Nothing is ever more jolting than your alarm going off during REM sleep. I practically flew out of bed. Smacking around on my bedside table for my phone, I wondered if I could call in sick today. No way would my boss not see through that.
I sat up rubbing my eyes. My room was almost too small for one person; my bed took up most of the space, with the dresser shoved into one corner and a tiny desk in the other. I couldn’t open my door all the way because it hit the desk, but that didn’t matter as I always kept it closed. My plants floated above my head- lavender over my bed, English ivy weaving itself across the windows, jasmine blooming every day over my desk, kokedamas of succulents and ferns drifting around, all hopefully giving off serotonin and dopamine amplifiers. Supposedly helping my mental state.
My current mental state was foggy, distantly awake, and apathetic. A fairly good start. I hauled myself out of bed, snatching up my jeans and hopping into them to the door. I opened it silently in case any of either of the human girls I lived with were asleep. No one was in the living room. It was 4:30 AM, so this was expected, even of the vampire. He got home from the immunology lab at 3, and did reports and studying shut up in his room. Night shift, of course; I heard the other shift workers loved him. I went to pour some tea leaves in the kitchen, and mindlessly scooped at an empty can before remembering I’d run out yesterday.
“Fuck me,” I mumbled, doing my best not to stomp as I made my way to the bathroom instead. As I brushed my teeth, I assessed how much work I wanted to bother putting into my hair. I used to straighten it every morning, but that took so long I eventually gave up. Besides, my mama said natural black hair was beautiful anyway, and if it was good enough for Mama, it was good enough for me. My makeup sat optimistically in my drawer of the cabinet, most of it having expired untouched several months ago. I did the bare minimum; my hair was a mess of corkscrews, longer than it had ever been. I looked like a hyacinth, a smaller face surrounded by an explosion of adornment.
I washed my face and checked my watch. I had more time than usual, so stopping to get Cassie’s tea wouldn’t be a problem. I texted Daphne, my boss, asking if she wanted anything. I zipped up an old canvas jacket and locked my front door behind me.
It was a brisk April morning, alright for a run. The cold air was sharp in my lungs as I started to jog downtown. I didn’t like public transport and couldn’t afford car payments. Males of every species tended to be too...grabby in a bus or metro carriage, and besides I had no issue with running. Nymphs are known for being fast runners. I hear Apollo learned this the hard way. Idiot.
I ran through the street lit morning, the city already humming around me. I passed Merl’s Auto, with Merl himself opening his roll door. Jessie, his familiar currently presenting as a dalmatian, barked happily at me as I waved to Merl.
“Alright, love?” He called to me.
“Still going!” I shouted back. Jessie leapt up and ran to the end of the block with me, I turned onto Main, heading towards the heart of downtown. The main drag was lined with huge oak trees. The dryads had petitioned to put them in to “beautify” downtown about ten years ago. As dryad decisions go, it was a fairly good one. I slowed as I neared Cassie’s, pulling out my wallet. Cassie waved at me as I approached the windows.
Cassie’s Coffee was a larger storefront. Windows wrapped around the front, exposed brick warming the inside. Everything was “natural” looking inside Cassie’s, without crossing over into the “vegan anti-vaxxer” style. Live edge tables were lit by simple elegant pendant lights, the different shots and enchantments lined the walls in glass jars, and the best coffee money could buy came in huge mugs. This morning, in the middle of the week at 5 AM, no customers were laughing in the windows. Cassie stood at the grinder, pouring in beans. The chimes above the door announced me.
“Morning, love!” She called out without turning around. “Right there on the bar for you!”
“Thanks, Cassie.” I pulled out my wallet as I approached. Two take-away teas were steaming there; one oolong, extra shot of focus and honey, and one chai with two calm and one vanilla. You could taste the magic in them. Focus tasted bittersweet, something to snap you back. Hope tasted like honey, not too sweet but enough to notice. Calm and confidence were similar, warm and spicy, but the latter with a slight tang. Both were excellent with chai. I wrinkled my nose. I hated chai, but Daphne drank it like it was going out of style. “Wow, how’d you know?”
