May Free Fiction: The Gatherer

May Free Fiction: The Gatherer

In Cantleberry Cemetery, the shade falls heavily on forgotten headstones. For Aimee, this place is sacred—a place of quiet kinship. The kind of closeness she never had growing up.


    Aimee sat in the dew-soaked grass next to Mr. Carter. She loved the ancient twisted oak tree and the rolling view of the headstones into the distance. From her vantage point, she could see the grave markers progress from simple to ornate to shiny marble, as each decade the dead required more land.

      And for as long as Aimee had been visiting the graveyard, Mr. Carter and his family never had any visitors. No flowers or Memorial Day wreaths had ever been placed for them, nor for the plots surrounding, as these folks passed so long ago that their children were probably buried on down the hill.

      But she’d taken over the job of visiting the Carters as if she knew them.

      She imagined Mr. Carter, Clarence Carter, a kind old farmer, loving husband—just like the headstone read—and devoted father. She imagined his wife, Mrs. Elaine Carter, to be a doting mother who would do anything for her children.

      The breeze rustled through the oak, and the hefty branches creaked like an old door in need of oil. Aimee traced the names on the concrete stone with her fingertips and imagined herself as their dutiful daughter, tending to their final resting place.

      Aimee never knew her parents. The Carters were the fourth couple in the graveyard whose family she imagined being a part of.

      Foster placements carried no fond memories for Aimee, but Mr. Gaines, the flower shop owner, had given her a chance, and she’d found her peace in Ruby’s nursery with the flowers and in Cantleberry Cemetery among the rows of long-forgotten souls.

      From the edge of the property a lawnmower started, and Aimee knew she’d be in the way. And it was time for her shift. She stood and brushed some of the damp off and gave the Carters’ headstone a loving pat. “I’ll be by tomorrow morning. And I’ll have a surprise for you both.”


Aimee straightened the tools and swept the floor, careful to pick up the discarded scraps of ribbon that were long enough to suit her needs. She twisted the open sign to closed and locked the door to Ruby’s Roses. Ruby’s had lived in the brick building on the corner of Main Street for three of Aimee’s lifetimes. The family-run flower shop was the only one in Cantleberry. That was good news for the owners, but quite overwhelming when several area residents passed away in a short time.

      In the last few days, two elderly ones had passed away, and a couple had died in a car accident. At least they didn’t have any little kids depending on them. Their son was grown, from what Mr. Gaines had told her.

      Aimee much preferred tending the greenhouses on the edge of town over the shop, but busy times called for all hands on deck to assemble the sprays and wait on the customers ordering afghans, windchimes and garden benches.

      Since leaving the graveyard early that morning, she’d arranged casket sprays and planters. She’d also delivered a van full of arrangements to the funeral homes, returned to the store and reloaded it with another batch. One family had requested the flower shop deliver the freshly cut flowers to the gravesite for an evening service, and then she would be free to go home. At twenty-three, Aimee was the most trusted employee Mr. Gaines currently had on staff. For six years now, she showed up, did her job and didn’t cause him any trouble.

      Aimee sped out to the newer part of the cemetery where maintenance had already mowed and trimmed, and the gravediggers had already set up for the funeral service. A green tarp covered the mound of dirt next to the rectangular pit. The crew placed the finishing touches on the site and left. She didn’t know the cemetery staff’s names, even with as much time as she spent walking the grounds. She tried to avoid the living.

      She drove up to the site on the gravel lane. She had to hurry before the family and friends of the deceased arrived. Folding chairs covered in navy fabric lined the perimeter of the site under a white canopy. She unloaded the fresh-cut flower arrangements one by one. She left the casket spray of red and white carnations with a blue ribbon at the base of the podium, as the hearse had not arrived with the casket yet.

      A group of uniformed men gathered with rifles a few rows away. One man had a bugle.

      Aimee finished unloading the van and stepped back to make sure the site looked as nice as possible. She thought about going home, but drove the gravel lane back to watch the procession with the Carters.

      She leaned against the oak and watched men in suits and women with hankies fill the folding chairs. With the distance from the older section of the cemetery to where the military burial was taking place, the people, props and vehicles looked just the right size for a dollhouse.

      She couldn’t hear the minister, and she could barely make out a quartet of men singing a cappella. Amazing Grace, maybe. A few minutes more and two military men folded the flag from the casket and handed it to a lady in the front row. Then the guns.

