There was something about the cell that smelled like despair. It was a thick smell, heavy and oppressive in its saturation of the air and unyielding. James couldn’t be sure what the precise source of the smell was. It could have been the wetness of the place. The mold. The narrow shafts of firelight that burnt the shirking creatures growing in the wall cracks. James kept telling himself it wasn’t that bad, not really. It was a lie, a lie that most others would quickly and furiously refute, but it was necessary that he not mind the cell and its particular failings, so James told himself it wasn’t that bad. There was a roof to keep the rain off and three lukewarm meals a day, which was more than he could say about his life before, and James found ways to entertain himself. It was better than dying.
The door at the top of the stairs clanged opened and rattled the loose bricks. “Quit shufflin’ yer feet, you little whore,” snarled the guard. “Go on… get!” There was a heavy thud. James sat up, all attempts at sleep abandoned.
The light from the door dimmed, blocked out by the guard, and his eyes had to readjust before he could make out more than the outline on the ground. A small form lifted itself from the floor, hair tumbling around her shoulders. Round eyes, a small mouth. The girl looked up at him but didn’t really see him, the fire in her eyes burned everything else out. The guard took the last step onto the floor behind her, and she moved.
In a blur, she snapped out her legs and locked them around the guard’s knee. She rolled to her feet, now looking down at him as he kneeled before her. With a jerk of her chin, she turned, dismissing him. A harsh, guttural sound echoed through the room, like the growl of a feral thing, and the guard spun to glare at him. A laugh, James realized. It had been months since he’d laughed.
The stones rattled again and by the time the guard whirled around, fist raised, the girl was tucked safely in the cell next to James’. With a growl, the man locked the door and stomped upstairs, slamming and locking that door, too.
Only moonlight coming though a narrow window on the other end of the dungeon offered the pair any light. They studied each other quietly until she flicked her chin and turned away, her yellow dress flaring. Knowing he’d been dismissed, James turned back to the bed and settled into the thin straw mattress, just as sleepless as he had been before.
Three days. He eyed the plate of food that the girl had left untouched. Again. At this rate, she was going to kill herself. His gaze slid to her. She had her back to him, like she always did. He hadn’t so much as seen her budge.
“You should eat,” he suggested between sit-ups.
Nothing. He supposed he wasn’t surprised.
“At least pass it over here, no sense letting it go to waste.”
She didn’t budge. He sighed, did another two sit-ups. “Look, I’m sure there’s somebody out there fighting for you. Someone who wants you to come home ok. Even I’ve got someone, and I haven’t made the whole ‘love’ thing easy. She was beautiful. And she never gave up. She was beautiful. Looking at her, you’d think raising me was easy as pie. When she got sick…” He interrupted himself with a couple more sit-ups. “I had to take care of her medical bills, feed myself. I landed myself here. I paid ahead for her treatments but it will be out soon. I just hope someone will look out for her. They can’t just let her die, right?” He lay back and stared at the ceiling. “I mean, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. I was awful to her. Real rat of a kid, always in trouble, ungrateful, making her day harder than it needed to be.”
“You’re certainly making mine harder.”
James looked at the unmoving spot of yellow, “What’s your name?”
Nothing. He looked back at he wall. “Eventually I became a model son, a model student, hell, even a model citizen mostly. Do you know why?” She didn’t ask. “No matter what kind of hell I raised, she never ran out of love, joy, or forgiveness. Never once did she make me feel as if I couldn’t fix what I’d done. Never once did she speak to me in anger. One day I let the raccoons in. They ate everything, and destroyed what they couldn’t eat. Months of work for her, destroyed in an hour. I laughed. She just gave me a broom and said, ‘You know what always makes cleaning better? A game. We’ll get it all tidied up, you and me, together. We’re a team.’ When she tucked me into bed I was already half asleep, totally exhausted but happier than I’d been in a while. ‘It takes a lot more to build something than to break it,’ she told me, ‘But building is a lot more rewarding. Don’t forget that, Bumblebee.’” James laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. “She called me Bumblebee. She said I had an awful sting but could make the world a little sweeter.” He looked back at the blob of yellow that still hadn’t moved. “You’re like a sunflower, you know? Not the most cheerful in the garden, but hopeful, promising, reaching for the open sky. You’re the only thing here that promises any amount of hope.”
He got to his feet. The moon shone through the window on the other side of the room. He could see it perfectly if he leaned over a bit. It was full. “Time for bed,” he said, and lifted the thin, grimy sheet.
