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The Gift, Pt. 1


I stared at the pitiful bale of flowers laying on the doorstep. Water had dripped from the contorted icicles that clung to the eaves, soaking the tiny card so that the bluish-black ink bled through the envelope, staining it like a bruise. Frost clung to the delicate glass vase and the once-fragrant blooms had been ravaged by the cold, leaving them wilted and sad, like shredded butterflies impaled on green arrows. Apparently, Katie-Kat, our chunky calico, had also noticed them, because the silver ribbon surrounding the flowers had been tugged into the shape of a noose and was frayed at the ends. I rolled my eyes, exasperated. It would not have killed them to set it inside the door. It wasn’t like we ever locked it. Who in their right mind leaves a bouquet outside in January?


Balancing the groceries on my hip, I bent down, grabbed the vase by the rim, then fumbled to turn the doorknob. White scales of paint flaked onto the doorstep as I nudged the door open with my foot and the hinges whined in protest.


A whiff of the frozen DiGiorno pizza we had for lunch still lingered in the air, mingling with the familiar scents of Lysol and old coffee. The television droned in the living room where my twin, Autumn, was curled up on the sofa, dozing in front of the evening news. I glowered at her. Why hadn’t she answered the door when the florist came? Was it really that difficult to walk ten feet to open a door? I huffed and made my way to the kitchen, nudging the light switch with my elbow before carefully setting the ruined bouquet on the counter. My irritation grew as I began putting away the groceries. I glared at my sister again, but my annoyance lessened slightly when I noticed that her usually-perfect eyeliner was smudged, and black tear stains had dried against her flushed cheeks, mascara clinging to a few of the stray auburn curls that fell across her face. Autumn looked less like her usual immaculate self and more like she was getting ready to audition for Green Day. Then I noticed the empty wine bottle on the coffee table and her phone laying at the opposite end of the room, the screen now fractured like a spider web. Another fight. I shook my head.


“Idiots”.


As quietly as I could, I finished stashing the last few cans of vegetables and tiptoed to the living room to where the shattered phone lay, the floorboards creaking softly beneath my feet. I stooped and picked it up, momentarily tempted. I knew her passcode (22943) but despite my nagging curiosity, decided not to look at the screen. Instead, I gingerly set the phone face down on top of the neglected chemistry textbooks that besieged the coffee table and grabbed the remote, curling up in one of our cat-scratched recliners. I flipped to HGTV where Holmes Inspections, one of my favorite shows, was on, but I was unable to keep myself from periodically glancing at the sofa. Our family always updated phones every Christmas, so whatever happened must have been pretty distressing for Autumn to do something as stupid as chucking her new phone at the wall. I bit my lip, trying to focus on the television, but my eyes kept straying back to the couch. Finally, I sighed.


I loved her, but I knew I couldn’t help her.


Dad always liked to joke that one of us had been switched at the hospital; aside from a birthday, my sister and I had almost nothing in common. I was studious and introverted, and rarely went out on the weekends unless it was to see a movie or meet with my D&D group. Autumn on the other hand, was an avid partier who played on the varsity volleyball team and generally put more time into her makeup and Instagram posts than she ever did into her homework. If not for the obvious physical resemblance, I probably would have believed my father.


I sat there a few more minutes, staring glumly at Autumn’s tear-streaked face, then rose resolutely and switched the TV off. I knew from several similar incidences that I couldn’t do much to dissuade my sister from questionable life choices, and with my own dating history, I also was in no position to dole out relationship advice. I could, however, be there to listen and pick up the pieces when she woke up from her moscato-induced coma. I padded softly to the kitchen to start a fresh pot of coffee. As I poured the grounds into the coffee maker, the dilapidated bouquet caught my eye. The frost clinging to the smooth blue vase had thawed, forming a small puddle on the counter and light from above the sink filtered through the white and blue marbles that surrounded the delicate flowers’ stems. Autumn loved blue, so some thought had obviously been put into the arrangement. It was a shame. I frowned thoughtfully, fiddling with one of my helix piercings. The cold had done a number on the flowers, but perhaps with some rearranging and a little trimming here and there, it might be salvageable. A moment later, I found myself grabbing a pair of scissors and spreading newspaper and old pizza coupons over the counter. True, it wasn’t really any of my business, but it wouldn’t take long to fix this. I’d never had any reason to craft any sort of floral arrangement and had no idea what I was doing, but my inner design snob assured me I could handle a small bouquet. As a third-year graphic design student, I liked to think I had a reasonably decent eye for aesthetics.


