Rhys didn’t consider himself an especially brave man. –
He didn’t take unnecessary risks although he liked adventure. He didn’t eat strange foods or desire to travel to exotic lands, except maybe to see famous gardens. He didn’t interact with dangerous people or practice questionable occult rhetoric. He did, however, spend an entire day in a women’s hair Salon and he felt he deserved a place among the pantheon of “Bravest Men Alive.” Or at least a gold medal of some kind in spite of Flora’s “I told you so” smirk.
Women were exhausting and calculating creatures. When he insisted on staying in the Salon all day he’d said it for the sake of the plants, not thinking about the consequences of his actions. He didn’t realize that for eight hours he’d be harassed, questioned, lectured, photographed, flirted with and scolded (this last one mostly by elderly ladies assuming he was preying on innocent young women for nefarious reasons).
When these conversations came about, Flora’s laughter would ring out and she caught his eye in the mirror, her gap-toothed smile unrestrained from the cover of her hand. Occasionally she would swoop in and defend him when she was free of clients but mostly he was left to fend for himself.
She was right when she said he would come to know more than he ever thought he would. For instance, did he know that he was supposed to get his hair trimmed every six weeks to encourage faster growth? Or that dieting was all media-driven bull shit? (He did actually know that.) And that men who were more quiet and cold were more attractive to women because it made them want to dig under the surface?
Even he couldn’t miss that obvious call. It left a bad taste in his mouth.
Rhys left that day with dozens of pictures in his phone of the Salon, dozens more from women who simply got in the way, and a pocket full of phone numbers which he promptly threw in his fire place. When he flopped on his couch in the blessed quiet of his own home, his ears rang with the echoes of Flora’s laughter.
Over lunch she told him that he didn’t have to come back. That if he left her a watering schedule, she would try to follow it and not murder his generous donations.
“I meant what I said,” Rhys reiterated stubbornly, shoving a bite of the kale and lettuce salad he’d crafted from the salad bar at the chosen lunch destination. “I’ll come back and water them.”
Flora munched her deli sandwich, amused, wiping her now colorless lips with a napkin. “Fine then. Come in with me in the morning and do it before everyone gets there. In and out and no one is the wiser.”
“I can do that. Thank you.”
She smiled and they ate in peace, simply enjoying the moment.
She gave him an out several times during the day, insisting she would send him photos every hour on the hour. To this her co-workers jeered and teased, asking what kind of photos and if they were safe for work. She came back every time with something witty and humorous that made everyone feel at jovial and at ease.
He couldn’t stop watching her, trying to catch more glimpses of her colorful tattoos when he wasn’t staring at the floor trying to ignore people. She jangled and flashed and had a ready laugh. An exotic butterfly with wings that mesmerized him. Catching her eyes in the mirror started a fire in his belly, low and slow. It’s presence alarmed him.
Occasionally she would disappear when it was her turn to do the “Psychic” part of the business and it was those times her coworkers would swoop in on him, playing Twenty Questions and trying to get dirt on him.
“What are your plans miho? I see you making eyes at our Flora. She gotta marry a rich man!”
“You gonna be coming around here regular-like? We gonna put you to work then!”
“Hey what can chu do besides grow things? Do you have a job or what?”
“What’s with all the green stuff? It’s like a jungle in here now. Can I call you Tarzan and put a loin cloth on you?” (This from the high maintenance resident gay man.)
It was too much. He saw how Flora fit in with the gaggle of squawking geese but he didn’t understand why she put up with it.
Rhys groaned and threw an arm over his face. Why was he even doing this? Flora was not the kind of person he gravitated toward when he was looking for companionship. His types were more the tea drinking, book shopping, gardening variety. Quiet, like him, prone to philosophical discussions, and better when they each had their own spaces. People that didn’t trigger him.
Everything about her was a trigger for him, although not in the usual bad way. He found he didn’t mind the burn in his belly or her symphony of sounds and colors. She fascinated him. What was her story? Why did she choose to open a salon, of all things? Why here in his sleepy little town? Why all the tattoos?
