Maggie knelt among the roses and lilies and purple lilac. The scents merged into a delicate perfume unique to her garden. This was her happy place – the only place where she truly felt safe. Content. Here, she could forget the troubles of the world, and at the same time, truly feel as if she were a part of it.
Her back, warmed by the sun bent without strain as she dug the invading weeds from around her treasured plants. Out foxtail. Dandelion, begone!
Her trusty spade dove deep into the soil, under the roots, then came out bearing unwelcome plant and soil and a hapless, wriggling worm with it.
She grabbed the offending weed with a gloved hand, gave it a quick shake to free the clinging soil, then dropped it into an old paint bucket.
Other folks dreaded the toil – the backbreaking work. She delighted in it. It kept her spine supple and strong, though the honey color in her hair had long since been chased out by gray. Today, her long hair was bound by a pink scrunchy. A floppy wicker hat kept the sun off her face.
So intent was she on her labors, that she didn’t notice a bough slowly reach out. Surprised when it nipped her wrist with its thorn, she jerked her arm back, then looked up at the offending rose. It’s cheery yellow blossom, a reflection of the sun’s own face, smiled in mischievous affection.
“Feeling left out, are you?” she said, and reached out with her hand, still stinging, to caress the bloom. “I’m sorry dear one. I don’t mean to ignore you.”
The bloom’s face refined itself from impish to adoring. It purred and snuggled into her palm.
Maggie sat back on her heels and surveyed her yard. The star jasmine sang out from the fence. Its ringing soprano voice proclaimed its love for its home under the ancient orange tree – that magnificent old codger that gave fruit all year long. Next to it, Butch, the feral blackberry vine that continually fought for space and attention – commanded more room than she should allow. It demanded blood, but in the late summer, gave the sweetest fruit.
Above, Bobby and Cissy – a devoted pair of crows – cawed their good morning as they flew over, reminding her that it was time for breakfast. Still, so much to do, she thought, but the day was young. She’d return later. Time now, for coffee and toast.
She sat down at the table. Her food already laid out for her. Her son, Charlie set her pills and water glass down by her plate as he fell into his own chair. It creaked under his ponderous weight
“Your cheeks are flushed. Warm outside?” He asked around a mouthful of eggs.
“Gorgeous.” she said, a little distant. Her mind still in the garden and the hundred projects to complete before day’s end.
“Ricky scratched me today.” she held up her hand and realized she’d neglected to remove her gloves. Had Charlie noticed? No. He’d been too busy with his breakfast. She slipped them off under the table, and the snuck them into her pocket.
“Who’s Ricky?” Charlie asked. trapping his eggs between fork and toast then stuffing them into his mouth, which was already full.
“Pardon?” Maggie asked.
“You said Ricky scratched you.” He took a sip of coffee to mix with the food stuffed in his mouth.
“Oh, Ricky. The rose. He just wanted some attention.” she rubbed her wrist as if lost in a dim memory.
Charlie paused his chewing, then choked down half of his mouthful. “Don’t forget to take your pills.” he said, pointing to them.
“Oh no. No, I won’t” she replied, still half-aware.
She took her first bite of toast and continued to gaze out through the sliding glass door.
“I’m gonna be late tonight, Mom. You gonna be okay?” he asked.
“Okay? Oh, yeah, well, sure.” she replied, still hazy.
“Mom.” He patted her hand. “Mom.” he said again. she seemed to come back to herself a little and looked at him.
“Your pills, mom.” he gestured with his fork.
“Oh.” She put one in her mouth and followed it with a swallow of coffee. Then repeated the act.
Charlie took her hand in both of his and looked deeply into her eyes. He spoke slow and loud. Over-pronouncing his words as if he were addressing a child or someone who didn’t understand the language. “I’m staying in the city for dinner, Mom. Will you be okay?”
Maggie’s vacant look clarified. “Go fuck yourself! I’m not a God-damned idiot!”
He jerked his hand back as if she’d bitten it.
Hurt. Silent. He picked up his fork and the plate holding his half-finished breakfast and sulked over to the sink.
She turned back to the glass and lost herself again in the garden. The birds danced silently over her flowers. She rose to her feet, and started toward the door, then slipped out – returning to her happy place.
The air had warmed in the time she’d been away. She closed her eyes and inhaled the perfumed air – immersing herself in her languid world. Ah, home again. She considered pulling more weeds, but with the day warming, decided to move on to something a little less strenuous. She grabbed her pruning sheers and her bucket from where she’d left them next to the yellow rose bush.
“Who needs a trim?” she whispered.
The plants – all of them – tried to hide their branches behind themselves. This was particularly difficult for the star jasmine and other climbers, as their limbs stretched out for days on either side, intertwining with each other. The blackberry, usually the most aggressive, tried his best to appear nonchalant. He’d have whistled if he could. The sight was ridiculous, and she chuckled out loud.
Inside, Charlie paused, and hearing her laugh, let the tears run down his face and into the sink.
