There was once a girl named Charlotte who loved to paint- portraits, landscapes, houses, faces, anything and anyone who would hold still for a few minutes. Every day she filled her world with color. Her poofy brown hair always had splashes of pigment from the paint brushes she kept behind her ears, and her white jeans and tee shirt were a palette, a galaxy, swinging from place to place, purposeful and bright.
One day while splattering fuchsia and lime green on a dead grey sidewalk, she found herself watched by a girl all in black like a crack in the universe. Smiles and pregnant glances flew between them like moths. The girl’s matte black hair blended seamlessly with her dress. The darkness was broken only by her bright gold eyes, clear and sharp as broken glass.
The look lasted until a passing cloud changed the light. Charlotte dropped her gaze, pulled a brush from her hair, and painted a portrait of the golden-eyed girl, with hair and dress of swirling rainbows. She plucked two dandelion flowers for the eyes and stuck them into dollops of white paint. Then she looked at the shadowy golden-eyed girl with a fierce little almost grin. The girl smiled and melted into the shadow of the tree she’d been standing next to. There was a large white lily flower with no stem on the ground where she’d been standing. Charlotte picked it up, careful not to get any paint on it, and buried her nose in the center, inhaling the dizzyingly sweet fragrance with eyes closed.
Charlotte didn’t see the girl again for three weeks, although she sometimes smelled lilies and once thought she saw a flash of gold from a shadowy doorway while she painted the solar system on a minivan.
Then on a bright white summer day wandering the city Charlotte found a garden planted in front of a little plum-colored cottage wedged between two three-storey townhouses. In the garden was a row of six-foot lilies, each laden with large white blooms that perfumed the whole block. She borrowed some orange traffic cones from where some potholes had recently been filled a couple blocks away and blocked off the section of street in front of the little garden. Charlotte worked at a furious pace, letting her sweat mix with her her pigments, darting back and forth like an inkjet printer. Soon the street and sidewalk had become a pond, its surface touched by a gentle breeze, reflecting the garden and the blinding white lilies. She picked a few and crushed them into the white paint, so the sun shining on the drying paint set their fragrance free. Satisfied, Charlotte returned the cones and her paints and hurried back to hide behind some anonymous shrub next door to the little plum-colored cottage. Her wait ended quickly as the golden-eyed girl came gliding up the sidewalk like a ghost and stopped short, her eyes wide and leaking sunlight. She climbed up to the front door, the best vantage point, and looked down, hawk-like, examining every detail. Then she climbed back down to the street. She got down on her knees, and carefully holding her hair up with one hand, she leaned down to smell the white lilies. She stayed in that position long enough for Charlotte to sketch her in the soft soil at her feet. Then the girl softly spoke, “Thank you.”
Charlotte whispered from behind the shrub, “You’re welcome.” The girl went inside and Charlotte skipped away down the street while golden eyes watched from behind the sky’s reflection in the front window.
Three days later Charlotte was painting intricate plaid patterns on all the telephone poles along a particularly dull street when a familiar smell tickled her nose. She wiped her brush clean and turned around, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. There stood the girl, who managed while standing on a city sidewalk in broad daylight, to somehow look like just a pair of floating golden eyes at the bottom of a well, the sort you’d expect to find in the overgrown yard of an abandoned Victorian manor house.
“I knew you were magic!” said Charlotte. “What’s your name? Mine’s Charlotte.” The girl cocked her head to one side and blinked.
“It’s Lily, isn’t it?”
Lily smiled brightly, nodded, and offered her hand. “Come with me?”
It seemed a flock of starlings flew by, each brushing a wing across Charlotte’s chest as their hands touched. As they walked Charlotte lost herself in reverie, thinking of everything, as was her wont, in terms of color. The warmth of her hand was a dull magenta, while Lily’s cool touch was bright glacier blue. The tiny sounds of the lace hem of Lily’s dress brushing against her baggy linen pants made little orange and yellow fireworks against the black fabric. Their footprints were shimmering metallic rainbows that overflowed to cover the sidewalk behind them.
