(4216 words – 1/1/2019)
Mr. Burgess yelled down from the open window. “You kids get away from my garden!”
The gang of boys on bikes spun and crunched off down the gravel alleyway, laughing and shouting at each other.
Leaving the window open, the old man pulled the curtains almost closed and disappeared inside.
Once the boys were gone, Allie came out from behind the big oak and walked her bike onto Mr. Burgess’s driveway. She rolled her bike between the last two bushes of the tall, neatly-pruned camellia hedge that lined the alley. Leaned the seat against the dense leaves, stepped back and looked around. Only a tiny bit of the rear tire could be seen, and only if somebody was looking for it.
Her eyes darted up the back wall of the white house with black shutters and pale green drapes. A warm breeze blew through the open window, fluttering the strawberry-printed curtains into the kitchen window above. She walked a few steps towards the low brick wall that almost hid Mr. Burgess’s rose garden from the alley.
Nestled between the driveway, the basement wall of the house, and the next-door neighbor’s tall wooden fence, a grid of bushes laden with brilliant blooms languished in the sun. From the alley you could only see the tops of the roses. You could smell them from the alley if the humid summer air moved, but you couldn’t see the little metal tags glinting unless you stepped behind the brick wall. And Mr. Burgess didn’t allow any of the neighborhood kids to do that.
When she reached the basement door, Allie checked again to make sure her bike was well-hidden. She pressed her hands and face to the half-glass of the door, but the lights weren’t on inside, so she couldn’t tell if Emma was home. She stepped back out towards the alley and looked up at the windows. She could see Mr. Burgess sitting at the breakfast table. She waved, but he didn’t notice.
“Emma…” Allie called softly. She looked to make sure no other kids were around, shoved her hands into her pockets, and waited. Maybe I should leave, she thought. After a few seconds, she stepped closer to the roses, onto her favorite piece of golden flagstone streaked with red. She didn’t really like getting too close to the roses unless Emma was with her. It hadn’t been that long since Mr. Burgess yelled at her to get away from the flowers, too.
Closing her eyes, hands still in pockets, Allie scraped the toe of a sneaker along the rough cleft surface of the stone. “Emma…” she whispered this time, looked at the door again. Stepping from stone to stone, Allie made her way all around the garden. The brick curb kept the gravel out of the roses, and raised the bed. Probably made it easier for Mr. Burgess to kneel and prune and water. Allie had never actually seen Mr. Burgess work in the rose bed, but the thorny stems bowed with blooms all summer long.
“Emma…” Allie hummed softly, still going stone to stone, kind of bobbing her head and hopping. At the corners, she did a little turn and tossed her hair. She had made up a song for calling Emma, and was still working on a dance.
“Emma…” Allie called again and stopped just past the brick wall, at the small concrete table shaped like a tree trunk with a mushroom cap top. She pulled up one of the lacy-but-heavy cast iron stools, and sat after she brushed the dried bird poop off the companion seat. She closed her eyes and once again whispered. “Emma, tea’s ready!”
The curtains parted for an instant. Allie smiled, waved at the window, and arranged the teapot while she waited for her friend.
A sound came from the basement door. Allie’s face lit up as Emma ran out and hopped onto the seat across from Allie.
“Sorry I’m late, Allie. Grandpa and I were chatting. Oh, aren’t the roses lovely today!”
“They like it when the sun’s bright.” Allie smiled at her friend. “Emma, you have a new dress today. That’s a really pretty one.”
“Thank you! It’s my favorite.”
Allie leaned closer and touched the hem of Emma’s blue checked skirt. “Did your Mama sew the white bunnies on? I really like those.”
“Grandma did. She let me choose which animal.” Emma smoothed her skirt out so she and Allie could both get a better look at the rabbits appliquéd along the hem. Emma poured the tea, and they laughed because Emma was so dressed-up and Allie was just in her pink shorts. Allie especially liked Emma because she never made fun of her tomboy clothes.
They talked about Emma’s cat, and what animals made the best pets: rabbits, hamsters, dogs or cats. And how nice it was when they could have tea without the neighborhood boys bothering them.
The next day, they heard the boys coming. No mistaking the sound those knobbed tires make when they spin in gravel.
Emma whispered, “I’ve gotta go, Allie. I’m so scared of them.”
