I'm sorry if this seems incoherent. It's just the smell.
Where should I start? Sophomore year of high school, I guess. The year was 1997, that dumb "MmmBop" song was on the radio, and I was mooning over Mallory Winters in biology. I figured she'd never even notice me—I was that girl who sits in the very back row in braces and skirts that were outdated before they ever left the Kmart. Mallory? She was a vision straight off television in her tie and tights, the first freshman at Truman High to ever be crowned homecoming queen. I didn't even make homecoming peasant. Nobody asked me to go.
And, I mean, then there was that part, too. It's still pretty wild for kids in high school to go out and say they're gay, but when the Internet was still mostly Usenet boards and Internet relay chat? No way.
So I sat in the back of the class and took my notes and watched Mallory take her notes, and kept my head down when people teased me for working on the school newspaper. And then one day her name came up for a newspaper featurette.
The Truman Standard had this thing we did every month where we'd interview a notable athlete or two—football, basketball, cheerleading, you get the idea. It was—
Sorry, I think I'm going to be sick.
Where was I? Mallory. The school paper. Right. I was the one who ended up interviewing her, and if I hadn't ended up sitting exactly where I am now, I couldn't say, “I wouldn't forget that interview if I reached ninety.” I know for certain I'll remember it until I die, there's that much.
Those interviews could get pretty nutty sometimes. In my freshman year, I found out one of the girls on the volleyball team was pregnant before she'd even told her parents. Then she made me promise not to publish it. I didn't. Her boyfriend was a quarterback, and if he didn't mess me up I knew he'd have friends who would.
Mallory didn't have any kind of drama or dirt to drag up, though. A 3.8 GPA marred only by algebra, church on Sundays and Chris Isaac on her stereo, she was the perfect 1990's image of what a small-town Homecoming queen should be. And then I got to the question that told me she was so much more than the image we had of her at school.
“So,” I said, and tried to sound cool or at least not like a lovestruck freak, “When you're not at Cannons games turning cartwheels, what do you do for fun?”
Her mouth turned up at the corners in this grin that totally gutted me. “They just give you a list of questions to read, don't they?”
I looked down at my paper and bit my tongue really hard so I wouldn't cry when I said yes. She let out this really low chuckle, and you could have melted me like frosting on a hot day. “I thought so,” she told me. “That had Miss Anderson written all over it.” The chuckle died out, but the grin stayed. “I like to read,” she said. “And I study floriography.”
“You study what?”
“Floriography,” she repeated. “The language of flowers.” I must have been staring, because she started laughing. “You've never heard of it. It's a super-old hobby. From the 1800's.”
“I... haven't,” I confessed, and then I asked her to repeat herself because I was pretty sure I'd heard her wrong.
But no, she'd really said, “I could tell you about it if you want to come over this weekend,” and she was really giving me her phone number when I stammered out that I didn't have a ride.
And that weekend, she was really picking me up.
Mallory's family lived way out in the country, as only people who are completely loaded can do. Tennis court, swimming pool, greenhouse, gravel drive. I never did figure out why Mallory was in a public school, but for a very long time I considered it my gain.
We walked around the greenhouse, and she told me about different flowers in it—what orchids mean, and delphinium, and hyacinth. At one point she asked me for my favorite flower. I was too embarrassed to tell her I didn't have one—especially in a greenhouse full of all these exotic things that would never grow in my backyard—so I picked one at random.
“Umm... white roses.”
She gave me this big smile, and said “innocence,” and just sort of left it at that until she dropped me back off at my house. She tucked this white flower into my hair and said, “We should do it again sometime,” and that was it—you could have knocked me over with the flower in my hair. It didn't look much like any white rose I'd ever seen before—sort of a cup, instead of one of those big froufrou skirt-looking things from the grocery store—but it did smell like a rose, and I put it in a cup of water on my dresser before going to bed.
I'm sorry—I have to speed this up. It's that smell, it's so strong in here...