The dream colors receded, vacuumed into the landscape. They stood at the edge of a small dog park near the river, in front of a pile of boulders which leaned against a low hillside. Lily led Charlotte through a small gap and into a pit in the ground which had been concealed by the rocks. They walked down a tunnel which soon grew too dark to see in, but Lily squeezed Charlotte’s hand and kept walking. A moment later they emerged onto an overgrown dirt road. Looking around, Charlotte realized where they were. There had been a large brick and cinder block factory next to the river that was abandoned years ago. They were behind the empty building - the smokestacks could just be seen over the trees. Dozens of huge piles of blocks and bricks of all kinds sat, still waiting to be loaded onto trucks that would never come, towering over the wild roses and brambles.
They walked a short distance down the winding trace of a road and stopped. There before them stood a small castle, with cinderblock walls, roof of thatched grass and raspberry canes, and a portcullis of rusty chicken wire.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s wonderful! Is it safe to go in?”
“No. Come on.”
Lily lifted the portcullis and went in, followed by Charlotte. Inside was furniture made of smooth yellow cement blocks, with a table built of plywood scraps.
“Did you do all of this?”
She nodded with a proud smile. “I built it for us.”
“Yes. Will you paint it?”
So Charlotte brought paints and for many days poured herself into the little castle. She covered the walls with a rainbow of flowers, daisies and beebalm and marigolds and dandelions and indigo and irises and violets and sunflowers and redbud trees and lilies, of course. She guided Lily’s hands to make tiny delicate sweet peas. Together they painted the inside and the furniture in bright pastels with splashes of brilliant greens and blues. The table was scarlet, and when they finished all the painting they sat at that table and shared a thermos of hot chocolate.
Next came one of those ones that just makes a bright flash and a huge boom that you can feel in your belly and that sets off car alarms. Lily squeaked and snuggled closer, and Charlotte squeezed her tighter, hoping to still her trembling. Somehow she hadn’t really believed Lily was that scared of fireworks. Just barely audible over the crackling and whistling and cheering, she spoke in a calm, conversational tone:
“Did you know a lot of them are named after flowers? They’re so far away that they look flat to us but they’re really three-dimensional. There, see? That one was a chrysanthemum. Remember how you told me part of why you love growing flowers is because they’re like ‘explosions in slow motion, so gentle you can bury your nose them all afternoon.’”
Lily looked up, startled again.
“Those were your exact words. I wrote them down ‘cause they were so profound.”
This with a little grin, half ironic and half sincere.
“See, theres a daisy, only done in fast forward in light instead of petals.”
Another of the really loud ones. This time Lily spoke.
“That one’s like an allium, a small one.”
“Yes! And smell! The air is full of their fragrance. Not so sweet and gentle as one might wish but isn’t is lovely all the same?”
They named the flowers they saw, sweet peas and hollyhocks and beebalm and lotuses and chrysanthemums of course, still pressed together but no longer trembling.
“Oh, it’s the finale coming now! Remember how the first time you really showed me around your garden I couldn’t even breathe for all the brightness and colors and textures and smells? Here comes your garden, a whole year in three minutes. Are you ready my love?”
She filled her lungs with the comforting smell of Charlotte and the wild spicy scent of flowers made of light and fire- three deep breaths- and nodded.
“I can’t believe it’s been seven years. Do you think it’s even still standing?”
They reached the end of the trail and stopped, staring. The castle walls were still mostly intact. Unrecognizable traces of paint remained. The thatched roof was totally gone, and there was a Virginia Creeper vine climbing out and draping down the walls, portions of which had fallen down. The remains of the portcullis were on the ground, a tracery of rust half buried by fallen leaves. Lily moved closer, examining the outside, while Charlotte ducked through the doorway.
“Hey, I found our old table. Yuck, it’s all moldy! Hey are you coming in here or what?”
She stuck her head out the door and saw no one.
“Lily? Where are you?”
Worried now, she came out and walked around to the back of the castle, where Lily sat crosslegged on the damp leaves, quietly crying.
“What is it honey? Are you okay?”
Lily pointed with a trembling finger at a single perfect sweet pea flower painted on the wall, somehow spared by the ravages of rain and snow and sun. The flower had been a bright purple, but was now faded to a pale pink and freckled with tiny black spots.
