First Place, Adult Short Story Contest
One afternoon in late August just before the last hard rain, Delila sits on the front step with a clear green water pistol, shooting at the dust she sees rising in the air. It is after her fourth shot that she sees the small hole someone has dug in the farthest corner of the lawn. She goes to investigate, leaning slowly over the hole, bending at the waist. A squirt of water fills the hole and she turns to see another nearby. She shoots that one too. The trowel-dug dandelion-size holes continue in a jagged line, all on the edge of the left side, but all squarely on her side. Delila straightens, holding her pistol with both hands. In only six steps she is on the left side neighbor’s front step and knocks with the fist holding the weapon. When no one comes to the door, she knocks on each window, first to the left of the door, then to the right.
It’s not even your lawn! Delila shouts into the closed window on the right. There is no answer, and the only one to hear is the small black cat running from under the bushes, and Adam, who is now coming up the walkway. He grabs her by the elbow.
Come inside, he says tensely. He tugs, but not hard enough. Delila pushes his arm away and he puts up his hands, walking backward across the lawn and then turning to open the door to her house. As he disappears inside, Delila stands on the neighbor’s uncracked concrete patio and uses the water gun to draw a stick figure holding an uprooted dandelion, with a thick slash cutting through its center. The rain begins as Delila reaches her armchair in the living room, which she has turned toward the left side window, and the warning is already gone when the neighbor returns.
Adam begs her to stop.
This is all you do, he says, and she is confused because while she recognizes the sadness in his voice she does not understand it.
She needs to understand beauty is not perfection, she explains.
It isn’t important.
Of course it is.
Am I important?
Of course you are.
Am I as important as a hundred dandelions?
What about one dandelion?
She does not realize this is a serious question, and she hesitates.
The sound of Adam leaving is the same as the sound of wilting dandelions.
That evening, Delila makes noodles with black olives and pepperoni with all the lights off, watching the lawn. At 4 a.m. she falls asleep, fork in her hand, cold noodles on her lap. There have been no shadows in the night, no creeping figures. When she awakens at 10 a.m. though, all the dandelions that have grown on the left side of the lawn have been plucked away as though they had never been. Delila shrieks with rage. Her fingers are leaden with fury as she turns her doorknob and stamps to the neighbor’s lawn. She tears at the rhododendrons until red and fuchsia petals cover the dirt like perfect bloodstains. The daffodils uproot easily, but the begonias cling desperately to the ground and are beheaded. The roses claw at her hands, the hydrangea petals tear away, leaving the bushes with open wounds. When her fingers have razed every flower, she leaves the mess mixing with her own blood and returns to her house. The police arrive after she has cleaned her cuts and is wrapping the last Band-Aid around the last finger.
We received a complaint, starts the young officer. He is too young not to worry about being taken seriously, and his insecurity leaks a defensive tone into his voice.
Delila is too guilty not to take him seriously, but his tone brings back her fury. I can’t imagine what for, she says in her sister’s voice.
Destruction of property, explains the officer.
I have no idea what you’re talking about.
The officer looks at the neighbor’s ruined garden. Her eyes do not move from his face. Her stare makes him shift his weight left and right. You ripped up your neighbor’s flowers.
I did not rip up any of my neighbor’s flowers.
The officer looks from her eyes to her hands, scratched and dirty and covered in neon bandages. There is more than one witness.
I was weeding, Delila says, each word articulated.
She receives a $300 fine and a stern warning.
When she shuts the door, she smiles. The neighbor’s flowers won’t grow back this summer. They are not as strong as dandelions.
The rhododendron petals are swept away by breezes and the shuffling of small animals, but the dead flowers remain, roots suffocated in the open air. At first a source of fierce joy, as the days pass Delila begins to watch them with uneasiness. The petals brown and rot untended, the grass grows to ankle height. The neighbor does not leave her house and neither does Delila. She writes or pretends to write in her armchair facing the left side window and eats all of the Campbell’s soups, all of the pasta, all of the cereals, all of the frozen pizzas, until all she has for breakfast one morning is a can of mushrooms and a bag of kettle corn. When she has finished these, she puts sneakers on with no socks and takes a small mirror from her bathroom. She leaves through the back door and creeps over the boundary to crouch by the neighbor’s side window. Her feet sink into the broken flowers and soil. The window is in the kitchen, and when Delila lifts up the mirror, she sees the neighbor. She wears a gray dress and no shoes and her orange glasses are on the counter. She makes tea while she cries. Delila never cries, and she is mesmerized by the steady tears and the way the neighbor’s face leans to the right as her eyebrows come down and her mouth tightens. Spots of yellow shine from the edge of the mirror, and Delila moves it so she is able to see the photo of yellow pansies mixing with alyssum and lilacs. She turns the mirror back and forth and finds photos of daylilies, morning glories, black-eyed Susans, irises, alliums, even orchids all blooming in summers across a decade. Adam might think the neighbor is crazy for crying over flowers, and her mother might think the neighbor is crazy for the garden photos covering the kitchen walls and surfaces, and Anna might think the neighbor is crazy for having orange glasses, but Delila does not think she is crazy. The neighbor’s world is small, like Delila’s, and it has ended. Delila shuts her eyes, and her world ends for a moment too, but when she opens them her broken dirty house is there, and the brown almost-rectangle of her lawn shines with a few half-opened dandelions.
Fall weaves its path through the trees, and soon the only flowers left alive on the block are Delila’s dandelions. She picks each one and ties their stems with a blue ribbon. She leaves them on the neighbor’s porch. Several days later she returns from a large concert in a small bar and finds a gray pot with three purple pansies. Pansies are strong flowers, and they live in the dirt homes Delila digs for them under the glassless window until mid-November. By the time the pansies succumb to the frost, her house is bone-chilling cold, despite the socks she has stapled to the edges of the cardboard on the window to cover the cracks. In December she finds an old space heater under the window, and in January she leaves salt on the neighbor’s walkway in the mornings after dawn. In February in the evenings they pull up the blinds on their side windows and silently tune their televisions to the same channel. In March they prepare themselves for April, as they watch carefully the first green shoots rising from the dirt.