Erica Verrillo

She wanted something to grow. 

Gem sat in the garden gazing at her hands. The yellow trowel lying on the ground beside her exuded a faint air of futility. Three years of hard work, and that trowel had absolutely nothing to show for it.

  Texas was a dilemma. At first, she’d been overjoyed at the long growing season.  But when she’d tried to start a garden, the seeds hadn’t germinated. Gem thought maybe fire ants or some other exotic pest had eaten them; at least one seed ought to have sprouted. She thought she’d work around the “ant problem” by starting the seeds indoors, but the seedlings she’d nursed all winter hadn’t made it through the spring. It had been a balmy eighty degrees when she put them out in April. The following week all her little darlings had frozen in a freak frost. Ironically, it was the only frost all year. The cold weather had lasted exactly one day.

This year she believed she had finally outsmarted Texas. She’d ordered root stock from a garden catalogue: “Guaranteed Success!” The exclamation point carried some weight with Gem, so she’d ordered the roots with what she hoped was matching enthusiasm. But here she was, sitting amongst the remains of the transplants that had been so robustly guaranteed. Every last one of them had withered in a burst of ninety-degree May heat. Mature roots were supposed to lend plants hardiness, but even transplants couldn’t survive Texas.

She gave up for the day. It was ten o’clock in the morning and the temperature was already ninety-six degrees and rising. No one in their right mind would be outdoors.  Anyhow, it was almost time to go to the airport. 

Gem brushed her hands against her skirt in a curt gesture and rose to her feet—a thin, insignificant exclamation point wavering in the fiery gaze of an implacable god.  She went into the house to fetch her bag, promising herself that this time she wasn’t going to be late. She grabbed her purse, checked for the car keys, locked the front door, wondered if she’d left the stove on, unlocked the door, remembered she hadn’t turned on the stove that morning, locked up again, and got into the car.

“Focus!” she ordered herself.

As she pulled out of the driveway, she glanced back at the garden. Her desiccated plants drooped reproachfully. She had the feeling that she was doing something terribly wrong. Perhaps she should take a different approach entirely. Deep mulch. A drip line. A canopy. A permanent eclipse.

In New England, it never seemed to require any work at all to put in a garden.  She’d go out with Nonnie in late April or early May and throw seeds on the bare ground.  Within a few weeks, they’d be poking their little heads through the moist earth, and in mid-summer the side yard would explode in a riot of color—lobelias, Canterbury bells, pansies, larkspur, cosmos, bachelor buttons. Here, she couldn’t get a single flower to bloom in her yard, even close to the house, where it was partially shaded. The thought of Nonnie’s woodland garden with its cool green ferns and the delicate arch of bleeding hearts dancing above the hostas made her ache.

Gem found herself at the turn-off to the airport. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there. Two miles of city traffic, a dozen stoplights, a fifty-mile-an-hour stretch on Airport Boulevard and, as usual, she couldn’t recall a moment of it. As she pulled into the arrivals lane, she saw Colin already waiting for her, suitcase in hand.

“Shove over,” he said, opening the driver’s door. Gem slid to the passenger’s side.  He didn’t kiss her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I got distracted.”

Colin made a dismissive noise. It was a sound that managed to simultaneously convey the pain of endless suffering and the pleasure of self-vindication. Gem felt herself shrinking.

“How was your trip?”

Colin didn’t reply. He was negotiating a ramp. Somehow, when Colin drove, it always looked so . . . involved. Everything Colin did consumed him.  

“Great,” he said, finally. “Albuquerque was just great.” He talked steadily about his interview as he drove, speeding up to squeak through yellow lights, berating drivers who cut in front of him, dodging SUVs that couldn’t decide which lane they preferred, and taking corners so hard it made Gem’s stomach hurt. By the time they arrived home, her right calf was sore from trying to press an imaginary brake.

After they came to an abrupt stop in the driveway, Gem let out her breath in an explosive sigh. Colin didn’t notice. He was still talking about the people he’d met, the places he’d gone, the sights he’d seen. He hadn’t asked about Sean.

“Sean!” she cried. “I almost forgot.”

“What?” Colin was already headed for the door.

“I’ve got an appointment with Sean’s teacher . . . do you want to come?” she called.

Colin didn’t bother to turn around. “No. I’m bushed.”

