I let it be known that I was fragile. I didn’t hide it, beat around the bush, paint on a plastic smile, or lie and say, “I’m fine.” Comfortable with the storm, sunlight was a façade when my husband came to me with such a fallacy called love. In my deep places, I knew better than to relish in the heat that toasted my face, and the inferno that sedated the walls around my heart. But, they say fools fall in love, and there ain’t no such thing as fairy tales.
I used to say it, too.
So, it was no surprise that I came up empty at every attempt to explain how, or why I weakened and let him where no man should’ve been allowed to go, especially since I’d already promised myself that the first time would be the last time.
Now, look at me. Sad. Hurt. Wishing I’d stayed in the bubble that was at best, my comfort zone. Had I known that the love of my life was gonna leave me and take my baby with him, I’d never have fallen for his raspy pitch that was now but a figment of my imagination. A sound that could only be remembered by the countless voicemails I still had in my phone. I missed him.
The bells jingled above me, temporarily yanking me from the quicksand of my agony. Immediately, my body reacted to the scent of budded plants and sweet perfumes. My eyes flitted from one beautiful flower to the next, and it only took a moment for me to become overwhelmed by the vast choices.
“Good evening, is there anything I can assist you with?”
Too engaged in the act of finding what my mother would’ve considered the perfect flowers for any occasion, I barely even looked up at him. Though the depth of his voice was pleasing to whatever part of my feminine makeup that usually attracted me to smooth baritone sounds, I simply shook my head and inspected the six petals of the flower right in front of my face.
“Lilies. Those are our top sellers, and my personal favorite.” Turning toward him, a golf-ball sized lump formed simultaneously with the churn in the pit of my stomach. He was dark chocolate brown. The color I’d always preferred in a man. The color of the man I still missed more than words could even express.
“A man with a favorite flower?”
He didn’t give me the bashful-laced, prideful response I expected. Instead, he offered a friendly smile and an unashamed, “That’s right. Orange lilies, to be exact.” He closed the small distance that separated the two of us until he was all up in my space.
“They’re showy. Proud. Bold. Kinda like me,” he shrugged.
It was the only response I had to offer up to this chocolate brother explaining his odd interest in lilies since, in my opinion, it wasn’t that serious. Moving right along and keeping my back to him, I silently hoped he’d get the picture. I wasn’t in the mood to carry on some fake, friendly conversation, but judging by the way he continued in my presence, my off-putting aura wasn’t enough to deter him.
“Needing something for a special occasion?”
I didn’t know why, but his question struck a nerve. Could this be considered a special occasion?
“Not really. But, since you like these,” I pointed toward the bouquet of beautiful orange lilies, a few random whites, and even fewer yellows dispersed throughout, “I’ll take them.” It wasn’t like I needed to take all day picking out flowers. I wasn’t even really the flower kind of girl. I only came in here because I saw an ad on Facebook and assumed the occasion was fitting.
Flashing me another smile, one that broadcasted his beautiful white teeth this time, Mr. Chocolate eagerly grabbed the flowers and led me toward the front of the store. Following him gave me the chance to inspect other areas I’d found attractive, aside from that deep brown hue of his. I noticed the way his jeans didn’t hug his body too tightly, nor did they bag in a way I’d always found distasteful. I noticed that his hair was cut short, but that his waves were so ferocious I almost wished I could run my fingers over the ribbed shape. I noticed that he wore simple loafers and a button-up. I noticed any and everything I could, until I realized noticing was stupid.
I watched as he carefully placed my flowers down on the counter, and then to avoid his eyes, I busied mine with inspecting the extravagant, hand-painted vases that were displayed on a large shelf next to the checkout counter.
“Those are dope, huh?” Eying him, I wanted to ask why he wasn’t ringing up my order, but I couldn’t figure out a way to say it without it sounding as rude as it did in my head. So, I simply nodded in response and refocused my attention on those orange lilies.
Flowers I likely would’ve never chosen.
“My sister paints those. A lot of the customers come in just to purchase the vases. They definitely get a lot of attention,” he continued explaining. Another nod so that I could pass for at least being cordial, and he chuckled.
