Roland Allnach

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Flowers for Colleen
Roland Allnach, 2010
Published in The Absent Willow Review, April 2010

Enjoy this short fiction and much more in Prism!

                                                                                                                                                                                        

            It was the first Saturday morning of the month, and Darryl went to get flowers for Colleen, as was his routine.  He stood in the florist shop, waiting behind a rather impatient man, while the young woman behind the counter prepared the man’s bouquet.  The customer stood there, his impatience evident in the nervous tap of his foot and his repeated sighs of frustration, as the woman held her smile and tried to calm him with harmless small talk.  She was a perky little creature, adorable with the little sprigs of baby’s breath tucked into the loose bun of her brown hair.  Her large eyes held a welcome innocence for the world’s intentions.

            She wrapped the man’s bouquet and turned.  “Is there anything else, sir?”

            He shook his head and took out his wallet.  “No.  Just ring it up already.”

            Darryl tipped his chin, an almost imperceptible movement, his eyes narrowing on the back of the man’s head.  He frowned as he gazed through the glass doors of the shop’s refrigerator.  He turned to the woman.  “Excuse me, but do you have any roses?  I was looking for six red roses.”

            The bright curve of her smile fell, but her eyes glowed with empathy.  “Oh, no, I’m so sorry, we’re getting some in later.  I just opened a few minutes ago, and these were the last we had from yesterday,” she said, opening a hand to the bouquet she just made.

            The man in front of Darryl took the bouquet.  He turned and patted Darryl’s shoulder.  “Early bird gets the worm, buddy.”

            Darryl’s face fell.  He looked at his shoulder.  He watched the man go.  He turned to the woman, raising a hand in goodbye, before following the man out of the store.  They walked across the parking lot.  Darryl slid his hand into his coat pocket, and his fingers formed around a small handgun.  It was going to be so easy, it almost lost the thrill of anticipation, but his mind was made.  The man didn’t even look back, so self-assured in the delusion of his security, so arrogant in the notion of his personal safety.  He got into his car.  Darryl gave a quick glance over his shoulders to make sure no one was watching.  It was a gray, drizzly day, with pale wisps of fog floating about.

            He walked up to the man’s car and tapped a knuckle on the window as the man set the bouquet on the passenger seat.  The man turned in surprise, but his expression soured at Darryl’s presence.

            Darryl opened his mouth, but the man flipped up his hand, his middle finger extended.

            Darryl shifted, angling the gun in his pocket before squeezing the trigger.  He felt a slight tug as the bullet ripped through his coat, followed by a sound only his imagination could dissect: the muffled pop of the silenced gun, the crystalline crack of the window, the dull plunk of the bullet punching into the man’s temple.  The glass went white with fracture lines, the few specks of blood that spattered from the man’s temple caught on the inner glass.  The man’s head rolled to the side, his hand dropping in his lap.  Darryl knocked in the glass with his elbow and grabbed the man’s shoulder to hold him upright in his seat, but it was too late.  The small round from Darryl’s gun had remained in the man’s head, spinning around the inside of his skull, rupturing the inner canal of his ear.  A thick red discharge dribbled from his ear onto the roses, ruining them.

            Darryl frowned and looked over his shoulder.  It was early.  It was a Saturday morning.  No one saw him.  He lowered his head and walked away.  The woman in the floral shop, well, he had already decided she would live, and he never second-guessed himself.

 

***

 

            The gun and silencer, which he had fabricated in his apartment from industrial plastics, he tossed into his apartment building’s incinerator to melt away.  He went upstairs, sat in his little kitchen, and sewed up the hole in his coat.  The television droned in the background, the morning news saying something about a dismembered body found in the woods outside the city, another apparent victim of the so-called ‘Lumberjack’ killer.  He glanced over his shoulder to watch the report before finishing with his coat.  It was the second hole he had to repair; one more, and he would replace the coat, sending this one to the incinerator.  He made a cup of black coffee and listened to the rain, staring out his one window to the gray urban emptiness ten floors below.  The day was still young.  He was yet to find flowers for Colleen.

