My fingers slid off the lock wheel, and I missed the combination. I wiped my hands on my pants and tried again. 9-19-33. I spun that code all four years of high school, but on that day close to the end of my senior year, I couldn’t crack it. It didn’t help that I could hear the carnations hissing at me from inside the locker. “Just open it,” they said. “It’s not that fucking hard.” As I went for the final pass on 33, they called out to me in their ghoulish whispers like I was breaking them out of their prison cell before the guard completed his rounds.
When the lock clicked, the bouquet of pink blossoms leapt from the locker onto the floor, spilling from the brown grocery bag I’d stuffed it in that morning. Stuck together with rubber bands and a plastic covering, they slithered along the floor as one. “You getting a yes, Colby?” asked a fellow senior who nudged my ass with his cleat and threw me off balance as I bent down for the flowers.
“Showtime,” the carnations said.
“Not yet,” I snarled. I shoved them back into the paper bag and set them in the locker.
They should’ve known it wasn’t time yet. We’d discussed the plan the night before when they woke me up. At that point, I should’ve bailed on the flowers. They’d been a last-minute grab on my way home from school when I cut through the cemetery attached to the church where my dad preached. I thought a fresh bouquet of free flowers was a steal, except they were probably possessed. That’s what my dad or half the faculty at my Catholic high school would’ve said, if I’d let any of them know.
I grabbed the can of body spray I kept in the back of my locker and gave my underarms and chest a once-over. I sniffed the Christmas candle from the theatre club’s white elephant exchange. The smell of peppermint still calms me. For the last step, I rubbed the rosary that hung from its little hook and muttered, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” That’s all I muttered because I was a good Lutheran boy, and I didn’t know the rest.
I beelined for Morgan’s locker at the other end of the 400 wing, paper bag in hand. I wanted to be waiting for her. The plan was she’d walk into the hall, see me holding the flowers, say ‘yes,’ and we’d walk into our next class together. This was the scenario I’d been playing in my mind all high school, although that week, Morgan was the girl.
She rounded the corner as I got to her locker. Our eyes met, and I grabbed the flowers by their stems and unsheathed them like a greatsword. But the bag fell to the floor, and when I looked up to see her smile, I didn’t see any part of her anywhere. I saw my classmates raising individual eyebrows at me in eerie unison and the door to the girls’ bathroom swing closed, but no Morgan.
“Uh oh,” one of the carnations managed to get out before I tucked the bouquet into the paper bag once more. My fellow seniors with whom I shared the 400 wing lockers walked by and asked me about the flowers. It was a small school, and the president of the chess club bringing flowers to school two weeks before prom was juicy news, especially with my track record. I pressed my back against the nearest wall and ignored them. I looked at my phone and glanced up at the bathroom door, waiting for Morgan to emerge.
Students mingled until the bell rang, then dispersed to their respective classrooms. I didn’t have to rush anywhere. Morgan’s and my next class, Pre-Calculus with Mrs. Gaston, was right across from me.
Was it the flowers that scared Morgan off or the question I printed on her U.S. History exam, I wondered. No, it couldn’t be either of those things. Mr. Knight had told me asking her to prom that way was a great idea, and she liked me. Our characters had held hands in the spring musical, and she’d invited me to her birthday party that year. Those were good signs, I thought. She’d ducked into the bathroom because she was nervous. That was all.
I could feel the carnations struggling in the bag. Their leaves scraped against the inside, but there was no way they were breaking out. With only a few stragglers milling about in the hall, the flowers’ voices carried further. I squashed their grumblings of “It’s too hot in here,” and “We’re going to die in the trash,” by giving the bag a vigorous shake. There was no need to panic. I was a thespian. I could improvise.
The final bell rang, and I was late for class. But so was Morgan. And so was Mrs. Gaston. She was never late, but she was that day. I could stay out there and wait until either Morgan emerged or Mrs. Gaston showed up and forced me into class.
“Why aren’t you going inside?” asked a flower that had maneuvered itself out of the covering and bag. Its voice, alone and without those of its brethren, sounded ominous and ethereal, like something out of a sci-fi movie.
“I want to ask her out here.” I liked performing in front of an audience just as much as the next actor. But even I knew there were some things better done in private. And the odds no longer seemed in my favor. I’d gone stag to every dance if I’d gone at all, and I wanted the best chance of ending that streak.