“You don’t seem to be into conversing much, huh?” This time, I simply shrugged.
“Well hey, I appreciate the business. So, pick one out. On the house,” he offered, motioning toward the intricately painted vases while he keyed in the total of my order on the old-school register. My eyes settled on a beautiful paisley-colored vase that had been painted with what had to have been a million different hearts and swirls. The glossy clear paint over top the vase meshed with the design seamlessly, and if I had to nickname it, the word “peace” would’ve been the only way to describe it.
“I’m good,” I decided, pulling my wallet out of my hobo bag and resting it on the counter to dig for my debit card.
“Oh, c’mon. Turning down a free vase? Am I that bad of a salesman?” His grin prodded for my own, but I was careful to not let my smile shine through.
I was on a mission. Being bubbly or anything of the sort wasn’t a part of it.
“Not at all. I’m buying those, aren’t I?” Tapping to finish ringing up my order, which ended up at forty bucks, he twisted his thick lips.
“You have a point there, beautiful.”
I cast my eyes up at the sound of his chosen adjective, searching for a reason to conjure up my thorns, but he gave me none as his attention settled on wrapping my flowers and placing them in the all-white shopping bag with the logo name of the shop displayed across the front.
Calling me beautiful meant nothing to him. I was tripping.
Sliding him my card to process my payment, which just so happened to be the last few dollars in my bank account, he scooted the bag across the counter toward me.
“Is there anything else I can do for you? You sure you don’t want me to wrap one of those vases for you?”
“I’m…sure. Uh…thanks.” A surge of shame shot up my chest at the way I fumbled around those words.
“My pleasure. I hope to see you back again.” Quickly scribbling something on a card, he slid that toward me as well. “We do delivery. Just call the number on that card, and we’ll get you all set up,” he crooned, his friendly demeanor not wavering. Holding my breath to disengage the pending stress, I grabbed my bag by the handles, careful not to smoosh the extravagant petals, and scooped up the card with my free hand. I didn’t respond this time. I simply turned and scampered toward the door.
One step down.
One to go.
“Sooo, how’d it go?” The sound of the bells jingling on the front door, followed by my baby sister’s question, snatched my attention from the story I was concocting in my brain about the customer who’d left almost a half hour ago.
Lexi smirked as she strolled through her flower shop toward the checkout counter. She hopped on the barstool behind the counter and eyed me amusingly.
“Course it was cool. Like I told you it would be, Ms. Worry Wart.”
“Anybody come in looking for me specifically?” Shaking my head, I turned to lean against the counter, her question bringing the beautiful woman back into mind who I knew was named Coral from the name on her debit card.
“And, what about someone with questions? Cuz you know, a lot of my customers always have a ton of questions and—”
“If I didn’t know any better, I would say you didn’t trust me.” My eyes danced with amusement at my little sister’s interrogation.
“Of course, I trust you, Levi. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let you handle business for me today.” Running her fingers through the braids she’d decided to wear out today, Lexi popped the bubble gum in her mouth and used her free hand to skim through her phone.
“Good. Cuz I’ll have you know, I sold a bouquet of lilies today,” I smirked.
Lexi’s face twisted into part shock, part pleasure.
“Let me guess. You threw your phone number in with the purchase?” My eyes narrowed at the nerve of her insinuating that I had to do something extra to make a sale. The chuckle that escaped from her glossy mouth was evidence that she knew she’d low-key offended me.
“You’re wrong for that, Lex,” I chastised, grabbing my coat and laying it across my forearm. I wasn’t even sure why I’d dragged the thick outwear in with me. I assumed it was a habit I’d learned from my wife, who had a knack for saying, “take a jacket in case you get cold.”
“You know it was a valid thought, big brother. I’ve seen you pimp those good genes countless times to get what you want.” She continued snickering at my expense.
“And, on that note, let me get on outta here.” Playfully, I lifted a fist at her.
“Where you headed?” Grabbing the same kind of orange lilies, I’d sold to the beautiful woman earlier, I knew I didn’t really need to satisfy her question with a proper response.
“Well, I guess that answers my question, huh?”
“These are free, right?” I lifted the flowers, “Since you did have me slaving away in here?”
