With her arms full of daffodil bulbs, Lilian pushed the screen door to the garden shed. Its involuntary slam satisfied her. She’d admonished the children for running from the back door and letting it fly back on its springs, but when she herself did it, childhood nostalgia hit her and it made her giddy. From the heights of great sycamores, autumn fell beautiful and crisp. When she and Brian bought the house in August, Lilian had imagined autumn on the property, and it surpassed her expectations. The house was practically a steal following a battle of wills leading to a two-year vacancy, a bidding war, and finally, their acquisition. It was the kind of house she thought they might attain later in life. For Lilian, it was a dream house. Her good fortune was made possible only because the guest house lodgers were granted their own land, the cottage and a portion of the woods to the east of it. The broker’s gossip implied this decision had driven the rightful heirs to mad protest, but the will held up and the parcel was divided. Too many buyers were deterred by the idea of another couple sharing the property, but she didn’t care one bit. She felt it added interest, the lodgers in their charming love nest -- Good for them!
Lilian knelt in the dry leaves, giving rise to the smell of damp beneath. Methodically, as she had every fall she could remember, she scooted along, twisting her bulb spade and plopping in a bulb or two, over and over. The clouds passed overhead, each patch of sunlight shorter and a shade darker. Lilian knew the storm would come in, the freeze would soon follow, and the bulbs would thrive.
The drive leading from Level Row was long enough to hide the house and the drive to the guest house was even longer. She seldom saw the lodgers, and never heard them. When she and Brian first arrived, the husband lodger had come to welcome them with jars of canned vegetables from his garden. Lilian had flirted slightly, not anything that didn’t pass as fine manners, but she flushed when his gaze lingered too long. He enjoyed that. Having an affair was not part of Lilian’s house dream come true, but a harmless flirtation never hurt anyone.
A few times a week, the husband lodger stopped by in the afternoon, always with baked goods or fresh herbs “for the family.” Lilian made tea for two and listened to stories of his rugged life. Lilian had no interest in living off the land “unburdened by societal norms” and she had no interest in his hunting and fishing excursions, but she did enjoy a good excuse to look at him. He frequently invited her to see his garden and she promised she’d make it out there one day. The truth was, she’d already trekked out there with a basket of items from the market, only to happen upon the lodgers in an embrace. On the presumption of a passing moment, she’d stopped and averted her eyes, only to look back and find them undressing. Lilian had nearly run home and could not imagine returning without a proper invitation.
Lilian heard distant thunder and looked up to see the husband lodger coming toward her.
“Need some help?”
“Very kind, thank you!”
“Trying to beat the storm?”
“Yes. I got a little bit of time to myself and was so excited to complete one task, start to finish. That’s the thing about kids, they’re always interrupting you and you feel like you never accomplish anything.”
“And now this storm is interrupting you.”
“I like that you have kids, though. I wanted this house to have a family again.”
“The broker told me the family did, too. Said that’s why our bid was accepted and not the other couples’.”
“That wasn’t it.”
“What wasn’t it?”
“Your bid was accepted because you never asked how she died or if she died in the house and if so, in which room.”
“That’s morbid. It’s not a concern for me. People are born in homes and die in homes but houses are for the living.” She plopped in another bulb and scooted. He scooted as well, but Lilian noticed he’d stopped digging. Thunder rolled, nearer this time.
“She died out here. She died working in the garden. Right over there, among the asters,” he pointed.
Lilian looked at the asters. A raindrop landed on Lilian’s nose. If she were alone, she’d put her tongue out and try to catch a few. Among the asters was not a bad place to die. “How sad.”
“Yes. It was raining. Just like you, she wanted to finish up before the storm. Our mother never minded working in the rain. I don’t either. Soft ground. No hose to unwind and drag around.”
He stood. Lilian looked up at him.
He paced. He waved his hands and tugged at his hair. Lilian felt raindrops on her face and fear pinprick the nape of her neck.
“It’s one thing to work in the rain, but no one should be out in a lightning storm! She knew better!”
Lilian was startled as the lodger’s wife appeared in the rain. She shouted, “She was stubborn, our mother!” The lodger’s wife carried something long and heavy, swinging it around.
“Stubborn and crazy! Who uses metal tools in a lightning storm!” The sky lit up behind them.
Lilian dropped her bulb spade.
“Your mo-- our mother? This was your house? Both of you?”
The raindrops fell fast and hard on Lilian’s face. The rain cut into her skin. She couldn’t look up anymore. She couldn’t think straight. Beyond the sound of her heart beating in her ears, she heard a sloshing sound growing closer. She leapt up and bolted for the house. She slid in the wet grass, felt her knees sink in wet earth. Like a spinning tire, she tried to regain her footing.
“I got her!” The lodger husband grabbed her kicking feet. Lilian pushed up and tried to walk solely on her arms as the sloshing noise followed her. She lifted her head to see the lodger’s wife’s boots coming. Squish. Squish. Squish. She reached out to grab for anything, anything at all, and pulled a handful of asters. She buried her face into the sticky stems and slimy purple petals. The lodger’s wife’s boot sloshed up to Lilian’s face and pressed her bulbs spade back into her empty hand. It was then that Lilian finally understood what had been in the lodger’s wife’s hand all along. It was not a walking stick, not a fire poker. It was a cattle prod.
Jolene Mottern builds piles and files of words in an office where they never, ever ask her to write fiction. She lives in Indiana with her husband, kids, three cats, and a dog. She's into nature and loves ice cream. She received her degree in English Ed from Ball State University. You can read her predictably unpredictable blog at jolenemottern.com or follow her inconsistent thoughts on Twitter at joeyfullystated.