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."
Excerpted from The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Copyright © 2011 by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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