“Boy, please. Ain’t nobody have you slaving nothing.” She smiled through smacked lips, lighting up my heart. She could have her little over-observant moments and mood swings that seemed ingrained in every Wilson woman, but still, seeing my little sister smile was enough to transform any negative energy into positive. Along with the wonderful business she’d built—her flower shop—my little sister was excelling in life, making sure she was never any cause of undue stress for me. So, it was my pleasure to come when she called needing someone to cover the shop for a few hours—even if that did mean I had to undergo some of her crazy trash talk about the integrity of my work.
“Tell her I said hi,” she called out as the sound of bells jingled in response to me opening the door. Saluting as my way of letting her know I would, I dipped out of there, gripping the flowers and hightailing it toward my vehicle.
My eyes closed for a second, and I relished in the warmth of the evening sun. It was my favorite time of day since the heat was neither blistering, nor overwhelming. Pulling out my phone, I quickly tapped a message and then dropped my phone into the passenger seat, along with the flowers.
I’m on my way, baby.
My car purred as I pushed the button to start it, and I smiled at the way my engine roared. Smooth lyrics reverberated through my vehicle, the perfect song pouring through my speakers. I knew she was likely responsible. My wife had always had a sense of humor, and the Christon Gray song “Heaven” was proof. Hitting the back button, I started the song from the top as I cruised and let his words be the plea from my heart.
I arrived at my journey’s end nearly a half hour ago, but my feet were like heavy concrete. Lifting them and walking to my destination past countless other bodies seemed a feat. No matter how many times I tried to mentally process the movement, it just never seemed to be enough to get me going.
“You’re overthinking it,” I chastised, sniffling to stop the snot from dripping onto my shirt.
“You just gotta move.”
In quick motions, I pulled my keys from the ignition, snatched the flowers I’d purchased off the dashboard, and stepped out of my vehicle, ensuring that my black hobo bag was right at my side.
With the sun on its way to set, the humidity of the day had passed and now, a gentle breeze gave the perfect aura as the background of my visit. Crossing through the freshly cut grass, the coal-black, ankle-length maxi dress I chose seemed fitting.
“Give me strength,” I whispered, excessively aware of the pounding that seemed to pummel away at every inch of my body, my chest taking the greatest brunt of the beatdown. I knew exactly where they lay, though I had refused to come out here since they’d been put to rest.
That was almost six months ago.
I’d given it the time people said I would need. I learned, in an irrefutably difficult manner, that time wasn’t remotely the miracle I desired.
The graves I sought were side-by-side in a newer part of the graveyard. Though it was because they had yet to begin developing that side of the property, it made me feel as if my family was as lonely as me.
One tombstone read Braxton Sumner, and the other Barley Sumner. My eyes must’ve roamed the inscription a hundred times, yet no matter how long I stood there, I couldn’t grasp a solitary second of comfort.
I was feeling something specific, something that I fought to form words to describe. It wasn’t that I didn’t know them; I just didn’t like the way they’d sound. Even so, the build-up of words rising in my chest was too powerful a sensation for me to conjure the strength to fight them back.
“I hate you.”
The words were uttered, yet distinct as they fell from my lips.
“I hate you so much,” I repeated, every muscle in my face spazzing uncontrollably as I bordered an inevitable breakdown.
“I hate you!” This time, the words were pushed from my chest with the force of my pain, and the bouquet I’d been grasping went flying forward.
“How could you?!”
Screaming in desperate hope that Braxton could hear me, I beat his tombstone with those flowers until they were but petals spread across both his and Barley’s grave. Falling to my knees, my chest hit my thighs as I shrieked from every inch of my crushed soul.
“How could you do this to me?” I sobbed. Eyes closed, I couldn’t help but travel to the fateful day I received the call that murdered me spiritually.
My husband had been the cause of a head-on collision after picking up my three-year-old son from daycare. His blood-alcohol level had been .229.
According to the research I’d done, that meant he looked drunk. Not just drunk, but sloppy drunk. His clothes would’ve likely been hanging off him. His eyes would’ve been red, and it would’ve been clear that he’d had way more to drink than he could handle. He would’ve needed assistance walking. His speech would’ve been barely coherent. There would’ve been mental confusion. He would’ve been on the verge of blacking out. His state would not have been questionable at a blood-alcohol level of .229.
