FREE FICTION

The passing of his wife leaves Matt the single daddy of two little girls. Little girls who, in addition to dealing with insufferable loss, are also the target of their gossip-filled community. Can the weary father juggle it all in time to give his daughters one last Easter in the only home they’ve known before moving on?


Matt sat the dollar-store flashlight on the brown marble countertop and knelt on the tile floor in front of the bathroom cabinet. A black trash bag lay opened at his feet, a giant oval mouth waiting to swallow the last of Grace’s unneeded items. He glanced over the toilet toward the small window. The bottom pane was covered with frosted Contact paper to afford privacy and let in a bit of natural light. The top pane, it’s glass left bare, framed blue spring sky. A branch of one of the flowering crabapple trees he and Grace had planted in the landscaping of their brick ranch home ten years ago waved to him. Its dainty pink clusters were starting to give way to tender green leaves.


He’d avoided this task for some reason. This task in their master bathroom. The last of Grace’s belongings not earmarked for Sophie or Sarah hid beneath the sink on her side of their double vanity. The black vanity cabinet she’d picked out during their pre-move-in remodel. The one she’d chosen while she and Matt had taken a break from planting all those flowering crabs.

Grace was still everywhere.


Her clothing, neatly folded in dresser drawers and hanging in pristine lines the walk-in directly off the bathroom, had taken him weeks to face. Her floral-vanilla scent lingered on most of the pieces, and he didn’t want to disturb that. The last lingering of her. But he’d found their five-year-old, Sophie, sitting on a pile of Grace’s running shoes late one evening with her tiny face buried in Grace’s favorite Northwestern U sweatshirt, and he’d had to start the process. Sarah, a couple years older, had clung to one of Grace’s scarves, wrapping the purple polka dotted cloth around her neck and then smelling the edges of the silk. Cleaning the closet out had given them time to remember and grieve together, more so than the memorial service had.


It had also given the girls the safe space they needed—the three of them sheltered in the small walk-in, shoulder to shoulder to shoulder—to tell Matt of the hurtful words other kids in their classes at school whispered about their mother.


Things kids that age couldn’t have come up with on their own. Things kids that age would’ve overheard from careless carpool drivers or moms huddled in gossiping groups at a soccer practice.


It was all Matt could do after he got the girls to bed that night not to put his fist through the closet wall. And that was the night Matt decided they’d move. He’d let the girls finish the remainder of the school year and then be gone.


The next day, Matt had driven five counties over to donate the remainder of Grace’s belongings. Five counties over where no one knew him and no one cared what had happened. Five counties over where the ladies in their small down didn’t bother to shop. Where the chances of Matt seeing another woman walking around in his wife’s clothes would be minimized.


And that next day he’d also visited the girls’ school and demanded audience with their teachers. He’d explained what had been going on right under their noses and demanded something be done. The teachers placated him with “we’ll keep an eye out” and “kids are cruel” and other such nonsense.


On his way back to the car, he’d spotted Meredith Baxter, a classroom aide, coming from the teachers’ lounge. She floated between the classes, helping where needed, working a couple days at Elm Tree Elementary and the others down at Cora’s Corner. She’d been in both his girls’ rooms over the last couple of terms. Always kind. Always quiet. The girls seemed to like her and offered up comments like “Mrs. Baxter helped me with this,” or “Mrs. Baxter said I did good today” several times a year.


Meredith had made eye contact with Matt, and her gaze darkened with a knowing. Of all the people in the county, Meredith would know why Matt was here today. Why he was so upset. She’d know because it was Grace’s recent ordeal that had replaced Meredith’s own gossip-worthy drama. When Grace had heard down at Cora’s Corner that Meredith’s husband had left her and their son for the prostitute he’d been seeing up in the city, Grace had been careful with her words. “A loss is a loss. None of our business how or why. That young mother deserves better treatment than that from the people in her life.”


Matt and Meredith. Both victims of massive loss due to no fault of their own and the torrent of others’ wicked words that followed.

