A.P. Thayer is a queer, Mexican-American author based out of Los Angeles who writes nightmarism and cross-genre speculative fiction. His work has been published in places like Dark Matter Magazine, Space Fantasy Magazine, and Uncharted Magazine, along with several anthologies. He is also a member of SFWA and HWA. Find his published work, social media information, and blog at www.apthayer.com/links.
The first time you see the flower, you’re crammed into the backseat of a 1966 Volkswagen beetle with your two sisters and some luggage. The tiny car shudders and coughs when your father down-shifts on the steep mountain road. He swerves around a vendor on a bicycle carrying a tray on his shoulders and you hit your head on the window. The movement starts the slow creep of acid up the back of your throat again, the same acid you had just finally managed to control. It crawls higher with every curve in the mountain road and you look out the window to distract yourself. A flash of color in a tangle of gray and brown pulls all of your attention and you press your face against the glass.
A flower with a black center and flecks of yellow floating inside of it, is visible for an instant between the crooked trees beside the road. A single blue petal hangs from the bud, barely holding on. It’s beautiful. Your churning stomach settles. The acid stops creeping up your throat. A weight, something you haven’t felt before, settles on your shoulders. You blink, and the flower is gone.
Your mother coughs, and you settle back in your seat. It is a wet, hacking thing that lasts a full minute. Your father clears his throat. He’s worried. Frustrated. Like you are. Your mother pats his arm and turns to look back at you.
You nod, of course. You’ve never been able to hide anything from her, even though you want to. Especially now. She’s hiding something from you and you’ve decided you’re mad at her. She’s been hiding it for a while.
“It’s rare to see,” she continues, her voice low, just for you. She’s hoarse. “It only appears to the eldest girl of each generation. I’ve seen it three times now.” She tries smiling but you turn back to look outside. You look for the flower because you don’t want to look at your mother. You can still feel her watching you.
“Why did it only have one petal?” you ask before you can stop yourself.
She doesn’t answer. You glance back at her, and she’s looking in the same direction you were, her face tight with emotion. You think she looks guilty.
When the oncoming bus veers onto your side of the road to avoid a rock slide, your father turns to the left, but not quickly enough. Your mother’s side of the car takes the brunt of the impact of the bus. She screams, pinned by the crushed metal, her spine twisted, her torso and legs facing opposite ways.
She’s gone within the hour.
You aren’t sure when exactly you lost your father. Was it the instant he turned the wheel to the left? During your mother’s last ragged breaths? Maybe it was during the dozen years of poisoning his liver. You are sure he was gone before he walked into the river at three in the morning and let the current take him. Maybe he died over and over, a never-ending string of executions he carried out as he sentenced himself to death every day.
You never blamed him. For abandoning you and your sisters, sure, but never for the accident.
The second time you see the flower, you are back, visiting.
You stand outside your childhood home, your one bag—you aren’t planning on being here long—cutting into your shoulder. Was the house always so… defeated? The spirits of your family, the generations that have lived there, are so quiet. You almost can’t sense them anymore. Perhaps you have forgotten how to.
You and Little Rosie had to get away as soon as you could. Had to leave behind the memories and the ghosts. Angela, your middle sister, stayed. She wrapped herself in the generations of spirits, instead. She hates that the two of you left. She said it was spitting on the memory of your parents, that it was abandoning your ancestors and the generations of specters that still haunt this place, but you know what she really meant. It was abandoning her.
But here you are, even if it’s years later, and even if it’s only because the cemetery was bought out and they’re exhuming the bodies of those who don’t want to pay the new lease rates.
Rosie didn’t come down. She’s happily married in Arizona, expecting her first girl. She doesn’t remember the accident. Doesn’t remember your mother. She only remembers a drunk who used to hit you before crying himself to sleep every night. She offered to send money. That was the right thing to do. You told her you would handle everything, though, and told her to keep her money. Cremation isn’t that expensive and they’re offering a discount for the service at the cemetery. Rosie said thanks and didn’t answer your question about how she is doing. You don’t think you’ll ever see Rosie again.
