“They’re all dead!”
A gust of wind blew hot and heavy through the yard, carrying his voice over it as his words fell like knives, their points burrowing deep into the grass. And my heart. Just beneath the window, I sat amongst the sunken stems and withered leaves of the garden as my breath was ripped from me by the sobs now echoing from upstairs. Sunlight poured like cream from a bowl of clear-blue, cloudless sky, yet a sunny day means nothing to the bitter frost of early morning. The browning bodies of plants, long-dead, poked out from rows of darkened dirt; in rows like little burial mounds, I stared blindly forward as tears welled up. Then, to the brim, they fell hot and fast, scorching through the air like fallen stars to salt the hard earth so that nothing could grow.
And nothing would grow.
David’s sobs grew louder as the sliding door glided open and Mama stepped through it. I didn’t look up until I heard the dull thunk of the glass returning to its frame, felt the weathered, wood board depress slightly as Mama lowered herself onto it to join me. Mama’s eyes were lifeless hunks in swollen lids, stained red from breaking the news of the morning’s carnage. A hand snaked forward, grasping mine in its cold grip as we sat beneath the wailing window, expressing our misery without words.
From above, Grammy’s voice rose up, weak but determined.
“Now, David,” she crooned, “we can always replant them!”
“No, Mama. It’s impossible.”
“Come now, you must have some seeds left.”
“I don’t. They’re not in season; it’s too late,” he said miserably, voice faltering as it was wracked with sobs, “They won’t grow back in time.”
“David, you don’t know that. If we only just start today—” I could hear Grammy moving, saw her in my mind’s eye dragging Davey’s wheelchair to his spot in the bed— “we’ll just get a shovel and…”
“It’s too late, Mama.”
“It’s never too late. You’ve got your sister and June May and me. If we just called them upstairs, I’m sure we could…”
“It’s done, Mama. I’ll never see them.”
“I’ve got no time left. It’s over.”
For the briefest of moments, I felt my soul leave and travel up to the window. It hung on the sill, surveying the scene: Grammy stood, with shoulders hunched, at the edge of the bed, one hand holding fast to the handle of Davey’s wheelchair. Her nail, cleaned and cut short, scratched along the creases where Grandpa’s knife had carved her initials, then his. Books stood stacked on the wood side-table, glossy surfaces covered by countless plastic bottles of pills. Half-filled. Davey lay beside them, sunken into his spot on the feathered bed. The smell of cream, thick and heavy, rose in plumes from the sores that stretched across his white skin: like dried strawberries floating in milk. His eyes, swollen shut, saw nothing but darkness. As he turned his head to the window, my soul shattered.
I hunched forward, sobbing silently as Mama rubbed life into my aching back. Despite Grammy’s resolve and renewed ministrations, I knew the truth of Davey’s words: nothing could be done. Even if we managed to pull up the garden and plant the seeds again, there would be no way the blooms would sprout by summer’s end. Even if they did, Davey would never see them. I stared around the garden, hating the sprouts for having betrayed us. My thoughts were dark and wild; at every moment, I wished both that the stalks would right themselves and green again or else wither and burst into flame.
“Why don’t I go fetch June May?”
I felt my stomach drop at the sound of my name.
“I’ll give her some money,” Grammy said as if she hadn’t heard him, “and she’ll go down to Denny’s parlor for some ice cream. You love ice cream.”
“I don’t want ice cream.”
“A sundae then. With anything you want! Let me just call her now.”
My voice rang out from above, loud and full and clear as a bell. It echoed across the yard, then down the street, but I did not rise to meet it.
“Please, Mama,” David said, “I don’t want to get no ice cream.”
“But June May will…”
“I don’t want June May here either. She shouldn’t see me this way.”
“But she’s your family, David. You two’ve always been close!”
“And I want her to remember that Davey, not the one I am now.”
“June May loves you. She wouldn’t care about that.”
“But I do. I don’t want to see anyone.”
“David, you can’t just give up. You’ve got to keep fighting.”
“Mama, it’s over. There’s no fight left in me and nothing left to fight for. I’m tired. Please, just let me sleep.”
