She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

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Here’s another short story. This month the prompt was “flowers” for 1800 words. They say a sad/heavy ending will always get more praise than a happy one. What do you think?

“She loves me. She loves me not.” Caleb chanted the mantra, plucking one petal at a time. If only the final petal would declare, “She loves me!” After three she-loves-me-not’s and two she-loves-me’s, Caleb used all the strength of his eight-year-old arm and threw the last stem back to the ground. The stem sauntered down with the same dignity as if she chose to glide to the ground herself. Caleb scratched his head and wondered if the children’s rhyme was to be trusted.

He looked around the open field for another flower when he heard footsteps and looked over his shoulder to see Pa walking toward him. “What you doin’ son?” he asked.

Caleb glanced toward his pile of disappointing flowers and scuffed his toe into the ground. “I was plucking petals to figure out if Mary May loves me or not.”

Pa’s eyes crinkled when he smiled. “Oh, and what did the flowers tell you?”

Caleb shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Not much. Sometimes she loves me and sometimes she doesn’t.”

“Well, that can happen from time to time.” Father and son stood side-by-side, looking at the field of wild flowers without seeing it. Caleb wondered how in the world he could figure out if Mary May loved him. Pa wondered when the boy became such a romantic. He knew a girl loved flowers, that’s how he got Ma to go court him. He supposed a little childhood love couldn’t hurt nothing.

Pa lifted his head and snapped his fingers, “Hey! I got an idea. Why don’t you make a bouquet and ask Mary May herself if she loves you? Maybe the flowers don’t know how she feels, but she could tell you.”

Caleb looked up at his pa and grew an inch taller. His eyes widened and he gasped, “Yeah, Pa! Great idea!”

He ran two steps then halted. Caleb turned to his pa, “I better step careful. I can’t be giving Mary May any broken flowers.”

Pa laughed, he’d never heard the word “careful” come from Caleb’s lips. “Okay son, I’ll leave you to it. If you need anything, I’ll be feedin’ the horses.”

Pa turned toward the barn feeling proud that could help his little boy find love.

Caleb tiptoed into the open field. He stopped, folded his arms, and scanned the field the way he’d seen surveyors do, except they had fancy tools to help them divide and map the land.

Plotting his path he whispered, “Yes, I’ll bring her the flowers and ask her myself”. The flowers bowed in reply as a breeze kissed the earth.

With the day stretching out before him, Caleb figured he had all the time in the world. His belly was full of breakfast, the sun decorated herself with a dainty cloud, and baby blue eyes stretched their petals open, embracing the morning warmth. Caleb crept through the field selecting only the choicest of flowers for Mary May. He knelt in the grass, squeezed his left eye and widened his right eye to inspect the next potential member of his bouquet. Any cut, fold or stain meant the little flower would be passed over today. Caleb swept from one end of the field to the other as the bouquet in his hand grew.

The sun removed her cloud and bathed in the blue sky at noon, then began her western descent. Caleb looked at the growing bouquet and smiled with satisfaction. But, wait a darn minute. The first white daisy he had picked was now drooping, and — was that a broken petal? He chided himself to be more careful and he set to finding a replacement.

Caleb backtracked through the field and found a daisy who had escaped his noticed the first time around. He whispered his gratitude to the wilted blossom. With his right hand, he laid her to rest in the shade of her sisters while his left hand held the bouquet high in the air. He didn’t want the poor daisy’s death to scare the rest of his bouquet.

Caleb’s ears perked up and he turned his head. The lunch bell rang out fast and urgent. Ma called, “Caleb, time to eat!”

Yesterday and every day before, Caleb had broken into a sprint toward the house when the lunch bell had clanged. Today, Caleb looked from the house, to his flowered hand, back to the house. His knees wobbled with energy ready to burst through his feet. His legs didn’t understand why they were standing still, the lunch bell was ringing after all. Instead of launching into a sprint, Caleb nestled the bouquet into his arms and walked toward his ma’s voice. As Caleb stepped toward the house, he realized he’d never seen a grown up run. Does love make you walk?

With so much time on his hands between the field and the house, Caleb thought about Mary May. She had the curliest blonde hair in school, and there were a whole 25 kids there now. Caleb never tugged on her pretty ringlets like the other boys. He was too afraid he’d pull one straight and it wouldn’t curl up again, plus she never laughed when the other boys pulled her curls.

Mary May didn’t have the prettiest dresses in school, but she didn’t need them with her smile. Caleb only had to glimpse her upturned mouth and his whole day brightened, even in winter when the snow was so shiny it made his eyes squint. One time, the fourth graders were teasing a first grader, because his shoes were too big. They called him, “Little Duck” and quacked at him all day. Mary May wasn’t scared, she marched up to the fourth graders, pointed her finger and glared into their souls. All she said was, “Stop it.” And, they did. It was a recess miracle. 

