Empty Lot

by Elizabeth Pettie

Tom with the bad hip planted wildflowers in the tree box that sat in front of the empty lot. He broke earth, overturned brown grass, and scattered seeds. In early spring the neighborhood emerged from winter and it became an evening routine to gather in front of the box. Anxious for the park, dogs tugged leashes, kids pulled hands while parents and owners guessed when and which flowers would pop.

I'd stop and take a stab before heading downhill for my walk: thimbleweeds, purple asters, buttercups. I'd keep my back arched with pregnant belly out, afraid the neighbors would catch on to the doctor's concerns that I wasn't growing fast enough.

Sometimes Jenna, the corporate powerhouse, and Taji her scientist husband stood amongst the group. I'd catch Taji staring at me in a way his wife shouldn't see. Jenna's gaze would pierce my stomach and I get this feeling like she could reach everything hidden beneath my skin.

Just after Memorial Day Tom died of a heart attack, which was fairly unexpected, but not that unexpected given his age, weight, and the exertion spent planting the tree box. The soil paled and dried. Neighbors gave up hope flowers would bloom. In the evenings when I passed the box, I couldn't help feeling there was something beautiful and mysterious about seeds dying buried so no one would discover what they held.

One evening it was just Jenna and Taji at the box. I slowed, wishing I had an excuse to turn around. Jenna, still dressed in work clothes, knelt with her knuckles deep in dirt. Taji stood over her, arms folded. They talked in sharp voices, which silenced before I reached them.

Taji stepped back to let me pass, but Jenna stood to meet me. She snatched my wrist and twisted so the soft side faced the sky. She pinched my bones until I opened my hand. Then she poured soil into my palm, wrapped her fingers around mine, and forced me to cradle it. The granules were so dry they stung.

"It's a shame," she said. Her fingers pressed against my engagement band so the diamond dug into my skin. "Someone should do something."

"It's not a big deal," said Taji. He stepped behind me, smelling warm like the milky tea he'd offered the night we'd spent on his porch, watching the mums dim in the evening light. That was the same and only night that we exchanged comfort and complaints about our overworked spouses and how lonely we felt when they were away.

I pried Jenna's hand off of mine, rubbed my finger where the diamond bit my skin, and opened my palm to let the dirt fall back into the lot. "There's nothing we can do," I said. "The flowers don't belong to us."

"They belong to everyone." Jenna bent to collect dirt. She brought a handful to her face, breathed it in. For a moment she looked so desperate, so hungry, I was sure she would take a bite.

* * *

In the end it wasn't Jenna, but Debbie the architect with the vicious dog who strung a hose to the curb and encouraged everyone to help water. Peter who lived in the big yellow house and couldn't manage his own kids or garden created a schedule, assigning everyone a week.

I volunteered with good intentions, but when it was my turn, I couldn't bring myself to press the nozzle. Instead I stood in the unseasonable heat, sweat dripping along the slight curve of my belly, wishing I could reverse the seasons and hide in winter, buried deep under my coat.

Just like I cooked and brought tiny bits of food to my mouth, I lifted the hose and pretended. I sprinkled the edges of the box with drops of water as a disguise. Jenna caught me before the end of my week. She crossed the street, her dress loose around her waist. When she drew close, I noticed the wrinkles sprouting around her eyes and the few at the corners of her lips and wondered whether she was older or younger than me.

"I know what you're doing," she said.

I didn't fight when she uncurled my fingers to remove the hose. She squeezed the nozzle. Something about the smell of water smacking against dirt made my stomach grumble. I wrapped my hands around my belly as she traced the box, nourishing line by line.

BIO: Elizabeth Pettie is a recovering lawyer who is transitioning to a life of fiction writing and motherhood. She’s traded writing legal briefs for answering her toddler's infinite whys. She recently co-founded www.wordtango.com—a website for writers by writers. This is her first publication.