Emma’s stomach felt like a fish about to do a flip as she sat stiffly on the sofa, watching the door. Her mother sat to her left with her workbox, busy with her fancy needlework, and her younger sister, Grace, sat to her right reading an Oz book by L. Frank Baum.
The doorbell rang, and Hannah, the housekeeper, scuttled off to answer. When Hannah returned, Frank Delaney was in tow with a bunch of wildflowers in his hand.
“Frank Delaney, how pleased we are that you’ve come to call,” said Emma’s mother. “Oh, Grace,” she said. “I need your help to water the flowers in the hothouse.”
“But I’m reading,” said Grace. “They’ve just introduced a new character, a clockwork man named Tik-Tok.”
“Tik-Tok. How interesting. The flowers need watering, dear,” said her mother.
Frank sat down in the armchair and, for a moment, looked like he had something to say on the subject of clockwork men, but the mother of Emma and Grace took her youngest daughter by her hand and pulled her out of the scene … exit left.
“Emma,” said Frank. “Uh … I brought you these.”
“They’re lovely, Frank,” she said, as she took the bunch. “I always prefer wildflowers to hothouse flowers.” She admired the bunch in her hand. “I see you’ve found bread-and-butter.”
“It’s also called toadflax,” said Frank, “but it’s Latin name is linaria vulgaris.”
“Oh, very interesting,” said Emma. She handed her bouquet to Hannah who hurried off to put them in water.
“Yes, I’m glad you prefer the wildflowers to the hothouse ones. I spend a lot of time in nature, studying. I like science. Toads, for instance …”
“You didn’t bring any with you?”
Frank reddened a little. “No, only the toadflax.” He cleared his throat. “There are three varieties of toad in the area: the American toad, the fowler’s toad and the eastern spadefoot.”
“How interesting,” said Emma, with more enthusiasm than she felt.
Frank smiled, encouraged, and continued. After three or four minutes of Frank’s speech, it looked like Emma was in for a lecture on the regional toads. It wasn’t true that she wasn’t at all interested in science or the natural world, but if Frank was going to lecture on toads, she wished he would at least speak with some passion in his voice. Instead, his voice droned monotonously, his eyes nervously roamed around the room, and his storytelling style meandered from point to point in a circular rather than linear way.
Emma’s mind wandered, and her eyes also began to wander, to the antimacassar behind Frank’s head. It was a creation of her Aunt Margaret’s. She was always sending gifts by post from her home in Connecticut, bits of gorgeous handiwork, a crocheted table runner or pillowcase or a bit of fancy needlework. Aunt Margaret was coming this evening to stay for a week. Her mother had Hannah put all of the fancy gifts on display in the parlor with the hopes that her sister would feel they were appreciated.
It was evident to Emma from Frank’s slicked coiffure and his aroma of ylang-ylang that he used a liberal amount of Rowland’s Macassar Oil. Every time he leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling, with a new toad fact on his lips, Emma worried about him soiling her auntie’s antimacassar. It was strange that she should worry about the bit of fanciwork fulfilling the purpose for which it was made, but she, like her mother, wanted all of her aunt’s things to look fresh and clean, yet used all at once.
Soon, her gray cat, Xerxes, hopped up on top of the back of the chair where Frank was sitting, and this gave Emma some distraction and something new on which to set her eyes. This was one of the few times Frank chose to actually make eye contact with her, and he smiled to see her seemingly look at him with such affection.
Shortly afterwards, Xerxes batted her aunt’s handiwork onto the floor, and she had a new worry. She rose to her feet, but before she could even blink, Henry, her Jack Russell terrier, attacked it like it was a groundhog, holding it in its mouth, while thrashing and shaking his head.
“Oh no?” said Frank.
“Auntie’s antimacassar.” She pointed at Henry, and Frank, spurred to action, stood up. Emma stood up too and chased her pet through the parlor and back through the kitchen. Frank followed, and as they raced out into the rear yard, he took the lead.
“Emma!” called her mother. “Why are you running in such an unladylike way?”
Emma pointed at Henry. “Auntie’s antimacassar!”
Henry ran straight into the vegetable garden where he dug a hole and buried his prey just as if he were trying to plant another carrot in the row. Frank knelt beside the naughty dog, but it was too late to stop him. This brought an abrupt end to his visit –which Emma did not regret.
For her and her mother, it brought a frenzied cleaning session. Rather, most of the work fell to Hannah and Emma, while her mother spent the next hour or so on the candlestick telephone, calling half the wives in the neighborhood, inquiring about the best way to wash soiled white linens.
Hannah lit the copper in the scullery. Emma filled it with buckets of water to which Hannah added Sunlight carbolic soap and baking soda. Later, Hannah used a five-legged wooden dolly to agitate and mangle the wash. They tried some bluing to it also, adding a bluebag tied with muslin to the wash.
