The bell on the door chimed softly as Joe entered the small flower shop. Sandra was pissed at him for working late again; she’d made that much clear when he’d rolled in past ten last night.
Who is she, Joe?
Who is who?
The woman you’re screwing.
What are you talking about, Sandy? You know I have the Brinkman proposal to finish by next week. It’s requiring more time and effort than Bob anticipated when he signed us up for the damn thing.
That’s great, Joe. What about time and effort for me, huh? Remember when I used to warrant some of that?
Save it. Just… forget it. I’m fine. I have a headache.
She’d gone to bed shortly after that, leaving him to day old takeout and late night talk shows, and wondering how things had gone so wrong. They’d grown up together and Sandra was the first girl he’d ever really fallen for, right around the time most boys stop viewing girls as vectors for the dreaded cootie virus and instead as objects of vague worship and, perhaps, abject terror. When he nervously asked her to junior prom he was surprised when she’d immediately said yes. Ten years later, through college and law school and marriage, they were still together, at least in a legally binding sense.
Joe couldn’t place an exact time when or how the hostility had crept into their relationship, but now it was an old companion, a sort of abstract partner in an existential m************s. She was right though; Joe had been spending too much time at work lately, and she did warrant more than a late night kiss goodnight and the occasional, passionless bout of l********g when he managed to find the energy. If he was being honest, even those rare trysts were on the verge of becoming extinct, a concept ten-years-ago Joe would have surely laughed his a*s off at as being outside the realm of possibility. The embers of their relationship may have died off from the raging wildfire it had been at the start, but there was surely something he could do to breathe some life back into the flame. That’s all this thing needed; a little TLC and some good, old-fashioned romance. So, flowers.
The girl behind the counter looked up when she heard the bell, her face flitting quickly from smile to confusion to fear, before settling on a smile again, perhaps a little more sickly than before.
“Hello, Mr. Sandoval, what can I help you with? W-was there something wrong with your purchase?”
Joe was surprised. He’d been in this shop before but it must have been six months ago or longer. Probably longer, if he had to wager a guess. He couldn’t be sure if this was the girl who had waited on him the last time which made it even more impressive that she not only recognized his face but remembered enough to call him by name. The girl was pretty, about eighteen, short brown hair and a light dusting of freckles across her nose. He glanced at her name tag.
“No, ah, Veronica, everything was great with the last purchase. Totally fine. But you know how it goes, these darn flowers don’t last forever, ha ha. I seem to have found myself in some hot water with my wife, so I thought I’d take off from work a little early today and get her an apology bouquet on the way home. She likes…”
“Red roses, I remember, Mr. Sandoval. A dozen like last time?”
“Uh… yeah, a dozen’d be great. And if you could make it up with some of the filler and bows and whatnot?”
“Of course, Mr. Sandoval. It’ll be just a minute.”
She walked briskly from behind the counter into the cooler and glanced at him briefly over her shoulder before beginning to select roses from the bin. Joe frowned at her back, absently rubbing his chin. This was the oddest thing he’d experienced in a long time; granted a dozen red roses must be a pretty common choice of bouquet, but the girl must have some kind of photographic memory to keep track of individual customer’s orders on top of everything else. Heck of a thing to waste as a clerk at a florist shop. He looked down and noticed a small drop of red on his hand from where he’d touched his face; must have cut himself shaving this morning and reopened it accidentally.
Veronica finished selecting the flowers and brought them over to another table. Joe noticed her hands were shaking as she arranged some baby’s breath and staggered the roses before tying the arrangement off with a red bow. She returned to the counter.
“That’ll be thirty even, Mr. Sandoval. Credit again?”
“Huh? Yeah. Yes, credit that’s right,” Joe fumbled to pull his wallet out of his pocket and find his Visa before handing it over. It was maybe a little harder than it should be because of an odd bruise across the back of his hand. Where had that come from? She swiped the plastic on a little device next to the register and handed him the bill and a pen.
“Here, you are, sir. P-please sign there.”
“Thanks,” Joe bent to sign the receipt, “Say, if you don’t mind me asking how do you remember so much about me? I mean, my name and what flowers my wife likes and everything.” He glanced up to see Veronica had taken a step back. She was standing rigid, arms straight and hands by her sides, a look of confusion on her face. “What’s the matter?”
“Mr. Sandoval, are you all right?”
“What? Yeah, I’m fine! Look, are you still worried about the flowers from last time or something? That was six months ago!” The girl’s confused look turned to one of fear, her lips quivering.
“M-Mr. Sandoval, you were here maybe an hour ago and… and there’s something on you. A-all over you. Something red.” Eyes wide and threatening to overflow with tears she began edging sideways towards the telephone on the wall. “I think I need to call the police.”
“What? No, don’t… that can’t… I just… I’ve gotta get home.” Picking up the bouquet Joe backed toward the entrance of the shop. “Just… sorry for scaring you.”
He tripped through the door, bell ringing angrily, and ran to his car, practically throwing himself into the driver seat. He sat there for a moment, a dozen thoughts whirling around in his head. What Veronica said was impossible. Joe had no idea what the hell that was all about, but knew he had to get home. Get home to Sandy, and save their relationship. He could make everything all right if he could just get home. In a daze, he put the car in gear.
He pulled into his driveway just a few minutes later. The winter sun was already well on its way to setting, shadows from the branches of the trees in his yard being thrown long and sinister as he stumbled out of the car gripping the flowers. The mental fog he had driven home in was abruptly lifted, replaced by a sort of double vision, a living episode of deja vu. Joe saw things both as they were Now, and as they were at some previous time Before. It must not have been that long ago, because although the light in the sky had not yet begun to die in the vision of Before, the black truck he didn’t recognize was still parked at the end of the driveway.
Making his way up the walk he noticed that before Joe carried flowers in his hand much the same way that Now Joe did. The front door was open ajar now, where before it had been closed but not locked. Entering and making his way down the hallway, dodging the strewn piles of clothing that had been there before, Joe was struck by the quiet emptiness of now. Before there had been noises of talking, and laughing, and other things. Now the hallway was dark in the gathering night, where before the sunlight had crept through the shaded windows and thrown patterns across the floor. The bedroom door was cracked open now as it had been then. From the time he entered the house, the vision of before had been gradually shifting to shades of crimson. Now, reaching the threshold of the bedroom, the perspective was completely distorted, as if someone had dumped a bucket of blood over before Joe’s head, then abruptly cut to black. Left to one viewpoint, Joe felt his shoes clinging to something sticky on the floor. Looking down he could see a dark stain had spread across the carpet where he was standing, punctuated here and there by petals torn from the bouquet strewn in the corner of the hallway where it had been dropped. The dying light was too dim to tell, but he knew they were red.
“Sandy?” he whispered her name, as if a prayer.
Only silence answered.