Gem got back into the car and eased it carefully out of the driveway. She was already composing her half of tonight’s argument.

* * *

After dinner, Gem put Sean to bed with a song and a hug. Sean had been so excited to see his father he’d talked almost incessantly during the meal. Colin had barely responded. 

“You should take some interest in him,” she said that evening, after Colin had made his phone calls. 

Colin was pulling off his socks, examining his feet. “I do. I took him to a Little League game.” 

“That was last year.” Even to her own ears, Gem sounded accusing. “His teacher says he’s not paying attention in class.”

“That’s typical for kids his age,” Colin said.

“She says he just sits there and makes weird noises.” Colin had gotten into bed while she was talking. “He doesn’t interact with the other children.”

“I’m tired,” he said. “We’ll talk about it later.” He turned off his light.

* * *

That night Gem dreamt she was in a house. It was her own Texas ranch house, but it had an extra room—airy and spacious, with a high ceiling, or maybe there wasn’t a ceiling at all and she was looking up at the sky. Funny, I never noticed this room before, she thought, although, in the dream she’d somehow known it was there all along. For the brief, ephemeral interval between dreaming and wakefulness, Gem knew exactly where she was. By the time she opened her eyes that knowledge had faded. She came fully awake with a vague sense of displacement.  

Over breakfast, Colin announced that he was going back to Albuquerque the following weekend.

“But you just got back!” Gem produced a spurt of indignation. It felt good.

“They want me to spend some time getting to know the faculty, socially.”  He looked directly at her for the first time. “It will help my prospects for the job.”

Looking into his sincere blue eyes, Gem found she could not make a reply. In any event, arguing wouldn’t do any good. Work came first.  Always.

“I’m doing this for you, Gemma,” he said evenly. “You know that.”

Gem nodded, hating herself.

* * *

Friday morning the sun rose in the sky like a million-watt bulb, burning a hole in the Gulf fog.  Colin drove to the airport like a man possessed. As he flung himself out of the car, he reminded her to pick him up Sunday evening, and then scurried off into the terminal without a backward glance.

Gem slowly pulled away from the curb. She was rehearsing in her mind all the things she hadn’t said last night—her side of an argument that never seemed to happen. 

At Airport Boulevard she automatically switched to the right lane, but she forgot to signal, and when the light changed she forgot to turn. An irritated driver honked as she drove straight through the intersection. It was a moment or two before she realized that she had no idea where she was.

She was driving down a narrow, nondescript street that could have been anywhere in Austin. The live oaks looked dusty, as they always did. She thought of the tall, majestic trees of Connecticut—maples, oaks, sycamores—trees that could dwarf a house.  Those were real trees, tall enough to block the sun. As she drove down the quiet streets, Gem made plans for the weekend. 

I’ll take Sean to Town Lake, she thought. We’ll feed the ducks.

When she was little, Nonnie would take her to a pond in the center of town to see the swans. Sometimes they would bring stale bread to feed the birds. At the end of the day, they would walk through the rose gardens and Nonnie would sing to her in a foreign language. “What’s the song about?” Gem would ask. “The sea,” Nonnie would reply. “l’astro d’argento …The silver water.”  

Gem drove on, humming Nonnie’s song under her breath. She turned right at a small grocery marked by a green and red stripe running across the front.  It didn’t have a sign. Neither did the street, but it was heading in the right direction, or so she thought.  Gem hadn’t really paid attention.  

Now, she was driving through a pleasant, residential neighborhood. The old-fashioned frame houses were well maintained and nicely landscaped, with bushes shaped into softly rounded contours. Gem remembered trimming bushes like that—privets, that’s what they were called. You could make fanciful shapes out of them: animals, objects, even people. Nonnie had privets in front of her house, and there was a tall pine tree out back. As a child she had crept under the lowest branches where they spread to the ground like skirts. Her secret spot, she had called it.

Gem noticed that the neat little houses had disappeared.  Ahead of her was a stand of pines. Gem drove on, drawn by the tall trees. Now she was under them. They pressed up against the side of the road, casting a deep shadow over her car. Gem thrust her left arm out the window, enjoying the cool rush of air against it. She spread her hand.  The air felt like silk running through her fingers, light and smooth. She could see silvery flashes through the trees. The river? Had she somehow driven all the way to the river without realizing it?

