For eight years I dreamed of fire. Trees ignited as I passed them; oceans burned. The sugary smoke settled in my hair as I slept, the scent like a cloud left on my pillow as I rose. Even so, the moment my mattress started to burn, I bolted awake. The sharp, chemical smell was nothing like the hazy syrup of my dreams; the two were as different as Indian and Carolina jasmine, separation and attachment. They could not be confused.
Standing in the middle of the room, I located the source of the fire. A neat row of wooden matches lined the foot of the bed. They ignited, one after the next, a glowing picket fence across the piped edging. Watching them light, I felt a terror unequal to the size of the flickering flames, and for a paralyzing moment I was ten years old again, desperate and hopeful in a way I had never been before and would never be again.
But the bare synthetic mattress did not ignite like the thistle had in late October. It smoldered, and then the fire went out.
It was my eighteenth birthday.
In the living room, a row of fidgeting girls sat on the sagging couch. Their eyes scanned my body and settled on my bare, unburned feet. One girl looked relieved; another disappointed. If I’d been staying another week, I would have remembered each expression. I would have retaliated with rusty nails in the soles of shoes or small pebbles in bowls of chili. Once, I’d held the end of a glowing metal clothes hanger to a sleeping roommate’s shoulder, for an offense less severe than arson.
But in an hour, I’d be gone. The girls knew this, every one.
From the center of the couch, a girl stood up. She looked young --- fifteen, sixteen at most --- and was pretty in a way I didn’t see much of: good posture, clear skin, new clothes. I didn’t immediately recognize her, but when she crossed the room there was something familiar about the way she walked, arms bent and aggressive. Though she’d just moved in, she was not a stranger; it struck me that I’d lived with her before, in the years after Elizabeth, when I was at my most angry and violent.
Inches from my body, she stopped, her chin jutting into the space between us.
“The fire,” she said evenly, “was from all of us. Happy birthday.”
Behind her, the row of girls on the couch squirmed. A hood was pulled up, a blanket wrapped tighter. Morning light flickered across a line of lowered eyes, and the girls looked suddenly young, trapped. The only ways out of a group home like this one were to run away, age out, or be institutionalized. Level 14 kids weren’t adopted; they rarely, if ever, went home. These girls knew their prospects. In their eyes was nothing but fear: of me, of their housemates, of the life they had earned or been given. I felt an unexpected rush of pity. I was leaving; they had no choice but to stay.
I tried to push my way toward the door, but the girl stepped to the side, blocking my path.
“Move,” I said.
A young woman working the night shift poked her head out of the kitchen. She was probably not yet twenty, and more terrified of me than any of the girls in the room.
“Please,” she said, her voice begging. “This is her last morning. Just let her go.”
I waited, ready, as the girl before me pulled her stomach in, fists clenched tight. But after a moment, she shook her head and turned away. I walked around her.
I had an hour before Meredith would come for me. Opening the front door, I stepped outside. It was a foggy San Francisco morning, the concrete porch cool on my bare feet. I paused, thinking. I’d planned to gather a response for the girls, something biting and hateful, but I felt strangely forgiving. Maybe it was because I was eighteen, because, all at once, it was over for me, that I was able to feel tenderness toward their crime. Before I left, I wanted to say something to combat the fear in their eyes.
Walking down Fell, I turned onto Market. My steps slowed as I reached a busy intersection, unsure of where to go. Any other day I would have plucked annuals from Duboce Park, scoured the overgrown lot at Page and Buchanan, or stolen herbs from the neighborhood market. For most of a decade I’d spent every spare moment memorizing the meanings and scientific descriptions of individual flowers, but the knowledge went mostly unutilized. I used the same flowers again and again: a bouquet of marigold, grief; a bucket of thistle, misanthropy; a pinch of dried basil, hate. Only occasionally did my communication vary: a pocketful of red carnations for the judge when I realized I would never go back to the vineyard, and peony for Meredith, as often as I could find it. Now, searching Market Street for a florist, I scoured my mental dictionary.
After three blocks I came to a liquor store, where paper-wrapped bouquets wilted in buckets under the barred windows. I paused in front of the store. They were mostly mixed arrangements, their messages conflicting. The selection of solid bouquets was small: standard roses in red and pink, a wilting bunch of striped carnations, and, bursting from its paper cone, a cluster of purple dahlias. Dignity. Immediately, I knew it was the message I wanted to give. Turning my back to the angled mirror above the door, I tucked the flowers inside my coat and ran.
