A Bouquet of Tulips
Lani pushed my front door open, her blue eyes laughing at me. “You’re up late, Darrin.”
I was sitting in the kitchen, reading the newspaper headlines over a cup of strong tea. The sun was just starting to shed its light on the trees surrounding my home, and the clock on the mantle told me it wasn’t quite six in the morning.
“The other option is you’re up extremely early.”
The Blue Lutari laughed and danced into my kitchen, dropping a bunch of flowers on the table. “You’re so funny, Dar. Look at these- they’re tulips. I found them in the field behind McGoven’s farm.”
I reached out and stroked the petals of one of the flowers. It was an intense ruby red, highlighted by the deep, crisp green of the leaves. “They’re pretty.”
“Aren’t they just,” Lani said, and opened my cupboard.
“Like you,” I added under my breath. Lani didn’t hear.
“Oh, good, you have milk. How about pancakes for breakfast?”
- - -
I’ve lived most of my life as a loner. My first memories are of hiding in bushes and trees, or spending the entire day in a deserted barn, and listening to my parents search for me, the shy black Eyrie. I was called a problem child, but I never really cared for what civilization thought of me. I lived for quiet, for nature, and for thought.
As soon as I was old enough to support myself I bought a rundown farm in the country. That was when I met Lani; she was the checkout girl at the local hardware store. She looked fresh and happy, and wore flowers in her hair. I felt a blush creep over my face as I paid for the boxes of tools and timber.
“You’re new,” she said as she handed me my receipt. “It’s nice to meet you...?”
“Darrin,” I mumbled.
“I’m Lanelle. Call me Lani.”
And that was it. Over the next week, as I made renovations on the collapsing building that was now my home, the small Lutari’s face kept popping into my mind. I felt intrigued by her- by her open friendliness and cheerfulness. That was why, when I discovered I was out of bolts, I didn’t put them on my ‘get next time’ list, but set out for town. The hardware store was packed, and I was sure she would have forgotten me. But when I got to the checkout, a smile lit up her face.
“Hey, Darrin, how’s it going?”
I don’t know how it happened, but over the next few months we became friends.
That was over four years ago now. I’d never been good at socializing, but she made it so easy- so natural- even though we were polar opposites. She, the perpetually happy optimist; the social butterfly. Me, the shy, reclusive snail, hiding in his shell. Somehow it worked, though, and it wasn’t long before she came over almost every morning before work.
Like the moon changes the ocean tides, I felt Lani’s friendship shape me. I cut my hair shorter, I bought better-fitting clothes and I renovated and cleaned my home to within an inch of its life. The biggest sacrifice I made was attempting to get up at the same time as my new friend.
Lani, happy and untroubled, was a hard worker with big ambitions. She got up early, she went to bed late, and she put an immense amount of effort into both her job and her studies. I knew, from our frequent pre-breakfast chats, that she hoped to be accepted into the prestigious Stargold University of Brightvale, which she had applied to just a week previously.
I had very little doubt that she would make it; Lani wasn’t just smart, she was brilliant.
As I watched her set the table and accidentally burn the pancakes, the selfish part of me wished she would stay.
- - -
That night was humid and hot. I tossed and turned in my sleep, images of dying flowers and sinister cloaked figures dancing through my mind. I was jolted awake by what I thought was the front door opening, but a glance at the clock showed me it was only four-thirty in the morning. I fell back into a daze, and probably wouldn’t have registered the sound of feet pounding up the stairs if my door hadn’t been thrown open a second later.
I jolted awake, terrified out of my wits, and almost fell out of my bed. “Wha...?”
The light flicked on, revealing a disorderly, windblown Lani standing in my door. “Darrin, get up! Get up, I say! You won’t believe what’s happened!”
I jumped out of bed and tried to blink the sleep out of my eyes. “What’s wrong?”
The Lutari did a pirouette in my doorway, giggling hysterically. “You won’t believe it. The letter just came- from Brightvale- I’ve been accepted into the Stargold University.”
I’d been trying to grope for the jacket which I always draped over the chair next to my bed, but stopped as her words penetrated the fog of my brain. “What?”