Abruptly, the trees opened up, revealing a bubbling stream. Streams did not bubble in Texas … they trickled. This one sang. The paved road had somehow transformed itself into a dirt lane. Gem stopped the car and followed the lane with her eyes. It continued beside the stream for a while before veering up an incline. On the other side of the hill she knew there would be a meadow filled with daisies and buttercups.  And cutting through those nodding flowers, a tree-lined gravel drive would lead to a rambling white farmhouse surrounded by a cottage garden. In the front yard there would be a privet hedge and fruit trees, and in the back a vegetable garden would be laid out in long rows. There would be a tall pine with branches that spread to the ground like an old-fashioned lady’s skirts.  

Gem shook her head. It was impossible. There wouldn’t be anything of the sort.  No meadow, no farmhouse, no gardens. There would be a huge suburban development filled with fake colonials and two-car garages.  

She turned the car around. It was time to pick up Sean. She couldn’t stay here.

* * *

That night, Gem lay in Sean’s bed and sang to him about the silver water. She couldn’t remember all the words, but the tune was right.

“I’ll take you somewhere nice tomorrow,” she said.

Sean sucked his thumb. He was long past the age when it was considered cute.  His teacher said he was insecure. Perhaps it was the frequent moves? Privately, Gem thought it was not so much the frequent changes as the frequent absences. But that wasn’t something you could tell a stranger. Gem patted Sean’s damp hair and kissed his soft cheek.  

“It will be our secret spot,” she said. But Sean was already asleep.

* * *

In the morning, Gem put Sean in the back seat of the car and drove towards the airport. She had no plan in mind, at least not one that she could articulate.

“Are we going to get Daddy?” asked Sean hopefully.

“No, not today,” Gem answered.  

Sean shoved himself back against the seat and started making crashing noises.

“Don’t do that,” said Gem. “I have to concentrate.” She didn’t know what she needed to concentrate on, or how, but she knew had done something the last time she traveled this road.  

Gemma was stopped on Airport Boulevard behind a line of traffic. She closed her eyes and tried to remember what the route would look like in reverse. The street leading to the little Mexican grocery should be on the right. She craned her neck to see past the other cars, but didn’t see a street sign or a turn-off.  

“Do you want to hear a story?” she offered. Sean grunted, sullen.

“Let me tell you about where I grew up.” She envisioned a shady lane, a flower-filled meadow, a rambling old farmhouse.

When the light changed, she followed the traffic, not knowing if she should turn left or right; there was no third choice. She talked softly as she drove straight through the T intersection, eyes tightly shut. When she opened them, one part of her mind was still moving her lips, while the other was searching for a nondescript residential street, a street that shouldn’t be there.

“Why did you have a fireplace in the kitchen?” asked Sean.

There it was! Narrow and unmarked—a street like any other.  A street that shouldn’t be there. Gem turned the wheel quickly, before the street could get away. 

“Well, a long time ago, people used to cook in their fireplaces. Ours was so big  you could stand up in it.”

“Cool,” said Sean. 

There was the little grocery. Gem noticed that now it had a sign above the door: Santa Lucia. She could have sworn it wasn’t there before. The sign reminded her that she had been humming last time.

“Let’s sing,” she said. Sean loved to sing. She let him make up the words as they passed the neat shuttered houses with their rounded little bushes. They sang together about the shining water, the tall trees. Soon the road darkened and narrowed. The stream bubbled ahead.

“Is this it?” 

She could tell Sean wanted to jump out of the car and wade in the stream. “No, not yet” said Gem. “Just a little farther.” 

She drove up the incline and through the meadow. And when the house came into view, she was not even remotely surprised. At the end of the drive, Sean asked if they could go back to the stream.

“Let’s go up to the house first,” said Gem. Taking Sean by the hand, she walked up the steps of the wide wrap-around porch. Gem peered into a window; she knew nobody would be home. That would be too much to ask. Sean tugged at her hand impatiently.  Letting him go, she turned the doorknob.  Nonnie had never locked the front door.

Everything was just as she remembered—the slightly musty smell of the dim, cool foyer, the claw-footed Victorian furniture in the front room, the rose glass lamps, the ladder-backed chairs in the kitchen with their homey stencils of plums and ivy.  

“Aw, cool!” Sean had followed her into the kitchen. He was standing in the fieldstone fireplace, stretching his arms out, trying to touch the sides.  

