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The rose lay limply in her lap. The petals stood out like crimson blood against the black silk of her skirt. Blood...nothing but blood fogged her memory for the past months. It had not been long ago since the accident, since every thought had been about blood. She wondered why she was still here while they were gone, taken from her. She lifted the rose up to her nose, but the wilted petals cascaded onto her lap and fell to the ground. She swallowed as a single tear ran down her pale cheek.
Off in the distance someone called her name, but she did not answer. She was not one for talking much these days. Her name was called again, but again there was no reply. She just wanted to be alone; everyone could just leave her alone for a while. She was tired of everyone coming by to offer their condolences. Could not anyone see that? She leaned against the cold stone wall and closed her eyes, trying to remember anything but blood.
A rustle in the hedge woke her form her reverie. She turned her head and saw him standing there, covered in leaves. He breathed raggedly, as if he had been running. “Everyone’s been looking for you.”
She looked down at the faded rose in her hand. “Let the look.” Her voice came barely above a whisper. “Let them look and know that they won’t find me until I’m ready.” She slumped even further down the garden wall, casting the rose away.
He sat down beside her, his best friend and childhood playmate. But now, to him, she had changed, she was different. He did not know if he knew her at all anymore. “Elise...” she started, but she broke him off.
She shifted away from him, standing up and dusting off her black skirts. “Not now, Alexander...Can’t you see that I just want to be left alone?!” Then she broke into a run, not even noticing the hindrance of her petticoats.
Deeper into the forest she ran until the golden canopy of treetops nearly blocked out the sun. She collapsed onto the forest floor and broke into strangled sobs. Once her crying ceased, she rolled onto her back and stared up at the lace patter of golden leaves against the stark blue sky. She closed her eyes and, for the first time in weeks, found a memory of a happier time, a time before they had gone.
Elise had been about seven or eight, a gangly little thing. A woman tended the garden while Elise ran in and out of the flowers. The roses and lilies were in full bloom, filling the garden with a fragrant aroma. A laugh broke through the peaceful silence of the garden. He had come home. It had been so long, or at least to the mind of a small child, since he had left. They were finally all together, happy and loving.
It was almost sunset before she remembered it was only a distant memory and this was the present. Reluctant to leave, Elise stood up and slowly made her way back to the manor. Returning by way of the back garden, she stopped by the place she had been only hours before. She had expected the see the rose stem and the petals still there, but they were not. She just shook her head and went inside.
It was a relief not to find any visitors or anyone at all. Alexander was no where to be seen and neither was her aunt. Skirting the main rooms, she made her way up to her own bedroom. At last she was free to be by herself in silence, at least for the time being. She had a fitful night, again.
“I’ve looked everywhere, but I can’t find her anywhere. There’s no sign of her.” Voices floated up from the front parlor. “Where do you think she might be?”
Elise stopped on the stairs and pressed herself against the papered wall. She breathed shallowly as the voices continued. “So you have not seen her since she ran off yesterday afternoon?” It was her aunt.
“No, ma’am, I have not.” The second voice she recognized as Alexander’s. “As I have said, I have looked, but Elise is nowhere to be found.”
Keep on looking and leave me be, Elise thought. Slowly she inched her way down the staircase, careful not to make a sound. Finally she made it to the bottom. She paused near the door to the sitting room. Alexander and her aunt her still there, talking about her.
“She hasn’t been the same, poor child.” Her aunt sighed.
“Of course she isn’t the same,” came Alexander’s reply. “They’re dead.”
Their bodies were never found, thought Elise as she turned and moved as quietly as she could through the manor. Once outside in the garden she slipped on her shoes and ran toward the spot where Alexander had discovered her hiding yesterday.
She had expected to see the rose to not be there, as she had discovered the night before. However, in the place where she had thrown the flower away, there was a new rose, in full bloom. Its crimson petals were neither wilted or faded and as bright as fresh blood. How strange, she thought, it was not the season for roses. The other rose had been the last rose from the bouquet of sixteen given to her by them weeks ago, during early autumn. It was too cold for roses, or any other flower for the matter, to bloom. Elise bent down and picked up the rose. Who could have put this rose here? Only they knew the meaning of the roses – a rose per year of life and year of love – and Alexander had seen her with the wilted rose the day before. But both were impossible. It was impossible, she insisted to herself. But she knew that this rose had something to do with them.
She took a look back at the manor. It stood erect, like a sentry guarding the forest. Bleak, gray stone was what had become of the once glittering country manor she once knew. She shook her head, dismissing the thought of how cold and listless her home had become. Rose in hand, she headed into the woods.
The ravine was just as she remembered it: straight cliffs, jagged stone, deep recesses. She stood on the edge, looking down at the swiftly moving river below. This is where it had happened. There were still blood stains on the pale rock. So much blood...Elise could not tell what was hers and what was theirs. She lifted her sleeve past her elbow to reveal a jagged white scar, just as jagged and white as the stones that surrounded her.
