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Cherry Blossoms

It’s a perfect day to visit mom, Dennis thinks to himself as he drives toward Russell Florist. Not a cloud can be seen in the pure blue sky and the sun is shining its radiant rays down across the city. He can see the first signs of Spring as he drives along. Tulips pushing their way up through the dirt as they reach for the morning’s warmth. Buds on dogwood trees growing fuller, ready to bloom. Even the birds are getting in on the act chirping and whistling their merry tunes as they go about their morning routine. Yup. A perfect day to visit mom.

As Dennis walks into Russell’s, hearing the familiar jingle of the bell on the door, he pauses for just a moment. He doesn’t recognize the woman behind the counter. Gathering himself, he straightens his wrinkled navy jacket and puts on his best smile as he approaches her. The woman looks up from cutting the stems off some gerber daisies and smiles.

“Good morning, sir. How are you this morning?”

“I’m well, thank you. I’m sorry, where’s Paula?” He tries not to sound too brusque as he asks the question, but knows that sometimes despite his intentions, that is exactly how he sounds.

“She had a family emergency and wasn’t able to make it in today. She called me last night and asked me to open up. I’m her niece, Lauren.” She wipes her hands on her jeans and sticks one over the counter.

“I’m Dennis Anderson”, he replies as he takes her hand in his. It’s soft and warm, and suddenly Dennis wonders what it would be like to have that hand caress his face. Delightful, to be sure. And soothing. Perhaps much the same way his mother’s hands felt. Delicate and gentle as she cupped his face in her hands when he needed comforting.

“Mr. Anderson? Are you okay, sir?”

He blinks and shakes his head. At some point during his brief hiatus Lauren had extracted her hand from his own. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry about that.”

“No problem, sir. So what brings you in today?”

“I need to get some flowers for my mother. Usually Paula takes care of me. She knows just what I want, and always has it waiting for me on the counter.”

“She has it waiting for you? You must come in pretty regularly.”

He nods his head. “Yup, almost every Saturday morning about this time. There have been a few I’ve missed, and I’m sure Paula had to toss the flowers she prepared for me on those occasions. I tried to pay her for them, even tried to sneak it past her a few times, but she always finds it and gives it back to me and says it’s worth the trouble for a regular. Is she okay? Is her family okay?”

“She’s fine. It’s nothing too concerning.” Laurens says dismissively. “ Now tell me, why does a fine looking gentleman like yourself come in here every Saturday morning? To get flowers for your wife or girlfriend?” She smiles coyly as she says this, and Dennis wonders how this woman can flirt with him when her aunt’s family is going through a mini crisis.

“No, no. I’m much too young to be married, and haven’t had a girlfriend in a long while. No, these are for my mother. I try to get over and visit her every week. It’s kind of our routine.”

“That’s very sweet of you.” Lauren says, her smile widening at the news. “Where does your mom live?”

“Well, currently, and for the foreseeable future, mother resides peacefully at Maple Hill Cemetery.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry…” she trails off, reaching out and putting a hand on his arm.

Dennis doesn’t mind. Almost welcomes it. “No need to be. It’s been nearly four years now. It was just me and her when I was growing up, so I kind of feel like I should visit her when I can. Every Saturday I try to come here and get her some flowers before I drive over. I sit and talk with her for a bit. Maybe she can hear me, maybe she can’t, but if nothing else, it’s good for the soul. At least I think so.”

“ I agree. Do you mind if I asked what happened?” She’s caressing his arm now, drawing him toward her. There’s an aroma about her. One that Dennis knows but can’t quite place. Suddenly the bell on the front door jingles and their moment of privacy is interrupted. Lauren sends a nasty scowl toward the intruding customer. The woman either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, patiently perusing the merchandise, ignoring the pair until it is her turn to be helped.

“Maybe another time.” Dennis says truncuntly. “I should probably just get my flowers and be on my way.”

Damn interfering bitch, Lauren thinks as she gathers and arranges the flowers. Why did she have to come in now? Inwardly, Lauren directs any derogatory expression she can think of (and there are quite a few) toward the newly arrived customer. Outwardly she offers her warmest and most sincere smile to Dennis and hands him the bouquet.

