Fiction by Amanda Baldeneaux
Autumn loosens everything. The cattails come uncorseted by late September. Hard wind unties the binding of seedpods for spreading. But just before the wind chill dips below freezing and the killing frosts come, the flowers in Crystal’s garden still bloom. Crystal only leased the lot of land from a neighbor, but the flowers that grew on it were hers.
The small plot yielded celosia, fuzzy as feather dusters, chrysanthemums, their tightly packed petals like bunched bed ruffles, sunflowers, their faces bubbling pollen, and dahlias, pink and crème and tall with florets curled into little cones. These and other flowers preferred by brides filled the rows that Crystal furrowed deep into the garden’s turf and thatch in spring. The first frost of the season would arrive that night, but blankets slung above flower heads would suffice for warmth. When Crystal finished covering the flowers needed for the next day’s bouquets, the garden stood like rows of sheeted ghosts.
Crystal left the work of covering plants to adjust the thermostat in the greenhouse. The greenhouse came with the land, two acres adjacent to the pumpkin patch, cornfields, and sorghum rows of her parents’ old farmer friends, the Keller’s. The small house – a converted outbuilding – had homed a long succession of field managers and farmhands before the Keller’s retired and their grown children converted the farm’s barn into a dance hall and rented the whole place out for weddings. Crystal and Ryan moved into the house when Liam was born and Daisy was still in preschool, the friends-and-family discount on rent the only thing they could afford outside of their third-floor city apartment with the stairs that made strollers and damp grocery sacks a nightmare.
Before Ryan left her, all he and Crystal had were the house and the surrounding lawn with a rusty swing set donated by a member of the Methodist church. The Kellers leased Crystal additional land, and in just three summers, Crystal turned the two acres of mud-clogged meadow into long rows of pink cosmos, tea roses, jewel-toned strawflowers, and more. She’d arranged flowers for twenty-seven weddings and had her twenty-eighth, the last of this season, on Saturday. The dahlias just had to survive until then.
Crystal’s mother, Lavonne, misted the tulip bulbs and rose bush roots in the greenhouse with water. With care, they’d bloom just in time for Valentine’s Day, protected in the regulated warmth. Some of the greenhouse’s glass panes were missing, filled in with flattened cardboard and duct tape, but the building still worked. Crystal purchased the kerosene heater in July with her earnings from weddings. Next year, she hoped to raise enough funds for a walk-in cooler.
“Not too wet, mom,” Crystal said, “you’ll drown them.”
“The air is dry,” Lavonne said. “They’re fine.”
Crystal returned to seeding pallets. It wasn’t worth arguing with her mother; Lavonne did what she wanted. Liam sat straight legged on the ground beneath a table, feeding wet lettuce leaves to a snapping turtle in a plastic pool. Liam’s crutches leaned against the greenhouse’s wall.
“Watch your fingers,” Crystal said.
“He won’t bite me.” Liam bumped the lettuce frills against the turtle’s nose. “He knows I saved him.”
“It’s a wild animal,” Lavonne said. “Let nature take its course.”
Liam hunched. “You’d let him die because he’s hurt?”
“That’s not what she means,” Crystal said. “Right mom?”
“I mean there’s a difference between wild animals and people,” Lavonne said.
“He’s not wild.” Liam ran his finger down the long crack that split the turtle’s shell. “Ohsnap is a pet.” The turtle chewed the leaf. “Humans used to be wild. Like Otzi. Ohsnap’s skin looks like Otzi’s.”
Lavonne twisted the water nozzle, shutting off the hose. “Who?”
“Otzi the iceman,” Crystal said. “A mummy.”
“Otzi fell into a gully after he died and was covered in snow for five-thousand years. Scientists know exactly what he ate from the food in his stomach and that he had sixty-one tattoos and that he has nineteen relatives still alive where he died.”
“I wish I could preserve so well,” Lavonne took off her gloves. She shook the dirt out and dusted her hands clean on her jeans.
When Liam was born, part of his spine hung suspended out of his back in a sack. He had excess cerebrospinal fluid around his brain and doctors implanted a shunt before he was one week old. Water on the brain, they called it.
When the doctors first told Crystal about the fluid, she’d imagined dahlia tubers left too long in a garden, water-logged and soft.
