Cedric the florist locked and unlocked the doors of his pale brown Escort twenty-three times – twenty-four if it was a Tuesday – nodding his head sharply with each beep of the alarm to make sure he stayed on count. On the twelfth beep he lost track and clenched his jaw so tightly he heard a ringing in his ears. Usually it wouldn’t matter but today he had somewhere important to be. He referred to himself as Cedric the florist quite openly so he wouldn’t be confused with Cedric the butcher, his second cousin on his mother’s side, or Cedric the mathematician, the brother-in-law he hoped he’d never have to meet. Slowly, he released the suction between his teeth, bit a small hole into the soft, pink skin on his bottom lip, and started counting again.
“It’s locked,” said The Wolf who was sitting, as he always was, in the passenger seat next to Cedric.
“Oh see, you’ve made me lose count again,” Cedric replied.
“You’re on eighteen – just keep going.”
“You know that’s not how it works.”
“We’re going to be late.”
“Then let me finish!”
The Wolf licked his nose in the way dogs always do when they’re bored and waited for Cedric to complete his cycle. He’d lived with Cedric for seven years but still found himself in awe of the human propensity for wasting time. He was named The Wolf because Cedric liked to think he had a knack for seeing things as they really were, and when Cedric found the young basset hound stranded on the side of the road he chose a name befitting what he thought to be the chunky pup’s true character. Only the puppy was never stranded and The Wolf’s real owners are probably still wondering why he ran away during one of their daily walks.
The Wolf had tried to walk home many times but always lost his way and ended up back at Cedric’s house when he became too hungry. His heavy body and short feet were not built for long journeys, as he soon found out. The Wolf was divided, like a tub of Neapolitan ice-cream, into perfect thirds of black, brown and white. He knew this about himself because he’d heard it being said by people around him all the time. He found it annoying, especially when said by those who believed it had never been said before and laughed louder than necessary to drown out the fact that no-one else was laughing. The Wolf’s days were spent ignoring Cedric’s incessant babbling and trying his best not to step on his own ears. And while he has always known what Cedric really does, he has never cared enough about the man to judge.
Cedric finally switched the engine on and started towards the highway. It was important to make up as much time as possible because today was the last day of the year and therefore the last opportunity to finish the most important of his cycles. The timing wasn’t ideal but Cedric didn’t choose the days. In fact he’d developed a system in order for the days to appear as spontaneous as possible. Every six months he threw a plastic dart at the calendar on his fridge and picked days at random for the rest of the year.
“Turn on the radio, will you,” said The Wolf.
“I don’t like the music they play. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”
“I realise that. But I can’t spend the next eight hours listening to your rambling.”
“I haven’t said a single word.”
“Not yet. But you’re nervous. I know what happens when you’re nervous,” he said, and proceeded to nibble a flea on his paw with the edges of his front teeth.
Cedric reluctantly turned the radio on to a song by the rapper Snoop Dogg. The Wolf liked him, not because of the name but because he enjoyed the poetry of the rapper’s freestyle and admired the subtle socio-economic commentary embedded in each song. He pressed his paw against the button on the passenger door, sliding the window down, and let his head hang out, allowing the cool air to inflate his flabby cheeks. This was the most fun The Wolf had had in weeks – he always found the time between Cedric’s episodes to be frightfully stagnant.
The Wolf felt the car slowing down as Cedric pulled into the parking lot of a hardware store far from their home. They needed to buy supplies for their trip. The list was more or less the same each time: three rolls of industrial quality black plastic bags, two extra drill bits for the drill named Hoodwink Cedric kept in his boot, six rolls of brown gaffer tape, one rubber mallet, twelve metres of extra strength nylon rope, a few boxes of Clingfilm, one pair of orange plyers, four paper face masks, two pairs of rubber gloves, a can of gasoline, three boxes of matches (just in case) and a large packet of extra-cheesy Nik-Naks. He’d already packed a mop and bucket from home and brought along his own home-made detergent because he didn’t trust the cheap chemicals they sold in the stores. If there was one thing Cedric hated more than anything else, it was a mess.
