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A Sunflower for You
It was summer, the same as the rest before, but like no other after. A thick never-ending heat lay over the town, suffocating it in a blistering fog of dust and sweat. I awoke and looked around groggily. My yellow dress clung to my body. It was stained with sweat, mud, and blood. My hair was tangled, and my face felt clouded and dirty.
“Okay,” I thought, “time to figure out where I am.” I searched the room for any familiar sign. There was a gray weathered couch supporting me. Over the walls stretched paintings from ceiling to floor. They were paintings of dogs, dogs playing poker, dogs in dresses, dogs eating trash, dogs sitting at computers, dogs hanging from trees. Surrounding me were hundreds of dogs’ eyes all staring, searching, questioning why I was there.
“Why am I here?” My head pounded. “Obviously, I would remember this place if I had been here before.” I laughed a bit. “Way to go, Austin, you really screwed up this time.” Rolling my eyes, I sat up…and then laid back down instantly as my head thudded, rapidly blocking out my vision. I opened my eyes again and sat up much slower this time. There was a window that looked like it had been broken by a baseball; the floor was hidden under trash. There were beer cans and plastic cups everywhere, cards were scattered throughout the room, and right next to the couch sat an overflowing ashtray.
I licked my lips. They were cracked from the heat, and my mouth was bone dry. “Water. Zeus, I need water.” I stood slowly and moved towards the door. I reached out and laid my hand on the metal knob which was refreshingly cool against my sweaty palm. I turned the handle and then heard a loud crash and voices from the other side. “Damn, now what?”
My mind quickly turned over the options in my head. I could walk out that door and risk finding out who was on the other side, I could crawl back on the couch and pass out again like my body was begging me to, or I could open the window and find a way down. I looked between the doors, couch and the window, and finally my eyes rested on the window as I walked towards it. I couldn’t see any trees from where I stood. “Zeus, let there be a freaking drain pipe.” I edged closer to the window and looked out. There was no drainpipe, but it was a first-story window. I sighed with relief and slid open the broken window. Easing myself onto the ledge, I flopped gracefully onto the other side and began walking.
Amberly wasn’t a very big city, but it wasn’t small enough to know every street. I had never seen nor heard of this neighborhood before. Barefooted, I walked into a stranger’s yard and turned on the hose. Quickly, I drenched my pleading mouth with the sweet cool water. Turning off the hose, I closed my eyes and spun around a few times. I stopped, opened them, and began walking in that direction.
“Zeus!!” I exclaimed. My phone, my freaking phone was gone. I slammed my hand against my forehead, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” My entire body was aching. I walked across the street and stretched out beneath a shady tree and closed my eyes. “Think,” I coaxed myself, exhaustedly.
“Wait!” My eyes burst open. “Where’s Ally?” My mind immediately flooded with images: Ally smiling, Ally laughing, Ally stroking my head, Ally holding my hair back while I puked, Ally dancing, Ally singing along to the music in my car, Ally yelling, Ally crying, Ally’s shocked, hurt and broken face. “Oh, Ally, I’m sorry,” I whispered to the choking heat. “I’m so sorry.”
Everything about our friendship had been purely by chance and extremely abrupt. I grew to lean on her, though, like the big sister I never had. “I really need her right now.” My eyes felt prickly and my breathing quickened. “I seriously need a cigarette. I must have smoked them all last night.” My panic was rising. “Calm down, Austin,” I told myself. I lay back down and turned my head to the side. There I saw a sunflower, withered and brown. It reminded me of the day I met Ally. It represented the change in our friendship which now felt withered and dead. I couldn't stop the tears from rolling down my face.
She walked barefoot on the sidewalk, one hand wrapped in her tangled blonde mess of curls, the other swinging at her side. Her white sundress seemed hazy in the heat, and her mascara was smudged below her brilliantly green eyes.
She weaved in and out of people, humming along to the music in her head. The world seemed to move in slow motion around her. She walked up to Starbucks, pushed the door with her hip, and turned inside.
The bell above the door jangled, and Jack, the barista, smiled at her, recognizing her instantly (she was a regular). He had never spoken to her about anything other than coffee. He had tried, but she always seemed distant and in a daze, and his tongue would stick to the roof of his mouth. He didn’t even know her last name. All he knew was that her first name was Austin, she was addicted to caffeine, and she rarely wore shoes.