“Oh, a joker, so original.” She wasn’t facing me but I knew the eye roll just the same. The scorn of a seer over a joke, I tell you.
I was about to remind her that I had to pay when the swinging door to the back room opened and suddenly my lungs forgot how to breathe properly. A girl walked into the room, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She was perfectly proportioned, like a sculptor had agonized over the exact full curves of her hips for weeks. Her hair, shining silvery white, was pinned in an elegant low ponytail swishing past her hips. Carrying a box, she walked to the other end of the bar, away from me. Her hair pin caught my eye; it seemed to glow, emitting its own light. It even flickered. There was something unmistakably magical about her, but not any magic I knew of. It was mysterious. It felt like seeing a fantastical painting scene, where it seems unreachable tranquil and mystical. She was-
“Right that’s 5. 32,” Cassie said, tossing the empty coffee sack aside.
“Money, sweetheart. For the tea?”
“Tea! Right!” I was sweating bullets. The girl turned to look at me and smiled. Fuck. I handed Cassie her $6.00-with-tip-total and booked it out the door.
“I am a disaster,” I muttered to myself as I walked as fast as I physically could to Daphne’s, angrily sipping my tea. This did nothing to assuage my annoyance, but it did distract me by searing the shit out of the roof of my mouth. I turned the corner onto Garden, trying to salvage the morning. At least the focus shot was already starting to work.
Daphne’s Flowers was a hole-in-the-wall shop, literally. When the city was established and a town center founded, buildings were far apart so as to allow for carriages to deliver between them. Some were filled in, especially those along the riverfront. But about 25 years ago, a water main burst between the two, severely damaging one building and destroying the decaying courtyard between the two. Daphne offered to buy the land between for her flower shop, had the concrete removed and began restoring the underlying soil. Now, it looked as I saw it; a Dutch door at the entrance, latices of vines creating a living building, and a soft glow breaching through the leaves. The vines could be opened up if it was warm, or if it was raining lightly. Behind the door lay a calm, lush oasis of Daphne’s wonderful imagination.
Daphne had known me since I was born. She’d been a friend of my mother’s since childhood, and Mama had worked for her since my father had left. Daphne offered me a job and her when I showed a proficiency for magical and ornate flowers. Daphne was a nymph, just like my mother and I. She had general plant and flower manipulation, whereas I, an anthousia, specialized in flowers. When I was old enough, Daphne developed a wedding wing of her business, which I worked almost exclusively in now due to my talents with the fancier flora.
Today, as I worked the gate open while balancing the cups, Daphne was starting on the local orders of the day. She was wearing her usual uniform of a t-shirt and overalls. Her long black hair was in a braid, streaks of grey weaving almost to her waist. She smiled at me, barely a line in that beautiful face. She stood as I came in.
“Good mornin, hon,” she said, wiping her hands on a rag and accepting her tea, “Oh, how lovely.”
“Morning,” I said, going around the counter to find my apron.
“How’re you doin today?”
“Alright.” I shrugged.
She looked at me for a moment longer than was necessary, as though she might debate this. She was older than my Mama was and yet neither of them ever seemed to have a discernible age. They had just seemed to be. It had been just the three of us, running the shop; three magical black ladies, sipping tea and growing plants.
“Okay then,” Daphne said, in a tone that said she didn’t believe me but wouldn’t admit it. She patted my cheek. “Lots to do.”
I grabbed my orders clipboard, cracked my knuckles, and plunged my hands into the soil.