            He went to his closet, reached past the janitor’s overalls he wore for his night job at the plastics factory, and popped loose a panel he had fashioned in the wall.  He slid another one of his silenced guns, with its single shot loaded, into his pocket. 

            He pulled up his hood, locked his door, and walked away.

 

***

 

            An hour later he sat at a red light, watching his wipers as they squeaked across the windshield.  He was driving about the city, not quite in an aimless way, but more a deliberate randomness, as he sought another florist.  Not any shop would do; no, the shop needed a certain appeal through the presentations in the window, the sign, the location—an incomprehensible culmination of minutia to attract him.  He thought about the shop he visited in the morning, frowning as he considered whether or not the woman would remember him if she was questioned.  Perhaps she would understand how close she came to her end, how her life had rested in his hands, how she had been judged, and been deemed worthy, and in return feign ignorance regarding Darryl.  It was a thought that comforted him, that elevated his judgment of her, but not to the point where he would be satisfied to call her Colleen.  No, that tireless search would have to continue.

            The light turned green.  He drove off at a leisurely pace, sipping his black coffee, his gaze dissecting the world before him.

 

***

 

            It was early afternoon, and he found himself driving along an empty stretch of the city’s loop parkway, where the road ran through a state park.  He enjoyed that stretch, even in the current dismal downpour, as it left the gray urban monotony a fleeting memory before the rolling hills of towering evergreens and blue spruces.

            His mind wandered.  He thought again of the woman in the floral shop, but his thoughts moved with their usual senile elusiveness to other contemplations, all of them revolving around the odd pursuit of his life.  He had killed sixteen people over the years, without any trace of guilt.  To him, those acts weren’t crimes; they were nothing more than exercises of inevitability.  People were flawed creatures, he knew, but some were flawed in rather malignant ways, and when he came across them, if opportunity would lend its grace, he would act.  Malignant flaws led to one end and, understanding that finality, he saw himself as a blameless catalyst.   He didn’t deceive himself with notions of superiority or moral imperative, as he knew full well his ability to elude law enforcement rested on his own benign flaws.  Unlike the Lumberjack, he left no discernable trail, garnered no media attention, and held to no modus operandi.  He was a nobody, he was forgettable, he was average to the point of inconsequence; yet, he was patient, he had a purpose, and a reason.

            He remembered his First.  Some of the ‘guys’ from work had convinced him to join them at a nightclub for somebody’s birthday.  It was not his preference, but he went anyway, knowing that if he refused, it would draw attention.  So he went, only to hover on the periphery of the merriment.  The louder the music, the more disaffected he felt, until he could hardly hear the tones, only feeling the resonant thud in his chest from the deafening volume of repetitive dance beats.  His gaze floated on waves of sensory overload, the flash of strobe lights like crests of mounting water, dark tides of aimless promiscuity buoying an undulating mass of empty-eyed cadavers.

            A woman had bumped into him as he waited for a beer at the bar.  She was drunk, she was delirious, and she leaned against him, laughing before draping an arm over his shoulder and tugging him away from the bar.  She soon separated from him, but he followed her, his jaw clenched.  She was defenseless, but worse, she had made herself defenseless, and her security—that elusive charm of feminine vulnerability he found so intriguing—she had left it dangling like a hunk of raw meat.  Did she not know, did she not care, had she no idea about Colleen, and the horrible things that could happen to a woman’s innocence?

            He followed her to the bathroom.  He waited, lurking in the shadows, counting until he was certain she was alone.  Then he went in.  He took her hand, touched her cheek—her skin was so cold!—and led her to a stall.  She never stopped; she never worried.  Instead, she giggled.  He closed the stall door, and only then did it hit him, the odd existence of the moment colliding with his conscious senses to leave him forged in the fire of self-realization.   The moment it came to him, the rest flowed with such ease that reality slipped to the dreamy world of the surreal.  All he knew was the awful, relentless pressure of his hands, and the increasing divergence of his pounding heart and her fading pulse.

