“I have half a mind to go out there and smack him upside the head with my garden shovel,” I spat as I watched the young man in my garden from the living room window.
My wife placed her worn hands calmly on my stooped shoulders. After fifty-two years, she knew exactly what to do, and I relaxed. “Darling, don’t you think there is a perfectly good explanation for this?” Her trembling voice washed over me. I remembered how strident and powerful her voice used to be. “I mean, he’s not exactly displaying malicious intent by stealing a bouquet of flowers.”
I turned and looked into her beautiful, wrinkled face. “Betty.” I grasped her hands, now hanging at her sides. “I’ve worked on that garden for as long as we’ve lived here.” Dropping one of her hands, I motioned to our outdated furniture and decor. “The fact that our whole yard is filled with healthy blooms did not happen overnight.”
“Yes, Tony, but––”
“One would think a person would have enough common sense to know that, but apparently, that boy doesn’t have sense enough to respect it.” I clenched and unclenched my jaw.
She released my hands. “Well, why don’t you just go out and ask him why he takes our flowers, Tony?”
She made her way out of our living room, and I turned back to the window. The trespasser was gone. I scowled. “I may just do that.”
I know Betty was teasing when she told me to ask the boy why he took my flowers, but that wasn’t going to stop me from doing it. She had a doctor’s appointment on this fine Friday morning, the day the boy always came, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to sneak into the garden and wait for the dirty little thief.
I waited so long I thought he wouldn’t come.The moment I was about to vacate my hiding place, I heard the thump. He must have hopped over the fence. My fence. I frowned.
I stayed put until I heard scissors snipping, and that’s when I made my move. I hoisted the shovel above my head, my body protesting, and jumped out into his view.
“Don’t move or I swear I’ll clobber you.” I shook the shovel threateningly, but the truth was, it was hurting my back.
He stared at me, open-mouthed, for a solid minute. I narrowed my eyes when he finally spoke.
“I…I’m so sorry––”
He kept blathering on, but I stopped listening. I looked him up and down and took in his dark eyes and hair, his worn-out jeans, and his faded T-shirt. He looked like a man in his late twenties to me. Still fresh-faced with broad, strong shoulders and a trim waist. What I wouldn’t give for a young body like that at my age.
When he had finished stuttering some form of an apology that I had ignored, I spoke. “My wife thinks there must be some perfectly reasonable explanation for you stealing my flowers.” I raised wiry gray eyebrows.
I didn’t let him finish. “You better hope for your sake that I think your excuse“––I emphasized the word––”is reasonable.” Lowering the shovel, I placed it in the dirt.
“It is, I promise. You see––”
“Is it for some girl?” My voice was gruff.
His dark eyes darted back and forth. “Yes, but it’s––”
“She better be worth it, boy.”
He took a step forward. “She is, but you––”
“Take me to her.” I folded my arms over my round belly.
“Sir, I don’t want to––”
“I don’t care what you want.” I lashed out. “You’ve been stealing my flowers for nearly seven months now, and I want to meet this girl you think is worth the theft of my flowers that, by the way, I grow for my girl.”
An odd look passed across his face as he nodded and looked around for a way out of the garden. I walked over to a gate that let out near the main road and sarcastically motioned him through it. Blushing, he ducked his head and hurried past me. Rolling my eyes, I shut the gate behind me.
“What’s her name?” I asked as we began walking down the street.
His voice sounded tight. Was he embarrassed that I had caught him? He should be. “And what’s yours?”
“It’s Ben.” His dark eyes glanced at me. “What’s yours, if I may ask?”
Oh, so now he wants to be polite even though he’s still gingerly carrying the flowers he stole. “Tony,” I replied sharply.
We were passing under a spot of shade, a welcome relief from the early morning summer sun, when Ben spoke again. “Tony, I want to apologize––”
“The conscience you seem to have developed in the last few minutes hasn’t stopped you from stealing my flowers for months, and I sure as the grave don’t want your apology now.” I paused for a moment, regaining control of my temper and lowering my voice. “All I want is to know about this girl, Alice. How did you meet her?”
Ben’s eyes kept darting back and forth, but he told me the story. Apparently, it was pretty common. They met in school. They started dating a while later. And so forth and so on. I moved on. “I noticed the wedding ring.” I motioned at his hand. “How long have you been married?”
The slightest of smiles graced his lips. “A little over three years now.”
I huffed. “By heaven, you’re still newlyweds.”
Yes,” Ben replied thickly and cleared his throat.
