It was astonishing.
An entire backyard covered in purple flowers, shaped like bells. Heavy on their stems, drowsy in their heathery hue, like something out of a drug dream.
“Pink elephant?” I turned to the open sliding glass door behind me. His house was filthy, an old 70s era ranch with smutty beige carpeting and cracked Formica countertops.
I felt his hand on my shoulder like a vice. He was handsome, with blue eyes so clear and glassy it was as though he was fevered.
“Digitalis purpurea,” he murmured. “Common foxglove.”
I had seen these plants before, carefully potted on his office desk in cardboard forms. Then again, in his kitchen, ground to powder. No, it was not right that I had gotten involved with him, but he had seemed so sanguine and vivid that I had forgotten all about propriety.
The first time we fucked it was in his office, a breathless affair. His hands were rough from the earth, not like the soft, fragile ones the others had. He was not like the philosophy majors, their fingertips ink-stained from the library stacks, nor like the mathematicians that smelled like graphite and sweat. The difference had been shocking, as had been the continuation of our liaisons. However, his bed had turned out to be narrow and hard—monastic, even—similar to a dorm bed, though it had a sprinkling of soil on its rough white sheets.
Now, I blushed to see him so blithe, standing half-naked outside of his house, a mere stone’s throw from the university. It was sordid, terrible. I could see my mother’s finger wagging.
“It’s poisonous, as you know,” he continued as I watched him swagger off of the moldy porch. “Cardiac arrest.” His hands, usually so forceful, cupped the blooms as though they would shatter.
I knew. “Are you teaching a lecture, now?” I twisted my hair, still mussed, still mousy, into a single curl. I could be seductive if I tried. But he was busy running a wayward finger down the bell of a flower. “Michael?”
“Come down here, Ava.” He did not look up at me, and I felt a jag of anger, ugly and dark, open in my chest. Look at me, I willed. Covetous, that was my flaw.
But, on bare feet, I stepped down into the flowering field, barely a yard. In fact, it was like a meadow. I hadn’t given it much thought on my first few visits. Michael had dragged me through the house each time, to his bed, laid with sprigs of these flowers. Good old romance. I had chuckled about it into the dingy pillow.
“He has a reputation,” Emilie, my roommate, had tittered as I registered for the introductory botany course. She herself was a botany major, and I thought it was as good a choice as any, now that my sophomore year was drawing to a close. Perhaps even the best choice for me, with its more practical uses.
“He has a reputation, and you should know that going in,” she continued. “He is hot.” As though we were chatting about an incoming freshman, newly baptized in the waters of higher education, leering drunkenly from across a party.
“He has a reputation for what?” I had answered, scrolling through the course description. Michael Duvernay, PhD,it read. Interested in the intersection between humans and plant cultivation. A list of curricula vitae. An old picture, grainy and sepia. He looked to be in his mid-forties.
“Younger women fascinate him, Ava.” Ava for Ava Gardner, because I had a head of dark hair coming out of my mother’s womb. “Now that would be an easy A.”
Emilie, so direct, had leaned back into her twin XL and lit a cigarette. A mischievous smile on her full lips, the avowal of her secret.
“I’ll introduce you two.”
Had I said it out loud, then or now?
“Ava?” I was brought out of my reverie.
“There are so many.” I skimmed my hands over the tops of the flowers. They were like velvet, wavering on their skinny stalks.
“I planted them.” Michael lowered his eyes to the other plants. “Dangerous and beautiful.”
“You don’t say.”
Michael pinched off a dead head from one of the foxglove fronds and held its bright flowers between his fingers. He still hadn’t looked at me, and my feet were freezing against the marshy grass.
Now I was cold, annoyed, and I shifted from one foot to the other. My sweater was not meant for the late April chill, and instead had been plucked from my closet in an effort to appeal. To make what was going on feel more like a date. In the end, it had not mattered, and had been discarded on the floor, a husk.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” This was the way Michael dismissed me. First, we were lovers, then he was professorial. A cup of tea and a wave goodbye from the cracked cement of his driveway. I had taken to walking there and back, disappearing into the muddled light of early spring in Ohio.
“Alright, yes. That would be nice, thank you.” That sneaking feeling of being unimportant lit a flame in my chest.
