Trey watched the woman from the bushes. He didn’t know her name, and doubted that she knew she was being watched. He came from an affluent family, but out here, he was just another faceless being, who people with jobs and homes turned away from when they dropped a few coins in his cup. He knew they were doing it to make themselves feel better. That’s the way most people are. They do as little as they can, pat themselves on the back, then move on. The woman looked his way, but didn’t seem to see him. That was good. Trey was used to being invisible. Once she turned away, he changed locations. A better vantage point, for sure. He could make out the pink number six on the white cupcakes. “Happy birthday, Lillie,” the woman said, placing six pink carnations on the little headstone. “Mommy loves you.” A single tear slipped from Trey’s eye, trickling down his dirty face. He should have washed this morning. He knew the woman was coming. She came every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But she also came every fifth of May, without fail, no matter how bad the weather. On her normal days, she brought dinner for two; sandwiches, chips, usually carrots, milk, and cookies. She left half of it in front of the tombstone. But on May fifth, she included cup cakes with the normal fare. Trey was thankful for the meal that he stole from the grave. He justified his actions by telling himself that if he didn’t eat it, then some squirrel or raccoon would.
The woman talked a bit more to the grave, then stood. Trey enjoyed her banter. She spoke of how bleak her life was without Lillie. And how she was trying to make amends, even though she knew she couldn’t. But she never said what she did that was so horrible. Trey couldn’t picture this woman doing anything that would require and apology. She seemed so simple and honest. The hem on her loose fitting dresses came below her knees. Her hair was always tied in a bun at her nape. She never wore jewelry or makeup. At one time, Trey would have considered her plain. But after listening to and watching her all these months, he realized that she was beautiful. No, not beautiful. Gorgeous—gorgeous inside and out. Her honesty and simplicity intrigued him. He moved closer, stepping on a twig as he moved. She turned around. “Who’s there?” Trey stood silent, hidden by the unkempt bushes. “I know someone’s there,” the woman said. “I don’t have any money and my car’s a hunk of junk, on a good day.” Trey didn’t dare move. He didn’t want to meet her looking like a homeless person. “Okay, have it your way,” the woman said. “But if you try to hurt me, then you’ll only be hurting yourself.” She glanced at the grave. “Trust me, I know.” She started crying, then fell next to the grave and hugged the tombstone. “I’m so sorry, Lillie.” Trey couldn’t stand seeing her this way. She needed a friend. Perhaps she would settle for a dirty, homeless one. He came out from hiding. “Are you okay, Miss?” “Yes.” She looked up at him. “Are you?” Trey smiled. Here he was standing in front of someone who was so sad that she was on the ground, hugging a tombstone, and what does she do? She asks about him. “Yeah,” he uttered. “I’m Trey.” “Maggie.” Even her name was perfect. “I—I saw you crying and…” He didn’t know what he was thinking. “Sit.” She patted the ground. “Lillie doesn’t mind sharing.” “Lillie?” he asked, unable to move. “My daughter.” Trey knew the grave occupant’s name. Once, after Maggie left the graveside, crying; he walked over to it and yelled at the tombstone for upsetting her. He thought Lillie might be a much younger sister. It never occurred to him that she might be the woman’s daughter. “Are you sure?” he asked. I didn’t come here to intrude.” “Sit.” Maggie patted the ground again. “You’re not intruding. We’re celebrating Lillie’s sixth birthday.” “In that case,” Trey sat next to Maggie, “it’s my honor.” “You don’t talk like normal street people.” Maggie slapped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to--” “It’s okay.” Trey wanted to pat Maggie’s hand to let her know that he wasn’t offended. But he was dirty. What would she do if he touched her? “I meant,” Maggie tried again, “you sound like and educated man.”
“Education comes in many forms.” Trey lowered his head. “Some of the hardest lessons to learn are the ones that stay with you the longest.”