“I hope she enjoys them. Thank you so much for coming in. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“Thank you. It was nice meeting you as well. How much do you I owe you?”

“Nothing today. I hope you have a pleasant visit with your mother.” Lauren is genuine when she says this, and hopes that he recognizes it as such.

“Thank you for your kindness. Here, let me at least leave you my name and number, that way Paula can call me if you get into trouble for giving away her flowers.” He grabs one of the business cards displayed on the counter, turns it over to write on the blank side and scribbles down his number. “There. You tell her to call me if there are any problems and I will gladly pay for these.”

“Oh, I doubt she’ll care. She’s such a sweet woman. Plus, if she does make a fuss, I’ll just pay for it out of my own pocket.”

“Well, in any case, you have it if you need it. And thank you again.” He turns and walks toward the door, once again creating that gentle tinkle of bells as he pushes it open. As he does, the source of that mystery aroma hits him square in the face. Holding the door slightly ajar, he looks back at Lauren, now engaged with the woman who had come in after him. She looks up as he says to her “Cherry blossom.” She grins and nods knowingly, as if that is all there is to say about it.

He stands in the door, pausing there for another second (much the way he did when he entered) and finally leaves, letting the door swing shut behind him. As he starts his car he hopes that Lauren understood why he gave her his number. Surely she saw through his pretence. Perhaps the customer lady did as well. Truthfully, it all boils down to that basic worry all boys (and men) suffer when letting go of that old reliable tree trunk of comfort and stepping out on the thin branch of hope, not knowing whether it will snap beneath them or support the weight of their dreams. I hope she calls. This is his worry. It turns out he needn’t have. Worry, that is.

As he makes his way to the cemetery his mind drifts to memories of his mother and her cherry blossom smell. He thinks of sitting on her lap as she reads him bedtime stories. Jack and the Beanstalk. The Velveteen Rabbit. Where the Wild Things Are. And how every night, she would religiously rub cherry blossom lotion on her legs, feet and arms. He remembers her steady hands as she taught him to ride his bike. Her unwavering support as she drove him to countless baseball games, band concerts and theater performances. And all with that pervasive cherry blossom smell lingering throughout. She wasn’t perfect, but she didn’t need to be. She was his mother, and he cherished every moment he was given with her.

He was thankful for the time he had with her. He was also thankful the cancer had spread quickly and the pain had been relatively mild (At least visibly. He had no idea how much she was hurting, because she had never let him in on that little secret). He begged her to quit smoking. Told her how bad it was for her, how much damage it was doing to her throat and lungs. And she knew. Of that he was quite certain. But he never faulted her. No, and he never would. Just like she knew that the cigarettes were shortening her life one drag at a time, Dennis knew that it was his mother’s way of coping. And for that he was thankful as well. She could have turned to sex, or alcohol, or even worse, drugs. But she never did. Instead she had her Camels. Precariously placed between her index and middle fingers, a fine white tendril of smoke trailing off into the air.

She gave him the news the day she found out. One thing about Dolores Anderson, with all her shortcomings, she always did her best to shoot straight with her son. He took the news as well as he could and asked her how long. Since it was so advanced, she told him, it might be as little as a few months. The doctor said six, tops. He cried and she held him, the way a good mother does. They did their best to spend the time they had together being happy, but it was difficult with the cloud of despair constantly hanging over their heads. It was six weeks from diagnosis to death, and Dennis had cried bitterly, holding her as she went, those last few rattling rasps of breath being expelled until finally there were no more. And then he was alone.

Sitting on her little plot facing the headstone, he talks to her about the past few weeks. He apologizes for missing the previous Saturday, asking for her forgiveness, but he was very ill and didn’t want to make things worse by not resting. “You taught me better than that,” Dennis says to her. “But to make up for it, I brought you these. AND I met a girl. I think. I mean, I know she’s a girl, I’m not just sure she’s interested in me. And even if she is, what am I supposed to say? How am I supposed to act? It sure would be nice if you were here to help me.”

He moves to put the bouquet on her grave when a small voice from behind him says, “I know it might not be much consolation, but I’d like to help you figure out what to say and how to act.” He lets out a small cry of surprise, then turns and sees Lauren, standing respectfully to one side of his mother’s resting place. “I’m sure I can never take her place, and I wouldn’t dream of trying.” She takes a hesitant step toward the marker and offers a small curtsey.