They’d told her he might have difficulty learning, paying attention, remembering things or making decisions. He did, but only in the subjects he didn’t like – reading, music, math. Liam took to history, science, and sports, often getting fowled for using a crutch as an extension of his foot in soccer. The shunt ran from the ventricles of his brain down to his abdomen, siphoning the excess fluid away like a storm drain. He learned to replace his own catheter by six.
“Glaciers are a time machine,” Liam said. “Ice lets you look backwards in time.”
“And wreaks havoc on plants,” Crystal said. “Mom, grab those blankets.”
“Maybe dad fell into a gully,” Liam said.
“He didn’t.” Lavonne stacked folded frost cloths into Crystal’s arms.
“Maybe he’s trapped under a glacier, like Otzi. They’ll find him in five-thousand years.”
“He’s not dead,” Crystal said. “You’ll see him again.”
Lavonne glared at Crystal. “You lie to him?” she hissed.
“If Ryan were dead, I would hear about it.”
“Publish the divorce notice,” Lavonne said. “Move on.”
Crystal pushed open the door with her foot. “I will,” she said. “Just have to be sure.”
“Sure of what?”
When Ryan left, Liam asked Crystal if it was because of him. Was he too much work? Too different? Crystal had almost laughed. Liam hardly needed their help by the time Ryan disappeared, despite Crystal’s hovering.
“I ran away,” Crystal said. “The once. I came back.”
“You were mad at me, not having a mid-life crisis.” Lavonne dropped the blankets at the head of a row of red dinnerplate dahlias. “Daisy understands he’s not coming back. You think she doesn’t tell Liam?”
“Can you drop it, Mom?”
“Maybe you can hire someone next year,” Lavonne said. “I’m getting too old for this.” She struggled to toss a blanket over a sunflower stalk taller than herself.
“Have to buy the cooler, first,” Crystal said. “Ryan will be back. He has kids. He’ll need money.”
Crystal heaved frost cloth over a stretch of chrysanthemums, then buttoned her jacket. “Saturday’s wedding’s a big one,” she said. “Down payment big.”
“What’s the temp dropping to?” Lavonne double-layered the blankets over the dahlias.
Lavonne rubbed her hands to warm them. “Next year, I’m charging by the hour.”
A red-wing blackbird perched on a cattail lining the stock pond and sang. Lavonne checked her watch. “I’ve got to get,” she said. “Your father would rather starve than boil water.”
“He used to cook,” Crystal said.
“He used to do a lot of things,” Lavonne said. “If I ever get that useless, shoot me.”
“Sure,” Crystal said. “Your orders.” She finished the row, the blankets and sheets hung like dust covers on old statues. Her elbows ached and the thin socks she wore let a blister wear into the ball of her heel in her rubber boots. Liam left the greenhouse and went inside, his crutches planting divots in the mud as he went.
Crystal was forty-three with lower back pain, a disappeared husband, no home equity or retirement plan, with kids quickly becoming too self-sufficient to listen to anything she said. Her own usefulness seemed close to expiring. She tucked her gloves into her back pocket. The flowers needed her, at least. The brides. As long as she kept things growing, she had something to do. Crystal peeled off her boots, dusted blood flakes off her heel, and walked through the mud back inside.
“Is this dessert or a project?” Crystal held up a bag of mini marshmallows beside an Amazon box on the kitchen table.
Daisy stared at the television. “It’s an igloo,” she said.
“If an earthquake hit the arctic,” Liam said. He bit into a sandwich. “Get it? Ice rubble.”
“I’m making dinner,” Crystal said. She opened the cupboard and stared at an assortment of spices and boxes.
“That’s ok,” Liam said. He held his sandwich aloft. “I have food.”
“TV off,” Crystal said, tapping Daisy’s head. “Do your project.”
Daisy rolled her eyes and switched off the TV. She wasn’t yet out of middle school but had already perfected the cold-eyed stare of a teenager. “I don’t have colored paper.”
“You didn’t ask me to buy any.” Crystal unsealed a box of elbow pasta. “I’ll get some this weekend.”
“It’s due tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Crystal wrestled the plastic bag inside the box open. “All you have are marshmallows and cardboard.”
“It’s a glorified art project,” Daisy said. “What will this teach me about the arctic?”
“Engineering,” Crystal said. “Get busy.”
“Dad helped me with projects,” Daisy said.
“Get paper from the craft box. Glue. Scissors. Look up pictures of igloos. What class is this for? Is ‘igloo’ offensive?” Crystal took out her phone out and googled it.