Charlotte sat down next to Lily, wrapping her long arm around Lily’s narrow shoulders.
“I don’t think I want to see it. What if it’s just a pile of rubble? It really hurt, last time, seeing it all neglected. It felt like, I don’t know, like we just forgot to care about our heart, like we were just coasting along while all the beauty and magic rotted away without us even noticing.”
“Do you ever talk to her about any of this stuff?”
“No. I know I should, it’s just...how do I tell her? Without hurting her, I mean? It’s not like she’s malicious, it’s both of us just going about our lives doing all the things that seem important and growing further and further apart. This is our tenth anniversary and reminiscing about how amazing the first couple years were just isn’t enough anymore. I don’t think we know what to do with each other now that we’re adults with jobs instead of wild magical children.”
They sat at a very high round metal table, in tall metal chairs. It was outside of a self-consciously independent coffee shop with a ‘Friends don’t let friends drinks Starbucks’ bumper sticker on the front door. Lily wore a knee length dark green skirt, black tank top, and black combat boots. Her friend Michelle wore a purple tank top which showed parts of an elaborate tattoo of oriental dragons flying over a forest, which successfully incorporated the scar tissue from where her left arm had been removed following a car accident. A short black skirt with blue lace and Doc Martens with four inch heels completed her look and increased her already considerable height so that she towered over most people.
“So what are you going to do? Do you want to break up with her?”
“I don’t know, I really just don’t know.”
“Well you know I’m here for you no matter what happens.”
Charlotte emerged from their car and trotted over, wearing faded blue jeans and a coffee brown tank top. She hugged Michelle and put her hands on Lily’s shoulders.
“Hey Charlotte. Happy Anniversary guys, I’ll see you tomorrow Lily.”
“‘Kay, thanks for listening to me.”
“Are you ready?”
“You okay love?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Lily stared out the window as Charlotte drove their car toward their old neighborhood. They passed the cottage where Lily had grown up. The people who bought it from her mother after her dad died a few years ago had fenced in the front yard for their dogs. The whole yard was bare brown earth now.
“Why do you always go this way when we’re in our old neighborhood?”
“Less traffic. And it reminds me of when we were kids.”
“It makes me really sad to see my old house.”
“I didn’t know that. Would you prefer if I went a different way?”
“I don’t know. I guess so.”
“Okay, I can do that. I’m sorry I made you sad love.”
Charlotte parked the car and they got out. The sky looked like a highway flare behind a white sheet. The diffuse light made very few shadows, which made Lily feel exposed. Her heart raced as they crossed the wide field between the parking lot and the back edge of the park, where the tunnel entrance was. As they walked Charlotte contemplated how she might capture the starkness and blinding brightness on canvas. Charlotte stopped on the path just before the turn that would bring them to their castle.
“Listen, I know it’s hard for you to come here. It is for me too. I know lately our relationship...hasn’t been so great. Like, for a bunch of years. I feel like we grew up and somehow we got used to each other and forgot how amazing we both are...and maybe it’s less obvious because I don’t go around painting everything and you aren’t so mysterious...and maybe there’s more wrong than that, I don’t know. But I really really want to do whatever I can to make things better between us. You’re so worth it to me Lily. I just didn’t really know where to start, so…”
Charlotte took Lily’s hand and pulled her around the bend to where the castle stood. The whole area had been cleared of brush. The walls stood perfectly straight and whole, painted white, with a fresh thatched roof. There was a flawless, shining section of chicken wire serving as portcullis. On the ground in front sat cans of paint and brushes.
“Did you do all this?”
“I did it for us. Come on inside.”
“Is it safe?”
“It’s never been safe. Come on.”
“I feel stupid doing this.”
“Sometimes it’s okay to feel stupid.”
“What’s even the point? It’s been almost a year already. I should just get over it.”
“How do you think a person just gets over it?”
“I don’t know, move on, think about other things, stuff like that…”
“How’s that working for you so far?”
“... Alright, fine.” A deep breath. “Lily...I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry. I never really understood how precious you are, not just to me, just...you’re amazing...and...I don’t have words, really, for you. I think, like, if I had way better dreams than I really do you’d be the girl of my dreams...and somehow I got used to you and took you for granted which is just so crazy, like walking around with a unicorn everyday and not even really noticing. You’re so much more wonderful than unicorns.