Amazingly, it came out clean and sparkling white, but it barely had time to dry on the line before Aunt Margaret arrived. Emma returned the antimacassar to its spot on the chair while it was still slightly damp and hoped her aunt wouldn’t touch it.
Aunt Margaret didn’t touch it. She did, however, take note of it and how clean it was as she came in with her bags. “I see you’re using the antimacassar I made. It’s sparkling white. I don’t think you ever use it.”
Emma blushed. “Oh we do, Auntie. We use it all the time.”
It’s too bad, I thought, that it is not possible to send back a library book from my home to the library via pneumatic tube. I grabbed my mouse (the computer mouse, not my pet, Harpo) opened my Outlook calendar and reviewed the day’s activity, and, as each square and each slot was packed with text, it seemed that every moment of my time was more than fully booked from now until Kingdom Come. In the mean time, there was the matter of my sinking reputation with the town librarian – I could just see her disapproving frown – and a steadily accruing fine. What about a carrier pigeonor a trained hawk? I shot my gaze in the direction of the clock on the wall but without really seeing anything. These were the kind of strange musings that kept me awake at night.
I looked to my right at my bookshelves across the room and, scanning them, spotted the yellow spine of my overdue library book. I sighed. Today, I had two Zoom conferences and two client calls on the schedule, plus an impossible list of computer programming projects in the to-do pile. It was almost more than a mere mortal could handle. Alas, no one had yet invented a pneumatic-tube-home-to library-return-system. I did not own a carrier pigeon or a specially trained hawk, and neither Harpo nor any of my other pets was cut out for the job. What I did have was a Smart House and a variety of robotic and remote control tech. Surely, it was possible …
My Roomba kicked into motion just then, and as it began traveling in neat parallel tracks around my home office, I pondered the possibilities. My imagination went wilder than a croc-wrestling Steve Irwin.
After minimizing my current window on the computer, I opened the Smart House controls. Clicking a few keys, I sent the command for my robotic picker device to take the yellow-spined library book from the shelves. A vertical pole slid along the shelf units from the center to the left, and then a robotic picker slid down the pole like a firefighter until it was level with the correct shelf, pinched the yellow book in its pincers, slid down to the level of the floor, rotated and dropped the book. I took a sip of coffee and watched, but then glancing at the clock, remembered my Zoom meeting.
I opened a new window and clicked on the link to join the meeting, quickly running my fingers through my hair and hoping I looked presentable. “Hello everyone,” I said.
A chorus of “Hi Steves” followed.
I turned again to my right watching as the Roomba came by the bookshelves. Would it be able to push the book along?
I turned back to my meeting. “I’m glad we are able to meet this way through Roomba,” I said. Perhaps, multi-tasking is not always my forte.
“Zumba? Isn’t that an exercise class?” asked my client, Jane, CEO of the Chic Boutique.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “I tried it a couple of times and discovered I have no rhythm.”
“No, I think, he said rhumba,” said her partner. “That’s a classic Latin ballroom dance.”
“Zoom,” I said. “I meant Zoom.” In my peripheral vision, I could see the Roomba pushing the book ahead of it as if it were a snowplow.
After this silly introduction, we got down to business, but by toggling windows, I could access the Smart House controls and, spy on the hallway via my home surveillance system. After a few passes, the Roomba plowed the book to the edge of the stairs and then nudged it over on the right side of the steps where it bumped and slid down a narrow ramp, landing on the first floor with a thud. The ramp was really set up for my dachshund, Zeppo, but it worked perfectly Stage one of Operation Impossible was complete.
Stage two would be a little more challenging.
“So, you, basically, need a program to track your store’s inventory,” I told Jane. “Sure, I can do that for you.”
I toggled again, getting the surveillance view of the living room on screen. Zeppo, was, at this moment, in the living room, lying down on the top of the sofa’s back rest, where he could bask in the sun and see outdoors. At some point, in stage two of the operation, it would be necessary to distract Zeppo. I pulled open a desk drawer and pulled out a remote control for a hobby model pickup truck and then a second remote for a front end loader.
With a remote in each hand, smiling into the screen, I attempted to work the controls to scoop up the book with the front end loader and load it into the back of the pickup. I tried listening to my client explain her programming needs as, just as I feared, Zeppo lolloped down from his couch-top perch to better observe the remote control action.
“Sure. I can create a database for you,” I told my client. The front end loader scraped its bucket along the floor in front of the yellow volume, but it wasn’t aligned just right in order to scoop up the book. I continued speaking to my client, “that can track all of your sales and returns and your, uh, your library books.”
“Library books?” said Jane. “We’re a clothing boutique.”
“Right,” I said. “That’s uh … something else I’m working on.”
She laughed. “But wouldn’t it be great if you could track our library books and tell us when they were overdue?”
I laughed. If she only knew.
