Orchard Flower (version Alpha)

by Lubrican

Chapter : Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

Chapter One

I got married at thirty-one, relatively late in life, after years of thinking I'd never meet that special woman. When she suddenly popped into my life I was astonished, and then delighted. Losing her was just as sudden, and the emotions involved in it were even stronger. I didn't even have the closure of being able to bury her because ... well ... there wasn't anything to put in the coffin. The counselor the airline supplied suggested I think of her as having been buried at sea. That didn't help.

I want you to know up front here that I'm not trying to get you to feel sorry for me. I took care of that, believe me. I just want you to understand the frame of mind I was in when things happened after that, or I made decisions; that's all.

I couldn't live in the house any more. I had a company auction off all the furniture and everything else we'd bought together. I sold the house too, because even seeing it from the outside made me want to fall down and cry. I didn't need a whole house any more anyway. I couldn't get up the interest to look for an apartment, and got a long term room in a fleabag hotel because it was quick and easy. The room had a television, though I didn't watch it much. I read a lot of books, though it took a really good one to keep my mind off my loss.

I kept my job as an accountant, because it was somewhere to go during the day, and I could dull the pain by letting the numbers distract me. Tax season was the best, because I was busy extra hours of the day. I turned management of my own financial affairs over to Phil, a friend of mine who didn't know what to say about Vicky being dead, but wanted to do something to help.

I found that if I went for a run that helped. I wasn't a physical kind of person before all this happened. I had never been a runner before this, but I'd heard that runners kind of zone out while they run and I desperately wanted to zone out, so I tried it. I didn't zone out, but there were lots of things to distract me, particularly if I ran during rush hour. That's when I started running to and from work, instead of driving my car. Rain or shine, cold or hot, it didn't matter to me. It was something to do that kept me from constantly thinking about my loss.

Three years later I was finally able to think about her without crying. I probably should have stayed in therapy a lot longer than I did. Maybe that would have limited my mourning time to a year.

Basically, though, one day it finally occurred to me that I didn't have a life. I looked around and took stock. In the hotel room I had some clothes and three neatly organized accordion folders of my personal records. I had a few books. I swapped books at the local used book place, or got them from the library, so I didn't own that many. I still had a bunch of stuff in the self-storage place, but hadn't even been down there in over a year. I paid all my bills online from my computer at work, and didn't get paper bank statements. Whenever I paid a bill I saw a summary of account activity, and all I ever checked routinely was the balance in my checking account. They say mechanics drive broken down cars, and accountants never balance their checkbooks. It's true, I guess.

When I took the time to actually go talk to Phil and look at my own financial situation I was mildly astonished to find that the proceeds of the house, and my wife's life insurance, having been invested and rolled over a number of times, had made me a modestly wealthy man. Of course the Spartan lifestyle I lived had a lot to do with that too. I'd completely forgotten about the fact that I'd signed papers for Phil to have almost fifty percent of my salary diverted to an investment fund, and that I'd also elected to pay taxes on it up front.

In short, if I wanted it, within six months I could have over two million dollars in liquid assets available to me.

When you have that much money it's easy to overcompensate for awakening from three years or so of lethargic non-involvement in the world. While before this I elected to do relatively nothing except feel sorry for myself, now I went a little crazy trying to change the feel of my life.

Things were slow one day, and I saw an ad in the paper about how the government auctions off land to settle tax debts. I'd seen it before, but had never paid any attention to it. This time I went to the web site that was listed.

For some reason I got interested in a four hundred acre farm in South Dakota that had been seized by the government for back taxes. I had this stylized vision of being a gentleman farmer, which turned out to be a real hoot.

You can be an accountant anywhere. South Dakota needs them, just like everybody else. It turned out that four hundred acres in South Dakota is considered to be a garden plot by most ranchers. If it's not land that's contiguous with what you already own, it would be more of a pain in the ass to mess with than be of any benefit to a big rancher.

In short, I got the farm for a song. I felt bad about that later, when I realized how the former owners must have felt about losing it, but at the time I thought it was great that I still had plenty of money in my investment accounts when I got the deed to the place.

It was after that that I found out farming is hard work, whether you think you can hire somebody else to do it or not. It's risky too. Two days of bad weather at the wrong time can ruin an entire year's crop. After the first two years I ended up renting most of the tillable land out for shares of the crop, and turned the rest into pasture for horses. I usually board five or six these days, which kind of breaks even on the expenses. When I'm not taking care of horses I spend my time working on the house, which is sixty or seventy years old, and on a garden that turned out to be probably ten times larger than I really needed. During harvest season I spend a lot of time at the farmers’ market and still end up donating truckloads of food to the food bank.

