The Gardener(5)
Author:S.A._Bodeen


    When I was small, I watched it a lot, nearly every day, but as I got older, the urge grew less frequent. Still, it became a bit of a security blanket I couldn’t give up. And when Mom and I fought, usually when she’d been drinking, it was a comfort to flick it on and see what I’d seen a thousand times before. Because there was something about watching it, something that happened to me. The video sucked me in, magically put me in a sort of trance, giving me a reprieve from my life.

    Like always, I froze as the video flickered on.

    My father, or rather his green-shirted torso, sat in a chair in front of a yellow wall. The Runaway Bunny was in his hands, which were a darker skin tone than mine. The first time I noticed the color of his skin, things clicked into place. I’d always wondered how I could’ve gotten my dark skin from my paler-than-pale mom. Watching the video was like understanding where I fit, somewhere between the woman who cared for me and this man, this man I’d never met. I studied the footage every time I watched it, always with this little bit of hope that I’d discover something else about him.

    Or about myself.

    But it was the same every time, no more buried treasure to be found. His voice is deep and he reads clearly and well. The text is all on pages with black-and-white illustrations, divided by a full page in color with no words. At one part of the story, my favorite part, the one where the bunny wants to go be a crocus in a hidden garden, he turns the book to himself and pauses, turning the page before showing the camera again. And, for just a second, his right sleeve slips up, revealing a tattoo on his forearm. A blue butterfly.

    “Mason!”

    I tore myself away, clicked the remote to pause, and went into the master bedroom. The bathroom door was shut. I knocked. “Mom?”

    She opened the door, standing there with a blue towel wrapped around her, hands streaked with blood.

    Grabbing a towel to staunch the flow coming from her shin, I dropped to my knees in front of her. I shook my head and muttered, “You shouldn’t shave your legs when you’re drunk.”

    Her hand rested on top of my head. “I can’t go to work like this.”

    “Mom, you have to. You used up all your sick days for the month.”

    “I’m in no condition to work.” Her voice was whiny.

    I just wanted to tell her to shut up. But that wouldn’t help, so I made certain my voice was quiet. “That’s all we need—for you to get fired.”

    She sounded even more agitated. “Which they will do if they see I’m not sober.”

    There was only one solution I could think of, and it was a terrible idea. “I can go with you, help you do your work.”

    She sank down on the bed. “You can’t do that.”

    There never had been any reason for me to go to the Haven of Peace, and I struggled to think of ways to make the idea sound less idiotic. None came to mind. I said, “Mom, come on. I’ll just stay a while until you’re completely fine, and then I’ll sneak out and go home.” I’d nearly convinced myself it was a good idea.

    “No.” Her hand patted my head. “I’ll be fine. Night shift is easy.”

    I sat down on the bed and put an arm around her. “Let me drive you at least?”

    “Okay.” She leaned into me for just a moment before heading back into the bathroom.

    Enabling her like that wasn’t good, I knew, but she was my mom. What else could I do? I tossed the bloodstained towel into the laundry room sink and then filled it with cold water to soak. Back in the kitchen, I cleaned off the table, setting Mom’s purse on the edge of the counter, where I promptly knocked it off with my elbow when I swung back around.

    Her crap was all over the floor, and I started shoveling it back in, when I saw her Curves key chain with a small key on it. Like the kind of key that might fit the filing cabinet in her bedroom. I glanced toward the bedroom once, then slipped the key off and put it in my back pocket.

    Black Sabbath blared from the front pocket of my jeans. I flipped my silver phone open. Jack said, “Hey, we can go tonight after all. I get off at nine.”

    I glanced at the clock and did the math. I would still have time to drop Mom off and then come back to the house to finish the TroDyn application, forged signature and all. And maybe go on a little treasure hunt. “Cool.”

    Right.

    To save time, I packed a backpack to take to Jack’s cabin, throwing in the DVD. I always took a copy when I went out of town, the way other people might stick a family photo in their wallet. Maybe it was weird, but I just felt better knowing it was there, in case I wanted, or needed, to watch it. Jack had known about the tape since we were in grade school and never gave me any grief. He knew what it meant to me.

    After dropping Mom off at Haven of Peace, I drove home and went right into her room to try the filing cabinet. The key turned easily. My hand rested on the handle, but I didn’t pull. It was an invasion of my mom’s privacy. But I couldn’t help wondering if there might be something interesting in the file cabinet. Maybe something from my father?

    Like a college fund? I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

    Still, I started to look. One folder held tax files. I flipped through them. The signature line was blank, the TurboTax electronic signature jotted down beside it instead.

    My heart was beating harder. “This is crazy,” I muttered. Did I really expect to find some secret about her past? Of course, didn’t every kid wish that? Instead of being stuck with the parent we have, didn’t we all want to discover they were way cooler than reality?

    I sighed as I set the tax files down. The only secret past my mom had was that she had a kid with some guy who was no longer in the picture. Not exactly a rare thing.

    My hand got caught when I reached for more files. As I yanked it out, something fell off the bottom of the top drawer.

    A manila envelope lined with crackling, yellowed Scotch tape.

    With a quick glance at the doorway, even though I knew Mom was at work, I stared at the envelope she’d hidden. I’d be lying if I said I believed the video of my father was the only thing she’d ever kept from me. I didn’t suspect big secrets, but I sensed there could be smaller things that might affect me. Part of me figured the envelope was the only thing she’d ever kept from me. And that part of me decided to take the envelope into the kitchen and open it.

    A small laminated card fell out first, a miniature diploma. From Duke University. Upon closer inspection, I saw my mom’s name and her degree. My mouth nearly dropped. My mom had a master’s? I pulled something else out, a white envelope with the return address of a financial firm. Inside, I found a notice dated six months ago, stating that automatic deposits had been suspended. That was about the time Mom started drinking more.

    I set that aside and reached inside the manila envelope again, pulling out another small card. That one had a picture of my mom, and the insignia above it was one I knew well. It was on my application.

    My jaw dropped.

    It was an ID card for TroDyn. Not like the ID card she had for the Haven, which didn’t mention the name TroDyn. My mom had worked for the labs?

    I lifted my backpack off the kitchen table, then ran out to the Jeep and tried not to speed as I headed for Haven of Peace. It had to be a mistake. Maybe it was an old name tag from the Haven, maybe they used to have the TroDyn logo on them. At a stop sign, I turned on the dome light and studied the ID. No mention of the Haven. And in the picture, my mother wore a white lab coat. Definitely not an ID from a nursing home.

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