Lucy didn’t sign up to help at the community garden because she cared about growing things. She did it because she saw that Craig Zolhoff had signed up, too. She didn’t care about pleasing her parents and helping people take down the fence for the winter. She hoped there’d be a moment for her and Craig Zolhoff, away from everyone else. She didn’t think gardening was a great idea, a way to learn where a potato comes from, which is what her teacher said. She wanted Craig Zolhoff to wrap his arms around her tight and lift her off the ground like he’d done at Andy’s house last week. He could tell her again, “I’m taller than you, now.” Only maybe this time, he would say something different. Something new. Something she could not quite imagine yet.
But Craig Zolhoff didn’t show, and now she was sweaty. She could smell her body’s odor under the thick fruitiness of her deodorant. Her favorite jean shorts had grass stains and her bare legs itched where the weeds scraped against them. The other people who came to help were weird and asked her too many questions. She was glad most them were leaving now, chatting by their cars before they drove off.
Her dad was coming to get her, even though it was out of his way. Her parents were so supportive of her new interest, which they thought was gardening, and not Craig Zolhoff.
Lucy wandered into the woods that surrounded the garden and the creepy, old farmhouse everyone said was haunted and sat on a stump. There was something ugly about this space of trees, with nothing growing beneath the branches. Her feet crunched through the dead leaves and she could see other stumps scattered around. She thought it was like someone had picked off the trees one by one. She imagined them whispering to each other and wondering which of them would be next. She felt sorry for them; she understood the terror of being singled out.
One of the ladies who ran the community garden had handed her a brochure for her parents before she left. “Just in case they’re interested,” she said. Lucy couldn’t see around the farmhouse to the garden and the space where the cars were parked, but there were no more voices. No more slamming car doors and engines starting up. It was quiet now between the trees.
She sat on the stump and crossed one bare leg over top of the other. She stared at the brochure, imitating the look of complete absorption she sometimes saw on her mother’s face when she read the back of a cereal box in the grocery store. The letters in colored fonts all slid towards an unreadable gray, but Lucy sat completely still and stared at the picture of a row of what she thought might be tomato plants.
She thought of Craig Zolhoff. The way he called her thunder thighs just two weeks ago at school. She couldn’t be certain he meant for her to hear. He was sitting bunched together with the other boys in science class, and Mr. Anderson heard. She looked up to see the pity in Mr. Anderson’s face and she wanted to kick him between his legs. She didn’t want to think about what was between Mr. Anderson’s legs, but she wanted to kick everyone who had ever witnessed her humiliation in their most vulnerable place.
She hated Craig Zolhof. She hated his tiny, blue eyes. She hated his scary, poor apartment and his loud, fat mother who had been divorced three times, twice from the same man. She hated that he got better grades than her in math, but no one else knew he was smart because he played football and he was clever enough to hide the papers marked with a bright red “A.” But Lucy saw and she hated everything about him.
When he lifted her off the ground at Andy’s, everyone else was around the corner of the house, riding their bikes in circles in the driveway. Lucy went to grab her jacket off the bush where she’d left it, and then Craig was there. He blocked her way and she couldn’t get past. He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tight.
“Get off,” she started to say, but she could see his tiny blue eyes up close. She could feel his hot breath against her cheek. He sat her down and stepped away.
“I’m taller than you, now,” he said.
“It’s nice of you to help out.”
Lucy jumped and dropped the brochure. It fluttered down onto the carpet of leaves.
In front of her, a man stared over Lucy’s head, towards the empty farmhouse.
“It’s nice of you kids to help.”
One of his eyes was covered with a white film, and Lucy put her hands on the tree stump where she sat and felt the smooth place where the ax had cut. It was darker than she remembered among the trees and there was no one left she could see or hear. No one in the garden. No one in the house. If she stood and walked around the corner, she could see the parking lot. She could look for any cars still there, but she didn’t.
She picked up the brochure and re-crossed her leg on the stump.
“You should come back in the spring and help with the weeds. The invasives. Pull up the Asian honeysuckle.”
“What?” Lucy asked. She tried to remember if she’d seen the man earlier, helping with the fence. Was he one of the people who worked at the garden? One of the people who had a plot?
“The invasives,” he said. He didn’t look at Lucy, but kept staring at the farmhouse, and this made her think it was okay. It was okay to sit here as long as he didn’t look at her.
“Someone coming to pick you up?” he asked.
She pulled out her cell phone and checked the messages. There was nothing new from her dad. “Yes,” she said. “My dad’s on his way.”
“Big wreck on Route 7. Heard the sirens. The call on my radio. Big, big wreck.”
Maybe the man was a police officer, she thought. An ambulance driver, with a radio in his car. She tried to remember if her dad would drive Route 7 to get there. She looked down at the man’s feet, the black hairs on his toes visible with the sandals he wore, even though it was really too cold. Then she looked away.
“You know about invasives?” the man asked.
The other kids said the farmhouse was haunted, but Lucy was too old for that. Anyway, the farmhouse didn’t look haunted. Just empty in a way that was interesting at first. She imagined how her footsteps would echo across the floors. She liked the idea of an uncontaminated space. But now the emptiness seemed bigger. More meaningful and important.