“I made up your room,” Angela says as she pushes the door open. By the looks of it, nothing has changed since you left. The same white sheets, stiff from too much starch, the same wool blanket, a faded mustard yellow. The same wooden cross on the off-white wall plaster. There is a faint humming from your great-great-grandmother in here. It used to be comforting when you were a little girl. Now it sounds sad. The room is clean, though. Angela must have dusted.
You thank her as you set your suitcase down on the bed. The contrast between the simple furnishings and your sleek travel bag is almost offensive. You catch Angela looking, and that stone you’ve been carrying in your gut since before you even got on the plane gets heavier. She steps into the hall, arms tight around her waist, one of your mother’s shawls wrapped around her body.
“What are we going to do?” she asks.
A spider darts across the ceiling and disappears into a crack in the corner of the room. You watch the crack while you tell your sister about the cremation. She argues. You go back and forth over a dinner of boiled chicken and rice. You wish Angela wouldn’t smoke over dinner. You wear her down and she finally agrees to the cremation over empty coffee mugs. By the time you say good night, the ashtray is full. A few of the butts are yours.
The next day you spend all morning being talked at by the two brothers who have bought the cemetery. They’re investing in new mausoleums, new technology, which they are happy to show you, but they need the space being taken up by those buried in cheaper graves. Where your parents are. They don’t even tell you how much burial in the new mausoleums will cost, only imply that it is expensive. You agree to cremation with the offered discount for the inconvenience. The urns you choose are cheap and boring. Are urns supposed to be exciting, anyway? Of course not. The relief in their eyes as you sign the paperwork flares your guilt, but you’ve learned how to bury that a long time ago.
Your throat is raw as you light a cigarette outside of the office. A taxi is on its way. You know you made the right decision, but the weight of the years you’ve lost being away, the weight of memories, feels like someone standing on your chest. Maybe it’s just the cigarette. You can’t believe you’re smoking again, so quickly, so easily. You almost flick the cigarette away, but at the last moment, go in for another drag.
Through the haze of smoke, you see a flash of blue in the graffiti-stained concrete across the street. Growing out of a crack in the wall is a flower. The flower. Not a similar flower. Exactly the same one.
No, that’s impossible, you tell yourself. The memory is warping to fit what you see in front of you. How could you ever remember, anyway? It was only there for an instant, so long ago. And you’re across the street now, seeing it through thundering traffic. It’s just confirmation bias.
You haven’t thought about that flower since that day on the mountainside. How could you? It was a flash of color painted over by the brush strokes of your most painful memory. Buried under the ragged screams of your mother as her lacerated and crushed organs leaked out of her. A sea of red to drown out a single point of blue.
But it is the same. The same size, the same shape. It even has that single, precarious petal hanging off of it. It is the exact same flower, somehow stretching through twenty years of time and space to appear across a pothole-ridden, two-lane highway from you.
The cigarette burns down to the filter and singes your finger. You drop it and the sparks tumble down the street, carried away by the gusts from passing buses. The petal wavers in the wind, threatening to fall. That weight that settled on your shoulders so long ago grows heavier. You hear your mother ask you if you saw it. Hear her tell you she’s only seen it three times. The last time you heard her voice. The last time your family was whole.
You go back inside the office and demand two mausoleum spaces. You tell the brothers what they’re doing is disgusting and argue them down on price. Angela cries with relief when you tell her. You promise her you’ll visit more often and then you send Rosie a text telling her to do the same. The ghosts in the old house aren’t quite so somber anymore.
You think about the blue flower every once in a while now. When you remember it, you tell yourself you will research it, or ask your tías about it, but something always stops you. Distracts you. The same way you tell yourself you’ll go back home to visit but never do. When the time comes, it just never seems important enough to bother with, and it’s not like calling your family back home is pleasant. It’s only when you wake up screaming in the middle of the night, your pillow soaked in sweat, the room spinning with the dying shrieks of your mother that it seems like life or death. That weight that settled on your shoulders so long ago feels heaviest then.