I maneuvered and re-maneuvered that front end loader, making it roll back and forth in a strange sort of dance, as I tried to align it with the book. Now, Zeppo was transfixed, and so was Groucho, my tiger cat, who lay nearby, inching forward to it as if ready to pounce.
Luckily, I had a distraction device, one of those Furbos that has two-way communication and can toss treats. Pressing a few keys in my Smart Home panel, I launched a few treats into the air, and both animals raced away from my hobby trucks and into the center of the room for the treats. I spoke into the phone via the Furbo app, “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?” in a ridiculously sappy talking-to-the-dog voice.
My client laughed again. “Well, not me. I assume you’re talking to the dog … or cat.” She proceeded to talk to me about animals, but I was frozen with my hand gripping my hair. My personal zoo was rebelling against me.
With the pick up successfully loaded and, with Zeppo and Groucho busy playing disappearing acts with the treats, I piloted the model pick up through the doggy door in the front door. In seconds, both animals raced outside after it. That was the moment when Chico, my yellow Indian ringneck parakeet, decided to say, “Alexa, open the gate.”
“No! Alexa, close the gate,” I said. But it was too late. Zeppo, that rebel, had run out the gate in the fence bordering my yard. “Alexa, turn on the sprinklers! Alexa, open the gate!” I furiously backed up the truck from the sprinkler’s reach as sprinklers at the road verge shot their spray through the air, chasing Zeppo back through the gate and onto my property. “Alexa, close the gate.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Is this a bad time?” asked my client.
“Uh … no,” I said. “My dog just got out, and I have a bird that knows how to work Alexa and use the smart technology to open the gate in my fence.” I realized how ridiculous it was after I said it.
“Well, I have a dog at home,” she said, “so, I know strange things can happen with animals, but this is a first.” She shook her head of auburn hair, but she smiled still.
I made a mental note not to act like I was two steps away from the looney bin. While continuing to take mental notes of my client’s needs, I pressed a few keys and opened the garage door. Yes, Alexa could do it too, but I could see it wouldn’t go well to continue to make a lot of verbal commands during a conference call. Now, that my garage door was open, I launched a drone from the garage that swooped down like a hawk to pick up the book from the pickup and continue its journey to the library.
I ended the conference call with Jane and her Chic Boutique partners and breathed a little easier. Then, I started working on another program for a different client. I needed to do a few finishing touches before presenting the finale to the client the next day. With combined GPS tracking and the drone’s acoustic camera, I could trace its path very well among other things.
Strangely, I couldn’t seem to get as much height with the drone as I expected. As it continued along its winding way, I swerved it out of the reach of electrical wires and tree branches. Instead of rising through the air, it seemed to be sinking. I realized now, that I had chosen a different drone than I had intended, one that wasn’t equipped to handle as much weight.
As it passed over a town sidewalk busy with shoppers and sidewalk cafe tables, things got a little strange. Just as I was in the vicinity between Tito’s Pizzeria and Hot Bagels, a woman peered up into the camera. “Nazis!” she shouted, screwing up her face. “Fascists!” She reached into her purse. “Big Brother!” Then, she squirted something at the camera.
Pepper spray? No. Something white and creamy, hand lotion maybe, was now obscuring the lens. I could no longer see if I was clearing obstacles, and, soon afterwards, I didn’t. The drone got hopelessly caught in what I assumed to be a tree.
I tapped a pencil against my desk. What should I do now? I had come too far to abandon Operation Impossible. I decided to call Jake, my neighbor’s thirteen-year-old. I had paid him to do a variety of odd jobs for me before, including walking Zeppo, washing the car and mowing the lawn.
I dialed his number on my cell phone, and Jake answered. “Hi Jake. I have an odd job for you, not just an odd job, but an odd odd job.”
“I have a drone caught in what, I assume is a tree, on Maple Avenue right where Tito’s Pizzeria and Hot Bagels are. It was carrying my library book.”
“Okay.” He had a little disbelief in his voice.
“I want you to get on your bike, rescue my drone, broken or not, then find my book, take it to the library and drop it in the book drop. Can you do that?”
“Sure, Mr. Rose.”
For a while, I got lost in my work project, with only occasional pangs of anxiety about the state of my drone. It seemed a long while before I heard back from Jake, and I resisted the urge to call him and micromanage.
Then, I got a ring at the door. Turning on the camera angle from the front door, I had a view of Jake on the front steps. The image wasn’t that clear, but he looked dirty below the knees, more than I would have expected. I spoke to him through the intercom as I opened the door, “Jake, come on in.”
I raced down the stairs, as Zeppo and Groucho came to greet the newcomer as well. As we stood by the door, Jake handed me the drone. I turned it around in my hands. It seemed fairly unscathed with just some minor damage I could fix. Jake, on the other hand, looked like he was a participant in a survival of the wild reality TV show. Both knees were skinned, bleeding and dirty, and his shoes and socks were wet.
