My body is confined within itself. I can hear the music, feel the beat, but my hands stay clasped together, my hips only sway in easy, tiny movements. I’m standing on the dance floor but all I can do is tap my foot, and smile when someone moves to grab my hand and spin me around. I can feel it for a moment in that spin, the freedom waiting on just the other side of the mountain that is my newfound reserve. I want to move. But I can’t.
Do you have an iPad?” His voice is a ghost of gravel, softly echoing the strength it used to have. Ebony eyes look at me over the golden-wired rim of thick reading glasses.
“I do,” I nod. “But it’s pretty old, so I don’t use it very often.”
His shaky hands, weary after so many decades, set down his pencil and I’m struck by the meaning of my words. I hope he doesn’t catch the parallel and suddenly my chest tightens.
I don’t mean you, my heart whispers, urging the words toward 80 years of love and despair seated on the other side of the table.
But he is already turning the next page, the topic forgotten, the meaning lost in translation and left tumbling in the washing drum of my mind.
“I saw a princess,” the little girl sings as she skips through the large silver gate, followed by her chuckling father. “I saw a princess!” She twirls and giggles, round cheeks glowing with excitement.
“Come on, honey,” her dad says, nodding to me, then reaching for her hand. I nod back, but he’s already looking away, moving towards the nearly-empty car park. The Lane had officially closed thirty minutes ago, but it always takes a while for stragglers to clear out. In this kind of place, people tend to take their time.
I smile, the girl’s voice still echoing in the stillness. Turning, I start through the gate, then pause. An old man is hobbling towards me, wiping his eyes with a blue handkerchief. “Sir,” I ask. “Are you all right?”
He smiles up at me, a teary grin, waving the handkerchief in the air. “Oh, son,” he replies. “I’m more than all right.” He takes my hand in his large, leathery one, and shakes it. “Thank you. Bless you, and thank you.” With a sniff, he explains, “I saw my Mary again.”
I smile, returning the handshake. “She’ll always be here. I’ll watch out for her.” He gives my hand a final pat, then continues his shuffled steps out of the Lane, raising a shaky hand for the last taxi still hanging around.
I shift my pack on my shoulder and step through the gateway. No matter how long I work here, every time I enter the garden, it’s always a bit of a shock. The wind is what gets you first, whispering to you as it passes. Calling, teasing. It swirls around me, hugging close like an old friend. Next to the gate is Today, the buds just barely peeping through the ground in every color imaginable. The farther you go down the Lane, the the taller the plants become, until off in the distance you see giant, multi-colored trees and massive bushes whose roots dig down unimaginably deep. I never have time to go out that far, but I always wonder. I hum as I take a step into Last Week, tiny blossoms only an inch or so tall on both sides of the dirt path, each petal a kaleidescope of swirling clouds. I force my eyes away from the darkest of the petals – there’s nothing I can do for them yet – and I continue on to where I’d stopped the night before, several years ago.
Flashing lights catch my eyes on both sides of the path, stems a moving rush of silver, light passing like cars on a highway. They push out of the ground, leading to roses, lilies, dandelions, and thousands more I can never hope to remember the names of. Each one tells it’s own story, and I consider stopping to look closer at a few of the pulsing white ones, but I have a job to do.
I reach Five Years Ago, and my eyes spot something in the distance. As tall as the saplings around it, but black on top, and blue on the bottom. Another straggler. I consider setting down my pack, but decide against it, somehow feeling that I’ll need it.
An ivy vine reaches out to caress my wrist and I gasp at the ice that immediately washes over my skin. The garden is replaced by soft while all around, small flakes falling, one tickling as it lands on my nose. I hear laughter behind me and whip around, suddenly caught in the chest by a ball of white that explodes as it hits me. I blink rapidly and the snowball fight fades. Lucky a good one caught me. I reach into my pocket and pull on my thick gloves so other vines, not all as icy sweet as the first, can’t reach me.