I saw pain flash deep in his nearly black eyes. Good gracious. The wedding memories can’t be pleasant at all. Family can be a real pain sometimes. I should know. Betty’s family…well. I stopped myself from going down that rabbit trail in my mind and moved on.
“Have you two been happy together?”
His smile was back, but there was still pain in his eyes. What could have happened at that wedding? “So happy. Happier than all the stars in the heavens. Happier than the clouds when they have clear blue skies to sail. Happier than flower seeds when they find the earth is warm enough to grow in again.” He paused for a moment and seemed far away. I thought he must be remembering something, and my suspicions were confirmed when he spoke again. “Those are all things she’s said to me when I’ve asked if she was happy.”
“So she’s one of those real dreamy types?” I rolled my eyes a little. “She sounds like it.”
“Yes. Always dreaming. Always imagining. The way she sees the world, it’s like…” He paused and motioned to the things around us. The road, the sidewalk we were walking on, and the small field to our left. “It’s like she makes everything come alive around you. Everything is living. Breathing. And you never saw it that way before, but if you are around Alice you do. She is the definition of life.”
Looking around, I wondered if Ben really saw things differently when he was with Alice. It was just his version, I suppose. I felt something similar when I was with Lucy. I decided on my next question. “How’d you end up with her?”
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “I told you how we met.”
I sighed. “Yes, but not how you got together. What happened after you met? Where did you go on your first date?”
Ben clenched his jaw for a moment before he answered. “I took her to a conservatory.”
I raised my eyebrows. After his speech about Alice a moment ago, I had expected more detail. “Is that it?”
I frowned. “You really have a way with words, you know that? You could move me to tears with your monosyllables.”
Ben wasn’t focused on me or my words, and I was too focused on him to see where we had come to. But, when he stepped across in front of me to open the gate, I stopped in my tracks.
Ben had passed through and taken several steps before he realized I wasn’t following and turned around.
“No.” My voice was soft for the first time since our meeting.
Tears brimmed in his black eyes as he nodded and turned his back to me once again. I followed in silence.
We trekked to the back of the graveyard and the top of a hill. Ben was already on his knees placing the flowers by a headstone by the time I reached the top, breathing heavily.
My eyes might have been old, but I could clearly read the name on the simple grave, Alice Reid, and the date. My eyes widened. Seven months. She had died seven months ago. Exactly when Ben had shown up in my garden.
“I tried to tell you.”
His voice, which I had thought young and strong, sounded small and broken now. My body would regret this, but I didn’t care. I placed a weathered hand on his shoulder and knelt in the grass with him. I was still putting the pieces together in my mind, but I spoke anyway.
“I see that now. I’m sorry I pushed you, Ben.” I glanced at the fresh stone. “I have no right to be here.”
He shrugged. “I have been stealing your flowers.”
I nodded even though he couldn’t see me. His head was bent, staring at the ground. I looked again at his worn-out clothes and shaggy brown hair. “You can’t afford them, can you?”
His dark, curly head moved side to side slowly, and he lifted a tear-stained face to me. “They were her favorite thing in this world. That’s why I took her to a conservatory on our first date.” He turned his face to the stone and placed a gentle hand on it. “I can’t bear––” He stopped. His body shook with sobs, and tears welled in my own eyes. How could I have been so harsh? “I can’t bear for her to be without them. I’m sorry I stole from you, I just––”
I spoke quickly. “No, no, no. Ben, look at me.” He turned his young face to me once again. My heart squeezed in remorse. All the nasty thoughts I had about him over the previous months ran through my head. I swallowed the lump in my throat, determined to make this right. “Don’t you ever spend a dime on flowers, Ben. You come to my garden every day if you want. Take as many flowers as you want. You can even take something to plant if you want. In fact, please do. I want you to. I just want to know one thing.”
He sniffed. “Anything.”
“How did she die, Ben?” I regretted my question immediately.
Ben’s tears came again and he bent so far his forehead touched the ground. His sobs pierced my soul as a shaking hand reached out and a single finger pointed.
My heart beat quickly. I knew what was coming. I slowly twisted away from Ben to look beside Alice’s grave. There was another stone. Laying flat against the earth. Only one date read below the name, Amelia Reid. The same date Alice died. I felt my heart shatter. A child should bring life, not death. Joy, not sorrow. My tears spilled over now.
Ben had lost them both that day.
Sorry for the delay on this one, guys. I was out of town last week, and we decided to postpone. But it’s here now! And I hope you enjoyed it even though it is a sad one. Cassie’s version of the story is up on her blog, as well as the prompt we used for this one, and you should definitely go check it out. It’s called Gardenias and Graveyards and, as always, it’s amazing. click HERE to read it. 🙂