The scent of lavender was overpowering. The man stopped and doubled back, gripping his yellow umbrella tight in a powerful fist and opening his mouth as if dazed. He saw that the smell came from a vendor that he had not seen only a few feet back, and also that people were beginning to look at him. He closed his mouth, lowered his head, and moved on.
The people in the town thought that he was strange enough already, having made a fortune abroad and decided to move back to the small town where he was born and taken a manual job shoveling gravel and dirt and wood chips into wheelbarrows and trucks. Now, at 32 still very young, he had quit that job and dedicated his time to visiting the uninteresting, untended, weed-covered standing ruin of the small old hospital and orphanage.
After the small downtown area, Spruce Street crossed a few other significant ones, and eventually bisected Dillard Road, which only fed a few farms and other towns nearby. After bisecting Dillard, Spruce became unpaved as it slowly wound up and then behind short green Alend Hill behind town. There were few footprints here, but many tire tracks because the road was still used to travel to and from the other towns over the hills; nobody passed through, and so he had the blackberries all to himself.
The road began a slight downhill that they had, as children, braved happily with their bicycles, racing down and drifting for as long as possible on the momentum before working on the long uphill between the two larger, rockier Hander and Jules Hills. He remembered those days and smiled, continuing on his way.
The day was warm, and he wore no jacket; there was a breeze that took his sweat before he could even feel it, and he was glad. After a few minutes, and halfway through the uphill climb, he stopped and stared at a small, almost imperceptible gap in the trees that he had not seen before; his face lit up and he laughed, sending a few sparrows and robins flying in surprise. He pushed his way through the leaves and weeds, fighting his way through the tiny overgrown path to the well he knew was there.
He came to it: the old, dry stone well that they had danced and sat and talked around such a long time ago. Now it was surrounded by branches and beer cans and bits of glass that he carefully avoided; he leaned over and laughed when he saw that it was still there. It was unspeakably dirty and almost washed of its color by the rains, but still there; sadly, it was too far down to reach and pick up, and there was no climbing the smooth cement sides of the well.
He sighed, casting the mangled teddy bear a last friendly look before turning and finding the road again. He continued upward, once stepping aside the narrow road for a slow car to pass, and came to the place where the road became flat. Here was a tree, and he stopped and circled around it as he did every day to see the heart cut there with a knife and the happy E+S inscribed within. A solitary tear came to his eye, as it did every day, and he brushed it away, jumping to grab the lowest branch; as a boy he had boosted her up and simply ran at the tree, scrambling up the side and grabbing the branch.
He hoisted himself up to rest, transfixed by the yellow thread that still hung there from her dress, from so long ago. He sighed, so long ago. Was fifteen years really such a long time in the scope of things? He answered himself, reflecting sadly and angrily at the same time, Yes. Yes, it is.
The voice of the boy said, "Okay-okay, just asking!" The frown disappeared as he remembered his old self, the self that had had parents and a sister and friends and teachers and a job and a life… and Susan, most importantly. Then Susan’s face came to him and the frown came back stronger than ever. Angrily, he pushed himself off the tree’s trunk and slid down to the ground. Brushing himself off, he went on.After a minute he saw the roof of the hospital through the trees and walked faster, excited. He almost ran through the gate, and stumbled on new weeds that he hadn’t noticed yesterday. He ran past the man-sized sundial in the center of the front lawn and vaulted over the tall, untended ledges to the right, scraping his jean-protected thighs in the process; the weeds grew shorter here and he could see a flower or two still fighting, remnants of their hard attempts to civilize and beautify their hangout.
The enormous oak still blocked his view, and he twisted around it laughing, and—stopped. Dead silence; there was nobody there. He was sure that if she came, it would be on the rock they had spent so much time falling in love on earlier, and showing their love on later. His heart sank and he contemplated the sad flowers that hadn’t been aided since his friend Stephen’s younger brother Billy had abandoned it after losing interest twelve years ago; still they fought on.
Then he was a flower, abandoned by all and still fighting through the weeds infesting the garden of life. He smirked, then snarled at the cliché metaphor, discarding it; he had always hated business, and had thus retired so early. Writing had always come naturally to him, but he had quickly lost the spark of creativity after coming back, and didn't wish to leave his hidden sanctuary. He sat on the rock as the minutes past, remembering old connections and friendships and loves, but none as strong as hers.
He made many sighs, realizing that he was not a practical man; he loved how hard physical labor made him forget, but hated the tediousness and uniformity of the practice. He thought the same about alcohol, and food, and exercise. He really didn't have many interests.
He reflected that he should have bought the lavenders from the vendor this morning. He had never seen that man before, and hoped that he would be there the next day, so that he could give the sweet flowers to his love. He remembered their first day together as lovers.
It had been utterly unplanned, and tragically unavoidable. She had been wearing the use-and love-worn yellow summer dress of so many years, and he could not remember what he had been wearing. They lay next to each other and talked in the shade of the huge oak, and held hands and kissed. Before either of them knew it, clothes were magically drifting off and leaving two naked, loving souls side by side. There had been little chance that anybody could find them, and nobody ever had—except once, for friendly Billy, and he had later tended the garden for a little while. Then he thought of the lavenders, and the lavender scent and taste of her skin every day, and he needed no flowers to smell the damning fragrance of his heart, and his soul.
Birds flew overhead, and the day grew a bit chill. He wished he had brought a jacket now, and climbed the oak to look out over the two-story hospital. Storm clouds were gathering in the west, but he stayed put until the drizzle drove him into the shelter of the hospital. The floors and walls were dusty but clean, and he made his way to the doctor’s office that he had often used.
There was no lighting, but in the dim half-light he could make out her shape in the sleeping bag he had left for such occasions. “You’re here!” he exclaimed. “You should have waited for me by the rock.” He shook his head happily, content and used to the lack of reply and thinking. She always waits for me here.
He kissed her cheek, on the table, then walked over and lay down next to her in the sleeping back, grabbing her slim, oddly cold waist. He frowned, “You need heating up.” Then he smiled, “Oh, but I’ve missed you!”