The Thing About the Guy Friday, Feb 15 2013 

Once upon a time there was this guy, and he was a very distinct character. Everyone could tell what a character he was because of the hat he wore. It was an extremely distinctive hat.

Well, it goes without saying that such a distinctive character of a guy couldn’t possibly go for very long without doing a thing that somebody would notice, and sure enough, he did. This guy did a thing that was so incredible, everyone was talking about it. And I mean everyone. All over the place. They were just super excited about this thing this guy did, and they couldn’t help being extremely interested in him because of it.

At first the guy liked that everyone was interested in him, because he knew that when everyone is interested in someone, it means that person is very special indeed. He liked the idea that he was special. But pretty soon, it started to annoy him that he couldn’t go anywhere without people knowing who he was, or asking about the thing he did, and when was he going to do another thing. He was kind of scared, to be honest, because he wasn’t sure that he could do another thing. Not another thing that special, anyway. He got so fed up with people recognizing him everywhere that he even tried taking off his distinctive hat, but it didn’t help. Everyone already knew what he looked like. So he suffered through, and he got used to people knowing who he was, and he tried to be patient about it.

After a while, people stopped coming over to him in restaurants or at the grocery store. He figured it was because they had gotten used to him, and they had. But the truth was that another guy had done a great thing, and everyone was getting really interested in that. Basically, they had forgotten all about the first guy. He stopped getting offers for endorsement deals, he stopped getting free liquor in the mail, he couldn’t get into clubs anymore without showing ID, and when he did show ID, the bouncers didn’t even comment. Nobody cared about him anymore, not even when he put his hat back on. In fact, one day some hipsters did recognize him because of the hat, but they just laughed at him.

“That hat is soooooooo ‘remember when I did that one thing?’” they snickered, in mean voices. It made the guy feel worse than ever. He took the hat off again.

He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to do another cool thing, but he didn’t know what thing to do. He thought about going back to his old job, but he couldn’t face it. He even considered doing a reality TV show, but the network wanted him to wear the hat, and unfortunately he had gained awareness that the hat was stupid. He spiraled into depression.

Then one day, he got an email. A college kid with a podcast wanted to interview him. He suspected that he would only be mocked, but he didn’t have anything else to do, so he agreed. And then, over Skype, talking to a total stranger, it all came out, like foam out of a baking soda volcano. All of the anxiety and doubt and self-loathing and fear of hipsters. It was like vomiting – he knew he was grossing people out, but he couldn’t help it. It happened on its own.

When he was done, the college kid with the podcast was quiet for a minute.

Then he said, “Fuck hipsters, man. None of them even wear clothes that fit. I liked that thing you did, and if you did another thing, I bet I’d like that, too.”

The guy thought about that. Really rolled it around in his brain. Took a good look at his hat.

“Thank you,” he said.

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The Roof and What I Found There Sunday, Feb 10 2013 

Turns out my roof is dumb as hell, which should have been the opposite of a surprise.

If you’re on the ground at a good distance to really look at my roof, it looks like it’s made out of terra cotta tiles, because it is. The curvy ones that fit into each other and kind of look like Fritos – you know the ones. There’s only about six rows of tiles slanting up, but that’s enough for most observers to reach the conclusion that, yep, that’s a roof all right, and not worry about what is actually hovering over most of the building to protect the occupants from the elements.

The answer, if anyone ever did wonder, is that if you climb up the ladder of some roofers who aren’t paying attention and then scramble up six rows of terra cotta tiles set up at roughly a seventy degree angle, you’ll fall about a foot and a half onto a flat roof surface covered in very fine gravel. Under that is tar paper. And under that is something else, I don’t know what but it supports human weight, which is why I didn’t crash through any sheets of gravel-coated tar paper and land inside the building. So that was the first thing I learned.

The second thing I learned was that being on a roof when you aren’t used to it is super weird, and a little bit disorienting, and that I have a piss-poor sense of direction, or spatial relationships, or whatever stupid specialized ability I would have needed to figure out from the position of the ladder where my apartment was beneath me. Fuck you, it’s harder than it sounds.