Yet, no one stopped him from getting behind the wheel and taking off with my child.
Lifting my head and tasting the tears that seeped through my gritted teeth, I shifted my head toward Barley’s name.
“It’s all Mommy’s fault, baby. It’s all my fault,” I groaned, suddenly so lightheaded that all I could do was lay across the graves of the two people who had meant the world to me.
I knew my husband had begun an unhealthy habit of pitstops at the bar across the street from his firm every evening after work. When his company started doing cutbacks, he went on edge because no matter how many clients he acquiesced, or how friendly and helpful of a person he was, those who were hired last would be the first to go. Things had been tight at his job, and he was sure the board was planning to cut him loose—it was only a matter of time.
Braxton had been the main provider. Prided himself on that fact. It was Braxton’s lifeline to be a strong husband who stuck it out with his wife, no matter the ups and downs. For him, that included making sure we wanted for nothing. He was so good to me and Barley.
While we knew, in theory, that it was in our most tumultuous times that we should’ve been trusting God the most, we’d both been guilty of unhealthy outlets to cope.
Mine had been to throw myself into the charity I’d started to aid young girls in healing from childhood trauma.
His was at the bottom of countless shot glasses every evening after work.
I knew Braxton was struggling, but in my never-ending pursuit of validation, I ignored his issue.
But, I wasn’t planning to ignore it forever.
Eventually, I would come to him and insist we pray our way through, rather than depending on alcohol and never-ending volunteer work. My ignoring what was so blaring in front of my face had me allowing him to pick our son up from daycare, even though I knew he’d started heading to the bar after work.
If I could do that day all over again, I swear I would. In a heartbeat.
“Why couldn’t it have been me?”
Better yet, how come I couldn’t resist falling for him in the first place? Because had I, I’d never have known how sweet Braxton’s love was, or how captivating the sound of Barley’s laughter could be.
Eyes closed, all I could do was moan through the agony. It was thick, so thick I struggled to even inhale air into my lungs. The heat of despair made breathing impossible.
“I wanna come to heaven,” I cried. Picturing the light of Jesus which I longed for, I let my heart plea with God to bring me to heaven on his own accord, but I’d been waiting for a long six months, and I was still here on this bitter earth.
Prayers. Bible studies. Grief counselors. Nothing had been able to penetrate this thickness of sorrow, and peace had become futile. A useless pursuit.
“I just wanna see my baby,” I whimpered, unsure if my words were at all making it up to my Savior. “God, I wanna see him…I just need to see them.” The black bag that had fallen to the front of my body sat open.
“How could you leave me? How could you…just…leave?”
Wails escaped me shamelessly, and I must’ve sobbed for an hour before I feverishly used my hand to dig in my bag.
I fumbled for the black steel tool I’d conjured to aid my attempt at seeing my husband and baby boy by any means necessary.
It seemed the closest option to, some way, alleviate the insurmountable pressure that had fallen on my heart with no signs of ever easing. I’d asked for signs. I’d asked for explanations.
But the silence of the Lord was deafening.
Lifting my body to a seated position, one finger rubbed the beautiful black gun that I was convinced was the smartest way to ease my tormented soul.
The moment she turned to face me, I could see the tragedy painted in her eyes. I recognized that pain and knew it so intimately that it haunted me.
“Are you okay?”
It was only after the question left my lips, that I realized just how ignorant it sounded. Of course, she wasn’t okay.
“I had no idea.” My voice cracked, treading lightly over my words as I closed the distance between the two of us. Orange lily petals were scattered over the ground like seeds amongst freshly fertilized soil.
My eyes settled on the gun in her lap as I stepped closer toward Braxton and Barley’s graves. I’d been here more times than I could count.
“I…how…what—” She gave up her attempt at formulating a sentence before struggling to slip the gun back into her bag without being detected. Planted in my spot as I tried to swiftly digest the pure power in this moment, power she wasn’t even aware of, I simply watched as she lifted herself back to her feet.
“So, you’re the wife and mother?”