After helping myself to some coffee, I removed the flowers and carefully spread them across the paper. Most of the flowers were a little droopy, but still salvageable. Luckily for me, both the greenery and baby’s-breath were virtually indestructible. I was also glad that the bulk of the bouquet was roses, because the outer petals had taken the most damage and I could peel the majority of those off. The daisies had not fared nearly as well. I tried flattening their petals out again and straightening their stems, but in the end, I gave up and threw several of them out. By the time I trimmed and retied the ribbon, the arrangement looked pretty nice. It was still a little wilted, and not as full as the original bouquet, but it certainly rivaled what the florist had assembled. I was quite proud of myself. Maybe if the art thing didn’t work out, I could get a job at The Posy Patch when I graduated. The only thing left was the card.


I had sandwiched it in between several paper towels and set it under an underperforming heating vent in the ceiling to try and dry it out. The outside felt pretty dry, but I wasn’t sure how the card had fared. I hesitated before opening the tiny envelope, turning it over in my hands several times, trying to feel for any remaining dampness. It seemed wrong somehow, sort of like eavesdropping on a conversation or reading someone else’s mail. After throwing a quick glance towards the living room I sheepishly slipped the card from its envelope. The paper inside had dried somewhat but was still so waterlogged and blotchy that it was difficult read, but when I did, I frowned.


-Psalm 127:3-5. Always and forever. Love, Damian-


“What the heck?” I muttered as I ran my thumb over the edge of the card. I turned it over, hoping to find some further explanation scrawled on the back, but apart from the ink spots which had bled through the damp paper, it was blank.

Psalm 127? Since when did Damian go around quoting psalms? It was odd picturing Autumn’s burly, cigarette-puffing, tattoo-encrusted boyfriend inscribing Bible verses on cards. He was a sweet guy with an engineering degree, but also a 6’4” gun enthusiast who rode a Harley and worked part-time as a bar bouncer. Not that I, being reasonably conservative despite having gauges, piercings, and a bright purple pixie cut, was in any position to judge others based on appearances. Still, as hypocritical as it was, I had a hard time putting the two things together in my head. I frowned at the neat cursive, musing over whether Damian or the florist had written the note. Surely no hulking engineering student could have that nice of handwriting. Then again, how well did I know him?


Eventually, after patting it down with paper towels, I folded the little card into its envelope and tucked it back among the flowers.


I decided to leave the bouquet on the counter, making sure to place it in a spot where it would be easily seen from the living room. The nightlight by the toaster reflected off the vase, softly illuminating the arrangement. It really was pretty. After standing in front of it for a while longer, I crumpled up the paper I’d spread over the counter and tossed out the flower clippings. For now, my work was done. I threw a blanket over Autumn and left some ibuprofen and a bottle of water in the living room next to her, munched on some knock-off brand animal crackers, then refilled my coffee cup and reluctantly climbed upstairs to start drafting my paper for History. When I closed my laptop and crept back downstairs a little over an hour later, the house was dark, and my sister was stilled curled up in a heap at the end of the sofa.


Autumn was a hard sleeper sober, but she was starting to worry me. After I checked to make sure she was breathing, I turned the tv back on, hoping the noise would wake her. Her phone vibrated several times and the screen lit up, and through the chipped glass I could see she had numerous text notifications and missed calls, likely from Damian. I wasn’t confrontational enough to walk over and shake her, but I did put in a load of laundry and run the dishwasher, hoping that the noise would wake her from her wine-induced coma. It wasn’t until I let Katie-Kat in and a rush of frigid air flooded into the living room that Autumn finally stirred. She slowly sat up and blinked groggily, the back of her hair matted, and her eyes swollen and bloodshot. She stared blankly at the fuzzy throw that I’d draped over her earlier then slid her gaze over to my chair.


