Every year as Christmas looms on the near East side, a tree stand appears at St. Catherine’s Park, deep in the canyon of 1st Avenue, around East 67th Street. Beside the dead symbols of recurring life in the tree yard, a worn canvas tunnel springs like a vine from the unyielding pavement and crawls the length of the sidewalk. Inside, narrow tables in a long line overflow with ornaments and tchotchke to enhance the soon-to-be homes of those scrawny, browning pines.
Carina usually crossed the street to avoid this reminder of holiday disappointments past. Work had been stressful, and no joy awaited her at home. That night, whether due to a perverse spasm of self-pity or the driving sleet, she chose the shelter of the tattered awning and entered the makeshift holiday shop. She was fondling the cheap, shiny baubles cluttering a table when the girl appeared at her elbow.
“See anything you like?”
There was no room behind these displays on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk. The girl stepped close to Carina, who reflexively held her breath, expecting the worst; but the scent from the slight figure was earthy, and not at all unpleasant.
“What I see is a trade deficit.”
“Excuse me?” Full lips curled into a beguiling smile. She was younger than Carina, her eyes large and wide-set, her natural curls stuffed beneath a worn ushanka, the overall effect quite beguiling.
“China,” Carina said. “All this junk is made in China.”
Though Carina tossed the decorations back, she returned the smile. The girl’s figure in tights and sweater was anything but child-like. Flower girl: she had stepped over from a display of house plants.
Carina had found that New York City was much less lonely around the holidays if one took the initiative.
“Maybe something else…” She gestured. “What I’d really like is something fresh and alive…something I could bring home, take care of…perhaps one of those?”
“Of course; follow me.” The girl threaded through the clotted flow of shambling pedestrians to her stand. Carina followed, eyes tracking the sway of hips. She reflected that her gloves probably cost more than this girl’s entire wardrobe.
The poinsettias had leaves the dark green of freshly minted Treasury notes, flowers a blood red no Chinese factory could ever produce.
“These are very nice—trucked in, like the trees?” Anything to keep the conversation alive, give Carina time to think.
“Oh no,” the flower girl replied, “I grow them right here in the neighborhood, in my apartment.”
“I thought so…they look much too healthy.” She swung her bag forward. “I’ll get one; if perhaps you could just talk me through how to keep it alive through the holidays…”
“I’m leaving for the day.” That smile again. “But if you’re interested, I’ll take you back to my place and show you how it’s done. My name’s Afra, by the way.”
How it’s done. “I’m Carina,” she replied, heart racing. This is happening.
“You can have a nice, fresh one.”
“I’d like that…a lot.”
The small apartment was crowded into one of the faceless buildings off the avenue, a brick façade with fire escapes clinging like ivy. The flower girl proudly displayed her bedroom, the only room with a door besides the bathroom. There was a smallish but neat bed, surrounded by rows of utility shelving overflowing with life. Grow lamps were daisy-chained in a dangerous string of extension cords snaking around the floor, but they were off, the only illumination coming from the hallway. The air was thick with moisture from a humidifier and the rich scent of potting soil.
Carina’s eyes wandered the shadowy shelves lined with potted plants. “Why aren’t the lights on?”
“The poinsettias need fourteen hours of darkness to produce their red leaves: the longest night of the year. Tonight.” Afra led her from the gloomy bedroom.
“I forgot—the solstice.”
They had a simple stir-fry and several glasses of wine at the kitchenette counter before the conversation moved to the tiny sitting area. Afra sat curled on her love seat, watching her guest with the casual interest of a cat. Legs tucked beneath her, the fog from her tea wreathed her chestnut hair.
Carina occupied an easy chair—the only chair—unwilling to sit that close to her hostess. She had described and dismissed her career—financial planning—and allowed the flower girl to ramble on while she nursed another glass of wine.
“Do you know the secret of my success?” Without waiting for an answer, Afra continued, “Blood.”
“For the plants?” Carina made a face. “I’ve heard of that.”
“It’s an excellent source of nitrogen.”
“Collecting your flow? I don’t think so. That’s just unsanitary.”
Afra looked amused. “I buy blood from a meat processing plant.”
“Plants are so much more interesting than people,” Afra said. “Did you know that poinsettias come from Mexico? The Aztecs cultivated them; they symbolized the blood sacrifice.”
“Fascinating,” Carina murmured.
“I love all the holiday plants; they’re all so quirky. The park has hellebores—called the Christmas Rose, from a legend, though it’s a spring flower. Isn’t that funny? Then take mistletoe—it’s a holiday plant, though it’s parasitic. It needs a host to climb and feed upon, or you can’t enjoy its beauty.”