He was a little ashamed that he ran out on her at the end of the day, especially after he insisted on staying. She was in the back and one of her clients was preparing to alight his lap to take a selfie, all legs and perfume and heaving breasts. It had been his limit. Until then no one had touched him. He’d managed to dodge the pats and pets coming at him from every direction with a shift of a limb or twist of his torso.
He stood, careful to avoid the woman, and beat it to his jeep before anything else could happen. He peeled out from the curb into honking, angry traffic, controlling his breaths and clenching the wheel like he was going to break it. His vision was blurred and he blinked rapidly to clear it. Calm down. Calm down!
Too close. All of it. Too close. Stupid, stupid! He shouldn’t have tried to push himself.
He turned on the country music station to soothe his ruffled feathers and drove the scenic route home, using the road and the trees and the wind to calm him. Mile by mile, his shoulders relaxed and he eased off the accelerator. He was breathing normally by the time he neared his neighborhood and his heart rate slowed. It had been too close to the line he didn’t cross. All the bodies, the perfume, the coquettish women…
He would apologize later. Maybe with some lilies or some hydrangea that were in bloom, though it would pain him to cut them. He’d been a crappy guest. Right now he couldn’t think about that though. He needed to prune and water, transplant and check on seedlings. Yes. He needed his hands in the dirt, grasping living unfeeling things to calm his thoughts and then he would make a watering schedule for Flora’s plants. But he wouldn’t give it to her. He would go back. He had to. He had to see more.
He began by transplanting some Amaryllis into a decorative pot and giving them a generous soaking. As he emptied the can, he couldn’t help noticing the color was the exact same shade red as Flora’s tattoo.
Flora had her own routine for calming down at her place. She picked appropriately obnoxious music, cranked the volume to the max and sat in a ball on her couch, ignoring the world. She let the vibrations of the music sink into her tight muscles and the little knots of anger in her brain loosen. She’d stopped caring about the bangs and shouting from her neighbors a long time ago when this happened.
She didn’t blame Rhys. Not one bit. And she should have tried harder to make him go. She saw how tightly he was wound after lunch. It was her fault for keeping him there, enjoying the fact that people connected her to him. It was selfish and it hurt him in the end.
When she’d come out of the back with her client and found him missing with a cluster of desperate housewives bad mouthing him, it didn’t take much to connect the dots. Flora strode over to the women, scalding them with a blistering tongue lashing and held the door open for them. They cussed her out and swore to put her bad customer service all over social media.
“Oh no. Not social media!” Flora sneered at the girls. “Run along now, and yap elsewhere.”
“Crazy gringa bitch. We gonna shut you down!”
Flora flipped them the bird with a green tipped nail. “I’ll beat your chubby cellulite asses with my curling irons if you come back here again.”
After making sure the women were truly gone and not going to throw a brick through her window she turned and smiled at her remaining clients, who refused to look her in the eye. Some moved to grab their purses and she held out her hands, her bangles jangling.
“I’m sorry y’all. I had a crazy white girl moment. Today, all fees for hair cuts and alternative services are waived.”
A cheer went up and there was an excited buzz inside the Salon. Many of the women went for their phones to spread the good news and invite their relatives to come. Flora met Eta’s eye and the older woman held up her hands in surrender.
“You’re crazy miha,” she whispered when Flora came near, prepping her station for a grueling day at work. She felt the eyes of the other hair dressers burning holes in her back as well and heard puta aimed at her several times. Family, right? Love them and hate them.
“I’ll take the brunt of it Eta,” she said firmly. “You can take the fees out of my paycheck. It’ll cover the over time for the other guys.”
“Idiosa. As if I would do that. Their lazy asses can work hard for once. It won’t kill them, si?”
Her hands stopped Flora’s hurried movements and forced her to look up. Flora’s eye rested at her chin, a sign of shame, not looking directly into her eyes.
“You realize what you did, right?”
