Summer was sweet.
Even the sunflower seeds; everything candied from the day I met her.
Tasting my tears whilst the sun strokes my face and the gentle breeze hums our song, I stand strong among the flowers.
Forever without Madeline.
I was sitting on the steps of my grandparent’s porch, enjoying the shade under my wide-brimmed sun hat and the gentle movement of the hot air, cooling the beads of sweat trickling down my chest underneath my blue denim dungarees. My hand was translating the view of rural fields and farmhouses into thin, grey pencil lines onto a white page in my sketchbook, and I noticed her straight away.
She walked into the picture and approached me; tresses of wheat-blond hair dancing in the warm breeze and eyes smiling the colour of the clear sky touching the horizon.
‘Hello, I’m Madeline.’
Her melodic tone was sweet water on a parching day. I craved to drink it all in.
‘Hi.’ I cleared my throat, staring at her for a little too long in silence.
I recognised her as the missing piece, the subject I needed in front of the perfect backdrop I drew. I couldn’t say that to a stranger, but the words of small talk ran away from my mind.
‘I’m Lena,’ I managed after a while.
‘I saw you arrive yesterday, I wanted to come and say hi.’
She sat next to me on the sun-warmed steps in her light linen dress, twirling a sunflower head as big as a dinner plate in her hands.
‘Would you like some? I just picked it.’
She offered me the flower and I plucked a few ripe seeds from the middle, whilst she pondered what brought me to the middle of nowhere for vacation.
‘My mum just had a baby with her new husband, it’s a bit hectic at home. So I’m spending summer here. This is my grandparents’ house,’ I explained. ‘I didn’t realise, there wouldn’t be internet access.’
‘We just moved here this spring, my parents and I.’ She gestured towards the cottage at the edge of the sunflower field and threw some seeds to the birds gathering around us. ‘It’s more remote than I thought it would be, and not only is the network coverage bad, but all the other neighbours and the towns are miles away.'
‘I don’t mind that. I usually prefer my own company,’ I said without thinking, because it was the truth, but it was also the wrong thing to say. Madeline paused, her lips parted then closed again.
‘I-I see…’ Her eyelashes fluttered as she looked down at the sunflower. My chest tightened, and I desperately searched for the right words in my blank mind. Once again, she was the one to speak first.
‘When I saw you around, I thought… Maybe, we could make the most of being here together.’
Her eyes met mine with a twinkle that made my cheeks burn more than the scorching sun. I fanned myself with my sketchbook to hide it, biting down on a sunflower seed for distraction.
‘Sure. I’d like that too.’
She grinned, and continued peeling the sunflower seeds and my walls down, husk by husk.
The sand burnt our bare feet and we danced to the music of grasshopper chirps, moving to the rhythm of nature’s orchestra, free as the buzzards circling above the fields. When we got too hot, too sweaty and breathless to carry on, we found refuge in the shade and drank homemade iced lemonade. I sketched Madeline, with her unruly hair and sun kissed cheeks, and always with a stolen sunflower she snacked on.
‘Come with me to the sunflower field,’ she asked.
I glanced up from my sketch, biting the end of my pencil.
‘I don’t fancy getting chased by the farmer.’
‘He won’t see. He never spotted me taking the flowers.’ She gave me a mischievous smile and the air got hotter, heavier to breathe.
I made an excuse to get a couple of ice lollies from the freezer, cool my head.
‘Why are you obsessed with the sunflower field?’ I handed her an ice lolly, sitting back next to her.
‘They are strong.’
‘The sunflowers. Every day, no matter what, they stand tall and turn their face towards the sun. They remind me to do that and I’m grateful.’
‘Do you want to be a sunflower?’ I suppressed a smile, not expecting a serious answer.
‘I feel like I am a sunflower now. In my next life, I want to be the sunshine, I want to be the rain. The warm summer breeze that blows gently between them.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘...I am.’ She smiled, but it wasn’t the carefree grin from before. ‘What would you like to be in your next life?’
I wanted to make a joke, but bit my tongue. Sadness pooled in her eyes and she fingered the petals of the sunflower, with the frozen treat in her mouth.
‘Do you want me to guess?’ The forced enthusiasm in her voice scratched my ears.
‘A sunflower,’ I said. ‘If you will be the sun, the rain and the summer breeze, I’ll be the sunflower.’
Ice cream cold lips pressed onto mine, a melting, sweet surprise. My mouth tingled and my heart wanted to jump out of my chest.
‘Why–’ I bit the end of the word and swallowed the rest as she pulled away, her shoulders shaking and tears glistening on her face.
‘Just one time.’
I gave. We walked past the “Do Not Trespass” sign, climbed the fence and wandered deep into the sunflower field, and I too wanted to learn to stand strong. How does one move on, all alone?
The moonlight found us underneath the tall flowers, lying on the ground, holding hands and counting stars.
‘Let’s do this again. Every day. I want to be here every day until I can’t come back anymore.’
‘We’ll come back. We can even just stay.’
She smiled and rolled onto her side, leaning over me.
‘We should go home, but… Tomorrow? With a picnic?’ She beamed at me with her effervescent smile.
‘I’ll bring a basket of strawberries,’ I promised.
The next day I waited with a basket of strawberries, and when for a moment I closed my eyes and the summer wind stoked my fingers in the same soft way she had, I knew. Last night was our last time getting lost in our sunflower dreams, a world severed from this life where only I remained.
That was the last time I saw Madeline.
Notes on the story:
“Sunflower Dreams” was published in the Secret Attic Booklet Volume 2 Issue #1 on the 10th October 2022, alongside many more short stories and flash fiction pieces from different authors. Click the cover image if you wish to get your hands on a copy of this collection!