He took a moment to collect himself, pulled his phone out of the front pocket of his pants, and with his finger, scrolled down to “Dr. Rosen”. He sighed, then pushed the call button.
Maggie considered pruning the blackberry. He desperately needed it. It seemed that overnight, treacherous chutes ringed with jagged thorns had crept out into the walking path. She reconsidered. It was a beautiful day and she simply didn’t feel like dealing with him.
Instead, she settled on the climbing rose and ambled over to his plot by the side of the house. “Hi Harry.” she greeted him as she approached. “You’re the winner today. How ‘bout a quick bob?” She kept her voice light, so she didn’t scare him. He’d been a gift from her father – a cutting from his own climber.
Harry’s blossoms, bright puffy pink and as big as her hand, had begun to fade, dropping delicate petals onto the soil.
Maggie reached for the closest flower. It started to pull away. “Oh, don’t be such a baby. This won’t hurt.” She clasped the stem with her gloved hand, and clipped it just above a new bud – her shears angled just so – then dropped it into her bucket. She grabbed another, clipped and dropped. Then another – clip, drop.
“See? Not so bad, and you’ll have more blooms in just a couple of weeks.” She moved surely. Easily. Reaching, clipping, and dropping – all the while, chatting with her friend. Harry began to relax and told her about the time a sparrow nested within his branches, and the nest had been attacked by a blue jay.
“Horrible, horrible beasts.” He exclaimed. “The chicks stood no chance. No chance at all.” His accent betrayed his English heritage.
She reached for a stem which had grown a good 2 feet over her head. “Heavens, what did you do?” Clip. Drop.
“What could I do, after all? I thorned the bastard. Right in his arse.” Harry chuckled.
“You didn’t.” she giggled but kept to her task.
“You bet I did. He bled like a… well, like a stuck bird, is what. Fled the yard straightaway, he did.”
“And the chicks?”
“Oh, fine. Fine, of course. They visit me now and then. Bring their own chicks when they do. Lovely family.”
“Oh, I’m sure.” One final reach. Clip Drop.
“Well, that’s it, Harry. You’re done.”
“So soon?” he sounded surprised.
“There wasn’t much to trim. You keep yourself in tight form. Very fit for an ol’ climber.”
Harry chuckled warmly. “Your Dad taught you well. Bless him.”
Maggie leaned in and whispered, “I’ll stop by tomorrow with a little fish emulsion – we’ll keep those branches limber.”
He whispered back. “I look forward to it. Until tomorrow.”
Smiling, Maggie waved to her old friend, then just as she was about to leave, she caught Charlie’s voice through the kitchen window. It was low. Tense. She strained to hear.
“…this afternoon, if you could. I’m afraid to leave her on her own. It’s worse now. She forgets things. Constantly off in her own world.”
She shielded her eyes with her hand and peered in through the kitchen window. Charlie stood with his back to her. One hand wrapped around himself, the other held the phone.
“I don’t know.” He said. “She hardly eats, and this morning, she snapped at me. Out of nowhere!” then a pause, as he listened. Commit her? I’m not sure…” another pause. “Do you really think…?”
She clutched her clippers to her chest.
Harry noticed her alarm. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Are you alright?”
The answer was no. No. She was certainly not alright.
In shock, Maggie stumbled to the back of the yard, to the mulch pile hidden behind a short fence. She dumped Harry’s cuttings and stared back toward the house. White stucco with seafoam trim. It wasn’t a new or a pretty house, but it was home. It sat in the middle of her garden. Her sanctuary.
Commitment, of course, meant leaving her garden – her precious friends. Who would care for them? A stranger? A gardener? Charlie?
No, she scoffed. She took a deep breath, patted the trunk of the apple tree standing next to her, then strode purposefully toward the house.
As she marched past the blackberry, she caught sight of a chute angling to catch her in the leg. She stopped. “Dammit Butch, not today!” she stared down the old vine and watched as the limb relaxed to the ground. She stepped over it with her head high, and her eyes fixed on her destination.
She needed to stay calm, she knew.
She entered quietly. Charlie, his call apparently ended, scraped the remains of his meal into the garbage. Trying to affect calm, she almost crept into the kitchen.
“Charlie. Honey, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I don’t…”
“It’s okay Mom.” He said, not looking at her. He sounded more annoyed than anything else.
“No. Really.” She exclaimed, then took a breath and continued more calmly. “Really. I didn’t mean to yell.” she wrung her hands, still wearing her pink gardening gloves.
Charlie set the dish in the sink and turned around to face her. “Mom. It’s fine. We’re good.” It was almost believable. He turned back around, ran the water, and began rinsing.
She stepped into the room. This room where she’d prepared all of his meals when he was a boy. She and Tom, her husband would clean up in here together. He’d dry, while she washed. Once, this room had dominated her life. Morning breakfasts, dinners by 5:30, lunches prepared and bagged before bed. In the morning she’d begin it all again.
