A Rose Garden
Elsa turned off the television—her constitutional evening treat: a single episode from a Scottish detective series. She tiptoed up the stairs, past the silhouette of the supper’s unwashed pots and pans, and then paused in the dark hall, outside Oscar’s bedroom door. She knocked softly. Oscar lay in bed reading. She crept over the clothes strewn on the floor and turned on his bedside light. “Your eyes need strong lighting when you read.” She kissed his forehead. “You should really clean this up. Leroy is going to sneak in here and pee on all your clothes—most of them look clean.”
“It’s on my schedule tomorrow.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Do you have school tomorrow?”
“Yeah, from nine to noon.”
“Love you,” she said when she reached the door.
“Love you too,” he said and then shouted, “Love you, Dad!” The house was silent.
“He’s asleep,” Elsa said.
“Night Mom, love you!” Flora shouted from behind her closed door.
“Love you too, Sun-Flower, goodnight.”
Elsa stumbled into the dark bedroom, careful to avoid the base of the spin bike. It was ten. Hugo had been asleep for at least an hour and a half. She slipped under the covers. “Hugo—Hugo—wake up. We need to talk.” Hugo made no indication he was alive. She couldn’t even hear his breaths. “You’re always asleep or at the University. The kids are always home. I never get to talk to you!” Her voice raised in pitch but the volume was low, Wyatt and Flora were just down the hall, and although Oscar’s room was at the opposite end of the hall, at night, on the quiet mountain, voices carried.
Hugo rolled over, his voice was surprisingly alert, “What is it?”
Elsa wondered if he’d been faking being asleep. “I’m worried about my students. Why do you think they’re not reaching out? If anything, they should be more stressed since COVID.”
“I don’t know. They’re probably busy with their online courses.”
“All I get is questions from the smarty-pants kids—worrying about their grades.”
“Maybe those are the kids who are the most stressed out.”
“Maybe—Wyatt has no interest in finishing the rose garden. He only does whatever Flora does. He doesn’t offer to help with the dishes unless Flora’s doing them. He’s living here for free. He should at least help out. We treat him like family—he should be doing chores like family. If he’s not going to pitch in, maybe we should consider charging room and board—something inexpensive, just to help cover the extra groceries.”
“No, he’s important to Flora. She needs the support. Wait until she’s finished exams.”
“Then she starts that summer course…”
“It’s communication in Engineering—it will be a break from math.”
Elsa considered that perhaps Hugo was right. Flora needed Wyatt’s presence to get her through the dredges of the second term of Engineering. It had been a brutal first year. She failed a course in the first semester. Hugo said Engineering was designed to cram as much content as possible into the first year—it was a cruel load that psychologically broke even the most promising students….and then the pandemic abruptly forced everyone online. Lockdown was unnatural for young adults. They needed to be out, socializing, meeting people. Flora was nineteen, without Wyatt in her social bubble, she’d be completely isolated from her peers. Wyatt was basically a good kid, just immature. Though, it seemed to Elsa that he treated his presence in the house as an entitlement, as Princess Flora’s lover.
The bedroom air was stale. Hugo never thought to crack open a window before falling asleep. It was nearly May, Elsa wanted to hear the coyotes howling at night and bird songs in the morning. She felt her way around the end of the bed, past the exercise bike to the window. She pried open the wooden shutters and pushed open the glass. The crisp night air rushed into the stagnant room; it smelled of the massive pile of new soil that sat next to the rose garden, beneath the window. Goosebumps formed on her bare arms as she crawled into bed and pulled the cotton sheet over her bare legs. The scent of marijuana drifted in through the open window. Richard—the neighbour— was smoking weed in his garage. The smell floated into their bedroom on nights the air was still. Elsa supposed that he left the garage side-door propped open as a bogus invitation to the universe so that smoking weed alone every night in a garage was not as sad as it seemed.
The bedroom door opened. “What is it?” asked Elsa, instantly awake—trained, after nearly two decades of being awakened at night by babies, toddlers, and then frightened or ill children. Although it was almost routine, it still felt like a cold hand squeezed her heart every time the bedroom door opened unexpectedly, as it signaled that something was not right in her family.
“Mom?” Oscar’s voice had not yet changed, so it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between his and Flora’s. If Flora was calling her, it meant things were dire, as Wyatt usually served as a buffer for Flora’s minor issues. But as a matriarch, Elsa could not reveal her fear.
“What is it?” Elsa said, trying to sound optimistic.
“My throat hurts.”
It was Oscar. Elsa felt relief. “Get yourself a drink and take a Tylenol. It’s probably allergies.”
“I don’t think it’s allergies.”
“Everything’s blooming. You were out in the forest today—there’s pollen everywhere.”
“It hurts to swallow—do you think it could be COVID?”
Elsa opened the covers. “Come here and lie down for a minute.” Oscar crawled in beside her. Elsa wrapped her arms around him and kissed his head. Oscar had a history of worry, during fire season, his nighttime visits involved reassuring him that the fires were far away and that the house would not burn in the night. “It’s not COVID. There’s no way you could have caught it. You’re social distancing and have only seen the same four friends and they’re all healthy.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Now, why don’t you go back to your bed and I’ll bring you a cold drink, and Tylenol and tuck you in, okay?”
“Okay,” Oscar said, sounding mollified. He flung off the duvet and walked out of the dark room ahead of Elsa.