Cedric opened the packet of crisps once they were back in the car and shared them equally between himself and The Wolf. One for him, one for the dog. He had covered the front seat with some of the plastic bags before getting in to avoid the orange crumbs staining his meticulously cleaned upholstery. Cedric enjoyed having The Wolf around but did wish he’d learn to chew with his mouth closed.
“Do you think we’ll make it in time?” The Wolf asked between crunches.
“We have to.”
“What happens if you don’t finish your cycle?”
“I don’t know. This has never happened before. I don’t really want to think about it.”
Cedric picked up a moist napkin from a plastic dispenser attached to the dashboard and rubbed his hands so hard his skin turned pink. He didn’t like leaving things to chance but today the system demanded it and it was the system that kept him out of trouble. The Wolf rubbed his snout against the seat, cleaning the crumbs from his near-invisible whiskers:
“You know, if I were human I …”
“I wouldn’t like you if you were human.”
“I didn’t realise you liked me at all.”
“More than I like humans.”
“That’s not saying very much, then, is it?”
“Oh, you know what I mean.”
“Well, I was going to say, if I were human I wouldn’t work in a flower shop.”
“It’s called a florist.”
“It’s a shop. That sells flowers. It’s a flower shop. And it’s boring as hell.”
“It’s not boring, it’s peaceful.”
“And it’s messy.”
“Not mine. Mess is for amateurs.”
Cedric had worked as a florist most of his life. He spent each day with an apron wrapped neatly around his waist, often knee-deep in well-organised left over mulch and carefully folded damp newspapers. It’s not that he liked flowers, particularly, but more that the industry was perfectly suited to his taste. Florists are popular enough to earn a decent living but not so popular that they’re inundated with customers. Also, nowadays, most people phone their orders in. Cedric was never fond of people which is why he’d chosen The Wolf as his best friend. He reserved a special hatred for customers who asked for the thorns to be cut off roses because he believed the thorns were the most beautiful part of the flower. He kept every thorn he cut off and bought a large fish tank to store them in. The tank sat, like a little graveyard, in the living room next to scrap books filled with clippings from the local paper and an overused vacuum cleaner named Jackson.
“I guess I just don’t understand why you couldn’t have found someone a bit closer to home.”
“You know that’s not how it works.”
“I think we established a while ago that I don’t know how any of this shit works.”
“Sorry. How any of this nonsense works.”
“It’s not nonsense.”
“Well, let’s see, we’re driving for hours to complete some stupid cycle you’ve compelled yourself to complete and if you don’t? Oh that’s right, you’re not even sure what happens if you don’t. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is way more fun than lying on the kitchen floor licking my own balls, but it’s a bit weird, don’t you think?”
Cedric switched the radio off, frustrated by the repetitive rhythms flooding his car. They drove for an amount of time neither could pinpoint, bathed in silence. The Wolf watched as cars passed, one after the other, carrying overwhelmed parents and lonely truck drivers and single women singing at the tops of their voices. Cedric refused to drive faster than eighty kilometres per hour because of a small accident he’d had six years ago when he was driving at eighty-five. The Wolf toyed with the idea of suggesting a higher speed but knew the conversation would be futile, as most of their conversations usually were.
“What should we do once it’s over?” asked The Wolf.
“Go back home,” Cedric replied.
“Yeah, but it’s the last one. You should celebrate.”
“There’s no reason to celebrate.”
“See, that’s what I mean. I really have no fucking clue how this works!”
“You think I enjoy this, don’t you? Well, I don’t. It takes hours and hours of planning, really it’s exhausting. And the mess! I’d never choose something this messy. That’s the worst part, cleaning everything up. You’d think I’d have it down by now but they always bleed so much. I never knew people had so much blood in them. It’s like, where do they keep it all?”
“In their veins, I’m guessing.”
“Don’t be a smartarse! You asked.”