“You run inside. I’ll get rid of them.” Allie turned and faced the boys.
“Look at Allie! Talking to herself in the alley again!” Laughter.
“This my friend’s house and we like to play here.” Allie put her fists on her hips, looked around for a rock in case she needed one. Mr. Burgess’ drive was just pea gravel.
There were four boys, and only one of her, but Allie reached down and pried a small flagstone up out of the ground. She hefted it and swung it from side to side with both hands.
“That’a a nice bike you got, Robbie. Looks new. I bet you’d hate to get scratches on that shiny red paint.” Allie had learned from her brothers, just the thing to scare a boy.
Robbie leaned back on his seat. “Aw, you’re just a girl. You think I believe you can throw that rock this far?” He wheeled his bike back a foot or two, then forward a teeny bit, trying to make it look like he was just rolling back and forth. Allie could tell he was nervous. And she could tell he knew that. The other boys watched him out of the corners of their eyes.
Allie thought fast. If she stayed this far away from them, she could get to Mr. Burgess’ basement door before they could catch her. And she really did think she could hit Robbie’s bike. She was pretty good at tossing big rocks. She began to sway with the rock, gaining momentum.
“You sure you wanna try me? Go away and leave us alone!” Allie took a step closer. Risky. But she was tired of them teasing her. And she wouldn’t have them teasing Emma. Emma was just a little girl, and wasn’t used to dealing with boys.
“Aw, c’mon Robbie, she’s not worth it.” Robbie’s older brother nudged an elbow towards him. “’Sides, we’re already late for lunch. I think I hear Mama callin’”. Scott raised up on his pedals and steered away, rolling, crunching slowly at first, to make sure Robbie would follow. “C’mon.” Scott peeled off, tires flinging gravel into the group of boys.
Robbie sat back on his seat, snapped his head at Allie and spat in her direction. He glared, squinting his eyes like the guys in Rat Patrol did to the Germans, and the other boys laughed with him as they sped off down the alley.
Allie carefully set the piece of flagstone back where she got it, matching up the edges with the hole in the ground, so Mr. Burgess wouldn’t get mad. She hoped Emma was still around. Maybe she needed to call her again. She started her circling routine, chanting “Emma…” in a sing-song voice as she paced the steps around the garden.
When Emma returned, they sat and chatted, wondering why boys thought they had to be mean to girls all the time. Allie’s mama rang the cow bell for her to come home, and she got up to go. Emma said she’d ask her Grandpa if he knew any tricks for dealing with boys.
On Friday, Allie sat on the brick curb, waiting for Emma. This time, Emma brought her Grandpa with her.
“Nice to meet you, Allie. I see you and Emma have been enjoying yourselves having tea with the roses, and I wondered if you’d like to come have tea inside. You could meet Emma’s cat, too.”
Allie remembered that ladies where supposed to curtsy when meeting a gentleman, and Mr. Burgess was wearing a tie, so she guessed she’d better. She stood awkwardly, and started to bow, then stopped. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Burgess. I’m afraid I don’t know how to curtsy in shorts.” But she folded her hands in back, like Mama had taught her.
Mr. Burgess laughed. “Oh, honey, you don’t need to curtsy for me, but that’s very ladylike of you to think of it. Your mama would be proud. Would you like to come inside and have some cookies with me and Emma?”
“Why, yessir, thank you.” Allie curtsied again, and this time pretended she wore a skirt, fanning her hands wide. Mr. Burgess reached into his back pocket and pulled out a short pair of clippers.
“Maybe you ladies would like to choose some roses for our tea bouquet?” The old man gestured to the rows of blooming rose bushes.
Allie walked between the thorny rows, trying to decide. She couldn’t. She turned to him. “Could we have one of each color?”
“Of course!” He beamed. “Why have favorites? They’re all beautiful, aren’t they?”
The three of them walked the garden, Mr. Burgess snipping and chatting, explaining when blooms were spent, or not quite ready for clipping. “Let’s let this one grow a bit more. It’ll be lovely by Monday.” He pointed out to Allie how to water them and arrange the mulch.
Once he had a handful of flowers, he slipped the clippers back into his pocket and held out his free hand to Allie. Emma peeked out from behind her grandpa and giggled.
Allie took his wrinkled – but very soft – hand as he led her into the basement. Allie followed Mr. Burgess, and Emma followed Allie, up the stairs and into a kitchen decorated with strawberries.
