This Poison Heart Page 1


White roses. Genus Rosa. Family Rosaceae. Common name “Evening Star.”

Mr. Hughes took a dozen of them to his wife’s grave every weekend, rain or shine. He had for the past year. He didn’t care about the genus or the species, only that there were twelve of them waiting for him every Sunday, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. My mom was going to have to tell him that the delivery truck hadn’t arrived last night like it was supposed to—it flipped over on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The driver was okay, but our shipment of Evening Star was scattered across six lanes of traffic.

“I’m so sorry, Robert,” Mom said as Mr. Hughes, dressed in his Sunday best, came into the shop. “There was an accident, and we didn’t get our regular shipment. We should have a new delivery in the next few days.”

He gripped the lapels of his freshly pressed navy blazer, his bottom lip quivering as he ran his hand over his mouth and sighed. He looked like he might fold in on himself. Grief was heavy. It could do that to a person.

“We’ve got some beautiful peonies,” Mom said. “The Ann Cousins variety. They’re gorgeous, Robert. I could put them together for you right now.”

I pushed my glasses up and peered around the arrangement I was working on.

Mr. Hughes’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know, Thandie. The white roses, they were her favorite.”

My mom closed her hand over Mr. Hughes’s as he pulled out a tissue to dab at his eyes. We had a single white rose in a vase on the back counter, a remnant of a wedding bouquet I’d put together the day before. I looked down at my hands, opening and closing them. I wanted to help. But I couldn’t. It was too dangerous.

“I miss her so much, Thandie,” Mr. Hughes said, his voice choked with sadness.

“The people we love are never really gone from us,” Mom said. “Try to remember that. I know it’s hard. It feels like the whole world should just stop spinnin’, but it doesn’t. And we’ve gotta find a way to pick up the pieces.”

Mom always knew exactly what to say. Mr. Hughes and his wife used to come into the shop together. Now, it was just him, and it made me so sad I could hardly stand it. The arrangement on the table in front of me began to wilt.

“Hang on, Mr. Hughes,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically. I glanced at my mom for a second longer than I needed to. Her face grew tight with concern.

I plucked the single rose from the vase, rushed down the short hallway and out the back door. The eight-by-ten square of dirt our landlord had the nerve to call a garden was where we kept the bigger plants that couldn’t fit in the shop. Our recent shipment of chaste tree crowded the space, their spiky violet blooms just beginning to open in the damp heat of summer.

My hands trembled as I knelt and stripped the rose of its velvety petals, down to the pistil, the seedy heart of the flower. Any part of the plant would have been enough to make another like it, but having the pistil made it easier. A familiar tingling sensation crept down my arm. It started in my shoulder and trickled toward my elbow, then into my forearm. I glanced at the newly installed wooden pickets of the rear fence. They reminded me of what could happen if I lost control, even for a second.

I scooped a little hole in the ground and set the pistil inside. Covering it with loose earth, I placed my hands over it, sinking my fingers into the dirt, and closed my eyes.

Just breathe.

The tingling spread into my fingertips, warm and oddly comforting. A swell of anticipation crashed through me as a stout evergreen stalk broke through the dirt and immediately sprouted several small offshoots. They pushed their way up between my outstretched fingers. Sweat dampened my back and forehead. I clenched my teeth until the muscles in my temples ached. The new stalks reached toward the sun, their stems thickening, thorns sprouting, but never close enough to prick my fingers. Buds bloomed white as snow between new leaflets green as emeralds. Right before their petals unfurled, I pulled my hands back, clutching them against my chest. Dizziness washed over me. Orbs of light danced around the edges of my vision as I sucked in a breath, filled my chest with the sticky summertime air, then pushed it out. My heartbeat slowed to a normal rhythm.

Six white roses dotted the newly formed branches. I took stock of the rest of the garden. The chaste tree had sprouted new roots like tentacles, cracking open its plastic planter. Its bright lavender blooms craned toward me. I couldn’t chance growing another set of roses to give Mr. Hughes the dozen he wanted. These would have to work.

Taking a pair of pruning shears from my apron pocket, I clipped the roses and hurried back inside. As I handed them to my mom, Mr. Hughes’s face lit up.

“First you tell me you don’t have any, then Briseis goes and finds the best-looking flowers I’ve ever seen,” he said happily.

“I was keeping them special, just for you,” I said. “I only have six. I hope that’s okay.” The smile on his face made the little white lie worth it.

“They’re perfect,” he said.

Mom flashed me a tight smile. “I’ll wrap them up.”

She tucked the roses inside a layer of ivory tissue and brown paper, then pulled a length of white jute from the big spool on the counter and tied a knot in three turns.

“Angie and I are here if you need anything,” she said, handing him the flowers. “Don’t hesitate to call us.”

“I don’t want to bother you,” he said.

“Don’t,” my mom said firmly. “Don’t do that. It’s not a bother and neither are you, understand?”

He nodded, dabbing at his eyes. “Tell Mo I said thanks for dinner the other night. I owe you.”

“I’ll tell her,” my mom said. “And you don’t owe us anything—except maybe some of your world-famous peach cobbler.”

Mr. Hughes laughed, his eyes still damp with tears. “I got you covered. I make it from scratch—my grandmama’s recipe. Nothing like it in the whole world.”

He beamed. My mom went around the counter and gave him a hug.

I ducked back behind my flower arrangement and took a deep breath. I’d been able to help this time, but it couldn’t be a habit. The last time I’d pushed my abilities to their limit was after an argument I’d had with my mom. I didn’t even remember what it was about, but my overdramatic ass was upset and decided to sit in the garden and grow some chamomile as a distraction. I took a handful of loose-leaf tea and scattered it in the dirt.