You probably know where this went from there. There was another visit, there was a kiss. We couldn't tell anybody—not out in the boonies in 1998—which is why I couldn't tell anybody when the phone calls started. Ten, eleven at night—asking me if I was at home, who was with me, what I was doing. She'd leave flowers in my locker—always those same wild, white roses from home—and ask me over lunch about the girls in the changing room during gym.
And then came the mandatory swim unit in January. Mallory kicked me in the head while I was underwater, and when I woke up I did it in the hospital. They pulled me out of the pool after I didn't resurface. My mom asked if I wanted her to call Mallory, because we were “so close.”
I spilled everything. I told my mother I hadn't known what to do, with another girl so much more popular, so influential, acting so interested in me. I told her about the argument right before we got in the pool. And I told her something else, something I wasn't proud of then, something I'm not proud of now:
I told her I was pretty sure it wasn't an accident.
Stories like this usually end with one of the parties dead, or arrested, or in a mental ward somewhere. This one doesn't. Mallory just disappeared—didn't show up to school the following Monday. Her parents swore they'd dropped her off at the doors. Her picture was on TV. The police were looking for her. She couldn't possibly have just vanished. And yet somehow she had. I was sure someone would kill me for driving out their It Girl darling, but that didn't happen, either—people didn't talk to me as much, but nobody tried to drown me in a toilet, or get me expelled for having a pack of cigarettes in my locker. It was weird—even weirder than her disappearance—but, I kept telling myself, it'd get better.
About three weeks before the end of term, I opened my locker and started screaming. I wasn't the only one, either, once everyone saw what'd spilled out.
There were hundreds, maybe even a thousand, white roses crammed into my locker. All fresh. They tumbled over my sweater and my skirt, buried my shoes and unearthed a neatly folded pile of clothes atop a pair of dress-shoes completely unlike my faded sneakers.
Blouse. Tights. Skirt. Tie.
A teacher came running at the sound of screams. The teacher went for another teacher, who went for the principal; and finally someone lifted the blouse out of my locker looking for a nametag in the collar, and we saw the black sharpie letters written across the front.
"WHITE ROSES," they said. "INNOCENCE, SYMPATHY, PURITY." The principal turned the shirt just as everyone's eyes turned to me, and so I was the first one—other than Mr. Danvers, at least—who saw the words across the back:
"YOUR FLOWERS LIE JESSIE."
Sorry. I know I keep interrupting, but floral smells really get to me these days, and I swear it's worse when I remember how that locker smelled for the entire rest of term—
Where was I?
End of term. I transferred out, and do you blame me? In those pre-Columbine days it was easy to sneak in and out, but where was she for all those weeks between that winter breakup and the end of May? I should have come clean long before her threats turned near-fatal, but would it have made any difference?
That was almost twenty years ago. I moved across the country for college, and there I stayed. About six years ago, I met a woman named Rachel, who didn't care a whit for flowers but loved to cook. Our friends called it a fairy-book romance. She only brought me flowers once—a dozen roses for our first Valentine's Day—and never again. That was when I came clean about Mallory and the mystery flowers in my locker; the year I spent with a girlfriend intent on possessing me, who probably saw an easy target in a girl too boring to be bullied. Last year we got married, and we all say hooray for happy endings.
Our anniversary is today, so you might be wondering why I'm typing this alone in a cheap hotel room. It's a very simple answer: I got home last night and Rachel was gone. No signs of forced entry. Dinner in the oven, her shoes and jacket still in the front hall.
But there was also a bouquet of a dozen white roses in the middle of the table, so I turned off the oven, grabbed an overnight bag, and ran. I don't know how Mallory found us after all this time; I don't know where Rachel is. I hope she's dead. Is that terrible? I have this awful feeling that for Rachel, being dead is going to be better.
It's the hotel room, you see. I laid down for a nap when I got here, exhausted from adrenaline, on top of a long workday. According to my phone, I was out for about forty minutes. A call to the front desk proved I'm the only one with a keycard. Nobody else has been up here.
The room is hip-deep in white roses.
Credited to Ninalyn