He pressed down the rising anger and faced the cabinet to confront the last bit of his wife before he put the house on the market. Before he and their daughters would wave goodbye to the small brick ranch and crabapple trees and start a new life somewhere else.


He opened the wooden cabinet door and grimaced at the familiar squeak of the hinge. He’d promised her ages ago that he’d get out the WD-40 and take care of it. But things went downhill fast and the small annoyance was left to itself. He removed the first line of bottles. Shampoos, hairsprays and nearly empty nail polish remover. Those all went into the trash bag.

He reached back blindly, deeper into the cabinet behind the bottom bulge of the sink basin and pulled out another round of lotions—some of which he recognized as gifts he’d given her over the years—barely used or altogether unopened. He’d missed on those. The ones that didn’t have quite the right scent. One of them had broken her out. He shook his head. She hadn’t had the heart to throw them out. He tossed the lot of them into the trash.


He adjusted on the stool and felt further back into the dark, but his fingers didn’t meet any other bottles or items. He aimed the flashlight’s weak beam into the hollow to check the state of the cabinet and the underside of the sink. He didn’t want to be surprised by a home inspection if something was amiss. Something that would cost a huge amount of money to fix or, more importantly, delay his exit from the tiny, gossip-filled burg.


The beam caught something at the back corner. Shiny. He hoped it wasn’t a leak. He braced his shoulder against the edge of the cabinet frame and reached deep inside. His fingers met with plastic and he brought out a small bag of chocolates. Mostly gone, the bag had been folded around the remaining foil-covered pieces a couple of times.


He laughed and cried at the same time. Classic Grace. Hiding a stash in the bathroom. And hiding herself in the bathroom to escape the daily doldrums of motherhood—and likely Matt’s mania over whatever new issue had crawled up his butt that day. He pictured her reaching into the cabinet, pulling out a few sweet pieces and sitting on the lid of the commode, savoring each bite as the house fell down around her. A moment to herself.


He unwound the bag and removed a square of chocolate. He peeled the foil and popped the morsel into his mouth. A little stale. No, a lot stale, but it seemed a fitting gesture to this last clean-out task. He looked down at the silver foil wrapper still in his hand. He turned it over and read “Savor New Beginnings” in flowy purple script.


He stared at the words and felt an anguish rise up to replace the dread he’d had at the beginning of this project. He wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his T-shirt and dropped the chocolates out one by one from their original package into the black trash bag.

It’s incredibly difficult to savor new beginnings with stale chocolate.


#


The bathroom cleanout—the chocolate, rather—had reminded Matt that the girls’ Easter baskets weren’t quite finished yet. He went to the attic access in the hallway and pulled on the rope to lower the rickety wooden steps.


When the girls were born, Grace’s aunt had brought a giant wicker basket with a long, twisted handle filled with onesies, diapers and all things infant girl to the hospital. Sarah’s had been purple, Sophie’s pink. Grace, thrifty one she was, filled those baskets each year with Easter goodies. In between seasons, the baskets were wrapped carefully and placed in the attic.


Every spring season, after the Rabbit left town, Grace would buy certain items on clearance: plush bunnies or lambs, that plastic stringy grass that destroyed not one, but two vacuum cleaners, and sleeves of hollow plastic eggs to replace those broken or too-well-hidden. Grace’s thriftiness had saved their small family a lot of money through the years, affording Matt the opportunity to continue his freelance editing business from home. The only thing they had to do when the next Bunny time came around was to buy fresh chocolates and the ever-famous hot pink marshmallow chicks.


He made his way to the far shelf where Grace kept the baskets and found them dutifully wrapped in opaque white plastic bags. He wrestled them down the steps and back to his bedroom where he could keep them from sneaky little girl eyes until Sunday came around. He unwound the twisty top ties and pulled the plastic from around the baskets, expecting to be greeted by stuffed animals or jump ropes or sidewalk chalk. Or something.


But they were empty. Save for a few strands of lime green grass, the purple and pink wickers were bare.