It takes me a good ten minutes to come withing speaking distance of the lone figure. He’s a young man standing by a dark, thunderstorm-purple rosebush. I pause, then sigh and steel myself. “Excuse me, young man,” I call, walking closer. “We’re closed now.”
He looks up, lips tight, brow furrowed in despair and my chest tightens. Loosening his fists, he shows me palms dotted with blood. “I-” he clears his throat. “I was trying to pull it.” Our eyes both move to the roses. The petals flutter in the breeze, but I try to not look too closely. I don’t want see what he so desperately wants to remove.
I shake my head. “You can’t pull it,” I tell him gently. “Those roots are,” I glance around for when we are. “Fifteen years deep.”
He takes a shaky breath. “Fifteen years. Yeah, I know.”
I touch his shoulder gently. “I can’t pull it. And I can’t cut off the blossoms. But I can trim it. I can make it smaller, less vivid.”
“You can do that?” He asks.
“Well,” I give him a gentle smile. “I’m the gardener, after all.” He nods, and I take out the shears, then poke around the rose bush. The flower in question dances, like it’s aware of what I’m about to do. I raise the shears to a leaf just below the blossom. As I cut, I can hear the young man’s sharp intake of breath. I continue, working slowly but deliberately, making sure I get all of the leaves. Next, I pull out a small knife, and I go to work on the thorns, shaving them off one by one. The young man’s relief is almost touchable. After a few minutes, I’m finished. I turn to him again, and there are tears gliding silently down his cheeks.
“Thank you,” he whispers.
Hesitantly, I reach out and pat him on the shoulder. “You’re welcome. Now, you head on home, okay?” He nods. “And next time you come, don’t come back to this one. I’ll look out for it. Find one of yours in a brighter shade. Those are the ones you want to remember.”
Wiping his cheeks, he takes a few steps towards the gate just barely visible in the distance, then pauses and turns back, waiting for me.
“Go on,” I tell him. “I have the rest of Memory Lane to work on.”
Inspired by a pair of prompts: What if memory lane were a real place? by Promptarium, and Blossom by The Daily Post.
I wrote this quite a while ago, after hearing a story about a man who died trying to save fellow soldiers. Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual story; the hero who gives his life for others during a war. But this particular news article, it made me wonder. What was the man thinking? What would have happened if he had lived?
“A flamingo.” Coffee nearly flies out of my nose and I cough, trying to prevent myself from choking on the liquid mixed with laughter.
“Any animal in the world, and you choose a bright pink bird?” I wipe my mouth and look with incredulity at the man next to me. Corporal Anderson Tyler is a bull of a man, with the arms of a gorilla, the sturdiness of an elephant, and the unwavering focus of a viper. He sits next to me, cutting pieces off of a chunk of wood. I can’t tell what it is yet, but I know it will soon come to life as all the others had.
“Yeah, but it’s like the most popular bird. It’s the bird all the humans copy and all the other birds want to be.”
I nod. “So you want to be the Homecoming King of aves.”
He chuckles at himself but shrugs. “I guess that’s a yes.” I laugh and sip at the rest of my coffee. We sit in a large tent, soldiers and corporals and lieutenants buzzing all around us. Many of them are discussing the new rumors of the enemy that had reached camp, or trying to gain the eye of the general who is newly in attendance, but Corporal Tyler and I prefer to hang back and watch until given orders.
I lean back in my seat, eyeing the new general. He doesn’t look like much, just a thin man with a thick beard, but the stories I’ve heard of him are anything but dismissible.
Something dark moves in the corner of my vision. I turn my head and look to the opening near me. A man appears, one I knew well. He is a native, a translator, and his name is Hamad Usain. I look down at his hand. He sees me watching and closes his eyes, then his hands make a quick movement and he tosses what he’d been holding into the tent. It rolls to a stop just ten feet in front of me.
One second. Shock registers. I’ve worked with Hamad for three years and had never seen this coming. I know the names of his three little girls. He knows the name of my mother and the story of my first day in kindergarten. He’s played baseball with Corporal Tyler and several of the other other men in the tent. He loves his country and his god and peace.