In the kitchen, Emma’s Grandpa picked up a fat gray cat and carried her to the table. “This is Mrs. Whiskers. Sometimes she thinks she runs the place.” He winked at Allie. Cradling the cat over a chair, he set her down, scratched behind her ears.
Mr. Burgess went to the china cabinet and took out three plates. “Emma’s Grandma painted the roses and gold edges on these plates when we were still young.” He set them on the small table, and with both thin, wrinkled hands gripped the wobbly ceramic cookie jar, hoisting it from the counter to the table.
The cat meowed at Allie and hopped down to rub against her legs. Mr. Burgess gestured for Allie to sit. “Do you drink hot tea, Allie, or would you prefer Kool-Aid?”
Allie was feeling a bit special and grown up. “I’ll have tea, please sir.”
Mr. Burgess added a sugar bowl and took saucers and tea cups out of the china cabinet.
They sat and talked for over an hour. Allie couldn’t believe the old man baked those cookies himself, and he assured her that Emma had done more than him. He took out a photo album and showed Allie pictures of Emma when she was small, her parents who had died long ago, and Grandma, who had died only recently. “Emma came to live with us when her Mama and Daddy went to go live with Jesus,” Mr. Burgess explained. He reached down and scratched Mrs. Whiskers behind the ears. “Now Mrs. Whiskers, she’s been here longer than any of us, it seems.” The fluffy cat purred, left Mr. Burgess and wrapped around Allie’s legs again.
“She finishes up the cookies we don’t eat.” Emma reached down, and the cat jumped up into her lap. Emma hugged her as Mrs. Whiskers rubbed her chin against the table edge. “She still smells like Grandma.”
Allie laughed. “It must be so nice to live with your Grandpa, Emma. I’m jealous!” Emma laughed too, and was just about to say something else when Allie heard Mama ring the bell. “Oops, I’d better go. Mama may be looking for me – she doesn’t know I’m here.” Allie jumped down from the table and headed for the stairs to the basement, after she stopped and looked out the window to check on her bike again. The tire was still sticking out of the camellia bushes. Then she remembered what she was supposed to do.
“Thank you for the cookies and tea, Mr. Burgess! I hope I’ll see you tomorrow, Emma!”
Allie curtsied and scurried down the stairs.
The summer passed like that. Allie & Emma shared tea almost every day, mostly by the rose garden. Every once in a while, Mr. Burgess would come out and tell them fresh cookies were ready, and they’d go inside and have tea with Mrs. Whiskers and Emma’s Grandpa. With so many boys in the neighborhood, Allie’s mama was delighted she’d found a friend to play with. Sometimes Mama gave Allie cookies to take over to Emma’s house, and even invited them to come to their house for tea. Although Daddy had built a nice brick patio, Allie’s yard didn’t have a rose garden. And it wasn’t really tea without the roses.
A rock whizzed past Allie’s ear and bounced off the mushroom table, barely missing the teapot. Laughter hit her from behind, hard as a baseball bat. “Allie schmallie, playin’ alone in the alley!” The boys’ cackling drowned out the last few words, but it didn’t matter. She’d heard them before.
Fists clenched, cheeks red, Allie jumped up and spun around to face the boys. It wasn’t just the usual four. Allie’s brothers had joined them.
“Where’s your pretend friend, Allie?”
She glared at her brothers, heart pounding. They weren’t yelling, but they smirked. Allie glanced at the table. Emma had disappeared. “She just went inside to go to the bathroom! You boys leave us alone!” Looked to the garage. The door was closed. Up at the windows. No Emma.
Robbie rolled closer and leaned forward, leering. He almost whispered. “You crazy girl. There’s nobody with you. We been watchin’ you for fifteen minutes.”
Allie’s ears rang and everything around her faded white. She pretended not to hear them and tried to catch her breath. Shot another look at the basement door. Emma was hiding. She had to be. Why did she always hide when other people were around? Allie’s heart raced. She looked up at the breakfast nook. The strawberry curtains moved behind the closed window and Allie thought she saw Mr. Burgess, but it must have been the cat. It was dark inside the house.
“Crazy Allie!” The boys skidded off down the alleyway, but their laughter lingered.