“Did you get the book returned?”
“Well, take off your shoes and socks, and come sit down.”
As Jake sat down on the leather couch, I pointed out his knees. “Now, how’d this happen?”
“Well,” he said, stretching out in the reclining seat, “you know how there’s that shortcut through the park to the library, over that little bridge that crosses the stream?” Zeppo sniffed at Jake’s now bare feet, and Groucho climbed up on the sofa beside him.
“Well, I was on that bridge with my bike, on my way to the library, when some other kid tried to do some cool stunt on his bike and crashed into me.”
“Wow,” I said. “I didn’t know returning library books was a contact sport.”
“Neither did I,” he said. “I’m okay. Hurts a little though.”
“I’ll get you cleaned up and bandaged in a minute,” I promised. “Wait … how’d you get wet?”
“Well, the book slipped out of my bag and went over the edge of the bridge.”
My stomach sunk. “You mean you returned a sopping wet library book with warped pages?”
“No,” said Jake. “You’d hardly believe it. Uh … what’s the word? My teacher was talking about it the other day. It’s seren … seren … something.”
“Yeah. Serendipitous,” said Jake. “The book just landed on a big, flat rock in the middle of the stream, but I got a little wet going after it.”
“And I really like the book you’re returning, you know, the one on the Rube Goldberg inventions? I think I’ll check it out next week.”
I pulled out my wallet, so I could pay Jake for a job well done. Aside from a few credit cards and a debit card, it was empty. “Jake, I have no cash on me. I’ll pay you this weekend. In the mean time, I’ll bandage you up and make you the biggest ice cream sundae known to man. Here, hand me your phone, and let me call your dad.”
I called his dad. “Hi Ray. Jake is with me. I had him do a job for me, and he got a bit scraped up in the process, so I’m going to bandage him up and feed him some ice cream.”
“What did he do? Start a fight with your hedges and lose?”
“No, he wasn’t trimming hedges this time. He was doing something much more adventurous,” I said. “He returned a library book.”
Monday, one week before the judging for the Annual Honeyville Community Garden Competition
“Seamus! Seamus, get out of my garden!” I took chase after my neighbor’s wheaten terrier who was now racing in circles around my bird and butterfly sanctuary. With each rotation, he chased away another goldfinch and another butterfly. It was a futile exercise, running in circles after a beast that was more agile than a ninja and faster than the Roadrunner escaping Wile E. Coyote. Suddenly, my foot slipped, and I did a full face plant in the grass, still wet from its recent watering.
This, of all things, made the dog stop. He not only stopped, he turned to me and began frantically licking my face, seemingly trying to go spelunking in my nostrils. I now felt sympathetic with Lucy Van Pelt and wanted to announce, “Ugh! I’ve been kissed by a dog!” Still, I kept my mouth shut, because, otherwise, I’d have a dog’s tongue in my mouth. I was sure of it.
“He likes you.” I looked up and saw my neighbor, Jackson Reardon, standing above me, his Stetson in his hand. “Need a hand?” he said, as he offered one.
I pulled myself up without his help. Now that I was standing, Seamus jumped up on me, placing his muddy paws on my chest, leaving prints on my pink plaid flannel. When he jumped down again, he sauntered right over to a coneflower and tried to take a bite.
“Seamus, haven’t you been naughty enough?” I asked.
“Sit, Seamus!” said Jackson.
In the first demonstration of obedience, the dog actually sat.
“Jackson,” I said. “Get a fence!”
“Deirdre,” said Jackson. “I have a fence. You know that, but, as you can see, that isn’t necessarily an obstacle.” He nodded to the side of my white picket fence and the hole the Houdini had dug beneath it to make entrance.
“He chased away my birds!” I protested. “He tried to eat my coneflower!” I walked to the fence to inspect Seamus’ excavation. “And he’s uprooted an entire family of fairies!” My fairy house structure was on its side and several miniature plants had been pulled up. Thankfully, my bonsai ficus was still intact.
Jackson smirked. “What! You don’t have fairy insurance?”
I took off my Croc and flung it at him hard. He flinched and the thing slid over his right shoulder, landing behind him.
“Please, control your dog,” I said. “I think you’re trying to sabotage my chances in the garden competition. I know you’re competitive, but really …”
“Look …” Jackson spread his hands.
I took off my other Croc.
“All right!” He flung up his arms. “We’re going!” He hooked a leash on Seamus and walked off. Good riddance.
I walked into the front yard. What had I become … an irritable Croc-throwing maniac? Of course, as far as I knew, no one had been seriously injured by a lightweight foam shoe. But maybe this is just where it started, and the next step was hurling gardening shears?