The sun was starting to set. Normally, he would be going out. Every night he raided dumpsters and trashcans, scavenging for anything that might be of use to him. This was also the best time to break into unlocked cars; searching for spare change, or jewelry and small electronics. He would take these things to his fence, then visit with his drug dealer. Tonight, he wanted to sleep. Trey slept, but he didn’t rest. The pain surging throughout his body forced him to turn and twist all night. Oh, how he wanted to get up and find a hit of anything. Alcohol, marijuana, a bottle of any prescription drugs that someone may have left in their car. It didn’t matter, Trey just wanted the pain to go away. He forced himself to stay inside. It was just the addiction hurting him. His mind wanted the grand feelings that drugs provided and it was punishing his body until he gave it what it wanted. But yet, he stayed buried beneath his blankets. His body and mind were at war, and his soul hung in the balance. The first rays of light shone through the small crack in the door, where Trey hadn’t closed it properly. He shielded his squinted eyes with his hand, trying to adjust to the light. It was morning. He hobbled out of the crypt, forcing his weak and stiff body to move. Today was the beginning of the rest of his life. He wanted to start it out right. He washed at the cemetery water faucet and changed into his cleanest, dirty clothes. A wild pear tree grew at the far edge of the cemetery. By the time Trey had walked the distance, his body wasn’t so stiff. His stomach felt queasy, so he plucked two of the ripest pares from the tree. “Good morning, Lillie,” he said, placing one of the pares in front of the gravestone. “I see something has eaten your cupcake.” He smiled and sat down. “Or was it you?” He took a bite of his breakfast. “I don’t blame you. Death shouldn’t keep us away from the things we enjoy the most.” He pondered his last statement. A death of his own making had kept him from his family and friends. Would any of them take him back? He couldn’t ask them to until he made some great changes in his life. “Lillie, I’m going to go away for a while.” He scribbled a note on an old envelope that he carried around to remind himself of where he came from. Dearest Maggie, Don’t worry. I’m alright. At least I soon will be. The address on this envelope is where my parents live. Will you please tell them that I’m alive? I doubt it will make a difference. I’ll be seeing you soon. Love, Trey. He found a rock, then placed them both on top of the headstone. “Please see that your momma gets this.” He kissed the monument. “Thank you, Lillie. I wish we could have met under better circumstances. And I’m sorry about yelling at you last year.” Trey remembered seeing an ad, on a bench, for a rehabilitation clinic. He hoped they had room for him. It was late in the afternoon when he staggered into the place. By now, his mind was torturing his body; and exhaustion coupled with dehydration, was killing him. “Are you okay, sir?” a nurse asked, running toward him. Trey fell to the floor. Coherency evaded him. His voice failed him. He saw his eyelids shutting. This wasn’t what he wanted.
He woke up clean and feeling warm. Bright lights blurred his vision. He could make out the silhouette of someone sitting next to his bed. “Where am I?” he asked. “General Hospital,” the figure answered in a mechanical voice, as Trey’s field of vision cleared. “Are you a nurse?” he asked. “I’m Doctor Rivera,” she answered. “You gave us quite a scare. Can you tell me your name?” “I’m Abram Ingram,” he answered, surprised that his mind worked well enough to answer the doctor. “My friends call me Trey.” “Doesn’t look like you have many of those.” Dr. Rivera put away her pen light. “The nurses say you’ve been calling for Maggie. Tell me who she is, and I’ll try and let her know where you are.” “I can’t see her until I get sober.” Then it occurred to him that he went to a rehab facility. What was he doing in a hospital? “How did I get here? How long have I been here?” You passed out just down the street, and you’ve been here for a few days.” She scribbled something on his chart. “Now that you’re awake, let’s see if we can get some food in you. How does broth and crackers sound?” Trey placed his hand over his belly. “Like more than I can handle.” “Do you want to get clean, Mr. Ingram?” “That’s a good question.” He needed to, but did he want to? He had to, if he wanted a better life. “Yes.” The doctor nodded. “Your Tox screen came back clean this morning. The next step is getting your strength back. That starts with food.” “Aren’t you going to send me to rehab?” At that moment, Trey would have gotten down on his hands and knees, and begged her to send him there, if it would have helped. “I’ll make some calls,” said Dr. Rivera, “when you’re strong enough to leave. In the meantime, do you have any family?” “Yes,” he answered. “When I’m strong enough to face them.” “Mr. Ingram.” The doctor sat next to his bed then squeezed his hand. “Family aren’t the people you call when you’re strong. They’re the people you rely on when you’re weak.” Just let me get a little stronger.” “We’ll do it your way.” She stood, her gaze fixed on him. “For now.” Trey collapsed against his pillows. When he woke up, his parents were sitting next to his bed. Both of them were crying. His eyes darted around the room. No one else was there. His father kissed his cheek. “Son.” This wasn’t how Trey wanted to see his parents. “Father, Mother,” he said, as his mother hugged him. “What are you doing here?” He blinked. “I mean, how did you find me?”