Grammy fell silent at Davey’s words. The day did, too. Even the birds, which had been calling to each other with little songs, must have up and flown away. The sun stood past noon, its rays weaker now but still warm. I shivered as goose pimples erupted up my arms. Despite the heat, they were shaking. Mama and me sat, each plagued with her own thoughts, for a long time. Neither of us looked up as we heard the sliding door open, then close.
“June May—” Grammy’s voice was quiet— “I want you to go down to Denny’s and get a tub of ice cream.”
I shook my head, staring at my feet.
“Vanilla,” she said curtly, “and a tub of chocolate sauce. I’ve got the money here.”
A set of bills produced themselves before me, held at the end of Grammy’s left hand. I stared at the dimple in her thumb but did not raise my arm.
“Grammy, I don’t think ice cream is gonna…”
“I’ve had enough of that kind of talk, young lady. Now you just get your ass up and start walking.”
I felt the numbness pass as I processed Grammy’s curse word: it was the first she’d ever used with me. The shock of it caused me to look up at her. I immediately wished I hadn’t: her eyes were swollen, her cheeks stained red, tracks leading down to thin lips drawn tight in an upside-down U. Automatically, I reached out a hand. Cash was shoved into it.
“Get up,” Grammy ordered. I rose to my feet. “Rachel, you go with her.”
Mama didn’t move from her spot on the deck.
“But Mama,” she began.
“Rachel, I don’t want to hear another word out of you. You are going to walk with your daughter down that road and you are going to bring back some ice cream.”
“Mama, please be reasonable.”
“The time for reason is over, Rachel. Now, you’ll do as I say.”
“I’m 32 years old, Mama.”
“And I’m 57 with a son upstairs who needs something we can’t give him. So I’ll give him what I can. Get going to Denny’s.”
“Mama, I don’t feel like it.”
“God dammit, Rachel—” another pulse ran through me as Grammy swore— “everyday there are things I don’t feel like doing but I do them cause they’ve got to get done. I’m going upstairs to check on David and neither of you’d better be here when I come back.”
With that, Grammy turned on her heel and was gone, the door sliding shut behind her. At the sound of the lock clicking into place, Mama rose up and offered me her hand. Taking it, we wove our way along the side of the house to the back gate. It shut softly as we stepped onto the road; it wasn’t far to Denny’s Parlor, less than half a mile, but the street lengthened before us like an endless stretch of black heat. It seared the flesh of my shoeless feet as we passed our house, then the Mason’s, then all the others. Despite the time, not one person was out; no moms watching their children playing ball in the road or fathers cursing at old, broken-down lawnmowers. Maybe Davey’s voice had driven them inside, to the confines of safe and sorrowless homes.
When we reached the corner, I realized I’d forgotten the money. Mama waited as I ran back home, passing empty driveway after empty driveway: even the street was devoid of cars. The garden gate opened slowly as I slipped inside, bounding to the deck. The cash was lying there, right beneath the kitchen window, cracked open to tempt some non-existent breeze. Stooping to grab it, I stopped as sobs rang out again, this time from the kitchen and not Davey’s window. It froze me in my tracks. But by the time muffled footsteps shuffled towards the sliding door and the lock flicked up, I was gone. Racing up the street toward Mama, she said nothing as I handed her the money with my left and wiped my eyes with the right.
Denny’s was a bleak affair, filled with points and gruff mumbles as the paper-hatted parlor boy handed us two large tubs of ice cream. We decided against the chocolate sauce as Davey never liked it in the first place. Grammy knew that, though. She probably just wanted us to show up with something extra. Something special. I stole a pack of birthday candles and slid them into my pocket as we left the store.
We were only a few doors down from McGillicutey’s Greenhouse, so we stopped in, determined to find some seeds. Besides packets of summer squash and scarlet runner beans, there was next to nothing by way of flowers. There were definitely no snapdragons, which Davey had ordered special from the Kitazawa Seed catalog; in fact, there were no flowers at all. The teller told us that the entire section had been cleared out earlier for some event being held, though he couldn’t tell us where or which one. I stared gloomily at the back of a pack of Forget-Me-Nots while Mama argued with the teller to check the back, frowning at the ten-week cycle from seed to flower.