            His thoughts wandered back to the woman in the floral shop.  The notion of letting her live, he saw it as something other than a gift.  It was a moment of incongruence, a moment of total inconsequence in her conscious perception, yet, unknown to her, it may have been the most important moment of her life, the moment when her life was allowed to continue.  To her, such an incredible, life-altering moment was just a forgettable moment.  Such complacency, it was the greatest malignancy to him, forgivable only when held in child-like ignorance, such as she possessed.  When held in contempt, though, it was unforgivable.  Every moment, every moment could be a singular existence, unique, incredible, irreplaceable, precious as the red rose, its delicate beauty tribute to fleeting innocence.

            He blinked.  A set of red lights pulsed in the distance, off on the shoulder ahead of him.  He slowed, his eyes narrowing, the memory of his First still tingling within his fingers.  He neared the stopped car.  There was a woman there—he could tell by the way her long coat was tailored to her frame—and she stood by the passenger side rear wheel.

            After a quick debate he pulled over on the shoulder behind her, glancing in his rearview mirror to check that no one was behind him.  He flipped up the hood of his coat, checked his pocket for the gun, and stepped from the car.  “Can I help you?”

            The woman turned to him, studying him as he stood by his old, beaten car.

            He closed his door and stepped before his headlights.  “Flat tire?  I’ll change it.”

            She had dark hair; it hung about her face in a wet, black mass.  She fell back a step as she shook her head.  “No, no, I’m okay.”

            He looked to the tire.  It was indeed flat.  He stepped to the trunk of her car, which was opened enough for him to see she had hit the release.  “It’ll only take a minute.  You shouldn’t be out here alone like this.  It’s not safe.”

            He put his hand on the trunk lid.

            He could see her move in the corner of his eye.

            He flipped the lid up.  Two severed legs rested on a sheet of plastic in her trunk.

            Instinct drove him down, just as the tire iron whistled over his head.  He had no time to contemplate how his killer’s instinct just served to save his life; rather, he moved on her, grabbing the iron in one head and whipping his handgun free with the other.

            Her eyes locked on the simple plastic cylinder of his gun.  The open trunk, with the severed limbs, lingered in his peripheral vision.  They stared at each other, both befuddled in the realization that dawned between them.

            She forced herself to swallow as rain dripped from her hair.

            He tipped his head.  “You should cauterize the stumps.  Blade patterns.  They won’t be able to identify them.”

            Their eyes narrowed as they stood in the rain, frozen there, the tire iron humming between their opposing holds, his gun hand steady with the barrel pointed at her forehead.  As the moments mounted they began to relent, the tire iron sinking between them as their arms relaxed.

            “How’d you—” they said in unison.

            He took a breath.  “Police website.  I check it at the library.  No trace.”

            She nodded.  “I know.”  Her gaze darted to the barrel of his fabricated gun.  “You have a pattern.  I can see it.  I don’t think they do.”

            “They call you the Lumberjack,” he replied.  “The limb stumps.”

            She shrugged.  “So, here we are.  Kind of an odd moment, don’t you think?”  She motioned with her eyes to the tire iron.

            He hesitated, but consented.

            They rebounded from each other with a quick step.  Safety in distance.

            She gestured with the tire iron at the severed legs.  “I didn’t pick that stupid Lumberjack name.  Gallows humor among the cops, I guess.  My real name is Morgana.  How about you?”

            He hesitated.  “Darryl.”

            She tossed the tire iron in her trunk, her eyes steady on him.  She raised an eyebrow, the spinning of her mind’s gears almost audible.  “Well, Darryl, I think, maybe we need to talk, you know?”

            He lowered his gun.  “That would be odd.”

            She stared at him until her lips curved in a smile, her eyes widening with a sudden, childlike excitement.  “I know!  We’ll have coffee.  That’s ordinary.  What do you say?”