She didn’t actually. She had zero control over herself when she heard the cougars talking about Rhys. Like a red flag in a bull’s face, she just charged.
“I’m sorry Eta,” the smaller woman whispered, blowing out a frustrated breath.
“Who is he to you that you would kick out customers in our Salon miha? You’ve known him all of five minutes.”
Flora reclaimed her hands and reordered her utensils, trying to come up with an understandable answer. Who was he, besides some stranger she had a feeling about? How could she explain that to an outsider?
“He’s someone from my past,” she said carefully. “Someone I’ve known about for a long time.” She gave Eta a pointed look, gray eyes hard on her face.
Flora hadn’t divulged a lot of her past with the older woman because ignorance meant Eta didn’t disappear mysteriously. But for the sake of their business partnership, she felt it was fair to mention she had unsavory relatives, dangerous kinds, and that there were things she couldn’t say that Eta would have to be satisfied with not knowing. Explaining the importance of Rhys in her life was one of those things. Flora herself didn’t know exactly what Rhys meant to her but nipping the subject in the bud for now was the best she could do.
“Let’s just get through it, okay? Go and buy a round of Tequila Sunrises for everyone afterward at El Vita.”
Eta looked like she wanted to push for more details but Flora kept her eyes sharp so she let it go and made a show of her response to cast off suspicion from the others.
“Mio dios miha now you speaking my language! Drinks on the white gringa!”
There was a round of cheers and a new bounce to the employees the last hours at the salon.
She and the others had worked well past closing time, giving away free dye jobs, tarot sessions, chakra cleansings, dream interpretations, hair extensions, waxings and magic spells. As busy as she was, the anger didn’t leave Flora despite being completely drained of everything else. She stayed quiet the rest of the day, preferring her own thoughts to conversation, and only staying at El Vita’s for one round of drinks before she cut out and drove home.
There’s something about him, Flora thought, glaring from her couch at her thrift store box TV. The more I’m around him the more possessive I get. I have no right.
Her eyes traveled up the cracked wall to a large cross hanging there, hand-made with copper wire and a rainbow of gem stone beads. It reminded her of her aunties, who were always surrounded by colorful scarves and jewelry. She recalled their chubby faces and their words floated up from the depths her memory.
“Your instincts are never wrong Florinda. Your heart can be fickle and your mind will play tricks but your instincts never lie. You must learn to listen to them and you will never be in trouble.”
Instincts. Was it instinct that drew her to him? He wasn’t anything special when she first saw him at the Garden Center. Just a sort of handsome guy with a ton of nearly dead plants. Interesting story there but not someone who would garner a female’s attention immediately, especially after how cold he’d been. And yet she gave him her card. Her awful cheesy business card for her embarrassing job. Why in the hell did she give this guy her BUSINESS address? Normally it was her name and cell on a piece of stationary she kept in her car.
And yet he’d come. Admitted he washed the card on accident but then instead of calling or e-mailing her (it was on the website) he’d come in person to a place that obviously made him want to run screaming for the hills. And he claimed he wanted to keep coming back. That was something. It couldn’t just be her feeling the connection.
She wanted to know what he felt, what he thought about her. Was it only her who felt it? She wanted to ask but she knew he would never be forth coming about something so personal and unreal. The need to find out pressed on the back of her skull like a sensitive bruise ever since she’d met him. He could be one of the most important people she’d every met; a catalyst she needed to prepare for. Or he could be no one.
If left up to him, she would never know. She could check though. She had the means and he would never be the wiser for it.
Another conversation, a less kind one, came bouncing into Flora’s head and she sat up, flushing with a latent anger, her fingers curling on the cushions like claws.
“She’s afraid of fire.”
Flora sat on the floor, her freckled face scrunched in concentration, staring hard at the dark-haired girl in front of her who was crying silent tears.
“Too easy! You need to go beyond the surface!”
