FREE FICTION

The coveted River Bluff Green Thumb Garden trophy is up for grabs again this year, and Gladys Olson is dead set on winning it as she has done for so many years.


But Twila Davis has one of the judges in her pocket and is willing to go way out of bounds to be declared the best.


Then again, some things are more important than winning, and Gladys’s quest for the trophy may return to her something far more valuable.


Gladys Olson dusted off her hands and knees, took four steps backward, and surveyed her progress. Over the course of the last week and a half, she’d dug sod, laid marbled stepping stones and plotted where she would plant each flower, bush and sprig in her massive compass rose flower bed. She’d mixed in fertilizers with just the right pH for each section’s plants.


She was missing one final piece, and she planned to solve that problem shortly.


Last year, Francine, down the block, had won the coveted River Bluff Green Thumb Garden trophy. The Garden Association passed the trophy from gardener to gardener after the mid-summer judging. The three years prior to that, the trophy, a life-sized bronzed gardening glove with a green quartz thumb overlay, had sat on Gladys’s mantel. One year for every season that Gladys competed.

Until Francine one-upped her with that ridiculous castle-themed bed complete with gurgling moat and cement knight on horseback.


It was the gaudiest thing Gladys had ever seen, but the Association threw Francine a sympathy vote because her husband had just died the previous fall. Gladys’s man had passed four years ago, which is how Gladys now found the time to plan and cultivate and dream.


Once upon a time, when their husbands were alive, the couples had spent lots of time together. After Ted died, though, Gladys just didn’t want to fool with social niceties.


And this year Gladys would rescue the Green Thumb and return it to its rightful spot above the fireplace.


Gladys grinned.


Then she’d invite Francine over for tea.


She went inside for a quick freshening up, grabbed her wallet and drove the old Lucerne to the estate auction at the edge of town. She slowed in front of Francine’s yard to spy on her progress. She was down on hands and knees, planting petunias.


Petunias! The cheapest, easiest flowers on the planet. The Association wouldn’t look too kindly on her efforts. Not with petunias.

That meant Gladys might have a chance to win the trophy. She’d be sure to win with the centerpiece for her compass rose without too much competition.


#


A crowd gathered on the lawn as Gladys parked her car on the street in front of the old house. Mr. and Mrs. Steckson had grown old together, grew ill together, and passed away in the same nursing home room. Together.


Not a bad run. Gladys had thought maybe she and Ted would do the same. The cancer had had other ideas, though.


The Steckson children wanted nothing to do with the family home. They’d grown up and had left River Bluff, population nine hundred forty-two, for a more lucrative life in the big city. They’d hired some big-shot auctioneers to man the estate sale, and the kids, now grown with kids of their own, hadn’t even bothered to show up.


Gladys checked in with the auctioneer at a small folding table on the front lawn. She paid three dollars for a paddle to bid with, paddle number 213, and joined the crowd. She hoped most of them were here for the house or vehicles, and not the single item Gladys had in mind.


The one thing she was determined not to leave the premises without.


The auction started with the big-ticket items. House, car, appliances. Then the auctioneer opened the gate and directed the crowd, now thinned out by half, to look through the items which had been boxed, organized and tagged in the back yard.


Gladys could hardly believe what she saw. The Stecksons’ back yard looked barren. If River Bluff had had rain in the last few days, the entire yard would have been a muddy mess.


The old couple had been in the nursing home, but not for that long. Maybe the kids did something to it so they wouldn’t have to fiddle with mowing. Or pay someone else to take care of it.


In the corner by the fence, covered in dead brown ivy, was the statue that Gladys envisioned as the centerpiece for her award-winning flower bed. Mrs. Steckson had talked her husband into buying it for her on their vacation to Cape Cod—the only trip he ever took her on. Gladys had been in love with the creature from first sight.


Made in sections of solid concrete, the sea monster appeared to float. The three back sections arched up in half circles, spikes reaching for the sky, and its head faced straight out, mouth open with forked tongue to match the forked tail.


The expression on its face was almost human, and Gladys had teased Ted years ago that the dragon looked a lot like him after losing one of their bridge games with the Stecksons. “Well, when I’m dead, maybe you could marry it.”


Gladys smiled at the memory. Right now, the dragon floated on barren dust with dead eyes. But in Gladys’s garden, the creature would float in and out of a sea of blue morning glories at the center of the flower bed. And she planned on cleaning and scrubbing the dead moss and lichens from it, and from the green inset eyes until they shone bright again.


“Got your eye on the serpent, huh, Gladys?”


She jumped. It was Andy Trevmore, the Garden Association’s head.


“Andy,” she squeaked. She hadn’t spoken much all morning and she had to clear her throat. It made her sound spooked, and she hated that, especially in front of the Garden Association President. “What brings you here?” She avoided his question.


“Looks like the exact thing that brings you, Mrs. Olson.”