“She may be waiting for you to go inside,” the flower said, twisting itself around my arm.
“Why? So she can say ‘yes’ in front of a crowd, or so she can avoid talking to me at all?”
The carnation looked at me. It scaled my arm to my shoulder, so we were cheek to petal when it said, “How the hell would I know? I’m a flower.”
The carnation fluttered its petals, as if making itself more comfortable.
“Can I ask you something? Have you witnessed a lot of people getting asked to prom?”
The flower shook its head. “I haven’t been out of the dirt that long. But I know the business. Promposals, weddings, Valentine’s Day, funerals. We inherently know how these things work. Part of being a flower.”
That starting knowledge must’ve been nice. I wish I hadn’t had to learn how those things worked the hard way.
“Can I ask you another question?” I waited for a reply, but there was none. “Why do you care so much?”
The carnation hadn’t been looking at me since my initial question. Like a parrot on a pirate captain’s shoulder, it had been grooming itself, fluffing its petals. But it stopped to look at me. “Because I’ve grown invested in you as a person.”
“No. We don’t want to get thrown in the trash, and that’s the way this looks like it’s going.”
“You were just going to rot on that grave if I didn’t take you,” I said.
“A noble death.” The carnation shook its petals and resumed its preening.
Morgan still hadn’t left the bathroom. That wasn’t a good sign. A few of my classmates had gotten up from their seats and were trying to get a good view through the classroom door’s small window. At first, this was just embarrassing. I must’ve looked like a real weirdo with that flower on my shoulder. I tried to push the carnation back in the paper bag, but it got caught in the plastic wrapping.
Just then another classroom door halfway down the hall opened. If another teacher caught me out there, I’d get detention and a lecture from dad. I sprinted for my classroom and wrenched the door open. My classmates freaked out and ran to their own seats, no doubt expecting Mrs. Gaston to follow close behind me. I stood in the front of the classroom before my classmates. I struck a weird image, no doubt, standing there with a brown grocery bag covering whatever I held in my hand. Like an Olympic torch bearer or the Statue of Liberty, I gave them all a small nod to assure them everything was okay, that my behavior was perfectly normal. Then I headed over to the back-right corner where I sat next to Raj.
Raj whispered to me, “No Mrs. Gaston?”
“Haven’t seen her,” I said, unpacking my backpack onto the desk.
“Everybody’s wondering who you’re asking.”
My classmates glanced over their shoulders, trying to get a peek. Like meerkats, their heads bobbed up, registering that I’d seen them, and they returned to their own things.
“Is it Morgan?” Raj whispered. “Everybody thinks it’s Morgan.”
“Guess you’ll just have to find out,” I said.
Raj snorted. “Now I definitely know it’s Morgan.”
“How?” I asked, grabbing the carnations off the desk.
“Dude, she’s the only one not here.” He gave me a good luck fist bump, and I headed to the front of the classroom.
Some of my classmates asked in whispers if it was Morgan as I walked to the front of the classroom. But it sounded like bees buzzing, not people talking. My peripheral vision had shut off, and all I could see was the classroom door, the door through which Morgan could enter at any moment. It felt like I was underwater, but not in a pool or someplace with clear water. More like a lake where the water’s murky and you try not to step on empty beer cans planted in the mud like mines. It was impossible to hear except in distorted rumblings, and there was nothing to see unless I picked an exact spot to fixate upon. And only then did the spot become clear.
I could see Rick trying to get my attention from the table closest to me. His mass was visible in my peripheral vision but undefined. It looked like he was beckoning me to come over to him. He was trying not to make too much of a show of it because I didn’t hear anything from him, but I focused on the door.
As it opened and I saw long red hair instead of short grey hair, I whipped the bag off the flowers. “Showtime?” they asked at a decibel level only I could hear.
“Showtime,” I said under my breath, but it was loud enough that Morgan heard. She stopped walking and looked right at me. I haven’t said ‘showtime’ right before I asked someone out since.
“Hey Colby,” she said. She took one look at the flowers, then she looked at her feet. Then the ceiling. Then over at her spot in the back-left corner. She didn’t look me in the eyes.
“So, did you get my question?” I asked instead of asking the question.
“Yes,” she said in a voice even lower than the carnations’ whisper.