Allie sat back down, trying to catch her breath and get her hands to stop shaking. She dug her fists into her thighs. Emma must be really scared, if she’s still inside, Allie thought. She stood and stepped over to the flagstone path.
“Emma…” Allie whispered and began pacing the stones. Even tried the dance. Emma never came back out, and when Allie realized she’d bitten all her fingernails down, she gave up and wandered home.
Three days passed and Emma never came outside. Allie thought about knocking on Mr. Burgess’ front door, but somehow knew that was not a good idea. The rear windows stayed closed. Allie guessed Mr. Burgess didn’t care about listening for kids in his garden anymore.
Summer was almost over. Allie sat in the living room, flipping through National Geographic magazines and trying master the knots for Girl Scouts. Meeting was tomorrow, and she just couldn’t get the square knot to hold tight. Mama and Mrs. Johnson were chatting in the dining room over coffee, yarn, and cigarettes. Mrs. Johnson’s words hit Allie’s ears like shaved ice.
“Oh, my goodness, Mr. Burgess has lived alone for years. His granddaughter died in ’62 – she lived with them, you know – and then his wife passed the next year.” Mrs. Johnson sipped her coffee, lifted the crocheting out of her lap, and started looping again. “He hardly ever gets out any more. I think his church checks on him a couple times a week, brings him casseroles.”
Allie heard a soft noise and looked up to see Mama standing, peeking at her. Mama smiled at her but didn’t say anything. Allie pretended to concentrate. Even though she’d just finished her best knot yet, she untied it and started over. Mama returned to the dining room.
While the women talked, Allie wadded her string up and closed the scout book, then slipped out past the stairs to the back stoop. She needed to run, and wondered if she could get to the big cedar tree and climb up before Mama could call her back. Her eyes stung. She slipped into the tall privets, and grabbed a dead limb from the ground. When she got to the sidewalk on the other side of the hedge, she smashed the dried stick against the concrete until it shattered to pulp. She kicked the splinters off the sidewalk and ran as fast as she could to the skirt of the cedar. Slipping in among the branches, parting them, Allie climbed until she couldn’t anymore, then sat on a branch and sobbed.
It was Saturday morning. Mama stepped outside onto the back stoop. “What are you moping about honey? Why don’t you come watch cartoons with your brothers?”
Allie stared out into the backyard and shrugged.
“Well then, come help me bake some cookies. I’ll let you lick the bowl.”
“Nah, I’ll go play.” Allie hopped off the steps and headed for the crumbling stone barbeque grill. Back to building that fort she’d started, before… Before Emma came.
It was starting to get cool. The roses had lost almost all their petals.
Allie leaned her bike against the fence slats. She took a few steps towards Mr. Burgess’ house, and peeked around the corner post. The windows were closed, and the curtains too.
She looked around and listened to see if any of the neighborhood kids were nearby. It was quiet. No shouts or gravel crunch. She crept closer to the flower bed, hunched and climbed over the brick curb, trying not to let her body get taller than the flower bushes.
As she touched the petals, they fell.
Allie looked up at the window and then at the basement door Emma used to come out through. No sign of life. The leaves on their stems quivered and the mulch felt heavy. It was cold here now. Allie didn’t want to stay. She crawled out of the garden, dashed to the corner of the fence, grabbed her bike and rolled down the hill through the vacant lot, hoping Mr. Burgess couldn’t see her run away.
Mama answered the door while Allie watched from the hallway.
“Hello, Mrs. Sanders. I wanted to invite Allie over for cookies sometime. She used to drop by from time to time, but I haven’t seen her in a while.”
Allie ducked into the kitchen.
“Why, that’s lovely of you, Mr. Burgess. I’ll be sure and let her know. When’s the best time for her to visit?”
“Well, she used to come by in the afternoons. After school would be fine.”
Allie took a deep breath and stepped into the hallway. She saw Mr. Burgess standing on the stoop, silhouetted in the fall dusk. Allie could tell he held his hat in his hands. She moved closer.
“Hi, Mr. Burgess.” Allie lifted her fingers to wave, from behind Mama.
“Oh, hello, Allie. I just dropped by to say I’ve missed our cookie visits, and I hope you’ll come see me again soon.”
Mama stepped out of the way, hand soft on Allie’s shoulder. “Why don’t you stay for dinner, Mr. Burgess?”