      Aimee covered her ears and ducked. The noise startled her to the core, even though she’d known the shots were coming. She wasn’t prepared for her own reaction, though, as tears flowed down her cheeks and her stomach quivered.

      She put a hand over her mouth to stifle a sob, but knew that the attendees couldn’t hear her. They probably hadn’t even seen that she was standing up the hill.

      That is, they didn’t hear her until a hand reached out for her shoulder and made her squeal. Heads turned from across the cemetery, and Amy scampered behind the tree.

      A young guy stood behind the tree holding a weed-whacker in one hand, his other hand over his mouth to stifle whatever sound he was about to make.

      “What are you doing here?” she whispered.

      “I could ask you the same thing. I’m doing my job.” He held up the trimmer. “I thought it rude to run the thing during the ceremony, so I was just watching.”

      She roughly wiped the tears from her face, leaving her cheeks burning. “Well, you should be able to get back to it soon.” She crossed her arms around her and peeked around the tree. Everyone had gone about the business of grief and she was glad her commotion hadn’t disrupted things too badly. The grieving family threw flowers from the arrangement onto the casket as it was lowered.

      “I’m sorry I startled you. You okay?”

      She nodded.

      “You sure? Did you know him?”

      Lawn Guy stared down the hill as the hearse pulled away, followed in spurts by other vehicles.

      “No. I didn’t know him.” Aimee wished he’d leave already, but a quick glance around showed he still had several rows of trimming left to do.

      “I’m Blake, by the way.” He reached out his hand. “I just started here today.”

      “Aimee.” She didn’t offer her hand, and would forget his name soon enough. She leaned against the tree hoping he’d get the hint.

      “Well, see ya round. Maybe.”

      She turned and watched him walk three rows back and down. He looked down the hill and when the last people entered their cars, he started the trimmer.


At dawn, Aimee was back at the cemetery. She drove by the gravesite from last night’s ceremony and got out of the car. The green tarp and folding chairs were gone. The canopy tent broke the horizon a dozen rows to the south for the next burial.

      She glanced around and when she was satisfied no one was watching, she knelt by the fresh mound of dirt and started gathering.

      After every burial, the leftover flower arrangements that weren’t claimed by someone were dumped onto the dirt mounds—a ritual Aimee never quite understood.

      In the nursery, Aimee grew those very same flowers from seedlings. She watered them, pruned them and clipped them. She delivered them to Ruby’s Roses where they were tweaked and tucked into arrangements of all sorts

      Most of them ended up in the cemetery as throwaways.

      Just like her.

      For years, Aimee had come to the cemetery early after a burial and gathered the castaway flowers, but she never took them all away, though. Many of the stems she arranged neatly, tied them with a single scrap of the leftover ribbon bits from the store, and tenderly laid them back on the mound. For some reason, she didn’t like the haphazard sight of strewn flowers. Sometimes, even the containers were thrown onto the grave. Aimee always picked those up and discarded them on her way to work.

      But some throwaways she did take. Tiger lilies were her favorite, followed by simple white carnations. Most of the time, the roses were thrown into the ground and lowered away with the casket or taken home by someone. But, occasionally, she’d find one or two. Like today.

      When she had an armful of various sizes and colors, she put them on the floorboard of the van and drove up the hill to the oak tree.

      “I told you I’d have a surprise for you today.” She spoke softly as she patted the Carters’ headstone. She leaned a white rose against Clarence’s name and a red rose against Elaine’s. “And since you guys got treated to roses today, how about we share the rest with the neighbors?”

      One by one, Aimee placed flowers along the row of weathered headstones until she ran out. She made note of whose turn it was next, and tomorrow, after today’s burial, she’d start where she’d left off.

      She walked back two rows and took in the sight and smiled. The discarded blooms got a second chance to brighten an otherwise bleak existence on the hill under the old oak tree.

      Behind her she heard the familiar buzz of the weed-whacker. She turned to see Lawn Guy working the rows.

      He’d been watching her.


Several weeks passed, and Aimee continued to visit the graveyard, gather when she could and keep her shifts for Ruby’s. Then she broke her left ankle—a freak accident involving an unsupervised child at the flower shop who’d left his toy tractor in the middle of the floor. Aimee came out with an armful of greenery and wiped out.