So I spent a couple of minutes worrying about that, and then I spent a couple of minutes worrying how soon the roofers would come back, and then I realized that figuring out where my apartment was didn’t matter that much, because what I was really looking for was the other side of that trap door, and what were the odds that any of the other apartments in my building had a trapdoor that led up to the roof? Pretty slim, I thought, based on nothing. The truth was, I had never been inside any of my neighbors’ apartments. It was entirely possible that all of them had trapdoors. Maybe trapdoors were a thing now, and everybody had one and I had somehow missed that trend, like the time I decided I really wanted to start wearing overalls about two months before they went completely out of style. Maybe that trapdoor had always been there, and I had never seen it before because I was crazy or had had some undiagnosed disorder for years that was only now beginning to subside on its own.

And then I actually looked around for a second and realized how totally flat the roof was. Within the area defined by the terra cotta perimeter, there was pretty much nothing at all except for a flat expanse of tar paper a la gravel. No doors. Not to my apartment, not to anyone’s apartment. Nothing. No. Thing. It answered my question, but it didn’t really make me feel better.

“Hey, what are you doing up here?”

Shit. The roofers. Be cool, I thought.

I was not cool. “Oh, um, sorry,” I said. “I was just checking whether my… laundry… was up here.”

This was so stupid that they didn’t even bother responding to it. They just looked disgusted at me.

But they were nice enough to get out of my way so I could climb back down.

In Isolation, An Idea Forms Saturday, Feb 9 2013 

I’ll start by saying I’m not proud. But today there were some guys over at our building, checking out the roof. I don’t really know what they were doing up there because I didn’t talk to them, but it must have been something pretty involved because they were there all day. In fact, they were here yesterday too; I know because I kept hearing them clomping around above my head and I kept worrying that one of them would fall through on top of me.

 So when I heard them setting up again this morning, I was pretty irritated. I tried to tell myself that whatever they were doing was almost certainly for my benefit, cleaning out the gutter or repairing the roof or whatever, but they were still pretty annoying and it was my day off. A woman deserves to be able to not fear a giant hulking stranger will fall through her ceiling on top of her when she’s in her own home. And my landlord hadn’t even called me.

 What I should have done is, I should have gotten out of the house. I could have taken a good book and treated myself to breakfast somewhere, or I could have done some hiking, or visited a friend. I could have done any of a thousand things that would have made me a better person, but I didn’t do any of them. Instead, I sat in my apartment and listened to the stomping overhead, and I stewed over it. I also watched The Price Is Right, because come on. If you’re home on a weekday, it’s practically obligatory.

 It was a really good Price Is Right, with Plinko and everything, and I got so wrapped up in it that it was almost the end of the Showcase Showdown when I realized that there hadn’t been any booming from above me for a while. I wondered if the workmen were gone, but if they weren’t, I didn’t want them to see me checking on them like some crazy rude apartment shut-in. I needed a plan.

 There was only one thing to do, really, and I didn’t like it, but there it was. I had to wash the dishes. The only two reasons that any adult person stands in front of a window for any extended period of time is because they’re a crazy snoopy witch, or because there happens to be a window at their kitchen sink and they’re washing dishes. That’s why I always left my dishes until there was something outside that I needed to look at. The window at my kitchen sink faced the courtyard of our apartment building, which was the rear of our apartment, but it was facing the right direction to give me the information I wanted. The courtyard could be exited through a gate into an alleyway that would accommodate vehicle traffic, and parked in the alley jut outside the gate was a pickup truck with three big, burly men sitting on the tailgate, sharing a pizza. Based on their clothes, their attitude, and the general nature of their dirtiness, I deduced that these were the men whose footfalls had been terrorizing me, taking a lunch break. I also noticed that they had left their ladder up against the side of the building. It was in the opposite corner of the courtyard from where the gate was, in the crook of the building where it turned and formed an L-shape. And nobody was watching it.

 So, that gave me an idea.

