Eileen’s hands shook as she pushed back the living room window curtain. At 6:15, Samuel was over an hour late. Her husband prided himself on his punctuality, a character trait Eileen adored until the lack of it added to her day’s anxiety. Her husband’s gentle soul calmed her. And yet, their argument before he left for work that morning lurked in the corners of the kitchen.
She looked out the window, peering right down Maple Avenue in search of Samuel’s dark blue four-door sedan they bought a few months ago. It still held the new carpet and clean canvas smell. They were a couple who enjoyed the little things. They got dipped ice cream cones on Friday nights and ate on the picnic tables outside, then drove through some of central Kentucky’s prettiest country roads. Cows and horses in bluegrass pastures transported them to easier times.
Eileen picked at her nails, a habit she still hadn’t kicked at forty-seven. With each passing minute, she replayed their argument from this morning. She had a penchant for new projects. And while gardening wasn’t new, she had found a small plot of land for sale in the middle of downtown, a hidden garden enclosed by a tall stone wall not far from her part-time jobs at the library and bakery. Samuel enjoyed gardening but had been less than eager to buy new property. “Could this be a lot of money to spend on a hobby?” Samuel asked.
“Not when the hobby provides peace of mind,” Eileen replied, an unfamiliar anger surfacing in her reaction. She had walked out of the kitchen and not seen Samuel leave for work. The sunshine watched from low in the sky, as if scolding her by adding digits to the thermometer outside the front window. Beads of sweat rolled down the side of her neck and collected in her damp armpits. The summer heat seemed never-ending.
On the wall, their wedding photograph from twenty-five years ago captured a happy moment in an oceanside gazebo on the North Carolina coast. Her smile beamed the excitement at starting a new life. Her brown hair lay past her shoulders and a small strand of hair lifted like a feather that grazed her cheek. Of the wedding pictures, Eileen chose this one because the tickle of hair recalled a playfulness and ease of life.
Samuel’s black hair had been at its shortest, and his tuxedo magnified his broad shoulders and tall frame. She still saw a happy and hopeful man. Straight white teeth turned his whole face into a smile that lifted his cheeks under brown eyes twinkling a grateful glee college was behind them. The next day, they had embarked on a road trip across the southern United States before circling north into the Midwest. Samuel captured it all with his camera, a fixture around his neck. It was their first of many road trips. Photo albums now lined their bookshelves.
Samuel’s hobby morphed into a career with a graphic design company in Lexington where he became vice president a year ago. Her love of gardening began in college when she helped the agriculture department maintain a butterfly garden on campus. Now, she wanted to create her own special garden—a private space of escape when someone needed it.
“He won’t be coming from that direction, Eileen.” She spoke as if the rows of books in the dark-stained bookshelves along the cool beige walls would respond with a reason for his delay. Most days, the books comforted her like loyal soldiers. Instead, Samuel’s absence swallowed the space. Her face tightened as she grit her teeth. Another unhelpful habit, Eileen relaxed her jaw, hearing her dentist’s advice.
She jumped as the sound of the phone shivered through the house and broke into her thoughts. Nerves followed her into the kitchen where she lifted the receiver on the third ring, “Hello?”
“Hello, may I please speak to Ms. Carver?” The man’s stern voice caused her to pull back the phone. He had used her maiden name.
“Speaking. Who is this?”
“Ma’am, I’m calling from Percy Hospital in Lexington—”
All she heard was hospital, “Oh, my goodness, is it Samuel?” she screeched.
“I’m married now. My name is Eileen Butler.” A snap of silence hung in the air.
“Mrs. Butler, I don’t know anything about Samuel. I’m calling you about Rosemary Perkins.”
“Rosemary Perkins? I haven’t talked to Rosemary in years. Is she okay?” Eileen and Rosemary had been best friends growing up, sharing clothes, walking to school together, helping each other with homework, and hosting slumber parties for all their friends.
“Wait, how did you get my name and number?”
“Ma’am, Ms. Perkins was admitted to our hospital this afternoon after a multi-car crash on New Circle Road. You may have heard about it on the news?”
Typically an early evening news watcher, she had not turned it on with Samuel’s absence. Her stomach sank. Samuel took New Circle. Was this the reason for his delay? Had he been involved in the accident? “No, I haven’t seen the news.”
“Ma’am, Ms. Perkins listed you as next of kin. That’s why I’m calling.”
Eileen shook her head in slow motion as if coming out of a fog. Why would Rosemary list her as next of kin? Their senior year of high school, Rosemary found a new group of college-aged friends, but Eileen knew they weren’t in any way collegiate. They stayed out late, smoked, drank, and wore the kind of dark, torn clothes Eileen would never want to borrow. Rosemary dropped out of Eileen’s life. A couple years into college, Eileen heard a rumor Rosemary moved to Nashville to pursue a singing career. And that’s the last Eileen had heard of Rosemary. Eileen gnawed on her nails, eyes drawn to the kitchen clock, “Do you know if there is a Samuel Butler there?” She asked in a desperate whisper.