“Good afternoon Mrs. Anderson. My name is Lauren, and I only just met your son today, but if his behavior is any indication of the type of mother you were, then I am saddened at the loss of never having met you. With your permission, and your son’s of course, I would like to offer my services in your stead.”

Dennis stands beside her, flabbergasted. His arms, too heavy to lift, hang to his side like limp noodles. The bouquet he was gently placing on his mother’s headstone falls to the ground. She turns to look at him, gently smiling, tucking her hair behind her ear. He has never before met a woman so forward, so bold. They have only just met, but she seems to understand everything about him, even his odd relationship with his deceased mother. What’s more, she accepts it, embraces it, in a way he would never have expected. It seems too fortuitous to be coincidence.

Despite the alarms deep within his subconscious telling him it is the wrong choice, Dennis Anderson decides right then and there that Lauren would be the woman he would marry. She will care for him and be there for him. No, she won’t be a perfect substitute for his mother, but she’ll try. And really, what choice does he have? Women aren’t exactly lining up to be with him.

“Well, what do you think?” she asks, stepping toward him and taking his hand in hers, tilting her head, looking up at him.

Oh what soft skin! What a pleasant aroma! What would those hands feel like on my face? As if reading his thoughts, she gently pulls him toward her, cupping his cheeks in her hands, and kisses him fully on the mouth. Her warmth on him is overwhelming and the scent of cherry blossoms is intoxicating. His desire to have someone in his life, someone to love and someone to love him overpowers all other rational thought. And before he realizes that he’s going to do it, a single word pops out of his mouth: “Yes.”

They marry a month later.

“It’ll be perfect,” Lauren suggests. “It’s a month from the time we first met and it’s also your mother’s birthday. What better birthday present could we possibly give her?”

Dennis can’t think of anything and when he goes to talk to his mother about it she remains (unsurprisingly) still. Usually when he approaches her with some important decision, the voice of his mother would quietly speak to him in the back of his mind, steering him in the right direction. For this decision, however, there was no voice. It was oddly silent.

“You have nothing to say about this mother? No words of wisdom? Nuggets of advice? I would give anything to have your blessing, but since I cannot, I hope at least coming and asking for it will suffice.”

With no reason to object from Dennis, and Lauren giddy with anticipation, the pair decide to do things the easy way and head to the courthouse. Neither has witnesses, although not for a lack of trying. Dennis asked a few guys at work if they and their wives would be willing to, but everyone he spoke with was ‘busy’ that day. He suggested Lauren talk to Paula about it, after all she was Lauren’s aunt, but she told him Paula was mad at her about leaving early one day and she didn’t want to get into it. He tried pressing her on it a little, they needed witnesses after all, but she became very adamant and quite vocal on the topic and pointedly told him to leave it alone (it never occurred to him to go and speak with Paula himself). After that outburst, one for which Lauren apologized repeatedly, he never brought it up again.

They end up snagging a couple of folks coming out of traffic court and offer them a quick twenty bucks to stand during the ceremony and then sign the certificate. It’s not elaborate or elegant, the bride isn’t fawned over and the groom isn’t wearing a tuxedo. But at the end of the day, the two are officially married. And that’s all either of them want.

Lauren wants a child. And despite her questionable (unknown to Dennis) history, she still believes that she will be a wonderful mother. What she wants is to feel the warmth of its skin pressed against her own as it nurses. To swaddle and hold it in her arms as it softly sleeps. To protect it and keep it safe from all of the dangers in the world. To make it her own. She wants a baby, and after many repeated (and failed) attempts, Lauren Anderson stares at the + sign on the pregnancy test in a state of bliss, finally getting what she wants.

“You are??” he asks her incredulously.

“Yup! Aren’t you excited?”

“I am. I mean, yeah, I’m excited, I’m just processing. I’m sorry. We’re going to have a baby!”

“We’re going to have a baby!” Lauren exclaims jumping into his arms and covering his face with kisses.

After a few moments, Dennis gently sets her down, and as he does, his face begins to fall as the realization begins to sink in.

“What? What’s wrong? What is it?”

