Love, It Is A Flower
Seventeen minutes to eight. Bo checked his watch and made sure it matched the time on the Budweiser clock. He hadn't had a customer in the last hour, and he considered closing early. But with his luck, someone would tell Mr. Thompson, and the store's owner would chew him out again. In a small town like Forestville, people didn't have anything better to do than gossip and stick their noses into each other's business. Getting yelled at by his boss just wasn't worth it for seventeen lousy minutes of freedom.
Bo heard the approaching roar of the snowplow and watched as the plow entered the store's parking lot and slowly turned around, heading back the way it came. The plow turned around in the parking lot every twenty-two minutes, give or take. Bo had timed it every winter for the last eight years since he started working at Thompson's Gas 'n' Snacks. He could still remember the January day three years before when the plow took fifty-two minutes to return to the parking lot. He never did find out why. He could have asked Rory, the plow driver, but Bo preferred to have a little mystery in his life.
The plow's preamble through the lot took three and a half minutes. As the flashing rear lights headed back up Main Street, Bo was three and a half minutes closer to getting out of the store and heading across the street to Ed's Tavern. There'd be enough time for a few beers before heading home to the wife. He'd have to be careful, of course, and not stay drinking for too long. It was Valentine's Day, and he knew women got really funny about that particular holiday.
Of course, if he was late, he could blame it on the snow. Bo turned around on his stool, feeling the uneven legs rock beneath him, and rubbed the side of his hand against the window, clearing away the condensation. He looked at the snow falling beneath the streetlight on the corner, checking the size of the flakes and the speed at which they fell against the dim yellow light.
"That's good for a half hour at least," he announced to the empty store. He turned back and reached across the counter, pinching the hand of the little hamster that sat next to the cash register. He laughed as the high-pitched strains of "Born to be Wild" squeaked their way out of the dancing toy.
As the music faded, headlights shone into the store, reflecting brightly off the bags of Lay's and Doritos that stood sentinel just inside the door. Bo looked through his little window between the shelves of cigarettes and watched an ancient pickup lumber into the lot and pull up to the pumps. The truck was a '58 Chevy, and although Bo had only seen it a couple of times in his life, he recognized it instantly. It belonged to The Witch.
If The Witch had a real name, Bo had never heard it. Since he was a boy, folks whispered about the crazy old woman who lived about as far back in the woods as anyone could without being above the tree line. When Bo was a little boy, The Witch was already old. Now, three decades later, she was ancient older than the trees that lined Main Street, older than the highway, older than Thompson's Gas 'n' Snacks.
The Witch was pretty much self-sufficient. What she couldn't grow or raise on her farm, the Bridges, her nearest neighbors, left for her. Even they rarely saw or spoke to her, just dropped the food off on her front steps and picked up an envelope with a check that was waiting for them, along with a list of what was needed on the next trip. Bo had seen The Witch come into town no more than a half dozen times in his whole life. Every visit caused a stir in the community. One time The Witch went into the tiny library and read the newspaper and Time Magazine, then left without a word.
Bo watched the old woman carefully descend from the pickup. Her hair was as white as the snow that crunched under her boots. It was long, and pulled into a loose ponytail. Bo could see that she was tall as she stood next to the side of the truck. She turned to the pumps and stopped for a moment, then leaned closer to read the instructions on the machine. She nodded to herself and then began the process of pumping her gas.
Bo began to drum his fingers nervously against the counter, rocking slightly on his stool. Would she say something to him when she came in to pay for the gas? "Thanks" or "OK" or maybe just a grunt? "And a pack of Marlboros" if he was really lucky. More importantly, what would Bo say to The Witch?
He was pondering that as the old woman finished filling her tank and carefully returned the nozzle to the pump, then recapped her gas tank. She stepped carefully across the slushy snow and finally entered the shop. The bell above the door jangled merrily and Bo tried unsuccessfully to look bored as he read the TV Guide that he'd hastily picked up. He peeked above the listings for Thursday night and watched The Witch turn away from him and head toward the back of the store.
She passed the cold drink cabinet without a second glance and then stopped in front of the bins of bruised apples and dusty potatoes. Bo could see her head turning as her eyes darted around the area. She obviously didn't find what she was looking for, and sighed heavily in frustration. Bo could feel his palms getting sweaty as The Witch strode toward him.
"Do you sell flowers?" Her eyes were blue, the same color as the blue in the Pepsi label. Wrinkles creased the skin around her mouth and eyes, mapping years of struggle and determination.
"Flowers?" Bo didn't really think she'd ask for Marlboros, despite his earlier musings, but flowers were just about the last thing he expected.
"I wanted a rose," the woman clarified. "Don't you usually sell them for Valentine's Day?"
