Prose: “Asters” by Justin gu

Asters

Ethan and Sharlene sat on the twin Adirondack chairs on the porch, his fingertips resting on her wrist as they gazed at the violent New England Asters and purple black-eyed Susans, which spread out like a cornfield all the way to MacArthur’s apple orchard. Above the flowers, the setting sun painted the clouds peach.


     Sharlene gestured. “Aren’t they beautiful?”


     “Why are they so tall?” Ethan replied.


     “You’re just not used to the country. Flowers here are big like this.”


     “But those are almost as tall as me,” Ethan remarked.


     “Eh, I guess.” Sharlene flicked her hand. “I’ve never known a man to be so afraid of flowers.”


     “I’m not afraid.”


     “Whatever. I’m going for a walk. Gotta walk off those brownies.”


     “I’ll go with you. Give me a sec.”


     “No, don’t bother,” she said. “I’ll be back in a bit.”


     As she stepped down off the porch without looking back, he watched her disappear into the asters feeling as if his stomach was attached to her. He forced himself to stay seated, reminding himself that it was only a walk. Just a quick walk.


     Stay busy, he told himself, and you won’t think of her. He went to the dining room, picked up the plates, and brought them to the sink. Gripping the sponge, he scraped clean the plates, forks, knives, and pans and wiped the counters until they gleamed. The thuds of cabinets and drawers being shut filled the room as he looked for where to put the clean plates and utensils. In the hallway, he picked up a picture of Sharlene with her grandparents standing on the front lawn of this house. “My childhood home,” she’d called it, the house where her grandparents raised her. When her grandmother passed away, Sharlene had said, “We’ll just stay until we decide what to do with the place. It can be our honeymoon.” But every time Ethan asked her if they were going to sell it, she shrugged and said, “Let’s talk about it later.”


     He never wanted to come to the country, especially not as a honeymoon—he wanted to dwell in turquoise pools under the hot Mexican sun with children laughing as they dove into the deep ends. He wanted to lie in bed in the early mornings, watching her sleep as the blanket draped delicately off her torso. He wanted to spend days sipping mojitos in a hotel room with Sharlene all to himself, but she insisted on staying here.


     Ethan looked at the clock, anxious thoughts in his mind. Being away from her was like standing up too fast and seeing black. Thirty minutes passed—it was getting dark outside. From the porch, he scanned the meadow for any movement. God, he loved her, probably too much. But what could be done about it?


     He drifted to the edge of the flower field.


     A wall of green, and a blanket of royal purple floated just above his head.
     Parting tall stems, he wandered into the stalks. Petals stroked against his face, and the chemical turpentine-like scent of the asters made him dizzy. The setting sun cast a yellow glow on their tips, transforming them into torches. As he brushed through the stalks, pollen drizzled onto his skin like powdered sugar, and a growing warmth crept over him.


     He had only taken a few steps before he stopped. How far had he gone? He glanced back. The house had been replaced with denser stalks like a bamboo forest.
     He continued deeper. Why hadn’t he sneezed? Flowers always induced an itchiness in his nose, but these didn’t, despite the pollen particles floating like dust motes.
     Suddenly, voices. A woman.


     “Sharlene?” Ethan called out.


     A deeper voice.


     Ethan stopped.


     The man said, “So you’re just going to leave?”

     “No, of course, I want to come every day,” her voice replied.


     Ethan pushed a few stalks to the side, stepping in the direction of the conversation. And he saw them. The man stood only slightly taller than Sharlene, his wavy blonde hair like wisps of smoke in the fading light, his dark eyes purple like the flowers.


     “You always make promises you don’t intend on keeping,” the man said.


     “You know I’m not forgetting,” Sharlene replied, a gleam visible on her cheekbone as she leaned up to kiss the man.


     Ethan sprung out. “Sharlene! Seriously? We’ve been married for, what, a month? And you’re already screwing around?” Ethan gestured at the man. “And who are you?”


     Sharlene put her arms up as if to say stop. “We can talk about this later.”


     Ethan lunged at the man, who stepped back and vanished into the asters, leaving Ethan fumbling through the stalks after him.


     “He’s not there. He’s gone.”


     Ethan spun around, trampling asters, intent on landing his fist on the man’s face.


     “You’re not going to find him. It’s almost dark. I’ll explain when we get home. Come on.”


     Ethan pressed his feet into the dirt and grabbed her arm. “So this is why you wanted to come here instead of Cancun for our honeymoon?”


     “Let go, you’re hurting me.”


     “So I’m right.”


     “He’s not real.”


     “What’s wrong with you? I literally just saw him.” Unable to find the man, he clutched an aster and yanked it from the root. Pain shot through his arm like a hundred bee stings. He grasped his shoulder, his knees buckled, and he dropped.


