The next morning, when I woke up, my first morning in the new house, I was completely alone. Both the U-Haul and the white station wagon were gone, and the house felt bigger than it should have, considering how small it was compared to our old one.
I made myself breakfast in the kitchen, cold cereal and milk with a glass of orange juice, and read the funny pages of the newspaper that had been left out on the table. It wasn’t until the end, while reading the boring Doonesbury and Family Circus panels that I always read after I had run out of good ones, that I heard the doorbell.
I hadn’t registered the sound at first, hadn’t even realized that this place had a doorbell instead of an old fashioned knocker. I made sure to rinse out my bowl and glass before walking to the front door, still in my pajamas.
It was the girl from yesterday. She stood on the porch, wearing the same blue denim overalls and red shirt from the day before, and was not paying any attention to me at all. She was facing sideways, towards her house to the left, with her arms crossed. She made no indication that she had heard the door open.
“Hi,” I said.
She looked at me then, looked me up and down all the way from the cowlicks on my head to my Spider-Man pajama pants and barefeet.
“Hey,” she said, and took out a piece of bubblegum from her pocket, popped it in her mouth and crumpled up the foil wrapper, sticking it back in her pocket. “Want one?”
I shook my head. I could tell that it was the regular bubblegum flavor by the artificial pink coloring. I only liked fruit or mint flavored gum.
She nodded, and made a ‘tch’ sound with her mouth. Then she hopped off the porch and started walking across our lawn, back toward her house. “Come on,” she called back.
I went back to my room, threw on a clean shirt and jeans, and put on my shoes before leaving. I walked all the way around the hedge that separated the two houses, and followed the stone path through the center of the yard next door. The front door was closed, so I knocked on it.
An old, hunched woman answered the door. She had stark white hair pulled back in a bun, and wore a long, black dress with floral patterns embroidered in silver thread. She looked surprised to see me, and thrust both hands squarely on her hips when she saw me. She was rather squat and short, not much taller than I was, but commanded a presence of someone much larger.
“Well?” she said, looking at me expectantly.
“Um, er,” I didn’t know what to say. The only other adult who had addressed me in such a way was my mother when she knew that I was lying about something, waiting for me to fess up.
“Hmm? Go on, spit it out, boy. I won’t bite you.” The way she said it made me doubt her. Her big nose was hooked like a hawk’s, and I was sure that if she wanted it to, her bite could be just as fierce.
“I was supposed to come over today,” I said. “My mom said she talked to you yesterday,” and, remembering her granddaughter’s name, “Clara just came to get me and told me to follow her, but I had to put my clothes on and when I came back out she was gone. I thought she just came inside. Sorry.”
Ms. Cleary lowered her arms and sniffed. “Hmph. So she did. ” She looked up and over my shoulder and called out in a loud, squawking voice, “Clara, you get down from that tree and stop hiding from the boy!”
I followed Ms. Cleary’s gaze, and sure enough, Clara was sitting there, nestled in the branches among the leaves. She smirked, and swung herself down from the tree.
“Honestly,” Ms. Cleary said. “I never remembered your mother being this way.”
“Thanks,” said Clara and giggled. Then she looked at me. “You keep your shoulders slouched and look at the ground when you walk. If you would’ve looked up you’d have seen me.”
“Try to be polite to our guest,” said Ms. Cleary, as she turned back into the house. Clara and I followed, and I was immediately overwhelmed by the sweet, flowery smells of lavender and coconut, an odd combination. “He’ll be coming over all this week, so long as he wants to.” She stopped in the middle of the hallway, which was both longer and wider than it should have been, judging from the outside, and turned to me. “I know your mother wants you taken care of, but I won’t keep you here if you don’t want to stay.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
We kept moving down the main hallway, which split off into other hallways and rooms that stretched down the length of the house. The lighting was dim, and the overhead bulbs were electric, but glowed with the same fiery hue as candlelight, and they gave the whole place a dark, eerie atmosphere.