But also loving you made me less myself, i think. Like, somehow there were so many times that i chose to be with you instead of painting that i started to forget how to paint and then later when i started again I felt like I had to push against you to make space for painting and I’ve never been half as good as I was before I met you and that’s not your fault but I know I punished you for it. You deserved so much better. I’m so sorry. I wish I could start over, I would give anything at all to start over and be the person you chose...Remember, you told me that you chose me. I never really understood why. Maybe you thought I was better than I am…I miss you so much.”
“I think so.”
“How did that feel?”
“Kind of good, I guess. I guess I’ve never really said all that stuff.”
“Okay. Take as long as you need. Here, you can squeeze one of those pillows if you want, don’t worry about getting it wet. This is really hard work you’re doing. It will get better and better, but sometimes it’s gonna feel much worse. Okay, let’s get you back to class. Are you gonna be okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
That evening she listened to the the voicemail message again:
“This is Lily. Deb told me you were in the hospital. She said you tried to kill yourself. I’m really worried about you. She said you’re safe and everything. I know you won’t get this until you get released. Just know that I care about you a lot and you’re on my mind and you’re a really beautiful, special person so please please please take care of yourself. The world is so much better with you in it. And...I hope things get better for you. I hope you find a way to be happy. I’m sorry I hurt you so much. Ummm...bye.”
As with every other time her thumb hovered over the keypad, back and forth between 7 and 9, erase and save, and as with every other time she hung up instead. A few seconds later the new voicemail sound played.
The date on the screen said October 11.
Once there was a woman named Lily who loved plants. Now that she was alone she had loads of time to fill, and she filled it with flowers. When demand outstripped her little yard, she moved in with a friend who owned an organic vegetable farm. After a few years flowers took a quarter of the farm’s arable land and provided nearly half its income, and Lily hardly ever thought about Charlotte. Except once while everyone sat in the shade under a black locust tree an intern made a little face on the ground out of pieces of locust pods and used two dandelions for the eyes and smiled at Lily and said, “Just like yours.” And then somehow her face was covered in tears and snot and dust and her fists were bruised from slamming them on the ground. Her friend carried her inside and gave her tissues and made her tea and Lily told herself, “I don’t need her. I have my friends and my flowers and that’s all I need.” The intern left a week later. And then Lily called Charlotte.
October 11. Charlotte had just glanced at her phone to check the date so she could write it on the form she was signing agreeing to be discharged from the long term outpatient mental health program she’d been attending for the last three years. She saw that it was October 11, and then the phone started buzzing. She had deleted Lily from her contacts years ago but she still recognized the number. She froze. Her surroundings fell away as if she was falling down a well and there was only the phone and the dark.
“Are you okay? Do you need to answer that?”
Her social worker’s voice reached her as if from a great distance.
“I don’t know…”
And then the buzzing stopped. Panic gripped Charlotte- what if she didn’t leave a message? Was it just a pocket dial? Why did Lily still have her number? What if she was calling because she’d been in a terrible car accident and was laying on the pavement bleeding to death and was ready to speak her last words, “I love you, I always have,” to Charlotte and she was missing it? How many times had she failed to be there for Lily? That was why she left, right?
She scribbled her name and the date, October 11, hugged Jenny the social worker, and ran outside the building, calling her voicemail. There was no new message.
Charlotte stood outside the ugly brick building. It was warm for October. The sun was low in the sky so it made a fiery orange light that made the suspended dust from the parking lot incredibly obvious. It almost looked like it was all underwater, and seeing it Charlotte felt the enormous pressure and fought to keep breathing. Slow, deep breaths, add up the numbers on the license plates of the cars in the parking lot. Think carefully, don’t do anything rash. Should she call back? Take that risk? Life wasn’t amazing, hadn’t been since she left, but it was pretty good and getting better. What was the point of all those years of work, classes, counseling? To learn to be okay without her, to not need someone else to make me complete. But maybe also to be able to be a good partner, maybe even a great partner, for someone someday.
Yes, call back.
