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Leaving Flowers (SOT #1)

Chapter One: Flowers for Nadia

    "I brought you flowers."
    The words had become as familiar to Aidan Degas as a prayer. His shoes sank in the mucky ground as he approached, a palm turned helplessly outward, a bouquet of pink and red carnations in his other hand. He stopped about a foot away from the silent marble and then, with a small breath for courage - inhale, exhale - he touched the stone, smooth like silk and damp from the summer rain.
    "I hope you like them."
    He could almost see her then. Nadia's full lips would have spread into a goofy smile at the sight of the flowers he held. Any kind would do for her. Posies or lilies, roses or daisies. Store-bought or gathered from the meadow out behind her house. Even when they were children, Nadia had loved flowers and was happiest only with a bouquet in her arms. Every Sunday, she'd walk to town just to visit the little florist shop, where sometimes she bought sprigs of baby's breath that she braided into her long dark hair. Eventually the shopkeepers simply gave her the sprigs for free.
    That's how Aidan chose to remember her. Smiling, with her bouquets of spring flowers, hair pulled back under a handkerchief, cheeks flushed, swinging her basket. She was meant for a different season. She had a summer personality, all bright smiles and a singsong attitude. She was not meant for the ground. Nadia was the most beautiful person he'd ever met; the better twin, for certain.
    Gently, Aidan pulled loose the dead flowers from the secured vase opposite the weeping angel that paid eternal homage at her gravesite. He was as careful with them as he was with the fresh carnations he offered her. Gathering them up in the wrapper, he knelt beside the smooth stone that marked her final resting place, uncaring that the morning's rains now soaked the fabric at his knees.
    "I miss you, Na-Na," he whispered, not because he was afraid of being overheard - there was no one here now in this still, quiet cemetery to hear him except the far off caretakers - but because it didn't feel right to disturb the peace of the atmosphere. He knew she was there, deep beneath the earth, but at the same time, he felt her elsewhere, and thank God for that.
    Nadia was in her kitchen, laughing at his terrible jokes, or volunteering at the library, or serving on the literacy committee. She was holding out the front of her dress, insisting that she couldn't wait to swell up like a huge apple. If Nadia loved flowers, she loved babies even more. She wouldn't have minded at all that it was her own baby that killed her, had the newborn survived.
    There was a tombstone in Babyland, but Aidan had never been. He didn't know that he could ever go.
    "I heard a song on the radio," he started, running his fingertips over the deeply etched letters and numbers that spelled out her name and the date of her death. "‘Gone Away.' It reminded me of you. I know it's been too long since I stopped by. I just..." Aidan's throat suddenly clenched on him and he had to fight not to cry. "I'm messing this all up. And I didn't really come to talk about the song." Aidan sighed and rested his head against her tombstone, feeling guilty that he only ever visited his sister when something was bothering him.
    Maybe he'd wanted her headstone to be his confessor and that's why he'd come to this place when he knew she wasn't really here. It was something to listen to him, something that wouldn't judge him aloud. A stoic marble priest, sworn to keep his secrets.
    "Ms. Ashmore stopped me in the hall and asked me up to her apartment again last night. And I got so sick, remembering it. Why couldn't I have just said no that first time? ‘I'm sorry, Ms. Ashmore, the offer is very kind but...'" The tears he'd been fighting pricked, as images from the life-changing night three months earlier flashed in his mind. Ms. Ashmore in her thin nightgown, face painted up like that of a much younger woman, her hand on his thigh. He knew he shouldn't be there, but she kept offering him wine and there was so much he couldn't remember and - No. If anything, he'd take the responsibility.
    "It didn't feel...right."
    A queasy feeling took over Aidan then, as the images he'd held back all this time flashed in his mind. It had been all he could do to stay hard for her; the whole time he'd wished she would stop. If he'd just gone flaccid and run. But in that moment - in Ms. Ashmore's canopy-top bed, with her scarf-donned lamps and her dresser covered in pearls and perfumes - he'd been so weak. Mentally. Physically. "It wasn't right, Na-Na."