It rained the whole month Mama was sick, but it was sunny the day she died. It seemed, at the time, to be so unjust as to be criminal. Who could have seen this woman and give her nothing but clouds as she slipped away, never to see sunlight again? It was two years ago, nearly to the day, but I remember vividly the anger I felt at seeing the sun. I’m sure Apollo heard my grief that day. I’m sure every god, regardless of region or religion, was blamed for taking my mother back. I would like to tell you that I let go of that anger, that I had a fairy tale story of rebirth and growing stronger. But instead the anger faded, and nothing replaced it. Nothing at all. It was like I was the one buried in soil, like my plants; aware of the world above, wishing to join, but not strong enough to break through. It was at least a month before I could even grow a daisy.
Now, my magic was full again, and as it was all I had, I put my whole life into these flowers. I grew them slowly, each getting its own care and time. Nymphs can’t grow a whole shop’s inventory on the spot. Well, we could, but the drain on our power and energy would cause any normal nymph to lose consciousness. We grew our flowers little by little. For large orders, we carved out days. For others, like daily deliveries, we could do it in an hour. Sun lanterns, bluebells with soft chimes, and the roses with built in charm enhancements were the biggest magical sellers, my personal favorite flowers being sun lanterns. Vibrant yellow pods, they were essentially immortal. Like Lazurus plants with water, they would remain dormant and shriveled until placed in sunlight for an hour or so; then, they would uncurl and float up in the air, illuminating a room for up to about a day. Natural solar lanterns.
We had all sorts of succulents, flowers, ground cover, and shrubs. We delivered to local businesses and events, especially weddings. These could be an all day affair, when I stayed at the venue to constantly maintain the freshness of the blooms. It drained me, but I got to keep all the tips and Daphne always gave me one or two days off after. Today, we had a delivery to two hotels and two cafes. As I scanned my clipboard, I noticed Cassie’s was the last stop. From under the soil, I felt a little sun break through as I considered that girl would be there. I immediately shook myself. I was being dense. I was just curious; she certainly wasn’t human, but she wasn’t any kind of magic I knew.
In thinking about this, one of the lilies for the first hotel came out slightly pink rather than white. I quickly fixed it, the annoyed feeling from earlier starting to seep in. I was getting distracted and I never wanted to mess up an order due to just being distracted. I got all the lilies cut, added the appropriate greenery we kept handy, wrapped up the package and left for the hotel. I managed to put the girl out of my head until I’d delivered the second to last order and headed back to Daphne’s to get Cassie’s flowers. Her order was easy: six bunches of Santa Barbara Daisies, some filler, and some spray roses. Except for the sprays, we had them all on hand. And the sprays were so easy Daphne did them while I was gone. I quickly wrapped them up, thinking about the girl’s hair clip. The way it glowed was impossibly delicate, and the golden light seemed to contrast her hair beautif-
“What’s the smile for?” Daphne asked, cutting some roses for display.
“What? Nothing. Nice day.” I took off out the door before she could accuse me of another blatant mistruth, nearly smacking into the doorframe in my haste.
I arrived at Cassie’s right on time at 8am. I slid the carrier off my back, taking out the packages of flowers and setting them on the counter. I looked around the cafe, casually. Or almost casually. I leaned on the high counter lining the pickup bar, hoping and not hoping that I could get out of here quick.
“Can I help you?”
I jumped and spun around to the bar. Unfortunately, given spatial relations and Murphy’s law, my hip jammed itself directly into the corner of the bar. I yelped and clutched my hip. “Fuck!”
“Oh my god! Are you alright?” I looked up through squinted eyes and almost swore again. Of course it would be her.
“Uh, oh, yeah, just fine.” I stood slowly and leaned on the bar again, a little more heavily this time. “I’m just delivering the flowers.”
She stared at me for a second, then realized the packages were in front of her. “Oh! They’re lovely!” She had a nice voice. European, maybe Spanish?
“Oh excellent” Cassie emerged from the back room, carrying a stack of boxes. The top one began to slip, and the girl ran over and took it from her. “Ah, thank you Llana dear.”
I realized I was staring. I busied myself unwrapping the flowers, and signing the invoice. Cassie winked at me; I was sure she knew why I was so nervous. I coughed a goodbye and somewhat limped my way out the door.
Her name was Llana.