Bo looked toward the empty plastic bucket, tucked beneath the gum and Life Savers. A sign was still tacked to the bucket. Earlier that day, Bo had watched Mr. Thompson use a black Sharpie to write, "Roses: 4.99 ea" on the fluorescent green cardboard. They'd sold all twelve flowers by the afternoon. Bo himself had grabbed one for his wife, and as the blue eyes glared at him, he struggled to keep himself from glancing down below the counter, where the flower was resting on top of his lunchbox.
"Sold out," Bo said, pointing at the empty bucket. He shrugged. "Sorry."
"I need a rose."
The statement was delivered in an even tone, without a hint of either pleading or irritation. Bo squirmed slightly and began to bite his thumbnail, forgetting that he'd broken the habit as a teenager.
"Like you said, it's Valentine's Day," Bo said around his thumb. "It's almost closing time. We sold out a good while back."
"You have none at all?"
If Bo had ever thought that The Witch was misnamed, those doubts evaporated as her question pierced his chest. He didn't know how she knew about the rose hidden below the counter, but she did.
"I well " Bo could feel beads of sweat tickle his upper lip. "There might be "
A white eyebrow rose slowly above a crystal blue ice chip as The Witch reached into the breast pocket of her black parka. When she pulled out her hand, a crisp fifty-dollar bill was clutched between long, callused fingers.
"For the gas and the rose," she announced, placing the bill on the counter and holding out her hand.
Bo leaned down and extracted the flower, trying to keep his hand steady so that he didn't poke the thorns into the outstretched hand. He picked up the bill, which looked newly minted, and examined the watermark. He considered what he could buy his wife as a replacement, knowing that a box of chocolate would be just as welcome as a flower, and when he reached to pick up one of the candy boxes stacked on the corner of the counter, he found that the old woman had already left.
Bo peered out the window and watched The Witch get into her pickup and drive out of the lot, turning up Main Street toward the mountains. After a couple blocks, her taillights disappeared into the blowing snow. Bo's watch chimed and he pressed the little alarm button, then checked the Budweiser clock. Eight o'clock exactly. He could already taste the beer.
Scaring the locals again?
The old woman snorted and shrugged her parka-clad shoulders.
They think you're a witch, you know.
"And now if they see me talking to myself, they'll think I'm a crazy witch."
Laughter filled the cab of the pickup, tinkling like sleigh bells and warming the interior more effectively than the wheezing heater.
You didn't have to do that, you know.
"Yes I did." The old woman shifted the truck's stubborn gears. The effort sent a stab of pain into her shoulder and her groan echoed the truck's transmission.
It wasn't your fault your roses got the blight. You can get new ones this spring. Next year, you'll have beauties again.
She didn't want to talk about next year. "Well," she said instead, "it's done now."
You are, without a doubt, the most stubborn woman I've ever known.
"I thought that's why you loved me." Blue eyes twinkled as a grin erased years from the old woman's face.
One of the many reasons, my love. One of the many reasons.
Laughter again rang through the confines of the truck. The old woman continued to drive carefully up the winding mountain road. The old truck slipped and slid like a novice skater. She'd thrown bales of hay in the truck bed before heading down the mountain to add weight to her tail end. If she hadn't, she knew she'd be in a ditch or down a ravine within the first few miles of her trip. Still, it had been a long journey down the mountain, and it would be a longer one up, as the snow began to fall harder.
Thank god she had her constant companion by her side. If she closed her eyes, she could still see the dancing green eyes, red gold hair, and pale skin dotted with freckles across nose and arms and chest. She took a deep breath and could smell her perfume: hyacinth and spring rain. She could feel smooth skin beneath her fingers
Pay attention, you old fool!
The pothole jarred her back to reality and she took better hold of the hard plastic steering wheel.
"Sorry," she mumbled, turning the wheel to avoid another, deeper hole in the road.
Don't apologize to me, I didn't feel a thing.
She smiled at the old joke.
"I'm telling you, Doug, it was The Witch sure as you're sitting next to me." Bo was working on his fourth beer and had already lost track of time.
"Ain't no way she could make it down that mountain in this weather." Doug shook his head and then took a minute to refocus his blurry eyes on his buddy Bo.
"Well, she did," Bo replied. "She bought a tank of gas and a red rose from me. Paid me with a fifty that I think she made herself."
"She must be a witch, then. Rode down the mountain on her broomstick."
"Maybe she does that nose thing," Bo suggested, pushing his nose back and forth with his forefinger. "You know, like that Bewitched bitch on TV."
Doug considered the idea seriously for a moment. "Could be. Just drove the last block in the truck to trick you."
A grizzled old man at the end of the bar leaned forward and glared at Bo and Doug. "Were you boys born stupid, or did your mamas drop you on your heads?" He asked, stopping the drunken rambling.
