Authors: Mary Elizabeth
I was a three-foot-nothing five-year-old when I started stealing from my parents … a little ragamuffin kid looking for attention. Mom had a red pair of stilettos she wore for special occasions, and I liked to walk around the house in them. She forbade me from touching her things, so I’d do it behind her back, which wasn’t hard when menthols and
The Days of Our Lives
kept her preoccupied most afternoons.
Unfortunately, I forgot to put them away on a night she happened to be meeting friends for dinner. Mom found her heels under my bed. As punishment, she made me hold my hands out while she slapped my knuckles with a wooden spoon. I cried, and she yelled, red-faced and stunning.
“Look at what you made me do,”
she hissed, rubbing her thumbs over my swollen fingers.
“You make me so angry sometimes, Poesy.”
My mother, barefoot and rose-scented, made an icepack out of a sandwich baggie and held it to my hands as a cigarette burned between her lips. She pushed my tear-soaked hair behind my ear and sat next to me at the kitchen table, not over me like she normally would.
I felt loved.
I choked on carcinogens and nicotine, and my hands throbbed like hell, but she was there until the swelling went down, and she painted my fingernails purple afterward. There was an overflowing pressure inside my chest that made my eyes water, and a warm sense of closeness I felt when she touched me. I’d soon figure out they were sensations I only experienced when my parents showed me affection, and it usually only occurred after penance.
“You don’t take things that don’t belong to you, Poe. It’s in bad character, and I’m not raising a chump. Do you understand me?”
The street I live on consists of two and three-bedroom homes built in the Howard Hughes and the Spruce Goose era. They’re in some need of remodeling, but the lawns are green, and the cars in the driveways are middle-class appropriate.
This time of day, right before the sun sets and the streetlights turn on, small children ride their bikes on the sidewalk, marinating in the last hour of playtime. Dads and moms come home from a long day at work with tired eyes and sore feet. Gutters flow with overspray from sprinklers and hoses, and the ice cream man slowly cruises down the block, eager to spoil dinner for a dollar.
“Hello, Miss Poesy,” my neighbor, an old woman I’ve lived next door to for as long as I can remember but can’t recall her name, says. She waves with a hand full of mail.
I smile and continue home, walking past a truck and trailer with a handmade, scuffed sign advertising “Flaco’s Lawn Service” on the side. The sharp scent of just-cut grass tickles my nose while pollen and dust irritate my eyes. The three-man crew—two Mexicans and a white boy—clip, edge, and mow my front yard, because my dad’s too busy and my mom’s too lazy.
The short, dark-skinned man pushing a lawn mower shuts it down as I move up the driveway. He grins politely, pulling a sweat-stained ball cap from his head. The second guy, edging the landscape with earbuds on, doesn’t realize I’m here. And the third person … He turns away from my mother’s overgrown roses, cut and bleeding thanks to their razor-sharp thorns. Blood courses slowly around his arm, from his elbow to the tips of his fingers, like ruby-colored ribbons tied around a gift.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey yourself,” I reply.
Drops of his DNA drip onto the walkway as he steps forward. I don’t skip a beat, swaying my hips and pushing my hair over my shoulder as I walk past him toward the front door. But I know he’s staring, and I got a good look at his blue eyes and head full of thick blond hair. He smells like a hard day’s work—dirt, sunshine, spice—dressed in a white T-shirt and old denim.
My heartbeat explodes, shooting heat through my limbs and warming my cheeks.
“I’ve always hated those fucking roses,” I say before I enter my house, closing the door behind me.
Holding my hand over my chest, I pull my bottom lip between my teeth and turn around to spy on the bleeding boy through the peephole. He’s where I left him, running his dirty hands through his hair. Blood is smeared across his shirt, and he smirks toward the house like he knows I’m watching.
“You son of a bitch,” I whisper to myself, matching his grin.
Lawn mower guy clips rose trimmer’s ankle with the weed whacker, stealing his attention. With one more gaze toward the door, the hired help waves off his co-worker and gets back to my mother’s pink Bonicas, stepping out of sight.
But I’m captivated.
I rush to my room and carefully watch him rake dead leaves and fallen petals into a neat pile through the blinds. Unlike the other men on his crew who have thick gloves protecting them from blisters and splinters, this one’s barehanded. The sun’s nearly set, but his face is flushed, and the back of his neck is sunburned.
He licks his lips and reaches for the green garden hose, drinking water straight from the source. Cool liquid fills his cheeks before he swallows, unbothered when he gets his shirt wet. The thin white cotton becomes transparent and sticks to his chest, showcasing his lean muscle.