Overhead Friday, Feb 8 2013 

There is a trapdoor in my ceiling.

 I’m pretty unhappy about it. I live on the second floor of a two-story apartment building, and as far as I know, there is little to no attic space above my ceiling. Which means that this trapdoor must open directly onto the roof. I see this as undesirable.

 The thing that upsets me the most about it is that it wasn’t there two days ago. I’m not sure if it was there when I woke up yesterday morning; maybe it was and I missed it, but I know for a fact that I never saw it until I got home from work last night, and there it was, nearly in the middle of my living room ceiling, slightly obscured by the ceiling fan.

 I have issues with the ceiling fan too, but at least it didn’t sneak up on me.

 Since you haven’t seen it, you’re probably trying to come up with a rational explanation, like a burglar climbed up on to my roof while I was out or asleep and cut a hole downwards to let him or herself into my place and steal all my stuff, but this trapdoor is far more sophisticated than that. It isn’t jut a simple hole. It’s a full-on door, with a frame and a latch and hinges, the whole nine yards. It’s a door that somebody took some time making. I just don’t know when. Or who. And the one thing they didn’t do was provide an obvious way up to it – my ceiling is at least seven feet off the ground, and like I said, the door is pretty close to the center of the room. Maybe there’s a ladder folded up inside of it, that would come down if the door was opened. I don’t think I’m going to find out, though.

 I haven’t said anything to my husband about it because he hasn’t said anything about it to me. I’m a little worried that I can see it and he can’t, which would add a whole new level to the problem that I am frankly not prepared for, especially if the door ends up going away again on its own. That’s kind of what I’m hoping for. I don’t think that that’s what going to happen.

 It’s supposed to rain tonight, and if that thing does just open up onto our roof, there’s going to be some serious damage to the coffee table, and maybe the couch. I always hated that couch. I wonder if we can afford a new one?

Starting Fresh Sunday, Feb 3 2013 

I was just getting over a week long flu and I had finally mustered the strength to get my laptop to my bedroom and plug it in, in the hopes of squeezing out a few words as I convalesced. Unfortunately, whatever string of Ns and Hs had made up the particular virus that knocked me out seemed to have burned up any story ideas I might have had, because I was coming up with zilch. The blank screen stared at me accusingly; even projects that I had been outlining before I got sick seemed worthless, or I had forgotten what they were supposed to be about. Meanwhile, my cat had noticed the computer’s power cord running across the bed.

The first thing that happens when my cat sees anything long and dangly is, she starts chewing on it. Maybe to see if it’s a noodle; I don’t know. She won’t eat dry cat food but she will eat powdered donuts. Anyway, this thing she has with dangling objects means I constantly have to pull extension cords out of her mouth, which is always stupid, but somehow stupider when I’m sitting up in bed while I do it.

So there I was, propped up with pillows, my computer in my lap, my cat trying to electrocute herself, my mind utterly blank, when all of the sudden there’s an explosion at the apartment building next door.

I should mention that we’re pretty sure the apartment building next door is just a flophouse for meth heads.

Which is to say, an explosion over there couldn’t be considered as surprising as an explosion at, say, an elementary school, or a strip mall, or just a regular apartment building with tenants who pay their rent like citizens and don’t cook methamphetamines. But still, an explosion. More exciting than the flu. I went to the window to see if I could get a glimpse of anything – like the building burning, or… actually, I really just wanted to see if the building was burning. I sort of hoped it was.

It wasn’t. I could hear a couple of the meth heads arguing, but I couldn’t see them. No one was screaming, so presumably there hadn’t been any injuries either. I went back to bed.

And there was that blank screen again, a nineteen-inch screen of blank nothingness, reminding me of how I would never make it as a writer.

I wished that something interesting would happen, to inspire me.

Madame Antoine’s End Wednesday, Dec 5 2012 

Right now this blog is pretty much just a repository for the occasional Terrible Minds challenge, and I have no problem with that. This week, Chuck asked us to write the end of a novel, and since I recently wrote the beginning of a novel for a different challenge (one that made it seem prudent to NOT post what I wrote here), I thought I’d go ahead and end that same story, and maybe win a mug or something. It’s 1100 words, two scenes, and other than that I’ll let it speak for itself.