"I was just saying " Bo began defensively.
"I know what you were just saying," the old man interrupted. "You were just spouting crazy shit, sounding like you were five instead of thirty-five."
Bo looked away from the accusing eyes and began to fiddle with his beer mat.
"But Cletus," Doug said, too drunk to see the anger in the glaring eyes, "you have to admit she's crazy living up there on that mountain, never talking to anyone in decades."
"She ain't talked to the likes of you, that's true enough," Cletus agreed. "That makes her either lucky or smart, but certainly not crazy. I sure wish I could say the same."
"So you're saying it wasn't crazy to drive down that mountain during the worst storm of the season just to buy a rose?" Bo took a slug of beer, finishing off the bottle and motioning to the bartender for a fifth.
Cletus took a sip of his own drink and stared into space, his eyes unfocused. He thought for a moment, and then sighed, turning back to Bo and Doug.
"Some day, boys, you might be lucky enough to have God or The Fates or Cupid or whoever the hell controls these things point a finger at you. Then you'll understand. And you might just find yourself doing something as crazy as driving down a mountain to buy a rose in the worst snowstorm of the season."
"Cupid?" Bo tried to wrap his foggy brain around what Cletus was talking about. "You're saying she did it for love?"
Doug snorted and Bo joined him.
"Ain't no woman on earth could make me do something like that," Doug vowed.
"No way," Bo agreed.
"Just as I thought," Cletus mumbled, taking a sip of whiskey. "Just as I thought."
Watch out for that tree!
She slammed down hard on the brakes and the truck slowed, and then slid forward on the ice. The tail end started to drift to the left, and she cursed loudly and creatively until it thought better of the idea and came back in line. She watched the fallen pine getting nearer and focused her will to make the truck stop. She refused to let it end here, like this.
Wow, that was close.
The truck had stopped gently, its front end embracing the pine's branches.
"Well, I guess we walk the rest of the way."
Don't be a crazy old fool! Turn up the heat and get that blanket out from under the seat. You'll be fine until one of your neighbors comes along.
"No!" She didnt mean to shout, but her frustration finally bubbled out. She could remember the look of hurt in green eyes whenever she got this way. Each angry outburst was still fresh in her mind.
"I'm sorry for shouting," she said, the apology resting heavily on her chest. She took a deep breath, but the pain didn't ease. "This is important. You know that. I have to get back. It's Valentine's Day."
Her words were met with silence, which she took as grim acceptance. Knowing it was the best she could hope for, she carefully picked up the rose and tucked it against her shirt, zipping up her parka around it. She knew it would get a bit squished on the journey home, maybe lose a few petals, but she had no other choice.
She tried to prepare herself for the cold, but the freezing wind battered her when she opened the truck's door, the snow stinging her like tiny, vicious bees. She wrapped her scarf tighter around her neck and face, snapping the parka's high collar over it. She pulled her knit hat low over her ears and drew the string of the hood tight. Her blue eyes peeked out from the small opening that she left.
"Well, this should be fun," she stated without a hint of humor.
Her first challenge was the tree, which blocked the road and extended several feet into the woods. She decided to climb over the trunk at the bottom, where it had been sheered away neatly, as if a chainsaw had felled it rather than the wind. The trunk was as high as her knees, and she stepped over it slowly and carefully. Despite her caution, she over-balanced, and her trailing foot slipped in the icy snow. She landed heavily thankfully on the other side of the tree floundering and gasping for breath.
"Damn old body!" she cried once she had enough breath to speak. "I'm tired of you betraying me, you old bag of bones."
Are you all right?
She forced herself to lie still and take stock of her injuries. Her hip ached, but after a moment of panic, she determined it wasn't broken.
"My dignity is in critical condition," she grumbled. "I'm not expecting it to pull through."
The warm chuckle gave her the strength to roll to her knees and pull herself up. She swayed, but remained standing. Once the world stopped dancing around her, she took a deep breath and headed up the road toward home.
"Do you remember the first rose I ever bought you?"
She needed to retreat into her memories, to take her mind off the stabbing pain in her knees and hip and back. She'd gone less than halfway, and was beginning to wonder if she really could make it. She was prepared to die in the attempt, but didn't really want to dwell on that possibility. The past was a much more comfortable place to be.
How could I forget that rose? You were so nervous I thought you were going to pass out. You were whiter than this snow.
"I was so afraid of what you would say or do. Afraid that I was ruining our friendship, that you'd never speak to me again."
I wouldn't do that to you. I had already fallen so deeply in love with you, I couldn't think of anything else but you.
"You could have said something and spared me the agony."
And miss getting my first Valentine's rose? No way!
She smiled at the memory of that day. The look of wonder on the cherished face. "When you said you loved me too, you made me the happiest woman on earth."