Jack stepped up to the register. “What will it be today, Austin?”
She looked thoughtfully for a moment at the menu board. “I’ll have an iced frappuccino.” She paid, then picked up a marker off the counter and drew an odd shaped heart on her wrist. Jack handed her the cup.
“Thanks, doll,” she said, smiling at him nonchalantly.
She swayed back out into the heat and sat on a chair in the shade. She closed her eyes as she sipped the coffee, breathing in deeply. The bracelets on her wrist jangled as they slid down her arm. Her skin was lined with beads of sweat, and her eyes squinted as she stared up at the sky.
Her arms were now flung out to both sides of her, catching the breeze as it slid through her hands. She giggled at the feeling of it.
She stood up, her bare feet gliding across the smooth pavement. Stooping down, she picked the only sunflower left in the small garden at the front of the store and placed it in her hair.
She knew she was different, and she liked it. She was the kind of girl that danced in the rain instead of hiding from it. She was free and original and… rare, almost as rare as the lone sunflower in her hair that had survived the sweltering heat of the week.
On the patio a few tables down sat another girl. She looked a few inches short of six feet with reddish-brown hair tied up on top of her head. She had dark brown eyes, round cheeks, and a wide nose. She had been people-watching all morning, and up until Austin walked back out of Starbucks, her attention had been fixated upon the businessman that led a double life as Bob-Bo, the birthday clown. Her eyes were now drawn to Austin. She was confused. Usually it was fun to guess who strangers were or to make it up, but she couldn’t bring herself to do that with this girl.
Austin stood up and, coffee in hand, crossed her feet one over the other, moving up onto her tip-toes, spinning in her own rhythm, flinging herself out into the street. The other girl stared, surprised at her liveliness. She was distracted for a brief moment by a woman around the age of 35 who walked past her, wearing clothes two sizes too small and a fake chest two sizes too big. “Single mother, never married, gold digger,” she thought, and then switched her attention back to Austin.
Austin had stopped dancing and now sat on a curb. She leaned forward, a cigarette hung from her lips and she cupped the lighter in her hand. She lay back on the grassy island behind her and shut her eyes tight. The smoke drifted up lazily around her and dissipated into the air. She began to hum again, but this time the song was sadder and more powerful.
She finished the cigarette, stood and walked determinedly towards Starbucks. She locked eyes with the girl sitting at the table.
“Hi, I’m Austin.”
The girl was slightly taken aback. She stared at Austin for a few moments before responding, “I’m Allison.”
Austin smiled and pulled out a chair. She sat with her feet crossed under her and pulled the flower out of her hair. She laid it on the table between them, and Allison absentmindedly picked it up and twirled it between her fingertips.
That’s how we became friends.
I learned a few important things about Austin.
Number One: She is always late, no matter what.
Number Two: She hates shoes.
Number Three: When she swears, she says Zeus instead of God because she doesn't know if she believes in a higher power. If she did, she would believe in the Greek gods, because they have cool stories and interesting names.
Number Four: Whenever I thought I knew what was going to happen, I was completely and utterly wrong.
Number Five: She is addicted to two things: coffee and cigarettes.
Number Six: She never tells anyone her whole story, not even me.
Once I had established and understood these rules, it was easier to be around Austin. She was a free spirit full of vivacious life and joy that I never thought could run out, but when it did, it seemed like the whole world was less bright.
At first, rule number six didn’t seem to be a big deal. I didn’t tell her much of my own story either. However, Austin’s story was a lot more disturbing and hurtful than my own. I didn’t realize any of that, though, until it was almost too late.
Her father had died in an accident at work when she was three, leaving her an only child. His death left them a pretty big sum of money, but the toll it took on her mother was almost unbearable. For as long as Austin could remember, her mom had been popping in and out of depression erratically.
Everything in her life seemed erratic. She lived life on the edge, always waiting for the next wave of opportunity to drag her out to sea. Most of the waves left her there, drowning. She was silently suffocating below the surface. One could go out into that ocean on a boat, and they wouldn't notice her. It wasn't until they jumped in the water and swam by her side that they could see how much she struggled.
