I pull the keys out of the pocket of my jacket and fit them into the door of the flower shop. It swings open wide, releasing a breath of scented air. I wait just long enough to let Kasey in after me, then close the door and lock it again, leaving the sign flipped to closed. Kasey stands by the window in silence, and I feel compelled to say something.
“That was a nice funeral, I thought.”
Kasey nods. She’s gazing out of the window, so I can’t see her expression.
“I liked the poem. I just wish…” She hesitates, chewing her lip. “Thank you for all of your help putting it together, Jamie. I really appreciate it.”
“Stop it. Of course I was gonna help. I was going to help even if-” Neither of us seem able to finish a sentence today. “What are best friends for, right?”
“Is this what best friends are for?”
“I guess? Stuff like this, anyways.” I step up behind the counter and drop my bag in its cubby. “How’d you like my funeral outfit?”
Kasey comes to lean her elbows on the countertop.
“Let’s see, a black flannel, black jeans and black converse. It’s almost like the same thing you wear every day, but in black.”
“No, this is my nice flannel. Very different.”
“You look incredibly handsome as always, James.”
“Oh it’s James now, is it? We’re getting formal?”
“Well, that’s the power of the nice flannel.” She rocks up onto her tiptoes and plants a kiss on my forehead. “Are there any more of the flowers we used for the funeral? I want to keep one.”
“They’re in the back.”
Kasey cuts across the shop and disappears into the storage area. I twist as someone taps against the window: we’re not open yet, but Ms. Callahan is outside. She’s still in her funeral attire, her wrinkled hands binoculared around her eyes so she can see through the tinted glass. I step around the counter to open the door.
“Hi Ms. Callahan, we actually don’t open for another-”
“James!” she cries, pushing right past me and stepping inside. “I simply had to check on you. You were so quiet at the funeral. How are you holding up?”
“I’m, uh.” What are you even supposed to say to that? “Not well.”
“Of course not,” she agrees, nodding sagely. “No one would expect you to be.”
“I was a little-”
“Why are you working today? Surely Kent would give you the day off.”
“Kent said that I-”
“He really should give you some time. We all know how close you used to be with-” Ms. Callahan cuts herself off, clearly worried that she’s overstepped. “Oh, I - I need some clippings for my garden. I know you’re not quite open yet.”
“We’re always open for our friends,” I answer, and she smiles brightly. “I set some aside for you yesterday, I’ll just go get them.”
“James! You’re always such a sweet boy. Even with everything going on.”
I have a feeling I’ll always be a boy and not a man to Ms. Callahan, who has known me since like, day two of my life. I know better than to try and argue the point with her, though, and it’s been so many years now that I barely notice anymore. I duck below the counter to grab the package I had for her, then set the clippings on the counter and start to wrap them in some paper.
“This town is changing,” Ms. Callahan says, watching me. “Nothing like this happened in such a long time.”
“There is one good change coming, though!” She eyes me, hesitating. “Something I could use your help with, actually.”
I should have known that there was an ask coming.
“Of course, I’m always here for my favorite customer.” I tape her package closed and power up the register. “What can I help with?”
“Do you remember my nephew, Aiden?”
I pause with my hand halfway to the register.
“But you must remember him, you two went to highschool together.”
“Oh, that was a long time ago.” I quickly turn to face the register. “I guess I sort of remember…”
“Well, I told him you could pick him up from the airport tomorrow.”
Oh, god. I can practically feel all of the color drain from my face. “Tomorrow? He’s coming back?”
“I know, can you believe it? He hasn’t been home in such a long time. Since high school, practically! I knew you’d say yes, James, you sweet thing.”
“Did I say, um-”
“You can just drop him off at my house, okay honey? I’ll forward you the email with his ticket information. I learned how to do it in my computer skills class last week.”
“Ms. Callahan, I actually just remembered that I have - um - tomorrow, I actually -”
“Thank you, James!” She puts her credit card onto the counter. “Maybe this will be just the pick-me-up you need.”