    Ms. Ashmore had shown him to the door afterward, a smile on her swollen lips. She kissed his cheek and handed him fifty dollars. Then he was in the hall and the door was closed behind him, and Aidan Degas was no longer a virgin. He could remember sliding down the wall and waking up there later, well past midnight, when someone went into their apartment nearby.
    Three months.
    He hadn't thought about it in three whole months.
    And then Ms. Ashmore had stopped him last night to ask him back.
    Above, the gray skies opened up once more and a new, warm rain began to fall. Aidan sighed, knowing it was time to leave, and yet he felt no more free of guilt than he had when he'd awkwardly agreed to go up to Ms. Ashmore's apartment.
    He swiped at his face with wet hands and then he stood, his knees hopelessly soaked, and started back to his car, which he'd left parked on the gravel-packed road. He'd almost reached the black Honda when his cell phone began to buzz in his coat pocket. Even without looking, Aidan could guess who was calling him. She was the only one who called him these days.
    "Lily," he greeted his sister-in-law as he pressed the connect button. Nadia had even married a flower, hadn't she?
    "Hey, kid, how goes it?"
    "Great," he lied, climbing into the front seat and starting up the car. Lily Minor was the tall, dark-eyed Jewish girl who came into their little duo and swept his sister off her tiny feet with a smile and a single, of all things, lily. Nadia was so smitten with Lily after their first date that she confided in Aidan that she knew they'd marry, if she had anything to do with it. Aidan had smiled and congratulated his sister and wished he hadn't felt such a deep pang of jealousy.
    With nothing else to do, Aidan often tagged along with the girls; a painfully obvious third wheel on their movie dates. But when Nadia's concern for his own love life began to grow, Aidan started taking out girls he had no interest in, just so Nadia would not furrow her brow in worry.
    "I can't just leave you behind..." Nadia insisted, taking his hand in her own. That's when he realized what that pang was all about. He really did feel as if he was losing his other half. It probably didn't make sense to people who weren't one of a pair, but Nadia had been by his side from the very beginning. She was closer than a sister, she was a twin. And now Lily, with her big laugh and her handsome features, was going to monopolize his twin's time. Where did that leave Aidan?
    "I'm going to be fine," he promised her, because the lie was comforting somehow. He didn't want to feel the way he did. "You might be ready for marriage and mortgages and babies and all that, but there's no way I'm settling down."
    Aidan gave a toast at their wedding and wished them a lifetime of happiness. He meant it, even. He wanted Nadia and Lily to be happy forever; just not necessarily at the cost of his place in the world. Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if he'd sat down with her after that first date and admitted how scared he was of losing her. What a coward. What a brat.
    "You there, Aidan?"
    "Sorry, I was thinking."
    Lily had a rich laugh, like milk chocolate. She gently jabbed, "Always the thinker, Aidan."
    "What were you saying?"
    "I was wondering if you wanted to come over tonight. I finally got another one of the boxes down from the attic. I thought we could go through it."
    Aidan swallowed hard on a new knot in his throat.
    Lily Minor, a woman he'd barely seen grimace, much less cry, before the death of her wife and daughter, had been so stricken at the loss she'd simply hired someone to come and pack everything up and store it away in the attic without even looking at it first. But slowly, as the years passed, every few months she got the energy to pull down a box.
    Lily insisted that Aidan join her in going through old letters and trinkets and clothes and pictures. Sitting close to the sister-in-law he'd resented despite himself, touching his dead sister's things, drowning in his own guilt - it wasn't what Aidan considered a good time. But could he go home to the phantom smell of Ms. Ashmore's imported perfume on the clothes he'd washed a million times and the fifty dollars he'd yet to throw out or spend?
    Lily let out a long sigh. "So you coming?" She sounded run down. "I know I should handle this on my own and everything, but I'd really like you here, Aidan. Besides, I think Nadia would want us to keep this connection strong. For her."
    Don't say that, Aidan wanted to beg Lily.
    It was exactly the same as standing in front of Ms. Ashmore as she glowed, gushed, flirted, and poured that wine. His heart had pounded say no! but his lips had moved in a yes. Now they did the same.
    "Of course. I'll be there in twenty."