Gem smiled. “Let’s go down to the stream.” Gem led Sean down the porch steps, past the shaggy, unkempt privets, along the shady drive, and down the slope to where the water pooled and eddied.  There would be plenty of time to walk through the gardens later.

* * *

The airport was crowded with commuter traffic on Sunday night. Colin spotted Gem and waved to get her attention. For some reason, she hadn’t recognized him.

She slid into the passenger’s seat. “Is that a new tie?” 

“I spilled some wine on the one I brought,” Colin said. He was driving with his usual panache, but he seemed unwilling to talk.

“Is anything wrong?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”  

For a fleeting moment, as they approached Airport Boulevard, Gem thought of telling Colin about the little street, about her trip with Sean. But she knew Colin would make that sound, that little grunt that negated her. She realized that with just that one grunt, Colin could make her secret place vanish.

Colin signaled for the turn. It wasn’t really necessary. There were only two choices: right or left, and he was already in the right-turn-only lane. But Colin abhorred drivers who didn’t signal.  

* * *

The annual regional meeting was to be held in New Mexico, and Colin was busy preparing, staying late at the office, making phone calls. He rarely made it home before Sean’s bedtime. He’d decided to extend the trip to eight days. He needed the additional time, he said, to scope out opportunities. It was a question of priorities. 

Gem had not put up a fight. She preferred peace, even at the price of silence. But the price of self-censorship was high. It was hard to hear her own thoughts. Half the time she didn’t know what she was doing. Colin called her “a complete scatterbrain” when she’d forgotten to do something for him: pick up a book at the library, iron his shirt. She couldn’t remember, but the insult stuck.

Colin pulled into the departures lane, and hauled his suitcase out of the back. As Gem scooted into the driver’s seat, her mental fog inexplicably lifted. And by the time Gem got home and pulled into the driveway, she was smiling. She had a whole week to herself, and she knew exactly what she wanted to do. After she picked Sean up from school, they’d go to her secret spot. In the meantime she would do all the chores she’d put off for when Colin had left: clean out the fridge, scrub the bathtub, sort laundry.   

Gem held three gray-toed men’s socks in her hand. What happens to socks? she wondered as she sorted through the pile. Does the washing machine eat them? Or is it the dryer? And why doesn’t it eat underwear? She had never, to her knowledge, lost a pair of panties in the wash. The extra sock must be in Colin’s drawer. Still holding the socks, Gem headed for the bedroom. Colin didn’t like her to go through his things, but she wasn’t about to wait until he got home to sort the laundry. She opened the top drawer and rummaged through the mess, hoping to see the tip of a single gray toe peeking out. Instead she felt the sharp edge of an envelope. She took it out. It was postmarked from Albuquerque, addressed to his office.  

Her hands moved on their own, opening the envelope, withdrawing the folded paper. Her eyes focused on the words, “Darling Colin.” There was more … impatience to see him again, reminders of their night together, his body, his kisses, his desire. After she had finished reading the letter, she read it again, just to be sure. Then she put the envelope back in its place, closed the drawer and held on to the handle while a wave of faintness passed over her.  

Why is it, she thought, that what we already know shocks us the most? The trips, the late-night phone calls, the silence, the absence. Such a fool, she thought. I’m such a fool.

Her hands were surprisingly steady as she packed, first her things, then Sean’s.  They wouldn’t need much, just some clothes, Sean’s toys, a few toiletries. Maybe a little money. She’d stop at the bank on her way to pick up Sean, to empty the account. She considered leaving a letter, but decided a scrawled note left on the fridge would suffice. “Don’t wait up.” There really wasn’t any point in saying anything else.

At the last minute, she threw her gardening tools in the trunk. She’d spotted some weeds among the pansies, and the privets in Nonnie’s front yard needed trimming.  

It would take forever to get them back into their proper shape.


Erica Verrillo is the author of three Middle Grade fantasies, Elissa’s Quest, Elissa’s Odyssey, and World’s End (Random House). Her short work has appeared in Nine, 580 Split, Million Stories, Front Porch Review, Crab Creek Review, LONTAR, and THEMA. She is also the author of two medical reference guides. Ms. Verrillo’s professional life includes working as a classical musician, language teacher, editor, and Mayan linguist. She lives in Western Massachusetts.