That's what I had done. I had headed out to sea on a boat and innocently jumped in the water to cool off. There I found her, drowning in her own confusion and desolation. It was my job to save her. I couldn't leave her behind and yet, I had. In a mass of anger, confusion, worry and fear, I had left her there, drowning all by herself in that big blue ocean of life.
The words floated into my mind, biting me, gnashing at my conscious. “Austin, just grow up already. You can't keep living like this. I can't take care of you forever. Is this all you care about? What are you going to do when you're on your own?” I yelled at her and a saw each word slam against her, just like those waves. My words were drowning her quicker then all of her failings.
“Just stop, Allison. It's enough.” Austin had stared me down, her jaw set straight, tears close to spilling from her eyes. “I get it! You're pissed that you had to take care of me again. It's not my fault you're so uptight. Zeus, Ally, I don't ask you to save me.” Her voice was shaky and layered with sarcasm. “I never begged you to come to my rescue. I was perfectly fine without you. You want to know the reason I invite you along? It's because I feel sorry for you.” The anger had streamed from her mouth like the smoke of a fire that had been smoldering for years, continuously growing with every disappointment in her life. “That day at Starbucks, you looked so pathetic sitting there by yourself. I don't need you, okay? So if you want to go, just go.”
I had stormed out livid, not with Austin, but with myself for letting her down. I turned the corner and had perceived her hand brushing at her cheek. My heart had been wrenched inside me.
I was lying in bed rolling those thunderous words through my mind when the phone rang, shaking me from my sullen stupor.
I let it ring a few times, not wanting to talk to anybody, but then I thought it might be Austin, so I answered it. “Hello…Austin?”
“No, actually this is Cindy, Austin’s mom. I was wondering if you might know where she is. She didn’t come home last night.”
“I…I’m sorry.” My breath had caught in my chest, and it was hard to form words. “I didn’t see her at all last night,” I whispered. “I’ll let you know if I hear from her.” I hung up the phone and sank back into my bed. My entire body felt numb.
“Where could she be?” I thought back to rule number four. This was definitely not what I expected to happen. She could be dead, she could have been raped, she could have been in a horrific car accident. Images of her mangled body, distorted by some awful experience, haunted my eyes. One image struck me more than the rest. It was of Austin drowning, her body stiff, her blonde hair like cobwebs in the water.
“I have to find her.” Immediately, I reached for my cell and began calling all of our common acquaintances, but none of them had seen Austin. A few of them gave me numbers of others to call. Finally, I was able to get a hold of someone who had seen Austin.
“She was at O’Dean’s last night, big yellow house on Saxon. Anyways, she was carried up to some room by one of the guys there, looked like she’d passed out. She was barely breathin’.”
I slammed down the phone and checked the Internet for directions to Saxon.
The unadulterated heat blurred the view of the world.
Austin was lying under the tree, contemplating the stains on her dress. She remembered feeling hungry and scared, but she couldn’t remember why. Hopelessness and confusion welled up inside of her. Why did she have blood dried onto her dress? She had been blocking out the feeling in the pit of her stomach. “What in the Underworld happened to me last night?” She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to block out the quick flashbacks of last night. They made no sense to her, but the fear they instilled was unbearable.
When she opened them, she saw a figure in the distance. She was wearing a green T-shirt and dark jeans. The person began to jog a bit. Soon she was flat-out running. Austin felt relief flooding through her as powerful as her flowing blood. Allison searched her face for clues as to what had happened. Austin silently questioned Ally with her eyes. “Why didn’t you come sooner? I don’t know what’s happened to me.”
Ally knelt down beside Austin and pulled her head onto her lap. She stroked Austin’s curls like a mother would, trying to comfort her. Silently, they sat that way for a while. Ally, staring at the bloodstains on Austin’s dress. Austin, clenching tight against the tears that were forming behind her lids, whispered in a choked voice, “I can’t remember last night.”
Ally enveloped her in a hug, and then she pulled Austin up out of the salty, clamoring sea and began to lead her back to shore. As they passed by one of the neighborhood gardens, Ally bent and scooped up a sunflower. She soothingly repeated the words, “It’s alright now,” and placed the sunflower in Austin’s hair.