“Oh, so, the thing is -”
“Hurry along, these shoots won’t last forever!”
All I can do is swipe her card and hand her everything. Kasey returns from the back room just as the door closes with a jingle.
“Was that Ms. Callahan?”
“What’s wrong with you? Why are you all pale?”
“Do you remember Aiden, from high school?”
“Do I remember Aiden?” Her eyebrows jump up. “Uh, yeah. He was a fucking monster, he was so mean.”
“I know. I know. Get this shit - he’s coming into town. Tomorrow.”
“She fucking told him I’d pick him up from the airport!”
“Oh. My. God.”
“You have to come with me,” I say desperately, as Kasey leans against the counter. “Come on, please. Please please -”
“Oh my god, come on, you’re really gonna make me go by myself to get the worst person from our high school experience?”
“Jamie, calm down.”
“Jesus Christ. Where’s my inhaler?”
“Stop it!” Kasey slaps a hand on the counter. “Come on, this town is down a digit in terms of population. You may as well help us return to the norm.”
“I would rather this town get even smaller than have Aiden Callahan come back.”
“Okay, well I am not coming to the airport. I can’t handle a conversation as awkward as this is about to be.”
“Kasey, I am not going alone, you’re coming, you’re coming, or else you are the worst best friend ever.”
Kasey is the worst best friend ever. I can’t believe she’s making me go alone to meet up with the kid who constitutes my least favorite part of high school. And it’s high school. It’s all bad. For him to stand out among all the other unpleasant, embarrassing memories is reflective enough of what Aiden Callahan is like. I have no idea why he’s back in town. He hasn’t been back since he basically fled the place the minute his high school diploma was in his hand. Ketterbridge is a tiny town, and it’s a healthy drive to get to the next nearest place. Everyone knows each other, and, like it or not, everyone is very involved with each other, so it was almost a scandal when Aiden packed up his shit and left without a word to anyone.
I’m not like, angry with him about all the shit he put me through in high school, but nor do I want to have him in my car, is the thing. Nor do I want to take the one hour drive from the airport back to Ketterbridge with him. The drive there was fine. I had a podcast downloaded, so whatever.
“Drive safely,” Kasey had told me, before I left. “We don’t want any more traffic accidents, right?”
She’d said it like a joke, but it was really sad, and we both knew it. Some part of me is relieved to get a little space from town at the moment. Everyone there keeps making these pitying eyes at me, and I am starting to get really tired of it. At least Kent isn’t doing that, or Kasey, and they’re the people I see the most of every day.
The airport here is both small and municipal, which means I can park along the curb of the pickup area. I hop out and put on my sunglasses. It’s hot in my car, and I don’t want to seem like I’m nervous-sweating when Aiden shows up. I don’t want him to think I’m still scared of him, after all this time. Even though I am a little anxious. Tiny bit. I just don’t know what to expect. I know nothing about him, which means he could be the guy in the suit with a phone pressed to his ear, or the dude shambling over to the smoking area with a ukulele case on his back. I sort of doubt he even remembers me, so we could be staring right at each other.
It’s not even a question, it’s a statement, which, I think, means that he does remember me. My eyes fall on a puzzling sight. This could be Aiden? I genuinely can’t tell. He has huge black sunglasses on, and a snapback pulled low over them. The bottom half of his face is taken up entirely by a scraggly, longish beard. He’s in a loose black t-shirt and grey sweatpants, with a single backpack on his shoulder and no suitcase.
“Uh.” I mean - he knows me, right? He’s looking for me, which means this must be him. “Aiden?”
He just nods and slides the backpack off his shoulder.
“This your ride?”
I look down at the rusty little blue thing that somehow has yet to fail completely.
“This is the height of the luxury airport pickup experience in Ketterbridge, I’m just letting you know.”
“I didn’t say anything,” he answers, tossing his backpack through the open backdoor window. I step away from the car so he can get in, and with only those words exchanged, I pull away from the airport and head back towards the highway. Jesus. I wish I could see his eyes. This is unsettling, like I could have picked up the wrong person or something. But I know it’s him now that he spoke, because weirdly enough, I recognize his voice.