Clarity smacked me dead in my face and left me to do nothing but shake my head at the irony.
“Yea…did…did you know them?” she sniffled, drying her eyes despite the fact that tears kept falling. My chest tightened at the sound of her question.
“Not personally.” Confusion etched her face at my response. After a moment of me fully coming to terms with the assignment God really had me on when he’d prompted my heart to come here, all I could do was smile. Then, as I thought about my willingness to obey, even when I hadn’t usually been the obeying type, my smile spread into a full-out chuckle.
“Enlighten me. What’s so dang funny?” Coral’s grimace was one of offense, only for a moment before sliding into curiosity. Extending the hand that was free of my orange lilies her way, I sighed.
“Coral Sumner, I’m Levi Wilson. My wife was Samantha Wilson. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
What was God expecting me to do with the words Levi Wilson had just spoken to me? Parched, was the least excuse I could conjure for my lack of a response.
“So, I guess you can see what I found so funny,” he shrugged, inhaling a gulp of air before casting his eyes upward as though he was silently pleading for assistance from God.
Been there, done that.
The awkwardness of our silence still hadn’t dissipated. What was I even supposed to say to him? Was it my duty to apologize? And even if so, what would an apology do? It certainly couldn’t bring his wife back from the dead.
Trust me, I’d tried.
“Judging by what I walked up on, it’s clear you’re not coping very well at all. Did you have that gun for some specific purpose?” Heat crawled up the back of my neck. He had seen the gun after all.
“I wasn’t gonna use it,” I muttered, unsure if my words were gospel or simply what sounded right. I could tell he didn’t believe me. My eyes were planted on the ground, but his silence begged me to look up at him. The slow-setting sun made his brown irises pop. The churning in the pit of my stomach returned, but this time, it was coupled with confusion and more questions than I could formulate. Like, why was he here? And why did he make me nervous? And why wasn’t I as sad as I’d been just moments before?
“I was there, ya know. Thinking that I couldn’t go on with life. Heck, I still have those moments.” Hanging onto every hint of syllable that fell from his lips, I felt so suddenly yanked from the depth of my despair. I could at least breath. Just like that.
“I had to forgive him.” He nodded his head toward Braxton’s tombstone. “I had to forgive his terribly selfish act. If I hadn’t, I’d have died right along with him.”
Dropping my head at Levi’s words, I could feel the pressure rising once more along with the tears rolling that had never stopped.
Why wasn’t I out of tears by now?
“If I could take it back…” My voice came out strained and higher than usual, an effect of emotion that still hadn’t settled.
“Levi, if I could take it back, I swear I would,” I cried, feeling the overwhelming burden of his wife’s life on my back as reality sunk in. My husband’s selfishness hadn’t only affected Braxton and Barley’s life. Braxton’s wreck had also taken the life of an innocent woman by the name of Samantha Wilson. I could’ve saved three lives.
“I’m so sorry,” I sobbed all over again, using my hands to plug my wide-opened mouth. My shoulder’s shook and my knees weakened.
“Coral…” Levi lifted his hand and took a step forward, and in quick response, I took a step back.
“You don’t owe me any apologies,” he persisted.
“But I doooo.” My mind flitted through the ways I could’ve stepped up to prevent this all from happening in the first place. I could’ve held my husband accountable and reminded him that Christian men didn’t drink when they were stressed. That they didn’t worry about things like food, shelter, and clothing because God had already promised he’d take care of us. We knew that because we’d attended church every Sunday morning. I had a duty to do something more than just watching him destroy his character, and I had a duty to my son to protect him.
“I knew he’d be drinking. I had the opportunity to prevent all of this.” I raised my hands and then let them fall, slapping my legs in the process.
“You don’t owe me any apologies,” he repeated, stepping around me past Braxton and Barley’s graves. I watched him walk about ten feet near another cluster of graves, and then he lowered his flowers in front of another tombstone. Watching his back as his hands slipped into the pockets of his jeans, I exhaled.
“You wanna know the truth about why lilies are my favorite flowers?” He turned my way, seemingly aware that I was inching closer and closer to Samantha’s grave.
“They were hers,” he smiled, nodding toward her tombstone.