Michael crushed the flower between his fingers and dropped it onto the grass below. The sky was darkening above us. “Let’s go in, then.”
The tea was always bitter black and made me a little dizzy. Michael neither offered sugar nor cream. He watched me above the rim of his own mug, the thread of steam muffling his steady gaze.
“So, this has been our sixth meeting.” His voice was lecture dry.
“Yes.” I placed the mug down on the table covered in soil and instruments, crushed, dried lupine, foxglove, lavender, all dull purple. Had it been so many already?
“I thought we might discuss the trajectory of our relationship.”
“What do you mean?” My voice was thick; I had him.
“I thought you could spend a night here, Ava.”
My mind drifted to Emilie, of three weeks before: “Av, speaking from experience.” She had puffed on the end of her cigarette and then tossed it out the open window. “He’s brilliant, effective.” Her tone had winked. “If he likes you, I wouldn’t stick your nose up. Women fall all over themselves to be with him.” Then, serious: “Ava, he’s not like the others. He can’t be, for you.”
Ava, of three weeks before, felt a stirring of excitement: “Oh, I don’t know then…” I had hidden the thrill poorly with false reluctance and known it.
Emilie, lighting another cigarette, dismissed her worries: “Come now. Don’t be a prude. You can handle it.” A glittering smile. “He relies on me to introduce his new girls. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander and all that.” She waved a hand, trailing smoke. “And you’d be perfect… if you can hold it together, that is.”
New girls. I would make it my mission to be his last.
“So, what, you’re his pimp?” Better to play coy. “I’m just not so sure…”
“Merely an interested party.” I thought I saw her eyes flash, but with what, I could not tell. “Come on, Ava.”
“Ava.” Michael placed his own mug down. “I was hoping that in the morning, we could go together to the forest.”
“Ah.” I was crestfallen. I would have to wait for a different opening, instead.
“You’re smart, young.” He leaned into his chair. “I have research you could help me with, you know.”
I was grasping at straws with heavy lids. The covetous streak again, insidious. Do whatever it takes.
“Yes,” I said simply. “Yes, whatever you’d like.”
A whiff of a smile, like smoke.
A dream, half-baked. Emilie taking my hand and steering me to Michael’s office hours.
“Red lips?” she’d noted. “Nice touch.”
A passed flask, the sear of herbaceous gin on my tongue.
“Dr. Duvernay, this is Ava.” And a whisper that tickled my ear, “go get him.”
An attempt at nicety, undone with the flick of a zipper. Addiction, the smell of pressed flowers. His diplomas hung on the walls. The sill of a closed window, covered in dirt, in fingerprints. Precision and force at once.
A heart beating fast, and then stillness.
We drove through Columbus to get to Shawnee Preserve in Michael’s old beater of a Volvo, its back seat coated in dirt and piles of boxes and gardening tools. Through the metropolis, under the overpasses, where grifters chain smoked cigarettes. After two hours, the forest opened her vast, dark arms to us at the southern edge of Ohio.
We had not bothered breakfasting. Embarrassment warmed my cheeks when he left the bed this morning, turning his back on my offer to make eggs. It felt as though he had almost become disinterested in me. From the sink, Michael had called that he did not eat before noon, but rather drank two cups of homemade black tea.
We had made it together with flowers from the meadow. It had made me heady, made me feel alive. A beaker of different stuff sat between us now, cooling.
Michael had given me a chance to run up to my apartment to change, and I had found Emilie there with a catlike smile.
“Off to Shawnee?” Her gaze had been measured as she studied me from the threadbare couch.
“Oh, he does that with all of his girls.” A knowing nod. “He took me, too, once.”
Jealousy. It had surprised me then, though it shouldn’t have. I pressed my fingertips to my eyes. Emilie’s coy smile still made me want to bare my teeth.
“Ava, Ava.” Michael murmured my name as he led me down the morning-darkened paths, through uncut trails. He moved like a snake, silent and careful; I crashed with unstudied feet, an unskilled dancer.
“Michael, Michael,” I answered. It could be an idyll, I thought. Meditative, not performative. It could be a date. Couldn’t it? “Where are we going, Michael?”
Michael hadn’t brought a map, but he had brought the tea and a pack with spades and scissors and pots. A notebook, well-worn at its edges. A slim Canon camera, black and smooth in its case.
