Ruby Bastille

Perennial

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I did a double-take when the girl entered the grocery store. I was tall for a girl, and she was a foot taller than me, with ropy-muscled limbs and bulky shoulders. Did they let teenagers get mods now?

She caught me staring and I busied myself arranging the day’s fifth bouquet of roses. With a basket looped over her bare arm, she wove through the produce section, glancing frequently toward my booth.

I finished the bouquet and started the next, shooting my own furtive glances in the girl’s direction. She looked too young to drive, but strong enough to lift a truck. A handful of students in my cohort had mods, but they were either high school graduation gifts or school-funded athletic exemptions. Jenna Hartley had gotten modded when she made dance captain, but what Malibu Glow™ skin and enlarged irises had to do with dance team had always escaped me. This girl, with muscles and stature like that, must be a star athlete, maybe even an international competitor.

Bouquet six of fourteen; not even halfway done. I’d snapped myself with those little green rubber bands at least once per bouquet, and the wastebasket under my register was filled with roses that had lost or bruised petals or broken stems. I was trying to ignore them; their value would be deducted from my wages.

She’d wandered closer, her gaze fixed on the flowers. “Can I help you find something?” I asked.

“I can never remember the name of these.” Her hands were hooked in her belt, as though she could prevent them wanting to roam. “I know they’re called Peruvian lilies, but they have another name, too.”

“Alstroemeria.”

“That’s right.” She fidgeted with her belt loop. “They’re so pretty; I can’t believe they’re just filler flowers. Do people ever just buy them?”

“Sometimes. Mostly people just want roses – if they’re feeling adventurous, variegated roses.”

The girl grinned. At last, she reached out: one sturdy finger caressed the edge of a shiny leaf.

“Want to take some home?”

“Oh, I can’t.” She gazed toward the roses. “It’s so hot today – I just wanted to be somewhere air-conditioned for a bit.”

“Let me guess, after-school sports?”

“I wish. Work. I load trucks at the bakery.” Her broad shoulders shrugged. “And then I missed my bus, so I had to walk here.”

“Bakery…Past North Bank?”

She tucked her thumbs back into her belt as she bent over the canary-yellow roses. “That’s the one.”

My fingers fumbled and the green rubber band shot somewhere under my register. “You walked seven miles to get here?”

“It’s not so bad. My mom’s place is nearby.”

A teenager with heavy-duty mods, a factory job, and only one parent – she’d be too embarrassed to say so, but this girl was in ULI. Urban Labor & Improvement mods were granted under specific circumstances and with labyrinthine conditions. One or both of this girl’s parents were either dead or in so much debt that their only solution was to enroll their daughter in a government work program and have her transformed into a machine.

“None of the other grocery stores have a floral department like this,” she added. “I wanted to work in a florist’s or a nursery when I got modded, but the only options were heavy labor stuff.” She shrugged again. “Don’t really need Flexx or SteelSkel to arrange flowers.”

When Jenna got modded, she kept her muscles delicate and trimmed her waistline to a permanent nineteen inches. On campus, she always wore crop tops to show off her exaggerated hourglass figure. This girl weighed as much as two Jennas and had had her future rebuilt by ULI before she could even draw up her own plans.

I bent down and plucked a yellow rose out of the wastebasket. Its stem was intact, but many of the outer petals were bruised. I plucked off the most damaged petals and held it out to her.

“I can’t pay for that,” she whispered, her cheeks going pink.

“It was going to be thrown out. I’d rather it go to someone who appreciates it.”

“I have to walk another mile, and it’s hot out.” She was backing away, her huge frame seeming to shrink.

“Just put it in water first thing. Anyone can arrange flowers,” I said, “but someone strong has to get the roots in the ground first.”

She stretched out one hand. “Will it be okay?”

“You’d be surprised what thrives.”

Finally, she took the flower, smiling. “Thank you.”

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