Her shoulders sank. Andy was ruthless and dirty and always got what he wanted, no matter who he hurt in the process. Like the head chair of the Garden Association.


Like other men’s wives.


Rumor had it he was sweet on Twila Davis. The one-year widowed lady who’d won the Green Thumb every year before Gladys started competing. Rumor also had it he had been sweet on Twila while her husband was still kicking.


Ted and Gladys had teased each other often about whether the surviving spouse would remarry. Ted told her Andy would be happy to have her. Gladys would always jab him in the ribs and say, “Over my stone cold dead body.”


Andy twirled his paddle on the palm of his hand and gave her a sly wink. She wanted to smack him on the back of the head with paddle number 213, but she refrained. She may need his vote in a couple of months.


The auctioneer started the bidding on the random boxes of household items near the back porch. The sea serpent likely would be last.


An hour passed, and Gladys began to feel the noonday sun beating on the back of her neck. She started to fan herself with the paddle, but caught her action just in time, lest she bid with money she didn’t have on a box of junk she didn’t want.


Four bidders remained when the dragon came up for bid. “Here, we have the Loch Ness Monster, as we call him in the big city.”


Gladys and the others moaned. The pompous city auctioneer was getting on the wee town folk’s nerves.


“We’ll start at twenty.”


Gladys waved her paddle. So did the other three.


“Thirty.” Everyone bid.


“Fifty.” One dropped out. Gladys was on a budget. She knew the Stecksons paid several hundred dollars for the statue, but she had no idea of its value today.

“One hundred.” Gladys and Andy waved their paddles. The other bidder dropped out. It was a race to the finish. After each increment, he’d shoot her that ridiculous wink.


At two hundred, Gladys felt the nerves get to her and nearly dropped her paddle because her palms were so sweaty. She almost asked Andy if he’d just drop out. If this went much longer, she’d be into next year’s budget for the garden competition. Out of nowhere, or out of stupidity, she held her paddle high and with force yelled “Four hundred dollars!”


The auctioneer took a step back, as did Andy.


“Well, then. Four hundred, going once,” he looked straight at Andy, the only one left, “going twice. Sold!”


Andy, too shocked to bid, stood there with his mouth hanging open. Gladys gave him an evil wink and went to the table to pay for her prize.


The auctioneer and his team helped her load the pieces of the statue into her trunk. Andy met her at the car. “That was quite sneaky, Miss Gladys. I had grand plans for this, but I sure hope you enjoy him.” He reached out and rubbed the serpent’s face, scrubbing some of the scum off the gemstone eye.


“Thanks. I will. Have a nice day.” Gladys reached up to shut the trunk, and Andy yanked his hand back.


She grinned all the way home. “Well, Ted. Looks like I found me another man after all! A stone-cold man!”


#


For weeks, Gladys planted and tended her compass rose garden. The sea serpent swam among the blue morning glories, just as she’d planned. The judging always took place in the mornings, so she positioned the dragon’s head eastward. Each section of the compass was framed by the blue morning glories, and rivers of the blue blossoms flowed from the serpent’s pool in the middle. The other sections held shades of yellows and whites, to mimic the rising sun.


Gladys was so impressed with her masterpiece, that she’d get up just before dawn to watch the sun glint off the dragon’s eyes. After all the scrubbing it had taken to clean him up, the eyes were the most amazing.


Every few days, Francine would walk past Gladys’s yard. Sometimes she’d stop Gladys for a chat. Francine told her how she missed playing cards when their husbands were alive. And the Stecksons. And she was glad that Gladys gave the serpent a good home. Francine had wanted to attend the auction herself, but her funds were low.


Slowly, over those early summer days, Gladys realized Francine was in a true bind. The faintest edges of guilt wiggled their way into the back of her mind over being so competitive. Then she thought about the trophy and pushed them aside, determined to stay focused until judging day.


“You know, you and Twila are the only ones truly in the running this year, right?” Francine called to Gladys one morning.


“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Gladys wasn’t sure how to answer. “I think you’re doing just fine.”


Francine grinned. “I’m only doing it because Ed encouraged me to participate before he passed. He even went to auctions and flea markets with me the year prior to gather supplies for my castle and moat. His idea, not mine.”


Gladys’s guilt seared her pride. “I had no idea, Francine. It really was marvelous.”


Francine nodded. “Andy gave me the vote because Ed was gone and he was, well, being Andy. You should have won that year, too.”


Gladys put down her watering can and joined Francine on the sidewalk. “You mean to tell me Andy came on to you?”


“Not just came on. Outright blatant, he was. I think I got the trophy because Andy is a filthy old man.”


Gladys wondered back to the first year she won the trophy. The year after Ted had died. It couldn’t have been. Andy didn’t say anything directly to her, but maybe.


No. Her garden had been the best that year, and the two following. Or had it?