I brought my Spartan lifestyle with me. I wash dishes by hand. I heat as much as possible with a wood stove. I don't have cable or a cell phone. When I'm not working (which is unusual) I still read lots of books. Somehow being closer to nature made me feel closer to Vicky too, and I was able to talk to her out there in the sun, wind and rain, and nobody would hear me.

Well almost nobody. I do have neighbors, though it took me years to get to know them. I first met Lynne the second day I'd lived there, when she brought over a casserole as a housewarming gift.

"Welcome to the neighborhood," she said calmly when I opened the door.

She said more than that, of course. She introduced herself, and I somewhat belatedly invited her in. There were still boxes lying around, unopened, and I had no furniture. She told me about the local auction barn, which had a public sale every Friday night. I judged her to be twenty-two or so and thought maybe she was the neighbor's daughter or something. I figured out that was an error when she said she and Paul, her husband, had a seven-year-old daughter.

It turned out that the land I'd bought had originally been in their family. Their house was only a quarter mile away and had been built by her father. I was living in her grandfather's house.

That was about all I found out that day. I met the little girl, whose name was Jill, when I took the baking dish back. Jill was a bright, friendly talkative girl. Her mother was on the phone when I arrived, so Jill entertained me by asking at least three dozen questions about who I was and where I came from and why I had bought Great Grandpa Lucian's house and what was I going to grow and all manner of other things.

Once Lynne was off the phone she scolded Jill for being snoopy. The girl flashed me a smile and disappeared off somewhere. I ended up staying for dinner and met Paul when he came in from tending their cattle. I found out during supper that they'd wanted to get my land back, but hadn't had the money to compete. There was no rancor about it. Paul just suggested that if farming didn't work out for me, he'd appreciate if I let him know if I was going to sell or not.

Being from the city I was a bit stand offish. I was also somewhat shy, because my people skills weren't the best. I guess I took a page from Jill's book and asked a lot of questions so that they'd do all the talking instead of me. In the process I found out they'd met in the local chapter of Future Farmers of America, and that Lynne had inherited her farm, about three thousand acres, from her parents. Her grandfather's farm had already been sold to a man who turned out to be a speculator. When they got married Paul was able to start building a herd of cattle. Lynne spent most of her time working in the orchard her parents had planted a couple of years before she was born. About all I told them was that I was a widower who got tired of the city and wanted to give clean living a try.

That was pretty much it, at least for a few months. I went back home, with mixed feelings because while it had been good to be able to do something as simple as chat with some nice people, I didn't have the kind of social skills to feel comfortable talking to them. Paul was a strong young man who looked like the cowboy incarnate. Lynne was a pretty young woman who made me feel uncomfortable because I thought of her as being so pretty. I was thirty-five and they were both ten years younger. And their seven-year-old daughter was even more removed from my normal social group.

Had I been so jaded as to think that Paul hoped I'd fail (so he could try to buy the land) I would have been disabused of that notion almost immediately. Within days he came over and said he'd like to help me get off to a good start.

The good equipment, or at least the newer equipment, had been sold before the farm was sold. What was left was what might have been called good equipment fifty years ago. Of course I didn't know the difference, and the fact that I had a tractor that ran, and plows and disks and harrows and all that kind of thing made me think it would be easy. After all, all you did was ride the tractor, right? Whatever the tractor was pulling did all the work, right?

Actually, as things turned out, the tools I had were about right for the three hundred acres of tillable land I now owned. It hadn't been tilled for over three years, but Paul helped me hook up the old three bottom plow to the three-point hitch on the Massey Ferguson tractor and showed me how to turn the earth over so it could be chopped up into smaller and smaller pieces by succeeding implements. It took me three weeks to prepare those three hundred acres for planting and it was only then that I found out my options for a crop that would have time to mature before winter came were reduced to only one thing.

That's how I became a sunflower farmer.

After about two weeks, when he'd spared much more time than he could afford to get me started, Paul went back to taking care of his cows and I didn't see much of him after that.

Other than at community social events, I saw Lynne about once a month when she brought over a pie. She made the most delicious homemade pies. What kind of pie she brought depended on what was in season. If there was no fruit ripe, she'd make lemon meringue, or chocolate, or banana cream or some such thing. Her rhubarb pie was one of my favorites. I kept telling her she didn't have to do that, and that I had nothing I could repay her with. When I tried to pay her money one time she went three months before I got another pie. She was just like that. She kind of kept an eye on me, I think.

Actually, I saw more of Jill than I did her parents, at least for the first three years. As I labored to become a farmer I often saw Jill sitting on a horse, watching me. She'd smile and wave and, more often than I like remembering, ride over to tell me what I was doing wrong. She was a skinny thing, with those coltish legs that make a girl look so awkward, though she wasn't really awkward at all. She knew ten times as much about farming as I did.

