A Jar of Flowers by Jemma van de Nes
I arrived at school on Monday and was greeted with a jar of flowers on my desk. Zinnias, poppies and geraniums, to be exact. There was something familiar about them, but I couldn't quite work out what it was.
'Bells, you're not going to believe this!' giggled Jasmine.'They're from Aaron! I saw him come in. He tipped water from his drink bottle into the jar - which is so gross by the way - arranged the flowers and walked out.' Her eyes darted around the room. Most of our classmates were playing on the computers, pretending not to notice us.
'He probably stole them from someone's garden,' muttered Casey.
She was probably right.
'What are you going to do with them?' asked Jasmine.
I reached out and rubbed the petals of a white poppy between my fingers. It was thin and papery, like the skin of Gigi's hands and its scent, sweet and gentle, transported me back to his kitchen, where apples bubbled in cinnamon water on the stove and bowls of homemade tomato soup sat steaming on the table.
'Look at them all day and smile,' I replied.
'Bella Richards, that's just crazy,' Jasmine was wide eyed and frantic. 'People will think that you ... you know, that you like Aaron Rogers.'
Aaron Rogers arrived at our school at the start of term three. We were doing morning fitness in the quadrangle and I remember turning to see a tall boy stomping towards the office. His eyes were dark and surly; he was frowning and talking to himself. It was a crisp sunny day, but he had his own personal storm cloud hovering above his head. When Mr Johnson brought him across to our class you could hear people's knees knocking with fear.
'Where are you from Aaron?' asked Ben, our head boy, stretching himself to match Aaron's height.
'The city,' replied Aaron. His deep voice made the other boys sound like chipmunks.
'Why'd you move here?' asked Jasmine.
Aaron lifted his gaze and looked at us. He was a shark sizing up his prey and we were the blubbery, gullible seals.
He shrugged. 'We move a lot. That's all.'
That had been two months ago and still nobody knew anything about Aaron Rogers. In our small town, population five hundred, rumours were fast and furious, but the truth was a mystery because Aaron was a closed book, tucked away on the top shelf in a dusty library that nobody visits.
After school, I cradled my jar of flowers all the way to Gigi's. Aaron had never showed at school and that started a whole new rumour because where, in a town this small, could he have gone without being seen?
Gigi's garden loomed like the Emerald City. Lilly Pilly trees stood like soldiers standing guard over the weatherboard house. A lush hedge of flowering camellia stretched across the front yard and when I stepped through the gated archway, I entered another world. I kicked off my sandals and relished the cool, juicy berries from the trees as they exploded between my toes. I carefully placed my jar and backpack against a cluster of potted orchids.
'You took your time!'
I looked up and there was Aaron, high in the branches of a Lilly Pilly tree.
'There's this thing called school that I had to go to. You've heard of it, right?'
He muttered under his breath and began climbing down.
'How long have you been up there?' I paced the flagstone pathway, hands on my hips. 'How do you even know about this place?'
'I know you come here every day,' he said as he jumped to the ground.
His eyes flickered to the jar of flowers as we sat side by side underneath the almond tree. Honey-eaters fluttered in the grevilleas. The leaf litter crackled and I saw a pair of small, beady eyes watching us.
'Look-out-Bella-there's-a-snake!' cried Aaron as he scrambled to his feet.
'That's Bob the bobtail. The resident blue tongued lizard.' I watched Aaron dance on the spot, as if he was walking on hot coals.
He looked at me through narrow eyes. 'Yeah. Sure. Okay.' He wiped his hands on his jeans and sat down again.
'Do you know that once a Bobtail finds a mate, they stay together their whole lives?'
'I'm having a hard time seeing Bob waiting in a tux at the altar,' he joked.
'Actually, Bob and Sheila love nothing more than a leisurely stroll together through the leaf litter.'
'Sheila?' He laughed, so I laughed. It felt like warm honey running through my veins. '
'Have you been up there a lot?' I dared to ask. '
I followed his gaze up the trees. A glimpse of blue sky and golden sunlight peeked through the leaves, but otherwise, we were cocooned in a blanket of green. '
'You can see everything from up there,' Aaron said. '
'I know,' I sighed. 'I've lived here my whole life.'
We turned to each other at the same time and I know that he saw in my eyes what I had seen in his on that first day. Someone who was lost, but pretending not to be.
'As in ... here?' Aaron held his arms wide, inviting the whole garden into them for a hug. 'This is your house?'
'Well, it was my great grandad's - Gigi for short - and I lived here with him and my mum and dad. But -'
'But it's ... empty.'
He had no idea how true his words were. How empty everything was now that Gigi was gone. Now that we couldn't live here anymore because the memories were too strong, more overpowering than the perfume from all the flowers in the garden combined.
I gasped. Aaron startled beside me.
'The flowers. In the jar. They're from Gigi's garden!'
Bursts of colour were scattered throughout the garden like fireworks. No wonder the posy had seemed so familiar.
Aaron clenched his hands. 'I didn't mean to ... I didn't know that it was your garden. I thought it was abandoned.'
The garden was overgrown and the house hidden from view behind a wall of unruly ivy, but there was life in the flowers that held their heads high to the sunlight and in the birds that flittered from tree to tree like pieces of popping corn.
'We ... we had to leave four months ago. You couldn't have known.'
There was more crackling in the leaves.
'That's Sheila,' I said.
'Let me guess. Bob's better half?'
I reached out and gently secured Sheila in my hands, just like Gigi had shown me. Her scales were brown and mottled like the shingles on Gigi's roof; a tough, outer skin protecting a soft, gentle heart.
'The key to a bobtail's survival is bluff and decoy,' I said.
Aaron laughed quietly and I wondered if he was thinking of his first day at our school, when he told us he'd been to nine schools in seven years.
'They open their mouths wide and start hissing and showing their blue tongue.' Sheila remained close-mouthed in my grip. 'And if that doesn't work, they turn around and present their tail as a decoy. It saves their head from being bitten off.' I placed her back amongst the leaves.
'So, what you're saying is that I'm a bobtail lizard.'
'What? You have a blue tongue?'
He shook his head, smiling. 'You reckon I was bluffing that day. When I made out that I was always in fights and stuff.'
'Ha! You just admitted it yourself.'
Aaron pulled his knees to his chest and whispered, 'So what's my decoy?'
'You hide in Gigi's Lilly Pilly trees.' I bumped my shoulder against his. 'It's okay to hide for a little while, but sooner or later you have to come out and smell the zinnias.' I reached for my jar.
'Daily remembrance. That's their meaning. I lived with my aunt last year. She's a florist,' he explained.
'Who do you live with now?' I asked, holding my breath.
'My dad got some work at the power station. I think it's a six month thing.'
I turned the jar round and round in my hands.
'How did you know?' I whispered.
'Well, I've watched you water the flowers and refill the bird baths almost every day after school since I moved here. I figured something had happened. That's what the poppies mean. Consolation. But I had no idea, really, what this garden meant to you. What it means to you.'
I wondered if it was weird that his confession comforted me - to know that I hadn't been alone in those moments.
'What about the geraniums?' Gigi's geraniums were the variegated kind, swirls of red and white like strawberries and cream.
He smiled. 'True friendship.'
I caught the hope in his voice. It echoed my own.
And just like that, I did like Aaron Rogers.
Copyright © 2012. Jemma van de Nes