The farmhouse was built of stone, with a two-story porch on the front. A dark green pine tree grew beside it, and kept the house in shade. It wasn’t falling apart, but you could tell no one lived there. You could tell no one had lived there for a very long time. It looked even emptier than the house with the foreclosure sign on the front door in her subdivision. It looked nothing like that house. She thought maybe with the stone, the whole house would feel like a basement inside, cool and musty, even on the second floor.
Lucy thought she could run towards the house if she needed to, but the doors would be locked. No one was inside.
The man pointed towards a tree beside the garden. “That’s an ornamental pear. It’s invasive. Farmer probably planted it.” He nodded towards the house. “The birds will eat it. Spread the seed out into these woods and then they’ll be everywhere.”
She glanced at the woods behind her. Between the trees, she could see the light fading in the distance. She opened her phone again and looked at her dad’s last text. “On my way,” it said.
“Where was the wreck?” she asked.
“Down by Saluda.” He rubbed his hands together, as if to keep them warm. She couldn’t tell how old he was. The eye with the film over it was wet. She could see thick, milky tears that ran out of it and down onto the man’s face. “Asian honeysuckle’s the worst,” he said.
“Honeysuckle?” Sometimes at Andy’s house, they wandered into the wooded space between the back of their subdivision and the back of the next subdivision over. When she was younger, she would bring back sprigs of honeysuckle. Her mother would put them in a little glass on the kitchen table and stroke Lucy’s hair. “My grandmother loved that smell,” her mother would say. The long tendrils on the flower reminded Lucy of happy, panting dogs.
“It’ll take over everything. Strangle the native plants until there’s nothing left. Doesn’t belong here.” He glanced down at her for the first time and she could see his other eye shook back and forth in its socket, a quick, frantic motion.
She folded the brochure neatly over and tucked it into her pocket. “Dad?” she texted.
She was at the garden because she needed to know what was next. What came after Craig Zolhoff picked her up and squeezed her tight? Sometimes the boys asked girls to go out with them and she wondered if he would do that. When he went with Laura Hodges, they laid next to each other on her bed while he put his hand up her shirt. Lucy could imagine Laura Hodges’s bra, a gray sport tank. She saw her wear it in gym and it stretched flat against her chest. She tried to imagine Craig Zolhoff’s finger finding the tiny bow on her own bra and resting there.
“It’s not here yet,” the man said. She could make out dark stains on the jeans he wore. “But the worst is giant hogweed. Watch out for that.” He pushed his shirt sleeve up and began to trace a long line from his wrist up towards his elbow. “Phytophotodermatitis. Gets on your skin and then the sun burns you up. Blisters. Scars.”
Lucy couldn’t see any marks on the man’s skin. Just the pale glowing surface of his arm and his finger, which he ran all the way up to just below his shoulder.
“Blindness,” he said. He smiled and she felt like everything except the man’s arm had disappeared in the gloom. He was just an arm and a voice.
“Nasty stuff,” he whispered.
Lucy heard the sound of tires on gravel and she rose from the stump. She could have done that all along. She could have stood up and walked away from the strange man.
“My dad’s here,” she said. For a brief second the thought occurred to her that it was not her dad. It was another stranger in the car. She could see the headlights casting a beam over the bare dirt patch that had been the garden. She ran around the edge of the house until she could see the familiar silver shape of his car.
“Bye!” she called and her voice was loud in the dark.
“Did you have fun in the garden?” her dad asked when she pulled the car door shut. She peered out into the darkness and waited for the man to appear around the corner of the house. In the dark, her dad wouldn’t be able to see the film over the man’s eye or the liquid that ran out. But he would know, and later, she could say, “Do you remember that creepy guy at the community garden?”
Her dad sat with the car still running, engrossed in his phone. In the shadows, she could see the man disappear between the trees. There was only the empty farmhouse and fields all around. No cars left in the parking lot. There was nowhere for the man to go. Lucy imagined him walking into the woods. He merged with a tree. He had no home. He needed no home.
“Was there a wreck on Route 7?” she asked. Her voice was suddenly unrecognizable, like an older person talking. Like her mother.
“No, sweets. Just got tied up at the office.” Her dad reached over and touched her leg, but he didn’t look at her face. The inside of the car was lit by the screen of his phone. She could hear the soft clicking and dinging noises it made. Everything else was silent.
Lucy stared into the darkness. She wondered if Craig Zolhoff would ever be the kind of boy to bring her flowers, even honeysuckle picked in Andy’s yard and then tucked behind her ear. She wondered if there would ever be flowers.
“Let’s go,” she whispered.
They pulled away and left the empty garden in silence, where soon the snow would fall and cover over the last dry, standing stalks of plants.
Years later, Craig Zolhoff will move away and become a doctor. Lucy will pass him on the street and not even recognize him, though she will stumble, and for a moment, feel as if she has fallen into some other life. Another future lost before she could see the outline of what it might have been.
She won’t remember the man with the filmy eye. She’ll grow older and visit her parents. And when she drives north through the woods, she won’t look at the trees because she knows if she stares too long, she won’t like what she sees.
If she could remember, she would know that it was not the worst thing that ever happened to her. He never touched her, and others would. He suggested nothing, really. It was nothing.
If she could remember that night, she would see it as the beginning of a long series of encounters, connected by invisible thread. She would see it started even before that night. She would see it simply as part of her life–the persistence of things that lingered in places they did not belong.