     Sharlene knelt down and placed her hand on his chest. “It’ll numb in a minute. I promise. Just breath.”


     Here, her touch felt different, her fingertips like little mushroom caps. The asters and black-eyed Susans stood tall over him, as if whispering and swaying in rhythm. The chemical smell was replaced with a vanilla sweetness like the frosting that his mother used on his birthday cakes. Around him, a light haze brewed. It hadn’t been the man’s hair dancing but the entire atmosphere swirling and blurring.


     Ethan took her hand, and she helped him up. After she let him back through the flowers, they broke the edge of the meadow and climbed the front porch. She sat him down in the dining room.


     “Who is he?” he demanded. “How long have you been seeing him?”


     She leaned against the doorframe, her eyes unable to meet his. “You know how this home has been my family’s for a long time?”


     Ethan steadied himself, the warmth of the pollen still on his arms. “Whatever, yeah. What’s that got to do with anything?”


     “When I was a kid, I found out that if you go out into the meadow at night, things happen. I can’t explain it. I’m sure you felt it too. I don’t know how it happens, but yeah, things that shouldn’t be real just seem… real.”


     “Who is he?”


     “An old boyfriend, but the man you saw in the field isn’t him.”


     “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”


     Sharlene’s lower lip tensed. “He died the day you proposed to me.”


     “You must think I’m so naïve.”


     “I know, it sounds crazy.”


     “Of all the explanations for cheating, this is a first. You win the prize for originality. But really, what’s going on?” He stood up and paced behind the table.


     “That’s why I didn’t tell you. You’d think I was crazy. I never told anybody. Sometimes I see my grandparents in there, but lately, it’s just been Simon.”


     Ethan’s red face paled. “The think is, Sharlene, I saw him too. Is that why you go? To sneak away and canoodle? Has this always been an open relationship to you?”


     “No.”


     “Well, then why do you go every night?”


     Sharlene wrapped her arms around herself. “He’s dead. He’s not real.”


     “If he’s dead, how was he there? I saw him myself.”


     “It’s like magic, I think,” she said.


     “Bullshit!”


     “I can’t just forget my past, but I didn’t want to bring it between us. I just wanted to see him, I guess, and say goodbye.”


     “And kiss him,” Ethan retorted. He shook his head. “You can’t go out there anymore. I forbid you.”


     Sharlene peeled away from the doorframe and went into the kitchen. “It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it.” She opened a cabinet. “Did you already wash the dishes? Where are the cups?” she asked.


     Ethan ignored her and looked out at the asters. He wondered if he’d married a cheater or a crazy person or both.


     “You put them in the wrong place. They don’t go with the bowls,” she added.


     “Forget the stupid cups!”


     She shuffled out of the kitchen, passing him on her way to the bedroom. “When are you coming to bed?”


     “I don’t know. Doesn’t matter.”


     He sat on the couch and heard Sharlene watching TV. Then the blue flashing lights under her door turned off. He lay down on the couch and closed his eyes.


     Ethan woke up in the night. His eyes felt swollen with sleepiness, but the thoughts in his mind raced like gnats in a labyrinth. Under the small blanket, he felt tingling on his arms. Little prickles playing tag on his skin. It was the same fuzziness of the pollen. Sitting up on the couch and rubbing away the magnetism between his eyelids, he looked out the window. The meadow was black. A gust of wind blew across, and the silhouettes of flowers waved like a rolling sea tide. His eyes were drawn to the shining crescent in the sky, which beckoned like a hook.


     He rose off of the couch and navigated around the dark figures of furniture until he reached the front door. In slow motion, he put on his shoes and closed the door behind him.


     The 3 a.m. air was cold, but Ethan didn’t mind. When he parted the flowers and stepped into the stalks, the warmth of the petals touched him like the wings of an owl. He meandered through and realized he was following the moon. He thought the flowers split just slightly in a line to guide him. Or was he imagining it?


     A sudden rush of adrenaline pulsed down his spine and collected in his toes, making him slow his steps. Maybe the stalks were holding him back too. He pushed his way deeper into the flowery forest.


     And then he stumbled into something. Something big.


     A person among the flowers. Where had they come from? For a second, he thought it was the man.


     Ethan gasped, “Jessica.”


     She looked nothing like she did when she returned from her “math study group” that night. In her case, “study night” meant leaving with her hair tucked into a perfect bun and returning with mascara smudged across her face. It meant leaving with a $50 Jamba Juice gift card and a wad of old receipts in her purse and returning through the front door with four beer bottle caps tucked into the pocket of an unfamiliar denim jacket, her purse gone.


     But under the moonlight, her dark violet hair reflected the flowers, and her navy blue hoodie hid her torso, the fading white C-U-B-S barely visible.