My dreams were disrupted by a handsome face peering over the fence. “Matt!” I held my hand to my heart. “You startled me.” Matt was an old school friend and, now, my handyman, who happened to look a bit like Jude Law.
“I’m sorry. I came about the trellis and … whatever other jobs you have for me.”
I suddenly remembered my appearance. My curls were wild, I was covered in mud and had muddy paw prints in an awkward location. “You’ll have to excuse my appearance.”
“No apology needed,” said Matt. “You’re like me. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty … or other parts of you either.”
I was trying to decide whether he was being fresh or adorable.
He grinned. “And it would take more than a little mud to take away from your looks. You’re like one of your flowers. They’re surrounded by dirt, but it just makes their beauty stand out more.”
I was leaning more towards adorable. Still, I didn’t know how to respond. Was he flirting? Because I really didn’t know anymore. A guy had to be on one knee with a ring box in his hand before I understood he was interested.
“Oh … well, thanks. I’ll show you the trellis.” I began leading him to the back of the house. The arched trellis, covered in pink climbing roses, was the central feature in my formal English garden section in the rear right corner of the yard. I showed him several places where the wood had broken.
We turned and walked to my bird and butterfly garden. “The gazebo needs a little work too. It got damaged in a wind storm. A small tree fell and caused a chain reaction. The swing bench got damaged too,” I said. “It’s my favorite spot in the yard. I can sit here and see birds come feed, turn and see hummingbirds at my bee balm or butterflies on the coneflower.”
“No problem,” said Matt. “Leave it to me. By the time the judges come Saturday, everything will be perfect.”
I worked until evening, and then another surprise awaited. Sitting on the porch in a Mason jar was a bunch of white orchids. The mysterious giver left no note and no explanation. I brought them inside and set them on the kitchen table, wondering who had left them. Matt? He had been slightly flirtatious maybe, but they could be from anyone. Everyone knew I liked flowers.
I spent all of my spare time in the garden – watering, fertilizing, weeding and trimming. I repaired my fairy garden, filling in the hole that Seamus had dug and restoring my miniature ferns, colorful succulents and dainty polka dot plants. I fussed over the little pathway of twig rounds that led to my fairy house door. By judging day, Dad’s old electric train would be winding its way through all of these miniature wonders.
Matt busied himself with the structures on the landscape, the trellis and the gazebo. He passed behind me. “The fairies must be jealous.”
“Because you’re the fairest in the land.”
A sudden rush of heat prickled my cheeks. Matt was almost a little too much. What was into him lately? Was he the one that left flowers?
Just shortly after thinking about the mysterious flowers, I found new ones on the porch, a bunch of white roses in a Mason jar, again with no note. Matt again? If so, how did he do it? I’d seen him go back and forth to his van several times to get tools, but flowers? Did he pull them out of his sleeve like a magician? If someone else, how did they do it free of notice?
I woke to the melody of songbirds and then a clattering and then the screech of frightened, tortured birds. I sat bolt upright in bed. “Seamus!”
I jumped up out of bed, seized a bathrobe and wrapped it around me as I ran down the stairs and out the back door. The shaggy thing was racing after my birds again, scaring off a chickadee and cardinal. I didn’t chase him this time. I spun around, marched back into the kitchen and emerged again with a heaping spoonful of peanut butter. “Seamus!”
The beasty lolloped towards me, his tongue lolling out. I sat down in a patio chair and held the spoon out, allowing him to lick right off the spoon. I looked into his expressive brown eyes. “You’re kind of cute when you aren’t destroying things,” I said, “but don’t try and use that to your advantage.”
“Seamus!” Jackson sauntered into the yard.
I pulled the bathrobe tighter around me and felt the top of my head for the curls that were imitating Little Rascals’ Alfalfa. I tried to give my red hair a toss as I imagined Maureen O’Hara might in an old movie, but I’m sure I looked more like Shirley Temple after an unfortunate encounter with a fork and an electrical outlet.
I loped over to the fence to survey the damages to the fairy garden. It looked like Gulliver had trompled all over Lilliputia, upheaving miniature hideaways, uprooting the foliage and scattering tiny household things thither and yon. In a moment’s time, hours of fastidious labor was destroyed.
As a young girl, I learned the song, “I’m a Little Teapot.” It came to mind now, because the water was ready, and I was about to shout. I could feel the steam slowly rising through my middle and seeking to find a vent. “Jackson! How do you manage to sic your dog on my garden? Throw steaks over the fence?”
“I … I …” Jackson threw up an arm in the direction of my bird and butterfly sanctuary. “You have wildlife.”
I looked in the direction his arm was pointing, but I saw two empty bird feeders, one empty hummingbird feeder and an empty bird bath. When I turned around, Jackson was on his knees trying to right my fairy world, but his designing eye had different ideas than the plan I had worked so hard to create. His efforts set things up in jumbled order.