“I’m going to be a dad.”

“Yeah? Isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that make you excited?”

“I never had a dad. I never even had a male role model. I don’t know the first thing about being a good dad. What am I going to do?”

Lauren puts her hands on his face, that cherry blossom smell redolent in the air, and draws him to her. Giving him a kiss, full on the mouth, she says to him “You’re going to do your best. That’s what. You and me. We’re going to do our absolute best for this kid.”

“Well we should probably start by finding a better place to live. This dump might be fine for you and me, but there’s no way our prince or princess is going to grow up here.”

“What’s wrong with this place?” Lauren asks with a sarcastic tone, shooting him a wink.

He looks up at her with tears brimming in his eyes and smiles. Their first real adventure is about to begin, and he couldn’t be more excited.

They find a house in a better neighborhood. It’s nothing fancy, and it stretches their finances a little, but it beats the snot out of that hole they were living in. This one has a partially finished basement that will be used as a playroom for the baby and a small backyard where Dennis and Lauren make plans to put a swing-set one day. They begin preparing for the arrival of their little one as they add a crib and changing table to the nursery, find a cheap baby gate (the door to the basement is at the bottom of the stairs) and install outlet covers over all the electrical outlets.

As the day draws closer, Dennis frets more and more about the type of father he will be, but the encouragement and support he receives from Lauren wanes. She is focused on her child, her baby and has no time to deal with his perceived shortcomings. She is busy talking to her little one, giving it all the nurture, care and attention it needs. To distract himself from his worries, Dennis dotes on his wife and their child, doing all he can to be a good, caring and loving father and husband.

Finally, after months of preparation and anticipation, it is time. Dennis rushes them to the hospital and after eleven hours of contracting and yelling, of pushing and panting and of worry and agony (this from Dennis), their little one arrives. She’s perfect. Ten little fingers and ten little toes, and when the nurse asks what they will name their little girl, Lauren answers immediately “Catherine Elizabeth Anderson”.

Dennis can’t help but wonder why Lauren chose that name and why she hadn’t discussed it with him, but those questions melt away when his child is placed in his arms. His daughter. He immediately loves her with all his heart and know he will do whatever it takes to protect her. She’s an angel and she deserves anything and everything she wants. It’s unfortunate that he won’t get a chance to watch her grow up.

Six months later and Lauren is at her wits end. Cat, as Dennis calls her, will not stop screaming. They’ve taken her to the doctor and had her checked, but apparently she’s just teething and there’s little they can do in the way of offering her comfort. Just teething. As though it were a simple exercise, not at all painful for both the suffering child and her powerless parents. All options have been exhausted and now Lauren is on the verge of a breakdown.

“Isn’t there anything you can do to shut her up?” she screams at Dennis. She’s not only angry because Catherine won’t stop yelling, but because she prefers Dennis over her. It’s perplexing and aggravating and it grates on her nerves. Why would her own daughter, the one she gave birth to, choose him over her? That sniveling, whiny pathetic excuse for a man? And with that thought, she’s had it. She picks up her coat and heads to the door.

“Where are you going?” Dennis asks her.

“I have to get out of here. I can’t take it another minute.”

“Okay. Do you have your phone?”

“Yes.” But I’m going to turn it off the second I’m out the door and tell you that it died, she thinks to herself.

“Alright. Well, just be safe. I guess I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah.” Lauren says, and then she’s gone.

He picks up his daughter, still screaming, and sits down with her in the rocker they found at Goodwill. It’s worn and it creaks, but it works and on days she’s not in agonizing pain, it soothes Cat. He’s hoping tonight there is some magic in it. Enough to help his daughter relax and get some sleep. Lord knows she needs it. They all need it.

As they rock the wailing doesn’t completely subside, but it does dwindle and for that he’s thankful. It bothers him as well, but he does his best to remember that his little girl is in much more pain than he is. He sees himself as her comforter and knows she feels the same way. He knows Lauren despises him for the connection he and Cat share, but what is he supposed to do? She’s his daughter too, and all he wants is to be a good father. And in that regard he believes he is succeeding.