“The university accepted me!” I could see the pure joy, the thrill, shining in her face.
My hands dropped to my side as I went weak with shock. “So soon?”
Lani laughed, too happy to notice my distress. “I know! I can move onto campus in a few days- Darrin, isn’t it fantastic? Hurry and get dressed, I’ll make you breakfast.” She spun around again, and disappeared out of my door. I could hear her dashing down the stairs and into the kitchen.
I stood there, shocked beyond belief. “So soon?” I repeated uselessly. I’d expected the application to take another few months, at least, before it was processed. I tried to rub the sleep out of my eyes as I began pacing.
Pots began to clunk together downstairs as Lani prepared breakfast. I took my time getting changed out of my pyjamas; the last thing I needed was to upset her by showing how depressed I was. I paused in front of my mirror and tried smiling.
“Breakfast!” Lani hollered from the kitchen. I let the smile drop from my face and shuffled down the stairs.
The first thing I saw was the bunch of tulips. I’d put them in a vase of water the day before, and left them on the table. They were blooming, and the vibrant colours added life to the otherwise dull setting.
The next thing I saw was Lani, dishing scrambled eggs and bacon onto two plates. Her face shone with ecstasy and excitement.
I realized then that Lani had always been meant for something greater. Something greater than anything I could amount to. There was no way I could stop her from fulfilling her dreams- she would go to college, she would graduate, and she would move to some exotic, far-off country like Shenkuu and become a doctor or scientist or lawyer or whatever. And I would stay here, in my rustic country farmhouse, alone once again.
Lani finished serving up and slipped into her chair opposite me. I sat down slowly and composed my face into a smile. “This is fantastic, Lani. I knew you could do it.”
She laughed, clapped her hands and leaned back in her chair. “I still can’t believe it, though. This is everything I’ve been working for, Dar. It’s so incredible. It’s- it’s-” she trailed off and waved her arms around expressively. Her mood was infectious and I found my smile came more easily.
I paused and then asked the unavoidable. “When will you be leaving?”
“Oh, within a couple of days, I think.”
That was a blow. I picked up my fork and speared a piece of bacon to disguise my feelings. “That’s fast.”
“Yeah, but I think it’s best.” Lani turned and stared out of my window dreamily. The sun hadn’t quite risen yet, and all that could be seen were the silhouettes of trees rising over the hill. “The campus has accommodation onsite. I can move in and sort myself out before the lessons start. Give myself a bit of time to adjust.”
I lowered my head and turned it slightly to the side, hoping the darkness of the room would disguise my emotions. I couldn’t let her see me like that, not when she was so happy.
“I can finally move out of here,” Lani continued. “I can get a career away from Meridell.” She turned and noticed me. “Dar? Is something wrong?”
I tried to smile and look her in the eye. “What? No. Nothing. This is just... really sudden.”
Realization flooded over her face, and the happy sparkle disappeared. “You don’t want me to go.”
I frowned and looked away. “No. This is great, Lani. I’m really happy for you.” I focussed my eyes on the tulips, drinking in the sight of their contrasting colours. So beautiful and so fresh, and so full of life.
Lani said nothing. I didn’t meet her eyes, but I could sense the confusion and discontent in them. “I’m really happy for you,” I repeated uselessly.
“But you don’t want me to go.”
I laughed weakly. “Of course I’ll miss you. You’re my only friend, Lani.”
She picked up her fork and poked the egg for a minute before dropping it again. “I’ll still be your friend. Brightvale isn’t that far away, Darrin. We’ll keep in touch- I’ll write letters every week.”
“Yeah,” I said, still not meeting her eye. I hated writing letters, and I suspected Lani was more of a face-to-face person, too. Communication by that way would dwindle and dissolve into nothing within a few weeks. And Brightvale may as well be on the other side of the planet for all the good it did me; I despised travel a thousand times more than writing. She knew all this as well as I did.
I looked up, finally facing her, and smiled softly. “No, don’t worry. You go.”
I’m sure she saw the pain in my eyes. She blinked back tears as she grasped at straws. “You could maybe come and live in Brightvale...?”
