Rated PG-13. Includes copious F-bombs.
We Are the Flower
By Claire Humphrey
I didn’t clue in until I saw the ghost bike chained to a signpost on Adelaide, near a corner. I was stopped up close, and I looked down and the angles of the frame were familiar. A Cannondale CAAD 5, just like mine. You could even see flashes of the same red and yellow logo underneath the white spray paint.
It’s, like, a pretty iconic bike, and you see them around a lot. So nothing too weird, right? Only then I noticed the luggage tag dangling from the handlebar. The neon green stood out against the white spray paint, and where you’d write the address someone had written, in silver marker, MISS YOU, MC.
Which is my name, or at least what I’m called.
I paused there a moment, one shoe clipped in, the other out and braced on the curb, then I looked at the rest of the bike again and saw, under the paint, the shape of my Trogdor sticker on the top tube.
Just like the one on the top tube of the red and yellow CAAD 5 I was currently riding.
Got to say, it shook me. I knew in my feelings even though I didn’t quite know in my mind. So what did I do?
Well, honestly, I turned into a bird.
That was not super useful, I know, but it just happened. Then I spent like five hours flapping around, screeching and shitting.
Eventually I calmed the fuck down and stopped being a bird. I found myself back at the ghost bike on Adelaide. My own bike — I mean the one I rode there on — was nowhere to be seen.
I held still and looked at the ghost bike again, closer. It was definitely mine. And there was the dangling luggage tag, and there was a bouquet of daisies hockey-taped to the rear triangle.
That’s what you do when someone dies in a bike accident. You paint their bike white and you set it up where they died. On rural roads people set up roadside crosses. In the city, you make a ghost bike.
That’s what you do when someone in the cycling community, a frequent rider, a bike lane advocate, dies. Someone like me. That’s what you do.
I said it like twelve different ways to myself, and it didn’t feel real.
Only it did feel real, because of some things like how I didn’t really know how I’d come to that corner that day, or where the other version of my bike had gone, or why the fuck I’d turned into a bird.
So, like, that was a lot to take in, you know? And I guess no one would blame me for freaking out a bit. And having an existential crisis about whether I was a ghost or a soul, and whether I was going to stay stuck here at the place where I died, and what the hell happened in the first place, and was I here to take vengeance on the driver who probably doored me and then backed over me or some shit.
And, uh, turning into a bird again for a bit, because it seemed like that was my thing now. Is there a religion where dead people turn into birds? Asking for a friend.
I’m telling this to you, but I don’t know if you can hear it. I’m right beside you in your bed.
You’re flat on your back, snoring. You aren’t wearing your sleep apnea mask. You smell like booze, which kind of bothers me: you aren’t supposed to drink with your antidepressants, but also, I’m a fucking ghost, why can I still smell stuff?
I kind of yell that last bit, to be honest, but you don’t move. A few strands of your hair lift a little. That’s all.
Your right hand lies across your belly, where your T-shirt has ridden up; you have a trail of hair there, from your belly button on down. I remember you telling me all your T-shirts were too short now that you were fat, but I couldn’t picture them any other way because I didn’t know you when you were thinner. Now that means your T-shirts have been in your life longer than I was.
Your left hand lies down by your side, upturned and open. I set my fingers in the cup of your palm.
At first I spent a lot of time at the ghost bike. I watched people come to it like a pilgrimage. Some people, I expected, like the Toms: Tom Oduya from the bike lane focus group and Tom Nakhooda from the Red Racer coffee shop. They were holding hands, which I guess meant they finally stopped just looking at each other over the counter.
Some people, I didn’t expect at all: a delegation — I can’t think of another word for it — from the Beaconsfield Beavers, which is the nickname for this one Queen West West women’s road racing club, which I did NOT make up. They’re the kind of club where people buy a new bike every season and everyone wears matching kit, and like, they have a sunglasses sponsor, I’m not even kidding, so they’re kind of a different league than me. What were they doing putting a sunflower bouquet on my ghost bike? And crying, for real. Then I recognized Alyx Wong, who did indoor training at the same shop as me all last winter, and her girlfriend with the blond streaks in her hair, and I still wasn’t sure I recognized the other women, but maybe I’d met them somewhere over the years, who knows.
Some people, I expected: BT, once, twice, five times. It started to get weird. We broke up, man! What are you doing hanging around my ghost bike? But he couldn’t hear me, of course.
The first time BT came, I felt sad for him. He looked like shit. His hair was dirtier than usual, the long side of it hanging like a tattered flag below his helmet. He poured out a toast for me from the bottle in his cage, and I could smell that it was something strong.
The next few times, he came with other riders we knew, like a tour guide, showing them the ghost bike and telling them what had happened.
I listened hard.
“She was on her way home,” he said, both times, and, “She was sideswiped by a driver in a hurry to make a right turn.”