I tried to swallow down one last bit of steam, but it escaped. “You’re just making more work for me! Just go.”
Jackson stood up. “You’ve always been a very aggravating woman!” He threw his arms up, leashed Seamus and walked off.
After work at the florist shop, I filled the hole in the garden, set my fairy world aright and reinforced the gap under the fence with some scalloped stone edging. Matt returned and set to repair the swing bench for the gazebo. When he finished the repair, I brought him a glass of iced tea, and he asked me to test it out with him. We sat on opposite ends. He stretched out his legs, smiling rogueishly at me, “Nice. I could get used to this.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Nature.”
“I meant the company,” he said.
“Oh.” Not knowing what else to say, I just said, “Thanks” and continued gazing at nature.
The evening held a series of surprises for me. The first was a third bouquet left on the porch, bigger than the first two, filled with white tulips. The second surprise I discovered as I set them down in my kitchen. Some cash I’d left on the counter, about $60, was missing. The mystery of how it had disappeared continued to haunt and nag at me thereafter.
The third was a surprise visit from my childhood buddy, Eddie. “Eddie!” I said, as I answered the door.
“Mom’s recovering from surgery.”
“Yeah. I heard.”
“So, I’ll be here a few days taking care of Mom, and I thought I’d drop by. Sorry if it’s not a good time.”
“It’s fine,” I said. I pointed out an Adirondack chair. “Have a seat. I’ll bring some iced tea. Do you still like M&Ms?”
“Do I still like M&Ms?” he said in a way that made the answer obvious.
I brought the M&Ms with the tea, and we sat on the porch. He pointed out the oak tree in front of us. “Remember when we used to climb that tree?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Do you remember falling out of that tree?”
“Yeah. I ended up in the hospital with a broken arm, but then you came with your Peanut comics and books of Mad Libs and made everything better.”
I smiled. “How long have you been in the area?”
“I came here Monday. I would have dropped by sooner, but, you know … family.”
I wanted to tell him about the mysterious flowers but didn’t. What if they were from him? He’d had an attraction once. Instead, I told him about the garden competition and Seamus and the fairy garden and Dad’s old electric train. “Do you remember that old train?”
“I wish I had some little bridges for it to go under. I’d commission Matt to make them, but my budget only goes so far.”
“Yeah. I understand the budget issue.”
I changed the subject. “He’s fixing the rose trellis, and my formal English garden area will be perfect. Speaking of roses, I always loved your mother’s roses.”
“The yellow ones?”
“I think they’re called Julia Child.”
“Bon appetit,” I said in my best Julia Child impression.
“Hey, there’s something I’d like to tell you some time,” he said. But just then, his cell phone rang. “It’s Mom. I gotta go. Talk soon.” He left.
Thursday brought more mysterious flowers and more missing cash. This time, the Mason jar held a profusion of red carnations. The cash was missing, this time, from a pocket of a coat hanging in the mud room. Perhaps, I did leave cash in odd places, but I lived alone, and I didn’t expect anyone other than myself to see it or move it around. Was I suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s or was I a victim of theft? Could the mysterious flowers and the missing cash be connected? Was this a thing among thieves? Hey, thanks for the cash. Have some flowers.
In the evening, I got another visit from Eddie, and we sat on the porch and reminisced about the old days. Suddenly, I said, “Hey, thanks for the flowers.”
He smiled. “’Welcome. Thought you’d enjoy them.” He turned and continued to gaze lazily at the dogwood trees.
That was it? A week of suspense, and he answered in this casual way? Not even a mention of that thing he had to talk about with me some time? “It was sweet of you,” I said.
Friday, I came home from work, walked into the kitchen and found Eddie standing there. “Eddie! What are you doing in my kitchen?”
He hunched his shoulders, holding two hands out in front of him. “Your sister told me where your key is in the bunny statue. I can explain.”
“Don’t! You betrayed my trust! You entered my house without permission!”
He left, and I cried. The case of the mysterious flowers – solved. The case of the missing money – also solved? All of those flowers, invading my private property – weren’t these signs of a stalker? That didn’t sound like my Eddie, but we’d been apart so long. Did I even know the man anymore?
Saturday brought no more mysterious flowers to my porch. When the judges came to my yard, I noticed some new things, a stem with a yellow rose planted in my English formal garden and, in the fairy garden, little handmade wooden bridges carefully spaced over Dad’s old electric train track.
I still thought about the mystery of the flowers and, after the judges had seen the place, had the idea to look up the Victorian meanings of the flowers in a book I had. White orchids represented “I’m sorry.” White roses represented new beginnings. White tulips said “I’m sorry,” and red carnations stood for admiration. I pondered these things a while.
A neighbor called me and told me she’d seen a man messing around in the garden statuary and then entering the house. “Yes, I know,” I said. “I know a man got into my house that way. It was a friend. Thanks for telling me.”