“Are you in a rush?” His voice had an edge to it, I thought. It was a Tuesday. I had emailed my other professors with lame excuses. My heart fluttered: there was glee in danger.
“No. No, I’m not.” Was I anxious? My hands were shaking. I grabbed the tea and took a sip. “Is this tea new? What’s in it?” I turned the beaker in my hands to study the film on its surface and frowned: we had not made this one together, not nearly.
“Herbs, spices, the like.” Michael took it back and covered it. “Why?” The motion was hasty, protective.
A slow smile, not quite kind, spread across his features. His eyes seared with intensity, as though I had said something quite important. We traversed without speaking for a time and turned onto a dark footpath.
“Ah, Ava. We’re almost there.” Michael grabbed my wrist and pulled me into a rough, fast kiss. His stubble scraped at my chin, my skin burning up under his touch—and then he let me go. I stumbled backward and grasped at a tree for purchase.
In the clearing ahead, wreathed by sleepy morning mist: an entire field of flowers. They lay across the dim forest floor, proud and purple.
“Delphinium exaltatum. Larkspur.” Michael motioned for me to go ahead of him. “They are especially beautiful, aren’t they?” His voice was soft, caressing, as though speaking about a lover. I plucked a small bunch and turned to him, my eyes cast down in a silly charade.
“Oh, Michael, they are lovely.” I would force him to speak of me the same way he spoke of flowers, of earth.
“A bride of the forest.” His pronouncement felt right. I floated along in my worn boots and heavy jeans, in my caramel-colored sweater. The cascading light through the trees’ crowns lit the mist, colored the flowers hot violet.
“Am I?” I shot what I hoped was a coy look over my shoulder. “Am I a bride of the forest?”
Then, he was on top of me. With a low growl, he ripped my jeans down around my hips and took me on the floor of the quiet forest. He had never been rough before, had always waited. I clawed at his clothed back, trying to keep up, but he had made it clear, with his palm pressed to my mouth to muffle my cries, that this was for him. The hastily gathered bouquet lay, torn asunder, by my head; the soft smell of lily and iris, the bitter smell of the tea on Michael’s panted breath. I smiled under his hand, teeth against palm: I had him, after all.
When he had finished, Michael brushed himself of debris and stood. Then, impossibly, he took a picture of me lying on the forest floor, uncomposed, undone. I gasped.
“Why not? Why would I not want to remember this?” There was a threat underneath his smile. Michael slipped the camera back into the pocket of his pack. “Come on, let’s take a few samples. Then we can have some lunch and head back.”
“Because it’s mortifying, Michael, that’s why.”
His eyes took me apart. “I like you when you’re in the dirt. I want to remember how you felt under me, how you tasted.”
I was hastily trying to arrange myself. Jeans, sweater, boots, hair. Covered in cold leaves. Fury, sharp and cutting. But it worked, I supposed. I would let him have it, but only begrudgingly.
“Alright,” I muttered. “Fine.”
“Don’t be angry, Ava.” His voice hardened. “Let’s get on with it.”
While scrabbling in the dirt with a spade, I reached for my phone. To hell with this. I was horrified.
I opened a text: “Emilie. He takes PICTURES?”
Her response was cold: “Why not?”
“I don’t like that. I’m not here to be a trophy.”
“Then… leave? I don’t know what to tell you, Ava.”
“I’m not just one of his girls.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” A winking face. Then, rapid fire: “Remember, Ava. Good for the goose, good for the gander.
“Don’t take it so hard. He likes you.
“I like you.
“This is fine. He’s not going to show anyone. You’ll be doing me a favor by letting it go.
Begging, by the end. I’d let her think she’d bested me. It rankled, but it would work.
I looked up from my phone’s screen, a scowl threatening like a thundercloud behind my teeth. Beyond, Michael was busily planting larkspur in small pots to take home. His beautiful face—for that’s what it was: not masculine, quite, but fine, handsome—was creased in thought. My heart caught in my throat. Despite his misdeed I wanted him still. I had to have him. I would find a way to keep him, though he had taken what he had come for, it seemed. I wasn’t like Emilie. No.
“Well.” I straightened. “Do you have any more tea? I’m cold.”