MADAME ANTOINE’S END

Rosalie cried all night, but tears won’t stop the sunrise, and all too soon the morning came. At seven o’clock she composed herself as best she could and went to Madame Antoine’s chamber. Her heart felt like a rock in her chest, but at the same time there was a certain euphoria in the knowledge that this moment she was participating in was a tremendous moment in history. This was a day that people would remember and remember and remember, although they probably wouldn’t bother remembering her. She wondered how many days there were like this, days that history grabbed on to, and tried to think if she could remember any herself. The death of Caesar was one, she thought, and the burning of Jeanne d’Arc. The crucifixion of Christ, not that Antoine was anything like as good as Christ, no matter how much Rosalie loved her. Did history remember any happy days?

She arrived to find Madame Antoine already awake in her black dress. She lay on her bed, facing the wall, but she had two small lights burning. As always, there were gendarmes in the corner, keeping a watchful eye.

“Madame,” Rosalie almost whispered. “Madame, I am here. Will you take some breakfast?”

“Ah, no, Rosalie,” she replied, not turning. “It is all over for me. I want nothing today.”

“But Madame, you will need your strength,” Rosalie insisted. “Please. I have some bouillon and some pasta for you. It will do you good.” It will do me good, she did not say. Please take it, so I can know that I did this for you, the only thing I could do and I did it.

“You may be right,” Antoine conceded. “I will have some broth.” But she only managed a few spoonfuls before she was too overcome by emotion to swallow.

At eight o’clock it was time to dress. It had been agreed that the prisoner would not be allowed to wear black to the guillotine, in case the crowds were upset by seeing her in mourning, so a simple white dress had been provided in place of the usual black one. Antoine still chose to dress herself, but as the gendarmes would not excuse themselves, she motioned for Rosalie to block their view of her as she disrobed. Unfortunately, the man on duty – one that Rosalie had seen before, and never liked – simply changed his own position so that no matter how the two women positioned themselves, he always had a full view of the older woman.

“For decency’s sake, Monsieur, allow me some privacy, please!” Antoine finally cried out, exasperated, but he simply replied that his orders were to keep his eye on the prisoner at all times. Rosalie thought she saw some malevolent glee in his face; all of Antoine’s beauty had long since fled, so it was doubtful he was trying to look at her for any puerile reasons. No, he simply enjoyed causing suffering, even to a sick and helpless woman in her final hours. Rosalie hoped very hard that he would fall into the river and drown, even if that wish meant she would have to join him in Hell.

But there was more humiliation to come. Samson, the executioner, arrived with large, frightening-looking scissors to cut off what remained of Antoine’s hair, so that it would not catch the blade. The concern at this point was more for the smooth working and maintenance of their death machine than with the dignity of its victim. As far as everyone but Rosalie seemed to be concerned, she was already dead. Finally, they bound her hands, despite her assurances that she would come willingly. She seemed so weak and broken, it was hard to imagine she would do anything else, but no, they said, her hands must be bound, and so they were, and it was time for the Widow Capet, Madame Antoine, formerly Marie Antoinette of France, to bid farewell to her last friend.

“Thank you, my sweet Rosalie,” she said. Her voice was faint but strong. “Do not follow; I do not wish you to see the rest.”

“I do not wish to see it,” Rosalie replied, and realized it was the truest thing she had ever said. There were no tears in her eyes now, but her throat felt like it was in a vise. There was nothing left for her to do now. The gendarmes led Antoine away.

When prisoners left the Conciergerie, it fell to Rosalie to make an account of what they left behind. In Madame’s case it was a short, sad list: two pairs of black stockings, some handkerchiefs and garters, a headdress and some crepe for mourning, a few corsets and other underthings. There was a box of pomade and a box of powder, not that it had made sense for her to use either one in her final home, but then, Antoine had once been known for the pains she had taken with her appearance, and Rosalie supposed that old habits must die hard.