Twenty minutes later, when his snores echoed through the room, there was a whisper, “I wish I had had a mother like that.”
James woke in the morning to the thud at the top of the stairs that announced breakfast. He looked around blearily, blinded by something glaringly white. Her plate, he realized. Licked clean, it shone like the full moon from the night before.
“Well, well,” the man chuckled. He slid a plate to James. “The bitch is alive.”
James glared at the guard, stretched, and sidled over to the plate. “Grits again? I thought I requested the premium meal plan.”
Used to ignoring James, the guard just slid the girl her food and made his exit.
“Glad you took my advice,” James began, “Though I can’t predict how your body will respond to this slop…”
“I’m really not that chatty, ok? Eat your breakfast and do your meditation.”
He grinned, “You’ve been awake all this time?”
“Not all of it. Enough to decipher your routine.”
“Well, I think I’ll try starting my days with a question, instead of meditation.” He thought for a moment, while the girl groaned. “Ok, Sunflower, here goes. What’s the one thing people always misunderstood about you?”
“Well you won’t tell me your real name.”
She barked a laugh. “Everyone always thought I was quiet.”
“I hate to break it to you, but you are.”
“No, I mean, everyone always thought that’s just the way I was. That I was always that way. No one ever asked me why.”
James slurped on his spoon. “Everyone always thinks I have grey eyes.”
“What? Your eyes are blue.”
The corner of his mouth puckered, “You noticed that?”
“How could anyone miss it? They’re like the sky on a cloudless day.”
James looked at his feet. “I guess no one ever thought it worth noticing.”
“Well, they’re blue.”
“So why are you so quiet?”
There was a long silence in the room. Long enough that the day passed without further conversation.
The following days passed in similar fashion, with the conversations lasting longer each day. They had trickled over into a kind of banter that ebbed and flowed.
“Where is your favorite place?”
“There’s a tree by the river near my house. I used to climb to the highest branch to be alone.”
James smiled, picturing the scene. “Mine’s a place I found in the forest. An old house by a pond, I fixed it up and made it mine. Everything I’ve got is there.”
Another day they carefully extracted the tales of each other’s greatest regret; Sunflower had much more success than James.
“Leaving someone behind,” was all she said, in a whisper that got stuck in the cracks in the walls.
“Do you believe in second chances?” James asked, his eyes tracing the now familiar curves of Sunflower’s face. She bit her lip.
“Why? Everyone messes up now and again. You don’t think people change?”
“I think that people need to pay for the harm they cause. They can change, but that doesn’t mean they can be forgiven.”
James picked at a scab on his thumb while he gathered his thoughts and courage.
“I killed someone. The man who killed my father. Do I deserve to pay? Should I never be forgiven?”
“It was he who paid.”
“No!” James beat his fist against his breakfast plate; the clay shivered against the stone floor before it split three ways. “He had a family! A little girl ten years old in my class at school. I comforted her, having just washed the blood off my hands.”
“You were ten?”
“Yes.” It was a day he would never forget. It was the day he’d discovered his power…. A power that would do him more harm than good.
“And you were never caught?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m paying the price. But having paid it, can’t I be forgiven?”
“Of course you can.” Her brown eyes were as wide as saucers. “I didn’t mean you.”
“Then who did you mean?”
Before he could blink, she’d turned her back on him again. He knew what that meant. He’d seen the symptoms in himself. It was only after months alone in a cell that he’d begun to change his mind about second chances.
The only person she didn’t think deserved a second chance was herself.
“You don’t seem at all troubled to be in here,” Sunflower observed one afternoon. “Most people would be worried about execution, or getting home, or trying to escape. Lord knows I’m ready to scream. But you seem so relaxed, as if you’re content to be here forever.”
“It’s better than the alternative.”
“What’s the alternative?”
“I’m afraid I would do something rash and get myself killed.”
“Your chances aren’t much better sitting here.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I’ll explain if you do. Tell me what you blame yourself so harshly for.”
She pouted. “Fine. You first.”
“I don’t think so, sweetheart.”
Sunflower sniffed. “Fine. If you must know… It’s my sister. I left her. I broke her, and I left her.”
“What do you mean?” James prodded, quietly.
