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Perilous Blooms

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy from Harper Voyager. She's a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

I had almost become accustomed to the stench of sickness, horrible as it was, but I could never accept the sight of my small granddaughter perched bedside as she clutched her mother's limp hand. Nezra's brow was furrowed, eyes squinted shut as her lips mouthed breathy words.
"Nezra?" I set clean laundry at the end of the bed. "What are you doing?"
"I'm making Mama all better." Her gaze was serious far beyond her five years. "I know I can. I feel like I can."
No, no, no. Not this. Not now. Memories of my mother flashed through my mind. I glanced toward the window as if the Syndicate's drones leered through the glass. Nothing was there.
"Nez. Your mother is dying. Remember what the physician said." I kept my voice calm. The medical bot had already registered Pella's health status with the local authorities. Our residence had already been pinged with offers from three funeral homes. Everyone expected Pella to die. Neighbors had already brought flowers and casseroles.
I didn't want to lose my only child, but I knew better than to wish for a miracle.
I blinked back tears and looked at the flowers at bedside. The kind gift from a neighbor hadn't been watered in days. Rose stems slumped over the top of the vase, petals limp.
"But I feel something when I hold Mama's hand, like I'm as hot as a sun."
"You can't talk like that." I couldn't help but whisper as I crouched beside her. "What happens to people who can heal with a touch, or read thoughts, or float objects around?"
She didn't know anything about her great-grandmother, but she'd heard stories about other people around the ghetto. I made sure of it.
Tears welled in her eyes. "The Syndicate takes them and they go off world and they maybe die in the war."
"The Syndicate takes them," I echoed as a tram rattled above us. Two rose petals fluttered to the table. "And they never ever see their families again." I hated scaring her during this already awful time, but I needed her to know the truth. She couldn't even pretend to have power.
My mother had hidden her abilities until age thirty-five. I last saw her when I was nine. I had never developed abilities--nor had Pella--but like Nezra, I'd yearned for that healing touch sometimes.
Looking at Pella, dying, I still did, but I knew my yearning was in vain.
I stroked Pella's sweaty hand. Her fever felt unchanged. She hadn't even been able to speak for a day. Nezra's desperation had no result. Was that good or bad?
"I don't want Mama to.., I can't...." A sob choked Nezra.
"Just be with her, Nez. That's what she needs right now." I cringed, knees aching as I stood. She and I were both too young for this conversation. We'd always be too young.
She nodded, leaning forward to prop her chin against the bed. Her brow scrunched again, resuming the same intent pose as before.
I should have told her to stop again. I hadn't the heart.
I returned to find her asleep a short while later. Back aching, I carried her to bed then claimed her spot beside Pella.
That's when I smelled the roses.
Their stems stood green and straight, petals a defiant red. I sucked in a breath and turned to Pella. She stared at me with bloodshot eyes.
"Oh Pella. Are you--"
"I'm still dying. She's too young, weak... to be able to save me. I think she bought me a little more time. That's all." Pella didn't look relieved. She looked terrified. She knew about my mother. She knew what this meant.
"Could you hear us talking?" I whispered.
"Yes. You got to keep her safe, Mama. I'm sorry. I'm sorry it's all on you."
"I'll do everything I can. I won't let them take her. I'll tell her what I know about my mother, after, after you...."
"Let her grieve. Get a little older, if it's safe to wait. I don't want her to blame herself for me... that she couldn't...."
"I know. Don't worry about that. I'll take care of her."
"I know you will." Pella's smile wobbled. Another tram caused the walls to shiver. This time, no rose petals fell. "I'm getting weaker. Worse. Can you wake her? I want to talk to her. While I can."
I shook Nezra awake. It took some force; her healing had taken a lot out of her. That evoked new worries that I couldn't show.
"Mama's awake," I said to Nezra. Hope bloomed in her eyes. "She's fading fast. She wants to tell you good-bye."
Her hope withered. "I need to--" She flipped the covers back and then flopped over. "I feel all rubbery, Grandma."
"You're just tired," I said, hating the lie. I carried her back to her mother. Once they were nestled together, Nezra sobbing against Pella's shoulder, I grabbed the vase and left the room.
I tore the petals from the stem and shoved them down the disposal unit, then leaned against the wall, heaving from grief and fear. There. The evidence was gone--for now. There would be more proof of Nezra's emerging skill, but not today. Today, my daughter needed to continue dying so that her daughter could live and stay free.
I returned to the room so steeped with decay and sweat. Pella already looked worse, her lips barely able to move.
The terribleness of that thought almost drove me to my knees, wailing, but I kept myself upright. I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed. Nez needed me.
I brushed tears from my cheeks. Floral sweetness lingered on my hands like a stain.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

Author Comments

"Perilous Blooms" emerged from a Codex flash fiction contest. One of the prompts involved going through random Wikiquotes. That brought me to Thomas Carlyle saying, "The weakest living creature, by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish something...." Me being me, my mind gravitated toward a young healer, and the plot evolved from there.

- Beth Cato
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