She gathered these things together in a large wicker basket. They would be distributed among the remaining female prisoners as a means of saving money on supplies. A few of the chemises were of rather fine linen, but otherwise there was nothing very much nicer than anything a prisoner at the Conciergerie might have expected to own, and certainly nothing of a quality that, if you handed it to a stranger, would have made them think that its owner had been a queen.

Her life was a good deal worse than mine at the end, thought Rosalie. It was not schadenfreude. If the Queen of France, with every advantage and all the world before her, should have to suffer so much, it was only a reminder that no one was ever very far from pain. The pain of having lost a friend, for example. The pain of having lost a mother before that.

Rosalie would not be allowed to grieve for long, she knew. There was too much anger in Paris, and she did not have the means to leave the city or the courage to call herself a Royalist. She was lucky though, because she had a job to do, and time spent working is time that is not spent mourning. She would be distracted from her grief, and she would forget about the red, white, and blue sash she wore in support of a Revolution that today, she wanted nothing to do with.

But no one had ever asked her whether she wanted the Revolution. It was happening. The world would change and she would change with it. Maybe someday she wouldn’t mind so much. She would grieve, but she would live. She couldn’t think of anything else to do.

Her basket wasn’t even full.

The Under Queen Thursday, Sep 20 2012 

Holy cow! After months and months, I’ve managed to get my act together to do another Terrible Minds challenge! I’ve been working like mad on other stuff, which is why the prompts have fallen by the wayside, but this week there’s an admission to the Crossroads Writer’s Conference on the line, so I tabled everything else for a couple days to cobble this little guy together (so, Wendigo, if you’re reading this, I very much DO want to be considered for any and all fabulous prizes).

The challenge was to mix up a subgenre, a setting, and a story element that didn’t necessarily seem to go together. My Subgenre was a coin toss between ghost story (which it was, more overtly, but a couple paragraphs got chopped for length), and Lovecraftian, which I used more as a spice than a main flavor component. The setting was the Hollow Earth, and the story element to incorporate was “fashion show,” which also ended up being less prominent than my original vision

As usual, I’m right up against my 1,000 word limit. But do please enjoy.

THE UNDER QUEEN

by Aurora Nibley

The Under Queen was a local story from around where Jenny’s family lived in Red Rock country—I never heard anyone tell it where I grew up, further north, and the one or two times I tried to recount the story to friends in my own hometown, I just muddled the details and nobody knew what I was talking about. I could never get the story right when it was just a story, but the gist of it was that if you went down into the right cave (and there were plenty of caves in the hills), you could keep going and going and it wouldn’t ever stop.

 Instead, as you traveled further and further in, deeper than Mammoth Caves, deeper than Carlsbad even, and we had all been to Carlsbad—you would eventually get turned upside-down. This would happen quite slowly, and you would be traveling through twisty and sometimes very narrow tunnels, so you wouldn’t notice it happening. But if you kept going, and going, and going, eventually your head would be pointed toward the center of the earth, and without your ever feeling it, the world would be inverted. If you kept on going—and of course you would, since you had come so far already—you would finally come to the end of the tunnel. This would feel just the same as if you had tunneled in on one side of a mountain and come out on the other, burrowing instead of climbing. Except you wouldn’t be on the other side of any mountain, you would be on the inside of the earth’s crust.

Everyone in Jenny’s town claimed to know someone whose friend or brother or grandfather had made this journey and come back to tell the tale, and there were a handful of folks who claimed to be searching for the right cavern themselves, but despite a couple of very determined summers of asking everyone I could, I never met anybody who had gone down and seen this place with their own eyes. But there were one or two things they all agreed on. The first thing was that the journey was very long. Days and days, maybe more than a month. It wasn’t a thing to do just for fun. Especially because the second thing they agreed on was that this mysterious upside-down world was an extremely unpleasant place to find oneself.

