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A Lonesome Tree
Benny Oaks stops at the very top of the green hill, where a lonesome tree stands and casts a long shadow over a flat spot on the hill. From where he has stopped, he can see the town sprawl before him, the people milling about like ants on an ant farm.
He lays a red-and-white-checkered blanket on the lush, green grass, and begins to unpack things from the large basket he brought. Benny’s old knees ache as he bends to sit on the blanket, but he pays them no mind.
He arranges all of the picnic basket’s contents across the blanket; two wine glasses there, beside them, two small plates of food, each with a stem of grapes, three slices of cheese, five crackers, and a small square of chocolate. He puts the bouquet of white daisies in a tall, elegant vase down after the plates, and then proceeds to light the flames of two candlesticks he has brought, as it is sunset and growing increasingly dark.
Benny pops the cork off of one bottle of red wine and pours the dark liquid into each wine glass. Lastly, he puts a picture frame against the base of the tree trunk. The picture is of a woman with golden hair and twinkly blue eyes. He takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. The sun reflects over the town, illuminating it in golden light. The tall clock tower at the very center begins to sound its hourly song. Benny counts each bong with a nod of his head.
“Seven o’clock,” he murmurs with a smile. “Late again, Rosie, darling.”
He wraps his long, thin fingers around his wine glass, encasing it like five gnarled roots, and takes a sip. At last he sees her sprinting up the hill, curly blonde hair whipping behind her. Her cheeks are flushed bright pink, and her blue eyes twinkle in the candlelight. She has creases around her eyes; laugh lines that have been etched into her face after years of decades smiling. The same lines compliment her mouth, but also jagged lines dent her forehead, and in between her eyebrows, where stress and depression have taken their toll.
“That bell lies,” Rosie Gladwell Oaks insists, panting.
“I know, sweetheart. I know.” Benny takes another sip of his wine and pats the spot on the blanket next to him.
Rosie sits beside him. She wears a white summer dress, the same one she had been wearing the last time he saw her, seventeen years ago. “This is where you took me on our first date,” she muses. Benny grins and hands her the vase full of daisies and the glass of red wine.
“Oh they’re gorgeous, Ben! My favorite!” she cries, looking lovingly at the daisies. She gulps a mouthful of wine, and then smiles her warmest smile at Benny. “Thank you, my love.”
Benny reaches his free hand out and sets it on hers, and he smiles too. “You look the same since I saw you.”
“Heaven blessed me, I suppose,” she says with a shrug. She leans into his shoulder and they stare out over the town as the sun sinks below the horizon. Lights flicker on in the houses below. Benny buries his nose in Rosie’s blonde hair, and he smells flowers. They both nearly finish their wine, but do not pour another glass, as was their tradition. On picnics, only one glass of wine each was to be poured.
“I’ve missed you so much,” Rosie whispers after a while.
“I’ve missed you too,” Benny says sincerely. He takes a bite of cracker and cheese, trying to swallow the lump in his throat. “I don’t... I don’t understand why you left.”
Trying to defuse the tension the question created, Rosie plucks three grapes from the stem off her plate and pops them into her mouth. She chews each one deliberately, and only after swallowing, begins to speak. Her eyes still twinkle, but her face is now very grave. “I felt like I was drowning,” she whispers.
“And you don’t now?” Benny tries to understand; his skinny arm feels weak against her back.
Rosie’s smile is back. “I don’t now.”
Benny nods, but can’t smile. He sits up and puts his hands in his lap. “That’s good,” he says.
“It’s just that now I feel like I’m the one who’s drowning,” he whispers, looking out at the town. “These last seventeen years… they’ve all been cold, and murky. Suffocating.”
Rosie puts her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure it hasn’t been all bad. You have Peter, and Henrietta, and my sweet, sweet baby James.”
“Gone. All gone.”
“Dead?” she gasps, eyes terrified.
He shakes his head. “No, no. Peter is all grown up, has a wife, a family of his own. Henrietta got on a bus at seventeen… went far, far away. I get letters and phone calls every couple months. She hasn’t wanted to see me in over five years.”
“James doesn’t talk to me. He blames me for your decisions. He hates that I didn’t stop you. He hates that he never knew you.”
“He must know that it really wasn’t my choice,” she says to herself. “He must have.”
Benny suddenly turns and stares at her. “Rosie Oaks, that is a lie. A dirty, filthy lie. It was your choice. You chose to leave us. I just don’t understand HOW.”
She looks down, tears in her eyes. “I was drowning. Drowning in my life.”
“You were weak.”
“I was alone!” she shouts. “In a family who I loved and who loved me but I was empty. There was nothing inside my body! I was just an empty shell.”
A tear slips down Benny’s crinkled cheek. “I’m sorry. I loved you so much.”
Rosie nods. “I know, my love. I know.” The bell tower begins its song again, this time clanging eight times. It finishes, and they sit in silence for a moment. Rosie then stands, and leans down in front of Benny. She places a hand on both sides of his face, leaves forward, and brushes his lips ever so lightly with hers. So light, it’s just a ghost of a kiss.
“See you next year, Benny, my love,” she says. Then takes off down the hill until the darkness swallows her whole and he can no longer see her.
Benny Oaks sits unmoving at the top of a green hill, under the moonlit shadow of a lonesome tree. To his right, two burning candles dripping with wax, and a picture frame along with one empty wine glass, and one half-eaten plate to his left. Beside his food and drink sit another full wine glass and plate of food, and a tall vase with a bouquet of daisies.