     “What are you doing here?” Ethan asked.


     She rested her fingertips on his forearm. “I came to see you.”


     Ethan shook his head. “But you’re dead.”


     She walked in a circle around him. “What’s changed?”


     “What’s changed….uh…everything, I guess.”


     “Found someone new?” She frowned.


     He didn’t respond.


     “What’s her name?”


     “Sharlene.”


     “Sharlene,” she repeated, her voice adrift on the asters.


     “It’s so strange to see you,” Ethan said. “I haven’t thought about you in so long.” He told himself to leave. He had no business with her. Sharlene hadn’t been crazy after all.


     “You used to think about me all the time. I was all you could think about.”


     He turned to catch her face. “Yeah, things change.”


     “Yet, I’m here.”


     “Only because I just thought about you.”


     “Remember how you used to make me turn on my phone tracker so you would know where I was at all times, or how you would sit outside my room and listen whenever I was on the phone?”


     “I didn’t do that.”


     She ran her knuckles along the stems of flowers, flicking pollen into the air. “Remember how you used to joke that you wanted to chain me to the apartment?”


     “I was kidding. Stop exaggerating. You always exaggerated.”


     “The dead don’t exaggerate, Ethan.” Jessica stopped pacing. “The dead don’t exaggerate.”


     He had the urge to kiss her, just as Sharlene had kissed the man. But he brushed the pollen off his shoulder. “I think I should head back,” he said, turning to the house.


     She reached after him. “I’ll be here,” she said, her fingertips sliding down his elbow as he parted the stalks. When he glanced back, she was gone.


     In the kitchen, Ethan set his arm under the faucet, the icy water snapping at his skin. Little freckles of pollen accumulated into a yellow tide and flowed down the drain. He felt the reassuring heat leave him.


     Looking out the window, he turned his eyes towards the direction he’d come from. He wondered if he would find Jessica there again. Maybe she would return. Hadn’t the man returned to Sharlene?


     The meadow. It’s so vast, he thought to himself. Would every part of it bring the same dream, or would different parts hold different dreams? What if each flower was the summoner of its own dream? He knew he would go back for answers.


     As he made his way back to the bedroom, an orange glow came from under the door. Sharlene was sitting up in bed with the lamp on her nightstand turned on.


     “You went into the fields, didn’t you?” Sharlene asked.


     “How do you know?”


     “I can smell the flowers, and I can see it in your face.”


     “Yeah. I did.”


     “Who did you see?”


     He hesitated, but the desire to make her jealous swelled in him like a hiccup. “An ex. She died years ago too. I had forgotten about her.”


     “Are you serious?”


     “I just went to see what it was like. I didn’t expect to see her. I didn’t think it was real.”


     “Well, it’s addicting. It can start to control your life.”


     “Says the woman who went every evening.”


     “I grew up here.”


     “Whatever,” he said, climbing into the bed and turning off the light.


     “If I can’t go, then it’s not fair for you to go.”


     “Fine.”


     They barely slept that night, and they spent the next day together in town. Sharlene had an omelet and he had a slice of pie for brunch at the local diner. Ethan reached across the table for an edge of her omelet, but she blocked his fork with hers. While they ate, they saw Mr. MacArthur, who invited them to his farm. A cozy petite settlement, but the barn seemed to tremble at every creak of the weathervane out front. He showed them the piglets, who all huddled so peacefully in their pen. Ethan liked the piglets. Mr. MacArthur offered them one to keep, but Sharlene said no. Mr. MacArthur then invited Ethan and Sharlene into the house, but they politely declined.


     In the evening, they returned to the porch and the Adirondack chairs, only now they didn’t speak. They gazed at the asters. Ethan felt the heat in his torso, as if the warmth of the flowers had crept all the way to the house. He wondered if Sharlene felt it too. Was that their only connection? Was it even possible for him to connect with anyone?


     “I should’ve told you when we got here,” Sharlene said. “Now look where we are.”


     Ethan remained admiring the swirls of yellow that pranced above the flowers. “Do you ever want to just go out there and not come back?”


     A strong gust blew, and a light cloud of pollen picked up and dispersed like fireworks. Golden dust drizzled down around the porch, forming a misty aura in the growing dark. Together they rose and gravitated towards the railing and found themselves leaning over it.


     Two figures stood thirty feet apart at the edge of the flowers.


     Ethan glided down the steps first.


     Sharlene didn’t ask where he was going. Instead, she trailed behind him, until they both got lost on their own separate paths among the asters.

I’m a junior at Palo Alto High School who has been writing fiction and nonfiction for five years. I’ve been recognized by the Scholastic Awards for multiple pieces, and I’ve also been featured in Blue Marble Review.