The next time William was able to escape was when his grandmother and Sylvie had appointments in the city for the day. His grandmother had asked him to come along so he could spend some time with his mother. He didn’t understand why he needed to see her since he lived with her all but three months of the year. The summer he spent in the country, and he didn’t want to go back to the heat and stench of the July streets. He declined, saying he was perfectly happy spending the day with his comic books.
“It wouldn’t hurt you to accompany us, William.” His grandmother frowned as she regarded him. “When was the last time your mother took you shopping? I’ll bet your wardrobe is in dire need of some new trousers.”
“Please, Grandmother,” he said. “I don’t feel all that well. I’d just like to stay in today.”
She turned away from his door and he heard her whisper to Sylvie that he was such a sickly boy as they went out the door. He watched from the parlor window until the bus that would take them to the city picked them up at the end of their drive, then quickly ran for a pair of shears. He’d seen beautiful daffodils and wild roses growing along the fence that separated their property from their neighbor’s, and as he hurried to the shell that remained of the old home, he gently clipped the flowers and placed them in a paper bag.
She was sitting in the same place she’d been when he left her days ago. Only this time, she was dressed in the white gown, the lace of the sleeves tight around her arms, the waist small and tied with a frayed blue sash. The neck of the gown was very high and fringed with more lace, and her hair was piled on top of her head, kept in place by a pearl comb. William had never seen anyone dressed in such a way. She reminded him of a character from some dated movie, elegant and sadly obsolete.
“Hello, William,” she said in her lilting voice. “I’m glad you were able to return so soon.”
“I have your flowers,” he said, shaking himself from the trance that seemed to hold his feet in place. He walked toward her clumsily and placed the bag in her lap.
Feverishly, she opened the bag and peered inside. For a moment, she just stared, her face strangely expressionless. Then, very slowly, she reached within the bag and withdrew a single daffodil. She lifted it to her nose, shut her eyes, and inhaled deeply. A sigh escaped her, startling William. It was almost a cry, filled with longing.
“This . . . is . . . wonderful,” she breathed, her tone enraptured. She ran the petals along her cheek, her eyes closed. Very carefully, she lowered the stem onto her lap and reached into the bag, lifting a handful of flowers and crushing them to her chest. “This is wonderful!” She said again, her voice rising. “The colors!” She turned wild eyes to William. “I never imagined they were so brilliant. The heart of this flower is orange,” she said, fingering the inner bud of a daffodil. “And this is the deepest red I’ve ever seen!”
“It’s a rose,” he told her. She looked up, her eyes glazed, head tilted as though listening to a whisper.
“That’s my name,” she said softly.
“It is?” William asked as she emptied the bag onto her lap. “Rose?”
She nodded slowly. The tip of her nose was stained orange from the spores of the daffodil. The colors seemed vivid against the white of her dress. Laughing almost hysterically, she began to make a wreath from the flowers, braiding the stems together into a garland of yellow and red. She placed it on her head and stood up, facing him.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I like it,” he said quietly.
“Do I look like a princess?”
“A queen,” he said without thinking, and she smiled even brighter.
“Rose! Queen of flowers!” she exclaimed, spinning in a circle. “And her majesty desires to play a game.”
“What sort of game?” he asked, enthralled by her.
Instead of answering, she walked to the center of the attic and reached up to pull on the veil hanging above her head. She pulled just enough that the veil hung lower from the rafters, sweeping the floor. She ran to the next veil and did the same, and then again and again. He watched until he could no longer see her, an excitement growing in him. Soon he was surrounded by a labyrinth of shimmering material. All he could see was one rippling wall after another, and from this flowing maze he heard her voice call, “Catch me if you can!”
William stepped forward, brushing one veil aside only to find himself in another fluid passageway. He heard the tread of her footsteps nearby. He turned in their direction, parting two curtains and finding himself at a crossroads. It was like a funhouse. He felt like one of the rats he’d seen in scientific experiments. And he was flushed with the thrill of it, wanting to find her, grasp her, defeat her.
He pursued faster. He wasn’t going to give her any advantage or head start. He followed the small sounds she made. At one point in the chase, he saw a canopy fall back into place just ahead of him, concealing the white hem of her dress. He ran in that direction, his breathing ragged. He heard her teasing laughter and felt the heat of competition, the promise of victory. She was close, he could tell.
And then he stopped. He stopped because he no longer heard any noise. The room was unusually still. Not a single draft or breeze animated the canopies. They hung as lifeless as if they were solid walls. William began to panic, feeling trapped in the narrow passage, fearing the curtains would not part against his hands. He turned and pushed against the one behind him, jumping when he saw her standing on the other side, a smile playing on her lips. He took a step back, surprised by her sudden presence. She reached out and tapped him lightly with her finger. “You’re it,” she teased softly.
They didn’t move. A cry rose in his throat, a roar as soft as a whisper. William rushed forward with his arms out as if he meant to tackle her. He pushed her to the floor and fell on top of her. For a brief moment, he stared down at her closed eyes, at her eyelashes brushing the curve of her cheeks. Breathing heavily, he rolled over beside her, shocked by his impulsiveness and the intimacy of the moment.
She turned her face toward his. Her crown of flowers lay crushed beneath her head, the stems bent and broken. Her hair spilled out of the comb and loose petals clung to her curls. She made a little disapproving sound with her tongue. Tsk, tsk, tsk. “Are you a poor sport, William?” she asked softly.
“I’m sorry,” he said, sitting up, staring at her lying on the floor with the dress encircling her body. It was smudged now with dirt.
“Apology accepted.” She lifted her hand for him to take. “But I know a way you can make it up to me.”
Melissa Hunter is an author and blogger from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her articles have been published on Kveller.com and LiteraryMama.com. She is a contributing blogger to the Today Show parenting community, and her short stories have been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. She is currently writing a novel based on her grandmother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and the psychological impact this had on her life. When not writing, Melissa loves spending family time with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Connect with Melissa via her website, Facebook, and on Twitter as @cleancopywriter.