“No, ma’am, I don’t. I’m only calling about Rosemary Perkins.”
“I’m just worried about my husband who’s running late,” Eileen sighed; “Okay, can I speak with Rosemary?” Alongside rhythmic beeping and occasional voices, a heavy exhalation that sounded like static came across the line. She pulled the phone back from her ear again.
“Ma’am, Ms. Perkins sustained major injuries this afternoon and is in a medically-induced coma. You may want to get more details from the doctor.”
“Can I speak with the doctor?”
“He’s in surgery.”
“Do you know when he’ll be out?” Eileen’s anxiety turned to impatience.
“I do not, but—,” he paused, his breath a rushed whistle; “Mrs. Butler, you may wish to come here in person. Ms. Perkins’s situation is critical and the girl in her car will need someone to go home with once released.”
Eileen wasn’t sure she could take more strange news, “What girl in the car?”
“It’s her granddaughter.”
Eileen’s breath caught in her throat. Rosemary was a grandmother? “What about the girl’s parents?”
“They were in a separate car in the same accident. They died at the scene.”
After hanging up, the shaking in her hands returned. The television news had already moved to sports. It was the news radio reporter who offered details: Late this afternoon, a multiple car pile-up caused lengthy delays in the evening commute. The crash happened near Nicholasville and New Circle Roads in Lexington. Five people died with a dozen injured, some with life-threatening injuries. Ambulances and medical helicopters assisted in getting victims to area hospitals. Names of those deceased will be released pending notification of next of kin.
Samuel used the Nicholasville Road exit on his way home. Now 6:45, it was almost two hours past his normal return home. She called his office. After five rings, the answering machine played his cheery greeting. If they had called her about Rosemary, wouldn’t she have heard something about Samuel by now?
Eileen walked back to the living room to look out the window. A familiar red truck turned into the driveway at the house down the street. Had the accident delayed them? No other cars passed. On a normal day, Maple Avenue in front of their house was busier at this hour. Her mouth went dry as she clenched her jaw. Her stomach dropped into an empty chasm of despairing thoughts and missed moments.
Eileen paced back to the kitchen where she stared out the kitchen window. The bright yellow curtains did nothing to remove the damp blanket that had settled over the house. A sudden chill shivered through her. She would not cry. Their large backyard of maple, dogwood and pine trees shimmered in the early evening sun. Sunflowers tilted up into the day’s end as hummingbirds and butterflies swayed between their stalks. Eileen reflected on the last several days. Her enthusiasm at the prospect of buying a run-down garden remained in stark contrast to Samuel’s quiet mood and muted interest.
A hummingbird appeared at the feeder ten feet from the window. The female bird’s colors were subdued but still dazzled. She remained beautiful in the grace of her wings blurring alongside her body, as her beak dipped into the feeder. Then, she was gone. Her arrival and presence captured a moment that made clear why Samuel had not completely objected to buying a garden space. He saw her youthful anticipation and joy. Samuel only wanted her happiness.
At 7:15, she tried Samuel’s office again. Five rings, cheery voice, answering machine. Her conversation with the hospital employee about Rosemary had ended with her promising to call back to inquire about Rosemary’s status. She looked at the piece of paper on the kitchen table where Eileen had written Percy Hospital’s number. In prolonged movements of her fingers, she began pressing each number into the phone, knowing she needed to call somebody about Samuel.
She did not hear the key slide into the front door, but the air shifted as the door opened and closed. The pile of stones that had settled deep in her stomach disappeared and released butterflies into her chest. Her heart filled with the warm pressure of elation, “Samuel!”
Eileen dropped the phone on the kitchen counter and lunged for the living room where she wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her face into new car smell, sweat and hot outside air.
“Hi sweetheart, there was an awful accident on New Circle on the way home,” he said.
“I know. I got a call from Percy Hospital, my old friend Rosemary was in that accident, I was worried you were too. I tried calling your office. I was so scared.” Eileen’s worry folded over into an avalanche of words.
“It happened right in front of me. I had to give a report to the police. People died. I think I’m still in shock,” Samuel said.
Eileen stepped back to see his stooped shoulders and hair that stood straight up from where he must have been running his hands through it. His glazed eyes lifted to hers; “Wait, did you say you knew someone in the accident?” Samuel’s voice trailed off.
“Yes, but I want to get you some hot tea. It’ll help you relax.” She began to turn away when he stopped her, pulled her back into a tight hug.
“I’ve been thinking, let’s go look at your hidden garden.”
Eileen shook her head, confused. “The what?”
“Your garden idea. Maybe it will be a good project for us,” he whispered.
Her silly garden. Was that so important? She could barely think of it now; “I…I don’t care about the garden right now.” Eileen paused, then grabbed her purse and placed it on the couch by the door; “I’d like to drive us to the hospital when you’re ready. I need to see an old friend. And meet a little girl who may need us.”
Katy Keffer was raised in central Kentucky where her love of writing began. She writes fiction and poetry inspired by her Bluegrass childhood and Nature’s creatures. She recently completed her MFA at Lindenwood University and lives in Reston, Virginia.