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Message in a Rose

Jennifer M. Zeiger | Delilah Buckle

“You can’t go near the place,” Ryan begged. “They’ll flog you if they catch you.”

“So what?” Riddick threw his jacket on and tucked a piece of paper into the pocket. “I’ll chance a flogging. It’s been months since anyone’s seen her.”

Ryan scowled but handed over the rose he held.

“Think she’s all right?” he asked, his voice subdued.

“It’s the anniversary of her parent’s death, what do you think?”

Ryan looked away but not before Riddick saw his tears. He placed a hand on his brother’s slender shoulder.

“She’ll be fine. I just want her to know we still care.”

Sniffling, Ryan nodded. Riddick hesitated, gave his brother’s shoulder a squeeze, and then left.

He’d walked the road to the Lawrey estate countless times but it felt deserted and alien this time. No one was welcome at the estate since the accident. If Lana were older, it would be different but she wasn’t old enough to claim her inheritance for another year and her guardian, Aunt Millane, drove all visitors away.

For awhile Riddick contented himself with seeing Lana at market, the one time she came out with her aunt, but no more. She hadn’t been to market in months and he knew it wasn’t Lana’s choice to stay away. And today, of all days, she’d be a mess.

Riddick twirled the rose in his fingers, ignoring the open country around him. Lana’s hair was similar to the red of the flower. And her eyes were a light blue like the sky in early morning. He swallowed at the lump in his throat and then jerked, realizing where he walked. He’d traveled the road farther than he’d intended. Ducking into the trees, he watched the house for awhile before moving on. Luckily, only three people still lived at the estate, and only Millane would be a problem if she saw him.

Frederick, the grounds keeper, wouldn’t say a word. He’d even helped Ryan on the few occasions the boy tried to see Lana or leave her treasures. And it was from Frederick they knew Millane searched Lana’s room each night.

Riddick unclenched his fingers from the rose’s stem. Millane tried to make people believe Lana didn’t want to see people who reminded her of her past but Lana would welcome him if she saw him. She had to. The Lana he knew wouldn’t cut all ties.

He should’ve told her long ago. He’d intended to tell her how he felt but then things happened and he hadn’t had a moment with her to share. She might not view him in the way he viewed her but regardless, she’d need a friend today.

Continuing on, Riddick reached the side of the house without incident. He wasn’t used to the place being so dead. It wasn’t natural. The Lawrey estate used to be cheerful, welcoming, even crowded because it employed half the town. No more.

Riddick put the thought to the back of his mind. It would only make him angry and he didn’t want to see Lana angry. He slid the stem of the rose between his teeth and climbed the wall to Lana’s window. It was a familiar climb. He and Lana used to race to the window.

Used to…used to…that phrase was going to drive him crazy. He didn’t ‘used to’ love Lana. He loved her, even after a year of almost no contact. If everything else had to change, so be it. That one thing didn’t.

He slid the latch on the window and crawled into an empty room. It emanated Lana from the purple coverlet on the bed to the bare top of her dressing table. She was meticulous and neat to a fault.

He’d hoped to find her here. He didn’t have enough time to search the estate, not after leaving Ryan by himself. His heart sank. He wouldn’t get to hold her.

Leaving the note and rose on the dressing table would be too obvious. Lifting the covers on the bed, he tucked the items, not under the pillow, but under the coverlet. Between the sheet and the blanket. She’d find it there. She had to. Looking around one last time, savoring the essence of the room that screamed Lana’s haven, Riddick climbed out the window to return to Ryan.

“Stand there,” Aunt Millane pointed.

Lana always thought of sticks when Millane gestured. Her skin was shriveled on her bones but, for all her frailty, she saw the world in a black and white way. Right and wrong didn’t have a gray margin.

Lana walked to the corner, hugging her arms around her middle where she could feel her locket tucked into a pocket. Aunt Millane forbade jewelry but Lana refused to give up her only photo of her parents. Gah! Her memories plagued her, especially this day. She’d woken crying because she’d gone to sleep thinking of mama and papa.

Aunt Millane made her clean the hearths for it. Crying was not becoming of an independent woman. Behind her the drawers slammed shut in her dresser. This was her nightly routine. Stand in the corner and listen to Aunt Millane pilfer through her life to make sure no one from her ‘old life’ left her any gifts.

Ryan tried a few times. Sweet little Ryan. His field flowers and yo-yo ended up in the fire. His back side ended up switched for crawling through her window.

Riddick never tried such stunts. She hoped at first he would, if only to show he still cared, but then it was a relief to not see something from him burned.

The sheets on her bed made the familiar swish as Aunt Millane pulled back the covers and lifted the pillows. They thumped back into place. Aunt Millane wasn’t gentle in any way. Even putting a bed together involved wresting the covers into pristine place.

“What the…”

Lana spun. Aunt Millane never said ‘what the’ unless she found something. She held up a bright red petal in her bony fingers.

“Stealing petals from Frederick’s garden?” she asked.

“Never.” Lana loved the garden. She’d never ruin Frederick’s hard work.

“Foolish girl. You know better than to lie.” Millane pitched the petal onto the floor. “Tomorrow you’ll garden for Frederick.”

She strode from the room with a thud as the door closed.

Lana covered her mouth with a hand just in case Millane came back and caught the smile on her lips. She loved the garden. But how had a rose petal gotten into her sheets? Had Frederick given her this gift of a day in the garden? Was the old man that thoughtful?

She’d never known Frederick to do anything beyond his work but it was possible he felt for her. Bringing the lantern with her, she set it on the bedside table and shucked her dress over her head. She retrieved her locket before hanging the garment over the chair at her dressing table, and then she crawled into bed and hugged her pillow with the light still on. When the light went out she’d dream and she didn’t want to cry more.

Cradling her locket in her hand, she stared at her parents. Snapping it shut, she tucked the necklace under her pillow and rolled over. A petal fell onto her face and then drifted off onto her pillow. Sitting up, Lana threw back her coverlet. There, on her lap, lay a crushed rose and a single sheet of paper. From the crumbled look, Aunt Millane must have grasped this very spot in her hand when she threw back the covers. Half the velvet petals fluttered loose from the stem with her movement.

Lifting the page in trembling fingers, she read:

Distance adds strength to love and adversity adds iron to what we cherish.

Papa used to say that when he’d leave town for work. Only two people other than herself were alive who’d know that. And only one knew how to write. Tears slid down Lana’s face to drip off her chin but this time, the tears didn’t make her hurt.

About Jennifer M. Zeiger

Jennifer Zeiger lives in Colorado with her husband, dog, and two cats. She writes fantasy with a smattering of romance and sci-fi mixed in. As of October 2013, her work may be found as well in short story anthology 'Midnight Abyss'.

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