I was out of breath by the time I returned to the house. The living room was empty, and I stepped inside to unwrap the dahlias. The flowers were perfect starbursts, layers of white-tipped purple petals unfurling from tight buds of a center. Biting off an elastic band, I detangled the stems. The girls would never understand the meaning of the dahlias (the meaning itself an ambiguous statement of encouragement); even so, I felt an unfamiliar lightness as I paced the long hall, slipping a stem under each closed bedroom door.
The remaining flowers I gave to the young woman who’d worked the night shift. She was standing by the kitchen window, waiting for her replacement.
“Thank you,” she said when I handed her the bouquet, confusion in her voice. She twirled the stiff stems between her palms.
Meredith arrived at ten o’clock, as she’d told me she would. I waited on the front porch, a cardboard box balanced on my thighs. In eighteen years I’d collected mostly books: the Dictionary of Flowers and Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers, both sent to me by Elizabeth a month after I left her home; botany textbooks from libraries all over the East Bay; thin paperback volumes of Victorian poetry stolen from quiet bookstores. Stacks of folded clothes covered the books, a collection of found and stolen items, some that fit, many that did not. Meredith was taking me to The Gathering House, a transitional home in the Outer Sunset. I’d been on the waiting list since I was ten.
“Happy birthday,” Meredith said as I put my box on the backseat of her county car. I didn’t say anything. We both knew that it might or might not have been my birthday. My first court report listed my age as approximately three weeks; my birth date and location were unknown, as were my biological parents. August 1 had been chosen for purposes of emancipation, not celebration.
I slunk into the front seat next to Meredith and closed the door, waiting for her to pull away from the curb. Her acrylic fingernails tapped against the steering wheel. I buckled my seat belt. Still, the car did not move. I turned to face Meredith. I had not changed out of my pajamas, and I pulled my flannel-covered knees up to my chest and wrapped my jacket around my legs. My eyes scanned the roof of Meredith’s car as I waited for her to speak.
“Well, are you ready?” she asked.
“This is it, you know,” she said. “Your life starts here. No one to blame but yourself from here on out.”
Meredith Combs, the social worker responsible for selecting the stream of adoptive families that gave me back, wanted to talk to me about blame.
I pressed my forehead against the window and watched the dusty summer hills roll past. Meredith’s car smelled like cigarette smoke, and there was mold on the strap of the seat belt from something some other child had been allowed to eat. I was nine years old. I sat in the backseat of the car in my nightgown, my cropped hair a tangled mess. It was not the
way Meredith had wanted it. She’d purchased a dress for the occasion, a flowing, pale blue shift with embroidery and lace. But I had refused to
Meredith stared at the road ahead. She didn’t see me unbuckle my seat belt, roll down the window, and stick my head out until my collarbone pressed against the top of the door. Tilting my chin up into the
wind, I waited for her to tell me to sit down. She glanced back at me but didn’t say anything. Her mouth remained a tight line, and I couldn’t see
her expression underneath her sunglasses.
I stayed this way until Meredith touched a button on her door that made the window rise an inch without warning. The thick glass pressed into my outstretched neck. I flew back, bouncing off the seat and sinking
down onto the floor. Meredith continued to raise the windows until the wind rushing through the car was replaced by silence. She did not
look back. Curling up on the dirty carpet, I pulled a rancid baby bottle from deep beneath the passenger seat and threw it at Meredith. It hit her shoulder and flew back at me, leaking a sour puddle onto my knees.
Meredith didn’t flinch.
“Do you want peaches?” she asked.
Food was something I could never refuse, and Meredith knew it.
"Then get in your seat, buckle your seat belt, and I’ll buy you whatever you want at the next fruit stand we pass.”
I climbed onto the seat and pulled the seat belt across my waist. Fifteen minutes passed before Meredith pulled off the freeway. She bought me two peaches and a half-pound of cherries, which I counted as I ate.
“I’m not supposed to tell you this,” Meredith began as we turned back onto the road. Her words were slow, the sentence drawn out for effect. She paused and glanced back at me. I held my gaze out the window
and rested my cheek against the glass, unresponsive.
“But I think you deserve to know. This is your last chance. Your very last chance, Victoria—
did you hear me?” I didn’t acknowledge her question.
“When you turn ten, the county will label you unadoptable, and even I won’t keep trying to convince families to take you. It’ll be group home after group
home until you emancipate if this doesn’t work out --- just promise me you’ll think about that.”
