Short Story: Her Last Day

Natara Ng won the Winter 2021 Short Story Contest for "Her Last Day."
Photo: 

I enter the backyard to begin my last day of work before the season is over.

The early September air is laden with desperate rays of white sunlight and warm winds that brush against me as I walk past the fountain in the middle of the yard. The lily pads bathe in the water, so estranged from the rest of the garden in their little oasis, foreign in the way they never see dirt. They are so exotic and cool. I cross the yard all the way to the back to retrieve the hose, weaving between the spindly branches of the crab apple trees. The flower beds back here are full of withering carcasses, empty shells, sheaths of mesh leaves and brown, droopy petals. They are the seasonal flowers, the ones that only last for a few months. One sunflower is still alive, the weight of its seeds bending it down like a shower head about to drizzle water over the grass.

 

Cam keeps me company as I hoist the hose across the yard to the vegetable boxes. I water what’s left of the tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as the last dredges of kale and Swiss chard. She follows me everywhere and today, as usual, she asks me questions. Her questions are invasive, like pine needles tickling my skin just light enough to add excitement, not discomfort, to my day.

 

“What makes you interesting?”

 

“What makes me interesting?” I ponder carefully, wanting to give her an honest answer. “Having a genuine connection with nature is a quality I possess. Being close to all living things. Didn’t we all come from the Earth anyways? I suppose I never travelled; I’ve never left this town. Travelling makes people interesting. I’d say I understand what truly matters. I don’t need other people to tell me how to think or what to think.”

 

I finish watering the vegetables and head around to the front of the cottage to plant the tulip bulbs.

 

“What is it about this job that makes you stay?”

 

“The work is satisfying. My hands get dirty enough, I see the sun every day.    Flowers, bushes, trees, weeds. They are intricate and complex with their carefully folded petals and symmetrical veins in their leaves, yet we don’t need to understand anything complicated to admire them. And that moment before their petals burst out from them, it looks like they could pulsate, like they could have a tiny heartbeat that begins to race faster until it explodes, bursts, and lets the flower begin to live.”

 

After finishing with the bulbs, I head to the backyard. As I walk around the corner, the back door slides open, causing me to hesitate and slow my steps. Mr. Mortimer, my employer, steps outside, his walking cane thumping on the wooden porch as he fumbles to close the door behind him. Whenever he comes outside, which is fairly often, I pretend not to notice him. I make myself look extremely busy, so we don’t have to talk. It isn’t anything personal, and I tell myself he knows that. He avoids me too, to an extent. We only spoke on two occasions this summer. One time was on the first day of work, when he showed me around the yard and pointed out all the dying plants he wanted me to bring back to life. The other time was in mid-July, when he asked me if I needed any more seeds or a truckload of dirt.

 

“Do you get along with Mr. Mortimer?”

 

“I don’t expect to make friends with him. He’s my employer, so I don’t want our lives to intertwine more than necessary.”

 

“Why don’t you talk to him?”

 

“I don’t talk to a lot of people.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“You know why.”

 

Most people are too unpredictable with their own minds and judgements. It’s easier to be alone, or to be with Cam. Cam is different from everyone else. She always knows how to make me feel worthy and less forgotten.

 

Today, Mr. Mortimer settles on a rusty white chair on the porch and leans back with his fingers drumming together on his chest. He closes his eyes forcibly and his eyelids twitch underneath his frown. His loose white hair is just a wisp above his wrinkly forehead as it blows in the wind. Avoiding the backyard where Mr. Mortimer sleeps, I go back to the front of the house and occupy myself with some dandelion weeds in the flower bed below the living room window. I kneel down and gently begin to dig out the thick white roots.

 

“What will you do for the rest of your life?”

“I have a vision for myself. I think one day I’ll be great. I think people will want to know me.”

“What is this vision?”

“I’m not quite sure yet.”

“How can you not know?”

“I know it happens anywhere but here.”

“Then where?”

“Why must you always ask such difficult questions! All I know is that I can’t spend the rest of my life here.”

 

I pull up a dandelion impatiently, and the leaves detach from the root and crumple between my fingers.

 

“But I’m here.”

 

I clutch at my heart. You’re here, but you don’t belong to me. I remember when I first saw you, you were very sick and helpless. Every gesture that brought you back to life was laced with love, and that is what bound us together. You gave me a purpose.

 

My last task of the day is to pull up the dead cedar bush that sits at the edge of this flower bed. As I go fetch a shovel from the front shed, the sun passes golden rays over the yard as it nears the horizon. It’s almost time for me to go. I push my boot into the shovel and begin to dig at the base of the cedar bush. The dirt is hard and cracked, the roots are deep and thick and intertwined around a rocky surface beneath. I’m making a mess of the ground as the shovel scratches at rocks and barely lifts the dirt. This tree needs to come out. I pull it hard at the branches, but it remains stuck. I keep digging, I keep pulling, I continue until the light of day sweeps all the way over me and tucks itself away on the horizon, leaving room for the sky to darken. Frustrated and tired, I throw the shovel across the grass. The wind is getting colder and the time is slipping away. This is my last day of work. I can’t do this alone, but there is no one I can ask for help. Cam, I wish you could help me. I spread my hand wide on the grass and the air is cool on my palm.

 

“Charlie, do you know that you’re the most wonderful person alive? Don’t question it, just listen to me. You’re worth everything. Don’t you know that? You’re not alone, not right now. You’re alright. You’re alright. Just rest your head here, right here. You’re alright.” I tasted the salt from my tears in the corners of my mouth and my body shuddered as I leaned my head to the side.

 

“Charlie?” Mr. Mortimer is standing before me, hunched over his cane. I stand up quickly, panic rushing through me. I think he realized I’d been crying, and he looks away. I quickly clear the tears from my eyes.

 

“I thought you might’ve gone home already, but I heard you…” he trails off uneasily.

 

“The cedar.” It comes out as a croaked whisper and I point dumbly to the bush and the mess of dirt at its base. Mr. Mortimer stares at the cedar, and then back at me. Then he leans down nimbly to retrieve the shovel I’d thrown across the yard. With his back hunched over, he walks unsteadily towards the cedar and leans his cane on the side of the house. He begins to dig at the roots, throwing dry dirt all over the grass. Then he tells me to take hold of the branches near the bottom, and he takes the top, his legs shaking ever so slightly. Together we pull, and the tree gets looser, and it isn’t easy, and it isn’t peaceful as we claw at the rough bark and heave until the final root breaks loose from the stone. The dead cedar lies before us and neither of us speak for a while, until he says,

 

“I’ll miss having you around here, Charlie. You take care of yourself this winter.” He picks up his cane and walks away.

 

I thought I’d given him nothing, no interesting part of me, no good reason why I liked this job, no validation of my worth. Perhaps there was something else about me, something that Cam could never see, this most human part of me that Mr. Mortimer saw that deemed me worthy of a connection. Living with others is about how much you are willing to give, how much of yourself you are willing to put out there into the world for other people to see, judge, manipulate. If you give, people will grab at you and they will reel you into their own little worlds, and maybe they will like you, laugh with you, smile with you, remember you. Before turning the corner, Mr. Mortimer turns around and gives me a small wave. As I lift my hand to wave back, Cam falls out of my front pocket and lands softly on the ground. I look down at her, at her soft petals and their pale pink hue. I thought she was the only one who would care about me, and that’s why I plucked her from the camellia bush every day I walked up the lane towards the cottage. That’s why I told her everything. I thought she was the only one because I never gave anyone else a chance.

 

As I pick up the cedar and drag it away, I know that the camellia will soon become a crumpled, empty shell, and will be long gone by the time I return next spring.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.