Stickers and Blooms
She wrote that the tree in the backyard was enchanted, and one day, it sprouted a huge flower bud.
Marissa kept her magic in the notebooks. She had a row of ten of them, the warm black covers lined up on her shelf, a record of everything she’d done and felt for two years. She started writing in a journal when her mother got very sick, when it felt like her stomach was eating itself and it hurt to open her jaw. The writing helped: she’d describe what she felt, and, when she couldn't write about herself anymore, she wrote what she saw, and what she wanted, and she wrote little stories about the people at the bus stop in the mornings on her way to work at the grocery story: the man with the stained ties, the old woman with her rolling basket, the sparrow that seemed to greet her and bathed himself in the dewy grass.
Marissa loved her job, though it didn't pay much. She loved smiling at people as she packed up their groceries and giving little kids a bright round sticker for waiting patiently in line. One day, she took a sticker home and put it on the next page of her notebook, smoothing the edges. She drew a little arrow next to it and wrote, “I'm waiting patiently, too. Soon, my life will start.” Her father barked at her from the other room to make dinner, and she slid the notebook back into line with the others.
Her mother’s illness was slow. While she waited to see what would happen to them, she wrote about how the man with the stained tie started to talk in his sleep, and she imagined that he told prophesies when he snoozed on the bus. She wrote that the old woman’s basket held, inside, blue rubies, worth enough to pay every medical bill in town. She wrote that the sparrow grew until its wingspan was the length of the bus shelter, and he flew her towards the bright sun.
She wrote about Sam, too, when she first met him. How his hair fell into his eyes and how she could listen to his North Carolina accent all night as he whispered about their future, the baby they'd have, the home he'd buy them when he finally got promoted off the warehouse floor. She wrote: “His accent is like summer. We are going to have everything.”
They moved in together, and she lined up her little black notebooks on the floor below the window, because they didn't have the money to buy a bookshelf just yet. But it didn't matter, because she made them scrambled eggs for dinner in the worn-out pan that was barely nonstick anymore, and he danced with her in the middle of the empty studio. She wrote: “His feet are so graceful. We have everything now.” He teased her for writing in her journals so much and tried to peak at her pages, but she pulled the notebook close against her chest, swatting him away.
The first time he hit her, it was because he was drunk, and she had teased him about his dainty feet in front of his friends. When she said it, he laughed, but afterwards, at home, in the same room where they'd danced, he slapped her, knocking her to the floor.
Marissa didn't write about that in her journal. Instead, she wrote about a dog that lived next door, that was always tied up to a tree in the backyard and cried when its owner went to work. She wrote that the tree in the backyard was enchanted, and one day, it sprouted a huge flower bud. The dog watched it cautiously. He barked at it. Then he sat down and waited. He waited for seven days. Finally, when the flower bloomed, there was a little boy inside, 8 or 9, the perfect age to play with the dog all day long. They had a wonderful, beautiful day of fetch and belly rubs and napping in the sun. When the dog's owner came home, the boy lifted a finger to his lips and slipped back inside the flower. This happened every day for a week, but on the seventh day, the boy was too slow—he had hesitated, giving the dog an extra pat on his sun-warmed head—and the owner saw the boy. He was furious.
What would happen next, she wondered? Would the man hurt the dog? The boy? Both? Would he welcome the boy inside with sweet milk, and steal the boy from the dog, send him to another home, a real one?
She tied a scarf around her neck to hide the bruises and went to visit her mother. Her mother was home from the hospital now, but could barely leave her bed. Marissa showed her mother the story, and asked her how it would end. As Marissa leaned over to point to a certain sentence, her scarf slipped, and her mother touched the bruise at her clavicle.
“Stay with me,” her mother said. “Come home.”
“He’d follow me,” Marissa whispered.
They cried together, not saying anything. Who would save the dog and his child?
Marissa stopped writing in her notebooks. If her stories were true enough for her mother to understand, Sam might read them and understand too. She was afraid. When she got pregnant, she became so afraid of writing something wrong that she took the notebooks back to her parents’ house and hid them under her old bed.
On her way to work, she would try to imagine the prophesies of the man with the stained tie, but her mind was blank. Instead, she imagined her baby as a toddler, going to a grocery store, getting a sticker, his fat fingers hugging it to his chest.
Then Marissa's mother died. Though she had been sick for a long time, she died suddenly, in the middle of the night, but Marissa’s father didn't call her until morning. When he told her, she screamed, and Sam held her just like he loved her.
At her parents' house, after the funeral, she lay on her childhood bed, breathing and letting her tears fall into her hair. She felt so lonely, but her tears did nothing, and her hair was wet and matted. She wondered if her baby would have hair when he was born, or if he’d be bald like she was, and how it would feel to touch his warm head.
A dog barked outside. Sam was at work. She rolled carefully off the bed and onto the floor and reached for a notebook. She opened it to the first clean page, and, there, she found her mother's handwriting.
“My dearest,” it said, “here is a secret. When I got married, my mother gave me $200 to put in a bank account that was all my own, just in case, just for me. I added money to the account each year, and I never, ever told your father about it. Just in case. Still, it wasn’t very much money—not nearly enough, not any of the times I needed it. So, years ago, I took all the money I had in the account and bought life insurance. For you. Just in case. $20,000 of it. Now, it’s yours, just yours.” Marissa was crying again. She turned the page, careful not to smudge her mother's round, familiar numbering.
“Here is another secret,” it said on the next page. “Sometimes the boy and the dog can save each other, and sometimes they can’t, and either way it’s not either one of their faults.”
Marissa held her hand to her stomach. Inside, it felt like a flower was blooming.
About the author
My writing has appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review, Hobart, Cleaver Magazine, and The Millions. I won the 2020 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award, and I have been a C.D. Wright / Nan Snow Emerging Writer and a Tent Creative Writing Fellow.