Melody’s garden shears rested in her lap as the sun heated the nape of her neck when she finally received the call that the mother she hadn’t spoken to in five years had slit her own throat. The officer called her instead of her younger sister, so she spoke to him in soft tones, asked the appropriate questions that television had taught her how to ask, and hung up. Pruning shears were her mother’s instrument of choice. Melody pushed hers from her lap, one hand resting against her throat.
She smiled. The family orchid was hers.
She rubbed at the scar on her fingers through her gardening gloves before picking up the shears with a shaky grip, wary of the sharp edges. Anxiety crept up her spine like kudzu, winding its way through each separate vertebra until it filled her brain. The sunlight bled through Melody’s dark sunglasses, coaxing a painful thrumming in her skull. She licked her dry lips. Her fingers played with a pink rosebud, admiring its simple softness. Would the orchid be that soft, smell that sweet? A nervous tingle danced across her skin.
Her cellphone rang, and she snatched it off the ground, answering without looking at who the call was from.
“Isn’t this awful?” her sister, April, asked.
Melody barely understood through her sister’s tears. She nodded her head, forgetting that April couldn’t even see her. The silence stretched on until Melody spoke.
“I mean, she’s not in pain anymore,” she said. “Mother was sick. You and I both know that.”
“Leave it to you to be insensitive,” April said. “Mother was right. You’re incapable of feeling for anyone besides yourself.”
There was another long pause before April spoke up again.
“I’ve got you the next flight out here. They haven’t cleaned up yet.”
Melody’s breath hitched as the vines squeezed her lungs. She sucked in a slow, shivering breath. The call ended before she could fight through the strange feeling and speak again, leaving her staring at her home screen.
She spent the next thirty minutes waiting on an Uber to arrive and take her to the airport. There was no partner or child to say goodbye to, no pets. After a series of bad dates and dead Betta fish in her twenties, Melody discovered her affinity for plants. She brushed the leaves of her favorite fern and sighed against it. It did not speak or bend to her touch, though she longed to feel a reassuring caress against her own flesh, one that she wouldn’t feel compelled to flinch or shy away from. Her arms returned to wrap herself in a tight hug, but the effect left her emptier than before.
By the time she finally managed to ride to the airport and take her flight, she found that April had been waiting on her for hours. April embraced her, but Melody stiffened at the touch. She counted backward from five in her head, her lips moving without sound to form each number. Five seconds was the most she would allow, especially with the light pressure April applied to her. When April released her, Melody remembered to smile. April did not return the gesture.
“Are you sure you can handle this?” April asked. “It’s gruesome.”
“I’m a nurse,” Melody said. “I guarantee I’ve seen worse.”
The office hadn’t been cleaned by the professionals April had hired, but Melody insisted on seeing it beforehand. She entered her mother’s mansion after their short drive as if walking into the house of a complete stranger. The items her mother collected over the years stood in a complex order only her mother had known. Melody reached to touch a tea set with hand-painted roses that she once attempted to play with, only to receive the harshest beating of her life with her mother’s favorite leather belt. A heavy scent of vanilla hung in the air. Melody ran her finger across a table and looked at it. Her finger came back caked in dust.
Her brow furrowed. The buds of anxiety bloomed into fear in her chest, and her heart raced.
Melody made her way up the stairs to the office. April called after her, but the words didn’t quite reach her. When a hand reached out to grab her, she pulled away and put distance between herself and the other person. April stood there, rolling her eyes.
“Okay, freak, try to stop tracking mud in my house,” April said. “You know she left me almost everything, right? Didn’t someone call you?”
Melody slipped out of her shoes and handed them over to April. April’s eyes searched her face for whatever she wanted to find, but her smile slipped away when she apparently found nothing.
“Don’t you even care that she’s dead?” April asked.
“What’s there to care about?” Melody asked. She knew her words sounded monotonous and callous. She winced, rubbing at the scar on her finger. April left her standing in the hall. Melody’s covered feet sank into the white, plush carpet. She turned and opened the office door, heart suddenly pounding in her chest.
The smell hit her first—a rotten, metallic odor. She pinched the bridge of her nose to fight it off. She saw a splash of blood across the carved, wooden desk, but most of it had pooled on the carpet. There was a smear where the body had lay, and her mother’s orchid sat next to this, the flower spotless though its pot had been sprinkled with blood.
Melody crept around it, admiring its perfect blossom. She reached out as if to touch it, but then shrank away from it. She grabbed a pencil from her mother’s desk to poke and prod the plant, looking for something sharp—a thorn, perhaps? Orchids didn’t have thorns, however, and she dropped the pencil in the puddle of blood. The moment it splashed into the liquid, she ran from the room, grabbing a small trash can on the way out. She brought its mouth to her own and vomited.