I could tell. All the blood rushed back into your face. You were as red as that rose!
She laughed. The sound was swallowed immediately by the roaring wind. It pushed against her with a savage shove. She stumbled, but kept her feet. She continued to trudge resolutely along the road, lost in her memories.
"Remember the year that mangy mutt of yours ate all the rosebuds but one?"
One rose was all I ever needed anyway.
"Or the year we went to Greece and I had to pay that crazy guy at the hotel twenty bucks for one lousy rose? The petals were more brown than red."
And you had to promise to name your first-born son Stavros.
"I definitely had some close calls."
The time you had to order a rose for me when I was in London on business.
"I hated relying on someone else halfway across the planet. It was bad enough that we had to be apart on Valentine's Day."
You made up for it when I got home. More than made up for it.
"And I vowed never to be apart from you on Valentine's Day again."
You're still crazy to be doing this.
She walked along in silence, remembering more roses, the years they'd been together. The love they shared. She tried to avoid one memory, but its terrible images flashed in her mind and she couldn't turn them off.
I remember that rose too, my love.
Yes. I could smell it. Could hear you. Feel your love.
The grief took her suddenly; it was more savage than the wind and stinging snow. It drove her to her knees, gasping.
No, my love, don't give up. Not now that you've come so far.
The words renewed her, as they always had. She held onto them tightly, using them like a lifeline to pull herself to safety. She stumbled to her feet and continued forward.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
She concentrated on her legs, willing them to take one step after another. She struggled over a small rise and finally looked down upon her farm, nestled in the little valley. Focusing on the area between the house and the barn, she descended the hill, knowing she would make it. Her love had brought her home.
The old woman's neighbors discovered her truck the next day and searched a few hundred yards on foot before realizing that she had somehow made it farther than they thought possible. Mr. Bridges was ready to call down to the volunteer fire department when Doug and Bo drove up on snowmobiles.
Bo had arrived home after eleven the night before, beer on his breath and eyes unable to focus. He didn't even have a peace offering, having dropped the box of chocolates in the parking lot of Ed's Tavern, dumping the little brown lumps in the grey slush under his jeep. His wife had screamed at him for a good hour before sending him to sleep on the sofa. She'd started up again in the morning and continued to complain to his departing back when he left to find out what Doug was up to.
Doug and Bo jumped at the challenge of finding The Witch. They hoped to get a look into her house, anxious to see what it might contain. The storm had blown out right before dawn, and they drove their snowmobiles quickly up the road over the clean, smooth snow.
Bo was wondering if The Witch owned a cat and kept nasty things in jars when he topped the rise above her farm and looked down into the valley. He saw what looked like a tarp between the house and barn, and wondered what it covered. He pointed it out to Doug as the two men headed down the hill.
They parked a few feet from the back door and were mounting the steps when something caught the corner of Bo's eye and he realized that the black object in the yard wasn't a tarp at all. He nudged Doug and they approached slowly, their crunching footsteps sounding unnaturally loud.
"It's The Witch," Doug murmured when the wind blew snow off a gloved hand.
The men stopped a few feet from the body.
"See if she's dead," Doug said, nudging Bo.
The old woman was lying face down, unmoving, partially buried in several inches of snow. Bo had no desire to actually touch the body to prove what he already knew was true. The woman was dead and had been for hours.
"Go on," Doug urged, pushing Bo harder.
"Quit shoving," Bo snapped. He pushed back, but then stepped forward. He wasn't a child, after all. She was just an old lady. A dead old lady. And he should get her body under cover until the authorities could come do something about it.
Despite his reassurances to himself, his hand shook and his muscles twitched. He tried not to react like a timid rabbit, but his body prepared to bolt at the slightest surprise.
"She ain't gonna bite you," Doug taunted.
"I know that." Bo scowled at his friend, and felt some of his fear drain away. At least he wasn't afraid to get near the old woman, unlike someone he could mention.
He crouched beside the body and saw that she was hunched over something, as if protecting it from the cold. He grabbed her arm. It reminded him of a log from his woodpile hard and cold. He pushed her over to make sure it was indeed the old woman. She fell with a heavy thump, sprawling onto her back. Bo jumped back slightly and averted his eyes, but then peeked slowly at the woman. He was surprised to see a smile on the frozen, pale face.
"It's a grave."
Bo looked where Doug pointed. A small stone marker lay before him, previously hidden by the hunched body. Bo wiped snow from the granite and read the inscription:
Born June 5, 1916
Died Feb 14, 1963
Your love will light my darkest days until we meet again
Bo moved back slightly and his foot hit something in the snow. He dug beneath the soft white powder and uncovered a single red rose, as fresh as when he'd brought it out from beneath the counter and sold it for a newly minted fifty.