He told one group that I had died instantly.
He told another group that I had drowned in my own blood.
I didn’t hear the rest that time, because I turned into a bird again.
Fuck that noise, right? No wonder people come back and haunt shit over and over. It takes ten times longer than you think it should to find out anything useful.
The last time BT came to the ghost bike, he came with this chick Alana Jollimore, all cute round face and pierced eyebrows. I knew her from one time at the Tour de Whatever when she ran out of water and BT shared some of his, and at the time I disliked her because BT was clearly into her, but now that I’d dumped him it wasn’t a big deal for me. Plus, you know, I was dead.
Alana Jollimore looked kind of spooked. She stood back from the ghost bike.
BT sighed sadly. “MC meant a lot to me.”
Alana reached across a couple feet of sidewalk to hold his elbow.
“Her cousin is coming to help me go through her stuff,” BT said. “She had a lot of really cool books. You should come over. I know you like poetry. I bet MC would be happy to see a couple of them go to you.”
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. I mean, books always deserve to be read and everything, but what the fuck, BT.
You don’t get to give away my books. We broke UP, I screamed at him, but the ragged banner of his hair only swung a few millimeters.
Alana looked weirded out. “Uh, thanks,” she said, “but I didn’t know MC well enough, you know? But if you need company, I can just hang out, or help you pack things up, or something.”
BT hid his face for a second. Alana wrapped her arm around him.
“I’d like that,” BT said through his hair, that fucker.
So I turned into a bird again, but it turned out I couldn’t actually shit on him.
You asked me, when you first answered my Craigslist ad, what my initials stood for.
I’d always lied about it before. Even to BT, even though he and I were already fucking at the time. I told BT it was one of the double-barrelled girl names that were common where I grew up. Mary-Catherine. Marie-Claire. Something like that. I made it boring, and then I asked him right away about his. “Bottle Toke,” he admitted, which was so hilarious that we moved right on and I never did end up telling him why I’d picked my initials.
I told you, though, that first day. You just looked like the kind of person who really wanted to know.
“Main Character,” I said. “I made it up to remind myself whose life I’m living.”
“I’m Chris,” you said. “It isn’t even short for anything.”
“Hey, Chris,” I said, and I shook your hand, which was warmer than mine, and softer, and stronger. “Welcome to the house.”
“Just like that?” you said.
Which was totally fair, because I wasn’t the only person living there, but no one else really gave a shit, so yeah. Just like that.
You’d think flying around in bird form would be fast, but basically it’s more like having a panic attack. I lose time along with losing my goddamn mind.
That time, when BT was talking about giving away my books to Alana, I wanted to go straight to you. I thought I had. Only when I got to the house, they were already there, and it looked like they’d been there a while.
You were being nice to them. Was that tea they were drinking? Did they make you make them tea?
They were wrapping up dishes in newspaper and packing them into a cardboard box. They were technically my dishes, but they were just a set I picked up at Goodwill when I moved into this place and no one else owned any plates, so whatever.
I whirred into my bedroom, where my desk was, and the shelf over my desk where I kept the stuff I really cared about. The bong my buddy Marc-Andre carved me. My old Tori Amos bootlegs. The flowers I’d pressed between the pages of my Emily Dickinson collection. I know: you don’t give a shit about Emily Dickinson and you think it’s kind of gothy to press flowers in books. I wasn’t expecting you to be really on top of this situation, you know? But I still kind of freaked out when I saw the shelf had been emptied.
I managed to stop myself from losing time over that.
I flew right up to you where you were standing in the kitchen, pouring more fucking tea for BT and Alana. I went all around your head like a whirlwind but you couldn’t feel it. I shouted right in your ear and the most that happened was that you twitched your hand up to adjust your glasses.
You were nodding and agreeing to whatever they were saying, while they kept on packing up my Goodwill dishes.
Then I saw over your shoulder, through the door of your room, a cardboard box with my prints sticking out of it. They were framed prints of Emily Dickinson’s favourite flowers: daisies, hyacinths, roses, lilies of the valley, and the weirdest one, ghost pipe, which is more of a fungus than a flower, a drooping white thing on a long stalk. I’ve seen ghost pipes in the wild. You can’t pick them because they turn black right away, like they’re just totally horrified to be picked and they hate you for it.
I know I told you this, but I wasn’t expecting you to remember.
You remembered! You saved my stuff from going to Alana! I mean, there was nothing even wrong with Alana. It just bothered me that BT was going to use my literal legacy to try to fuck her.
I know, I know. When you’re dead that stuff is supposed to fall away, or something. I guess I’m just as much of a fuckup as ever. Way to go, MC, fucking up from beyond the grave.