“It’s for social studies. We’re studying Canada.”
“They made igloos in Canada?” Crystal scrolled through Wikipedia.
Daisy disappeared and came back with scrapbook paper and glue. “Dad didn’t leave any good stuff,” she said.
“He’s under a glacier,” Liam said.
“Or someone.” Daisy tore open the bag of marshmallows.
“Watch it.” Crystal ignited the burner and set a pot on to boil. “This site says to form your base in a parabola at a 45-degree angle.” Crystal googled ‘parabola.’
“Ok, mom,” Daisy said. She glued marshmallows in a circle to white paper.
“Snow is an insulator,” Liam said. “That’s why the Inuit use it. That’s why Otzi preserved like he did.”
“Helpful,” Daisy said. “Not.”
The marshmallows rose into a cylinder as she built. “It won’t come together on top,” Daisy said. “This is stupid.”
“You’re stupid.” Liam pressed his pencil lead hard into a picture he sketched of a snapping turtle, its shell intact.
“Who builds a house of snow? It just falls apart.” Daisy shoved the diorama aside.
“Snow is only weak if you don’t know how to use it,” Liam said. “Pack it in and let it freeze and it’s stronger than bricks.
“Try supporting it from the inside,” Crystal said. The pot on the stove boiled over, spewing foam across the glass top as Crystal saved over spreadsheets, trying to schedule staff for the week and map out a training plan for the new office assistant at Nelba’s Nursery, where Crystal still worked for the insurance benefits. “Where’s your homework, Liam?” she rushed to the pot to stir it, coaxing some of the foam back into the water with a wooden spoon.
Liam pointed the pencil at the red folder in his bag.
“Take it out.” Crystal drained the pasta before dishing.
Liam opened the folder and shoved it across the table. Worksheets with spelling words and practice sentences slid out of the flaps. Crystal flipped through them. “What are you waiting for?” The folder’s other pocket held the ‘Parent’ side, and Crystal took out the form to sign that she’d checked everything for the night. A printed letter, creased in thirds, slipped out. “A permission slip?”
Liam sat up straight. “You have to sign it!”
Crystal scanned the form. “This is for tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Liam colored the shell of his turtle drawing. “I put it in my coat pocket so I’d remember to give it to you last week. But I forgot. Then it fell out. My teacher gave me another and I left it at school so she gave me another and made me put it in there.”
Crystal sighed. “A fieldtrip? You know I want to call a place like that first.”
“It’s fine, mom,” Liam said. “It’s the A-QUAR-I-UM.”
“Who is chaperoning? Is Mr. Morris going to be with you? How many stairs does it have? How many bathrooms?”
“You could chaperone,” Liam said.
“On one day’s notice, Liam?” Crystal rubbed her forehead. “I have to work.”
“Dad would have done it,” Daisy said.
“Your dad didn’t have a boss,” Crystal said.
“They have JELLYFISH,” Liam said. “And beetles.”
“I’ll think about it.” Crystal read through the form. “You should have given this to me when you first got it.” She knew that expectation wasn’t entirely fair; his mind didn’t work the same as Daisy’s or hers. She poured sauce over noodles. “Dinner.”
“I’m eating marshmallows,” Daisy said.
“Please sign,” Liam said.
“Make a base,” Crystal handed Daisy a roll of aluminum foil to shape in a ball. “Build around it.”
“Igloos are hollow.”
“Is someone living in yours?”
“They don’t live in them,” Daisy said. “They’re hunting camps.”
Crystal turned back to her spreadsheets: planting grids, spending budgets, employee shift schedules. “I go in early tomorrow,” Crystal said. “Grandma will be here to get you ready for school.”
“I don’t need help getting ready for school.”
“Your brother does.”
“No, I don’t,” Liam called from the bathroom. He slammed the door. “She’ll sign my slip.”
“She’s not your guardian,” Crystal said. “Don’t even try it.”
Daisy’s igloo still lacked a roof by the time she went to bed and Liam’s spelling worksheets sat on his homework folder, half-finished. Crystal’s eyes ached and she closed his folder. She rummaged in Ryan’s old supplies and found the hot glue gun. While it heated, Crystal opened her email’s draft folder. The Order of Notice by Publication sat, waiting to be sent. Her lawyer wrote the piece, notifying Ryan that he had three weeks to respond to this notice of divorce, or by order of a judge the divorce would proceed without him present. It’d been drafted four months ago. Crystal reread it and closed it again. She googled “Igloo Projects” and compared Daisy’s progress to the images on the screen. She wished they had sugar cubes. She tried to remember the last time she’d seen sugar cubes – a luncheon for her mother’s charity group when she was a girl. Did stores stock sugar cubes anymore? She wished her kids wouldn’t wait until the last second to tell her things. At least they told her things, though. It’d have been nice for Ryan to mention, just once, that he was unhappy. Overwhelmed? Crystal didn’t know; she could only speculate.