It was a wonder how she survived the fall; the ravine was so deep with dagger-like stones. In fact, it was a wonder at all that anyone had found her at all. Everyone asked her what had happened, but she could only remember the blood, blood as red as the rose she was now holding. Her neighbors seared for their bodies, going up and down the ravine and scavenging the surrounding area. No one knew what happened to them, if they had died or disappeared. But most had suspected that they had died. Her neighbors even held a funeral for them, although against Elise’s adamant protest. It just after the funeral that Elise withdrew herself, shunning the outside world, refusing to speak to anyone.
The wind whipped around Elise, tearing her hair from its braid. A burst of pain and remembrance flashed through her mind. She stumbled away from the edge of the ravine and fell onto her back. She had to get out of here, she thought, hot tears brimming her eyes. She rolled over and pushed herself up, breaking into a sprint. She left the rose by the brink of the ravine, crushed from her fall and forgotten.
“Where have you been?!” Alexander rushed to her as he saw her standing in the door, enfolding her in a smothering embrace. “We’ve been looking for you.”
Elise looked away from her friend. She saw her aunt eyeing her. Her clothes had been torn and her hair was full of leaves and twigs. Dirt smudged her face. “Elise,” her aunt said smoothly. “We haven’t seen you since yesterday morning. Where have you been?”
“Nowhere and everywhere,” was Elise’s reply. “I don’t even know what’s going on.” She shrugged out of Alexander’s grasp and ran up the stairs to her room. She collapsed on her bed, still in her ragged clothing, and cried herself to sleep, head buried in the pillow.
The rose lay on her bedside table. Its petal were crushed and sullied, yet still as scarlet as freshly drawn blood. It was the rose she had left behind near the ravine. It was the first thing Elise saw the next morning. She closed her eyes and willed the rose away, yet it still was there. She knew she was not imagining things. The rose reminded her too much about yesterday at the ravine. Yesterday had been...it had been a mistake. If she had not gone to the ravine, she would not have had to remember everything about the accident. She would not have to remember her last time with them, her last time she saw them. This rose, she was certain, had something to do with them. It could not have gotten here on its own.
A knock came at the door. “Elise?” She did not reply. “Elise, are you in there?” The door was opened tentatively and Alexander’s face appeared. “I’m glad you’re still here and that you haven’t disappeared like yesterday.”
Elise sat up and shot Alexander a cold glare. “Do not bring up yesterday,” she said in a chilling voice. “I do not need to be reminded...Can you not see, Alexander, that I have suffered enough already?”
“Don’t you want to talk or anything?”
“I will when I am ready, but not now. How can you, of all people, not see that I just need to be alone?”
“If it is time to be alone, then I shall grant you that, but Elise, you cannot go on like this forever. You must move on. I know you loved them, but they’re gone, dead.” Alexander turned and closed the door.
“Their bodies were never found,” was the last thing she said to him. “They were never found.” She lay back down.
It was near noon when Elise emerged from the solace of her hermitage. She nodded, but did not say anything, to her aunt as she passed through the parlor on her way to the garden. Her aunt’s gaze followed her until she was gone. She had the rose hidden within the folds of her skirt.
She paced through the maze of hedges and dead flowers, going everything that was happening: the rose, their disappearance, everything. She could not make sense of anything. First she mourned their loss, and then the rose appeared. Everything had turned backwards and upside-down. She had no idea of what was going on or what was going to happen. All she knew for certain was that they were not dead. They were not dead!
She ran to the portico leading to the forest. In the span of open grass between the wall and the edge of the trees, Elise dropped to her knees and held her head between her hands, the rose hat her side. “Why?” she cried. “Why is all of this happening?” She threw the rose as far as she could and cried out into the open. “I know you’re not dead! I know! But why did you leave me?” She collapsed and started to cry. “Nothing is right, nothing is certain.” She just lay in the grass, staring up at the cloudless sky.
After a while she stood up and picked up the rose. It had some meaning, although she did not know what. She ran her hand over the stem. She jerked her hand away as a thorn pricked her palm. A ruby rivulet ran over her fingers. She did not bother to wipe it away, but rather stared at the blood. “They did this for some reason.” And she knew this was true, though she did not know how. For the first time in a long time she was at peace.
The shadows shifted in the darkness of the forest. They observed Elise from a distance. “Do you think she knows?” said one of them.
“No, but I think she suspects,” responded the other. “But she will know about it.”
“Will she ever find out?”
“In time she will know the truth.” He twirled a rose in his hand. “And someday she will come to realize that life is like a rose: it is beautiful, yet fragile. It eventually wilts and fades away. But for the time being, it is a symbol of beauty and hope for the future.” He laid the rose at the base of a tree, knowing that Elise was bound to find it, and they disappeared.