As Cat continues to voice her disapproval of the invading teeth, Dennis pulls his phone out of his pocket and starts scrolling through Facebook. He doesn’t many ‘friends’. Mostly coworkers and a few classmates from high school. Here’s one that says all conservatives are morons. Here’s another that says all liberals have their heads stuck where the sun don’t shine. Gotta love election year, Dennis thinks. He continues scrolling through, dimly aware that Cat has finally quieted down, when he sees a post that causes his breath to catch in his throat. It sticks there and he’s not sure he’ll be able to get it back. When he finally does he touches on the link that says “Do You Recognize This Woman?”

It’s his wife. It’s her to the life. The suspect, his wife, is wanted for several counts of murder, identity theft and assault. As he reads the color drains from his face and his arms and legs suddenly feel too heavy. Thankfully he remembers that he’s holding Cat and lays her gently into the crib. Then he sits down again, just as his legs give out from under him. It can’t be. Can it? It’s at this moment he realizes he knows next to nothing about her. He doesn’t know where she’s from or where she’s been. He knows nothing of her personal history aside from what she’s told him. He continues to read and what he sees next erases any doubt in his mind. Paula, the owner of Russell’s Florist is listed as one of the suspect’s victims. There were several others, mostly men, but the connection between he and Paula was what finally drove him to action. No wonder she never let me go there for flowers anymore.

He jots down the number listed at the bottom of the page, turns off his phone and puts it in his nightstand. Now acutely aware that he needs to get a move on, he grabs the diaper bag from the hallway and stuffs as many diapers and clothes and as much formula as he can into it. There is already a bottle in the bag if he needs it. Anything else he can grab later. He gently picks up Cat and puts her jacket on her. He doesn’t want to wake her, but considering the alternatives he’ll live with it if she starts hollering. He lowers her into her car seat and buckles her in, then heads for the door, hoping it’s not for the last time.

The car isn’t an option. Dennis doesn’t know why, he just knows that it’s not, so he pulls the stroller out of the trunk and opens it up. The ‘snick’ of the latches catching lets him know that Cat’s car seat is secure. He turns the stroller in the drive and pushes it up the street toward the McClure’s. Jim McClure is a nice enough guy, but he and Dennis have only a spoken a handful of times, and that in passing. He hopes that’s enough.

After pressing the doorbell Dennis stands with his arms at his sides and does his best to keep his head up. He doesn’t want Jim to think he’s a threat. Thankfully, Cat is still sleeping peacefully in her stroller. It isn’t Jim that comes to the door, however, it’s his wife, Rachel. She eyes him warily.

“Hey Dennis, can I help you with something?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry for bothering you so late, it’s just that…is Jim home?”

“He’s just finishing up something. Do you want to come in and wait for him?”

“I’ll just stay out here if that’s okay with you. But, would you mind taking Cat in? She’s sleeping, so she shouldn’t be too much trouble.”

Rachel’s face softens as she realizes Dennis just wants his baby to be taken care of and gives him a warm smile. “Sure, bring her on up here.”

Dennis wheels the stroller through the front door and let’s Rachel take it from there. “I’ll send Jim right out.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

She gives him another quick smile and closes the door behind her.

A few minutes later the door reopens. While he was waiting, Dennis had come to the conclusion that he must trust Jim and tell him everything.

“Hey Dennis, what’s going on?”

Dennis starts talking. Slowly at first, and then faster. He tells Jim all that he knows, or at least suspects. He shows him the picture on the FBI website and tells him about Paula, the florist he used to visit every Saturday. Finally he is through and he feels as though a great weight has been lifted.

“I’m sorry for bringing you into the middle of this, Jim. I just didn’t know where else to go. Who else to turn to. I know we’re not friends, but you’re the closest thing I have to one.”

“Well after something like this I’d say we’re friends now. And don’t worry about me, I can take care of myself. I’m just glad you were able to get away before something bad happened. Where is Lauren now?”

“I don’t now. She just got up and left. Said she’d be back later.”

“Okay. Well what do you say we just head on inside and put on some coffee. We’ll call that number you wrote down and let the authorities handle it from here.”

“Sure, sounds good. Thanks, Jim.”

He and Jim watch through the window as the police arrive and arrest Lauren. She makes no attempt to fight back, making Dennis wonder a little if he made a mistake. They bring her out the front door in handcuffs, the blue and red lights on top of the cruiser letting everyone on the block know that something interesting is going on at the Anderson residence.

