1st Place Category 3: Gardens
Winner Category 3 (Ages 15 to 16)
by Joseph Harmon, Age 16, USA
The hallway is dim, quietly golden, and the dark floorboards creak and bend as we tread them. He is leading me, the old man from the flower shop, and I’m not afraid. I have no reason to be. I am strong and I can fight back if I needed do, but I don’t. He’s harmless: his shirt is purple-striped, his face is kind. He knows where he is going. I think he’s one of those people. Those people, they have clear ideas and simple strategies for success. When they point, I have every reason to follow.
“Are you excited?” he asks me, his eyes joyful and dark.
“Of course,” I say, because what other option do I have? I’ve made a decision to join him and I will be excited. I will pretend that I’ve always loved gardens. I love to sink my hands elbow-deep into the dirt and make joyful snow angels in the leaves.
“The garden is doing especially well in these warmer months,” he tells me. “Everything is blooming.”
“I can’t wait,” I say.
When he first told me about the garden, I asked Marcia about it as she arranged the new bouquets. Marcia is a veteran florist; she has seen it all. She has listened to decades of finicky customers, given volumes of careful advice to anxious boyfriends and vain socialites. I assumed she would know what to do.
“Oh, he’s a nice guy,” she told me, rolling back her gloves with an elastic snap. “Really, Kim, he has such a green thumb here, his home garden must be phenomenal.”
“But we don’t grow the flowers. We just, like, arrange them.”
“Yes,” she said. “I know.”
So that was that.
He described the garden at lunch breaks, which all of us were supposed to spend close to the store. We took off our green visors and set them on the table to rest.
He stretched out the story over weeks. He told me about the towering trees and foliage, the vines climbing the brick walls, flowers of every shape and colour. He told me about the miniature waterfall he rigged up himself, and the flamingos that sometimes lived there.
“Oh, some man in the building owns them,” he told me when I asked. “It’s New York, you know? I just let him use it.”
“Doesn’t he need some kind of…permit for them?” I asked.
“Well, I won’t rat him out.”
Every flight of stairs reveals a new level of the city. I can see people walking around their offices in the blue-windowed building across the street. I am jealous of them immediately. Look at them walking through their carpeted hallways. Why are they walking? They should be working hard at their desks, kissing their computers and thanking their bosses for keeping them on.
“We’re almost there,” he tells me.
And then he is pushing open the door and the humidity clings to my skin again like plastic wrap. I step out onto the concrete, and there it is.
There are little pockmarks where the ivy was torn away from the bricks. The rest of the wall is a bright tangle of graffiti, cheerful signatures of rebellion. There are some old barrels, with the metal hoops rusting over and the soil crusted. A few tomato plants with shrivelled green fruit. In some of them, the browning remains of old flowers. I realize he has just been taking them from the store and propping them upright in the dirt.
His face lightens as I look to him in disbelief, stomach sinking. I wanted this to be real.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” he asks, voice cracking like a teenager.
“Oh,” I say, my own voice wavering and settling on sincerity. “Oh, it is. It’s the most wonderful garden I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m so glad you think so!” he says. “Would you like to try some of the apricots?”
He plucks an invisible fruit from the air and hands it to me. I take it, gently, and bite into the imaginary flesh.
“It’s delicious,” I say. I can imagine it, softly sweet, juice bursting.
“They’re tropical plants,” he tells me. “But they’re thriving here.”
I picture the rich green leaves, the wide fans and folds and creamy flowers.
“And look at the flamingos!” he says, gesturing to the pigeons pecking crumbs from a puddle. “Look how graceful they are, standing on one leg.”
I can see the office workers standing in a circle by their water cooler. They laugh together, unified by a great joke.
I see the flamingos, tall and regal, pink-feathered and independent.
“They’re so graceful.”
Most of the pigeons are missing toes.
“I have to go,” I tell him as he spins around slowly in the middle of his perfect garden. “But thank you for bringing me here.”
“So soon?” he asks. “Well, thank you very much for coming.”
“It was a pleasure.” Mom would have wanted me to say something like this.
I was never good at crying, so I try not to, I focus on turning fast around the stairwells. My shoes slap against the steps. I start to smile as I reach the glass door at the end and see myself, dyed black hair, nose ring glinting.
I am going home to my tiny apartment, where my loser boyfriend is lounging on the floor with his old laptop, where he doesn’t bother to use plates and eats out of the ice-cream container. We are behind on rent—laugh, laugh, laugh, you office people—and I have to work nonstop while Marcia softly criticizes my bouquets…
And then I prepare myself to step outside into the stream of moving people, all with gardens rooted on their clothes, flamingos in their pockets and apricots hanging from their ears, green, green, green, all of them, fresh and full as they dance to the chirp of the crosswalk and forward to the next.
Joseph Harmon is a junior in high school. His free time is limited by mountains of homework, but he writes in the rare moments that it clears up. In addition to writing short stories, he writes for his school newspaper and runs cross country and track.