“A FLOWER BUCKET!!???!?!?!?” From her tone it was clear to the entire block party that this had been a particularly bad idea on his part.
“But Cheryl,” His normally cultured, refined southern gentleman accent took on a decidedly ‘backwoods hick’ edge as he wheedled and whined. “You KNOW I was just starting law school then. If you hated it so much; hated ME so much, then why have you kept it in your garden for all of these years?”
He reached for her hand then, mistaking the glisten in her eye for tears of lost love instead of rage. She, not unpredictably, jerked her fingers away from his clammy reach quickly, glaring reproachfully at his idiocy. “Oh that, of COURSE I kept it! Do you have any idea how much one of those half wine barrel buckets costs by itself? That doesn’t mean you still have a chance with me Jeff.”
“No, let’s recap here, just in case you’ve forgotten something…YOU BROKE UP WITH ME via an expensive flower arrangement with a one word note…’Goodbye!’ and a singing telegram. A man in a gorilla suit rang my doorbell, handed me the note, pointed to the flowers, and then took great pride in exhibiting the reason his pop career never took off by singing N’Sync’s song, “Bye, Bye, Bye” off key and with half of the words wrong! It’s been eight years…I still have nightmares. Why do you even think you can talk to me right now?”
“Not my finest moment,” Jeff agreed quietly, noticing all of the eyes focused in their direction. Even the girls with infants took time out from cooing over how adorable the squealers were. “I know this doesn’t help but for the record, I really thought that I had made it clear to them that I did NOT want the singing telegram.”
“Because that makes it better?” Cheryl scoffed sarcastically. “Do you even hear yourself anymore Jeffrey? You went off to grad school or wherever and left me with a note that said ‘bye’ and a bad pop wannabe delighting in singing it to me. Now you’ve finished school, had some flings, are officially a sleazy lawyer, and have come back home thinking what? That I probably haven’t moved on yet because you were so awesome?? You, sir, are an idiot.”
“Would it help if I said I was sorry?” His eyes were pleading, desperate. She leaned in and looked deep within the glittering green orbs, he looked sincere.
“I don’t know, why don’t you try it and find out?”
“I—but I—I just did.”
“No, you asked if it would help if you did.” Cheryl pointed out with more than a little pleasure at his discomfort. “So…where’s my apology?”
“I truly am sorry that I had to do that to you,” Jeff stressed each word quietly, pulling her over toward her front yard and the bucket in question. “And I really like how you’ve got the bucket set up now.”
“HAD TO DO THAT TO ME???” Cheryl was screaming more loudly than Mrs. Picket’s twins. “I KNOW you did NOT just say that to me Jeffrey Joseph Daniel Smith! I KNOW that you KNOW better than that!”
“Cheryl HUSH!” Jeff roared, looking around sheepishly as the entire street feel eerily silent. “I need to tell you why I did what I did. Can we please go inside now? You can bring your boyfriend with you if that would make you feel better. But we have to do this now.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Cheryl admitted, leading the way up to the inviting little porch and cherry wood door. “I lied to make you feel bad.”
“I’m sorry you felt that you had to do that.” Jeff looked around at all the changes, and all the things that had stayed the same, in her living room. “I like this color. Remember when you bought the place and we painted this room that horrid bright green color? Ha, the glare on the television was terrible!”
“What do you want.” She sat on the couch, stretching across the oversized cushions to keep Jeff from having anywhere to sit but the old broken rocker. The rocker he had promised to fix before he left eight years ago.
“I thought you would have gotten rid of this by now.”
“I heard you were coming back to town.”
“I see,” Jeff scratched his head in his habitual nervous gesture as he settled onto the splintery seat. “Cher, I didn’t want to leave you like that. I had no choice. If I didn’t, you would have tried to come visit me and I wasn’t at Georgetown.”
“So you lied to me BEFORE you broke up with me. You are digging enough of a hole that there won’t be any work left for the grave diggers.” Cheryl’s face was stone now, her anger erasing years of worry and wonder and pain and only leaving the rage that had simmered for almost a decade. “I suppose you’ll be fine with a trash bag burial right?”
“LOOK, just SHUT UP and LISTEN!” Jeff snapped, “I went to law school, but under a different name and across the country. I saw some things that I shouldn’t have seen and had to go into protective custody. Under witness protection and with weekly check-ins, I went to school as David Danielson. To keep you safe, I had to let you go and I had to do it in such a way that you wouldn’t try to find me again. It took eight years, but now the men who would have hurt you are in jail and waiting their trial. I’m supposed to be in that trial Cheryl, and I will make sure they can’t hurt either of us. But I wanted you to know WHY I was so cruel.”
“Likely story,” Cheryl’s demeanor had softened a little, but such a farfetched story couldn’t be trusted. Lawyers were good story tellers.
“It’s true,” Mrs. Pike stood in the doorway, a child leash in each hand and a toddler happily dangling on either side of her legs. “Kyle and I moved in next to you the day after, remember? We are part of a watch team set up to keep you safe and unaware. Cat’s outta the bag now though.”
“Wait, who in the world did upset Jeff?” Cheryl stared, big eyed now, at Mrs. Pike, with her toddlers and happy kitty t-shirt, “Who would hurt us?”
“It’s best if you don’t ever find out,” Alec Hanson, the local butcher, had walked in behind Mrs. Pike. “Just know that he did what he had to do. Jeff, did you get it buddy? Carl says you’ve wasted too much time making googly eyes at her already.”
“Ok, I’ll get it now.” Jeff stood slowly, painfully removing his seat from the splinters that were trying to cling, and leaned over to kiss Cheryl’s cheek gently. “I am sorry Cher-bear. I only did it because I love you.”
She watched him walk out of her life again, tears glistening in her eyes as he paused to lean over the flower bucket, lost love and needless disdain had turned to a caring and secret safety. The flowers would smell sweeter now that the tang of burning anger had subsided. But wait! He wasn’t sniffing the flowers, he was pushing at the wood. Hitting a bumpy knot near the bottom, Jeff made a secret door fly open and retrieved a large, flat envelope. With a final wave, he was gone. Swept into a dark van that sped down the street, narrowly avoiding the barbecues lined up on the sidewalk.
“YOU!” Cheryl turned her bright gaze to Mrs. Pike. “Get a babysitter, you have dinner plans tonight!”
For the first time in the eight years she had lived on Sassafras lane, Mrs. Pike truly felt scared.