“Lowen,” lawnmower guy calls. “Don’t drink the customers’ water, bendejo. You tryin’ to get us fired?”
Blond boy closes his eyes, takes one last drink, and turns the hose off. He uses the last few drops to wet his face.
“Chill, Flaco,” he replies, drying his mouth on the neck of his damp shirt. “No one’s getting fired. I’m just watering these fucking roses.”
“I have extra bottles in the truck if you’re thirsty,” mower man continues.
Lowen rolls the hose neatly. “I don’t want your water, man.”
When I emerge from the house with an ice-cold bottle of Aquafina, all three landscapers are packing up their equipment but stop to stare. The sun’s more down than up, and I pray bluish-pink evening light hides the blush bleeding across my face.
“Need some help?” the water thief asks, clapping dirt from his hands. He comes forward, a foot taller than I am, to block his co-workers’ view of me.
“Thought you might be thirsty.” Condensation wets my hand and numbs the tips of my fingers. I pass him the bottle.
I study his face as he unscrews the top and takes a sip, never removing his eyes from me. I’m electric under his stare, sizzling from the inside out, the outside in. My smile is so grand, I wouldn’t be surprised if the sun shot right back to the highest part of the sky because it’s so jealous of my radiance.
“What are you smiling at?” rose trimmer asks. His lips slightly turn up as he slips the water bottle into his back pocket.
“You,” I answer, consumed by my blush.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Poesy Ashby,” I say, meeting his stare.
My heart expands inside my chest, nearly knocking me down with its rocking beat, but I remain steady.
“I’m Low. Lowen Seely.”
“Why do you have a tattoo on your face, Low … Lowen Seely?” I ask, bending my toes in the just-cut grass. Even his name shocks my senses, and the entire world is effervescent.
“God forsakes me,” he answers, sweeping the tips of his fingers across the etched marking. The ghost of his smile disappears, and worry instantly carves lines around his eyes. “I have some making up to do.”
“False penance. Tattoos do nothing for our King,” I say. The streetlights flicker on, shadowing Lowen’s face. “All you have to do is ask for forgiveness, boy.”
I CHILL WIT
the black girls at school because they keep it real.
And they share their lunches with me.
“He’s your gardener?” Latisha asks, unwrapping the extra sandwich her mom sent for me. The savory scent of shredded rotisserie chicken topped with lettuce and tomato between thick bread makes my mouth water. “Somethin’ tells me your parents don’t know about this, Poe.”
I shrug, sitting between Shaunee’s legs on the lunch table while she braids my hair. My scalp is used to the harsh pull, and I love the looks Jenna and the other basics give me when my long locks are styled this way.
“Girl, betta not let that mom of yours find out you’re messing with the help,” she says with small rubber bands between her front teeth. “She’ll bury your ass under those flowers she loves so much.”
with anyone,” I say.
“Yet,” Latisha murmurs. She laughs out loud, picking onions out of her sandwich with her super-long acrylic nails.
“You know Poesy don’t mess with no one,” my personal stylist says, manipulating my hair between her fingers. “She got that dusty pussy.”
I turn to look at one of my only friends, but she pulls my hair until I face forward. Her own cornrows look tight.
“I do not have a dusty pussy,” I reply, trying not to smile.
“Tre’s trying to see what’s up with you,” Shaunee says. “But you’re cold.”
“Please, Tre can’t handle this.” I roll my hips against the bench seductively.
“Whateva, girl. When are you going to see that lawn boy again?”
This time, I don’t try to hide my smile.
ONE THING I’V
never considered myself is shy. When there’s nothing to lose, being afraid of what other people think of me is irrelevant. But when I see Lowen and his partners turn onto the block in a forest green “Flaco’s Lawn Service” Chevy, I’m suddenly timid.
There’s a chance I’ve put too much thought in the five minutes I spent with our rose trimmer a week ago. Maybe I dreamed the entire encounter in my emotionally deprived head, and to Lowen Seely, I’m nothing more than a customer who offered him a cool refreshment on a warm evening. Maybe my kindness wasn’t extraordinary. How many clients offer him nourishment after he bleeds for their flowers?
All of them, I hope.
It’s the decent fucking thing to do.
I was the one swaying my hips like some type of hussy, and then spying on the guy through mini-blinds like a prowler. But it’s the way my heart stamps behind my ribcage in his presence that keeps me on the porch as he spills out of the truck. And it’s the affection in his smile that drives me to speak.
“Long day?” I ask, swallowing my insecurity whole. It falls heavy in the pit of my stomach, plowing through my intestines with razor-sharp
Eyes the color of Neptune fall on mine, and lips faintly burned by the sun curve into a side smile. Lowen’s lush mouth upturned brightens his entire face, overshadowing dark sleeplessness beneath his lower lashes.
