She lifted Bert's loaded W.W.II Luger from its cracked leather holster, finding it surprisingly heavy, cold to the touch, and reeking of rancid oil. No matter. It will do.
She hugged the pistol to her abdomen and shivered. Gazing bleakly at her frail reflection in the hall mirror, she felt the intolerable weight of her grief and loneliness. Her depression was profound, unassailable by either psychotherapy or drugs.
She carried the weapon out onto the summer porch. The incredible perfume from the garden immediately wrapped around her like a shroud. Fighting her terror, she resolutely walked down the steps, crossed the lawn, and entered the quiet of the garden. She took a seat in a wicker chair by the metal shed. The acrid odour of fertilizer and potting soil sent a dozen distant memories flitting through her mind. She and Bert had tended this garden for thirty years. And now--well, Bert was gone and there was nothing to live for.
The bees were busying themselves with renewal, providing an ironic counterpoint to what she planned for herself. She'd made her will, put her affairs in order, written her estranged sister, and was now ready for the hard part--the final act of closure. Of course, the paralyzing contemplation of not being had stopped her for awhile, but now the time had come to end this useless existence. Clumsily shifting the ugly pistol to her right hand, she wondered if there really were a Rock of Ages, a Christ, or if there was nothing at all.
Gazing one last time at the glorious bounty that lay before her, the neat rows of beautiful flowers that brightened the yard, she recalled how she'd once thought that her plants must house unseen spirits, joyous sprites of her own creation. Year after year these hardy perennials came back from winter's grave, magically reborn each spring to blossom again and delight the mind. But unlike these hardy flowers she would not be coming back--not ever. Watching their glossy heads bob merrily in the breeze, it seemed as if they were performing for her, compelling her not to leave them behind. But she gritted her teeth and prayed for the courage to do what must be done. She slipped her trembling finger over the trigger.
"Hallo there, in the garden. Miss?"
She glanced up and saw a tall stranger standing by her garden gate. He was elderly, dressed in green bib overalls, looking a bit like Mr. Green Jeans.
How long has he been there? she wondered with alarm, hastily concealing the Luger under a gingham cloth in a nearby basket.
What has he seen?
"Just admiring your garden, ma'am. Name's Cliff, Cliff Brown. We just moved in next door. Guess we're going to be neighbours."
Sadly she didn't think so. But she stood up and walked to the gate, taking the heavy basket with her. He had an empty sleeve, a savage scar that bisected his face from left to right, and one of his eyes didn't track. But it was a nice face, nonetheless.
"I'm Binnie," she murmured, opening the gate for him.
"Pleasure to meet you, Binnie." His voice was deep, his affability undeniable.
They shook hands, Cliff gravely eyeing the basket. Binnie wondered if he had spotted the gun. She hoped not. Leading him to the garden, she held tight to her basket. He proceeded to make appropriate comments of approval about her garden and seemed genuinely pleased with it.
"Thank you," said Binnie, when he was through, curious as to where he'd gotten his wounds. "Were you in the Great War?"
"Where, may I ask?"
A savage tic began working under his good eye. "The Bulge, Ma'am." His hand abruptly dipped in and out of his pocket as though he didn't quite know where to put it.
"Why, that's where my Bert was."
"Yes. But he's dead, you know," she said matter-of-factly, wiping her eyes with a hankie.
"I'm sorry," Cliff murmured. "In the war?"
"No, in bed. Cancer. Just before you moved in."
He sighed, knelt down, and eyed the sweetly scented carnations. "You have my deepest sympathy."
"Thanks. Are you a gardener, too?" she asked, just to be polite.
He looked up. "Kind of, but I've never seen a garden to match this. I'd love for Darlene to see it, too."
Was he seeking an invitation? How strange. She was abruptly confused. Meet Darlene? Here I am about to kill myself, and he wants me to meet Darlene? What irony. She tried not to frown, but the arrangement of her face belied the effort.
"No, not at all."
Cliff then told her about himself and his wife. To Binnie's surprise she found that Darlene was an artist, a painter of impressionistic landscapes in oils, just like herself. Small world. Cliff was retired military, a former colonel in the infantry.
"Tell me how you got such a grand color array, here," Cliff said.
And so Binnie, on the eve of her destruction, found herself waxing eloquent on the subject most dear to her heart. Time passed most pleasantly. At one point Cliff touched her arm, sending an electric shock of unaccustomed warmth coursing through her. He was a consummate listener and an eager participant. His enthusiasm was catching. And for the first time since Bert's cruel death, Binnie felt the vague stirrings of a fragile optimism push against the stony fortress of her despair.
Later, as they sat under the old mulberry tree, sipping iced tea and chatting about gardens, planting cycles, cross-pollination, bees, and fertilizers, Binnie felt an almost overpowering need to grab onto this gregarious man, as though he alone were holding the reins of her survival. But as the shadows deepened and the sun's rays took on their sallow yellow light, Cliff looked at his watch and heaved a sigh.
"Miller time," he announced, with a twinkle in his good eye.
Involuntarily, Binnie shuddered in protest. So soon?
"Something the matter?" asked Cliff, who was watching her carefully and with a hint of anxiety.
"Uh, no." But there was something the matter. It was as though Cliff had rescued her at sea and now wanted to toss her back. She glanced dubiously toward the hidden gun in her basket, then at Cliff. Has anything really changed? The chill of her earlier mood gripped her anew, and her shoulders slumped in resignation.
But now Cliff took her by the arm, gently turned her toward the gate, and murmured, "Naturally you're coming too."
"Huh? Uh, wait a sec--" She felt things were moving too fast, the shape of her thoughts pulled out-of-round.
"No argument," said Cliff, firmly. "We're having catfish and Darlene's special cornbread. No one alive can resist it. Plenty of beer in the fridge. Anyway, you got to meet Darlene. She doesn't know a soul here. And I want you to see her art. You'll love it." The pacing of his had words picked up speed, as though time were running out.
"But nothing. You got something better to do?"
She glanced at the basket and felt the dragging weight of the Luger. Yes, you could say that.
"I don't know. I--"
"Darlene will just love this garden."
Shaken, Binnie took an awkward backward step. "Wait!"
"What is it?" he asked sharply, moving to her quickly, his eyes on the basket. He took her arm again. "Is there a problem?"
She tried to clear the thickened cobwebs of her sudden confusion. "I--I guess I'm a bit rattled, Cliff."
"Nonsense. Let's just mosey over to my place."
She stiffened. Uncertain. "Now?"
"Of course." He gently tugged at her arm.
But she resisted. Things were out of control, the shadows and colours around her forming a dizzying kaleidoscope.
Cliff sighed, then quickly reached around her and removed the weapon from the basket.
They stared at it for a moment.
Abruptly, Binnie sagged against him. "Cliff, I--I--"
"Shush," he murmured. "It's all right."
She blushed and began to sob, deep and wrenching in the quiet of the garden. "I've been so--lonely."
"You do? How could you possibly?"
"I've lost people I've loved. At our age it's endemic."
"No buts." He gingerly held the pistol between them. "This is a mighty dangerous weapon, you know."
She stared at the Luger and nodded, her lips thinned by tension.
He finally stuffed the gun in the pocket of his bib overalls. "Mind if I hold onto this for awhile?
Oddly enough, she found she didn't mind at all.
Then Cliff opened the gate, and they left the yard.
In the garden a gentle breeze tossed the bright heads of the flowers to-and-fro, giving one the impression that they were cheering in an excess of joy.