I rolled down the window and spit cherry seeds into the wind. Meredith had picked me up from my first stay at a group home just an hour before. It struck me that my placement in the home might have been
purposeful --- in preparation for this exact moment. I hadn’t done anything to get kicked out of my last foster home, and I was in the group home only a week before Meredith came to take me to Elizabeth.
It would be just like Meredith, I thought, to make me suffer to prove her point. The staff at the group home had been cruel. Every morning the cook made a fat, dark-skinned girl eat with her shirt pulled up around her neck, her bulging belly exposed, so she would remember not to eat too much. Afterward, the housemother, Miss
Gayle, chose one of us to stand at the head of the long table and explain why our family didn’t
want us. Miss Gayle picked me only once, and since I was abandoned at birth, I got away with saying “My mother didn’t want a baby.”
Other girls told stories of the awful things they’d done to siblings, or why they were responsible for their parents’ drug addictions, and almost always
they cried. But if Meredith had placed me in the group home to scare me into behaving, it hadn’t worked. Despite the staff, I liked it there. Meals were
served at regular hours, I slept under two blankets, and no one pretended to love me.
I ate the last cherry and spit the seed at the back of Meredith’s head.
“Just think about it,” she said again. As if to bribe me into contemplation, she pulled over and purchased a steaming basket of fish and chips and a chocolate milkshake from a drive-through. I ate quickly,
sloppily, watching the dry landscape of the East Bay turn into the crowded chaos of San Francisco and then open up into a great expanse
of water. By the time we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my nightgown was covered in peaches, cherries, ketchup, and ice cream.
We passed dry fields, a flower farm, and an empty parking lot, and finally came to a vineyard, the vines neat stripes on the rolling hillside.
Meredith braked hard and turned left onto a long dirt driveway, increasing her speed on the bumpy road as if she couldn’t wait another moment to get me out of her car. We went flying past picnic tables and rows of carefully tended, thick-trunked grapevines growing on low wires. Meredith slowed slightly at a turn before picking up speed again and driving toward a gathering of tall trees in the center of the property, dust billowing around her county car. When she stopped and the dust cleared, I saw a white farmhouse. It stood two stories tall with a peaked roof, a glass-enclosed porch, and
lace cur tains covering the windows. To the right was a low metal trailer and more than one slumping shed, toys, tools, and bikes scattered between
them. Having lived in a trailer before, I immediately wondered if Elizabeth would have a foldout couch or if I would have to share her bedroom. I didn’t like listening to people breathe.
Meredith didn’t wait to see if I would get out of the car voluntarily. She unbuckled my seat belt, grabbed me under my arms, and pulled me kicking to the front of the large house. I expected Elizabeth to come out of the trailer, so I had my back to the front porch and didn’t see her before feeling her bony fingers on my shoulder.
Shrieking, I bolted forward, sprinting on bare feet to the far side of the car and then crouching down behind it.
“She doesn’t like to be touched,” I heard Meredith say to Elizabeth with obvious annoyance. “I told you that. You have to wait until she comes to you.” It angered me that she knew this. I rubbed the skin
where Elizabeth had grabbed me, erasing her fingerprints, and stayed out of sight behind the car.
“I’ll wait,” Elizabeth said. “I told you I would wait, and I don’t intend to go back on my word.”
Meredith began to recite the usual list of reasons she couldn’t stay to help us get to know each other: an ailing grandparent, an anxious husband,
and her fear of driving at night. Elizabeth’s foot tapped impatiently near the rear tire as she listened. In a moment Meredith would be gone, leaving me exposed in the gravel. I crawled backward, low to the ground. Darting behind a walnut tree, I stood up and ran.
At the end of the trees I ducked into the first row of grapes, hiding within a dense plant. I pulled down the loose vines and wrapped them around my thin body. From my hiding spot I could hear Elizabeth coming
toward me, and by adjusting the vines I could see her walking along one of the aisles. I let my hand drop from my mouth with relief as she passed my row.
Reaching up, I picked a grape from the nearest bunch and bit through the thick skin. It was sour. I spit it out and smashed the rest of the bunch one at a time under my foot, the juice squishing between mytoes.
I didn’t see or hear Elizabeth come back in my direction. But just as I began to smash a second bunch of grapes, she reached down into the
vines, grabbed me by the arms, and pulled me out of my hiding spot.
She held me out in front of her. My feet dangled an inch above the ground while she looked me over.
“I grew up here,” she said. “I know all the good hiding spots.”
I tried to break loose, but Elizabeth held firmly to both my arms. She set my feet down on the dirt but did not loosen her grasp. I kicked dust onto her shins, and when she didn’t release my arms, I kicked her ankles.