Two seconds. I find myself on my feet. Everyone is shouting now, backing away and turning around. My sergeant stands in front of the general, attempting to shield him. I consider throwing it, but we are surrounded on all sides by soldiers and tents, going on for several layers, far outside my capabilities of throwing, no matter how many times it has been suggested that I be the pitcher.
Three seconds. Suddenly, I’m not on my feet. I’m curled up on my side near the front of the tent, squeezing my body as tightly as possible around a ball barely the size of my fist. I imagine my abs, my stomach, my spine, see in my mind how they will be ripped apart in milliseconds and I hope that it will be enough.
Four seconds. I see my mother. I see my sister and her son, lifted onto the shoulders of my father. I see the girl I’d kissed just days before leaving the U.S. I see the faces of men, women, and children, covered in dirt and cloth and blood. I see the gun that never leaves my side. I see the dream I’ve had since preschool of swimming through the Great Barrier Reef. I see the class I’d taken after high school, the one I’d liked but hadn’t studied hard enough for. I see the things I had done instead of studying. I see my favorite bar and my favorite burger. I see the piece of wood Corporal Tyler had been cutting. I see the general. I see the U.S. flag hanging above him. I see my second grade teacher, the one who first taught me about the army. I see rain. I see the picture of Hamad’s daughters. And then I realize: I don’t want to die.
Five seconds. I squeeze my body even tighter, squeeze my eyelids closed until I see stars. And then it feels like my whole body is on fire and I think, This isn’t so bad. I had thought dying would hurt more.
And then I realize that the roaring in my ears isn’t death. It’s life. I hold my position, wondering why the grenade hasn’t gone off yet, wondering just how long I’ll have to wait to die. I don’t want to die. I swallow. I count to three. I slow my breath. This is impossible. I count to three again. This doesn’t happen. I count to ten and I almost laugh, realizing the magic of reaching the number. I hear voices, at first garbled and then clear. “You’re okay. You’re alive.” I open my eyes. And nothing is the same.
I go to the grocery store with a twenty-dollar bill, because that’s all I have. I focus on my shopping list, food that will hopefully last me a week. I tell myself, “Don’t buy that, you can’t afford it.” I’m hungry, so I grab a candy bar because it’s cheap. I head to the self-checkout, so I don’t have to be embarrassed if I’ve miscounted and don’t have enough money. I leave for home, hoping the few dollars change will be enough for gas.
I go to the grocery store with a hundred-dollar bill, because there are two in the “Groceries” jar. I focus on my shopping list, ingredients for a new dish I’m making for dinner. I tell myself, “Don’t buy that, it isn’t healthy.” I’m hungry, so I remember to buy a couple kinds of snacks. I head to the self-checkout, because there isn’t a line. I leave for home, hoping I didn’t forget anything.
Once you’re happy, you think that’s it. You’ll be happy forever. You move to a new place, start a new job, make new friends, and you breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, this is where I’m supposed it be. This is what everything was leading up to.
But that’s not always the happy ending. It’s a continuation and every day isn’t perfect. Every day isn’t great or happy, and sometimes you feel yourself sliding back into the grayness, looking for a handhold to hang onto to keep yourself out of it. Sometimes you find one. Sometimes you don’t. And there you are again, in the black hole of Why am I even here? Was this a mistake? Would it have been better if I’d stayed? I miss everything. I want something different. It’ll never be okay.
But then, one day, all of a sudden the sun is shining. Not the faint rays of morning in the spring, but the direct heat of a mid-June picnic. Everything is perfect, and as you scratch the itch that whispers its doubts, you think, again, that it’ll last forever.
Mom asked me if I went to church today.
I didn’t have the guts to tell her
I don’t have the faith to pray.
I know she just plain wouldn’t understand
She’d be worried, concerned,
Certain I’d be damned.
To her, there is only one right way.
There is one question,
and one answer.
There is one right
and one wrong.
There is one creator
and one world.
Her life must seem so simple.
Often, she will say how she doesn’t understand how some people don’t believe in God.
