“Someone’s been after Malcolm Eckert’s flowers.” William’s grandmother said that night as she laid the table for supper. He was sitting in the parlor armchair, listening to his grandmother’s radio, missing the television sitcoms he watched during the school year. At his grandmother’s words, he lifted his head sharply, then lowered it again when she glanced at him.
“Farmer Eckert?” Sylvie asked. She was prancing before the door to the kitchen, a casserole dish in arms. She didn’t seem to know what to do with it.
“Yes,” his grandmother said, her eyes still on William.
“Not those pretty buds he planted last spring?”
“The same,” his grandmother nodded. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, William?” she asked.
“No, Ma’am,” he said softly, turning a page in his book as if the subject didn’t interest him.
“You were here by yourself for most of the day, weren’t you?” She asked as she took the casserole dish from Sylvie’s hands. He nodded, but still refused to meet her penetrating gaze. His mind raced to remember what he’d done with the shears. Had he put them back in the same drawer he’d found them? He wanted to be sure. She would be able to tell if anything was out of place.
“What did you do today, William?” she prodded.
“Mostly this,” he said, nodding to his book. “I also took a swim in the lake.”
“You weren’t anywhere near Farmer Eckert’s place?”
“You stayed on the property?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, hoping his face didn’t mirror his anxiety. He hated lying to his grandmother, not because he felt any moral obligation, but because he was sure she could tell. Was he ultimately digging his own grave?
“Alright, then,” she said, lowering a soup bowl onto a porcelain plate. “I suppose you’d have no reason for flowers anyway,” she said more to herself than to him. “Now go wash up for supper.”
William nodded quickly and ran from the room. In the washroom, he closed the door and leaned against it in relief. He closed his eyes and remembered the weight of Rose’s body as he pulled her to her feet. She had brushed herself off, looked down at her dress, and frowned. “It’s ruined.”
“It looks fine to me,” he’d said as she turned from him and walked to a mattress lying on the floor. Sitting, she indicated the space next to her. William knelt beside her and she smiled. “I want an apple,” she told him, her expression wistful. “Something sweet to eat. Perhaps a bit of chocolate. I read a description of chocolate cream pie and it sounds divine. Can you believe I’ve never had a piece of chocolate?”
William shook his head, but nothing surprised him anymore. She leaned forward and grasped his hands in her own. “Can you get me something, William? I want to know what it means to have your mouth water for the taste of something. I want to taste something.”
His grandmother’s voice brought him back to the present. “William, what’s taking so long? Supper’s getting cold.”
William quickly ran the tap. The faucets of the sink were made of white porcelain and stenciled with small pastel roses. Rose. He rested his arms against the brim of the sink, his hands inert beneath the flowing stream. The cold rush of water felt good. He wanted to take a cold shower, to wash away the closeness of the air that penetrated every room of his grandmother’s home. Slowly, he slid to the floor beside the old-fashioned tub, pressing his cool palms to his cheeks. He saw the yellow stain of the grout between the floor tiles. He saw the claw-shaped foot of the tub itself. All these features reminded him of Rose. Out of time. Out of place.
“William!” His grandmother called again.
“Coming,” he said, standing.
He felt hollow, already missing her.
* * *
As luck would have it, Sylvie had an appointment a few days later with her doctor. “We’ll only be a couple of hours,” his grandmother said as she pulled on gloves and straightened a strand of gray hair from her forehead. William nodded, glad Sylvie never went anywhere without her sister. He hoped his impatience didn’t show on his face. Once the door was closed, William ran to the kitchen and grabbed a sack which he filled with a couple of oranges and fresh baked cookies he’d helped Sylvie prepare that morning.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Rose or his growing anticipation of leaving for the summer. How would he explain that to her? The three days they’d been apart had felt like a year. During that time, his grandmother had insisted he go with her to visit her friend, Gretchen Howell. Like his grandmother, Mrs. Howell was a prim, polished, stern older woman whose daughter had just had a baby. The Howells had invited all their friends and acquaintances to see the child during their daughter’s visit. William was forced to sit in his little pants suit, sipping lukewarm sweet tea and watching as his grandmother and the other women fawned over the child in its cradle. They’d laughed when they placed the baby in William’s lap. He’d sat there, not knowing what to do, silently worrying he’d drop the child with all its squirming and crying.
“Such a little gentleman,” Mrs. Howell had said. “Perhaps you could come babysit for us sometime, William? Make a little money?” William was about to shake his head when his grandmother answered, “He’d be delighted to help out in any way he can, Gretchen.”
On their walk home, he’d said, “Grandmother, I don’t want to sit for the baby. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
“Don’t whine,” she’d scolded. “There’s nothing to do. A simple afternoon walk would suffice. It would be nice for you to go over and offer your services on occasion to give the Howells a chance to rest. A newborn baby can be exhausting.”
He had not answered, but instead walked with his shoulders slumped and his feet shuffling. He was beginning to feel suffocated by his grandmother’s demands.
Now, William raced to the house, calling Rose’s name as he ran up the attic steps. He found her sitting on the same mattress where he’d left her on his last visit. She had a book open in her lap.
“Listen to this,” she said by way of greeting. She glanced at the open book and began to read:
“There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear . . .”
Rose looked up, her eyes glassy.
“What’s that from?” William asked.
“It’s a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson,” Rose said, closing the book. “It’s called The Lady of Shalott. I think it’s beautiful.”
“I think it’s sad,” William said, sitting beside her and placing the sack in her lap. She opened it eagerly and pulled out the orange. She ripped at the peel, then bit into the juicy heart. Her face underwent a series of changes, first surprise, then consideration, then delight. When the orange was gone, she licked her fingers and reached for the cookie. Only pleasure lit up her face this time, and after the first tentative bite she stuffed the whole cookie in her mouth hungrily. William laughed and reached for a cookie as well.
They spent the afternoon together. He found the wreath of flowers on the floor where it had fallen. It was brown and withered and crumbled in his hands as he lifted it. “Such a shame,” Rose said, looking at the wreath over his shoulder. “The flowers died so shortly after you gave them to me. They just shriveled up in my hands.”
“That’s strange,” he said, frowning. “But they weren’t in water, so that’s probably why.”
Glancing at his watch, William jumped. “Oh no, my grandmother will be back any minute!”
“Wait,” Rose called as he ran down the stairs. “Next time, can you bring something that plays music?”
“I will!” he called.
“You’ll be back soon?”
Melissa Hunter is an author and blogger from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her articles have been published on Kveller.com and LiteraryMama.com. She is a contributing blogger to the Today Show parenting community, and her short stories have been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. She is currently writing a novel based on her grandmother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and the psychological impact this had on her life. When not writing, Melissa loves spending family time with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Connect with Melissa via her website, Facebook, and on Twitter as @cleancopywriter.