I walk down the street, humming slightly. It's a funny thing. It's a long walk home from the post office, I used to take the bus home from work. But then one day I was a quarter short on the fare and had to walk. I've walked ever since. Looking down at my watch, I smile. 5:14, right on time. I look up and the door is already opening.
"You're late!" she calls out the door. I roll my eyes and follow her swinging brunette braid into Gainsborough Blooms. I walk past the rows of flowers in vases on top of shelves and tables and wait as she walks behind the counter.
"I heard the college is accepting admissions soon, you going to apply this year?" I ask.
"Nah, Elmyra still needs my help around the shop, she can't afford to hire someone to take the afternoon shift. Sorry Cloud, you're going alone," she replies. I nod, disappointed. That day I'd walked home, I saw her coming outside to check the front display from the outside. She was beautiful. Gorgeous brown hair, bright green eyes, a pink skirt with a white blouse and a red denim jacket since it was a chilly day. She hadn't worn that outfit every day, obviously. But it seemed every outfit she owned was some sort of mix and match of white, red and pink with the occasional light brown or yellow, for the flowers I guess. I wasn't complaining, red was one of my favorite colors, and thanks to her pink was becoming one too.
I'd told her my name, but every time the conversation seemed to stray to hers, something would interrupt. A customer would come in, the phone would ring, and two weeks since I'd first come back I still didn't know her name. I knew she was helping her stepmother run the shop while Elmyra attended a second job to make ends meet, and was hoping to go to college. I also knew she was unattached romantically, wasn't entirely happy as a bachelorette, and was fond of poetry, painted in her spare time and was a bit of an art buff.
In other words, she had stepped right out of one of my fantasies. If I wasn't so goddamn stubborn, I would have asked her out Day One. It was still on my to-do list, at the top, and for some reason I still hadn't done it. Let's face it, she was a little too good for me, and if I wanted to ask her out I still needed to know her name first. Well, first things first.
"So you're going to take another year off huh?" I ask. She nods.
"Yup. I'm actually getting better at painting, I'm thinking I might try and sell one on-line or something, see if I can make a little more money. It's really bad of me, Elmyra buys me these paints to work with and in the end it's just a waste, if I can make some money of them it'll be a big help."
"Hey, she buys you paints because she likes seeing you happy, that's what parents do. You showed me a few of them one time, and you're good at it. That's what counts, even if it's not profitable."
"Thanks Cloud," she tosses me one of those neon-light smiles, and I can't help but stare.
"S-So what are you going to try painting, if, if you're planning to sell it?" I stutter. Damn she was pretty…
"I dunno, I'm just gonna go with the flowers, got plenty to inspire, and it's something simple."
"Good luck, even if you can't sell it on-line I'll buy it."
"Thanks, your faith in me is astounding," she rolls her eyes and smiles. I take a breath. Now is as good a time as any.
"Um, I was, uh, wondering what-" my question is cut off by the phone on the counter ringing, and I curse under my breath as she picks up.
"Hello, Gainsborough Blooms…yes we deliver but usually…when? Um, I could drive it out myself within a couple hours, would that be fast enough? Uh-huh…okay, a dozen long stemmed…" I turn to scan the shop as she finishes taking the order. Every time I try and ask, every single time…
"Apartment 308…alright, that'll be twenty-three ninety-two, but since it's a special occasion I'll knock the price down to an even twenty, alright sir? Okay, I'll start on them now and will be on the road within fifteen minutes. See you shortly sir." She hangs up, and I turn back.
"So as I was saying," I start.
"Sorry, can't talk, that guy forgot his wife's birthday and needs flowers before she gets home," she replies. "The usual, I've gotta go up in back and get them ready."
"Um, sure, the usual," I mutter, put out. Well, so much for that…she grabs a carnation and hands it to me. I don't even like carnations, but the first day I met her she asked if I wanted one, and I replied "they're my favorite" before I knew what I was saying. So they became "my usual".
"See ya!" she ducks into the back as I reach for my wallet.
"What about paying?" I call.
"Too busy, pay me next time you come!" she yells back. I shrug and look down at the flower. Well, it'll be something to start the conversation next time. I guess I can ask her name again that time, assuming I actually get a chance without being interrupted for once…
It's a Friday, and the weekend guy Cid manages the store on, well weekends, so I don't go. Monday comes and I looked out the bus window as it drove past that morning. Her mother manages the store during the morning, but I still look. I clock in at the post office, do my shift and leave. I walk down the street towards the store and look at my watch. 5:14, on time again. I look up, and the door isn't opening. I pull it open myself and frown.
