Lily Bloom looked over the sea of gray tombstones lined up in their precise locations. She’d never come here before. Why would she? No one in her family had died that she knew of in her eighteen years.
Except now one of the most important people in her life did die. Her mother. Suddenly. Tragically.
Lily stood holding her younger sisters’ hands on each side of her. Poppy was sixteen, Rose fifteen. The three of them stared at the tiny marker on the ground. They couldn’t afford much and there would have been no casket or burial without the help of her mother’s boss, Carl Blossoms. Lily wouldn’t take advantage of his kindness and told him she was grateful for any arrangements he made. That and the donations coming their way for the three girls that were now orphans was the only way this small gathering could happen.
“Do you need another tissue?” she asked Poppy.
Her sister turned and stopped wiping her nose on the sleeve of her black shirt. It was June and hot, but the girls didn’t have a lot of clothes and certainly not dark clothing. The trickle of sweat between her shoulder blades reminded Lily she was actually wearing a black dress of their mother’s. Pulling it out of the closet this morning almost caused her knees to buckle.
She’d held it together because she had to.
“Yes,” Poppy said. Lily, being the oldest of the girls and the one who looked out for them when her mother wasn’t around, pulled a small packet of tissues out of her purse and handed one to each girl.
Rose shook her head and looked away. Her eyes were still dry, as she was holding it all in. When it came out it was going to be an explosion of epic proportions, Lily was sure. She just hoped she would be around to care for Rose then.
The priest that Carl had arranged spoke, but nothing he said registered. He was a stranger to the family. Not many knew the Blooms. Or they didn’t care that much about the single mother that lived above Blossoms Florist and worked there full time. Mystic was more a tourist area so those passing through were just that…passing through like most did in their lives.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Maggie said. She worked at the florist shop too. Nice older lady that was a part-time employee with Lily and her sisters. Carl was kind enough to give them all jobs and help out the best he could. She had no idea how old he was, older than her mother for sure, and single. She’d never known him to ever date that she could remember. Not that she paid much attention. Maybe he was gay. She’d heard the rumors but brushed them off. He treated her and her family well and that was all she cared about.
“Thank you,” she said to Maggie.
One by one, shop owners and employees that worked on Main Street and had the time to stop their busy day came over to the three girls and gave their condolences. It was a blur of voices and faces. As sad as it was, the only thing going through her mind was how she could hold her family together when she only worked part-time and was starting college in the fall.
Community college might not seem like much to many people, but it was more than her mother had and it was a start for her. Anything to get out of the working poor trap she’d been in her whole life.
“What’s going to happen to us?” Poppy asked. She was the most open and sensitive of the three of them. Rose internalized everything. Lily was just serious. She had to be. The stand-in mom had been her role for way too long.
“Let’s not worry about it now,” Lily said. “I’ll figure it out. I’m legally an adult, so until or unless someone comes knocking on our door, we are staying together.”
“Where?” Rose asked. “We don’t make enough money to pay rent and everything else we need.”
“Don’t worry about those things,” she said, running her hand over Rose’s dirty blonde hair. It was tied back, but the warm breeze had worked some strands loose and they were floating along her cheeks making her look younger and more vulnerable.
That was the word that was screaming in her brain over their current situation. Vulnerable.
“How can we not?” Poppy asked, starting to sniffle. The dramatic one, but if any time called for it, it was now.
“Leave it to me. I’ll figure it out.”
They got back into her mother’s car, Lily wondering when the next payment was due and how that was going to work too. Today couldn’t be the day for any of this.
When they were back in their apartment, she heard a knock at the door and went to open it. A few people had dropped off food already, which was going to be helpful.
“Carl,” she said to her boss. “Hi.”
“Can we talk?”
Great. Just what she needed. She’d bet this was when he told her they had to move out of the apartment. She wasn’t about to beg though.
“Sure,” she said, opening the door wider.
“Downstairs in my office would be best.”
She nodded her head. Carl looked more skittish than normal. He wasn’t much taller than her, probably just as skinny. His hair was thinning and there was some sweat on his brow. He looked nervous, which only made her more nervous.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Lily started as soon as he shut the door to his office. “Can you give me a little time to figure things out and then you can have the apartment back?”
“What?” he said. “You think I’m going to kick you out?” He looked shocked and almost hurt over her words.
“I figured you probably need the space to rent. But I want to see if I can handle the expenses and find a full-time job.”
“No,” he said quickly. “I’m not kicking you out. I mean not like you think.”
That sounded like having to leave to her. “So then what?”
“I know this is going to come out of left field to you. And some are going to talk and I don’t care. I liked your mother as a person. She was nice to me when a lot of people weren’t, even including me in holiday dinners. I’ve watched you girls grow and consider you a family of my own on some level.”
“Mom was that way.” Holly Bloom was a kind gentle soul who happened to fall in love with a loser that never wanted to marry her and then abandoned her to raise his daughters alone.
“She’d want me to take care of you girls. I want to do it. But I’ve got no legal tie to you or your sisters. I’m not sure how it would work. Guardianship takes time. I’ve never been through those channels. There would be lawyers involved. All sorts of things.”
“I appreciate that. Going through the courts might raise attention to us and I’d rather not do that. Maybe we can skate through for a few years until the girls are older and adults. I’ll try to find full-time work and pay the bills.”
“No. You wanted to go to college and it’s your mother’s dream that the three of you would. I think the best way to make sure you stay together and survive is that you marry me.”
“What?” Lily asked, not sure she heard him right. She turned eighteen a few months ago. She was an adult in number only. She should be able to keep her sisters…maybe. Well, definitely not on her own, but she had no intention of letting the girls know that.
“I know it sounds crazy. But it would solve a lot of problems and worries for you girls. You can stay in the apartment for now, but my house is big and empty and there is plenty of room. We could figure things out as we go. I won’t pressure you for anything. It can be short term. Just a few years if you want. I really mean it.”
There was so much going through her mind, but the hard truth and basic facts were—Carl was the only solution she had. And she’d do anything to keep her family together.