The house was perfect. The stately Victorian sat on a hill, the long driveway curving up through the tree, exposing the house only after the last turn. The Virginia countryside surrounded the house, slowly giving way to the growing town only a mile or so from the ten acres where the beautiful building dwelled.
If all of that wasn’t enough, the yard in front was a lush green lawn and stands of trees, but the back of the house contained a fall of patios, bringing the path from the house down the hill and each patio contained deep thick gardens. Upon seeing the layers of bright flowers and vines, Sandy Martinez knew this was the home for her. Her green thumb twitched in anticipation as she placed her offer with the realtor, and the urge to tend the gardens and plant new ones. The urge grew more insistent when the old couple that owned the house accepted her ridiculously low first offer.
On moving day, Sandy stood in the driveway while the moving company began unloading her belongings and dropping them throughout various rooms of the house. Her twelve-year-old son Freddy and his dog Muzzy ran circles in the yard, happy to be free from the car after the long drive from Wilmington. Sandy soaked in every inch of the façade of the house. The pale peach shutters locked tight against the soft gray siding, the deep copper of the multi-tiered roof tiles, and the bright flowers planted in deep boxes along the front of the house.
The front room would be perfect to display the flower arrangements Sandy planned to sell as part of relocating her party decorating business. The tiny town was only about an hour from Richmond, and Sandy already made some good contacts with party planners to get her foot in the door. Life was good.
A year later, Sandy’s business was thriving, mostly due to the beautiful flowers grown in her gardens that adorned the arrangements she created. There was only one spot three feet wide and about five feet long in the third tier down that refused to sprout anything. The ground remained barren despite the specialized fertilizers and tender care she lavished. Among all of the bright colors and greenery, the one lone spot looked out of place and lacking.
One day, she tended the flowers in the front boxes when her neighbor, Mrs. Bixley came to visit. The old widow was a pest, constantly nagging about Muzzy barking or Freddy’s baseball landing on her lawn. Sandy saw her coming out of the corner of her eye, but she didn’t bother to stop digging with her trowel until Mrs. Bixley stalked right up to her and blocked the sun.
“Good Morning, Mrs. Bixley,” Sandy faked cheer at seeing her neighbor. “How are you today?”
“Working on your flowers again I see. That’s all the last man who lived here did. His wife sat in the house all day while he was out here digging in the dirt. I must say though, before he moved in, nothing would grow out here. At least you aren’t letting the property values decline by letting it go to seed.”
Sandy smiled as she looked up to see her neighbor. Maybe this visit would let them be friends. “Well, I’m glad you like the flowers. I will cut some and bring them over to you.”
“Hmph. Flowers are a silly waste of time. You should just put in plastic ones like I did.” The old lady eyed Sandy up and down before gesturing down the driveway with her cane. “Anyway, I didn’t come over here to socialize. That boy of yours and that hoodlum across the lane were taking apples from the tree in my yard this morning. I’m calling that school and telling them to move the bus stop from in front of my house.”
Sandy stood and stretched, using the back of her gardening glove to wipe the perspiration from her brow.
“I do apologize for the boys’ behavior, Mrs. Bixley. I will talk to Freddy and tell him not to touch the apples or come into your yard. I will talk to Jeff’s mom too.”
The old lady didn’t seem pleased by her answer. “Like that will do any good. I’ve had to come over here with my bad knee aching too many times now. If you can’t control that little terror of yours, then I will call the police and have him arrested for trespassing!”
Sandy smiled through her gritted teeth. “That really won’t be necessary Mrs. Bixley.”
“I’ll decide what’s necessary. You just keep that boy under control.”
With one last shake of her cane, Mrs. Bixley toddled back across the lawn and through the shrubs to her adjoining property.
Sandy finished in the front box, but her anger didn’t subside. She decided to work through it and returned to the empty spot in the third tier. With relish, she dug along the edge of the patch, only realizing she dug too deep when she saw the roots of the flowers.