She squeezed hot gel out of the gun and adhered marshmallows across the top of Daisy’s tower. She’d told herself she wouldn’t be the kind of parent to do her kids’ homework, but Daisy needed to get passing grades or wouldn’t advance next year. She’d barely scraped through sixth-grade, Crystal’s first year parenting alone and the first year everyone judged how she fared – social workers, school counselors, her mother. Daisy being held back in school would only be a ding against Crystal. Besides, Daisy had been a bright student since kindergarten. Not trying her best and ignoring assignments was only new for her since Ryan left. A phase. She just needed to get through it and things would go back to normal. Crystal burned her fingertip on glue.
When the igloo’s roof joined together in a mash of melted marshmallow, Crystal turned back to the computer. She opened a new tab. Autofill knew immediately where she wanted to go from one letter: Chatroulette. The site opened, but the face that stared back at her was not Ryan’s. She clicked ‘next.’ Next. Next. None of the faces that peered back at her through grainy webcams were Ryan.
In the years before disappearing, Ryan spent hours on Chatroulette, talking to some people, watching others do who-knew-what. He stopped coming to bed with Crystal, only tucking in hours after she’d finally fallen asleep. He painted portraits of the people he saw. He’d take screen shots, sometimes. But most, he said, he recreated from memory. Sometimes he told Crystal about what he’d seen, who he’d seen, over coffee. He stopped sharing, though, the longer he stayed up at nights, clicking, clicking for something – someone – new.
He’d painted Crystal’s portrait when they were young. Crystal on a chair. Crystal beside the sea. When the children came, he painted them as infants, toddlers. If Ryan could reappear right now, Crystal would demand: why strangers?
The site was addictive, Crystal’s lawyer said. She’d tried it in law school, herself. Blow off some steam; turn off her mind. Her lawyer said Ryan probably met someone on there, ran off with her or him.
Crystal told herself five more clicks. Ten. Twenty. The hours stretched past midnight. There was no one familiar on the other side of the screen, but after so many nights of searching, she wasn’t sure she was even looking for Ryan, anymore.
With each new click she saw men framed by darkness, men without shirts, girls, girls without shirts, people touching themselves or each other. Drafts of portraits Ryan had seen in chats still leaned against the wall in their bedroom. Some were ordinary – narrow noses, wide noses, earlobes of every size – while others had features that stood out – eyepatches, orthodontic headgear, tattoos and bird masks and cold sores. There was no pattern to who he chose to draw, none at least, that Crystal could discern. She’d stared at the sketches of unrecognizable faces for hours, weeks, after he left.
He’d taken some things with him – art supplies, finished paintings, gold jewelry he’d gifted her from her top dresser drawer. He’d left her heirlooms – rings from her grandmother. A broach from a long-dead aunt. Whether he took the things for money or erasure, she wasn’t sure. Would never be sure. Whatever it was that made him leave, she couldn’t see it in the faces and shadowed backgrounds of the people who appeared on the screen. Still, she refused to believe that the answer to his disappearance couldn’t be found inside of the screen, in the carousel of so many faces. It was true, he could have left to find something or someone he’d seen on a camera. That was the better option over the other, more plausible thought: he’d left to un-find those who had lived with him here, on the three-dimensional side of the camera.
Crystal woke under a pile of quilts to the sound of knuckles rapping on glass. She strained to make sense of the red lights on the wall and startled when her alarm clock came into focus. She had work in an hour; she’d forgotten to set back her alarm for the extra-early start. Crystal threw off the quilt and stepped onto the worn carpet, shivering. She threw on the green polo with the nursery’s logo embroidered over the breast pocket and knotted her hair in a bun. Daisy’s alarm would go off in thirty minutes and Liam’s after. Her phone lit up with a text: Outside. Freezing. Open up.
Crystal let her mother in as she pulled socks on and dug her coat out from under the kids’. Lavonne swept in, her hands tucked into her armpits.