“A young woman came to see us last night.” His father sat back in a chair, crossing one foot over his thigh. “She said that she knew you and had been trying to get up the nerve to come to us.” He gave Trey the envelope with the note written on it. “Your mother recognized your handwriting.”
“We immediately started checking hospitals, with the police.” Trey’s mother started crying. She covered her mouth and nose with a cloth kerchief. “Even the morgue. Why didn’t you come to us, Trey?”
He felt the warmth of wet tears streaming down his face. “I didn’t want you to see me until I was strong again.”
“The doctor tells us there were no drugs in your system,” his father said. “You were strong enough to do that much. Let us help you with the rest.”
His mother dried her eyes. A gentle smile made her face glow. “Who is the young woman who came to see us, Trey?”
At first he was hesitant. What are the odds of a former drug addict setting a junkie on the road to recovery, in a graveyard? Even he still couldn’t believe it, at times. “Her name is Maggie,” he started. After that the entire story came spilling out.
Once Trey finished, his father said, “She seems like an extraordinary woman. I wish there was a way we could thank her.”
Then it hit Trey. The little grave looked so sad. Even the grass didn’t grow well on it. “I know a way, but I want to do the work myself.”
Maggie made her usual trek to Lillie’s grave. She thought of Trey often, but didn’t want to intrude on his life any further. She stopped just short of where she usually sat and spoke to her daughter. There was no way that this could be the right place. No this was the place. She could find it in her sleep. But what happened? Who did this? Someone had completely surrounded the grave in pink flowers. Beside the headstone stood a marble bench. Next to that bench stood a tree, barely big enough to shade the bench.
“Trey,” she whispered. She placed a sandwich at the headstone. “I wish he were here so I could thank him in person.”
“It is I who am thanking you,” he said, while coming out of the bushes. He seemed taller and was definitely in better health. His dark eyes sparkled in the afternoon sun. His skin had the glow of good health. “You saved my life then gave it back to me.”
Maggie shook her head. “All I did was give you some food and tell you a story.”
Trey laughed. “You’re forgetting the advice.”
“You told me not to wait until it was too late.”
She dropped her head. “I forgot about that.”
“That’s how you saved my life. The doctor told me that my heart suffered some damage, but it could have been a lot worse. They caught it in time.”
“I’m not good with all that technical jargon.” He sat on the ground next to the bench. “But I have a small favor to ask of you.”
His mannerisms brought a smile to Maggie’s face. She had never met anyone so polished and proper. She felt like she was in the presence of royalty.
“Would you join my family and me at our home for dinner tonight?” Trey stroked her hand. “I want my parents to meet my hero.”
Thank you to LF Gillis for this excellent short story which I've illustrated using this image from the original oil painting I completed in 2007.
~ Ryn Shell
First in Series Novels by the author of MOURNING LESSONS,