"Hey," I call. Cid the weekend guy is behind the counter flipping through a car magazine. I never really spoke to him much, the normal girl assured me he was a nice guy, but he was a little brash and loud from what I had seen. I wasn't really sure why he worked here like that.
"Yeah?" Cid replies, flipping the page.
"Where's the normal girl?" I ask.
"Shit, did I stutter?" Cid snaps, glaring at me. He turns back to the magazine as I walk up to the counter.
"She sick or something?" I ask.
"I said I don't know, Elmyra called me and asked me to take her shift, okay?" Cid grumbles. "Now ya gonna buy something or not?" I was admittedly stunned. Elmyra and the girl lived above the store, if she was sick or something, wouldn't Cid know?
"Then get outta here!"
I turn and leave the store as Cid turns the page again. Where was she?
I go back the next day, on time again. Cid's there again. Wednesday, I go back again, and Cid is still there. Finally, I get up early Thursday and get off my bus a few stops early. The store is already open as I head inside. Elmyra is just leaving the back door with her coat and purse.
"Elmyra!" I cry. Elmyra turns.
"Cloud, haven't seen you this early in weeks," she says softly. I look at her face; her eyes are red and puffy, and I gulp at what that could mean.
"I was wondering what happened to the afternoon girl, your step-daughter?" I ask.
"Ooooh…I'm sorry, didn't Cid tell you?" I shake my head. "She…collapsed, Monday morning. We had to rush her to the hospital, that's why Cid has been taking both our shifts. He didn't tell you?"
"He said he didn't know," I reply flatly. "What is it?" Elmyra sighs.
"It's a small brain tumor." My eyes go wide. "It's, it's okay, it's operable, entirely operable. She goes in for surgery on Friday, they're going to remove it and she'll just have to stay a few days to recover, maybe a week or so."
"Is…is she going to live?" I whisper. Elmyra takes a breath.
"They're…hopeful," she nods. "Brain tumors happen every week and are removed successfully, she should be perfectly fine."
"Yeah, she'll…yeah," I offer lamely. Elmyra smiles and reaches up to pat me on the shoulder.
"She'll be fine. She's a strong girl, even if she doesn't look it. She liked you, you know. She told me you were her favorite customer."
"Really?" I ask, shocked. Okay, maybe talking to her was one of the…okay, the highlight of my day the last couple weeks, but her favorite customer? All I ever bought were carnations, and only because she thought I liked them.
"I'm sorry, visiting hours start soon and I want to be there as soon as I can. Cid's in the back, he'll help you, bye." Elmyra brushes past me and heads out the door.
"Elmyra, I gotta ask, what's…" I trail off as I see her head down the street to the parking lot. My shoulders slump and I push the door open.
The doors slide open, and I walk into the hospital, taking a right and stopping at the front desk.
"Yes?" the nurse asks, looking up at me.
"Hi, um, my name is Cloud Strife, I'm here to see Ms. Gainsborough," I say softly.
"Are you a relative?" the nurse asks. "Her husband?"
"Um…" I lean closer. "Actually, I'm a friend of hers, not a…boyfriend, although I'm hoping so." I feel stupid saying that.
"I'm sorry sir, only blood relatives and spouses are privy to patient information. Unless you're either of those I'm afraid I can't release any information about her to you," the nurse replies.
"Please, she's a good friend of mine, her mother Elmyra is there now, I know she is, if you call the room and tell her I'm here she'll let me see her," I plead. It was Tuesday, Elmyra's words have been on my mind ever since I'd seen her. She said the flower girl was in for surgery on Friday. So, if anything had happened, she'd have let me know, right? Then again, she didn't know how to contact me.
"I'm sorry sir, hospital policy."
"Look, can you at least let me take something up to her, you can send a security guard to escort me if you want, I'll just be a minute."
"Sir, I can't-"
"At least tell me she's alive!" I roar. My patience has run out, for all I know she's dead and I can't even be told that?
"Sir, if you cannot calm down, I will call a security guard to escort you," the nurse glares. I glare right back.
"Can I at least leave something to be taken to her room?" I grate. The nurse gives me a blank look, but I'm not backing down from this. I took the day off work just to get these and come here, I'm not leaving with them.
"If I see her mother, I could pass it along to her," she says carefully. Taking a breath, I reach up and place the bouquet of red and white carnations on the desk.
