My flower obsession began in elementary school. It went like this: one day I was mindlessly plucking Chrysanthemums in the park across from my school. It was late—almost an hour after class had ended—and I knew my mother would be rushing from work to pick me up. I had always felt guilty for causing her stress, so I told her that school ended at 3 pm, not at 2 pm. Usually, a swarm of daycare kids was released at 3 pm, so I knew their presence would be enough to convince my mom that I was telling the truth. But that day, the swarm did not come, the stragglers had all gone, and it was just me and another girl waiting. Elizabeth and I went to the same school, but we weren’t in the same class. And in elementary school, children who weren’t in the same class were enemies.
Despite this, Elizabeth picked a Chrysanthemum and held it up to me—a peace offering. We began our alliance like that, all quiet and inconsequential, and grew to find a sense of camaraderie in the silence. The day we met, we made a Chrysanthemum bouquet, placed it on a worm’s grave (from when one of her friends squashed it on a rainy day, she told me), and grieved for a life taken too soon.
At school, we never acknowledged each other. It was that type of alliance that required distance to work. After school, we began our experiments. We spliced Chrysanthemums open and rifled through their insides with mechanical pencils. We crushed petals and took them home for further inspection. We read books about their uses and came to the park bubbling with information. We Googled different types of flowers, chanting the names of our favorites (hers was hibiscus, and I boasted that I had a hibiscus plant in my very own backyard). We kept them in our backpacks at all times, handy for quick-time medicinal purposes or impromptu rituals.
Nevertheless, the efflorescence of our new bond came quickly to an end. My mother had learned that I had been obscuring the time school ended and turned her world upside down to pick me up on time. Elizabeth stopped staying late too, leaving with her group of friends immediately after school. And just like that, we became strangers.
A few weeks later, it was Elizabeth’s birthday. After school, she and her friends were going out to celebrate, and, much to my chagrin, they happened to gather next to my mother’s car. I slid in the front seat as quickly as I could and feigned an intense conversation with my mom.
The next few moments I remember in pieces. I remember hearing a loud boom. I remember watching Elizabeth’s friends run off, clasping their phones to their ears. I remember Elizabeth’s expression frozen in a scream.
And my mother was oblivious to it all. She continued chatting giddily, pulling out of the parking lot and into the road. I, shocked, asked her if she had heard the gunshot. She gave me a funny look. That wasn’t a gunshot, that was a firework or a car backfiring. Someone was just trying to prank those kids: people do that all the time. A familiar gray car sped in front of us and I felt something in my chest flare up. I stared at the license plate and cursed myself for not having a photographic memory. I repeated the combination out loud like a prayer. Crushed between my fingers was a flower I had discreetly picked from the school garden.
When we reached the first stoplight, we counted how many police cars were headed toward the school. Two. Three. Four. My mother looked at me, nodded, and made a U-turn.
I never told any of my friends that I was the one who gave the police the license plate number. In the months to come, my mother would spin her retelling of events at social gatherings like a party trick. But to me, it felt like something that should be unspoken. I would later learn that it was Elizabeth’s mother who died and Elizabeth’s father who had done the deed. It didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to find some sort of explanation, merely because, at that point in my life, I thought there was an answer to everything.
In the days that followed, I felt misplaced. We had school-wide assemblies. A state therapist was brought in. The whole school billowed with sorrow. I hated every second of it. There seemed to be an unspoken contest to see who could have the most convincing meltdown and led to my complete withdrawal from my peers. I felt like an imposter because I too felt confused and frustrated over what had happened to Elizabeth, but I wasn’t sure if this was even my grief to share.
My mother stopped picking me up from the park. Instead, I waited in front of the school along with the majority of the students. I watched as parents got out of their cars and wrapped their arms around their children. I don’t know if it was something in the tightness in their embrace or the tenderness of their voice, but I felt the tragedy ripple from person to person. The librarian hung her head as she checked out books. The teachers canceled our tests. The janitor forgot to water the school garden, leaving all the flowers to wilt one by one. What I had initially thought to be forced sympathy turned out to be shared misery. Devastation is a strange thing; it reaches the farthest crevices, stirs up traumas long passed, and leaves scars on even a stranger. That’s when I realized that the most beautiful thing about humanity is its capacity for empathy—how it is our instinct to try and replicate emotions to understand those around us. To deny our solitude.
As the end of the school year approached, my hibiscus plant finally flowered. I snapped off a flower and went to school. As I passed by the park, I was surprised to find a memorial in the parking spot where I had last seen Elizabeth. It was adorned with handwritten notes and flowers—the store bought kind. I placed my hibiscus on the memorial before hurrying back to class. I later heard that Elizabeth did see the memorial, right before she disappeared with her siblings, whisked away to a new home far from their past.
I would not show any interest in flowers for several years. I appreciated them from a distance but never dared to touch one. After enough time had passed for the shooting to become a stale memory, a new friend would reintroduce me to my flower obsession. She taught me that if I placed them in a book, they would dry up and maintain their initial form instead of crumbling away. I chose to press flowers in my dictionary and grew consumed with the idea that something living can be immortalized.
I wonder if people are like that too—if they really just wilt and die and fade away or if it’s possible to sweep them up in your arms and press them in like a heavy book. Or maybe that’s what memories are: moments tucked in the pages of our minds, forever in full bloom, forever preserved.
Sidney Muntean is a first-year student studying Economics at UCLA. Her work appears in Rising Phoenix Press, Backslash Lit, and Adonis Designs Press, among others.