“And?” I couldn’t even just ask it. I couldn’t even get the words ‘will you go to prom with me’ out.
“Colby,” she said, her eyes darting as if planning her escape route, “I’m sorry. I’m waiting for someone else to ask me.”
I heard those words, and I broke the surface of the water. The tunnel vision disappeared, and I watched in my peripherals as she walked to the back-left corner where she sat next to another girl and hid her face in her textbook. My ears weren’t met with a cacophony of groans or laughs. All I heard was a solitary “oh shit.”
The flowers squirmed in my hand. They tried to break free of my grasp, but I clamped down on them hard so they couldn’t slip through my clammy hands. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, but I didn’t want to take them back to my desk. There was a trash can to my right by the door. Maybe that was the best solution, I thought. Just wipe everything clean, get rid of the weird things, and hope the whole debacle dies over the weekend.
I aimed the flowers for the trash can just as the door handle turned. There was only one person that could walk through the door then, and I spun around to run to my desk. As I did so, the bouquet jumped from my hand and landed on Rick’s desk, all except the flower that had sat upon my shoulder. Unable to weave its way back within the plastic covering, it fell onto the linoleum by Rick’s feet. At my table, Raj gave me another fist bump, this one of condolence.
Mrs. Gaston announced her presence as I took my seat.
“Those flowers are gorgeous, Rick,” she exclaimed. She raised the bouquet from off his table and held it up to get a better look. “Who are they for?”
I ducked my head. I didn’t want to look at anyone. I knew everyone was looking at me or wanted to. There were three places they could be looking: at Mrs. Gaston, at Morgan, at me. Statistically, someone was bound to be looking at me.
Rick mumbled something, but I couldn’t tell what he said. Mrs. Gaston didn’t hear it either because she asked him to repeat it.
“They’re for you,” he said. My head shot up at this. Someone had to be fucking kidding me, but no, no one was. Mrs. Gaston squealed in delight and took the flowers back to her desk right behind Morgan’s table. There, she placed the bouquet of pink carnations in a blue vase whose previous occupants, a mixed bouquet of wilted petals and stems, were thrown into the trash right behind Morgan’s seat. The carnations seemed to bloom in the vase, their petals opening in what I guessed was a smile, a smile of relief. Water at last.
“Ok, class. Let’s get started,” Mrs. Gaston said as she stepped to the front of the classroom.
The next hour dragged on. I couldn’t focus on what Mrs. Gaston was drawing on the board. I couldn’t focus on any equation or problem. There was always someone looking over at me. Whenever I looked up at the board, I saw a head flash back to the front, a classmate’s focus returned to where it should’ve been. I tried to keep my eyes from Morgan. I didn’t want to look at her. I couldn’t make it seem like I was upset. I’d been there before.
But I’d thought I had that one in the bag. I brought flowers. Talking flowers, too. It was still unclear whether they were like the talking flowers from Alice in Wonderland or more like the plants in Little Shop of Horrors. But the flowers were supposed to be my guarantee. I was told to be bold. I thought I was bold. I learned bold doesn’t always work.
I didn’t want things to be awkward between Morgan and me. I leaned back in my seat so the two tables of classmates between us didn’t block our communication and mouthed ‘sorry’ to her.
But she was focused on the logarithms Mrs. Gaston was writing on the board. I gave up, but I didn’t turn away. The flowers were swaying in the vase right behind Morgan. With all the students focused on Mrs. Gaston or sneaking looks at their cellphones under the tables, they paid no attention to the odd behavior of the flowers. Mrs. Gaston was so focused on her notes on the board that she didn’t see them either. But I saw them. I saw them dancing. They must’ve noticed me looking, because the carnations turned to face me better and flowed from left to right, their petals opening and closing, their leaves moving up and down. I heard “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor in my head. Things had worked out for them. They’d live longer in that vase than in the cemetery.
The bell rang, but Mrs. Gaston raised her hand to stop any of us from running out. As she repeated the homework assignment I wouldn’t do, I packed up my backpack, inching the zippers open and sliding the books in with both hands to cushion any sound. I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, but Mrs. Gaston’s glare stopped me in my tracks. After another rambling, she let us go, and I beat the rest of the class from the room, carrying what didn’t make it into my backpack in my hands.