My sister called some time later. “Did you hear the news about Eddie?” she asked.
I thought I was the one with news about Eddie. “No. What?”
“He’s getting married.”
My scalp tingled, and I was speechless a moment. “Did you know I found him in my kitchen? He said you told him where to find the key in my bunny statue?”
“I did. He wanted to help you in the competition and surprise you with that cutting from his mom’s bush and those little bridges for the train track. He called me and said he needed access to the house for some tools and such. You’re not mad?”
Afterward, I called my neighbor back. “Can you describe that man you saw enter my house?”
“Sure. He looked a little like a movie actor. I can’t remember …”
“That’s the one.”
Later, I went with neighbors to see my chief rival’s garden. I expected to see an amazing koi pond with waterfall surrounded by tropical foliage and a greenhouse full of rare orchids, but something else for me ended up being the top attraction.
I noticed a broken bit of fence along the edge of the property where two posts were tied sloppily with some rope. It must have been the site of Seamus’ Houdini action. It seemed so out of place and unlike Jackson to leave a sloppily mended fence for the judges to view. Hanging there on the fence was a plaque with a Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall,” burned in wood.
I read a portion of it, “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Beneath the plaque was a milk can filled with white orchids, white tulips, red carnations and white roses.
It could be that Jackson’s message was that Seamus had the right to invade my property whenever he liked, but I thought he meant something quite different. Soon, Jackson was standing beside me.
“I agree,” I said.
“With the poet?”
“With you. I am the most aggravating woman.”
He laughed. “I know.” After a pause, he said, “Dinner Saturday night?”
I smiled. “Sure.”
To add to the sweetness of a new start, he and I tied for the winning ribbon.
I apologized profusely to Eddie and thanked him for all of his kindness. Six months later, Jackson and I attended Eddie’s wedding together.
I have been inactive on this blog for a little too long, distracted by other events and concerns in my life including caring for parents, and, perhaps, have also neglected my blogger friends. Forgive me for that. Lately, I have been busy writing and posting both on Vocal Media and Reedsy Writing Prompts for various writing challenges, with both non-fiction articles and short stories. So, I have the rights to republish those works here, so I will begin to do so. This is one of them, published recently on Reedsy for a fairy tale theme from the writing prompt, “Write a cautionary tale about someone who lies too much.”
As a music box played a soft but melancholy tune, Moonbeam dreamed of the masquerade ball the king was throwing that night. She had no gown, only a drab dress of coarse fabric and nondescript color. She did have a mask, a white sequined mask with upright bunny ears. She put it on and looked at herself in the mirror. Her clothes might have been humble, but she had a crowning glory of golden ringlets that fell to her waist. With the mask on, one could still see the beauty of her rosy lips, but her eyes and her very identity were hidden. It was rather exciting. She took the mask off and put it into her satchel.
Suddenly, she remembered there was an old text about masks. Pulling down a heavy, old tome from the bookshelves, she found it in its weathered pages. “Do not wear the mask of deception. Do not deceive your fellow men. If you do, you will become hardened and your heart will be hard.” She might be wearing a mask tonight, but everyone would be wearing a mask at the ball. She closed the book, returned it to the shelf and thought nothing more about it.
Taking her satchel with her, Moonbeam went out into the street and walked through the city, and, eventually, wound her way through an open market. There, a beggar boy sat on the ground by a fruit cart, which was piled high with starberries, windberries and earthberries, sparkling like gems and smelling sweet as honey. She could tell the beggar was a street performer from his colorful rags with tattered ribbons flowing down from the hems of his knee pants. A hat full of coins sat on the ground beside him.
Moonbeam leaned down to him. “What a lot of coins you’ve collected.”
“Yes’m’” he said.
“You must have done a lot of dancing,” she said. She smiled in a way she hoped was sweetly.
“Yes’m.’ Would you like to see? I do a fancy bit at the end where I stand right on my head. Folks seem to like that part the best,” said the boy. He smiled a dimpled and lopsided grin then wiped a bit of dirt from his face with this sleeve.
“No, that’s all right,” said Moonbeam. She reached into her satchel and pulled out a small object. “This,” she said, “is worth more than all of the coins you have there altogether.”
“It is?” said the boy, leaning in to get a closer look.
What she held out was a button, a big very beautiful button with crystals that shimmered when they caught the light. “I’ll trade you this button for your hat full of coins.”
“Oh. Yes ‘m!’” he said. He pushed his hat forward and took the button with its artful imitation, gazing at it like it was a glistening prismstone from the mines of Luwannton.
Moonbeam emptied the boy’s hat of coins into her satchel and then promptly used some of the coins to buy a bag full of mixed berries from the berry cart. She popped several of the delectable berries in her mouth, wiped the purple juice from her chin with the back of her hand and quickly walked on, carrying the rest in a bag.