But before her thumb reached the call button, her phone buzzed again, just once- new voicemail. It had been eight minutes. What could she possibly have to say after four years of total silence that would take eight minutes to say?
It was the same voicemail greeting she’d had when she was in the hospital, the same she’d had for seven years before that. She sounded happy, young, silly- everything Lily had sometimes kind of a little bit resented until it wasn’t there anymore to resent.
“Fuck. Why aren’t you answering?”
Disaster scenarios ran through her mind- car accident, plane crash, maybe she was abducted, maybe she was hiding from a murderer and I made her phone ring and now she’ll die and it’ll be my fault. Then came the beep. She started with “I’m sorry,” and went on from there.
After, she sat on the edge of her bed. It had sky blue sheets and a thick purple comforter and one pillow in a sky blue pillowcase. The bed she had shared with Charlotte always had sheets with characters from different cartoons. Rainbow Bright was Charlotte’s favorite. Lily had always made fun of her for insisting on those sheets, but now she was pretty sick of plain blue. There were pictures of seahorses on the walls, as well as a calendar with Georgia O’Keefe paintings. She looked at the clock on her little wobbly bedside table and immediately forgot what it said. She’d made the table herself two years ago. There was a chapbook of poems by James Elroy Flecker on it which she’d read at least a hundred times. She looked down at the phone in her hand, feeling increasingly stupid for calling and saying the things she’d said. Charlotte might have moved across the country by now. Maybe she’s a famous artist in Europe and she lives with some beautiful wealthy Italian patroness. Or she’s married and has a kid and doesn’t want her perfect life disrupted.
She fell asleep waiting for the phone to ring, but it didn’t.
Somehow, Lily found herself making out with an intern. His name was Fritz and he was from Berlin and was traveling around America, going from one organic farm to the next, practicing his English, and apparently, also his French. They always had a big end-of-the-season party. They had to, after the unrelenting intensity of the growing season. As always, there was loads of wine and liquor and homemade beer. This year, someone had also brought two gallons of deceptively strong mead, which Lily had been sampling extensively. She kept thinking about how Charlotte would have described the mead as she held up her glass to the light. She would have told a story about two girls getting lost in a golden world and eventually finding each other and discovering that together they have the power to sculpt the golden light that fills the world and choosing to stay there together forever.
So somehow Lily watched herself bring Fritz upstairs to her bedroom, which was conveniently pretty soundproof. She watched herself lay on the bed and pull Fritz down on top of her. His hand was sliding under her shirt when she felt a strange feeling at the base of her spine. She tried to ignore it until Fritz said, “I think your phone is ringing.” She reached back and picked it up, but by the time she got her eyes focused on the screen all it said was ‘You have 1 missed call.’ She tossed it across the room and held her arms up, inviting Fritz to pull off her shirt. She watched with detached curiosity from her vantage point, floating beside the bed.
Downstairs, someone bumped against an end table. An open bottle of Everclear wobbled and fell. Another intern named Philip snatched it up, trying to save some of the expensive liquor, and knocked over one of the many candles that were placed throughout the room. The spilled liquor immediately flared up, burning with an almost invisible blue flame. The linen curtains next to the end table caught fire next, but they burned with a lovely golden light like sunlight through a glass of mead. The ensuing panicked attempts to put out the fire knocked over more candles, of course, and within a few minutes the guests had to accept that the house was well and truly on fire. The house’s owner, Lily’s close friend Margery, dialed 911 while the neighbor who had brought the mead quickly ushered everyone outdoors. “Is everyone out?,” he asked Margery when she came out. Margery looked around, then looked again, eyes widening.
“Lily isn’t here! And I don’t see Fritz either!”
Philip spoke up, “I saw them going upstairs. They were holding hands.”
Margery looked even more alarmed and made to run inside, but the neighbor grabbed her arm and held tight.
“Look Margery! There’s nothing you can do. The firefighters will be here soon, they can help them. You can’t.”
He held her tightly as she wept.
The whole world was dark, receding. There was the skin-tingling obliterating panic of the kind of nightmare where you need to run from some horrible monster but no matter how you try you just can’t move.