She did not step back. I let out a growl and snapped my teeth toward her outstretched arm,
but she saw me coming and grabbed my face. She squeezed my cheeks until my jaw loosened and my lips puckered. I sucked in my breath in
“No biting,” she said, and then leaned forward as if she would kiss my pink puckered lips but stopped inches from my face, her dark eyes drilling into mine. “I like to be touched,” she said. “You’ll have to get used to it.”
She flashed me an amused grin and let go of my face.
“I won’t,” I promised. “I won’t ever get used to it.”
But I stopped fighting and let her pull me up the front porch and inside the cool, dark house.
Meredith turned off Sunset Boulevard and drove too slowly down Noriega, reading each street sign. An impatient car honked behind us.
She’d been talking continuously since Fell Street, and the list of reasons my survival seemed unlikely stretched halfway across San Francisco: no high school diploma, no motivation, no support network, a
complete lack of social skills. She was asking for my plan, demanding I think about my own self-sufficiency.
I ignored her. It hadn’t always been this way between us. As a young child I’d soaked up her chatty optimism, sitting on the edge of a bed while she brushed and braided my thin brown hair, tying it up with a ribbon before presenting me like a gift to a new mother, a new father. But as the years passed, and family after family gave me back, Meredith’s hopefulness chilled. The once-gentle hairbrush pulled, stopping and starting with the rhythm of her lecturing. The description of how I should act lengthened with each placement change, and became more and more different from the child I knew myself to be. Meredith kept a running
list of my deficiencies in her appointment book and read them to the judge like criminal convictions. Detached. Quick-tempered. Tightlipped. Unrepentant.
I remembered every word she said. But despite her frustrations, Meredith had kept my case. She refused to transfer it out of the adoptions unit even when a tired judge suggested, the summer I turned eight, that perhaps she’d done all she could. Meredith negated this claim without pause. For a buoyant, bewildered
moment I thought her reaction had come from a place of hidden fondness for me, but when I turned my gaze I saw her pale skin pink in embarrassment. She had been my social worker since birth; if I was to be declared a failure, I was, by extension, her failure. We pulled up in front of The Gathering House, a peach, flat-roofed
stucco house in a row of peach, flat-roofed stucco houses.
“Three months,” Meredith said. “I want to hear you say it. I want to know you understand. Three months’ free rent, and after that you pay up or move out.”
I said nothing. Meredith stepped out and slammed the car door behind her. My box in the backseat had shifted during the drive, my clothes spilling out onto the seat. I piled them back on top of the books and followed
Meredith up the front steps. She rang the bell.
It was more than a minute before the door opened, and when it did a cluster of girls stood in the entryway. I clutched my box tighter to my chest.
A short, heavy-legged girl with long blond hair pushed open the metal screen and stuck out her hand. “I’m Eve,” she said. Meredith stepped on my foot, but I didn’t reach for her outstretched
hand. “This is Victoria Jones,” she said, pushing me forward. “She’s eighteen today.”
There was a mumbling of happy birthdays, and two girls exchanged eyebrow-arched glances.
“Alexis was evicted last week,” Eve said. “You get her room.”
She turned as if to take me there, and I followed her down a dark, carpeted hall to an open doorway. Slipping inside, I closed the door and turned
the lock behind me.
The room was bright white. It smelled like fresh paint, and the walls, when I touched them, were tacky. The painter had been sloppy. The carpet, once white like the walls but now mottled from use, was streaked
with paint near the baseboard. I wished the painter had kept going, painted the entire carpet, the single mattress, and the dark wood nightstand.
The white was clean and new, and I liked that it had belonged to no one before me.
From the hall, Meredith called me. She knocked, and knocked again. I set my heavy box down in the middle of the room. Pulling out my clothes, I piled them onto the closet floor and stacked my books on the
nightstand. When the box was empty, I ripped it into strips to cover the bare mattress and lay down on top.
Light streamed through a small window and reflected off the walls, warming the exposed skin on my
face, neck, and hands. The window was south-facing, I noticed, good for orchids and bulbs.
“Victoria?” Meredith called again. “I need to know your plan. Just tell me your plan and I’ll leave you alone.”
I closed my eyes, ignoring the sound of her knuckles against the wood. Finally, she stopped knocking.
When I opened my eyes, an envelope lay on the carpet near the door.
Inside, there was a twenty-dollar bill and a note that read: Buy food and find a job.
Excerpted from The Language of Flowers © Copyright 2012 by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.
The Language of Flowers