With withering hearts, we left McGillicutey’s sad and seedless before finding a place to sit on the curb. No cars passed by, and the parking lot between Denny’s and the greenhouse was empty. We sat for nearly an hour without speaking before the parlor boy came out, pointing at the ice cream pooled at our feet. He handed us another bag, laden with new tubs, and waved us off as we set off for home.
“June May, do you hear that?”
At the corner of Wisteria Way and our street, Mama stopped. I listened hard over the murmur of the evening bugs; somewhere near, the sounds of scraping and shuffling loomed in the air. Mama’s eyebrows raised as we exchanged a look. Then, rounding the corner, we stopped in our tracks.
Our street, empty only hours ago, was filled; every driveway, and most of the road, was filled with cars. Between them, people moved and shuffled like they were in a parade, traipsing from house to house, lugging wheelbarrows. Some were empty, others piled with dirt. Some filled to the brim with buds and flowers. Neighbors stood in their gardens, shovels in hand, directing others who worked hunched over flower beds. It seemed the street was seized with a sudden urge to plant, but as we watched, we realized what they were doing.
The throng was moving, house to house, filling their barrows with the flowers from each and every garden. Once a yard was stripped of bloom and color, they moved to the next, leaving nothing but dirt in their wake. We followed them as they inched nearer toward our house. Some noticed us, smiling and waving, while others who saw us only leaned forward, renewing their work with fresh vigor. I didn’t understand even as Billy Mason appeared beside me, sliding his hand into mine, staining my skin with mud from his gardening glove.
“June May,” he breathed, “just wait till you see it.”
Mama leaned over, placing her mouth near his ear.
“See what, Billy?”
“Just wait, Ms. Williams. You’d better go inside. I think your Mama needs help getting Davey up.”
Mama rushed inside as Billy’s daddy opened the door for her. I stood on my toes at the sidewalk, watching the neighbors lug their barrows to the back of the house.
“Billy,” I said, “I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“We heard this morning,” Billy whispered, “what happened to all of Davey’s garden. We wanted to help.”
“But it’s too late,” I explained, “to plant anything.”
“Seeds, maybe. But you’ll see in a second, June May. Follow me.”
He tugged at my hand as he led me to the gate, propped open with a garden stone from the neighbor’s yard. I thought we’d go through it and follow the throng into the backyard, but he led me up the steps to my front door instead and, together, we crossed the threshold. I could hear Mama and Grammy fighting as we walked up the stairs.
“Rachel, what on earth’s all that racket!”
“Mama, people are here to see him.”
“I don’t care whose here. Your brother needs to rest.”
“Rachel,” Davey said, “I don’t want no company.”
I stepped into the bedroom as the smell of sickness and calamine lotion hit me.
“Davey,” I said, “it’s something you’ll want to see.”
Grammy looked scandalized as Davey shifted deeper beneath the blankets.
“June May, you get out of here right now! Your uncle’s barely dressed.”
“I’ll help you,” Billy said, appearing from the doorway, “we’ll get you dressed and down the stairs in no time.”
“Stop!” Grammy’s face burned red as a tomato. “I’ll have no more of this. David needs rest, and I need some peace and quiet. All of you, get out of here now!”
“Grammy, you’ve got to listen.”
“I don’t got to do nothing, June May. You get out of this room right now, and bring your little boyfriend with you.”
“Mrs. Williams,” Billy said, “come to the window.”
“The window? You better not tell me what to do in my own house, William Mason, or you’ll find yourself thrown out of it.”
“Please,” he said firmly, holding out a hand, “you’ll understand when you see it.”
She stared at Billy with her eyes wild and dangerous but he didn’t back down. Skeptically, she took his hand and allowed him to lead her to the open window. She stood with her back to us as she stopped in her tracks. For nearly a minute, we all watched her.
“David,” she said quietly, “it’s about time you get up.”
“Mama,” Davey said, “I’m tired.”
“And some fresh air will perk you right up. We’re going outside for a bit.”
“Mama, please don’t make me.”
“June May,” Grammy said softly, “I want you to take Billy and wait out in the hallway. Rachel, you’ll help me get David dressed and ready.”