At the time, she’d believed she was building a life with all this work. But it was a constant grind. Cook. Clean. Cook. Clean. At the time, she’d felt it was worth it. But that was before…
Tentatively, she reached out a hand to touch his shoulder.
“Who’s Ricky?” He asked without turning around.
She pulled back her hand. “P-pardon?” she said. Her throat closed. She couldn’t speak.
“Ricky, Mom. Who’s Ricky?”
“I…” She stammered. Ricky was one of her fondest friends. They cared for one another. Depended on each other.
Charlie turned around and faced her. The dish now clean, he lifted a towel from the counter and began to dry.
He paused as if searching for words. “I’ve spoken with Dr. Rosen.”
She knew this part already. Her face morphed to stone.
He continued. “We think it’s time, Mom.”
“Time?” she asked, knowing the answer.
“Look, you’ve done an amazing job here. You raised me by yourself after Dad left. But I… we… That is, Dr. Rosen thinks it’s just too much now. “
“And…?” she dropped her arms to her sides. Stood straight, remembering a similar conversation in this very room – Tom telling her they should move away. Get a condo in the city. Enjoy life.
“Mom, you work so hard. You should enjoy your life.”
She laughed without humor. If there was a God, she had a twisted, ironic sense of humor.
She looked at him hard. Her eyes burning into his. Fierce. Immoveable. She simply stated a fact. “This is my home. I’m never leaving.”
“Mom!” He pleaded. “Look. Ever since Dad…”
She laughed again and crossed her arms in front of her. “Your father never left.”
Charlie stood. Frozen. Not knowing what to say. His extra chin quivered. Finally, he exhaled and said softly “Mom, Dad’s been gone for twenty years. He left us, took his stuff.”
Maggie’s patience was almost spent. How could this boy be so thick?
“Enough.” he said and dug into his pocket for his phone. As he reached out to touch the screen, Maggie snatched it from him, then turned and headed for her glass door. Despite his bulk, Charlie was faster. He caught her arm. She spun around and slapped his face. Hard.
Shocked, Charlie paused. Once she was outside, she ran for her sanctuary. Charlie sped after her. “Stop!” he cried.
She stepped off the patio and onto the soft soil. Almost safe.
Charlie grabbed her arm again. This time, he wrenched her around. She twisted, and before he could catch her other arm, chucked his phone. The black metal and glass rectangle flew through the air then disappeared into the blackberry bush.
Overcome by rage. Charlie shook her, then screamed and threw her down to the ground. He ran to the overgrown bush and tried to peer into the blackness, straining to see any reflection or light from his phone. He thought he spied something, and carefully reached in, first his hand, then his arm up to his elbow, feeling cautiously for its smooth case. He reached further – now shoulder-deep in the plant.
“You’re determined to take me away From my home?” Maggie asked. Her voice cracked. She’d gotten back to her feet, standing just a few feet away from him. Dirt smudged into her pants.
Charlie spared her a glance, “Mom, you need help.” he said, “You need to be somewhere safe.” he turned back to the bush. Felt around delicately, trying to avoid getting stuck.
“What can I say that will change your mind? Show you that I’m safe here?” Tears streamed down her face.
“Nothing. Mom, I’m… I’m done!”
Maggie shook her head, then made her decision. She had no choice. “Your father never left. He wanted to. He wanted to take me away from my home, like you. But he… He never left.”
“What are you talking…?” She wasn’t making sense.
She cried out “Butch!”.
Before Charlie could finish his question, vines as thick as his thumbs whipped around him. Dagger’d thorns bit into his flesh. More vines shot out from the bush. They wrapped around his arms, legs, torso, neck, and head.
Pain and fear combined into one hellish cry as they dragged him back into the dark, tangled depths. He kicked. He struck out with his arms. Struggled against the crushing embrace. Every effort tore his skin, driving the thorns deeper. He tried to call out, but as he screamed, the vines squeezed him tighter, making it impossible to inhale. They pulled him deeper and the garden disappeared. Needles of sunlight pricked his face as more and more vines wrapped around him, stabbing into his flesh. He let out a gasp of horror as they began to suck – each thorn, making a tiny slurping sound.
He heard a new sound. The hum of a phone, on ‘vibrate’. He forced his head to rotate, ripping the skin on his face and neck. To his right, he saw his phone. The screen lit up with the name, “Dr. Rosen”. The vines began to dig their way into his mouth, forcing his jaws open, ripping his lips and gums. As his vision began to dim, he managed to make out a figure suspended even deeper, beyond his phone. There, snarled among ancient vines, now brittle with age, hanging dried and bloodless, the corpse of his father.
Maggie wiped her eyes and her nose with her gloved hands. The worst was over. She stood a moment to collect her thoughts. She realized she was now safe. With a sigh, she looked around her. “Always so much to do.” she said to herself as she ambled deeper into her garden. “Now, where did I leave those clippers?”
DL Strand lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He’s a Husband, Dad, Writer, Filmmaker, Entrepreneur & Hoodlum.
-You can find more of his work at dlstrand.com