“Oh, thank you Mrs. Sanders, but I won’t stay long. Just wanted Allie to know she’s welcome to come visit again any time.”
“Well, that’s mighty kind of you, sir.” Mama looked down at Allie, smiled and headed back to the kitchen.
Allie watched her leave, then stepped closer to Mr. Burgess. “How’ve you been, sir?” She looked up at him, studying his wrinkles.
“Just fine, Allie, just fine.” Mr. Burgess smiled at her, and the thin skin around his eyes went red. His eyes shone, and it looked like maybe his lip trembled a little.
Allie stared at him for a moment, not really thinking, while his hands moved kind of like they wanted to toss his hat somewhere. “That’s nice.”
“I’d really love for you to come help me eat up these cookies. I can’t eat them all by myself. And maybe you can tell me stories about your friends.”
Allie blushed. “Oh, I don’t really have many friends, sir.” She glanced up at Mr. Burgess as he rubbed his eye. Her eyes darted back to the floor.
“Of course, we used to have Emma.” Mr. Burgess’ hand dropped to his hat again, and now he looked at the floor.
“Yes, sir. Emma was really nice.”
The old man took a deep shuddering breath.
“She was a good friend. Mr. Burgess.” Allie wanted to cry, but knew that if she started, Mr. Burgess would too. She looked back to the kitchen. Wondered if Mama could hear their conversation.
He took a deep breath, spoke softly. “Well, Miss Allie, if you wanted to come visit sometime, maybe Emma would come back. A little.”
“I will, sir. That would be nice.” Allie didn’t want to know if his eyes were still red. She fidgeted with the zipper on her jacket. “I still have homework today.”
“Well, you work hard in school, young lady. I’d best be going, but you have a good evening, and please do come visit sometime.”
“Yessir.” Allie looked up as Mr. Burgess turned to go. He waved as he stepped off the porch, and when she waved back, his hand brushed his eye again. He hobbled across the street to his front door.
Allie raced along the gravel, steering her bike sharply to crush the orange leaves that had fallen in the alley. The ones that were already brown didn’t matter much. It was the orange ones she wanted to roll over and hit. As she passed the last of the sweet pea vines she knew she was near the end of the fence. Near Mr. Burgess’ rose garden. She dismounted, popped the kickstand and crept to the corner. Peeked around the brick wall to get a look at the flowers.
Bare rose hips shone red in the afternoon light. A few petals on the ground still held a little color, but most were shriveled and brown like the mulch. She looked up at Mr. Burgess’ windows, wondered where he was.
Allie tiptoed to the dark green stems, wanting a better look at the red balls the flowers left behind. She knelt and leaned closer, felt her breath sink into the earth where the rose-life seeped. After a few minutes she had lost herself in the wonder of the waxy globes, marveling at the dark spots and golden edges, and the thin furry spikes that ruffled out of them. She didn’t hear Mr. Burgess until he stepped off the flagstone and onto the gravel. He was right behind her when she jumped and almost fell into the biggest bush, the one that gave deep red blooms. She rolled, scrambling to face him. “I’m so sorry Mr. Burgess, I promise I didn’t touch anything!”
He trembled and backed away. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, Allie, you’re welcome here any time. I thought maybe you heard me come out of the garage.”
“Oh, no sir.” On her feet now and facing him, Allie tried to curtsy while brushing the mulch off her hands.
“I saw you out here, and wondered if you’d like to come in for cookies. Made ‘em yesterday.”
Trapped in his gaze, Allie’s mind raced. If Emma was back, she would have come out with him. Mrs. Johnson said Emma was dead. Maybe Mr. Burgess is crazy… Would he hurt me? But he doesn’t yell at me. Maybe he just hides things from people, like I do. It’s not dinner time. Maybe just a few cookies…”
Mr. Burgess raised his eyebrows. “Maybe Emma will join us.”
Allie looked away, and thought about dashing towards the vacant lot.
He continued. “It’s worth a try. And if she doesn’t, I can tell you stories about her. How’d that be?”
Allie wasn’t sure if she was hungry, hopeful, scared, or all three. “Yes sir, thank you, sir.” Her hand shook as she rested it in his. She followed him up the stairs where Mrs. Whiskers waited by an extra glass of milk and the third plate on the table.
(image gathered from wikimedia commons on 1/1/2019: By Erixsen – Own work by uploader: ok, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7051077 )