Then the timeline snapped into Matt’s head. Grace had gotten sick, really sick, around the time the clearance sales would have been happening last spring. She never got the chance to get the girls’ baskets prepped.


She’d been busy prepping for other things. Things like chemo treatments and goodbyes.


Matt turned and sat on the bed between the barren pink and purple baskets. Who knew the weight of Easter joys could be so heavy? With the realtor and inspectors coming later today and tomorrow, he’d have no time to make the trek to the city to shop in peace and get home before the girls’ bus arrived. He’d have to face the all-too-familiar crowd at Cora’s Corner and make do with whatever goodies they had in stock.


And what Cora’s stocked was heavy in the gossip and light on the goodies.


#


Cora’s Corner was just that. A tiny convenience mart situated on the corner of Main and 3rd Street and owned by Cora James, a now-elderly widow who refused to retire or sell the business she and her husband had built. The only source of essentials in Elm Tree, it served as a one-stop shop for milk, batteries, lottery tickets and all the verbal Elm Tree news one could ask for.


Matt pulled the minivan up to the curb in front of the store and took a deep breath. He’d been forced to park on the street because the back lot—all ten spaces of it—was filled with other minivans and SUVs belonging to mothers most likely tending to errands before school let out.


That’s what Grace had done…


He entered the store, picked up a yellow plastic shopping basket and quickly scanned the place. Two semi-modern register counters guarded the front—one reserved only for Cora. The other for whomever she’d deemed worthy enough to help her man her minimart kingdom. Country music tumbled from gravely speakers above. Seven or so aisles wide, three aisles deep. Usually the seasonal stuff was in the front, but this time Cora and Meredith had stocked the Easter bits in the middle. Probably wise. Make people walk past other shelves filled with made-in-China crap in hopes of padding the purchase.


On his way to the middle, his tennis shoe caught on an upturned floor tile. He remembered bringing the girls in here not long after Grace had passed, and Sophie had tripped on the uneven floor and toppled into a display of white powdered doughnuts. “Pick your feet up, little one,” Cora had said as she handed both girls lollipops. “These floors are as old as I am.” Cora had patted Matt on the shoulder and offered condolences and no judgment. She was about the only one in town that didn’t have that look.


He made his way past two groups of yacking women, a couple of them seemed to recognize him. Whether paranoia or an accurate summation of their thought processes, Matt thought he recognized that look on several of their faces and hurried his step.

He found the endcap with the spring favors and tossed two bags of junky chocolates into his shopping basket. Those would fill the plastic eggs with.


There was only one plush rabbit left, so he opted for two stuffed chicks to keep the fighting down. No hot pink marshmallow anythings, so he opted for yellow. He tossed in a couple malted chocolate eggs packed in milk cartons and egg-shaped bubble gum packaged in mini egg cartons. Last year, the girls had played with the packaging more than they had enjoyed the contents.


One shelf held the better chocolates…Truffles and caramel-filled joys that Grace loved but the girls hadn’t developed a taste for yet.


But the carrots caught his eye. Fancy cone-shaped chocolates wrapped in orange foil from their tips to the tops where green foil served as carrot tops. Four to a package and several packages left, likely because they were more expensive than the kid-friendly junk. He didn’t care, though. This was to be their last Easter in that home, and a little splurging was okay. And shopping here saved him gas money and time verses driving to another town to find this exact stuff.


He wanted to linger through the endcaps and think the basket fillers through a little more, but he could sense the other shoppers’ presence and glares pressing in on him.


He tossed two packs of carrots into the basket and headed for Cora’s checkout.


Hold it together, Matt. Just get it done and get home.


As she rang up his items, he noticed the bulging of arthritis around her knuckles and wondered how much longer the old gal could hold out. She smiled sweetly at him as she rang up the last fuzzy chick. She winked and tossed in two lollipops, free of charge. “Tell the girls I said hello.”