“I’m starting to regret bringing you along,” said Cedric, furrowing his brow.
“Yeah, well, you did. You got any smokes?”
“I gave up.”
“Perhaps this is a good time to quit. It’s a nasty habit.”
“Just stop at the next gas station, will you?”
“We don’t have time.”
“Jesus Christ, does everything have to be a fight with you? You know what I’m like without my nicotine!”
“Fine. But we have to be quick.”
“Calm down, we’ll make it there just fine. It’s not like she’s going anywhere.”
Cedric slid the Escort into a barely large enough parking bay and stepped out cautiously, looking around to see if anyone was watching.
“Stay in the car,” he barked at The Wolf.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere. Where would I even go, dummy?”
Cedric walked into the gas station mini mart and pointed to a pack of Marlboro Reds mounted on a pathetically stocked shelf behind the cashier. The Wolf liked the strong ones that burnt the back of his throat. Cedric looked through the gas station’s large automatic glass doors to the Escort where The Wolf was still seated quietly in the front seat. He contemplated leaving him there with the woman behind the counter, just until his job was done. Cedric hadn’t had much time to assess her character but she seemed nice enough. And while the thick black hairs on her upper lip proved quite distracting Cedric felt the fact that she could work out the change in her head, instead of using a calculator, showed how capable she could really be.
He needed a clear head and The Wolf’s constant chatter was disruptive. Cedric would never admit it but he knew exactly what would happen if he didn’t complete his cycle. He’d come close nearly a decade ago. In fact, his decision to share his home with The Wolf was informed by the events of that time and, consequently, by his own nasty will to survive. See, if Cedric didn’t complete the cycle that brought him the most relief, his only option, at least in his assessment, was to take his own life. Although he always thought the word ‘suicide’ was a bit harsh and preferred to view it as an act of service. He told himself that The Wolf’s presence would help him think twice before drilling a hole through the side of his head. Something about a sense of responsibility or the guilt of leaving an innocent creature orphaned. In truth, Cedric simply liked the idea that perhaps this way something would miss him when he was gone.
Cedric slipped the pack of cigarettes into the pocket of his jeans and walked back to the car. As he approached he found the passenger door standing wide open. He realised quickly that The Wolf was missing. He searched the car thoroughly before deciding to fall into a panic. This was the sort of silly game The Wolf was fond of playing, especially in moments of heightened anxiety. He flung open all the doors and moved the seats back and forth. He flipped open the boot, checked under the car and then on the roof just to be sure. He walked circles around the vehicle, certain The Wolf was trailing closely behind him waiting to pounce, until he accepted this time it wasn’t a joke.
“No, no, no, no, no, we don’t have time for this.”
He walked around the tiny concrete building, past the tanks of petrol and an abandoned car wash, then back into the mini mart where he lost all respect for the cashier who didn’t seem to care about his predicament.
“Did you check the boot?” she asked lethargically, leaning an elbow on the greasy counter.
Cedric stormed out of the shop, only just missing the glass doors whose speed of automation was not designed for panicked customers with an out-of-town pace.
“We don’t have time for this,” he muttered over and over again to himself, “We don’t have time for this.”
Cedric wondered who would want to steal The Wolf, of all dogs. The Wolf was slow and displayed little interested in his own personal hygiene. He was apathetic at the worst of times and lippy at the best; neither a suitable guard dog nor a satisfactory companion. But as much as Cedric wasn’t too interested in having the dog around for the remainder of the trip he was acutely aware of the dog’s role in helping him make it through the day alive.
Cedric climbed into the driver’s seat, opening and closing the door six times, nodding his head with each click of the metal clasp. He waited for a while, trying to collect his thoughts. Cedric was not partial to sudden change and a disappearing dog was certainly not on today’s agenda. He dropped his head into the palms of his hands, rocking his body gently back and forth, willing the motion to aid him in manufacturing a contingency plan.
Suddenly, he saw the moustached cashier next to his door. She tapped on the window and spoke loudly, as if she thought the sound struggled to travel through the layer of glass between them.
