The Gardener(8)

    She put both hands to her face and rubbed, then started to look herself over, flex muscles and things. And that’s when the sleeve of her white shirt slipped up and I saw a tattoo. A tattoo on her right forearm. A tattoo of a blue butterfly. Maybe it was just the lighting of the room, but I could have sworn it was the same as the one on my father’s arm.

    I didn’t even have time to think about it. When she saw the tattoo, she started repeating the same phrase, gradually getting louder: “Don’t let the gardener find me, don’t let the gardener find me, don’t let the gardener find me.…”

    I didn’t know what to do, so I just told the girl it would be okay. It didn’t seem to help. She got quieter, but she still kept saying it over and over.

    “Don’t let the gardener find me.”

    Was she somehow upset over that line from The Runaway Bunny? Whatever the reason, she was really creeping me out.

    The girl stopped talking suddenly and looked at me. “I need to leave.”

    I tried to smile a bit, and made sure my voice was calm and reassuring. “My mom will be back in a minute and—”

    “The gardener will find me!” Her eyes were misting over as she looked at me. “Please, help me.” The girl put a hand on each side of her head and started to moan.

    My mom came back in then and took one look at the girl. “What did you do? How did she wake up?” Her hand flew to her chest.

    I kind of expected a different reaction as Mom grabbed the girl’s arm and started to take her pulse.

    “This is good, right?” I asked her. “You can call her parents, tell them she’s awake.”

    Mom’s head moved from side to side, almost slow motion as she continued to stare at the girl. “She’s not supposed to wake up.” Her voice lowered to a whisper. “They aren’t ever supposed to wake up.”

    What kind of freak show was this? Mom was acting so weird.

    “I don’t understand how this could have happened.” Mom’s hands shook as she noticed me watching her. “I have to tell someone, so they can take her.” She wasn’t making sense.

    I asked, “You mean call her parents, right? So they can take her home?”

    Mom finally snapped out of it and dropped the girl’s arm as she looked at me. “No, I don’t mean her parents. Her parents have nothing to do with it.” Her shoulders straightened and she thrust her chin out. With a commanding tone in her voice, she said, “You need to leave.”

    My eyes narrowed. “What? Mom, what’s going to happen to her?”

    “Mason, just go, go find Jack and have a nice weekend at the cabin.” She patted my face. “You’re done here. And I need to do my job.” She turned to go out the door.

    Looking back at the beautiful girl, I called after Mom, “Where are you going? You can’t just leave her here.”

    Mom paused to look at the girl. “I have to go get someone.” She took a quick breath. “And you need to not be here when we get back.” She left.

    The girl had quieted and was staring at me.

    Black Sabbath blared from my cell phone.

    Jack said, “I’m getting off a little early. I’ll be at the end of the parking lot in about two minutes.”

    “Your two minutes always seem closer to ten.”

    “Two minutes, I swear. Just come out the same door you went in.”

    I stuffed the DVD into my backpack. “I have to go.”

    As if the girl cared, but I felt like I should explain.

    “My mom will be back to…” I had no idea what would happen when my mom got back, or who she was bringing with her, or what it would mean for this strange, beautiful girl. But there was nothing I could do about it.

    The girl stood up.

    The top of her head cleared my chin, which meant she had to be close to six feet tall. And her athletic body looked taut, like she was ready for fight or flight. “We need to go. So the gardener doesn’t find me.”

    Was she thinking about leaving with me? “Listen, I’m really sorry.” She had no idea how sorry. “But I have to go.” I motioned toward the door. “My mom will be back any minute.”

    Before I could react, she turned and ran through the open door.



    I followed the girl into the hall, where she had already disappeared through the fire door. As I went through the doorway, she pounded down the stairs, her flip-flops slapping on the stairs while I tried to keep up. “Hold on!” My voice echoed in the stairwell, way too loud.

    As she descended, the girl looked more and more certain of her steps. She sure as hell didn’t move like someone with a traumatic brain injury.

    I tried to close the gap. She reached the emergency door, which opened to the sidewalk. Her hand reached out to push the silver bar, but then she turned and opened the door leading out of the stairwell and back inside.

    A second later, I lunged through, bumping into her, righting myself just as I realized we were not alone.

    A man dressed in a white orderly uniform had snagged the girl by the arm and held tight while she struggled. His name tag read Dennis. His eyes widened slightly as he noticed my scar, but his voice was gruff when he asked me, “What’s this?”

    I looked down for a second to catch my breath, wondering how I was going to get out of it.


    Was he talking to me? Then I realized I was still dressed the same as he was. Maybe I wasn’t screwed. As I raised my head, I put a grin on my face. “Yeah, I’m … uh…” I tapped my name tag. “Steve. I’m Steve.”

    “Oh. Didn’t know we had two Steves.” Dennis glanced at the girl again.

    “I’m new.”

    He rubbed his chin as he asked, “What floor she from?”

    Took me a minute to remember. “Sixth.”

    Dennis looked at my backpack.

    “I was just about ready to check out and then she took off running.” Trying to play the part, I shook my head and swore.

    “Believe it or not, that happens on the geezer floor, too, sometimes.” He grinned. “But they’re a little easier to catch.” His eyes roamed to the girl’s chest and farther down, then back up to her face. “She’s a looker.” Dennis licked his lips. “So you want me to take her back up?”

    Yes! That was it. My out.

    One word from me and I was out the door, off to the cabin. I could forget ever being at the Haven of Peace.

    My mouth opened, but my breath caught in my throat. What was I doing? There was nothing I could do to help her. Was there? Maybe the bigger question was, did I want to be involved? Saving people was what I did. I wasn’t one to back down, ever. But this situation involved my mom, to some degree. She was responsible for the girl. Did I truly think my mom wouldn’t do the best thing for her?

    My mind was saying, Go, dude. Find Jack and leave.

    But my gut was saying something else. That something just wasn’t right. That the girl did need saving. And I was the one to do it.

    Her eyes were still on me, almost like she knew what I was thinking. Dennis the orderly still stared at the girl, a smarmy expression on his face that made me want to cringe. I allowed myself one more look.

    Her brown eyes pleaded with me.

    And it was those eyes that made me do what I did next. With one hand I reached out and held her firmly by the elbow. “No, I’ve got her.”

    With what seemed like an effort, Dennis took his eyes off her and released his grip. “Okay, big guy.” He pointed at me. “Big Steve. That’s the ticket. You’re Big Steve. That’s how we’ll tell you two Steves apart.” He gave me a little wave and headed down the hall.

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