            There were two severed limbs in her trunk.  She was a killer, but then so was he.  For some reason his suspicious nature was silent, his apprehension mute, his guarding instinct restful.  He eased, his shoulders loosening.  “Let me take care of your flat.”

 

***

 

            He changed the tire, huddled beside her car in the rain.  She watched him after she fetched an umbrella from her car, and so she stood, hovering in the periphery of his vision, toward the front fender.  It was a truce of sorts, he concluded, a basic framework of trust.  What might necessitate such a trust, or the strange impossibility of their paths crossing, failed to penetrate his thoughts, but, once he had the spare tire on, it came to him.  Perhaps it was the fact that he had to move the two severed legs to get to the spare, or more so that moving two severed legs on the side of the road in the rain didn’t strike him as a strange thing in any particular way, nevertheless, tightening up the lug nuts gave him time to do some thinking.  It was a lonesome existence, the path of a predator, but they had found each other, against all improbability, in a moment that seemed to possess a singular property of inconsequence.

            He stopped short, his gaze resting on the wheel.

            She turned to him, her attention darting from her vigil on the road.  “Something wrong?”

            He looked to her.  “No.  Everything is just right.”

            She smiled.  “Okay.  Coffee?”

            “Start the car.  When the muffler gets hot we’ll use it to cauterize the stumps and ditch the legs.”  He stood and wiped his hands clean before tossing the tire iron in the trunk.  He looked at the legs.  One was slender, with pink toenails, the other somewhat beefy, with hair.  The engine started.  He waited until she got out of the car.  “You’ve been busy.”

            She came up beside him and shrugged before looking at him.  “Opportunity presented.  The targets were right.  You know how it goes.”

            He nodded.  “Creatures like us, we’re more complicated than anyone knows.”

            She grinned at his thought.  “That’s what makes us special.”  She waved the exhaust fumes from her face and glanced over her shoulder.  “So.  Barbecue time?”

            He couldn’t help but join her grin.

 

***

 

            He followed her along the road until she got off at an exit by the university.  They passed a few lights and turned into a little plaza to park.  The rain poured down, so they hurried to a coffee shop that sat near the middle of the plaza.  Huddled in the foyer, they waited until a young college student set a table for them.  The shop was narrow, but deep, and Morgana asked for a table in the rear, where they would be alone.  When the student looked at them, Morgana slipped her hand through the crook of Darryl’s arm and smiled.  It took effort for Darryl to maintain his composure, and it reminded him why he was entertaining this madness, as the reality of his life’s pursuit had compelled him to a monastic existence.   So they sat in the back of the shop, in a booth with high walls and a dim, hooded lamp that hung low over the table.  The table itself was narrow, leaving them somewhat close, so there was no dodging the probing stare of Morgana’s large, brown eyes, glistening like two pools of oil from the shadow of her brow ridge.

            She ordered a basket of scones and a cup of tea, her grin revealing itself once again when he ordered his plain black coffee.  When he looked at her, she opened her hands.  “You seem like the black coffee kind of guy, Darryl.”  She shrugged off her coat.  “I’m going to dry my hair a bit with some paper towels.  I’ll only be a minute.”

            He had to lean back when she got up, the table so narrow that they almost bumped heads when she rocked forward to slide out from the booth.  The scones came; they were piping hot in a basket, kept warm beneath a napkin.  They were served with some cold, hard butter, lightly salted.  The smell was delicious, but he kept to his coffee, taking a few sips until she returned. 

            Her hair was pushed back, still damp, but he could see she preferred to part it on the side.  She patted her hands on the table before taking a sip of tea and letting out a deep sigh.  “Oh, that feels good,” she said, bobbing her head side to side.  Her eyes widened as she poked a finger under the napkin to get a peek at the scones.  “Still too hot, I think.  You have to try them.  They’re outrageous.  The kids who work here, they’re from the university’s culinary program.  You come in here later, say around seven or so, and it’s standing room only.”

            He nodded.  “I don’t eat out much,” he said, but realizing it chilled the conversation, he shifted and pointed to his coffee.  “Like you said, I’m a black coffee kind of guy.”