“He’s over there,” she said, mouthing the words carefully and pointing, “in the field.”
Cedric looked up and in the direction of her long red fingernail. He climbed out of the car and ran towards the field which had previously gone unnoticed.
“Hey!” he cried, “Get over here!”
The Wolf recognised the tone first and then the voice and jogged back towards the car. Cedric felt the blood rush to his face.
“What in the heck are you doing? We don’t have time for this!”
The Wolf couldn’t reply on account of a large mouse occupying most of the space in his long snout.
“You’re playing your silly games again,” said Cedric, wagging his forefinger up and down, “It’s not bleeding funny!”
They stood in silence; The Wolf staring blankly at Cedric and Cedric panting angrily but still wagging his finger. After some time The Wolf dropped the mouse to the ground and licked his nose.
“For you,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Cedric stood transfixed while The Wolf climbed back into the passenger seat. It took a few moments for him to realise what had happened but once he’d reached the required level of comprehension he came to feel a strange sense of appreciation. Although it wasn’t the gesture itself he appreciated most. He knelt down to examine the dead mouse, his gift, more closely. It was really the precision of the kill that Cedric was most touched by. Not a drop of blood spilt and all the bits and pieces in their place. What skill, he thought, as he walked back to the car. He sat down calmly in his seat and decided The Wolf had proven himself worthy for the final leg of the trip.
Hours passed as they drove through towns The Wolf had never visited and had no interested in coming back to. As night fell and the two toggled the switch of the radio, then on, then off, the mood in the little car plateaued at steady tolerance. It would have been a stretch to say that either of them was having a good time but they tolerated each other enough to get through the last leg without any outbursts.
They reached a bumpy patch of road strewn with loose gravel. Cedric slowed the car and leaned forward, his chin almost touching the steering wheel. The silence in the car was broken only by the sound of small stones jumping up against the undercarriage. After a few minutes of careful driving, the car shook and limped more aggressively than usual. Quickly, Cedric realised a tyre had burst and stopped the car on the side of the road.
The spare tyre in the boot hadn’t been used in ages, in fact Cedric couldn’t remember ever using it at all. Years ago Cedric had made the impractical decision to not learn how to change a tyre based on a cleanliness assessment he’d conducted. The risk for mess was just too high and now, because of his need to remain dirt-free at all times, Cedric was standing on the road’s blurry shoulder, waving his arms frantically at every car that passed.
A young, smiley man in a blue Honda flashed his lights and slowed down, stopping next to the stranded Escort. He rolled down his window to survey the scene and seemed delighted at the opportunity to offer his assistance. He climbed out of his car and shook Cedric’s hand firmly, smiling all the while. Cedric never understood why people smiled when they didn’t need to. Unless something was funny or you won a prize on a television game show, smiling was a waste of energy.
“You got a spare tyre?” asked the stranger.
“Yes, in the boot,” replied Cedric forgetting about the supplies he’d stashed there at the start of the day. He opened the lid and watched for the stranger’s reaction.
“Some supplies you have here!” said the stranger, still smiling.
Cedric cleared his throat and tried his best to keep his voice steady: “Uh, I’m moving house. You know how it goes. Nowhere else to put all this junk for the time being.”
“Alright then, this shouldn’t take long,” said the stranger, who waded through the boot’s contents to haul the pristine wheel out into the open.
“Yes, as quick as you can, please. We have somewhere to be,” said Cedric.
Cedric and The Wolf stood a few metres away from him, watching as he worked. He loosened some things and tightened others, he pried and poked and squeezed and even though his hands were full of grease and dirt he seemed to be having a pleasant time. The Wolf wondered why Cedric didn’t choose this stranger for the job instead of driving halfway across the province. It would have been so much easier if he did. They’d get back home quicker and, besides, the smiling man seemed like an easy target. He was scrawny and far too trusting. It was late and dark and there was no-one on the road for kilometres. The Wolf felt it was a wasted opportunity. He thought about broaching the issue but realised Cedric would probably tell him that was not how the whole thing worked and The Wolf didn’t particularly feel like having that conversation yet again.
