d knock all of them out with that roundhouse kick.  Especially their leader.

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