After she’d walked a few steps, a thought came to her, so that she did not know if it came from herself or elsewhere. Perhaps, the boy will have no means to get his dinner tonight, and you didn’t even leave him a berry. Then, she fumed and pushed that thought away like she was stuffing overflowing rubbish into a bin and slamming the lid on it.
He is a boy of the streets. He will have to be tough and hardy. He can’t be so fragile like glass. With this new thought, she pushed onward.
Moonbeam continued to wind her way through the stalls in the market: brushing past colorful silks here, there jingling fancy horse harnesses embellished with bells, and everywhere, smelling delicious aromas, both savory and sweet, from the food stalls. As she continued, her steps were not as easy as before. Her feet felt heavy, and her legs began to feel stiff. “I am merely tired,” she thought. When she stopped at a stall selling clockwork mechanical figures and watched a brass doll walk stiffly through a crowd of children, she thought, “I am like that doll.”
Next, she saw a most beautiful ice blue gown in a seamstress’s stall with a sweetheart neckline, mutton leg sleeves and an impressively full and gauzy skirt. Every inch of it was covered in iridescent glimmer. The seamstress, sitting alone in a corner, nearly obscured by her creations, was dressed more simply, in a dress as coarse as the one Moonbeam wore, and though she wore a thimble as she continued to work, her fingers were covered in calluses and pokes.
Moonbeam knew she did not have enough coins for the dress, but perhaps she could arrange a trade similar to what she had already done that day. As the seamstress looked up, she peered into her satchel and pretended to look. “I don’t have the coins today for that gown,” she said, “but I can give you this key.” She pulled out a skeleton key and showed it to the woman.
The seamstress shrugged, “What good is a key to me?”
“It’s not the key so much that’s valuable,” said Moonbeam. “It’s what the key can open. My father has a stable over that hill there.” She pointed beyond the seamstress’s head. “This is the key to a unicorn’s stall. I will write down the address and give you this key and this voucher in exchange for the iridescent gown.”
“A unicorn, you say?” asked the seamstress, poking her head out from its screen of hanging clothes. “What breed?”
“A Southern silky,” said Moonbeam, “the finest.” She picked up a quill pen and parchment and made out a voucher, also writing an address, a false address. The skeleton key was of no use to her anymore and only opened an old wardrobe that had already been converted to firewood.
aving made the exchange, she went behind a screen at the back of the stall and put on the gown and then the mask, stuffing the old coarse dress into her satchel. She spun around and looked at herself in the mirror. As she twirled around, her skirt swished, its iridescence shining like crystals, its semi-transparent nature like glass.
Standing still and looking at her masked face in the mirror, she thought she could pass for Princess Butterfly who also had long, golden hair. It made her think. Princess Butterfly had a small, berry red mark on her cheek. Taking a berry from her bag, she squeezed it and used some of the juice to mark her cheek. The effect was quite successful.
Moments later, things began to look a bit peculiar. Her gown continued to sparkle, but her face, hands and the fleshy parts of her were barely visible. “It’s only the light, only a trick of the light,” she thought. “My eyes burn.” She blinked away tears and turned from the mirror.
Walking out in the market again, although she looked fine and felt pride in her beauty and appearance, physically, she felt worse than before. Her legs felt stiffer. Her feet stung. Every part of her hurt, even her heart – perhaps, especially her heart, that felt like an old mechanism winding down. She remembered the mechanical doll and thought it was running more smoothly than she was. Moonbeam almost felt like she needed a key to wind her up again.
She passed a jewel merchant’s stall when she heard a voice call, “Your Royal Highness!”
“Yes?” She spun around, although she spun around like a doll on a turntable.
“Your father, the king, had me reserve this just for you,” said the merchant. With a key, he opened a chest and pulled out a velvet box. Opening it, he revealed a crystal tiara.
Now, this is what Moonbeam truly wanted, to be revered as the princess, to be regarded as important and admired for her glamour and beauty. She lifted the tiara from the box, and her arms ached so that she could barely lift them to place it on her head.
Moonbeam walked onwards, imagining everyone looked at her with awe. Though she reveled in the awe, she felt more ill than before and her motions were slower and more painful than any old grandmother in the kingdom. She walked, creeping and creaking, a little ways further until she reached the center of the Swanton town square just beyond. Then, she stepped no more.
Moonbeam is still there in the Swanton town square – frozen as a glass sculpture. Her golden ringlets turned to fragile coils of glass. Beneath the glass exterior casing of her torso, a black glass heart is suspended.
Some people of the town, seeing her in this form, wanted to break the fragile sculpture to bits, but the duke over this region put up a plaque instead. “Let this be a warning to those who, in selfishness and greed, deceive their fellow men. As the old text says, ‘Do not wear the mask of deception. Do not deceive your fellow men. If you do, you will become hardened and your heart will be hard.’”