“Hope the dahlias made it,” she said. “Freezing my ass off.”
“They’ll be fine,” Crystal said, more hopeful than sure.
Lavonne flicked on the fluorescent light in the kitchen and pushed a coffee filter into the basket. She opened the canister of freeze-dried grounds and sniffed. “It takes five extra minutes to grind up beans,” she said.
“Thanks for coming,” Crystal said. “Got to run.”
“Don’t speed,” Lavonne said. “Arrive alive.”
Crystal took her keys from the bowl by the door and stepped out into the dark. A red ribbon of sunlight split the sky from the ground across the far fields. Grass crunched underfoot. A layer of frost encased the windshield of Crystal’s car, and her hands froze as she fumbled with the keys to unlock the door. She dug an ice scraper out from under the seat and began to scratch the frost away into sparkling dust. Crystal loved the patterns of frost in the same way she loved the symmetry of dahlia florets and the shapes of leafless tree branches. Frost formations were fractals, like bird feathers or ferns, repeating patterns that sweep outwards, duplicating themselves over and over into perfection. Frost didn’t break up its own patterns for a midlife crisis. Frost did make you late for work.
Crystal threw the scraper over the seat and backed out onto the gravel and turf. She’d missed swaths of frost in the dark, but it’d melt by the time the car warmed and she got to the road. She sprayed the window with wiper fluid and swished ice away. Lavonne could pull off the frost blankets when the sun came out, after the kids were on the bus to school. She tried to remember if she’d put money into their lunch accounts and if Daisy’s teacher would notice that the top half of the igloo was neater than the walls. Didn’t matter. She had fifteen minutes to get to work and set an example for the new office assistant. She exhaled, her breath white in the frozen car. The joints in her fingers ached. She wished she had coffee. She wished she wasn’t failing at doing so much of what needed doing alone.
Crystal left the new assistant, Tracy, to answer phones in the office when the nursery staff arrived at 8:30 AM. The spent summer stock needed moving inside to the greenhouse clearance aisle. A truckload of mulch would arrive by nine and the cold season’s first shipment of tropical houseplants would need unloading and stocking right after.
Tracy handed Crystal a clipboard of post-its when she returned to the breakroom for lunch.
Crystal scanned the notes. “The school called?”
“There’s the number,” Tracy said, pointing at the post-it in Crystal’s hand.
“If my kids’ school calls, I’ll take the call,” Crystal said. “Come get me or phone the greenhouse.”
“Sorry.” Tracy shrugged. “Next time.”
Crystal took the notes to her desk. She tried to tamp down her annoyance with Tracy as she scrolled through her missed calls and texts: several from the school, and more from Daisy. “Shit,” Crystal said, reading the texts. She checked the time. Almost noon. The bus for the aquarium would have left hours ago. She phoned the office.
“Liam’s in the library,” the school secretary said. “He didn’t have a permission slip.”
“I forgot to sign it,” Crystal said.
“That’s not why we called.”
“The signature on Liam’s permission slip was forged; didn’t match what we have on file. Daisy signed it for you. We’ve given them both detention. Wanted you to know.”
Crystal rubbed her forehead. “Thanks for calling,” she said.
She fought a yawn and chastised herself for staying up too late, again. She wondered if she had become addicted to surfing through faces, just like Ryan. She could quit anytime she liked, though. What were the odds of finding him, anyway? She made a mental note to google how many users were registered with the site. Percentages were the part of math she was best at, learning to calculate sale prices on kids jackets by moving the decimal, doubling the result for twenty percent, triple for thirty. And what was gardening, but ratios? Half-part vermiculite, half-part peat moss, one third compost. She could grow anything if she knew the ratios of nutrients and soil each flower needed. Flowers were ratios, too, the seeds and petals spiraled into perfectly spaced patterns. Kids weren’t so simple. Some days they needed one part love and two parts discipline, other days ten percent rigidity and ninety percent a good night’s sleep. They were less predictable than marriage. Crystal tried to calculate what formula would help her get through disciplining her kids when she got home.
A weather alert bubbled across her phone’s screen. Another hard frost forecast. Of course, it couldn’t have waited till Saturday night, after the wedding. She’d need to leave early to get all the plants covered and still have time to make dinner, check homework folders, then not stay up wasting time on the internet so she wouldn’t be tired while getting the season’s last flowers cut and arranged for tomorrow afternoon’s wedding. If she had the walk-in cooler already, she wouldn’t have to wait until the morning to get things done.