When the men came to clean the room, she told them to wipe off the orchid’s pot, to save it. They asked if she was interested in anything else—the laptop, or maybe the shiny new printer. Melody shook her head, remembering what April had said about their mother’s estate. She just wanted the orchid. Surely April would allow her that.
“That stupid thing?” April asked. “I don’t see why Mother loved it so much. She spent more time in that office, singing to it than actually parenting. If you want it, it’s yours. And I get everything else? No fighting?”
Melody glanced at her. Was that hope in her voice? Hope that Melody would put up a fight against April and her expensive lawyers and try to swipe the mansion out from under her? Melody didn’t want money or valuable things.
“Take it,” Melody said.
The vibrant orchid rested in the darkest corner of Melody’s living room. Gray light filtered in through the bay window, filling the neutral room with shadows. The space was a sharp contrast to her mother’s—there were no picture frames, no trace of anything living beyond the array of green plants such as ferns, aloe, and mother-in-law’s tongue.
The room needed the orchid’s splash of pink-and-white color. The petals gleamed in the dull light around each flower’s crimson, velvet throat. Melody inhaled its perfume but stopped when she smelled something bitter and metallic laced in with the sweetness. She took a seat in one of two gingham armchairs in the room and reached for her cup of chamomile tea and a sheet of paper with instructions for the orchid’s care that the cleaning men recovered from her mother’s office. The tea left a horrible taste in her mouth, as though the orchid’s scent had permeated her senses. She unfolded the paper, but it had only four words: “Start with one drop.”
She glanced at the back of the paper but found nothing. Of course, her mother would be vague even from beyond the grave. She’d always known Melody understood directness best, so she’d lathered her words with sarcasm and vagueness. Melody tossed the card onto the couch. She’d Google it in the morning. Surely the plant could survive until then.
Melody lifted her hand toward the soft petals but hesitated when she was less than an inch from one. She knew, didn’t she? All those times that her mother had claimed to cut herself after pruning the orchid flooded back into her brain, carrying memories of thick bandages and the strong smell of disinfectant as her mother cleaned the wounds. She had even used Melody once to water it, or at least she had attempted to, holding Melody’s finger against the sharp edge of her pruning shears. Melody knew what the orchid wanted. Its crimson throats gaped wide, waiting for nourishment.
She retrieved her pruning shears and ran her finger across one blade, and allowing only a single drop of blood to fall into the orchid’s pot. Her heart hammered against her ribcage as she inspected the flower for a thorn or some other sharp protrusion. Fingers grazed the smooth stem and petals. Her gaze shifted to the pot, but the soil where the blood had fallen was dry.
“Do what you did for Mother,” Melody said. “But do it for me. You know what I want, right?”
She waited for some kind of sign, but the orchid remained silent and vibrant as ever.
The sun poured in through the windows, striking Melody in her face. She drew a pillow over her head and groaned. Then her body tensed as the situation bled into her mind. To start, she had corrected the issue of sunlight pouring into her bedroom with blackout curtains years ago. Second, her alarm hadn’t gone off even though she woke at five every morning. Third, someone was breathing steadily near her ear.
She held her breath to ensure it wasn’t her own, but the exhalation against the nape of her neck continued. She slid the pillow off her head, and peeked out.
A man lay next to her on his stomach, the covers stretched halfway up his back. His eyes moved in their sockets, though the rest of his body remained relaxed. She reached out to touch him, heart fluttering in a mixture of fear and excitement. Her hand stopped just shy of his flesh, and she remembered the orchid, the blood, the deal she had made. Memories of the man filled her mind—the thick, humid air and bright flowers at the botanical garden on their first date, the hot sand between her toes on their first vacation, the sweet taste of white wedding cake, an anniversary spent in the snowy mountains—no, three anniversaries.
The memories spun in her mind like sugar fluffing out into sweet cotton candy. They grew and grew, forming into a web of a life she had both lived and never lived. Each good memory erased those of the people who had claimed to love her—her mother, father, April, countless men. The memories warred with each other at first, but she embraced the ones with the man beside her. No, the ones with Cameron.
All Melody ever wanted was to be loved.
She pressed a kiss to his forehead, and he stirred. Cameron, the only person in this world who knew how to touch her, the only one who was direct and honest and—“Mels,” he said.
He pulled her into his arms, and for a long, beautiful moment, she forgot the orchid.