But Michael was bent over his plants, his eyes fixed on their soft leaves, their blooms cradled in his palms. “A moment, Ava.”
The car’s wheels rumbled over the uneven pavement of the temp apartments’ drive. They had been put up for staff in the late 80s, but never taken down again because of the influx of students. Filled with mold and rusted out stairwells, they were most juniors’ and seniors’ choice since they offered a decent amount of autonomy from the main campus. I must have drifted during the car ride; that tea on an empty stomach put me straight out.
“Say hello to Emilie for me.” Michael’s voice filled the car, like a hiss from a gas line. My groggy face must have telegraphed confusion in the flat gray light of April, because he laughed. “Oh, I know you live with her. She told me herself.”
I leaned up onto the car’s door and rubbed my eyes. “I—” There was a moment of full silence, gravid with—something, something that tasted like iron. “I’ll see you in lecture tomorrow.”
Michael smiled and put a hand on my knee. “And after?” Covetous, as I liked him. He hadn’t been quite done, after all. I was pleased.
“Back so soon?” Emilie asked, leaning against the doorframe, studying her newly manicured fingernails. “It usually takes longer than that.”
I had to bite back the bile. “What takes longer?”
I hoped my voice brimmed with frustration, but her response was flippant.
“Oh. Don’t worry about it. Besides, he’s invited me to lunch tomorrow. Don’t grasp at straws, Ava. You were never special to him. But me…” She trailed off, touching a pointed nail to her lower lip. “Don’t get uppity now. Don’t frown.” She leaned forward and cupped my cheek in her soft palm. “He likes a good tug of war between girls.”
I twitched away and slammed the door of my room. That self-satisfied bitch.
Michael had never given me his phone number. I sat up in bed to the shock of my realization. We had met at his house half a dozen times, and since our first frantic bedding in his office, tens of times besides. But I had never gotten his phone number.
The charcoal sheets on my bed were black with sweat, and unsteady fluorescent light leaked through the window. I had done my best to make this a home, but it still felt uninhabited, pastiche, a fool’s errand.
I had fallen asleep with my phone in my hand, just waiting. For what?
From outside, a hush of voices. Emilie was watching her late-night television in our shared common space. The bathroom was full of spotty black mold; neither of us wanted to clean it, nor did we have the time.
“Christ.” The linoleum was cold underfoot, and I had apparently fallen asleep without clothing.
Light pooled on the floor, buttery and thick. Blackness leaked around the bases of the apartment homes, clustered in groups of three and four; lights dotted the hilly landscape. Beyond, cars whizzed over gray streets. The city cast a brilliant glow onto the low clouds. In the drive behind our apartment: a beat-up Volvo.
“Michael?” The door behind me was silent again, and I opened it a crack. “Emilie—”
They had wrapped around each other on the couch. I could have gagged. It was terrible. Covetous. I felt a lurch of rage and growled.
“But you’re mine.” I managed to hiss it, a sound like a tea kettle boiling.
Emilie looked up at me and I recoiled. Her face was gone, eaten down to the bone. Her chest was open; her heart shivered, tachycardic and wet against her exposed sternum. Her flesh was falling away, thudding against the floor. In her opened maw, a foxglove flower rested, ultraviolet. Michael turned to face me and laughed.
The floor was gone, and I was falling—
I woke with a start. My heart was thunderous in my ears. The phone read 4:56am, all well.
Outside the sky was touched by cool fingers of light, and I took a deep breath into tightly held muscles. In the drive, there was no car. I poked my head into Emilie’s room: she was asleep, wrapped in her blood red sheets. In the corner, her faux tiger skull smiled. She had joked to me that this was what she used to keep all the men she slept with frightened of her. I wasn’t so sure that was the only thing.
Class at 8am. I made myself a cup of black coffee and went to sit out on the steps, where I could feel the tension radiate from my cold skin. The campus was stirring, a Wednesday morning ode to efficiency.
Michael. I breathed onto the surface of my coffee and watched the steam glide away. The mist in the forest. His hands, pressing me into the ground. The smell of the crushed larkspur.
His number was in my phone, after all. Of course it was; he had given it to me after our first time.
“I can’t stop thinking about yesterday…”
The sight of Michael’s bare back as he climbed from the bed, his graying stubble on his chin.
