Sickly sweet air clogged my lungs as I waded into Nancy's living room. Even as a kid I'd had trouble breathing in this place. I especially hated the summer visits. Nancy saw air conditioning as a city convenience, and when you added together the jars of potpourri, the vases of fresh flowers, the air fresheners and the perfume she bathed in, it was as if a greenhouse got together with Georgia humidity to cook up a recipe for suffocation.
In truth, I hated the winter visits too, but at least those came with holiday distractions: the blaring TV babysitting the younger cousins; the older cousins battling over wishbones or the right to open presents first; aunts and uncles competing for Nancy's acknowledgement and eventual inheritance.
In the summer, it was just me and Mom and Nancy. No buffer from Dad. No one else to draw Nancy's attention. Just me, Mom, thick, sweet, unbreatheable air and Nancy.
And now I didn't even have Mom.
Nancy smoothed down her dress (even it was covered in a field of tiny white flowers) as she took a seat in her armchair, leaving the sofa to me. I hadn't seen her since the funeral, and nine months looked more like nine years on her. Thinning hair revealed the espresso-colored liver spots that had probably been hiding out beneath for years. The bags beneath her eyes made me hate myself - just a little bit - for comparing her to Star Wars' emperor, a similarity strengthened by the waves of wrinkles on her sagging skin. It hung in loose drapes, especially prominent where her arms bloused from her sleeves, as if flesh were a continuation of fabric.
So this was what losing your daughter looked like. I almost felt some empathy for her. But then I remembered what a miserable bitch she was, and that the difference between us was I actually loved my daughter.
As if reading my thoughts, Nancy said, "I see you didn't bring Emma."
"No. No,she stayed on campus to study," I replied, nodding vigorously, as if emphasizing the point would convince her that I was telling the truth. "Finals are next week."
"Oh are they?" Nancy replied, her drawl turning syrupy. "Of course they are." So much for burying hatchets.
I lowered my eyes to my lap. "How are you holding up, Nancy?"
"Keeping myself busy. Lots of company. Lots of visits to the shop."
"Oh, so you still get to town often?"
"Yes," Nancy replied. "The Department of Motor Vehicles hasn't written me off yet."
Avoiding Nancy's bait, I tipped my chin toward a framed photo of Mom and Nancy on the fireplace. "She'd be glad to know we're talking."
Nancy turned in her chair to study the photo. A moment of silence, then she turned back, fixing me with a shark stare. "Yes. I suppose she would. And to think it only took six years and her death."
I looked away again, this time turning toward the bay window. A vase stood in each of the window's four corners, and each held an arrangement of flowers. I moved closer to admire them; somewhere, miles deep in the abysmal black hell-pit she called a soul, Nancy had enough beauty left inside her to be an expert florist. Today, she'd opted to rim her window in a dazzling array of blues and violets. Hyacinths mingled with tulips, hydrangeas and irises, each of them a complimentary shade, with a few leaves of greenery offsetting the brighter colors.
A single flower sat in the center of the bay window, and didn't call a vase home, but instead sprang from a teapot's spout. The flower stood out not just because of its placement, but also its coloring. In the middle of a sea of indigo, the flower dared to display white, almost translucent petals, with a deep maroon center and blood red stripes following the path of its veins.
I'd grown up in floral shops. I knew more about flowers than a decent percentage of botanists. I didn't recognize this species. Leaning in, a devil's face stared back at me from its center, complete with horns and yellow eyes encircling red pupils.
"What type of flower is this?" I asked.
Nancy stayed seated, her eyes on the flower. "A demon orchid."
"Huh. That's...fitting. I've never heard of it."
"No, I don't suppose you would have. It's Colombian. Discovered a couple years ago. Very rare."
"Oh, so did you have to call in some favors to get one?"
"Yes. But not in the way you're thinking."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I conjured it."
"You conjured it? I don't get it."
"Conjured. It means to bring something into existence or proximity through magic."
"Magic?" Age, illness or Mom's death; it didn't matter. Like it or not, I owed it to Mom to get Nancy the care she needed.
"Yes, magic. Demon orchids are avengers."
"Avengers?" I asked. "Like the superheroes?"
Nancy laughed, more sincere than I think I'd ever heard. "Oh, don't be silly. Superheroes aren't real. But demon orchids are. They right the wrongs inflicted on their masters."
"Oh, do they? You know, it's a beautiful day. The leaves are starting to turn, and there's just the perfect amount of crisp in the air. Why don't we continue our conversation outside? Fresh air might do us both some good."
"No." Nancy's voice turned hard. "I don't need your help, Elizabeth."
The air or the crazy. Something was rubbing off on me. A flash of movement from the bay window. Porcelain tinkling against porcelain.
The teapot. A dead ringer for my genie lamp. Six year-old me tried to make it fly. It hadn't survived the landing.
"Nancy, is this...?"
"Mmhmm," Nancy nodded. "Demon orchids right the wrongs. Have a seat, Elizabeth. We need to talk."