“Damn,” she muttered. “I hope I didn’t hurt those roots.” She put her hand down to feel how deep the roots went and how damaged they might be. Her fingers brushed something hard under the tips of the roots. The confrontation with Mrs. Bixley shoved to the back of her mind, Sandy dug around a little deeper and pulled on the object. It didn’t readily come free from the hold of the earth. She used the trowel to dig around and under the rounded mass in the dirt under the flowers. Enough dirt was finally scraped away for the mystery in the ground to begin to wiggle. Sandy used her hands and moved the soft soil from under it until it came loose. With a satisfied smile, she pulled it free from the ground and looked at her discovery.
It looked back.
Eye sockets with meat still clinging to it stared at her, the teeth giving a ghoulish eternal grin. The skull slipped from her shaking hands as she shot to her feet. She scanned the tiers of gardens and her eyes came back to rest on the bare patch under her feet. She had dug deeply in this spot many times trying to get things to grow. Ignoring the skull, she took her shovel to the hole under the roots where she made her discovery and she started digging. She dug all along the edge and then around each tier. After she had carefully dug under the roots of her wonderful flowers in the backyard, she moved around to the boxes in the front.
Like every layer of the back tiers, the front flower boxes contained bodies. The ones in the front were nothing more than skeletons. They seemed to be the oldest. The first tier in the back contained the next round of bodies and the bottom tier leading into the woods held the most recent bodies. Many of those flower beds contained forms that looked remarkably like people. Exhausted, Sandy returned to the bare patch, her shovel in one hand and her sun hat in the other. She smoothed loose strands of hair back from her face and surveyed the garden. It was so beautiful, the source of her success. She needed to call the police. She cringed when she thought of all of those people trampling through her gardens.
She brought the back of her gloved hand to her mouth to stifle her sob as she realized they would have to dig all of them up. Her entire garden would be ruined along with her income. She would lose not only the gardens, but her home. She sunk to her knees, the original skull she uncovered glared at her accusingly.
She rolled it back into the hole from where it came. The thought occurred to her that the bodies acted as a natural fertilizer to get the flowers to grow. There was no body under the section where she sat. That’s why nothing would grow there. She had about three hours before Freddy came home from school. There was plenty of time.
Sandy set to work covering all of the exposed bodies, glad that Muzzy stayed clear of the garden. Within an hour, all of the bodies were safely covered, the remains continuing to feed the thriving flowers. Satisfied that her business would not be forced to close, Sandy leaned on her shovel and looked around the garden. It was beautiful again. The momentary pang of guilt passed quickly, after all, the people were already dead, and she didn’t kill them. She could pretend she never knew they were there.
Back where she started in the barren plot, she shifted the dirt with the toe of her sneaker. Nothing would grow there. The rest of the gardens fed off the natural fertilizer provided by the prior owner of the property. The old man was the murderer, not her. Nothing would grow there.
Another thought occurred to her. Maybe something would grow if it had the right nutrients.
She hefted the shovel onto her shoulder and walked around to the front of the house and across the yard between the shrubs to the neighboring property.
A year later, Sandy was still successful. Her business was booming and the demand for her flowers was at maximum capacity for what she could produce. Her gardens were lush and full with no bare spots. She planned to clear a patch at the bottom of the tiers and add more gardens. All she needed was the right fertilizer.
She slammed her fist on the desk. If her computer crashed one more time, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from throwing the whole thing out the window. Lisa pushed away from the heavy mahogany desk and left the office after rebooting the computer for the third time that morning. She carried her coffee cup, intent on infusing more caffeine into her system. Passing through the living room from the office on the way to the kitchen, she stopped. A scratching noise came from the front door. The sound was accompanied by yipping.
Lisa put her cup on the coffee table and opened the front door. A blast of cold March morning air entered the house. Lisa shivered and wrapped her flannel shirt around her tighter. On the other side of the security screen, a little pile of fur looked up at her with doleful eyes. It wagged its tail.
“Look how cute you are,” Lisa said. “You must be lost.” The tail wagged and the dog scratched at the door again. A pink bow adorned the top of the dog’s head, tied securely into the mounds of soft, fluffy, white fur surrounding the inquisitive face. Someone took very good care of the little dog. Lisa couldn’t see a collar through the screen. It must be hidden under the layers of fur. She could make a quick phone call and get back to dismantling her computer with a sledge hammer in no time. She opened the wrought iron security screen.