“Where are my smokes?” asked The Wolf.
“They’re in the car,” said Cedric.
“What’s in the car?” asked the stranger, looking up sharply from what he was doing.
“Sorry?” said Cedric, startled.
“I thought I heard you say something was in the car,” replied the stranger.
“Oh no, I didn’t say anything.”
“Oh. I’m sure I heard you say something.”
“You heard wrong.”
Cedric shuffled his feet, pretending their exchange hadn’t happened while the stranger continued with his work.
“Can you just get me a smoke? Looks like we’re gonna be here a while,” said The Wolf.
“No!” exclaimed Cedric.
“Excuse me?” said the stranger.
“What?” said Cedric.
“What did you say?”
“Oh nothing,” said Cedric nervously, “Just muttering nonsense to myself.”
“Ok. It just sounds like you’re talking to me, is all.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not. Just muttering.”
Cedric walked over to the front of the car and motioned for The Wolf to follow.
“Shut up,” he whispered fiercely to The Wolf, “He’s getting weird.”
“Sorry. But that’s what happens when people catch you talking to a dog,” replied The Wolf, who trotted over to the front wheel of the car and lifted his leg to relieve himself.
The stranger finished up his work and shook Cedric’s hand once again before driving away in his Honda. Cedric was relieved to have him gone. It was always a bit stressful interacting with The Wolf in public. Once the smiling man was safely out of sight the pair climbed back into the Escort and continued their slow journey down the bumpy road.
After a short while Cedric turned off the highway into a town that had seemingly decided not to erect any street lamps. The blackness of the night was thick and The Wolf sensed their destination was near. Cedric became more fidgety than usual, bumping his left knee up and down and tearing at the leather on the steering wheel with his right thumb. The Wolf lost track of the twists and turns the little car made but soon the vehicle slowed to a crawl and stopped dead in front of a tiny cottage whose front garden was littered with pink, plastic flamingos.
Cedric unbuckled his seat belt and looked over to The Wolf:
“Ok, this is it.”
They climbed from the car and walked steadily up the narrow stone steps to the red front door. Cedric knocked three times and waited. The Wolf could see through the window that the lights in the back of the house were on but no-one answered. Cedric knocked again. Finally, the door opened and an old, frail woman stood before them in a purple nightgown.
“Oh, hello, Cedric,” the woman said, sounding disappointed.
“What a surprise.”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“It’s been years. When was the last time… your eighteenth?”
“Something like that. This is my dog,” he said, pointing lamely at The Wolf.
“Oh, you have a dog now? He’s quite … round.”
“That’s an accurate observation. May we come inside?”
“Will you be staying long? I’m quite busy.”
Cedric looked down at The Wolf and then back at the old woman: “I don’t think so.”
“Well alright, then, if you must. Take off your shoes. And the dog stays outside, of course.”
Cedric walked The Wolf back to the car where he helped the dog settle into the front seat.
“Really, this time you have to stay.”
“How long you gonna be?”
The Wolf sighed deeply and nodded his large head.
“Just stay.” Cedric walked back to the cottage and through the small front door.
“Would you like something to drink?” the woman asked.
“No, thank you. I’m here strictly on business.”
“Business? I don’t see any flowers.”
“Other … business.”
“I see. Shall we sit?”
They went into the lounge where Cedric sat uneasily on a plastic-covered couch. He heard the crunch of the plastic as he adjusted his behind nervously and sat thinking of his next move.
“So, did you come here just to stare at me?”
“No. I’m finishing my cycle today. Do you understand?”
“And, as you know, I don’t really have a choice with these things.”
“Yes, I understand how this all works. Your father had a similar affliction, you know. But at least he had the decency to steer clear of family members.”
“I am not my father.”
“You’ve got that right.”
