3rd Place – October 2021

The Garden Will Take Care of Us

 By Gary Christenson

 I feared our dangerous urban existence would bring misery to Clare, my sixteen-year-old sister. As she puttered in the garden, her beatific expression reminded me of a blond angel. She’s strange and blessed, but a misfit in this perilous world.
I have protected and supported Clare since our parents died in an auto accident. We live in a rough neighborhood in the Bronx that crushes pretty flowers like her. Several months ago, three Italian hoodlums hassled us on the street outside the local grocery store. I taught them a lesson about the McHenry family and showed them we take care of our own. It cost me a tooth, a black eye, and bruises. I spent most of a week recuperating after we limped home from the fight, but I left the three of them lying in the parking lot, bloody and unconscious.
The word passed, and the local thugs avoided Clare and me. The Italians like revenge, but so far, they have ignored us.
Clare dug holes in the ground, planted seedlings, and spread organic fertilizer in our backyard garden. She flitted from plant to plant like a butterfly and whispered to something I didn’t see. She’s innocent and beautiful and gives my life meaning, even though I don’t understand her most of the time. If she weren’t my sister, if I didn’t love her, if she didn’t have a kind heart, if so many things… I’d worry about her mental health.
On a warm day in April, Clare planted lettuce in rich, fertile earth. The sun illuminated her face; she resembled a saint in one of the Catholic books my parents expected me to study. A moment later, she turned and squealed with delight. For the next thirty minutes she spoke to an invisible someone, like I speak to a friend over a beer. I saw no one in the garden except Clare.
I guessed Clare spoke to an imaginary friend who lived in her garden. She had few girlfriends, and other teens couldn’t relate to her. Boys and social media bored her. Clare’s garden satisfied her social needs. I didn’t understand.
A month later, Clare again spoke to an invisible someone. At dinner she sipped fresh juice, extracted from carrots grown in her garden. I drank beer, like my Irish ancestors. I asked her, “I saw you talking to someone in the garden this afternoon. Who was it?”
 She rolled her eyes. “Oh Sean, that was Neil. He’s a garden gnome, but from the green clan, not one of the bad ones from the black clan.” She smiled and shook her head as if saying ‘grown-ups don’t understand.’
“Oh.” I took another sip of beer and waited.
Clare ate her vegetables and told me, “Neil is playful, and likes to tease. It’s easy for him to hide, and he only shows himself if he’s in a particular mood. You can’t see him.”
Oh swell, a playful gnome who teases and vanishes.
“Neil is smart. He knows you don’t believe he exists, but he thinks you’ll listen to reason if it smacks you in the face. He told me you might understand someday.”
So, a reasonable gnome will whack me in the face someday. She’s my adorable sister, but really?
Clare said, “Sean, don’t stare at me like I’m crazy. I live in a beautiful world where good gnomes, like Neil, help my vegetables grow bigger and faster. He fights off the nasty gnomes, and he heals my boo-boos. Neil is my best friend.” She paused, looked at me and added, “After you.”
Well, that clears up everything. Gnomes fight invisible wars in her garden, a good one heals her injuries, and he will whack me in the face someday.
That night I tried to read but obsessed over Clare’s comments. I couldn’t remember the last time she had been sick. Several years ago, she cut her arm. Instead of healing in a week, as I expected, the six-inch scab disappeared in less than a day. Also, brightly colored vegetables grew extra-large in our garden and looked more nutritious than vegetables we bought in the grocery.
Maybe Neil does… Nah. I survive in the real world with money troubles, hoodlums, the IRS, and a job. People, not invisible gnomes, live in my world.

***

Three months later, the Italians attacked. They smashed our front door after midnight. I was half awake, taking a pee. I scrambled back to my bedroom, grabbed a revolver, and trembled beside a door, waiting to get a clear shot. I yelled, “Clare, call 9-1-1 and stay in your bedroom. Lock the door!”
One Italian showed himself and ran down the hall toward me. I nailed him in the chest. A second thug flattened himself against a wall. I jumped to the other side of the hall and dropped him, but the third Italian shot me in the gut as I fired into his chest. I collapsed, yelled for Clare, and lost blood. I thought I was a goner.
Clare hurried to my side and stood over me in her nightdress. She held a towel to my stomach and said, “Don’t move. I’ll get help.”
I struggled to remain conscious. As I faded, Clare looked like an angel in white robes.
She left the room but soon returned. “Neil will help you.” I guessed an EMT named Neil was coming. Instead, a three-foot tall creature approached. He had white hair, blotchy pinkish skin with large brown warts, an enormous nose, and gigantic hands. His emerald-green eyes bugged out toward me. Clare said, “This is Neil. You can trust him.”
The gnome touched my forehead and placed his hands on my stomach. He chanted strange words and inserted his fingers deep inside my abdomen. Except, I know that’s impossible. A minute later the pain diminished, and blood stopped surging out of my gut. Neil held up the bullet and frowned. For a short little guy, he had a deep voice. “You will live. Try not to stop bullets. Ta ta.” He gently slapped me on the face, took two steps toward the backyard, and vanished.
Clare put her hand on my shoulder. “The EMTs and cops will arrive soon. Don’t mention Neil or that he healed your gunshot wound.”
I nodded in shock. She smiled and said, “I love you. Don’t leave me.”
The EMTs entered our house, saw the bodies and several pools of blood, rushed to check my vitals, and looked puzzled. Dave, the one in charge, asked, “What happened here?”
Clare told him, “Those bad people broke into our home. Sean fought them. I was asleep, so I don’t know the rest.” She looked at Dave, but her hands shook, and Clare’s face had turned pale.
I said, “I don’t feel good, and I’m cold.”
Dave and his partner loaded me into the ambulance. Clare held my hand and stayed with me in the hospital room.
The next morning Doctor Madsen spoke to me. “Mr. McHenry, you survived a gunshot wound that should have killed you. The bullet entered your abdomen but vanished without an exit hole. It’s almost healed, and you’re well enough to return home. Please explain what really happened.” He glared at me.
I lied. “Three guys invaded our house. I shot them, but my memory is fuzzy after they crashed through our front door. I guess the EMTs worked a miracle on me.”
The doctor shook his head and said, “I don’t believe you, but you’re free to go. Take it easy for a week.” He walked from the room, mumbling.
I smiled at Clare and said, “You’re an angel. Let’s go home and work in your garden. It will take care of us.”

Writers’ workshop and writing group