As the door closed, I stepped out of the room, Billy clinging to me like a shadow. Together, we stood in silence as Mama and Grammy got Davey dressed. The two women ignored his protests as David fought and struggled against them, no match for their strength in his weakened, bed-ridden state. He shouted as they hoisted him from the bed into his chair. His face was dark as a storm when the door opened again, and he didn’t thank any of us after we’d maneuvered him down the stairs, one man at every corner of his chair.
The curtain was closed over the sliding door when we’d crossed the carpet into the kitchen. Even the thick cotton curtains couldn’t block out the sound coming from the yard. Even Davey couldn’t help his curiosity.
“What’s all that noise?” he snapped, annoyed with himself for addressing his captors. “What’s going on out there.”
“You’ll see in a second,” Grammy said dreamily. “June May, open the door.”
I nodded to her as I slid the curtain to the side. Discreetly, Grammy’s hands dropped down over Davey’s eyes, covering them as Mama threw open the door. Together with Billy, we lifted Davey’s chair over the threshold and set him down carefully onto the deck. Grammy lifted her hands at Mama’s word, and we all stared, dumbfounded, into the yard.
The backyard was filled, almost entirely, with the shifting bodies of countless people. Nearly 20 or so were on their knees, striking the ground with spades and trowels as they buried roots beneath the ground. The smell of dirt hung in the air like soup, thick and brown and earthy; it moved like water beneath the hands of our neighbors, laying to rest on great bunches of flowers that sprung up and glittered like jewels. In the corner of the yard, Mrs. Mason stacked flowerpots, all of varying color and size, emptied of their contents now planted in our yard. Children bordered the yard, each with a bouquet of flowers in hand, weaving stems like ropes into the chainlink of the fence to form a wall of flowers. The teller from McGuilicutty’s Greenhouse stood amongst them, pulling thick bunches of fresh-cut flowers from an old milk crate.
David did nothing as the scene played out before us, said nothing to break the silent shuffle of a hundred hands hard at work. He simply sat between us, Grammy and Mama and me. I couldn’t blame him; my chest felt so tight I feared it might burst if I did anything else but breathe. In and out. In and out. The fragrance of flowers burrowed deep into my nose, seeped within my skin, down past the veins, and into my very cells. I would smell it for years afterward, during college and on cold days, or when I thought of Davey again, his memory bursting to the surface like a bubble in a boiling pot.
Soon, the first of the crowd took notice of us. Within minutes, the flurry of motion had stopped. Mrs. Mason was the first to approach us; she floated forward with watering eyes, a poppy in her hands, which she placed in David’s lap as she leaned forward to kiss his cheek.
“David,” she said, “we wanted to thank you.”
It was whispered like a prayer, one spoken in darkness and solitude; it made the hairs on our necks stand up as she stepped away and another took her place. Our neighbors lined up before us with a flower in their hand: some grabbed Mama’s hand or held Grammy as she cried. Others hugged me or wished me well. But everyone, even people I had never seen before or since, placed a flower in Davey’s lap and thanked him.
Davey said nothing. Did nothing: the only sign that he had heard them was his hand gripping theirs. The tears now streaming down his face. The sun began to set, and the line disappeared; Mrs. Mason produced a pack of matches and handed them out. They struck them and lit the candles planted in the yard. As the sky grew dark and the neighbors left us, our family stood in the soft glow of firelight within a sea of fragrance and flowers.
A breeze trickled through the yard, bringing with it the sounds and songs of summer. Crickets chirped as stars blinked into life above us, four salted pillars stuck to pulse and petrify. As I stepped into the garden, I leaned above a kitchen candle to produce the pack of my own; carefully, I borrowed the flame to light my own. Then three more, which I passed to others as I resumed my place beside them. We stood until the candles died, till the ice cream had melted and dried, till the wells within us had emptied and filled and then emptied again.
We stayed until the binds that held our feet had loosened only just enough for Grammy to fetch a blanket from the house to wrap us all in it; as the air cooled and the owls hoo’ed, our hearts grew lighter than our troubles and both were lifted upward, on the folds of some far-off, midnight wind, to where they could no longer reach us and our minds were soothed to sleep.
This post is an excerpt from the first draft of the writer’s novel, Dreams of Snapdragon Summers.