“Your house is a lot bigger than ours,” I said.
Ms. Cleary shrugged. “I like my space,”she said. And it’s only bigger on the inside, really. Step out and you can see that for yourself.”
The hallway opened into a kitchen and dining room, more than twice as large as our own. There were jars lined up along shelves over the counter, ones like miniature biodomes, stuffed with plants and cacti and flowers, others growing mold, or filled with what looked to be different colored clays or sand.
Ms. Cleary sat at the round wooden table in the center of the room, where strings of cotton and balls of wax were laid out. Clara sat down next to her, and began braiding the threads of cotton together. “We’re making candles,” she said.
I sat down next to her and she showed me how to braid the strings of cotton, and tie the ends off when I was finished. We made several strands, and then Ms. Cleary stopped us.
“Clara, could you take your friend out to the garden and fetch some lavender buds, and see if you can’t find some upright bedstraw as well. You might have to check out by the woods, but they always add a nice touch.”
Clara nodded, pushed herself away from the table, and motioned for me to follow. She pushed back a curtain against the wall to reveal a sliding glass door, opened it, stepped out. I followed her outside, and closed the door behind me.
We stepped out and onto the cement porch, which was the only thing in the backyard that was not a part of the garden. All around us, stretching way back to the edges of the tall picket fence, were lilacs and roses, great clumps of rhododendron, vibrant perennials, and masses of bright lavender. The cluster of smells competing for my attention was distracting. Pleasant.
There was no order or structure as far as the layout of the garden went, nothing was categorized. It looked like all of the seeds had been tossed together and then thrown at random out in the yard. There didn’t seem to be a single square inch of grass that was left unoccupied. But I still came away with the impression that every single plant was exactly where Ms. Cleary wanted it to be. Bees flocked and swarmed in the air, humming in delight at the endless feast of pollen. I didn’t want to be stung, and lingered on the porch.
Clara walked into the tangle of flowers, not minding the bees, and turned back to me. “Come on,” she said. “If you don’t bother the bees they won’t bother you.”
I seriously doubted this little nugget of wisdom, which my mother had recited to me before. It hadn’t stopped me from getting stung two summers ago, while playing in the sprinkler outside. A bee had come and stung me on the arm for no reason, I was convinced, other than spreading pain and hate. But I pushed through the lilacs and lilies where Clara had disappeared into, and followed the sound of her voice, despite my better judgement.
“Over here,” she said.
I found her standing next to several lavender bushels in between the rhododendrons. She was plucking the buds from the ends of the thin, green strands.
“Hold out your hands,” she said. I did, and she dumped a handful of buds into my waiting cup. “Put them in your pockets.” Again, I did as Clara said, and she returned to picking the buds.
When my pockets were full, Clara stopped, and started walking again through the garden and toward the fence, to where the backyard met the front.
“What’s the other one we’re supposed to get?” I said.
Clara rolled her eyes. “Upright bedstraw,” she said. “But it doesn’t grow here. We need to go out past the fence, to where the meadow meets the wood.”
I ducked as a bee flew past my head. “Why’s it called that?”
“In older times, back when people made their own beds, they used it as mattress stuffing.”
“So why are we using it for candles?”
Clara shrugged. “Because it smells good. Why else?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. We reached the edge of the fence, where there was a great wooden door with an iron latch. We went through it, and into the front yard.
“How old are you?” I said, as we walked.
“Seven and a half.”
“I’m almost nine. That’s a year older than you are.”
“Does that make you feel better?”
Again, I was lost for words. While we walked down the street I watched Clara. She didn’t walk like she was seven and a half years old. She moved like an adult, with her head held high and her back straight, and a lilting rhythm in her step.
We approached the fence, which was over ten feet high, and made of chain link. It had no plastic covering over the top like others I had seen, the top ended at a long, thin metal bar, which stretched across. The ends of the chain links poked over it.