This Garden

Jennifer Smith Gray

“Silly Scilla, silly Scilla,” the girl sang quietly, placing a blue flower in her hair. She knew she’d have to remove it before she returned to the house, but for now she closed her eyes and tried to imagine her grandmother’s garden, tried to let herself be there, instead of here, on a sunny June day, with her grandma humming along to her silly tune.

Her grandmother’s garden was smaller than this one, and the dirt and vegetables ran up to the brick house, in fact, up to a neighbour’s house in one corner. But the garden she was in now was some distance from its owners’ house, and there were no neighbours that she could see. Days ago she had learned that she could scream and nobody would hear. Nobody would come to see who the hard-working visitor in the garden was. Only fields with random clusters of blue flowers surrounded this garden. She didn’t even think the flowers were scillas, but she calmed herself with the familiar song anyway.

When she heard Murray clear his throat, she remembered the tiny celery seeds spilling out of her apron pocket. She halted her song with a sigh. Wasn’t it too late in the season to plant celery? Her grandma would have hers planted already, she was sure. If she even had celery. She remembered picking carrots, cucumbers, and peas there, but not celery. Now her brother would get to eat all the sweet peas, unless he saved some for her to have when she got home. Which would be today, she reassured herself.

She rubbed the side of her face. It wasn’t as swollen, but it was still tender from the blow of the shovel the second morning, when, after waking up confused and scared, she’d refused to start her planting and instead threw dirt at Murray. That night, Catherine snuck in and placed a cold cloth on the wound. Catherine said nothing to her, but it was then that she resolved to just do her work until they came for her. So, she knelt down now in a row of dirt, digging her bare toes into the soil. She froze when her foot bumped something hard. Scooping the dirt aside with her fingers, she found a tiny, plastic change purse. Glancing at Murray to ensure her treasure remained a secret, she squeezed the purse open. She peeled away a crumpled piece of notepaper and pulled out a bracelet with letters. A name. Meredith.

She knew that name. Of course, there was her friend Meredith Carlson at school. She wondered if that Meredith missed her right now. Her thoughts briefly shifted to her seventh-grade class, likely getting ready for the end-of-year fun day. But wasn’t Meredith also the name scribbled on those yellowed drawings on the fridge? And she was sure it was written inside the cover of the Nancy Drew book she’d peeked at on the shelf beside the bed.

Murray’s shovel scratched a rock and she was again brought back to now, to the garden where she’d spent daylight hours for the last five days. Or was it six? It couldn’t yet be seven, she was certain. They wouldn’t let her be gone a whole week.

She knew that before lunch, Murray would check her apron pocket to make sure her morning seeds were gone. So, she shoved the bracelet into the back pocket of the faded jeans Catherine had tossed onto her bed at sunrise —  one or two sizes too big. She thought about her own clothes. She had been wearing her softball uniform when Murray pulled up to her, a block from her home, pretending to be in need of directions. The red jersey was still dust-covered from her awkward slide at second in the seventh inning twenty minutes earlier. That is what the news shows would tell people to look out for, she figured, a girl in a red ball shirt. A shirt most likely charred in the fire pit by the garage. The room she slept in — they called it her room — faced that way and she’d watched Murray build a fire there that first night.

She nervously patted her seat to make sure the bracelet was still there, hidden. She would keep it and show it to her mom. She would tell her mom about the crazy man called Murray and his wife Catherine, and this garden. Her mom would help her to understand. Or to forget.

The sun was almost right above them now and she knew enough to get on with it, digging holes and dropping seeds. She had only a handful of seeds left when she heard the back porch door swing shut. Holding her breath, and with hopeful eyes, she turned to look. Her shoulders dropped, carrying the weight of dejection. It was Catherine with the lunch tray. It wasn’t her dad. It wasn’t the police. It wasn’t anyone else who might be able to help her.

“Let’s eat, Meredith,” Murray dropped his shovel and held out a hand to help her up.

“I’m not Meredith,” she whispered, struggling to breathe as a wave of some kind of understanding washed over her.

Staring at the dirt rows before her, she thought of her brother and hoped he did eat all the peas.

And she wondered what would happen to her here when there were no more seeds to plant.