Everything is reaching now – reaching for the light, the rain, the air. Me too. Today I finally felt like I woke up from my winter coma. Maybe it’s my thyroid meds that are working, maybe it’s the sun, but just like these flowers I feel rejuvenated and bright.
I was at a press conference today for a radio show that I’m participating in this summer. I’m filling my slot with the tale of my PhD and a truckload of good music. The other contributors are singers, actors, innovators, nurses, headmasters – and even a prime minister! 🙂
And when I sat there among all those accomplished people, I had this feeling: that I’d finally arrived, or at least got somewhere in my life. I listed the things I am, the things I can do, and I realized that it’s starting to become quite the list. Just as long as I don’t step back into the shadow and downplay it all. As long as I keep on reaching.
Speaking of flowers, next week is Midsummer’s Eve, when local legend has it that if you pick seven flowers and put under your pillow, you’ll dream of the one you will marry. I’m already married, of course, so I don’t need to – but Christer and Henrik in The Seventh Flower, my Dreamspinner World of Love novella, definitely do! 🙂
Unfortunately, Christer thinks he’s too old for silly stuff like that. He’s not the kind of guy to pick those seven flowers, and he certainly isn’t the type to fall for someone he’s just met. Especially not a womanizing blogger named Henrik.
Besides, Christer’s previous marriage didn’t end with a happily ever after. Therefore, he has no interest in gifting his heart to someone who lives five hundred miles away and probably isn’t even gay. His family is right: it’s time he grew up and stopped dreaming.
But Midsummer’s Eve in Sweden is a magical night, and Henrik won’t stop flirting. As the midnight sun shines down on the misty woods, maybe there’s room for one last dream…
I NOTICE him as soon as I arrive. How could I not? This is supposed to be a family gathering, and unless my sister, Felicia, has brought a new lover here to spite her soon-to-be ex-husband, the smartly dressed man tying flower garlands for the children isn’t family.
So of course I become awkward. He hasn’t even seen me yet, but I can feel my limbs stiffen and my underarms sting. Crap. As if Midsummer’s Eve with my siblings and their brood isn’t enough of a challenge, I have to smile and chat with a total stranger too?
I hover behind my car, trying to work up the courage to go to him and behave like a human being. Since I’m part of the family, I have semihost duties this evening, however little I want to admit it.
Maybe it shouldn’t feel so much like a chore, considering. After all, it’s not as if the rest of the party is so very alluring. My reticence with outsiders may be excused, but I can be weird with my own family too. And even though I’m supposed to know everyone here, some of the teenagers are a bit hazy. Last time I saw them was precisely a year ago, and quite a few have shot up like daffodils over the winter. Maybe they don’t even remember me. Maybe I should go introduce myself to them.
The thought makes me grin, and I square my shoulders, muttering to myself to get a grip. When I turn toward the house, the new guy is watching me. My heart makes a hiccup. Something about him seems familiar, but I don’t think I know him. Realizing I’m staring, I quickly avert my eyes. God. How utterly dorky can a man be?
As if in answer, I feel more prickles in my armpits and resist an urge to sneak back into my car for an extra layer of deodorant. Instead I look back up at the man with the garlands. Time to acknowledge the fucking guest.
Smiling, mostly to convince myself that I’m a fully qualified member of the Homo sapiens species, I walk close enough to offer my hand but not close enough for him to notice anything off about me. When our eyes meet, a ray of sun glints in his iris, and I—
Oh no. Oh fuck. Oh fuck-fuck-fuck. I know that face. I know it like the dark side of my dreams.
In an attempt to deflect from my reddening cheeks, I force my smile into a grin that probably looks deranged. “Hi,” I say too loudly, and the hand I hold out feels sharp and angular, like a pointer dog in full rabbit-sniffing mode.
“Hi.” The new guy disentangles his fingers from the plaited birch twigs. When we shake, his hand is weak, soft, and a little moist. It slips out of mine much too soon. Shy? Or is he disconcerted by my insta-sweat and flaring cheeks? “Henrik,” he mumbles with a gesture at himself. “Pity invite, I’m afraid.”
I laugh, and then I stop abruptly because it’s not that funny. “Whose? Not Felicia’s, surely?”
“Felicia?” Henrik’s gaze grows momentarily distant. “That’s your sister, right?”
“I studied in the car,” he admits. “So now I know who everyone is. You’re Christer, aren’t you?”
Blushing, I apologize for not saying so at once, but Henrik shakes his head and is magnanimous about it. That makes me feel even worse, and I wish I could explain—that it’s not me being rude, exactly, or socially inept. I mean, I kind of am, but…. There’s a reason. A reason I can’t talk about. With anyone.
Well, there was Rolf, of course, but he’s history now.
“Yes.” I nod. “I’m Christer. So… you were invited by my brother, then?”
“Yeah. We’ve met through work, and he…. To be honest, I think it bugged him that I didn’t have plans.”
“That’s Anton, all right,” I chuckle. My brother wants everything to be by the book. I’d say he has a fetish for organization, but the word is too weak. If someone’s whole life is consumed by the object of desire, it can’t just be a fetish, can it?