“So what, are you like, impersonating Aiden Callahan to get his aunt’s money?” I ask, flicking on my blinker. “Or is this sketchy look just how you dress these days?”
“Aunt Sarah has money?” he asks, strapping in. “That’s news to me.”
“Wow. You are the real Aiden Callahan. So I guess you’re just wearing those glasses ‘cause… the police are after you, or…?”
He suddenly twists to look at me.
“How did you know that? Who have you been talking to?” His voice grows urgent, and I lean away, staring at him wide-eyed.
“What? Are you fucking serious? What the fuck? Who did you murder?”
“I’m joking, Jamie.” He leans back in his seat, and I press a trembling hand over my chest.
“Oh my fucking god!”
“Why did you assume it was because I murdered someone?”
“Just - I don’t know!” This is going so badly. I’m glad I still have my sunglasses on. Maybe it’s good that Kasey isn’t here, because she would definitely be laughing at me. “Based on the outfit I wouldn’t guess embezzlement.”
“You really don’t like my sunglasses, huh?”
“No. Take them off.”
He only grins at me, leaving them firmly in place. This asshole. I just remembered how damn annoying he is.
“Great to see that you’re just how I remember you, Aiden.”
He shrugs and turns to face forward again. An awkward silence descends on the car as I merge onto the highway. After a moment he clears his throat.
“Should we put on some music? What were you listening to?”
“Oh, uh-” Too late. He’s already turned the volume up from zero on my radio.
“Your plants can tell when they’re being handled with love,” my podcast continues merrily, oblivious to what it’s doing to me right now. “You want to project love and feel love when you handle them. In the same way that they bring energy into your space, your energy affects their space. For flowering plants in particular, it’s important to-”
My hand snakes out to turn off the volume, far too late. Aiden’s entire face may be covered, but his eyebrows are definitely doing something. He turns to look at me, his expression unreadable under all the everything.
“What? It’s for work.”
“Where do you work?” he asks, surprising me. I expected him to pounce on at least one of the many embarrassing aspects of what just happened.
“The flower shop.”
“The flower shop,” he repeats. The words sound so frou-frou in his deep voice.
“Yeah. Kent’s place, you know the one.”
“After all this time? You never wanted to leave town, or do something else…?”
“No.” Why do I feel so defensive, right now? What sort of question is that? “Not everyone hates Ketterbridge as much as you do. How long are you staying for?”
“Rest of my life, I guess,” he sighs.
Ugh. I have had it with him and his weird brand of sarcasm. I resign myself to passing the rest of the ride in an uncomfortable silence, populated only by FM radio. This is the last time I do a favor for Ms. Callahan, and I mean like, ever.
“James, could you do me one more little favor?” Ms. Callahan asks, as Aiden drops his backpack onto her porch. “I’m getting Terry’s old car fixed up for Aiden to use, you know I don’t have one. It’s not quite done yet, though, and he needs a ride soon.”
“Oh, does he?” I glance up at Aiden, who leans against the porch railing, watching us.
“Yes, when are you free?”
Shit! Why would she ask me like that? What excuse can I give that would cover me for the time period of ‘soon’?
“When were you thinking?” I hear myself say. Shit. Shit shit shit -
“How does Friday sound?”
Goddamnit. At least today is Monday. “Yeah, fine. The flower shop is like a ten minute walk from here, you want to just meet me there when you’re ready, Aiden?”
He shrugs, then nods, then turns, then goes inside. O. Fucking. Kay.
“See you later, Ms. Callahan.”
“Oh, James.” She leans into my car window. “Don’t get the wrong impression. He’s always been a bit of a thundercloud, but he’s a good kid. You just need to get to know him.”
“Well, sounds like I have the opportunity now, don’t I?” I give her a tight smile, and she pats my hand affectionately.
Fuck. Fuck my life.