There was a sharp rap to the back of her head and Flora jerked forward, not understanding what was needed of her. Mother spoke in riddles a lot and became irritated if she didn’t catch on right away. The other girl, a cousin, “volunteered” for her experimenting and sat in front of her. She looked terrified, brown eyes wide at the truths Flora had already uncovered about her; truths no one but her should ever know. Flora squeezed her trembling hands. trying to give comfort when there was none to give. She knew she was a monster.
“Having a connection to someone, seeing their wants and fears on the surface won’t get us what we need from them. You need to sink into them, to become them and look through every memory.
“I can’t do that Mama!” Flora argued, flinching in reaction to the quick hand movement toward her face. This time, a sharp faceted ring caught in her hair after the blow and yanked out a few strands of honey brown.
“Find me something useful Florinda or you won’t get any food for an entire day. Maybe a clear head and stomach will make you focus better.”
“But I don’t control the visions. They come to me–”
“What do you think we are learning here child? Control! You saw the man in your dream because he will be important in your life one day. You made a connection to him in the astral plane. If you can develop that ability with anybody, you’ll be able to look for secrets. We need those secrets.”
“But why?” she whispered, eyes tearing up from the pain and frustration.
“Because as gypsies, we deal in secrets. The rest is just for show.”
Secrets. Flora knew lots of secrets that she tried to forget and she wasn’t in the market to learn anymore. She was furious with herself for even thinking of using it on Rhys, even for a flash of a second. She rose and flipped off the stereo, turning down the volume nob so she wasn’t deafened when she turned it back on again then she went into her room. She start divesting herself of jewelry and clothing. What she needed was a soothing and cleansing bath.
She was standing naked in her bathroom, waiting for the water to get hot, deciding which bath bomb she wanted to use when her phone started to ring. She looked at it, then at the clock on her headboard. Who was calling her at 11 at night? She swiped open the screen to reveal an unfamiliar number. She hesitated for a second and then answered it.
There was no answer.
“Hello? Anyone there?”
There were a few moments of breathing. Just breathing. There WAS someone on the other line. But they weren’t saying anything. They were listening. The hairs on her arm pricked and she ended the call, throwing the phone on her bed like it was poisonous. Her heart beat out a furious rhythm against her rib cage and it was hard to catch a full breath. Who was it? Was it Rhys? Or a wrong number? Or someone else?
Icy fear cracked an egg on top of her head and oozed liquid nitrogen down her neck and shoulders. She slumped bare-assed on her toilet, her legs twitching with the need to move, to run, as they always had when strange things started happening to her. She didn’t stay alive this long by staying put and ignoring her gut. This at least, her aunties taught her well.
She had money stashed. Eta would trade her cars in a heart beat, had always ogled the shiny Pink VW Bug over her old rusty Cadillac. Flora had a no real plan except to travel east into the big cities where she could get lost and her family’s influence had a tenuous grip. She’d cut her hair again, bleach it down and become someone else. Rent a station at another salon under her other identity, the one she bought before running away. Start over again and disappear into the shadows.
“Hold on now,” Flora said aloud, her voice a soft counter point to the water still thundering in the bath tub. “It could have been a mis-dial. A co-worker drunk dialing me to freak me out because they’re assholes.”
Or it could have been Rhys, she thought wistfully. But no. He’d washed her card and she didn’t think to give her cell out to him again. Three dots make a line. I’ll start packing when I see dot number two. I’m just wound tight from the day and jumping at shadows.
Flora reached over and chose a colorful bath ball at random from the stack in a basket by the tub. It was deep red and white like the Dianthus bunch tattooed on her ribs. She let out a deep steadying breath and plugged the tub, tossing the ball in. She stood there watching it froth and flow in the ripples.
She detoured to her bedroom for a moment and got down on both knees to lift the blankets off the floor on the side of her bed. She groped around in the dark for a minute and finally hooked a finger around the handle of a duffel bag. She tugged it a little and it came toward her reluctantly, wedged tightly under the box spring slats, bulging with necessities. She fought with it until it was at the edge of her bed and then abandoned it. She sighed and tucked the strap back under the bed.
“Just in case.”