I unlocked my locker in one go and buried my face as far into it as I could, the smells of peppermint and deodorant no longer soothing. I had never had this view of my locker before. Things I hadn’t seen before stuck out to me: a wad of green gum, not mine, plastered just inside the locker frame in the top right corner, a couple of loose papers wedged into the seam on the left side, a small, crumpled box hidden behind the government textbook I never took to class.
I picked up the box. It was the pack of cigarettes my brother gave me from his locker when he graduated. I forgot about the pack after I snuck it into my locker at the beginning of that year. I stood the pack up next to the body spray, wondering if then was the time to pick up a new habit.
As I imagined how cool and aloof I would look, dragging on a cigarette, whispers of “Colby just got rejected by Morgan” and “I feel so bad for her” and “I feel bad for him” were chirped through the hall. I knew the news would make its way to the freshmen, sophomores, and juniors soon enough. All I had to do was make it through lunch and two more periods, and I’d be home free with only Monday to worry about.
“Dude, I’m sorry. That sucked.”
Rick stood behind me. He grimaced and shifted his weight from one foot to the other like he was ready to go, doing his due diligence.
“You know, if you had just looked over at me, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “I knew she was waiting for Terry to ask her. He said in basketball practice yesterday he’s already made the sign.”
“Great,” I said. I had no chance against Terry. “Why did you give Gaston the flowers?”
He rubbed the back of his head and looked away. “I didn’t know what to do, man. I didn’t want to out you or Morgan, but they weren’t mine.”
If he’d hoped to console me, he hadn’t.
“I don’t know what you want to do with this, but you dropped it.”
Before I could refuse, he handed me the carnation that fell from the bouquet and walked away. It was a little trampled. Some of the petals were barely hanging on and parts of the stem had been flattened. It must’ve been under Rick’s feet awhile before he noticed it. I thought it was dead. I threw it into the locker along with my books and binders, and it stood up. It leaned against my can of body spray, crossing its leaves behind its petals like hands behind its head.
“Looks like we both got the shit end of the deal,” it said, its voice low and rough, no longer soft and delicate like before. It sounded like a two-pack a day smoker.
“What do you mean by we both got the shit end?”
“You got rejected, and I got stuck out here with you. They’re going to make it another couple of weeks at least.” The carnation scoped out the rest of the locker, poking around with its leaves, knocking over the pack of cigarettes. “I’ll die in here in less than a day.”
“I can find you some water if you want.”
The carnation waved me off and stumbled over to the edge of the shelf and tried to crawl up the side of the wall, to what I wasn’t sure.
“Or I could try and get you into the vase with the others.” I didn’t know how I would do that. Mrs. Gaston always locked her door during lunch.
“Do you not see me?” the carnation asked, pausing from its attempts to ascend. It motioned with its leaves towards its whole body. Parts of the petals looked dark and wet from where they were pushed into the floor. The stem looked like it was about to collapse in on itself.
“I’m dying here,” it rasped. “I’ll wilt in a day if that. Getting in that vase won’t do me any good. I’ll be plucked for the trash by the final bell.”
“They’d do that?” That seemed cruel. I thought these flowers would be like siblings to each other, or maybe cousins.
“Flowers are good for one thing. And if I’m wilting, I can’t do that thing. Plus, they wouldn’t want her to think they are wilting and that she may need to dump them out.”
“She left the last flowers in there awhile,” I said, hoping the thought of flowers rotting in my teacher’s vase would provide some comfort.
“I doubt they’ll think that way.” The carnation quit scrambling at the wall, so I picked him up, setting him atop the second shelf of my locker. He gestured with his leaf that he wanted to go higher.
There was no one else in the 400 wing. The classroom doors were all closed, and the students had gone to lunch. I obliged the carnation and put it on the top of the row of lockers.
It hobbled off my hand to the small window above my locker and pulled itself onto the windowsill. The sunlight haloed the flower, some of its light piercing through the holes in the flower’s petals and stem.
“Thanks, I’ll take it from here,” the carnation said as it lay down, hidden from my view by the sill.
I shut my locker and backed up to the other side of the hallway to see if I could get a glimpse of the carnation. Even from the other end, I could only see the tip of a pink petal or two.
“Good luck next time, Colby,” it said.
I waved at the windowsill, then walked to the cafeteria already planning for the next time.