Lisa didn’t know little dogs could be so quick. The dog bounded past her legs and straight into the house. Lisa’s cry of surprise didn’t stop the dog that leapt onto the couch and curled into a ball, her sad eyes watching Lisa.
“Okay, Pup,” Lisa crooned from the front door she still held open. “You need to go home. You can’t get comfortable here. Someone will be very worried about you.”
The dog tipped her head and listened, but didn’t bother to get off the sofa. Lisa let go of the security door. She took a step closer to the dog.
“C’mon girl,” Lisa kept her voice cheery. “Let’s go home.” She opened the screen door and pointed outside. The dog didn’t move. Lisa’s mouth quirked, maybe the dog wasn’t used to the soft approach. Lisa assumed she belonged to some little old lady, but maybe not.
“Down!” Lisa commanded. The dog’s ears came up, but she didn’t move. Lisa let go of the door again and strode to the couch. The dog crouched, and when Lisa got close enough, the little furball snapped at her. Then it barked. Lisa jumped back.
“Oh no, you didn’t just try to bite me, did you?” The dog barked again, put her front paws straight out, her back end up in the air, and wagged her tail. Her little mouth opened and her head moved back and forth.
Lisa laughed. “Oh! You’re playing aren’t you?” The tail moved faster. Lisa extended her open hand, palm up, to the dog. She received a lick and a happy yip for her efforts. The dog wriggled on the couch as Lisa scratched around the furry ears, her fingers rubbing against the collar.
“I knew you’d have a collar on, you cute little thing.” Lisa smiled and pet the dog under her chin with one hand while the other lifted the heart shaped tag hanging from the center front of the collar.
“Cuddles, huh?” Lisa eyed the little dog that barked and jumped with excitement when Lisa said her name. Lisa resumed petting the dog so she could grab the tag again and find the dog’s owner.
“Phone number on the back,” Lisa smiled at Cuddles. “I love responsible pet owners. That’s why I don’t have any pets. I don’t need the responsibility and you need to go home.”
Lisa wrote the number on the scratch pad on the end table by the couch. She peeled the paper from the pad and carried it to her office in search of her cell phone. Cuddles followed, her paws softly padding across the tile. With her pretty bow, trimmed hair, and clipped nails, Cuddles spent more time primping than Lisa did.
Her cell phone was charging on her desk. Tucking her feet under her, Lisa curled into her office chair and dialed the number. After the first ring, a recorded message came on the line.
“Utoh Cuddles,” Lisa looked at the little ball of fluff on the floor. “The number’s been disconnected. I guess your owner isn’t as responsible as I thought.”
Cuddles stood on her back legs, her front paws on the seat of the chair. Lisa scooped her up, putting the dog in her lap.
“I guess I’m going to have to call the pound to come get you. Your owner will probably call them when they can’t find you.”
Lisa moved the mouse on her computer to look up the number. The computer didn’t respond, the image of a partially created and unsaved design plan frozen on the screen.
She emitted a bad word under her breath. Somewhere around there, she had a real paper phone book, but she had no idea where it was. She picked up the phone again to call Information for the number. Before she could flip the phone open, Cuddles jumped from Lisa’s lap, barking furiously as she raced down the hall. Lisa unfolded from the chair and went after the dog. She arrived in the living room in time to see Cuddles scratching at the security door and barking. An angry-looking large man strode up the sidewalk. Lisa reached the front door before the man could rap his thick knuckles against the unlocked screen.
“Can I help you?” Lisa’s voice was firm even though she was shaking on the inside. The man was huge, at least six foot five inches tall and solid as a brick wall. His dark brown hair showed red highlights in the sun and sunglasses hid his eyes. His unshaven square jaw was set with anger.
“Yeah, you can help me by giving me back my dog.” He spit the words out, putting his hands on his hips and tipping his head.
Lisa held her hand on the lock, ready to flip it closed if the man made an aggressive move. She looked down at Cuddles. The little groomed dog with her pink bow, a spray of fur spreading out from it, and her playful personality belonged to the gruff man on her porch? Lisa imagined that someone like him would own a more suitable pet, like a rabid pit bull.