“Long week,” he replies, pushing his hands into his front pockets. The other two men on his crew set up their equipment, nosy behind their lawn mower. “This is our last house.”
“Better late than never,” I say stupidly, blushing … again. Heat floods my senses from the tips of my toes to the ends of my hair, and I’m in flames.
“Is that for me?” He nods toward the bottle in my hand.
“Yeah.” I smile, pulling my lower lip between my teeth. Rough, hardworking hands brush over mine when he reaches for it, and my heart click, click, booms.
The way my body catches fire when he’s around is addictive, and I wait every Friday with a bottle of water for Lowen to arrive, chasing the hit I need desperately. Like a junkie, I seek him out, following temptation through the thorns. Small talk and the way he makes me feel are worth a little torn skin.
Late spring burns like summer, and we’re both sweaty under the dwindling sun. I extend my legs and lean back against the house as the damp grass wets my bottom. Flaco mows around me, uninterested by my company. Low aims a stream of chlorine-scented water at my mother’s roses, drenching their dark green leaves, losing a petal or two.
“You’ve never had a boyfriend?” he asks. Water drips from his hands and wrists, reflecting light.
“I already told you. I have these really fucked-up father issues.”
He looks over at me. “How old are you again?”
“Eighteen,” I answer under my dark sunglasses. “And I’ve had boyfriends. Just nothing serious.”
Flower boy nods. A bead of sweat streams down the side of his face.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” I ask, lifting my sunglasses to the top of my head. I squint against light that’s turned Lowen into a silhouette.
“You’re not the only one with issues, Poe.”
My name moves across his licked-wet lips like a whisper, and he’s the only one who should be allowed to say it ever again. I want him to own it like he owns the heat that erupts beneath my skin, and I melt.
He squirts me with the hose, saving my life.
“Asshole!” I scream, jumping to my bare feet. Shards of clipped grass stick to my thighs, and water chills my overheated skin.
Lowen shoots me again, laughing.
“You better stop.” I point to him, faking seriousness.
He makes it rain, and I run, incapable of controlling the joy that escapes my throat. Maneuvering around Flaco and the other guy, chrome-like water drenches my hair and runs down my back under my shirt. The lawn mower shuts down first, and then the leaf blower, leaving only my happiness hanging in the air.
“Poesy!” My father’s deep voice suddenly rushes through the neighborhood, ricocheting off rooftops and sending birds from trees. “What’s going on here?”
Lowen drops the stream of water and turns toward my dad in the driveway, standing firm. The grin on his face dims to a grimace, hardening his entire expression into something I haven’t seen from him in the last four weeks during our short time together.
Dad closes the car door, fisting his keys and looking at me for the first time in a month. Unlike Lowen’s ruthless glare, my father scarcely tips indifferent despite his stern tone of voice.
“We were just playing around,” I say, wiping drops of water from my brow.
“Go inside and leave these men to their work.” The man I share eye color with waits for me to walk ahead of him, but gives no other indication of emotion. “Dry yourself off.”
From the porch, I watch my dad walk the perimeter of our yard with his hands deep inside his pockets. Lowen drops the hose and crosses his arms over his chest while the rest of his crew stand like statues, waiting for the fella in charge to break the spell he’s cast on all of us. Dad bumps the toe of his shoe into the corner of the lawn before walking across the grass to inspect the roses.
“I don’t pay you to waste water, and I most certainly didn’t hire you to keep my daughter company,” Dad says, turning from the flowers toward the hired help. “Understood?”
Flaco moves forward to apologize, red in the face and contrite. I can’t stomach the sight of him groveling and dash inside, dripping water onto the carpet to my room. My father follows me in shortly after, but doesn’t make it past the living room before he and Mom argue, tossing responsibility of their offspring back and forth, until Dad gives up and cracks open a beer, and Mom turns up the volume on
The Young and The Restless
My ability to tolerate their self-seeking bullshit reaches its threshold, and I slam my door before reaching for a dry shirt from the bed. Amid my parents’ battle for the last word, my anger is dismissed, and they won’t give me a second thought for the rest of the night.
I can leave through the front door. I can smash a me-sized hole through the side of the house to make my exit. I can jump up and down, waving my arms above my head and scream, “I’m fucking out of here!” It wouldn’t matter, and the outcome in each scenario would be the same: indifference. So I kick out the screen and spring from the window, crushing my mother’s roses beneath my shoes.
“Can you give me a ride?” I ask the lawn crew, clapping dirt from my hands.