Never do I tell her that I don’t understand how some people do.
Because I don’t want to worry her, and I already know what she would say:
“In a world where a little boy can be gunned down
by a neighborhood police officer
for playing with a borrowed toy,
Where women are raped
by friends they think they can trust
and no one does anything about it,
Where men are accused of crimes
they didn’t commit and forced to pay
a price that they don’t owe,
Where individuals are still identified,
first and foremost,
by the color of their skin.
Where mothers are crying
and children are dying
and fathers are trying their hardest just to keep their families off the streets,
Where do you find your hope, if not in our Savior?
Where do you find your peace?
What do you believe in?”
I thought I dreaded that question.
I thought I had no answer because
I was taught that there was only one answer,
and if you didn’t know the right one,
you were wrong.
I saw a picture once that presented two ways to produce nine: four plus five or three plus six. I showed it to my father. He said yes, but there is only one nine. I said no, there is nine, neun, neuf, and nueve. He said yes, but there is only one meaning. I said, but it’s a measurement, right? So there are still different nines, just different kinds of nines being measured; whether it’s nine apples or nine oranges, whether it’s nine white men or nine black men or nine children or nine Arabs or nine Jews or nine Christians… So not only is there not one answer, there’s not one question.
“What do you believe in?” she asks.
I realized that I don’t dread that question.
I realized that I had an answer because
there isn’t only one answer
so you don’t have to know the right one
and you aren’t wrong.
Because, you see,
I do believe, I really do.
It’s just from a different point of view.
I believe in smiling, and sharing some brightness
whose day might seem a little too dark.
I believe in families; of blood
and of choice,
that give you their strength when you can’t find your own.
I believe in loving: loving hard,
loving unconditionally, irrationally, uncontrollably.
I believe in music, the ultimate drug
that loses you
in it without you even realizing you’re gone.
I believe that you can find evil
in the soul
but you can also find goodness.
It is the home of a god but also of a devil and
the choice is yours
as to which you let run free.
I believe in heaven, not as a place but as a
state of mind
that can be found in yourself and in others.
I believe that the good outweighs the bad, and when that appears
to not be true,
the change may only come from one place: you.
I believe that truth does not
set you free,
that it proves that you already are free; from fear.
I believe that it doesn’t matter what happened yesterday because
it’s not today
and a fresh start is always possible.
I believe in tomorrow, and in the changes
it may bring
if you just give it a chance.
See, I believe in laughing,
and in connection.
I believe in magic,
and in action.
I believe in friendship,
and in equality.
I believe in miracles,
and in us.
I believe in writing,
in second chances,
and in youth.
I believe in experience,
and in freedom.
I believe in music,
and most importantly, in living.
To me, there is more than one right way.
There are many questions,
and even more answers.
There is wrong and there is right,
but they aren’t always black and white.
There is so much more to believe in
than a man and a book.
It doesn’t need to be simple.
Because there will always be bad things that happen, but
We live in a world where a college basketball team wears t-shirts
in support of the lives and deaths of people they’ve never met
just because it’s the right thing to do,
Where policemen rescue shelter dogs
that would otherwise be caged and killed
and give them a second chance at life,
Where a man uses his last dollar
finding a meal and a bed for a complete stranger
who has nothing to give in return,
Where a teenager who can’t swim
jumps into deep water
to save the lives of three struggling children,
Where people on a busy street
help a woman give birth in the freezing cold
to a baby who wouldn’t wait for an ambulance,
Where a man pays for the meal of
a family at a neighboring table because
he overheard their discussion of a “diagnosis”,
Where a little girl donates her Christmas presents
to a charity that will give them to children
who don’t have any of their own,
Where a young woman shares her coffee
and offers conversation to a lonely veteran
who just lost his wife,
Where a nine-year-old boy
pushes and pulls his paralyzed younger brother
through a triathlon he would never be able to finish on his own.
Where mothers are caring
and children are sharing
and fathers are bearing the weight of problems for others who couldn’t carry them alone.
There I find hope.
There I find peace.
That is what I believe in.