“What’s her name?” Lisa wasn’t quite willing to give this man the dog without knowing for sure that she belonged to him.
The man shifted on his feet and looked around before studying his shoes. “Her name is Cuddles.”
Lisa smiled at his embarrassment. Not so tough now, are you buddy?
“I’m sorry,” she said sweetly. “What did you say her name was?”
The man looked directly through the screen even though he couldn’t see her through the holes in the thick metal. “Her name is Cuddles. Happy now? Can I have her back, please?”
Lisa pushed the door open and Cuddles ran out. The man scooped her up with one hand, holding her wriggling body against his chest while she licked his face. His other hand held the screen open. Lisa leaned against the doorframe.
The man’s face softened and he smiled, his teeth in an even row except for one on the side which was just crooked enough to keep them from being perfect.
“Cuddles, you’re a bad girl. You aren’t supposed to leave the yard.” He spoke softly to the dog, seeming to forget Lisa was watching. He stopped smiling, his face turning in her direction.
“Why do you have my dog in your house? I’ve been hunting all over the neighborhood for her.”
Lisa crossed her arms over her chest, holding the flannel shirt against her. “I didn’t let her in. She let herself in. I called the number on her tag. If you had an updated number on there, you would have known exactly where to find her.”
The man looked down at the dog. “Yeah, I need to do that.” He spoke softly again for a moment, then his voice turned to steel. “Well, thanks for letting her in, I guess.”
Without waiting for a reply, the man turned and walked down the sidewalk, tucking the little dog inside his jacket as he went.
Lisa’s house returned to normal for the rest of the day. Early the next morning, scratching and barking at the front door stopped her on the way to the kitchen to make coffee. She opened the door. Cuddles greeted her with a bark before sauntering into the house and getting comfortable on the couch.
“The sun isn’t even up yet,” Lisa said to the white fluff on the couch. “Why me?”
The little dog didn’t answer, only yawned and stretched. Anticipating the knock on the door, Lisa started the coffee pot before going to the bathroom to shower. The dog followed her. Lisa put her outside of the bathroom door and shut it. She didn’t even get the water turned on before Cuddles started howling in a pitiful little voice from the other side of the door. Lisa threw the door open and the dog trotted into the room, watching every move Lisa made. The man could arrive at any minute. Lisa turned to the mirror. A shower could wait. He wasn’t that important that she had to be clean and fresh to give him back his dog. She splashed cold water on her face so her green eyes didn’t resemble Christmas. Then she combed her long straight auburn hair into a ponytail. She was sitting on the couch in a pair of lounge pants and an oversize sweatshirt with a cup of coffee in her hand and Cuddles curled up in her lap when the knock came at the door.
“C’mon in,” she said as she opened the doors. “Your runaway is on the couch.”
He didn’t wear sunglasses since the day was starting out overcast. His brown eyes had a guilty look in them.
“Thanks. I thought I found where she got out and I fixed it. Guess I better look again.” He entered the house and Lisa shut the door behind him. Cuddles jumped around at his feet.
Lisa resumed her position on the couch. “Maybe this time you should give me your name and number and I’ll call you if she shows up again.” She handed him the paper and pen from the end table.
He scribbled on the paper. “I’m going to watch and see what she does the next time I let her out. She probably won’t bother you again.”
Lisa waved her hand in dismissal. “She really isn’t a bother. I actually like her.”
The man handed back the paper and Lisa read his name and phone number. Ben Welsh. He stood in the center of the room, the little dog watching her from the safety of her owner’s massive hand.
“I do have one question though,” Lisa said. “Why does a big ole’ guy like you have a Pekingese? I would think you would want a big manly kind of dog.”
Ben’s eyebrows went up. He laughed. “What? Are you saying my dog isn’t ‘manly’?”
Lisa grinned. “Cuddles isn’t exactly a masculine name either, but the pink bow in her hair really screams feminine. I’m guessing she’s your wife’s dog and you keep getting elected to fetch her.”
Ben’s smile faded and his eyebrows dipped to a frown. “She’s a Peekapoo, not a Pekingese and I’m not married. She was my mom’s dog.”