“You did the right thing Dennis. Don’t you doubt it for one second. If it turns out you’re wrong…well, your marriage might be over. But if you’re right and you had done nothing. That’s not something you want to dwell on my friend.” Jim squeezes Dennis on the shoulder and turns to get some more coffee.

“Refill?”

“No thanks. I have something I need to do if you and Rachel don’t mind. It shouldn’t take but a few hours. Is it okay if I leave Cat here?”

“Sure. She’ll be right here waiting for you.”

He walks down the street to his car and looks at his house. It sits dark and empty, the excitement from just a few moments ago now lost to time’s passage. He and Cat will probably have to start their lives over, but that’s a small price to pay for their safety. As he starts the car and heads to that old familiar place, a bottle of Cherry Blossom lotion rolls out from under the passenger seat. He stops the car and stares at it. What he should do is grab the bottle and toss it out the window. Instead he twists off the cap and inhales deeply. He puts the cap back on and sets the bottle into the cup-holder, shifts into drive and heads to the cemetery.

“I’m sorry it’s been so long mother. I made a mistake. A big one. I sure do wish you were here. But you’re a grandmother now. Isn’t that exciting? You have a beautiful, precious little granddaughter. She’s fantastic. She reminds me so much of you, and I’m sure you would love her. Her name is Catherine, but I call her Cat. She has your green eyes and her smile warms my heart. I love her so much. Is that how you felt about me? Is that why you went to so much trouble to protect me?

But that’s not what I came to talk to you about. You see, apparently the woman I married is a murderer. I’ve done the right thing and turned her in, but now I just don’t know what to do. Where are Cat and I supposed to go? Should we just disappear and start over somewhere else? I don’t want to put my new friend and his family in danger. Oh! I have a friend now. Isn’t that good news? His name is Jim and he lives up the street from us. We only just became friends, but if we leave, I will be leaving my only friend. And as long as Cat and I are around, the people around us will have to worry about the possibility of Cat’s mom coming back. I think it’s probably just best if we leave.

Thanks for listening to me mom. I’m sorry I haven’t been the best son of late. I hope you can forgive me. I miss you. I love you. I’ll talk to you later.”

He gets up and brushes himself off and heads back to his car. On his way home he starts to nod off and slaps himself a few times to stay awake. He pulls into his driveway and turns off the engine. The house is dark and eerie, but he’s exhausted and just wants to go inside and relax in his recliner. He’ll just unwind for a few minutes, then pack a bag for himself and Cat. It shouldn’t take very long. He’s just so tired. Hopefully Jim and Rachel won’t mind.

Dennis doesn’t know she never made it to the police station. He doesn’t know the officers that took her into custody are both dead. He doesn’t know she took the cruiser and parked it down the street, then came to the house. He doesn’t know she crawled through the unlocked basement window and waited for him to come home. But when he is awakened by the sound of the rusty doorknob turning, one he’s meant to replace, he immediately knows it’s her.

The lights that Dennis turned on when he came into the house are out, she must have flipped the main breaker. The basement door creaks open, and he can hear her speaking to him, almost nonchalantly in the dark. “I know it was you Dennis Anderson. I know you’re the one who turned me in.” She keeps talking, mumbling something incoherent.

She’s crazy, he thinks to himself.

“Where is she Dennis? WHERE IS MY BABY!” she screams as she ascends the stairs.

He’ll never tell. His final gift to his child will be to protect her from this woman.

“DENNIS!!”

He hears the familiar creak of the wood floor as she moves into the kitchen.

He doesn’t bother moving. It’s much too late for that.

Her footfalls echo throughout the house as she closes in.

He leans back in his recliner, closes his eyes and draws in one final sweeping breath.

Cherry blossom.

Epilogue

A local man, James W. McClure, 42, was found not guilty for reasons of self-defense in the death of Lauren Anderson. Anderson was attempting to break into the McClure home when James shot her several times in the chest. Anderson died at the scene. The jury returned with their verdict after only a few minutes of deliberation. McClure’s attorney, Dolores Little, stated that she wasn’t surprised the jury came back so quickly. “With this type of case…”

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