“Hey.” I smiled, hoping I looked calmer than I felt, “Coffee? It’s a little old, but it’s still hot.”


She nodded, rubbing her sleeve against her face, then silently accepted the mug that I handed to her. I curled up at the opposite end of the couch and felt the wind knocked out of me as Katie Kat jumped into my lap, purring like a small outboard motor. Autumn gazed languidly at the TV, ignoring her phone as it buzzed again. I looked down and picked at a loose string on the sofa, chewing my lip nervously. Several minutes passed, neither of us speaking. Finally, I looked up.


“Want to talk about it?”


Autumn set her mug on the coffee table, folding her knees against her chest, and tilted her head against the back of the couch, squeezing her eyes shut. Finally, she sighed, “Damian’s going to leave me,” she said flatly. Her shoulders started to shake and her jaw muscles twitched as if she were trying not to cry again. I shifted awkwardly in my chair and opened my mouth to say something, but she cut me off.


“Ash, I did something stupid. Something really, really, stupid. You can’t tell anyone, and you can’t judge me, okay?”

I gave her a crooked smile. Our parents were very conservative, so we had both attended an all-girls catholic school, where we had perfected our Latin and learned an ungodly fear of nuns. It probably did not have quite the effect that our parents hoped for, because was also where, despite being straight, I almost forgot heterosexual relationships existed. Still, attending a secular University had meant newfound freedom for both of us. For me, that meant more external expression and I found myself embracing my wild side by getting pierced, sporting my band t-shirts, chopping off and and dying my hair. For her, it meant boys, drinking, and parties. She'd met Damian during the latter the second semester of our freshman year.


“Look, sis, if you’re going to say what I think you are, it’s okay. We share a wall and you guys aren’t as quiet as you think you are. I know.”


Autumn’s cheeks flushed, and she reached for her now lukewarm coffee, pressing the mug against her forehead, probably to alleviate a budding hangover, “Oh.” She stared down at the floor, studying the scarlet 70’s shag intently. “Well, I… it’s a little more complicated than that. I…kind of missed a period.”


I stopped scratching the cat’s ears, staring slack jawed at my sister, my mouth suddenly uncomfortably dry. “Ah.” I said, instantly hating myself for not being able to think of something better. I resisted the urge to glance at her phone as it buzzed again, and instead looked down at my mismatched socks until it stopped.


Autumn’s lip quivered, and she squeezed her eyes shut. I instinctively wanted to slide over and put an arm around her, but even as a child, Autumn had always hated being touched, so I just watched as she tried to calm her breathing. Our cat must have sensed my sister’s distress, because she abandoned my lap and rubbed her head against Autumn’s elbow, then settled in a vibrating lump next to her.


“Well, is it possible that your cycle just shifted? That can happen, especially if you’re stressed. That always happens to me during finals. Or maybe it’s a hormonal imbalance?”


Autumn stroked Katie-Kat absently, shaking her head. “No, I went to Walgreens earlier. The pregnancy test came back positive. I’ve known since Tuesday.”


I took in a breath, pinching the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger, at a loss for words. “Wow. I….I really don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”


Autumn shrugged “I mean I don’t know what I’m going to say to mom and dad, but I can graduate after next semester if I request a credit overload and take a summer course, but it’s so fucking frustrating. I’ve been on the pill, but I didn’t even think about the antibiotics I was taking. And all this time Damian’s been talking about getting married after graduation and how he wants to have kids and then this happens- “


Autumn’s phone buzzed again, and she glared at it before snatching it up and squeezing the power button before sinking back against the sofa. “I told him, and that asshole didn’t even say anything...he just stood there looking at me, then just he turned around and drove off. He just- he just left me there!” She sniffed, voice trembling as a fresh volley of angry tears erupted down her cheeks.



-TO BE CONTINUED-

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