 The Under Queen was supposedly the leader of a faction of people who lived in this Under Place who hated it there and desperately wanted to find their way back up and live out under the sky. Some of the stories said that they had come up once or twice, in different parts of the world, but due to poor planning or just plain bad luck, there had been confrontations with the Upper World residents, and the Underworlders had come off the worse. Which is why (we were told, as children), the Under Queen had adopted a new strategy for the long-term success of her people: Rather than simply emerging en masse, or even sending scouts up above, her tribe would kidnap unwary Upworlders who strayed too close to the caverns that they patrolled. These captives served the purpose of educating the Under Queen and her tribe about the ways and customs of the Upper World, so that when the Underworlders emerged the next time, they would know exactly how to behave and dress so as to blend in with the population of their new home, and avoid being mistaken for demons or witches. This gave an idea of how long it had been since they had last attempted to assimilate. According to the stories, there were many tunnels, and their Under World openings were quite close together but their Upper World exits were scattered all over the world, which meant that the captured Upworlders tended to be bewilderingly diverse in their dress, appearance, and language—an even greater puzzle for the Under Queen. I liked to imagine her lining up all of these different people, from very different lands but all from up above, and viewing them as if in a fashion show, a display of all the diversity she would be able to find if she could only make it out, where the sun would be shining.

 My summers were filled with stories of the Under Queen, when my family went down to Red Rock Country to visit my cousins, and the fact that nobody in our town knew anything about her made her somehow more real, as if she was a prominent resident of that small desert community but naturally no one outside it would know her. I think it was the Under Queen that inspired me to minor in folklore in college: a frivolous topic, and one I knew wouldn’t do anything for me. But it was an excuse to see if I could find her again, further afield, and once in a while I think I almost did. A South American legend of a hole that dropped straight to the underworld, a Celtic story of strangers coming out of the hills to take unwanted babies, that sort of thing. Never anything definite, but maybe an occasional story where the directions to the land of the dead would seem detailed enough to be actually worth following. I thought it might be interesting to write a paper on it some time. Maybe even a book.

 But since Jenny went missing this past summer, I’ve been taking a more critical look at my notes. I think it’s safe to assume that she must have been dragged into a cave no more than five miles from her campsite, which gives us a nice small radius to work with, and if we bring lightweight clothing we should be able to carry enough food for nearly two months. See if you can get three off from your job, though.

 Oh, one more thing. Don’t tell the police.

True Story Monday, Aug 20 2012 

I’m not sure if all the SFF folks are still talking about creeping each other out, but I think it’s mostly died down, so despite the fact that pretty much no one will see this I thought it would be rude to clog up someone else’s web space with it. Still, I had to share. The universe will see.

I work at a public library, in a small branch. Due to a lack of foresight in the building design, there tends to be insufficient workspace, and I often have to process recently returned items out in public view. We have many patrons, both male and female, who want the “freshest” books or DVDs, and like to go straight to the most recent returns to find their entertainment–it’s like the books are cookies and the book return is an oven. They want the warm ones.

Over the six years that I’ve worked here, there have been maybe a dozen instances where I actually have had to ask someone to back off. I take a deep breath and make sure that I sound friendly and not annoyed (or I do my best, at least), and I say something along the lines of, “Are you looking for a specific title? Because if so, I’ll happily give it to you. Otherwise, I have to be honest, it makes me nervous to have you hovering over me like that.”

Most people realize their mistake, apologize, and find something else to do for five minutes until I finish and they can pounce again. One or two have slunk off silently, realizing that they were in the wrong but too embarrassed to converse. The guy I gave my little speech to today got offended, and then when I offered to help him check out his items, he refused to let me help him at the circulation desk. He did not, however, try to complain to anyone about my rudeness.

Which is why I’m pretty sure he was looking at my tits and not at the DVDs.

Les Chansons des Roses (Rose Songs, or the Songs of Roses) Wednesday, Mar 7 2012 

Of course I knew that Jeff liked me. It was kind of a joke around the office. He liked me and everybody knew and would tease us both about it, and that was the status quo. It was fine. I even thought of him as a friend. I just wasn’t interested in him romantically—I mean, who could be? He was such a quiet little guy, I felt like I would just trample over him sometimes. But when he brought me those roses, I sort of felt obligated to accept them.