She considered blocking out time to nap once the flowers were carted over to the ceremony on the Keller’s land, but that wasn’t possible. She’d need to spend the time after the wedding vacuuming flower petals and greenery off the rug in her dining room before the kids ground them in with their feet. She rubbed her back, sore from unloading the nursery’s truck. Crystal wondered if she could postpone disciplining the kids. Not possible, she knew. Both would come home angry; strong in belief that the only wrongdoer in the situation was Crystal.
Since Ryan left, arguments with Daisy always played out in a scripted, well-rehearsed format: Crystal stands in the kitchen, arms crossed to make herself look solid, statuesque. She asks Daisy why she threw a ball at another student’s head in gym class or visited off-topic sites from her research project on the monitored computers in the school’s library. Daisy retorts that she wouldn’t have done the thing, if someone else hadn’t done another thing. Crystal asks if Daisy has any control over her own actions. Daisy, cheekily, responds that she’s twelve and kept under house arrest at all times, so no, she doesn’t control her own life. Crystal points out that she said actions, not life, and somehow Daisy steers the conversation back to Ryan’s absence and shouts that it is all Crystal’s fault that he’s gone before disappearing into her room. End scene.
This time, though, Liam glowered in solidarity with Daisy from the couch.
“I’m sorry,” Crystal said. “But this isn’t my fault.”
“I gave you the slip,” Liam said.
“Weeks late.” Crystal uncrossed her arms. Her fingers had gone numb and they tingled as blood flowed back into the tips. “The night before a trip is too late to communicate something that big.”
“It’s not big,” Liam said. “It’s a building. With fish in it. That you look at. It’s not Mt. Everest.”
“Not every building is accessible to you,” Crystal said. “I needed to look into it. I needed to know the school was sending someone to help you.”
“I’m not helpless,” Liam said. “I’m not broken.”
“No one thinks that.”
Liam hung his head and picked at a thread on his shirt. He kicked at his crutch on the floor.
“I will take you back to the aquarium,” Crystal said. “We can go next weekend.”
“It’s not the same,” Liam said. “I wanted to go with my friends.”
“You can invite someone to come.”
“It’s thirty dollars to get in. You said a movie cost too much and that’s only twelve.” Liam rolled the crutch back and forth under his foot.
“I have to cover the flowers,” Crystal said. “Can we talk more about this tomorrow?”
“All you care about is those stupid flowers.” Liam snatched his crutches off the rug and went to his room. “I’m not hungry.”
“I fed him,” Liam said. He slammed his door.
Crystal stood in the kitchen, both doors to her children’s rooms shut. She was used to Daisy’s being closed these days, but not Liam’s. She missed when the children were little and all of the house was open. They’d move from room to room together, playing. Sometimes, Daisy’s room was a grocery store and they’d go “shopping” with Crystal’s tomato baskets hung from their elbows. Then, Liam’s room would be a train station and they’d set up tracks and a ticket booth and line up animals to tell a propped-up Barbie where they wanted to go.
Wind howled outside, bringing fall. Crystal ordered the pizza and left cash on the table, then bundled up before going outside to protect the last flowers of the seasons from the early frost.
Her phone alarm pulsed a shrill beep and Crystal startled. The sun hadn’t risen yet; it was too early for her alarm. She dug crust out of her eye and unfolded her glasses, pressing them over her nose. She unplugged her phone and tried to make sense of why it would be beeping at her now, in the middle of the night. Then she realized.
She threw her covers off and rolled open her closet, digging for pants and socks and boots. The alarm came from an app connected to her greenhouse’s thermostat: the temperature inside had dropped below freezing. Hopefully, the fix would be as easy as reigniting the pilot light on the kerosene heater. Crystal hopped on one foot as she tied a boot. Her coat hung half-unzipped as she ran out of the house into the dark, trailing scarves toward the greenhouse to save the roses. Crystal stopped half-way. The flowers in the garden were bare; the sheets and the frost blankets blown off the dahlias. Crystal’s breath drifted in white clouds. She turned from the greenhouse and grabbed at sheets tangled in berry bushes and grass. Some had blown into other flower rows and now strangled branches and stalks. Frost rimmed the dahlia florets like silver halos.