I was pretty sure that I was going off track. I mean, ghosts have a purpose, right? That’s what we all believe. And hassling your ex and protecting your belongings from being given away to a random chick? Neither of those things seem like a great reason to stick around. There was probably something else I was supposed to do.
So of course I turned into a bird again and wasted another five hours of my afterlife, but you pretty much knew I was going to do that, right?
The last thing I remember doing in life was deciding we should be together.
I can’t believe it took me as long as it did. I mean, there you were, right there in my house, being kind to me, being kind to yourself, teaching me to play Go, finding your way through your depression to become someone you could stand to be every day.
You brought me bao from the place by your office. I stood on a kitchen chair and read Emily Dickinson to you one time when I was super drunk, and you smiled and asked me if I liked Rumi. You never assumed I was dumb, which I know is kind of a low bar, but you’d be amazed how many dudes don’t clear it. I mean, basically what most people see about me is that I know how to ride a bike, and I have some killer tats and fake red hair, and that’s where they stop. That’s where you started.
So I was heading across town with a routine call from Royal Bank Plaza and thinking about how fun it had been watching Miyazaki films with you last night, and how comfy it was to lean on your shoulder. I was skinny myself, never able to keep weight on with all the riding, and you were the exact opposite, and we fit together really perfectly on the couch. And I was like, Holy shit, we fit together really perfectly.
But there was something I had to do before I could tell you that.
I made my drop, and as soon as I was back outside the bank tower I texted BT, and the text said, Sorry man we have to break up
He texted back, ???
I know, jerk move, I said. We can talk it over later if u want
Okay, fair, I thought.
Then I had another call, and I knew that as soon as I made the next drop I’d take a break and call you, because this was too exciting to keep to myself.
I looked around me at the high blue sky crossed with streetcar wires and the Victorian office buildings and the newer bank towers and I loved my city for being the city that called you to me. I dodged around some parked cars, vigilant for doors, made a light just barely, zipped up onto Adelaide and then . . .
This thing, the most significant thing that’s ever happened to me, is lost to me.
So if you think about it, most ghosts stick around to get revenge on their killer, right? I didn’t know who my killer was.
Once I put my mind to it, though, it took me like ten minutes total. I found myself on the front page of the Metro paper, alongside a headline about the person who ran me down.
They’d used a picture that was a couple of years old. My hair wasn’t coloured, and it was up in loopy ponytails like spaniel ears, and I was grinning at the camera and sticking out my tongue so you could see the stud in it. I looked happy and silly.
The headline beside all that cuteness read, “Charges laid against teenaged driver in cyclist death.”
What I could see above the cut told me that the driver was an eighteen-year-old girl, who’d been texting the friends she was about to pick up for swim practice. Her name was Janelle Landry, and she was quoted as saying, “I’m so sorry. I just want to die.”
Well, that kind of got me. I mean, it sounded pretty damn honest for a line of type in a transit paper. And I’d been there, too. So have you. So you know what I’m talking about.
So, three guesses what I did next. I turned into a bird again!
Only this time it was less of a panic attack, and more of a mystical thing that kind of overcame me. It sounds even more ridiculous than the rest of this nonsense, but here’s what happened: I flew to Janelle Landry.
She wasn’t in custody. She was in a bedroom, a blue and white striped bedroom with a bunch of throw pillows on the bed and some medals hanging on a hook by the door.
She was sitting in an armchair beside the window with her phone in her hand. She was just flipping it over, end to end to end, staring outside. I saw a crack on the screen.
“No way,” I said. “No way am I here to punish her or some shit. Look at this kid. She’s already in hell. What more do you want me to do?”
And I was whirled away for a while, someplace else.
I thought later: What if I was supposed to forgive her?
But try as I might, I couldn’t find my way back to her. I might have kind of flubbed that test.
Forgiveness, then. I got on that kick for a while. I forgave every dispatch who’d sent me on a stupid call, every cop who’d hassled me about a rolling stop, every roommate who’d stiffed me on utility bills or wrecked my stuff (yes, you too, I mean, you’re pretty fantastic but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten that time you put my cast iron pan in the dishwasher).
I forgave guys who’d looked at my tits instead of my eyes, guys who’d dismissed me as BT’s girlfriend instead of a messenger in my own right, guys who’d patted me on the head or ass, guys who’d . . . aw, fuck it, I stopped forgiving some of those guys, to be honest.
Then I had a great idea: I forgave BT.
I found him and Alana watching old alley cat races on YouTube in bed together, drinking beers out of my stolen pint glasses. Alana’s hair was down and wet, lying over her shoulders and chest, and I could smell her herbal shampoo. BT was much more of a dirtbag, and I could smell his usual funk of cigarettes and unwashed hair and beer and sweat. I mean, I’m making it sound gross, but it was kind of nice in its way.
