Because the Greeley yard was large and had thirty-eight trees to trim around—Mario had counted them—Mila started out on the stand-on mower. It beat walking behind a push mower, like Ruben, but by the time she finished her portion of the lawn, her shoulders and upper back were aching and sweat drenched her T-shirt and overshirt. She was happy to escape to the back of the house with her gardening tools, this time including—God save her—a ruler. Mr. Greeley wanted the mulch exactly three and a half inches deep in every bed and on every path, so every week, she measured, raked and leveled them.
In businesses like theirs, Gramma said, quirky people paid the bills. Don’t grouse about them. Celebrate them.
Of course, a lot of people thought Gramma was quirky. Mila, on the other hand, they considered just plain odd.
The housekeeper came out of the kitchen while Mila was finishing one of the beds. She smiled, nodded and proceeded to the pots on the patios that were lush with herbs. With a pair of small shears, she snipped stalks and stems into the small basket she carried, then turned toward the vegetable garden at the back edge. “I just get some tomatoes,” she said with another smile and a heavy South Asian accent.
Mila nodded and continued to her own destination, the shrubs that marched across the back edge of the yard. She passed the garden, its tall fence intended to protect it from wildlife. She had watched quietly last week as a deer gracefully leaped in, snacked to her heart’s content, then leaped out again and disappeared into the trees. Mr. Greeley might be able to control the rest of the world with his demands, but the deer wasn’t impressed by how much money he had.
She approached the line of blue junipers, far too uniform for her tastes. She liked freedom, flow and movement, not the unnatural precision of too much pruning. And that was why she had her own garden: most customers didn’t care what she liked. They paid her boss so she would do what they liked.
She was inspecting the junipers when she heard the first sound: a sharp intake of breath from the garden area. Turning, she looked for the housekeeper, who might reach five foot two on tiptoe, but saw no sign of her behind the plentiful tomato, corn and okra plants.
Then came a bloodcurdling scream, a rustle of plants swaying, small feet pounding on the path. Mila, her own feet frozen to the ground, followed the woman’s progress by the plants she bumped or mowed over on her way to the gate. Wild-eyed, she burst through the gate, looked frantically around, then ran to Mila, grabbing her arms, speaking rapidly in a language Mila didn’t understand.
Mario came running from around front, followed by Ruben. An instant later, the powerful roar of Alejandro’s mower shut off, and he joined the men. Ruben’s gaze met Mila’s as he handed the hysterical housekeeper to Mario, then beckoned Mila to go with him.
I don’t want to. Please don’t make me. I don’t want to see, I’ll do anything you say, I’ll be good, just please don’t make me look. The little-girl whimper was sharp and raw, echoing in her brain even as she forced herself to take the first step, then the next.
Ruben went first, around the fence, through the gate, along the main path where rows branched off to the left. Corn, okra, cucumbers, lettuce, bell peppers and, last, tomatoes, planted where the taller plants helped protect them from the midday sun. She counted six, seven varieties—heirloom, hybrid, giant beefsteaks to tiny grapes, red, yellow, green and striped.
Finally she had no choice but to look at the cause of the housekeeper’s scream. Mr. Greeley lay on his back across the path, tomatoes spilled from a trug that lay on its side and red stains, too many of them, marking his shirt. Still sticking out of the center of his chest was the source of those stains: a wicked sharp pair of pruning shears, the pivot and a portion of the shank buried in his flesh.
Mila couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t run far, far away and hide. She could only stare, could only feel the vicious ache in her own chest, could only remember…too much, too much, just too damn much.
God help me, why is this happening again?
It was raining the night my parents died. Dark clouds threatened all day, but the storm had held off until the skies were black. I stood at a side window, unable to see anything, but my skin prickled, and every breath I took was an effort. As lightning flashed a brilliant warning in the night, thunder erupted, vibrating through the ground and the floor and right up into my body.