Carina decided that the conversation wasn’t leading where she had hoped.
“I should go.” She drained her glass; surprisingly, the wine had been decent. Carina stood, swaying slightly.
“Not yet,” Afra said. “Unless…someone is waiting?”
Carina shook her head.
Afra’s hand grazed hers. “Let’s do something first—a Christmas promise.”
“What, to each other?”
“No—a promise to yourself. We each write a promise and then exchange them. And agree to keep each other’s promises secret.”
Carina laughed. “Why would I do that?”
“Come on; it’ll be fun.” Afra put down her tea and rose, gracefully unfolding her slender legs.
“And then I’ll have sex with you, whatever you like. If you like. No strings.” She stepped closer. “It’s why you came home with me, isn’t it?”
The flower girl kissed Carina, tasting of wine and lip balm and something else, earthy, woody; fertile Her tongue slipped between Carina’s lips, just the tip, strong yet shy, hinting at much more. Carina made to embrace her, but the girl drew away.
“First, the promises.”
“Very well; I promise—”
“No, no; we’ll write them down.”
Afra trotted off to the kitchenette. Carina watched with growing excitement. The girl returned with two pencils and a memo pad, from which she tore a sheet.
“Here.” She handed the pad and a pencil to Carina and placed the detached sheet on her palm.
The title at the top of the little pad said Paila’s Nursery—Where Life Begins. Carina was pondering her promise—sexy or romantic—when Afra said, “I’m done.”
The flower girl carefully folded her note. “Come on…it isn’t hard.” She tugged her sweater over her head. “I’ll be waiting.”
She was slim, with high breasts in a small black bra. Electrified, her fine hair floated, clung to her face. She tossed it back.
Carina forced herself to focus on the small page, clenching the pencil. She wrote in her rapid, thoughtless style: I will be more giving in my relationships.
“There. I’ve—” She looked up, but Afra had vanished.
Carina glanced around the tiny apartment.
“In here…” The voice came from the dimly lit doorway of the bedroom.
She followed it past clothes scattered along the hallway. Afra moved under the sheet, watching, restless.
They lay entwined on the bed, uncovered yet hot, damp in the humid air, in deep shadows cast from the hall light. Carina felt touched everywhere, drained yet fulfilled.
Afra peeled her fingers one by one from her lover’s body, outside and inside, tasting each one, savoring her guest. Carina watched in awed delight.
The flower girl rose from the bed.
“No…” Carina protested. “Come back…”
“Soon,” Afra said. “I’m going to get you something nourishing. How about some fresh-baked bread and a mug of soup? Minestrone, or Matzo?”
“God, I’ve never felt so relaxed. Just you…please…” Carina squirmed weakly. “Hold me.”
Afra passed into the light from the hallway. “After you’ve eaten.”
Carina wondered at her lover’s glow, not just the dew of sweat on her belly; a glow from within, an irresistible beauty.
“Matzo, then.” Afra took a robe from a hook on the back of the door and slipped into it. Bending over Carina, she placed light fingers on her neck, pursing her lips. The supine woman tried to press her face into the slender hand.
Satisfied with the pulse, Afra stroked the wan face. “Be still now,” she said, and padded away to the kitchenette.
Carina stretched languorously, her eyes wandering the room. She saw the note Afra had given her, lying on the nearest shelf. With an effort she extended an arm towards it.
“You can quit your job,” Afra said from the other room. “Call them tomorrow. I’ll have to go to the stand every day, it’s the busy season, you see, but you can relax while I work.”
Afra reappeared in the doorway. “We’ll move you in—If you promise to get up and exercise and eat regularly, while I’m away. You need to keep up your strength.”
“Are you going to…take my blood?” Her fingers struggled and clasped the slip of paper.
“Don’t be silly,” Afra laughed, and Carina thrilled to the sound. “You need all your strength for that bed. You give me so much…support.”
Carina licked her lips. “Anything for you…” she whispered.
Afra watched from beneath lowered lids. “Of course.” She returned to the kitchenette.
Carina unfolded the paper with some effort, read it, and relished the shiver that coursed through her.
I’ll never let you go.
J. L. Royce is a published author of science fiction, the macabre, and whatever else strikes him. He lives in the northern reaches of the American Midwest. His work appears in Allegory, Fifth Di, Ghostlight, Love Letters to Poe, Lovecraftiana, Mysterion, parABnormal, Sci Phi, Strange Aeon, Utopia, Wyldblood, etc. He is a member of HWA and GLAHW. Some of his anthologized stories may be found at: www.jlroyce.com.