He tried to smile back. “Will do and thank you.” Matt shuffled and looked over his shoulder. Several women had lined up behind him, all taking peeking turns around each others’ shoulders to get a good look at the pathetic widower buying Easter at Cora’s Corner. He gathered the plastic bags and, remembering to pick up his feet, hustled to his van, nearly knocking Meredith Baxter into the entrance door in the process.


#


Matt watched from the spare bedroom window—his office window—as the realtor made a phone call in the driveway before pulling away. He hoped the call was to a prospective buyer and not to the gossip brigade. He prayed that the house wouldn’t sit on the market for ages. Who in their right mind would want to move to Elm Tree?


He looked down at the paperwork still in his hand. The pen had weighed a hundred pounds as he drug the nib across the signature line of the listing agreement. Agreeing to abandon the home he and Grace had started their family in.


Shake it off Matt. The girls will be home soon.


He shoved the documents into the desk drawer and went to his bedroom.


Matt filled the leftover plastic eggs with random chocolates and, for good measure, added quarters and dimes into some of the eggs. He unwrapped a blue foil-covered treat and popped it in his mouth as a reward for finishing the eggs. He winced. Grace’s stale chocolate was better than this stuff. He guessed it was more the novelty of it than the culinary experience.


He started unpacking and untagging the basket goodies, dividing up the chicks and marshmallows and bubble gums. He tucked one box of fancy carrots in front of each chick in each basket and stood back to assess his efforts.


Something wasn’t right. The baskets seemed shallow, like the chicks were struggling to see over the wicker rims.


He arranged a few plastic eggs around the chicks and carrots. That didn’t work either.


Grace was so good at this kind of stuff. Why did his—


Plastic grass, stupid.


He cursed under his breath. This would mean another trip to Cora’s tomorrow. He remembered seeing the grass. Right there on the endcap. But he was too busy worrying about the stares from the ladies in the store to process the plastic grass shreds staring up at him from the shelf.


The squeal of the bus brakes startled him. He scooped the filled plastic eggs into the wicker baskets and hid them under a quilt on the floor of the walk-in closet. He made his way to the front door to greet his daughters, but Sophie wouldn’t come in. Sarah dropped her backpack in the grass and stood with her arms wrapped around her little sister and looked at the house toward Matt.

He met the girls in the yard. Sophie looked up at him, tears streaming down her freckled face. He brushed her brunette hair away from her wet cheeks. He kissed Sarah on the top of her head. He didn’t have to ask what had happened. He knelt and put his arms around both of his children and held them.


His little girl had held it together long enough to get home. Until she couldn’t hold it together any longer.


#


After a frozen pizza dinner, Matt gave the girls the lollipops from Cora. The tears had dried, but the stories that had toppled out over the pepperoni slices broke his heart. He’d had no appetite to join them for dinner, so he listened and tried to comfort.


Homework, baths, pajamas, and bedtime stories dotted the rest of the evening. When he shut the girls’ bedroom door, he went to his office to try to work, but the brain cells wouldn’t fire. He’d taken on fewer and fewer jobs per month since Grace’s death. He had to find a new normal. A new rhythm. And soon.


Or Easter baskets would be the least of his worries.


He shut the laptop, went to his bathroom, and closed the door. He stared at himself in the oval mirror above his vanity. He never looked at himself in Grace’s mirror. Not after all these months—and likely not before. They each had their sides of the sink. He looked old. Older than he’d looked even last week. He didn’t want his girls to see him like this. He had to pull it together.


Grace hadn’t wanted the girls to watch her downward spiral, either. She’d experienced that as a ten-year-old when her mother, though her diagnosis slightly different, had wasted away week by week, month by month until she wasn’t Grace’s mother anymore. Her mother had become something else. Grace had pulled it together, or so Matt thought. He’d seen her rally and thought she was in the fight to the end—or maybe all the way to remission. He’d let hope sneak in. That was a dangerous thing to do.


But Grace really hadn’t pulled it together. She had pulled together an exit plan. One that she was at peace with, but he didn’t approve of. And somehow, the entirety of Elm Tree sensed Grace had ended her own suffering before the cancer could.