It was Jill who told me I was letting the weeds get too big amongst the sunflowers.

It was Jill who told me that the sweet corn in my garden was planted too close together, and that unless I put a fence up, I wouldn't have any lettuce because rabbits would eat it all.

I hired a man to do all the things I didn't know how to do. It was Jill who told me he was shamming, going to sleep instead of working, or even going off to town when I thought he was out in the fields. She said he was just collecting his pay instead of actually doing anything.

It was Jill who said that the late hail we got in my third year had disrupted the soil too much, and that my five-inch sunflowers - which weren't beaten down at all, though a few were broken - would die. They all did too. That was when I found out a sunflower can't be transplanted. If the roots are disturbed ... it just dies.

By the fourth year, when I finally realized I wasn't farmer material, I rented out the tillable land to another sunflower farmer and started using my other hundred acres for boarding horses. I also hung out my sign as a certified public accountant, so I could still be my own boss. Turns out farm taxes are complicated and time consuming, so folks were happy to have me around.

By that time Jill was eleven and she was a regular fixture around my place. Paul said she was still too young to work cows, but she'd been riding horses since she could find a way to climb up on one. During the school year she'd come to my house for help with her math homework, and in the summer time she spent a lot of hours "helping" me, though I think she was really goofing off. Her job was to climb high in the apple trees to do the pruning up there, because she was small and light. Because the orchard was between their house and mine, it was easy for her to slip over to my place. I think she was keeping an eye on me too, though for different reasons than her mother.

Then one dark, stormy morning Jill came tearing into the yard on her horse, screaming.

It had been a rough, loud night, with the kind of lightning that comes so often and so bright that it penetrates even closed eyelids and you can't shut it out to go to sleep. Thunder shook the house and rattled the dishes. There were tornado watches going on all over the place.

That morning Paul had gotten up early and gone out in it, trying to assess how scattered the herd was. He was the tallest thing on the plains and the lightning killed both him and his horse. When he hadn't come back for breakfast, Lynne and Jill had gone looking for him. Jill finished riding her part of the search pattern and found her mother, sitting on the ground, holding her father's lifeless body and rocking as she sobbed.

Her mother wouldn't answer her. Jill was old enough and smart enough to know what her father's open, staring eyes meant, so she went to the only other person she could ask for help from.

Jill had taught me to ride when I took up boarding horses. I had never ridden in a driving rain and the slicker I was wearing was woefully inadequate at keeping me dry, but I didn't think about that. Jill had been crying so hard that she couldn't talk, except to say "Daddy's dead," which almost incapacitated me. But I found the strength from somewhere to be the adult. I told her to lead me, and followed. Lynne was still there, in a puddle of water, holding her husband, beside a horse that was obviously dead too.

It took me twenty minutes - and Jill's help - to get her to let go of him. I was in good shape, and he wasn't a big man, so I was able to get his body up and over the saddle of my horse. I didn't have anything to fasten him on with, so I walked slowly, leading my horse and looking back most of the time. Jill walked beside her mother, holding her hand. Lynne had stopped crying, and was just plodding forward. I knew it would be useless to ask her if she was OK, so I just paid attention at keeping Paul's body on the horse.

I don't know how long it took us to get back to the house. It stopped raining, but the clouds were still thick and black, and I couldn't see the sun. I didn't wear a watch any more, because what time it was really didn't matter much. I worked until the work was done, and then went in the house to eat and read or whatever.

Then, when we finally got to the house, I didn't know what to do with Paul. I started to carry him to the barn and Lynne finally spoke.

"No. Inside," she said.

I didn't think that was a good idea, but wasn't willing to argue with her. Once inside, though, she went silent again. I didn't think putting his soaked body on their bed was the right thing to do, and besides, I didn't even know where their bedroom was. So I laid him out on the couch and closed his eyes. I could see a bright red streak down the side of his neck, where the electricity had gone. His hat was missing and a circle of hair was burned away too. Without the rain beating down on me I could see that there was a hole in the leg of his jeans too, where the lightning had burned through as it went from him into his horse.

Lynne was standing, facing half away from him as if frozen. Jill kept trying to talk to her, but she wouldn't answer. I went to the phone first, and called 911, telling them what I thought had happened. I had to ask Jill what the address was and she took the phone from me. While she talked to the 911 operator, I tried to figure out what to do with Lynne.

"You're wet," I said softly. "You need to get dry clothes on."
"He's dead," she whispered, her voice broken.

"You'll get sick if you don't take care of yourself," I said.

"He kissed me goodbye this morning and now he's dead." Her dull voice broke and a wail of pain welled up out of her. All I could do was hold her as she sobbed and screamed.