“No, no, no.” Crystal flung the blankets back over the drooping stalks. When flower petals freeze, the water inside the petals freezes, shattering the flower’s cells. Frost tender plants, like dahlias, wouldn’t recover by warming when the sun came up. They’d just die. Of course, tomorrow’s bride wanted dahlias. She couldn’t have chosen one of the hardier plants: sweet alyssum, snapdragons.
The sunflowers blew back and forth, shaking their heads at her folly. Who agrees to use dahlias this late in the season? She should have insisted on something seasonal, not ok’d the crops in their final throes before winter.
Crystal finished re-covering all the flowers as the first light of dawn struck across the fields. Her fingers were numb. She went to the greenhouse, hoping her roses wouldn’t be too damaged for Valentines blooms. The tulip bulbs would be fine – they hadn’t yet sprouted. She fumbled in her pocket for a lighter, worried her fingers would be too cold to catch the switch.
The greenhouse was no warmer than outside and Crystal shivered her way to the heater. Just as she thought – the light had gone out. She spun the wheel – click, click, click – and a flame jumped from the flint. She relit the pilot and turned the heat up to high. The flame that could make her break or business struggled in the cold, flickering blue. Flickering red.
Crystal wrapped her hair in a towel when Liam pounded on the bathroom door. She secured the wrap and cracked the door. Liam held up Ohsnap.
“He’s frozen,” Liam said. Tears wetted his face. “He’s dead.”
“Shit,” Crystal said.
“I went to feed him breakfast.” Liam wiped his nose. “The greenhouse is cold! Why is it cold?”
“I’m so sorry.” Crystal opened the door wider. “The heater went out in the night. I turned it back on.”
“You should have brought him inside,” Liam said. “You killed him.”
“He’s a snapping turtle,” she said. “They survive in the cold all the time.”
“In burrows,” Liam said. “Not in swimming pools. He didn’t have any cover.”
“Honey,” she said. “I relit the light. I did what I could.”
“You could have let him inside.”
“Where would he fit?”
Daisy walked behind Liam, a bowl of cereal in hand. “Good job, Mom. Again.”
“I have a wedding,” Crystal said.
“You’re always busy,” Liam said. “You never have time for us.”
“That’s not true,” Crystal said.
“Isn’t it?” Daisy sank into the couch and switched on the television.
“No TV,” Crystal said. “I told you last night, you’re grounded from it. I mean it.”
Daisy tossed the remote on an ottoman and stomped back into her room.
“This is the last wedding of the season,” Crystal said. “I promise I will help you bury Ohsnap after it’s over.”
Liam clutched Ohsnap to his chest. “No murderers invited.”
Crystal stood over buckets of cut flowers at the dining table and pulled the prettiest stems for the bridesmaids’ bouquets. Baby’s breath petals and tiny green leaves littered the floor. One day, she’d get a work barn with long tables and storage shelves. She cinched a ribbon around the bouquet. There’d been enough flowers to salvage for the event. Liam came out of his room and opened a cupboard. He took out a box of cereal. Crystal tied together small stems.
“Here,” she said, and presented the bouquet. “Flowers for Ohsnap’s casket.”
Liam closed the cupboard and tucked the box under his arm. “No thanks.”
“You can be mad at me,” Crystal said. “But Ohsnap still deserves a proper memorial.”
“He’s just a turtle.”
Crystal set the bouquet aside. “Can you tell Daisy to come out here? I need an extra set of hands to get this done.”
Crystal set down her shears. “What do you mean?”
“She left,” Liam said. “While you were outside.”
“But she’s grounded.”
“Where did she go?”
Liam rounded the table toward his room. “She thinks I’m too slow to do things with. She never listens to me. She said pets are stupid because they all die or run away. Just like dad.”
Crystal gripped his shoulders. “That’s not true, ok? Daisy is angry. Don’t listen to what people say when they’re angry. They don’t mean it.”
“You told dad to get out,” Liam said. “I heard you say it through the door. That’s why he left. You were angry and you told him to leave and you meant it.”
“We had a fight,” she said. “I was angry because of things he was doing. Things he wasn’t doing. I didn’t mean for him to disappear. That was his choice, ok?” She shook him. “Ok?”
Liam shrugged her off. “Daisy’s at Grandma’s.”
Crystal grabbed her phone and called Lavonne.
“She’s here,” Lavonne said. “Cooling off. I was about to call.”
“She’s supposed to be grounded. She left without telling me.”
“We’ll drive her back.” Lavonne said. “She rode her bike.”