"Those better get to her," I warn. The nurse silently reaches up and puts the flowers aside.
"Now, please leave the premises sir," she orders. I turn and leave without a word.
Every single day for the rest of the week, I go back to that store. Cid's not even there anymore, it's just closed in the afternoons. I go to the hospital a few times, I don't even talk to the nurses, I just sit in the waiting room and hope to catch a glimpse of Elmyra. I know if she saw me she'd tell me what was happening. I never see her once, and more than once do the staff have to come to tell me to leave if I'm just there to loiter. My one consolation is that when I went back on Wednesday, the flowers I had left the day before are gone. I preferred to think the flower girl had come down and gotten them herself after I had left.
It's been two full weeks since I went to the store Monday afternoon and she wasn't there. I clock out my shift and walk down the street. I get halfway down the block, and it starts raining out of nowhere. Groaning, I pull the collar of my coat up over my hair as much as I can and start walking faster. If I get to the flower store, I can call a cab, I don't have any change for the bus.
I look up, and stop. Smiling at me from beneath the white overhang over the door of the store…white blouse, red denim jacket, pink skirt…
"H…hey!" I call back, running to close the distance.
"You look wet," she smiles as I come up to her under the shelter of the overhang. "Come on in," she heads inside and I follow, still shocked to see her. She walks behind the counter like always and reaches down to toss me a small towel. "Here, dry off a bit."
"I heard you were in the hospital, brain tumor," I mention, taking the towel and drying off my hair.
"Yeah, went in for surgery that Friday, spent the last week in bed recovering. I'm still supposed to take it easy, but I'm home at least. Came home Saturday," she replies, taking a package of plant food from a display in front of the cash registers and tears it open. I watch as she turns to a table behind the counter and sprinkles it in a vase holding…
"Where did those come from?" I ask, watching her tend to the bouquet of red and white carnations.
"Oh, these? Elmyra got them from the nurses while I was in the hospital, someone left them for me," she replies.
"Did they say who?"
"No, the nurse didn't tell her."
I wait as she finishes and turns back to the counter.
"I also heard you kept coming by and looking for me," she says, smiling. I feel my face heat up.
"Well, um, I didn't feel comfortable buying flowers from Cid…" I make up. She giggles, and my face gets hotter. "So how are you doing?"
"I'm okay, on painkillers, they said I might experience a little dizziness and a couple headaches now and then, but that's normal. And, you're getting company at college after all."
"I decided I'm gonna go. I can schedule my classes so I can work here and go," she explains.
"Really? How come?" I ask. She takes a breath.
"When I was in that hospital bed, I thought about all the things I wanted to do, and maybe I wouldn't get to do them. It really put a lot of things in perspective. I mean, sure I hope to live until I'm ninety, but I might not, so if I suddenly have to go early I'm going to make the most of the time I have. Seize the day, while I have the chance." She smiles again, and I can't help but share it. Seize the day…
"Hey, can I ask a question?"
"Sure," she shrugs. My smile widens. Finally!
"What's your-" the phone rings, and she turns and picks it up.
"Hello, Gainsborough Blooms." That's all she gets out as I reach over and press my finger down on the tab to hang up. She looks up at me, a little angry. "What are you doing?"
"Seizing the day. What's your name?" I ask. She looks more confused than angry now.
"You don't know my name?" she replies. I shake my head. "Aerith," she answers. I smile, happy at last. Aerith…Aerith Gainsborough…I like that. I take a breath and close my eyes.
"Aerith, I've thought about you ever since I met you and I was worried the whole time you were in the hospital and I know you're way out of my league and you probably think I'm some sort of stalker, but you're really beautiful and you're fascinating and I know I only just found out your name but will you please go out with me?"
I keep my eyes shut after blurting out the question I've been holding back for near a month now. Several moments pass with no sound except for the hum of the air-conditioning unit and the ticking of the clock. I finally open an eye to see Aerith with her arms crossed, staring at me.
"You don't know my name until ten seconds ago, and you ask me out…" she mutters, shaking her head. I open both my eyes and look down at the ground. She sighs. "The carnations were from you weren't they?" I nodded slightly, unsure if she can see given the current position of my head. I see a bit of motion from the top of my line of sight, and freeze. Something soft and warm presses up against my forehead, and it takes me a moment to figure out what they are. Aerith pulls back over the counter and props her head up on her arm, grinning.
"So, what time?" I lift my head and blink.