When I look at Henrik again, his eyes are a soft brown. The afternoon sun pierces them like amber—real amber, the fossil resin with tiny bits of leaf and insect that glitter in the light. How the hell does a man like him not have plans for Midsummer’s Eve? It’s the most important holiday of the year. Maybe his whole family is dead? Or maybe he hasn’t got any friends?
But he hasn’t mentioned any of that on his blog.
My gaze drops to the garland in his hand. Birch, buttercups, and beaked parsley. For a moment I allow myself to wonder what he might do with that once he gets back home and transforms his experience into that sensual form he’s such a master at. Maybe he’ll place the garland on the skogsrå or a vittra, those seductive forest fairies that seemingly exist only to lure stupid men away from civilization. Perhaps his narrator follows the white-clad vittra to her hollow under the ground and is lost forever in her bewitching caresses.
Henrik shifts beside me, and I’m brought back to the present. “Um…,” I force out because that’s the most intelligent thing I can think of. My mouth and my mind have combined to impersonate the Sahara.
“Well, this is nice.” Henrik smiles awkwardly. Something in his face has hardened, almost as if he’s smelled something disgusting.
Oh. Oh shit. At once I remember to take a step back. We’ve shaken hands, so I don’t need to stand quite so close. We’re outside, so that’s good; there’s a faint breeze to carry away the worst, but you never know. Maybe he’s got the nose of an Alsatian.
Not that he needs one where I’m concerned.
“Yes, yes, very nice,” I blurt belatedly. “A bit cold, but it always is on Midsummer’s Eve, isn’t it? I mean, perhaps not where you’re from—I mean, where are you from?” I almost slip up and mention his hometown, but I screech to a stop in time.
“Uppsala.” And again, that smile. It seems to be his default setting. It’s not exactly happy, but definitely not sad either. It’s nothing like his professional smile in the photos. It’s… enigmatic. My stomach bottoms out at the thought. I don’t need enigmatic in my life. I need concrete and proof and day-to-day and boredom. Like I had with Rolf.
“But I do love the countryside,” Henrik adds.
“Not a lot of flowers here, though,” I point out, and immediately want to shoot myself. Flowers! What the hell did I bring that up for? Now he’ll know that I know.
But Henrik’s eyebrows rise a little, and then he shrugs. “Guess not.”
I indicate the garland in his hand. “So… not much material for that around here, I’m afraid.”
Henrik laughs. “Not as much as in Uppsala, that’s for sure.”
I smile. Uppsala is a hundred kilometers south of here. When summer arrives down there, the north is still covered with a crumbling layer of snow.
Henrik holds up the garland and purses his lips. “Buttercups and beaked parsley. That’s all I found.”
“It looks nice.”
“Yeah… not nearly enough for putting under your pillow, though, is it? How do you manage?”
I’m momentarily stunned by hearing a forty-something man refer to the tradition of putting seven flowers under your pillow to dream about the person you’re meant to marry. That stuff is for teenagers, the same kind of people who pluck petals off daisies, chanting loves me, loves me not. Middle-aged men don’t waste their time on such frivolities.
Henrik grins at me. “Did you ever do that? As a child, I mean.”
I blush. “I guess I did.” I’m actually sure that I did. I remember Felicia forcing me to accompany her when she was fourteen and I was eleven. It was here, in the woods around our cabin. She was mooning over some boy called Göran and wanted the flowers so she could dream they’d be married one day. In the end she dreamed about our sixty-year-old neighbor, and everyone teased her for weeks.
“And did you find seven distinct species?”
“Hm?” I meet Henrik’s golden brown gaze. “Oh….” I smile at his scientific way of expressing himself. “‘Distinct species’?”
He makes a face. “Jargon, sorry. What would normal people say? Types, kinds?”
“Species is fine,” I assure him. “And the answer is… yes and no. I remember we’d had a really cold spring, so we probably had to settle for a few compromises in the end.”
Henrik waves the garland a little. “So my two measly varieties are a triumph?”
“It’s nothing short of miraculous,” I deadpan.
“Wow….” Henrik frowns at the mostly birch thing in his hand. “I wonder if I’d even have thought of becoming a botanist if I hadn’t lived in the south.”
“Oh, so you’re a botanist?” The question almost sounds natural.
But Henrik’s jaw flexes slightly, as if he’s bracing himself for something. “Go ahead.”
I have no idea what he means.
“A botanist who lives in Uppsala,” he says pointedly.
“Oh…. Oh.” I shrug. “You get that a lot?”
“My friends even call me Linnaeus.”
I can’t help laughing. “You need to invest in a white wig.”
He runs a hand through his chestnut locks. “You mean I don’t look like the Prince of Botanists?”
“You look better.”
Seriously? Flirting? I half look away in case he freaks out, but he doesn’t. “Hotter than a two hundred and fifty-year-old corpse, check.”
I swallow down panic. I need to keep talking, and I need to stop. I’m going to make a fool of myself. The evening is long, oh God, I’m going to get tipsy, and I’m going to tell him I’m his biggest fan, all that crap. And I know he’s straight. Unless he’s bi, but that would be like winning the lottery and finding the cure for cancer on the same day—not possible, if you don’t have karma the size of Lapland.
Which I don’t. After leaving school, my life has been boring, predictable, and quite nice. Nothing to warrant an upheaval like Henrik fucking Fjellner being bi and taking a fancy to me.