Her lip quivered. “She’s ten. She doesn’t remember our parents, our family home, but I do. I’ve been taking care of her for almost her entire life. Last year… we were on the run, climbing a wall. I… I dropped her. The bone didn’t heal properly…. I promised her I wouldn’t leave her side. Not ever. But I did. It was stupid. I snuck away from her in the night and tried to pocket some chocolate from the stand we’d seen at the market. It was meant to be a surprise for her birthday. It should have been simple. No one should have noticed… but I got caught. The stand apparently belongs to the king’s daughter. Some deal they made so she would stay put. And here I am, while she wonders what happened to me. Your turn.”
“I have a condition. An… ability, I guess. It was great for a while, but there’s a cost. Now I have the heart of a seventy-year-old man. I try to keep it healthy, but there’s only so much I can do… I’ve already had one heart attack. My ability could help me escape, but there’s a good chance I wouldn’t survive it.”
“Lord, I can’t…. Lots of people live to a ripe old age these days. You’ll be alright. We’ll get out of here. Together,” she smiled at him as she kneeled near him and wrapped her hands around the bars. “What’s this ‘ability’ of yours?”
James paused mid-breath, staring hard at the door. A guard blocked the doorway, and began to march toward them with clumsy, lumbering steps.
“Here fer the bitch.” He spat in her general direction.
“Why?” James asked, standing.
“We’re gonna have a double hangin’.” The man bared his teeth, brown and chipped.
“Who is the second?” Sunflower whispered.
The man looked her way with glinting eyes, “We found a girl hidin’ outside o’ town. Spittin’ image o’ her mother. Lady was a secretary to ‘is court, long time ago, and took a fair bit o’ gold. King knew ‘er right off. Turns out she’s yer sister.”
The noise that ripped itself from Sunflower’s breast was long, low, and shattered as it touched the air. Like a howl it called, like a crow it keened, and like a bell it cried. James’ mind was made up. That sound was more painful than the heart attack, than any thought of death.
Sunflower had sagged against the bars; she clung to them like her last hope. He moved closer to her and wrapped his hands around hers.
“Two criminals in love. That’s right funny, that is. Say yer goodbyes, kiddies.”
James dipped his head, pressed his lips to her forehead, and concentrated. He imagined Sunflower with a baby as a little girl. He pictured her nursing her sister’s broken legs. He saw her clutching her sister tight when they were reunited.
The first clue that they’d moved was the sudden sunlight that turned his eyelids red. The second was Sunflower jerking her head up in shock.
“Ow!” he glared at her, clutching his nose. She rose to her feet and spun around, her eyes wide. A sharp sob burst from her throat. “Lil! Lily, oh, my darling!” James smiled as the small, slumped figure against a post looked up. The girl’s eyes lit up. James studied the space. They were in the courtyard, vulnerable.
“Quick, get her untied.” Sunflower was already halfway done, in moments she lifted Lily to her feet. He started toward them when something gripped his chest.
He grunted, and fell to his knees. “Get over here, both of you, quickly!”
“But, James, you can’t...” Sunflower murmured as she came to his side.
He grabbed both girls’ wrists, and shut his eyes. The red of his lids turned pink.
“What’s your name?”
He looked up into Sunflower’s big, brown eyes, hovering over him and bright with tears. She smiled. “It’s Rita. I’m Rita.”
“You’re safe here, Rita.” He felt as if he was falling, but he wasn’t sure where there was to go. All around him, the world was growing dark. “Is it night already?”
Rita clutched at his shirt, her hand shaking and lip trembling, as his eyes shut and a sigh of breath fell from his lips. She beat his chest, and frantically pressed her ear to his heart.
“We should find a doctor,” Lily murmured. “Maybe someone can help.”
Rita looked around, and smiled softly through her tears. There was the pond, and a little house, sloppily painted blue. James’s favorite place. “There aren’t any doctors near here. We’re alone.” She looked back down at the man with the young face and the old, wise heart. She leaned over to press her lips to his. “Thank you.”
A week later, Rita sat in a chair in a run down hospital room, her fingers picking at her yellow dress nervously.
“I’m going to take care of you, now,” she said, her voice faltering. The woman’s eyebrows furrowed with obvious question. “Your son gave his life to save mine and my sister’s. I buried him… under a tree by my house where I used to live. He asked me my favorite place once, and showed me his…. I wanted to show him mine.”
Tears ran through the cracks in the woman’s layered cement cheeks. Rita took the woman’s hand, and leaned in when she turned and pressed her lips to the younger girl’s cheek. “It was beautiful,” Rita told her, “I planted sunflowers all around him. A field of sunflowers, with bumblebees dancing in between them. Maybe one day, you and I can see it together.”