And his little girls, though spared the visuals of a deteriorating mother, were handed instead the doubts and ridicule of an entire community.


You should’ve seen this one coming.


He splashed water on his face and patted dry with a hand towel. His stomach growled from grief and the lack of dinner finally catching up with him. Real food didn’t sound good, nor did he have the energy to cook.


He took a few steps into the walk-in and peeked under the quilt. He couldn’t stomach any more of the generic egg-filler. He brushed the plastic eggs aside. The brightly colored orange carrots greeted him, and he picked up a box. All four carrots neatly displayed against a cardboard garden background.


He walked six steps to the toilet, closed the lid, and sat down. He rationalized that he’d have to rework the baskets anyway, so he’d open the remaining box of carrots and split them evenly between the girls. He’d try out this one tonight. See if the fuss is worth the extra cost.


He opened the box and carefully unwrapped the first carrot-shaped goody, no more than three inches long, and popped the whole thing in his mouth. Brand-name chocolate. Not stale. Smooth and sweet, it glided down the back of his throat like a soothing medication.


Matt took time to smell the second one before he unwrapped it. He ran the carrot under his nose like a fine cigar. This was no ordinary chocolate. This was heaven. He allowed it to melt in his mouth. Slowing down his urge to devour. Trying to enjoy.


As it turned to liquid in his mouth, he thought of Grace doing the same thing with the chocolates under the sink. And he understood. He wept in between swallows as he finished off the other two carrots.


He stood, feeling a bit better but not quite at peace and decided that, since another trip to Cora’s was imminent for the fake grass anyway, he’d replace both boxes of chocolate carrots tomorrow.


He retrieved the second box from the purple wicker basket and returned to his throne.


To savor and sob as the crabapple branch brushed against the window pane.


#


After placing two reluctant little girls on the school bus, Matt rushed down to Cora’s Corner. Maybe this early in the morning the busybodies were still in their housecoats, sipping steaming coffee and scrolling Facebook and not on their way to the convenience store. He’d beat the busiest time and have plenty of time to tidy up before the home inspection this afternoon.


He parked the van in the front again, closer to the checkouts, and behind a beat-up blue Intrepid. The minimart had been open only fifteen minutes. Surely this would go smoothly.


Cora greeted him warmly. He thanked her on behalf of the girls for the lollies. Meredith was counting the cash in her register till and nodded at him quickly, then looked away.


He grabbed a yellow shopping basket and went to the endcap housing the Easter supplies. Much to his dismay, the back aisles were already bustling with women; some the mothers of other kids in his girls’ classes, and a couple of older women he recognized from around town.


Matt didn’t realize at first, but his feet had frozen in place and he was blocking the path of a couple of ladies. What could they all possibly need all the time from this hole-in-the-wall store? None of them had shopping baskets. Only a couple of them held any needed item in their hands. They were just…there.


“Excuse me.” One of the ladies touched his elbow and nudged her way past Matt. He shuffled his feet toward what remained of the Easter goodies. She reached for that last plush rabbit, sized him up and said, “I guess this all falls on you now, huh? A shame what Grace did.” She walked toward two other women and whispered something to the small group.


Matt squared up to the endcap, his ears burning and face flushed. He tried to focus on the task in front of him. Two simple things.


Then go home.


Don’t forget the basket grass.


Replace the carrots.


He put two packs of lime green grass into his shopping basket. He glanced around. A second group of ladies had gathered to watch and whisper. Or maybe they were waiting on him to move.


He turned back to the shelves. The cardboard display that held the boxes of chocolate carrots was empty. As were several other cardboard displays. The Easter loot had been looted in one short day. He moved bags of crappy chocolates around and dug behind picked-over Peeps.


No carrots.


Panic seized him. He’d already pictured his girls’ faces and their giggles over the novelty chocolate. He’d planned to tell them that their mother preferred this kind over the egg filler kind. He’d planned a whole momentous memory over those carrots for Sunday morning after the Bunny came.