“Tell her she just added another week to her grounding,” Crystal said. “And don’t baby her right now. She’s in trouble.”
“I made her a sandwich,” Lavonne said. “She brought her homework.”
“Is she doing it?”
“Yes,” Lavonne said. “Your dad is doing algebra with her.”
“He knows algebra?”
“Beats me. We’ll keep her until tonight.”
Since Ryan’s departure, Daisy had become a Chatroulette screen. Every day she could be a different person entirely: angry, needy, kind. Crystal picked a dahlia out of the bucket and plucked off the damaged petals. As dahlias grow, they add layers of florets, the curling clusters of petals that comprise the flowerhead, growing from small, compact buds to layered blooms. They are the last flowers to bloom in the season, preferring cooler temperatures and the shorter days of young fall. They were Crystal’s favorite flower, although they weren’t really flowers, at all. Dahlias were groupings of individual flowers growing together; an inflorescence.
“Mom!” Liam called from his room. “Mom!”
Crystal threw open the door. “What?”
“Ohsnap moved,” he said. “Look!” He pointed at the turtle. The tip of its nose poked out of the shell. “They hibernate when they’re cold,” Liam said. He held up his phone and tapped the screen. “He’s not dead. He was conserving energy!” The turtle scratched at the floor. “Maybe Otzi would wake up if they thawed him. Maybe dad is conserving energy?”
That night, Crystal let the frosts freeze the last of the flowers in the field. She waited a few more nights before digging, letting the cold cure the skin of the dahlia tubers and form a protective layer that would keep them healthy in storage until needed next year. When she was sure the thick skins had formed, she squatted in the cold soil and dug up the tubers to store in the shed over winter. The tubers had multiplied over the summer. She could plant double the crop she had this year, maybe even sell some of the tubers to gardeners, local florists. She wrapped each tuber in two layers of newspaper inside of the green house. Crystal paused over the last sheet of paper; her name in block letters. Her divorce notice. She wrapped it around the last tuber and tucked it into a box.
Inside, Daisy worked on homework at the table, headphones covering her ears. Crystal peered over her shoulder. An English assignment. Daisy had misspelled a few words. Crystal patted her shoulder and continued into the kitchen. She washed the dirt off her hands at the sink. In dahlias, the mother root, the tuber that flowered last season and calved the new tubers for storage, is discarded when dividing the roots. Separated, the new tubers can thrive and produce stronger plants in the following season. Crystal knocked on Liam’s door.
“I have something for you,” she said.
Liam’s dangled a cabbage leaf inside the terrarium Crystal bought to bring Ohsnap inside. “What?”
“Aquarium passes,” she said. “For you and a friend.” She held up the printed papers. “I’ll drop you off on Saturday.”
“Really?” Liam pushed himself off the floor.
“It has a ramp,” Crystal said. “That spirals around the center tank. You don’t have to take any stairs. Don’t tap on the glass. Don’t stick your hand in things.”
“They have a tarantula exhibit,” Liam said. “You can hold one.”
“Just, don’t bring it home.” Crystal closed his door again. Daisy hummed to her music as she erased something, sending pink flecks across the table. The computer sat dark in the corner. Crystal carried a trash bag to where Ryan’s crusted brushes, curled paint tubes and broken pastels were stored. She tossed them in.
The mother root in dahlias is a drain on its pups if left attached for too long. Crystal had tossed them all out that morning. It felt strange to throw out the part of the plant that had given her so much over the season, but those pieces were finished.
She carried the trash and the box outside, tossing one in the dumpster and the other to the back of the shed. She wiped her hands on her jeans. The boxes of stored tubers were lined up neatly on the shelf, each divided pup rolled up snug in its newspaper bed. They needed to be dry, cool, and aerated to wake up in the spring, ready to sprout in small duplicates of themselves. The cold kills the green part of the plant, but forces formation of a protective skin on the tubers, enabling them to sleep safe till next season.
Crystal walked through the mud back toward the house. She pictured Liam and Daisy as small, near-duplicates of herself. Repeating patterns splintered off a mother-shape, creating something complete, whole, and new. Children were tender, like plants. Children were hard. She breathed onto her hands to warm them, her breath white and spiraling as it left her lungs. The stock pond would freeze overnight; the water’s expansion breaking the bedrock that hemmed it in to its bed. It grew every year, freezing and breaking, breaking and filling. More water for flowers to grow.