I waited ten minutes; no response.
I spoke it to the graying dawn.
That new tea had left me drained; I missed the original kind’s bitter oiliness, its medicinal, floral tonic. I gazed at my silent phone.
It would have to wait.
The campus was large and disparate, wayward buildings all; men flung to sea, clutching at a single square to tie them together. The ground moved under my feet unsteadily after the lurching bus ride.
I had worn my best, that which had proven to be effective: a short camel skirt, a white cable knit sweater, knee-high socks, black patent leather shoes. Hair in a lightly secured bun. Red lips. He harbored a tenuous fetish for schoolgirls. It was revolting, but it served a purpose.
“Where are you going looking like that?” Emilie had said, leaning into my room and blowing cigarette smoke toward me. “Oh—it’s Wednesday, isn’t it?” The sneer on her face sparked a black anger in the pit of my stomach. “Good choice.”
“He took a picture of me, Emilie. That wasn’t part of the deal.”
“If you’re so upset about it, why do you look the way you do? You could withdraw from the course and never see him again.” She had held the first of her daily cigs up to eye level and watched the bright ember of its tip burn to ash, and then fixed me with her large, gray eyes. Go on, they seemed to say. Run. But they pleaded, too: prove to me I’m better.
I had grinned.
“Good morning, Ava.” Michael stood behind his lecturing desk as I pushed the door open.
“Good morning, Dr. Duvernay.” All professional, now. Not even a wandering eye. I was irate. I would have him.
The lecture was dull from my stepped seat in the hall. I could not stop looking for his gaze. His mug steamed with tea, and once, he tipped it toward me, fixed me with a long stare as if to say, this is for you.
I waited. It was a clockwork thing, bound by realism and duty. The end of office hours. Ten minutes should pass, not a moment too soon. He would have closed the door in my face, gone on, and the waiting would be prolonged another week. I had made that mistake once. The ugliness on his features had been breathtaking, the anger.
“Ava.” His voice came from behind the cracked door of his office, through the frosted glass. “Do you need help with something?”
“Yes. I’m having trouble with—” I scrambled for my notes. What had been taught today? “With—with invasive ivies in Ohio.”
There was a pause, and he pulled the door open.
An abnormality, but no matter. I would play it where it lay.
He was the picture of professorial neatness, in his khakis and dark blazer. But his nails were ringed with dirt, rough with the use of wooden tools and force, with cultivating, with pulling things, root and stem, from the earth.
For a time, we walked in silence. As we neared the edge of the central campus, he took out the beaker of tea and handed it to me. His fingers brushed mine as he did, and I suppressed a shiver.
“Don’t wait outside my office next time,” he growled under his breath. “It draws too much attention to our… relationship.”
I had made him feel something, and I hid my smile behind the carafe. The tea was predictably bitter, but stronger, somehow. My heart thrummed in my chest, as though revved to life. It was like a sweet kiss or slipping into warm bathwater. Perfect, immersive. This one was proper.
“My apologies, Dr. Duvernay.” I glanced at him narrowly and shook my head. My hair, neatly piled at its crown, fell in waves around my shoulders. I had spent all morning curling it so it would land just so, had perfumed it with jasmine (“His favorite smell is anything floral,” Emilie had coached), had painted my lips a hundred times until I got it right. He was mine.
But Michael turned his head away. My vision was flickering now, on-off, wildly. “Michael?”
“You’re growing too fond of me, Ava.” His voice, from far away. “You’re too much for me. What we have isn’t real. You knew that from the beginning. You must have. Emilie must have told you.”
I took a step, and then another. The beaker of tea dropped from my loosened hands. And then I was falling. My head struck the beige cement tiles, and then, nothing.
An obsession. The smell of pressed flowers.
I was on his bed, in his rough sheets. Gray, this time, or badly washed white cotton. My head was aching. A test.
My feet were on the carpet, rough underfoot like dried moss, toes catching on the dreck in between. My heart thrummed in my chest, the lift of excitement.
Had it worked?
Emilie stood in the meager kitchen under flickering fluorescent light. “Where’s Michael?”
I touched the scab that had formed on the side of my cheek and smiled a little. “Why, haven’t you seen him? He took me home. Not you.”