* * * * *

Chapter Two: Stepping Stones

A job is a job, is a job. That's what Patrick's mother had always said. From sweeping streets to saving lives, it mattered not. If it paid the bills and left a little over for a glass with the lads, then young Patrick wouldn't be doing too badly at all. In truth, though it wasn't everyone's cup of tea, he loved his work. And since they'd transferred him from the vast cemetery he'd tended as part of a team of twenty to this familiar, small, secluded cemetery with himself and Arthur as the only groundskeepers, his job satisfaction had increased tenfold.
    Keeping the place full of life and loveliness: that's what it was all about. To Patrick's mind, death wasn't an end, a time for sadness; it was a beginning. It was just how he'd been brought up, he supposed. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth... Patrick wasn't especially religious, but he did believe in something. A happy forever after. And the before? He, like many people, tried not to think too deeply about what it meant to be alive. He was happy-go-lucky, always a smile to share, which wasn't to say he was never sad. Sometimes he was so very sad, but, as his mam always said, he had bounce-backability. And it was the truth that tending this rest stop in life had given Patrick his bounce back when he needed it most.
    There was a way of doing the job with due respect for mourners. Some of the lads he'd worked with before would offer up the excuse that they couldn't mow such-and-such a sector because there was a burial in progress. Sorry, Jack, there's too many visiting today. I'll prune the roses tomorrow. Patrick's old boss, Jack, would turn the color of a ripe tomato in his endeavor to contain his rage, because taking the sit-on mower out with mourners present was one thing; yelling at a good-for-nothing employee in front of the bereaved was another entirely.
    Of course, the work stopped when there was a burial. Or if there were too many visitors, then the men downed tools for a bit. But even on the brightest and best of summer days, when the cemetery was full of so much more life than death - the birds chirping, bees buzzing, visitors to-ing and fro-ing - there was always something Patrick could be getting on with.
    The lessons that could be learned from the birds and the bees. The thought, when it occurred to him, always made Patrick chuckle. His mother was a devout Roman Catholic, uprooted from County Tyrone by Patrick's father, a big, handsome American with blond hair and hazel eyes. The sort of man who appreciated the company of a good-looking woman, and Kathleen was the most beautiful woman in the world.
    After Patrick's father died suddenly in his late thirties of a massive heart attack - which surprised no one, for he ate whatever-the-heck he liked, and he liked everything - Kathleen could have married again, no trouble at all.
    But she didn't. Patrick and Seamus were her life, so they were. So too was she theirs, until that day, seven years ago, when their world stopped spinning.
    "Now, Seamus, Patrick, you mustn't be worryin', but I have a thing to tell you."
    Seamus, at twenty-one the elder of the two, sat in the chair opposite his mother at the far end of the ancient table that had graced the kitchen of every home they'd made. Patrick, still "the baby" though he was almost nineteen, took his place next to his mother. She grasped his hand and squeezed.
    "What is it, Mam?" Seamus asked. He was his father's son; big, blunt, impatient. Patrick wasn't as tall but had likewise inherited his father's powerful frame, but not his coloring. The deep, rich copper curls came from the O'Malley side of the family, as did irises that shone like the most intricately cut emeralds. Today, his mother's shone more brightly than ever before.
    That was the day their mother told them the one and only lie she ever told them: that the doctors could cure her. Patrick stopped and caressed the black marble of her headstone; no tears. A smile for his mammy, just like she'd asked.
    Around his feet a few fallen leaves fluttered, sun-bleached and crisp - not yet the swirling spiral of orange, red, yellow and gold that heralded autumn. She liked the autumn, did his mammy. He could almost hear her telling him off for fussing over a couple of leaves; she was never in much of a hurry to sweep away the last of the summer. Good for mulching, she'd told him, and for hedgehogs too. He'd not met one to ask it for himself, of course, but there was time yet, for that trip back to Ireland he and Seamus promised they would make.
    Across the verdant expanse with its perfect rows of modern headstones, a lone man braved the rainy afternoon, crouched as if in prayer. People did that all the time, and Patrick rarely paid them heed. But something about the man caught his attention. His clothes were just the sort of thing Patrick might wear himself, if not a little duller - a gray jacket, dark pants...still not "old people's clothes." And yet, as the man rose to his feet, he seemed...ancient, as if he had already lived his entire life and was waiting for his time to come.
    He trudged along the path toward Patrick, head bowed, his dark hair weighted by the rain and concealing much of his face. Before he reached Patrick's location, the man veered off in the direction of the gated entrance at the rear of the cemetery - the road where hearses parked once they had delivered the deceased. Patrick squinted through the rain, noting the lone black Honda parked outside the railing, and back at the man, who stopped at the gates and took his phone from his pocket, before continuing the rest of the way to the Honda.
    "Well, what d'you make of that, Mam?" Patrick asked. He gave her headstone a gentle pat and continued on his way along the row, righting felled vases and urns, pruning out dead flowers and leaves that had turned. For Patrick it was never any trouble and it made a world of difference to the place.
    Soon after that he heard the Honda's engine fire up, followed by the steady crunch of tires on gravel. Patrick rotated where he stood, scanning the entire cemetery until he was sure there were no more visitors. He locked the gates and started on his way back to the office, his thoughts returning to the man who had just left. Curiosity got the better of him.
    "Nadia Degas-Minor...twenty-five?" Patrick realized aloud. "The same age I am now." He shook his head at the tragedy of it. Stepping back from the grave, his gaze drifted, following the path Nadia's visitor had taken just a few minutes ago. Her husband? The way he had stooped before the stone, the sadness that visibly crushed him, indicated so. Yet the headstone bore no mention of a husband, nor a wife, parents, siblings, children. Indeed, it looked unfinished - just Nadia's name, her birth and death dates and an expanse of smooth, pristine marble. It made a perfect backdrop for the pink and red carnations freshly placed on her grave.
    "Don't suppose you can tell me who that lovely sad fella was, can you, Nadia?" Patrick asked, pausing as if he really did expect a response. "No? Oh well. I guess I'll have to find out for myself."


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