Jill joined us, trying to hug her mother too, and crying again herself. I let her into the hug and we all just stood there. We were still standing there when I heard the siren and saw the flashing lights through one window. I tried to extricate myself from the tangle, but Lynne held on fiercely. Jill got loose and opened the door for the two paramedics and a deputy who was with them. Their examination of Paul was short. Apparently they'd seen it before.

They were very efficient then. After I told them who I was they tried to talk to Lynne. One of them talked on the radio and came up with a sedative that he shot into her arm. Then we carried her to the bedroom, led by Jill who showed us the way. The female paramedic shooed us out and closed the door.

I couldn't leave. Jill needed somebody there with her, particularly since her mother was going to be out for a while. The paramedic assumed I'd stay because he gave me instructions on what to do when Lynne woke up. He also gave me some pills I could give her if she woke up too soon.

I almost gave one of those pills to Jill, who had exhibited such amazing strength and control during the whole incident. Once the body was gone, and it was quiet in the house again though, she came unglued. It took me an hour to get her calmed down. She was shaking like a leaf, and I didn't know if it was emotional or environmental. We were both still soaked, and I felt chilled myself.

She was eleven, which seemed like such a young age to me that I didn't think twice about getting her clothes off of her so I could dry her off and get her into dry things. Thinking back on it, I had never seen an eleven-year-old girl naked ... not even when I was that age ... so I didn't know what to expect. And anyway, her sexuality was the farthest thing from my mind.

To be fair, I did notice her budding breasts, with their tiny pink nipples, which were startlingly erect and surrounded by goose bumps. Her whole body was studded with goose bumps. And I noticed there was a distinct lack of hair between her legs, where it was obvious she was female. But I didn't stare, or leer or anything like that. I just found some sweat pants and a long-sleeved shirt that I got her to climb into. Then I found a towel and dried her hair as much as I could. There was a hair dryer in a bathroom across the hall from where Lynne was now sleeping, and I pulled Jill in there to get her hair dry. I brushed it while I used the dryer on it, and by the time I was finished, she was only breaking into sobs intermittently.

I didn't know what to do then. Food is comforting, so I took Jill to the kitchen with me and tried to distract her by asking where things were. I wasn't much of a cook, but I could do hamburger helper. It turned out they didn't have any hamburger helper, so I had to make do with meat and noodles, which I added spices to, hoping they were the right spices, and the right quantities of them. I also put in a couple of cans of tomato paste and a lot of cheese.

At one point I saw that Jill had sat down. She wasn't crying any more. Instead, she was just staring at me, blinking every once in a while.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"I know," she answered. "Me too."

Her face scrunched up again and more tears started. I turned the heat down under the pan and went to hold her. I didn't know what to say, so I just started talking about losing Vicky. I ended up sitting down, and Jill ended up sitting on my lap with her head against my chest. When I finally stopped talking I realized she'd fallen into an exhausted sleep.

I was afraid to move, for fear of waking her up, so I just sat there and held her.

An hour and a half later I was stiff and sore when she woke up. She stood up, looked at me for a few seconds, and then left the room. I hadn't turned the heat down enough on the "hamburger helper" and the bottom was burned, about a quarter inch thick. I scraped the rest of it out of the pan into a bowl and tried some. It wasn't the best I ever had, by a long shot, but it was at least edible.

Jill came back.

"She's still sleeping."

"Good," I said.

She came over and snuggled into my arms, needing a physical bond with someone.

"I'm going to go lie down with her," she said.

"That's probably good too," I said softly. "Call me when she wakes up."

"You're going to stay?" She sounded surprised.

"Of course," I said.

She squeezed me, and then let go, leaving the room again.

I'll leave off with the excruciating detail at this point. Suffice it to say that Lynne woke up, and needed someone there. I stayed for three days, dealing with the funeral home for her and letting Jill teach me to cook food that didn't make them gag. I got the tractor out to drag the horse off to where Lynne wanted it buried. It had already been ravaged by coyotes, but the saddle and tack were salvageable. There was lots more that happened, but it isn't vital to the telling of this tale. Not in detail anyway.

I looked in on them every day for long enough that it just became a habit. Lynne's sister came to visit from somewhere, and some other relatives were there for the funeral. Jill actually fled from them because they made her feel sadder than just dealing with things herself. Of course she came to my place to get away from them.

Lynne sold off the cattle and rented out the pasture to another rancher. Paul's life insurance, which they had only been able to afford to keep paying because his parents bought the policy for him when he was a baby, was more than enough to take care of the funeral expenses and gave them enough to fall back on for a while.

Lynne and I spent hours sharing our grief. It was good for both of us. Jill spent even more time shadowing me, and time passed.

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