It went without saying that that was impossible. I hated cities more than I hated writing letters and travel.
Lani got up and walked to the window. I could see her silhouetted against the faintly illuminated trees. “I don’t want you to be unhappy,” she whispered. “I don’t want you to be lonely.”
I tried to smile. “I won’t be.”
“Do you have any other friends here?”
I paused to think. “...no.”
She turned back to look at me and smiled wryly. “You’re a pathetic excuse for a pet, you know that, don’t you?”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it; Lani was still Lani.
The blue Lutari ran her eyes over the small kitchen and sighed.
She looked at me and smiled, and I knew she’d made a decision.
“You know what, Dar, I think I’ll leave it for another year.”
I stared at her. “What?”
“University can wait. I mean, it’s probably better to stay here a bit longer- earn a bit of extra money at that shop- before I head off to start a new life, you know?”
I feel a wave of disgust at myself for pushing Lani into this. “No. Stop. No. You’re going to go-”
“I don’t have to,” she snapped. “It’s my life, it’s my choice. I’ll think I’ll stay for now. Just for another year.”
“That’s stupid, Lani. This is your dream- it’s within your grasp- I’m not going to let you give it up like this, not for me.”
“Who said it was for you?” We both knew she was bluffing. “I can always wait a year.”
“There’s no guarantee you’ll get in again, though.”
Looking upset, Lani turned back to the window. “I got in this time, didn’t I? I can’t see why it would be any harder second time around.”
I couldn’t believe she was doing this. I couldn’t believe I’d made her think she had to stay. “This is so unlike you,” I growled.
The sun finally topped the ridge of trees and bathed Lani’s face in light as she swung back to face me. “It’s like something a friend would do,” she said. “I hope I’ve been a good friend to you.”
“I’m not going to let you do this, Lani!”
The small Lutari sighed and let her head droop. “How about we think on it? I’ve got to go now. I’ll... I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”
She smiled faintly. “Bye, Dar.”
The door clicked closed and I dropped into my seat, conflicted beyond belief.
- - -
As she’d promised, Lani came back the next morning. I stood at my kitchen window and watched as she walked over the field that separated my house from the town. She looked determined, and I knew she was resolved to stay. I sighed and let my head rest on the glass.
It wasn’t long before Lani pushed the door open and walked in. She smiled brightly at me, and I could almost believe that she genuinely wanted to stay. “Morning, Dar! What do you want for breakfast?”
“Nothing. I want you to leave me alone.” My tone was icy cold, and the small blue Lutari froze in the doorway.
“I’m sick and tired of you barging into my house like you own it,” I snapped. “Can’t you respect my privacy?”
I saw the hurt flash across her face. “But... I thought...”
I rolled my eyes and turned away from her. “Stop assuming things, okay, kid? I’m sick of having to pretend I like having you around. If you’re not going to that stupid university of yours, then I want you to stop bothering me.”
She was trembling with grief and anger. “This is so unlike you, Dar.”
I snorted. “No, it’s very much like me. And now I’m telling you- get out and leave me alone.”
“Fine.” Tears began to spatter down her cheeks. “Fine.”
She turned and fled, slamming the door shut behind her.
The tulips were still sitting on the table, and I approached them. Their colour was starting to fade from the tips, and the petals were drooping. I raised a hand to smash the vase on the ground, but stopped myself, and caressed the flowers instead.
Lani and I didn’t talk again.
It was two days later that I sat at my window and watched the carriage lumber down the lane which ran from the town, and between the field and the woods. It was the carriage which I knew would be carrying Lani to the university. As I sat, alone, and watched it, I knew that I had caused her pain. But I couldn’t have let her stay- not when she had such a bright future ahead of her.
She would study hard, because that was what she did, and she would make new friends, because she could. I hoped she would soon forget I even existed.
The carriage moved out of sight, and I turned from the window. Sitting on the table of my kitchen was the simple vase which held the bunch of tulips. Their colour had gone completely now, and they sagged, limp and depressed, decaying even as I watched them. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out, though.
They were a last reminder of the sweetest friend I had ever had.