Before she leaves, her father gives her a folded piece of paper, presses money and medicine into her palms. In her other hand, she carries a jar of ashes. She gets in the car and honks twice.
The roads braid into thin, long highways. Transmission towers and oil wells push out squat houses and mowed lawns. A green sign welcomes her into Pennsylvania. Here, the air has never tasted salt.
The shop sign hangs by the last nail. Red paint blisters. Inside, two grandmas play Scrabble and drink Coke. At the back, someone has scrawled the menu onto a chalkboard. A young boy appears behind the counter. He looks nervous.
She takes two pies—one lemon, one peach—and a window seat. The apple cider enters her stomach first. The peach pie follows, sinking in her mouth. As she eats, she counts the number of cars that pass by (four) and how many have a dog sticking its head out the window, a pink tongue streaming in the wind (three). This is a tradition. By the fifth dog, she flags the boy over and asks him to please pack the pies to go.
She drives, passing an iron pillar that’s bitten orange-brown by rust. After the length of another Prince song, a forest of sunflowers flood the horizon, surging over the hilltops and beyond. They do not belong to anyone. No one knows how they became. They just exist. She parks on the grass, steps out. Last year, most of them reached her shoulders. This year, they brush the top of her head.
She brings the jar of ashes to the biggest sunflower she can find. It looms over the rest. Her knees bury into the soft, cool ground, and the flower’s shadow swallows her under the high noon sun. She scatters the ashes across the soil, one handful at a time. The jar slowly fades back to a translucent color, but the underside of her nails capture the dust-black residue.
She rises and walks through the sunflower forest. Whenever the wind stirs, sunlight slips through the petals. She breaks off a few of the flowers and gathers them in a bundle. Their faces are shrouded in dark mystery.
Back at the car, she sits on top of the roof. The metal burns her thighs, but the air is light with the hum of bees and beetles. She watches the flowers follow the curve of the sun. The way they turn away from their shadow.
Further inland, a thrift store arrows her eye. She veers into the empty parking lot. The store offers clothes, toys, plants, and funky instruments that twist and knot. In the book section, a giant sign says SALE, followed by three fat exclamation marks. Five for five dollars.
She begins sorting through the piles. Most have missing or torn covers. Some have Sharpie covering the text. Others have dog-eared pages. The nicest books are hardcovers. At the checkout, there’s only one cashier, and he’s a balding, pot-bellied man.
When she finally arrives, she places the five books, the box of lemon pie, and two sunflowers at the tombstone. They add up to a total of eight, a lucky number. Her father would be proud.
Touching the engraved name, she pauses. Her fingers trace the letters, drifting up and down. The hollows are smooth, like the curve of a ring. She takes out the folded paper from her back pocket and checks off the last few boxes one by one. Read a book. Eat pies. Sunflower Day. All written in her mother’s tight cursive.
As she smooths out the rest of the to-do list, something falls from underneath. She picks it up. It’s a pink prom ticket.
A boy had given her the ticket, a question hiding in the quirk of his mouth. Whip-smart and opposite in temperament, they had been friends for years. Only recently did something shift in his gaze. As the teacher rattled off derivative formulas, she drew a smiley face with a tongue sticking out.
Later, she was summoned to the guidance office where the news broke. She never cried. The doctors prescribed pills anyways. Her father muzzled himself. When she realized that prom landed on the same date as the tradition, she canceled. The boy understood.
She searches the post-it, then the list. She flips the sheet over, and it’s there in cursive letters. Prom dress shopping.
Her father picks up on the first ring. She opens her mouth, but there’s a fist in her throat. Her eyes are wet.
They don’t speak. What’s unspoken pierces through the silence like light.
Her father pulls up to the boy’s house. The pre-prom gathering should be ending now, but it’s not too late. She walks to the door and rings the bell. Waiting, she smooths the folds of her velvet dress. She found this gem at the thrift store on the way back. It’s a deep, rich red, the color of fresh plums, and it brings out her dark eyes.
The boy opens the door, dressed in a pair of sweatpants. When he sees her, he freezes. They stare at each other in honesty. She holds out a corsage for him. A yellow, black-eyed flower gleams.
Grace Q. Song is a Chinese-American writer from New York. Her poetry and fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Storm Cellar, Crab Creek Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Passages North, PANK, and elsewhere. A high school senior, she enjoys listening to Joe Hisaishi and old Russian waltzes.
Photography by: Francesco Gallarotti