Her mind raced through every interaction with Andy she could remember. She never liked the way she felt around him, but she hadn’t noticed anything—oh dear goodness. Maybe…


“Francine, I think Andy may have awarded me that—”


“Oh, don’t go there. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”


“Twila, you say? Have you seen her entry?”


Francine nodded solemnly, then grinned. “You’ve got this one in the bag, sweetheart.”


Gladys felt only a little relieved. She felt more put off. That he could try to bribe widows like that was… well, incomprehensible. She had always treated him coolly. Maybe handing her the trophy every year had been his way of softening her up.


“Well, I’d better get back to it. Judging is in the morning.”


“Good luck!”


“Hey, Francine?”


“Yeah?”


“Good luck to you, too.” Gladys meant it with all sincerity, and she wasn’t referring to the competition.


Francine smiled and went on her way.


Gladys gazed over her garden. It was gorgeous. She took a deep breath. Regardless of motives or trophies or competition, she had enjoyed herself immensely and would probably keep the installation for the following year. She’d pull out of the Green Thumb altogether so long as Andy had anything to do with it.


Gladys went in to freshen up. She had a few odds and ends to do in the next town over and was going to treat herself to a nice Italian meal out.


#


She arrived home at dusk. The fireflies floated from the grass and from her flower bed. From the flower bed which seemed a little less circular than it had when she’d left a few hours before.


She approached her compass rose garden and fell to her knees. Something had dug up the ocean and rivers of morning glory vines and left them in shredded bits all over the yard.


She scrambled to see if any of them were viable, but most of the tender vines had been out of the ground too long. Others were so badly mangled that she couldn’t save any of them.


The dragon didn’t float in a sea of blue green. He sat in a barren wasteland much like the one Gladys had rescued him from. Two of his midsections lay on their sides. She bent to set them straight and lost her breath when she saw the sea dragon’s face.


She slipped her hands over sides of his head to his green marble eyes. Her fingertips fell into empty concrete indentations where the magnificent creature’s green orbs had been.


“No! No, no, no!” Gladys sat next to the dragon and sobbed. She cried for Ted and for Francine and for the Stecksons. She cried for her garden and for her dragon and for being so silly as to cry about such things as gardens and dragons. And trophies.


She righted herself, cleaned up the mess as well as she could and called it a night. It was too dark to do anything about it now. The judging committee, headed by Andy Trevmore himself, would stand in her yard at daybreak, shaking their heads and making notes on their green clipboards.


She would replant and fix the dragon’s eyes somehow. But the competition was over.


#


Her alarm went off before dawn, and Gladys gave serious thought to staying in bed. But Ted would tell her she was being a wimp. “Face the music and dance,” he’d tell her.


She got dressed and went outside, not wanting to face the compass or the committee.


She was greeted by a dozen people or more, pointing and smiling. People had no consideration for—


Then she followed their gaze to her garden. The magnificent dragon floated on a sea of purple and white petunias. The petunia blooms flowed from the sea in the center in all directions of the compass. The yellows and whites and oranges of the contrasting flowers glowed in the morning sun.


As did the cobalt blue gemstones of the dragon’s eyes.


Gladys stood with her mouth open. Francine made her way out of the crowd. “Shut your jaw and take the win!” she whispered.


Gladys stared at Francine as she stuffed dirty gardening gloves into her back pocket. Her knees and elbows were covered, as well.


Twila skulked to the back of the group, but Andy caught her by the arm. The couple were clearly in a tiff as the rest of the committee admired the flowerbed.


Andy let Twila go and declared Gladys’s entry the grand prize winner.


“I already turned in the trophy.” Francine nodded toward Andy, who was fumbling with the five-pound bronze glove on its marble base. The lime-green thumb held little appeal to Gladys at that moment. The rekindled friendship with Francine was win enough. Francine gave her a shove toward the center of the yard.

“Ahem. Ladies—ladies and gentlemen,” Andy stuttered. Gladys stopped listening to him drone on. It didn’t matter anymore.


As Andy handed her the trophy, standing there on the sidewalk in front of her house, he whispered, “I don’t know how you did it, but you’re an amazing woman.”


Gladys’s stomach turned as she took the trophy from him.


The crowd drew in closer to applaud.


She cleared her throat. “Thank you. Thank you all for coming. I couldn’t have done it alone.” She smiled at Francine. “And this is the perfect way to end several great years of competition. I won’t be entering again because I can’t possibly top this year’s flowerbed.” She faced a surprised Andy. “So I won’t be needing this.”


Gladys dropped the trophy on Andy’s foot, sending him hopping on one leg backward where he lost his balance and landed hard on his butt in front of everyone.


Every widow in the group cheered. Everyone but Twila.


Gladys left the chaos on the sidewalk and hugged Francine.


Gladys smiled at her and said, “Want to come in for some tea?”

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.