            “Whatever suits you.”  She poked through the bags of sugar until she found a bag of raw sugar and dumped its large brown granules into her tea.  She gave it a stir before tapping her spoon on the rim of the cup.  Fingers meshed on the table before her, she sat up straight, fixed her gaze on him, and smiled.  “So, Darryl.  Let’s get to it.  We both follow a, well, shall we say, a profession of exceedingly select membership.  Of those rare few, we have achieved mastery in our skills, evidenced by the fact that we sit here, and not in some dark concrete hole.  So, by default, there is a pretext of fellowship between us: we are not adversaries.  And if we’re anything alike in our skills—which I think we are—we have similar sensitivities, otherwise this moment would be impossible, correct?”

            He studied her, hypnotized by her unblinking gaze.  “Yes, yes, impossible.”

            “And even though our profession is a—shall we say—consuming pursuit, it is a lonely one, right?”

            He took a deep breath, his eyebrows rising as he let it go.  “By it’s nature, yes.”

            She took a scone and set on a wedge of butter with her knife.  She waited a moment as the cold butter softened on the hot scone.  She took a quick bite, smiling at him as she chewed.   “You’re a little shy—guarded, I should say,” she said, dabbing her mouth with her napkin.  “It may not seem like it, but I’m shy—guarded—too.”  She shrugged.  “In fact, I don’t really talk to anybody.  I guess you know that, because when you talk to people, you get a feel for them, right?  And sometimes after you get that feel, you get that odd anxiety, that anxious excitement, and then, it’s time.”

            He sipped his coffee.  It took some effort to find his voice, to acknowledge this part of himself that had formed the focus of his life.  “Yes, yes, that’s it, exactly.”

            She leaned forward.  Her foot bumped against his knee as she crossed her legs.  Her eyes widened, glittering beneath the dim light as she pointed at him.  “I bet you’re very smart, that you possess a really developed mind, don’t you?”

            He frowned.  “I did well when I was young, but I never got to follow through.”

            She leaned closer to him as she rested a hand on his wrist.  “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m really smart.  Quantitatively brilliant.  I have a one-sixty IQ.  I have a doctorate in astrophysics and I’m working on quantum theory as well.”  She put her scone down and lowered her hand, so that her fingers rested across both his wrists.  “People like us, Darryl, we’re a different breed.  Not better, no, that would be arrogant, but different.

            His face felt warm.  He was afraid he blushed, but the moment that embarrassing thought came to him, he knew that he had, certain of it when she smiled.  It wasn’t a mocking smile.  He knew that contempt well enough, could sense it in people without them forming any expression at all, in fact.  Her sentiment was genuine.  He could see it in her eyes, heard it in her intonations and insinuations of empathy, felt it in the warm steady clasp of her delicate fingers.  “It’s such a lonely life,” he said with effort.

            She tipped her head, her eyes devouring him.  “How do you see it ending?”

            He blinked.  Such a thought had never occurred to him.  “I, I don’t.”

            She squeezed his wrists before settling back in her seat.  “Me neither,” she said, smiling again, adorable with her face framed between the wavy length of her drying hair.  She gave her tea a stir and took a sip before looking back to him.  “What got you started?”

            Before he realized it, he set his elbows on the table and leaned forward.  He raised a finger.  “You tell me, first.  I did change your tire, don’t forget.”

            She bowed her head.  “Fair enough.  Well, like I said, I’m brilliant, so I graduated school early and went to college.  The pressure was insane.  There were so many expectations.  My parents, they don’t lack in intellectual capacity, but they’re simple people, blue-collar types—good, honest people.  They never understood me, and once I was in college, that gulf just became impassable.  In the meantime, there I was, younger than anyone around me, this freak in a training bra that could think circles around everybody but couldn’t get a driver’s license yet.  Even the professors, I was their trophy instead of their peer.  They’d throw problems at me they couldn’t solve, and when I’d solve them, they’d be excited, but they’d resent me, too.  I was totally alone, adrift among hypocrites and fools who all treated me like I was a space alien.”