But then, in the morning, if you even remember the dream of a single-petaled blossom with a black core and dancing yellow spores, like glittering sun motes on a midnight sky, it’s easy to forget the dream-like warnings. California sunshine streaming in through your window is a powerful balm to generational guilt. You go to work. You keep busy. You distract yourself. You’ve come so far in life, haven’t you? You were able to escape, right? Why look back? Why live in the past?
It has been years since you went home.
You tell yourself you’ll take the time off of work and will get a plane ticket. You miss Angela. Or you miss not feeling guilty about her. But you never do, and the weight on your shoulders gets heavier.
The last time you see the flower is on your first visit back home since you re-buried your parents. Rosie hasn’t spoken to you in—has it really been ten years? The calculation shocks you.
Angela is dead. That’s what finally spurred you to keep your promise. Albeit way too late.
You’re surprised by the number of people at her funeral. Not even by counting work acquaintances could you approach this number. You meet the man your sister took as a companion for the last eight years of her life, the last two of which you hear were filled with coughing and hospital visits, but the first six of which were filled with well-deserved happiness.
That’s more than you’ve had.
The man, Ernesto, says Angela often spoke of your mother and Rosie. Sometimes of you. Only once of your father. He hands you the key to the old house and says it should go to you, as Angela wished, which surprises you. Is she punishing you? You must have spoken out loud because Ernesto smiles and pats your fingers closed over the key. She forgave you years ago, he says.
The key is heavy in your hand. Cold. You cry the whole taxi ride from the service.
The house is empty, but loud with ghosts again. Angela stopped smoking, but the smell still lingers over everything, choking the air alongside the lamentations of your long-dead father, the shrieks of your mother, and the sonorous, wet coughing of your now-dead sister. The rest of the family spirits hover in the background, quiet.
You try out each of the beds before settling on your own, despite your feet hanging off of it, like always, and it being half as wide as the big one in your parents’ old room, where Angela had moved to at long last. Your great-great-grandmother hums a pair of notes before going silent.
You lie there, unable to conjure more tears, unable to stop the onslaught of memories of so many lives lived apart. The weight on your shoulders is heavier than ever. You remember being mad at your mother for keeping her illness hidden from you. Would she have died within a year or two anyway? Was she saved from a drawn-out death by a horrific one? Did the rest of you pay for that trade with pain and tears? You try to distract yourself by thinking of everything that comes next. Packing, cleaning, an estate sale, finding a realtor.
The blue flower creeps out of the crack that you watched a spider disappear into so many years ago. It twists and spirals and unfurls and stretches until it has taken the exact same form you remember it having the first two times. A single petal quivers in an unfelt breeze. There is no mistaking it. You aren’t misremembering, you aren’t fabricating, you aren’t losing your mind. Your mother made a choice and it killed her. Would that be so bad for you? You think of Rosie and whether your death would mean she would see the flower. More likely, her daughter would.
The blossom hovers in the middle of the ceiling, directly above you, and the swirling golden stars on its black velvet curtain center greet you. The ghosts calm down a little, the air smells of sun-kissed petals. The last words of your mother, her voice beautiful, warm you. You remember the tears that sparkled in Angela’s eyes when you told her you paid for the mausoleum. You imagine Rosie and her little girl, Alma, playing in the Arizona sun in a tiny backyard with a pool. You smile. The other women in your family smile, too.
You wipe away tears and send Rosie a voice message, telling her how beautiful Angela looked in the open casket, about her handsome lover, and how you miss your little sister. You tell her you’re moving into the old house and she should bring her family down for a visit. The weight on your shoulders lifts some. You hope you’ll hear back from her. The crack in the ceiling above you is empty; the flower is gone.
You hope you will never see it again.