      A cast and crutches were not conducive to nursery work, nor to graveyard visits, though she tried. She could drive, but gathering the flowers was nearly impossible.

      She visited the Carters two days after.

      “I’m sorry I’m late.” Aimee sat on the ground, knowing good and well it would take her quite an effort to get up from that position. She spilled out the story and frustration to her ever-patient friends. She glanced down the hill and noticed three more fresh graves in the newer section. All covered with colorful castaways. She put her head on her knees and sobbed.

      “Do you know these people?”

      For the second time that month, in nearly the same spot, her sob turned into a frightful squeal. She looked up to see Lawn Guy standing over her.

      “Blake, remember?”

      She nodded. She remembered, even though she’d tried not to.

      “I only ask because you seem to be here quite a bit. I mean, I’ve even given you privacy a few times and done the graves further down or over there so I wouldn’t disturb you, but you always seem to be here.” He dropped the trimmer in the grass and sat facing her.

      Aimee wanted to run away and hide. Or fight.

      Or both.

      “I don’t know them.” She gritted her teeth.

      “Why do you come?”

      She shrugged. “Why not?” She made eye contact with him for a split second, then looked away again.

      “Why are you crying? Does it hurt?”

      “No. My ankle doesn’t hurt.”

      “Then why cry?”

      “Why not?” This was getting old and she tried to wriggle the crutches around to stand. Blake jumped up, steadied the crutches and helped her to her feet, which started a fresh wave of tears as it reminded her that she was nearly helpless in this state.

      “You bring them flowers.”

      “Yeah, but I won’t be able to for a while.” She waved one of the crutches in the air.

      “And you don’t know them? The Carters?”

      “No. I’m not from around here. Not even a distant relative. I don’t know any of these people.” She tapped the trimmer with the end of the crutch. “Don’t you have work to do? Like down in the newer section?”

      Blake picked up the trimmer. “Probably. But I prefer the view from up here, so I ask for this section whenever I can.”  He smiled warmly at her and she felt that blasted quiver in her stomach, but this time it wasn’t from gunfire.


Despite the pain in her ankle, which she’d lied to Blake about on the hill the day before, she drove to the gravesite at dawn.

      All his questions irked her. Why this and why that. She didn’t really know why. She felt a closeness up on the hill with the Carters. But she didn’t know why.

      She pulled the van to the side of the gravel lane and decided not to sit down in the grass this time. She hobbled on crutches to the front of the stones; the pain in her armpits hurt nearly as bad as the pain in her ankle.

      When she faced the front of the headstones, she nearly fell over and dropped one of the crutches.

      The Carters had a bouquet of tiger lilies between their names. And all down the row in both directions as far as Aimee could see, each headstone had a single white daisy tied with a tiny blue ribbon.

      She looked over the rolling hill, shading her eyes from the rising sun and noticed that the three fresh graves from yesterday had been cleaned of their discarded flowers. She spotted two more graves, side by side, in the newer section, and someone kneeling between the mounds, gathering the flowers and straightening the chaos.

      Then that someone, arms full of long stems and colorful blossoms turned toward her and walked up the hill.

      It was Blake.

      Along the way, he would lay a flower or two on a grave that had none. By the time he reached her he had three roses left. She hopped backward out of his way and watched in silence as he placed a white rose for Clarence and a red rose for Elaine.

      He handed her a pink one, which she instinctively put up to her nose to inhale the sweet aroma.

      “Why are you doing this?” Every time she saw Blake, she was crying. Every single time.

      “Those two down the hill. There together?” He pointed to the side-by-side mounds. “Those were my parents. They died a few days ago in that car crash out on Route 58.” He shifted his feet. “I took this job to be close to them in some weird way, I guess.”

      Aimee couldn’t speak. She didn’t bother wiping away the tears. They stood in silence for a few minutes. Blake knelt in front of the headstone.

      “And these two here. These two that you’ve been keeping company all this time? These are my great-grandparents.”

      Aimee’s head spun. She looked Blake in the eyes—the kindest eyes she’d seen in quite some time. She started to apologize, but he stopped her.

      “Let’s try this again.” He stood and held out his hand in greeting. “I’m Blake. Blake Carter. And it’s so very nice to meet you.”


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