            She took a breath, her smile fading.  “I had a nervous breakdown, a total meltdown.”

            His face fell.  “I, I know that breakdown.”

            She froze, her gaze locked on him.

            “I had that breakdown,” he continued, “had it when I was eighteen.  It seems so long ago, now.”  He looked to her.  “I was on the same path you’re talking about.  The future, life, it all seemed so bright for me, preordained, perfect.”  He waited as his thoughts coalesced.  “I had a sister.  She wasn’t like me.  I was full of thoughts nobody understood, but she was innocent.  All the world was good in her eyes, and I used to think I’d trade all the intelligence, all the thoughts in my head, just to see the world once as she does.  She was like an angel.”  He cleared his throat, squeezing his eyes shut before he could continue.  “Some thugs, they raped her and drowned her.  I was sixteen.  My father couldn’t take it, so he took off.  My mother drank herself numb.  She said she’d wait until I was a legal adult.  I didn’t know what that meant, and maybe I didn’t want to know.  It’s hard to say now.  The day I turned eighteen she hung herself.  Everything was lost.  It was just me.  It’s been just me since then.”

            She fell silent, fidgeting a moment before she leaned toward him.  “Do you know what a neutron star is?” she said, but, when he shook his head, she only seemed all the more eager to talk.  “You have stars out there in space, right?  Well, they only last so long, and if they’re big enough, they go out with a supernova.  Then they collapse under gravitational stress, crushing themselves down.  Now, depending on how big they were to start with, decides on how much they’ll crush down.  Not too big, and they become a cold dwarf.  Real big, and they implode all the way down to a black hole.

            “But if they’re just right,” she said, raising her index fingers, “they become a neutron star.  It’s an amazing balancing act, the last stop before complete surrender to gravity and implosion to a black hole.  Instead, gravity crushes in on all those atoms, crushes them to the point that basic atomic particles, electrons and protons, fuse together and become neutrons.  Think about that.  Base elements, base opposites, crushed, fused to neutrality, holding that line against the will to devour themselves, superseding anything they were before.  One ambivalent, disaffected, ultra-dense, ultra-pure existence.”

            He listened, his heart stilled, his mind devouring her every word.

            “That’s what happened to me the night I broke down,” she said, her voice a whisper.  “All these things, all this around us, it revealed itself for the madness it is, and I broke from it, broke from it to the point where I almost broke from myself, but not quite, no, not quite.  Still here, but free—emancipated, I would say.  All the opposites in my nature, they were fused—nullified—to one truth, no doubt, no second guess, leaving me small and unseen, but I radiate, I radiate an invisible energy about me, and it guides me, protects me, talks to me, tells me who, tells me when, tells me where, and the why, the why is a singular mystery in itself, encrypted in the action, at once blameless and congratulatory.”  She took his hands, squeezing them as if she clung to a rope.  “Tell me you understand, Darryl.  Please?”

            He squeezed her fingers in turn before raising a hand to caress her cheek.  Her face was very warm.  “I understand,” he whispered back to her.  “The compulsion has a voice all its own.”

            “No condemnation.”

            “Blameless.”

            “Do you believe this moment was random?”

            He lowered his hand and shook his head.  “Consequence and circumstance have their own subtlety.”

            They could feel their pulse pounding in their hands, not the quickening when the compulsion called to them, but something else, strong and steady, undeniable.  They were so close their noses almost touched, their eyes lost in shadow beneath the dim light.

            She tipped her head, her eyes gleaming with mischief as her smile returned.  “My place, my apartment—it’s not five minutes from here.”

            He fought to breathe against the sudden tightness in his chest.  He welcomed the madness of it, the odd delirium of that surreal prospect, glorious in all the pregnant malignancy of its ramifications, and found himself powerless to entertain any of his careful, calculating considerations—except one, the one he couldn’t deny, the one compelling his pursuit, his search, his tireless search.

            “Do you like roses?”

  

(END)

 

 
     
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