“Last I checked, this isn’t your home.” It was spat, a thought half-formed, dumb. A bad play on words. The statement lay between us, solid on the cracked Formica, an ugly pink. Her words spelled jealousy. “He’s—I’m special. You’re not.”
I couldn’t help but grin. “So you keep saying.”
Emilie bristled. “He’s a nice man, Ava. Fucked up like the rest of us, but maybe not so fucked up as you.”
“Mm.” I ran my hands over the uneven surface, crushed her words under my palms. There were rings of dried tea, left over from nights of brewing and quaffing with Michael.
“Listen to me. You’re in too deep, now, Av. When it was those other boys—I thought we could handle you—” Begging. “You need to stop—you’re out of control—”
“Don’t call me that,” I snarled. “I am perfectly in control. And don’t you fucking dare condescend to tell me anything, you whore.”
Emilie crushed her cigarette into the countertop, into one of the cracks. “You, too.”
We stood in a stalemate. Her fingertips played a quiet rhythm on her arm. Nervous.
“Where is he?”
“Hell if I know.”
“I’m sure you do.”
I smiled. “So what if I do?”
I watched as Emilie’s face contorted, with concern, with pain. She mumbled something.
“What was that?”
“I shouldn’t have introduced you to him, I said.”
I leaned over and picked up a withered foxglove bloom, pressed into the countertop, ready to be crushed. Poisonous, cardiac arrest.
“Maybe not. But he’s mine, now.”
Outside, the wind picked up and tousled the flowers behind the sliding glass doors. The clock read 1:52am. The lights of the university’s campus lingered on the moving clouds, dark and full of late-spring snow. Emilie followed my gaze and pressed a hand to her lips.
He had pulled me into the backseat of his car; that was where I’d come round. Dirty seats that smelled like a grave.
“I’m sorry, Av,” he had murmured. “We have to stop. I had to stop you.”
“Fuck off,” I snarled, my hand held against my bloodied forehead. My face was my ticket, now ruined.
“I’m taking you to my house,” he continued, putting the car in drive. “I’ll clean you up and then I’ll sign your withdrawal form.”
The silence had opened between us. Quick calculations.
“Fine,” I said simply. “But one more time.” It hadn’t been a question, but a demand.
The offer dropped like lead. At a traffic light, blinking red like an alarm behind his fair hair, he had glanced back. I was irresistible and he knew it; he was a moth to flame.
Flickers of the high. The field, the meadow, the flowers. The soft boards under bare feet, the heavy beating of a telltale heart. The cold earth on my back. We had fed each other flowers to bring vivid hallucinations, though I had not swallowed but held them in my cheek like a creature of the earth.
“Bride of the forest,” he said with closing eyes, winking shut, blotted stars.
I had rolled him onto his back and watched him fall asleep, had kissed his handsome face with my purpled lips. A reverse Sleeping Beauty, Briar Rose—
“Ava!” Emilie stood under falling snow. “We have to leave!” The terror in her voice made my heart sing. He was mine, forever and last.
The camera was sleek in my hands. I had already paged through the hundreds of photographs of girls just my age, exposed in the dirt of the forest. And then mine.
“Yes, yet!” Emilie came up to me, made to grab my prize away.
I slapped her, and my rings bit deep into her pretty, soft cheek. She held it and whimpered. While she wept, I deleted the image of me knock-kneed with hair loose, dark jeans at my ankles, deflowered bride of the forest. I left the camera upright and illuminated, for someone else to find.
The cold air on my skin swelled my heart, made it thrum. Or was it the flowers? I couldn’t tell. The house receded into gray flurries. Emilie walked with her head down, a lit cigarette held fast between her teeth, the same color as the sky.
A smile cracked my lips as I looked down at the bouquet I had made, all violet and lavender and heather and auberge. A smattering of white and bloody crimson, the insides of velveteen flowers. To lay at the grave of another.
Taylor is an NB, Autistic writer of mostly long-form horror fiction on submission with their first novel, a psychological, Gothic horror set in Iceland. Taylor lives in Southwestern Connecticut with their partner, two little Valkyries (ahem, daughters), and three witch’s familiars: a black cat, an Ernest Hemingway polydactyl kitten, and a black dog who’s scared of her own shadow.