The bloated, black sky promised rain. For Melody, it was a much-needed break from her once-beloved garden. The previously colorful and lively flowers had wilted and browned from lack of care, but she had been enjoying the sensation of being nurtured. Cameron nourished her in ways that she never thought she’d experience. He loved her in ways she hadn’t even realized were possible—not for her. The first fat drops fell, and the clean scent of rain permeated the air.
Rain meant an entire afternoon curled up with Cameron, reading literary novels or making love in new and creative ways. She inhaled the warm, humid air and smiled before returning inside.
Cameron waited for her in the living room, his hands folded. She took her usual spot next to him on the leather loveseat that had replaced her gingham chairs, but he didn’t respond. He stared out the window, ignoring her touches and the kisses she placed along his throat.
Melody pulled away. He did not meet her probing gaze, and she grasped his chin to turn his head toward her.
“Is something wrong?” she asked. “You’d tell me if something was wrong.”
Outside, lightning flashed in the sky. Melody worried a loose thread on a pillow. Cameron inhaled a deep, careful breath.
“I don’t know if this is working for me,” he said. “Us, I mean.”
Melody’s face fell. The thread came loose in her hand. She asked the usual questions. Was it something I did? Is there someone else? What can we do?
“I think I need some space,” he said.
He rose and left the room without another word. Melody thought to follow him, but then she saw the orchid sitting in its corner, wilted. It had been a month since it had first fed, after all. She had known it would require more eventually, but so soon? How often had her mother fed it when she was a child? How many hours had her mother spent locked in her office, singing to the dreaded flower until her voice grew hoarse? Had she ever seen her mother’s hands without gloves or bandages to hide the horrendous cuts? Melody grasped her pruning shears.
The front door slammed just as she ran the blade across her fingers, though the pain barely registered in her mind. Cameron’s boots clunked against the concrete path just outside the window as she squeezed her finger for a drop of blood. The orchid remained wilted. Sweat ran down her temples. The car door slammed. Melody’s breath hitched as she coaxed out another drop.
The car sputtered to life and the headlights flashed on, bathing the living room in light as the orchid’s color returned from a withered brown to a beautiful pink-and-white. Its stem straightened, filling out with its nourishment. The plant opened up as though it was laughing at her, mouths stretched wide to expose the deepening color of its crimson throats. Darkness flooded the room, the car door opened, and Melody sank to her knees before the orchid’s gaping maws—a smile cleaving her face.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”
The front door opened, and Cameron entered the house once more. He said nothing of his suitcase or the car keys in his hand. He set both down and hurried to her side.
“Why are you crying?” he asked. “Is it April again? What did she say to you this time?”
His finger brushed a tear from her face, and then his lips met hers in a gentle kiss. The orchid, sated, perked up in the living room. Its flowers spread wide, their crimson throats gaping. The plant’s hunger emanated from it, and Melody could no longer bear to be in the same room with it.
“Let’s get you bandaged up,” Cameron said.
He didn’t inquire how she’d injured her finger. Melody had known he wouldn’t ask.
That night, Melody lay awake, fixated on the bandage wrapped around her finger. The scar on her finger was bright white—a glaring reminder of when her mother tried to use Melody’s blood to water the orchid. The pain hadn’t bothered her as much as her mother’s iron grip. As Melody screamed and cried, her mother squeezed her finger, whispering in a panicked voice.
“Work, damn it. Work.”
Over the years, the orchid’s appetite grew and grew. The cuts Melody opened up were more severe. The plant’s appetite increased until Melody grew weary from blood loss—anemia, according to her doctors. Each month, she felt a sudden panic when the orchid wilted. Each month, Cameron grew cold, distant. She tried using animal blood—rats, rabbits, even a stray dog, once. The orchid wanted her blood, and hers alone.
Her plants had wilted ages ago, save for the hardy fern she had loved before Cameron. He showed her affection, unlike anyone else had ever shown her. He was a simple man. He went to work at an office job at the local electric company, came home, kissed his wife, and spent all of his free time with her. She’d quit her nursing job years ago, at his insistence that she take more time for herself. The few friends Melody had slipped away, busy with their own lives. Even April had stopped calling her long ago, content in her mansion surrounded by pretty little things.
All Melody had was Cameron.
She curled up with a well-loved nonfiction book about a local forest. After rereading the same paragraph a dozen times, she turned to him.
“Do you think someone could love me?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said. “I mean, I love you. What is this about?”
“Nothing,” she said. Then, in another breath, “I’m just worried you’ll leave me.”
He set his book down and drew her into his arms. He kissed her forehead.
“When have I ever even hinted at something like that?” he asked.