 They were a little bit over the top. Gorgeous—I mean, so beautiful—long-stemmed red roses, thick velvety petals and in the most unbelievable box—I didn’t think flowers like that really existed outside the movies. But there they were, on my desk, and what could I do? If it had been jewelery I would have given it back, but roses? They’re perishable, right? Even if they cost a thousand dollars, they’d be dry or dead or whatever in a week, it’s not like they take returns on flowers. And they really were so, so beautiful.

 “What do you think?” He was right there immediately. He must have been hovering, waiting for me to find them.

 “Jeff—I don’t know what to say. This is too much. These are—they’re too much. Thank you, but… don’t. Please, never again.”

 “I know it’s a lot, but they made me think of you. Please just take them. It would make me happy if you did.”

 So what could I do? It would have been too mean to give them back. I tucked them under my desk so they wouldn’t stand out too much. I knew the rest of the office would give me shit about it.

 But I kept wanting to look at them. The petals were so soft and thick you just wanted to crawl into one of the flowers and sleep in it. After an hour or two I started to get a headache from constantly bending to look at them under my desk, and once I cracked my head when I was trying to smell them and the phone rang. So I gave in and left them out on my desk. They deserved to be seen. Of course I did get teased all afternoon, but I actually felt kind of smug about it. Nobody else had the world’s most beautiful roses on their desk. I figured they teased Jeff too, but I didn’t see him all afternoon, so I couldn’t tell you.

 I had to pack them back in the box to get them home, but I saw people giving me looks on the subway. Just the size of it was enough to catch somebody’s eye. I can’t pretend it wasn’t nice to get some jealous looks from strangers. For all they knew, the box of roses was just the beginning. They didn’t know I didn’t have a date for Valentine’s Day, they probably thought I’d be taking a helicopter ride to somebody’s private island for dinner and hot tubs—something way more awesome than they’d be doing themselves, anyway.

 But of course I wasn’t. I just went home; not even a black heart singles party. I didn’t have a vase big enough for long-stemmed roses (does anybody?) so I kept the box open on the side table in my bedroom and said a little apology to the roses for not being able to display them the way that they deserved. Then I realized: after accepting the flowers, I hadn’t seen Jeff all day. I resolved to thank him again first thing the next morning.

 I kept one eye trained on the door all morning, but he never came through it. I even went down the hall and checked his office right before I went to lunch, but it was still dark. He must have called out sick—except I was the receptionist. I would have been the one to pick up that call. When Rick, the office manager, started rounding everybody up into the conference room, I felt sick. I think I knew what was coming.

 “Ladies and gentlemen. I have just received some upsetting news, and unfortunately you all need to hear it. I’m not sure how to say this, but the police found the body of Jeff Bristol about two hours ago. They say it looked like a suicide. I don’t know much about the circumstances, but I thought it would be best to make sure everybody knew so there would be no confusion or crazy rumors. I am so sorry to have to be the one to break the news. Jeff will be missed around here.”

 Except not really. Most of the office wouldn’t even notice the difference. It made me so angry at them, that such a sweet, gentle person could have been so ignored by them, that he could have been so lonely that he killed himself on Valentine’s Day—it made me sick. Rick was understanding when I said I wanted to go home early. I was the only one who did, those fuckers.

 I got home and ran straight to the roses, as if they would hold a clue, but there was no note, no card, nothing. I collapsed onto my bed, sobbing. Why hadn’t I noticed Jeff sooner? We could have been so happy together! But then, he was the one who hadn’t given me a chance. If he had only given me a little time to figure things out, we could have been so happy for the rest of our lives, but he robbed me of that. Out of spite. And he made sure I got those roses, to remind me that he had stolen my entire life’s happiness, before I even knew about it. Well, I wasn’t going to keep them around, mocking me.

 Burning, the roses were more beautiful than ever. And I realized that he and I didn’t need to stay apart.