I leaned right up close to his ear and ruffled that dirty hair and said, I forgive you. I forgive you for not telling anyone we broke up. I forgive you for getting with Alana so quickly that it seems like you might’ve already had her waiting in the wings. I forgive you for making me feel like the crazy one. I forgive you for everything you couldn’t be to me.
Do you forgive me?
A new thing happened then, a thing I hadn’t been able to do before.
A tiny purple hyacinth bloomed from the air, right where my hand was reaching out to BT, and it lingered only a moment, with a breath of scent.
They mean forgiveness, hyacinths do. I know that from Emily Dickinson.
BT and Alana probably didn’t know that, and it lasted such a short time anyway that they didn’t see it for what it was.
Alana blinked and said, “Something smells really nice.”
BT said, “Did you see that? I thought I saw a butterfly or something.”
And they went back to watching races on BT’s tablet and Alana laid her head on BT’s shoulder.
So forgiveness apparently wasn’t the thing I’m here to do, and I’m running out of stuff to try, and I have to say it’s getting pretty sad, flinging around town as a bird.
People are moving on. Even Janelle Landry is moving on. She’s moving on to a short jail term and some community service, and it’s probably going to suck hard for her, but she’s got a psychiatrist on her side and a mom who loves her.
I’m not moving on, though. And you’re not moving on.
You’re spending a lot of time in your room. You’re drinking; not tons, I guess, but you’re doing it morosely, by yourself.
You haven’t done anything with the cardboard box of my prints and my favourite books.
I’m coming to a conclusion, Chris, and it makes me sad. I think you’re my unfinished business. I finally understood I loved you, and you didn’t ever get to know it.
Maybe you wouldn’t have cared. Maybe this is just about me, about me needing to tell you. But I’m afraid it’s about you, too, and I’m afraid of being the thing that breaks you.
And I’m afraid of moving on.
I say all of these things to you while you’re playing a video game. I’m sure you won’t notice me in the hustle of shooting all those zombies. There’s a window where the people you’re playing with are commenting to you, stuff like nice frag buddy and other stuff less polite, and you’re not commenting back, and this scares me a little.
Chris, I say, hissing in your ear. Your hair lifts, and you don’t flinch.
I have to reach you. That’s what I come to know, as I watch time slow for you. You’re in your room so much. You’re wearing the same two T-shirts and it doesn’t look like you’ve been washing them. There’s a half-empty Coke can that’s been beside your computer for like weeks, and I know I don’t really understand time the same way now, but it’s been way too long, give me that, okay?
I know what I have to lose: bird time, ghost time. It’s not nothing, but it’s not life.
If I succeed, it might just be a cruel reminder of what you’re trying hard to get past. Or worse, it might be the knowledge that you could have had your heart’s desire if it weren’t for Janelle Landry choosing to text her friends. You and I could have had something. A night or a few, a year or more.
A wedding. A kid, even. I know, it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I would do, does it? Only one thing’s clear to me from this side: people are better than they think they are at getting happy.
Either that, or people just don’t miss me that much.
No, you know, I’ve always made that kind of joke, and I think I’m going to stop now.
I know you missed me. You still miss me. So I’m going to take this chance.
It has to be something you’ll recognize. I’m going to have one shot: I can feel this door, on the other side of what I want to do, you know? This passage, waiting to pull me through.
So it has to be something that calls out to you. Something you won’t be able to miss.
My moment comes in the morning, when you’re in the kitchen alone. You’ve made a pourover coffee for yourself. You’re wearing one of those same two T-shirts, and you’re tucking your thumb to stretch the waistband of your jeans, because you haven’t really admitted you’ve gone up a size since you moved in here. Your hair is clean and soft and ruffled up. You have your phone out and you’re reading the news.
I float in close enough to smell your coffee and the scent of your bar soap.
Chris, I say to you, as clearly as I can.
It doesn’t matter, I know it doesn’t. I’ve tried this a hundred times. But it would be weird to not say your name right now.
You keep reading your feed.
I pull out all the stops. I feel it well up in me, the love I found for you. It’s tempting to think there’s no choice, the feeling is so strong I just have to go for it. Only there’s always a choice. I named myself for the moment I discovered I always have a choice.
I choose this moment, now. I pour myself into it. I make you a flower, out of all that I am. It’s a ghost pipe, the delicate white stalks you’ve seen on the cover of my Emily Dickinson. You can’t pluck a ghost pipe, you have to look at it where it’s chosen to grow.
I want you to know I chose you. I want you to know you deserve love. I want you to choose me back, in the moment we have left. If that’s what you want.
I place myself before you. I have nothing else.
Your eyes widen. Your hand lifts.
About the Author
Claire Humphrey’s first novel, Spells of Blood and Kin, won the 2017 Sunburst Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Fantasy Magazine, Crossed Genres, PodCastle, and many other places.
About the Narrator
Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.