Over and over played the scene, her lovely sweet Lily curled on the floor beside her bed, terrified, knowing she’d probably die, alone, losing consciousness as the smoke filled the room, being briefly woken by the intense pain as fire licked up the side of the window and burned her left side before the firefighters reached her and got her out. The young man she’d been with had jumped out the window just before the fire trucks arrived and had landed very badly. He was not expected to survive. But her sweet precious Lily hung on in an induced coma.
Charlotte put down the newspaper with the blackened skeleton of a beautiful old manor house covering a third of the front page. She wasn’t really sure where she put it down, maybe just on the ground. She walked up to a total stranger who was getting in their parked car and asked for a ride to the hospital, please. He was not an especially generous or trusting person, but he was certain there was a strong possibility she’d assault him and take the car if he said no, so he said yes. It was only fifteen minutes.
She opened her eyes. Or rather, just eye. The left one didn’t seem to want to open right now. She felt pleasantly floaty, cheerful, comfy, like a soft bed with lots of blankets and nothing to do all day. It hurt to breathe, but the pain was far away. She looked up at the cream-colored ceiling. She was in no hurry to move, but she could move her eye around enough to see she was in a hospital. There were flowers in vases all over the room. Then she remembered the fire and her breath caught for a moment before the morphine blanket settled over her and she smiled a little and closed her eye.
Vaguely annoyed at being disturbed, she reopened her eye and looked to her right side. Charlotte leaned over. There were tears dripping from her nose. Her hair was a mess, but it was always a mess. Lily smiled again before the soft shadows took her.
She woke up from time to time, usually when the morphine was wearing off, and Charlotte was there every time. Sometimes Margery was there too, or the neighbor who’d brought the mead. He told her he had a whole lot of it stored up with her name on it. Michelle visited every weekend. They’d lost touch over the last couple years but Michelle had always been the type to be there when you need someone.
Charlotte read to her and told her stories and sometimes sang for her. She was not a very good singer but she could sing very loudly. It hurt to laugh so she couldn’t sing much.
When she finally spoke, it was winter. She could tell because there was snow falling outside the window. Charlotte helped her take a sip of water from a styrofoam cup with a straw in it.
The scars around the left side of her mouth made it hard to form words clearly, but Charlotte had always been a good listener.
“I missed oo.”
Michelle volunteered to tell her. She’d always been good with things like this, ever since her accident and recovery helped her learn all the stupid things people say when they want to help and the things they do that actually do help. But it still wasn’t easy.
“It was a drunk driver,” she told her. “It was quick,” she said.
During the funeral Lily was like a ghost, totally silent, her golden eyes floating in formless inky shadow. No one saw her leave, but when her absence was finally noted friends were dispatched to find her and make sure she was okay.
So she spent some time in the same hospital Charlotte had, for much the same reason. Michelle visited a lot, brought her books and candy, and told her what was happening in the world. It helped the time pass.
Once there was an old woman who walked with a limp. She carried a cane in her right hand which was painted in a plaid design of neon orange and sky blue and violet. Her left sleeve was neatly pinned up. Her bright gold eyes were framed by smooth white hair, and she was very quiet.
She finished her morning tea and went outside. She stopped for a moment and inhaled deeply through her nose. The scar tissue in her lungs made it difficult to take a full breath, but she was used to that. Walking slowly, awkwardly holding her cane between her knees, she cut lilies from the towering plants that bore them, smelling each one deeply before carefully tucking it into the cloth bag she wore over her shoulder. When the bag was full, she started walking. It took about an hour to reach the huge sprawling cemetery, then another twenty minutes of climbing up and down small rolling hills to find the heavy granite slab which had begun to sink into the earth. It said,
Charlotte Rosemary Walker
1982 - 2014
she filled the world with color and hope
Lily carefully bent over and brushed aside the flowers she’d left yesterday and lovingly laid out the lilies as a crown around Charlotte’s name. Then she put yesterday’s flowers, already wilting, into the cloth bag. She sat in front of the stone, looking at the glittering crystals in the granite. A gentle breeze came, making the nearby trees whisper their secrets to each other. A small shadow passed over the granite slab and a few seconds later a blue feather drifted down and made an underline beneath the quotation.
“Beauty lives,” Lily whispered, and laid down for a rest.