“She used to say, ‘consider the lilies, Levi. When you want to give up and you don’t think anyone cares… consider the lilies. They toil not… they spin not…’” He chuckled as he spoke in a high octave, indicative of what her voice probably sounded like. I could see the tears springing up in the corner of his eyes.
“All we can do is try our best while we’re here, Coral. If we’re demanding perfection from ourselves, we’ll always fall short. If we spend our days worrying about what we can’t control, we’ll miss out on living.” My chest heaved in and out at the audacity of his forgiveness, as if he didn’t understand that I didn’t deserve kindness, let alone his scriptural references designed to let me off the hook.
“What happened was tragic. Losing your child is tragic…born or unborn…”
“It wasn’t fair to you—”
“Tell me, what you did that was so bad you feel like you deserved this?”
His question halted me in my banter.
“I didn’t deserve this.”
“So, can’t it be that? The Lord allowed something to happen that you didn’t deserve. And you can either choose to submit to His authority or defy that He is Lord. That He has every right to take who he wants, when he wants. Braxton, Barley, and Samantha were only ours temporarily,” he stressed.
“How are you so fine, Levi? How can you even go on? I feel like I can’t even breathe.”
This time, he turned all the way toward me, and I stood firmly planted as he closed most of the distance that still separated us.
“I’m not fine,” he pleaded. “It’s true that my heart shatters every time I enter the house we worked so hard to purchase and she’s not here to enjoy living in it. Every time I walk into that nursery that we spent so much time preparing for the baby we hadn’t even got the chance to announce we were having, I hurt.” My eyes widened as I realized what he was implying. Samantha had been pregnant when Braxton ran into her head-on.
“The pieces of my heart are still everywhere, Coral. But, I choose to trust in His word. That He is a healer. I choose to have faith that one day, he’ll heal this broken heart…and yours. You have to have faith.” Instead of letting my eyes break from the glare he had me locked under, I let his words sink into my bloodstream and considered the lilies. They toil not…they spin not.
Was my lack of faith holding me back from healing?
My brows were furrowed as I worked through it all in my head, and nothing but the sound of Levi’s chuckling could pull me from my own mental toiling. Looking up at him, the corners of his mouth being turned up didn’t irritate me like it had earlier. Instead, it made me curious.
“Ya know, I’m convinced. God has a sense of humor,” Levi continuously laughed, folding his thick arms across his chest. “Why do you say that?”
“Well, lately I’ve been thinking I don’t know anyone who can even relate to the kind of pain I’ve been in. Then you waltz in with your mysteriousness. Being all rude and stuff. Refusing to even take a free vase that I knew you wanted. So, I found myself wondering just who this crazy lady is, and why in the world she needs flowers. Imagine my surprise to find out that crazy lady is the very kind of friend I’ve been praying for. And your story is nothing like I imagined it.” He shook his head, the baritone of his humor spilling even faster. Exhaling, my shoulders relaxed, just as the night lights in the cemetery popped on. It seemed I’d breathed out the edge of my despair and I felt slightly lighter.
So, he thought I was crazy? And mysterious?
“What kind of story did you imagine I had?” My own remnants of a smile crept through, although I hadn’t allowed myself to even consider a smile in almost 180 days.
“The only way I’ll tell you…is if you agree to dinner with me tonight. How about that?” It took only a moment for me to register whether or not he’d really asked me out. At a time like this. With me looking like this. With me just minutes away from almost blowing out my brains.
“Something simple, Coral. No strings attached. Just two newfound friends to encourage one another through our current reality.” Raising his shoulders and his hands to insinuate that neither of us had anything to lose, I scoffed.
“Uh…” Shaking my head, I let my frown lead the answer that was slipping from the forefront of my mental. The only answer that made sense. The only one I should’ve been saying, considering the fact I was in no state to be having dinner with some handsome stranger. Especially one who I knew had seemed to make it his personal mission to make me smile. Yet the words I thought I was going to say weren’t the ones that came out.
“Sure. Dinner sounds like a great idea.”
And when I spoke them, they didn’t sound as bad as I’d imagined they would. In fact, they sounded right on time. Just as Levi was. Right on time.