Caleb’s hands trembled. What if she didn’t love him? She might stare into his soul and say, “Go away.”

Ma’s voice broke through his fear. “Caleb, come on. What’s taking you so long?”

She leaned out the back door, waving Caleb inside. “What you got cradled there?”

“A bouquet, Ma.” Caleb looked down and caressed the petals with his finger.

“For me?” Ma asked with a teasing grin.

“No, Ma.” Caleb puffed out his chest and said, “I’m gonna give them to Mary May and ask her if she loves me.” He lifted his arms and offered his haul to Ma for approval. She lifted the bouquet out of Caleb’s arms and inspected his work. She hooked her finger around a sprig of sage and brought to her nose.

“Careful, Ma!” Caleb yelped, startling his mother. She nearly dropped the flowers.

Caleb grabbed fistfuls of hair and jumped wildly, “Ma! I spent all morning picking just the very best flowers for Mary May. Not a scratch, not a tear, not a speck.”

Ma tensed at Caleb’s outburst, but she took a deep breath, relaxed, and laughed. “Nothing but the best for the one’s we love, huh?”

Caleb grinned and nodded, Ma understood.

“Let’s put them in water while you eat. I promise to be gentle.”

While he ate lunch, Caleb fixed his eyes on the flowers so they wouldn’t drift away, or disappear, or die. He haphazardly pierced the plate with his fork in search of his food. He glanced down faster than a blink to make sure all the ham was indeed gone. He then used his fingers to search for peas and corn, all the while maintaining eye contact with the bouquet.

When he had eaten the last pea and gulped the last swallow of milk, Caleb pushed the chair back from the table, hopped onto his feet and stepped toward the kitchen counter. The flowers stood in a mason jar soaking up sun and water, not one had wilted under his watch.

“Ma, can I take these to Mary May’s now?”

“Alright. How about we get you a ribbon for those flowers?”

“That’s a great idea Ma! She’ll love it. All her ribbons are pink. Do you have any pink ribbon?”

She walked to the armoire and rummaged through her sewing kit.

“Aha! Here we go, a pink ribbon for my boy.” Ma held the ribbon high and cut it for Caleb.

Caleb lifted the bouquet out of the jar. He stood on tiptoes, grabbed the flowers, and stretched the bouquet high above his head so each stem could clear the lip of the jar. Ma gawked.

Yesterday’s Caleb would have toppled the jar and spilled water all over the counter and floor. Does love make you careful?

He held the bouquet up for Ma while she tied the ribbon around the stems. Then, he settled the flowers into the crook of his arm and set off toward Mary May’s house.“You know where she lives?” Ma asked.“Oh yeah, right behind the schoolhouse.” Caleb said.“Okay then, be back before dark.” Ma kissed him on the top of his head and waved goodbye.

Caleb figured since running to school took not-too-much-time, then walking to Mary May’s might take a-bit-more-time-than-that. But, he failed to consider that running in morning air, crisp from night’s cool breath, was altogether different than walking under the sun’s pride in the heat of the day.

Caleb walked down the dirt road, cradling his treasured blooms. He imagined Mary May’s face when she saw him. How could she not love someone who brought her flowers?

With every step, the sun grew hotter. He felt petals sticking to the inside’s of his elbows, he felt droplets running down his neck, his hair matted down on his forehead. A country mile never felt so long.

The schoolhouse came into view, then Mary May’s house. Caleb’s mouth was dry but his heart pushed him forward. He held the flowers tight to his chest, forgetting their fragile stems.

A few more steps and Mary May would declare her love to him. Panting, eyes fixed on her house, Caleb didn’t see a mangled root reaching out to grab passers-by. His toe caught the root, his arms flailed, the bouquet dropped, and he fell on top of his precious flowers. 

Dirt melded with sweat, tears fought their way out, Caleb coughed. He rose to his knees, picked up the flowers, and assessed the damage. Crushed, wilted, dirty. These would never do. 

His knee cried out in pain, his hand stung with anger, his feet itched to escape. Caleb blinked and streams of tears cleaned tracks down his cheeks.

Caleb threw the remnants of a lovely bouquet to the ground and let his legs do the very thing they’d been wanting to do all day. He ran.

He ran and didn’t stop for a breath until he saw the field of wildflowers stretching out before him. He knelt over his knees and heaved. Then, Caleb fell to the ground and cried. The setting sun saw his pain and whispered a cool breeze to soothe his pain. The flowers Caleb passed over this morning, danced and tickled his skin. His breathing slowed, his tears ran dry.

Does love make you hurt?

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