Cedric clenched his teeth restraining himself from delivering a snide response. He had always struggled to keep his cool around his mother.
“Look, I don’t want to prolong this any more than necessary.”
“You seem to have made up your mind.”
“It’s just something that has to be done.”
“Is there even any point in me putting up a fight?”
“If you’d like to add an element of drama to this process, that’s fine. I take no issue with how you decide to go.”
Cedric’s mother fell silent and rubbed her hands together slowly as if to keep them warm. She looked at her lap for a moment and when she looked back at Cedric her eyes were filled with tears.
“Do you at least feel a bit guilty?” she asked.
“I’m your mother, Cedric.”
“You’ve always used that term quite loosely.”
“How dare you!”
Cedric and his mother locked eyes, each willing the other to break their composure.
“So, no guilt then?” she said.
“I suppose I’d like to say that I do … feel guilty.”
“Of course you would.”
“Well, if there’s nothing more to say …”
“I tried contacting you, you know? Cedric, the smart Cedric, updates me now and then. He’s doing quite well, working at a new school. He mentioned that you’re doing the same as you always are.”
“I suppose he’s right.”
“Oh Cedric, I’ve always wanted more for you.”
“I think it’s best if we just get on with it. It’s getting late.”
Cedric started moving towards to door to retrieve the necessary supplies from the boot of the car but turned back to his mother who was still sitting motionless on the couch.
“Thank you for being civil about this.”
“All I ask is that you clean up properly after. You know how I hate a mess.”
The Wolf couldn’t tell time but he’d heard humans talking about something called an eternity and decided that sitting in a car waiting for your owner is what an eternity must have felt like. He tried to listen for signs of progress but Cedric had really honed his craft over the years and was particularly skilled at moving silently. Now and then he heard a thump and saw a light flicker on an off, but that was it. He tried switching the radio on but Cedric had taken the key inside with him. The Wolf never understood why Cedric always took the key seeing as he would never be able to reach both the wheels and the pedals at the same time. He pressed every button he could find, licked the crumbs from every fold in the seats and finally, when he couldn’t think of any other way to amuse himself he defaulted to the activity all dogs seem to do when they’ve run out of ideas: licking his balls.
Then the Wolf noticed that all the lights in the house had been switched off and not long after that he saw Cedric’s thin frame emerge from the front door. It was two minutes past midnight when Cedric finally walked out from the house and back to the car. The Wolf saw that his stance was different from before; he held himself higher and walked with an eerie coolness. Cedric opened the driver’s door, lowered himself into the seat and sat quietly with his hands in his lap. The Wolf was never sure how to break the silence after one of Cedric’s episodes so he waited a while, listening to the man’s long, steady breaths.
“How’d it go?”
Cedric remained silent, staring into the blackness in front of him.
“Hey,” The Wolf said a bit louder, “How’d it go?”
Cedric inhaled deeply as if he’d been holding his breath the entire time and calmly shifted his gaze towards The Wolf.
“Oh it was a great success. The clean-up took a bit longer than usual but I wanted to make sure everything was spic and span. It’s what she would have wanted.”
“How’re you feeling?”
“Much better. What a relief.”
“Good. Alright then, anything else we have to do?”
“No, let’s go home.”
Cedric the florist, not to be confused with Cedric the butcher – who was rumoured to head up an underground ring of illegal horsemeat traders – or Cedric the mathematician – who was fired from his last job at a primary school for indecent exposure – locked and unlocked the doors of his pale brown Escort twenty-four times. It was now a Tuesday. He nodded with each beep of the alarm to make sure he stayed on count but was prepared for the eventuality that he might not.
“It’s locked,” said The Wolf, who had retreated to the back seat so he could stretch out his hind legs.
“Oh see, you’ve made me lose count,” replied Cedric.
“You’re on eleven – just keep going.”
“For the last time, you know that’s not how it works.”
The Wolf yawned and licked his nose. Cedric breathed deeply, bit the dry skin from around the edge of his left thumbnail, and started counting again.