A few hollow chocolate rabbits stared at him with their sideways sugar eyes. He didn’t want to give the girls hollow rabbits. But they would have to do.


He tossed two bunnies into the basket and headed for the checkout. The woman who’d made the rude comment followed with the stuffed plush. The other women nonchalantly followed suit until they were all lined up, peeking around shoulders as they had the day before. Matt placed the basket on Cora’s counter. She was much slower today, and her fingers could barely grab the items from the basket. Between the first two register beeps, he could hear whispers.


He turned to the ladies behind him, and the first two women startled a bit and shifted their gazes, one to the floor, one to the ceiling. Cora rang up the last two items. Four beeps total.


“Is there something I can help you ladies with? Something you can’t reach on some top shelf somewhere? Something you’d like to know?” Matt heard his voice before his brain processed what he was doing. He wanted to stop, but blinding anger overcame him.

One lady went pale. One lady, an older one, muttered, “Well, I never.”


“I never either,” Matt yelled. The loss of control went from his vocal cords to his feet. He turned to the counter, Cora’s pale blue eyes wide behind her glasses, and he jumped on top of the checkout to get a better view. He stood up straight, towering over the gathering at the front of the store.


“I never had to care for two kids on my own. Girls, even. I know nothing about raising girls. I never lost a spouse before. I never cooked this much in all my life.” Matt looked down at Cora, who’d nudged his leg. She was smiling. Nodding.


And holding up the corded intercom system’s mouthpiece. “Just press in on that button right there.”


Matt took the device, pushed the button on the side and heard a gravelly spark through the speakers in the ceiling. “I never—” His voice was so loud and filled Cora’s Corner from front to back, it startled him and the line growing at the checkouts. He looked around. Meredith nodded. Cora nodded. The other ladies gaped in disbelief.


“I never ever thought a small community like Elm Tree could house such wicked people. Grace sure didn’t. She loved this place. How dare you all huddle and whisper. Your kids hear you, you know. They repeat the awful things you say about my Grace. Their mom. Your kids are listening to your rumors and theories.” He paused, took his finger off the button for a moment before continuing.

“You’ve no idea what it’s like. You’ve never lost someone like I did. Like my girls did. All I want to do is have a peaceful Easter. Make this one special for Sophie and Sarah. And I forgot the grass. And I ate all the fancy carrots last night after my girls went to bed weeping. And all I wanted was to replace the stupid carrots. And you all… You all will never know what it’s like.”


He shuffled his feet on the counter before jumping down. He handed Cora the mouthpiece. Tears wet her cheeks and the kind old woman threw two handfuls of lollipops into his bag with the Easter grass and cheap rabbits. Meredith had left her register with its line of ladies and went out the front door.


He heard sniffles in the line behind him. He picked up the bag and looked back again. The lady from the aisle clutched the tiny rabbit to her chest. “Cry. Laugh. Post it on Facebook. But remember my daughters, please. Because you have no idea.”


Meredith met him at the driver’s side of his van. She’d been crying. “I’m sorry for your loss.” She held out a plastic sack. He opened his door and placed his sack from Cora’s inside and took the bag from her.


He looked in it. Two boxes of orange foil-covered chocolate carrots. “For your girls. Take them, please.”


“I can’t. These are for your son’s Easter.” Now Matt’s face was wet.


She brushed the dampness from her cheeks and gave a little laugh. “Are you kidding me? I drove five counties over to Target to buy those for my middle-of-the-night meltdown stash.” She returned to her car and pulled out another sack. She handed him a third box of carrots.


“Sounds like you need to replace your carrots too.”


Matt wiped his face on his sleeve and took Meredith’s gift. “I guess so. And thank you.”


“No problem.” Meredith returned to her register and the line of onlookers.


Matt sat behind the wheel and calmed himself before taking off. He opened one carrot box and removed just one chocolate, unwrapped it. Smelled it. Then popped the whole thing in his mouth. He debated whether the two kind souls in Elm Tree were worth sticking around for.


With time—and chocolate—he may be able to figure it out.

Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on the first week of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.

Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.