Melody said nothing. She knew the day was coming, but she didn’t want it to. Her mother made the choice herself, long ago, devoting her life to the orchid without a say from anyone. What had she wished for? Money, a successful career, love, a daughter like April? In the end, her mother had chosen to die rather than lose her wish. The orchid waited in the corner, its maw ready to swallow Melody entirely.
April sat across from her, fidgeting in her metal patio chair. She checked her watch even as she stirred cream and sugar into her coffee. Melody’s chamomile tea sat before her, untouched. When April’s gaze fell onto the cup, Melody gripped the steaming mug in her hands and took a sip without flinching at the scalding water. She licked her lips, enjoying the hint of bitter flavor through the burns on her tongue.
“Why did you come to me?” April asked.
“I don’t know,” Melody said. “Because you’re my sister. Because you knew.”
April glanced around at the people surrounding them, as though they cared about a conversation between two estranged sisters. Better, a conversation between two random women at a coffee shop. A deep sigh slipped from between her lips.
“You kept it,” she said. “I thought there was something weird about Cameron.”
“Apparently, no one can love me,” Melody said. “Is that what you’re saying? Because I’m not like you?”
Something in April’s eyes flashed. She scowled.
“You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met,” April said. “I wanted a normal sister, you know. Instead, I got a sister who had to wear sunglasses indoors and screamed when she was touched. You realize what that’s like? To have a sister you can’t even hug without her screaming and writhing like she’s in pain? Or a sister who literally vomits on your prom dress when she smells your perfume? Or maybe—”
“This was a mistake,” Melody said.
April’s mouth snapped closed. For a moment, something like pity crossed her face. Melody had never been good at reading expressions, but she’d been raised beside April. She’d taught herself how to read April’s facial expressions with the help of teenage dramas, and later adult dramas. It had taken months to finally be able to discern what each face her sister wore meant, hoping to find a loving smile hidden somewhere among the vast array.
“This was a mistake,” Melody said again.
Melody’s chair scraped against the concrete as she stood to leave, and April grabbed her wrist. Melody bristled at the touch but said nothing. People stared at them, their voices falling to a hushed whisper. If April cared about this, she gave no notice.
“You don’t have to do this,” she said. “You’re wrong, you know. I know you think that no one loves you, and I have a hard time showing it, but you’re my sister. You’re a pain, but you’re my pain. Does that make sense?”
Her hand slipped away, and Melody stood staring at her for a long time. Her bandaged arms and hands ached. The overcast sky cast its gray shadow on the world, and Melody waited for the break of sunlight that never came.
“I want to believe that,” she said. “You have no idea how much I want to believe that.”
When she left, April did not follow. The car door closed safely behind her, and Melody rested her head against the steering wheel. She sucked in a deep breath and held it for as long as she could before exhaling a shaky, gasping sigh. The sunlight finally broke through the clouds, but it filtered in through the car window so that its rays didn’t quite reach her. She knew what she had to do next.
Melody waited, lying awake until Cameron’s breathing evened out. She kissed his forehead and slipped out of bed, admiring his sleeping face one last time. How had she missed it before? The curve of the jawline, the long lashes, the straight nose. It was as though bits and pieces of the men she’d admired on TV had formed into one, perfect man. She knew that no matter what she chose, she would lose him. One way, he would disappear forever. Another, she would disappear. There was no compromise in this, no loophole of happiness waiting for her in the other room.
She grabbed the pruning shears off her desk from beside Cameron’s laptop, which played gentle music to help them sleep. Then, she snatched a picture of Cameron from his college years off the wall and left the room. Her footsteps padded against the carpet, soft and soundless as they had years ago when she’d approached the orchid sitting in a pool of her mother’s blood. What had she been so unwilling to give up? What had she died for the lasting memory of?
Melody’s healing wounds itched in their wrappings. She opened the shears as she stood before the orchid. How many people had it killed? How many people would it kill still if she allowed it to live? Her grip on the picture of Cameron tightened, crinkling it.
Her mother had sliced open her own throat with pruning shears to water the orchid a final time, to cement her wish and fill the air with the orchid’s rotten stench. It sucked in the pollution on Melody’s breath and drank the poison in her veins for years before it finally needed to swallow her down its velvet, crimson throats. Her own throat ached, and she reached to touch the plant. The music from Cameron’s laptop drifted down the hallway. Melody’s fingers clutched the photograph of him, willing it to remain after everything.
She lashed out at the orchid, severing its stem.
The house was suddenly quiet as Melody slipped into one of her old gingham chairs. She clutched the blank photo paper between her fingers and rested her head against her beloved fern. Her gaze rested on the walls, now devoid of any pictures or artwork. There was someone she was trying to remember, but she couldn’t think of their name.