“A Peekapoo?” Lisa asked. “Does your mom live around here?”
Ben gently rubbed the silky fur on Cuddles’ ears. The dog closed her eyes, her chin resting on Ben’s arm that held her.
“A Peekapoo is a mix between a Pekingese and a Poodle. My mom died last week. I live three blocks behind you. I brought Cuddles home two days ago. My sister was taking care of my mom after she got sick, but my sister has a Rottweiler and he didn’t like Cuddles much.”
Lisa didn’t speak for a moment. She couldn’t think of a word to say to the big man holding the tiny dog.
“I’m sorry,” was all she could manage. It didn’t seem enough.
Ben looked up at her. “It’s okay. Really. Mom had breast cancer and it was too far along when they discovered it. She was really sick and in a lot of pain at the end. I’m grateful her suffering is over.”
Lisa studied him for a moment. Although he was in pain, his eyes were dry and accepting.
“Well, maybe Cuddles will get used to your home and settle in soon.”
Ben shrugged. “At least she keeps coming back here. I spent a couple of hours yesterday going through the neighborhood calling her name until I heard her in here barking. Today I just came straight here, hoping she did the same thing.” He turned and placed his hand on the knob. “Anyway, we’ve taken enough of your morning. I’ll let you get back to whatever you were doing.”
Lisa laughed and rose from the couch, placing her coffee cup on the table. “All I’m doing is fighting with my computer. I want to work and it refuses to let me.”
Ben’s hand dropped from the doorknob. “What’s it doing?”
“It keeps locking up when I try to use this new program I installed.” She glanced over him and lifted on eyebrow. “Why, are you a computer tech?”
Ben laughed. “No, actually I’m a tow truck driver, but I know a thing or two about computers. I dabble in repairs in my spare time. I don’t really want to drive a truck forever, so I’ve been taking classes for a couple of years.”
“If you can fix this thing, I might actually get some work done. In trade, I’ll become your permanent dog sitter if you ever need one.”
His eyes sparkling, Ben agreed with a nod. “You’re on. I bet I can fix it in less than five minutes.”
“We’ll see,” Lisa laughed as she showed him to the office. He handed Cuddles to Lisa as his fingers flew nimbly over the keyboard accessing parts of the computer Lisa didn’t even know existed. In just a couple of minutes, he rebooted the computer and loaded the dreaded program. It started up much faster than it used to. Ben moved so Lisa could sit at the desk with Cuddles in her lap. It effortlessly opened her latest room design without a hiccup or glitch. She moved around a few items and added others and it still performed perfectly.
“So what are the designs for?” Ben asked.
“I create office layouts to utilize space effectively. See here,” Lisa pointed to the reception area on the screen. “They used to have the front receptionist in this doctor’s office too far away from the front door. The patients would have to go clear across a usually crowded room and then go back across the room to find a seat. With the new plan, the receptionist is closer to the front door and the waiting rooms are divided. There’s a play area for children over here.”
She used her mouse to point at a different location. “This office has several different specialists. Some deal with mostly elderly patients and others deal with children. With the new layout, the patients are separated instead of all being lumped into a large room, and the nursing assistants open a door directly into the appropriate medical suites. I was working on the designs in my old program, then they came out with an upgraded version that just didn’t work right at all, but it seems to be working great now.”
Cuddles was curled up in Lisa’s lap, sleeping. Lisa absentmindedly rubbed the dog’s soft ears as she spoke to Ben.
“Well, I need to go home and get to sleep,” Ben said, looking at the sleeping dog. Lisa stood, lifting the furry bundle and handing her to Ben.
“You haven’t slept yet? Has she been missing that long?” Lisa asked.
Ben shook his head. “I work nights so it’s past my bedtime. I let her out when I get home before I go to sleep.”
Lisa nodded. “That explains why she’s been showing up so early.”
With a final good-bye, Lisa walked Ben and Cuddles to the door. She watched as he climbed into an enormous truck parked in her driveway. Then she went to take her morning shower and get to work.
The next morning, her visitor was back. Lisa let Cuddles in on her way to the coffee pot. The knock on the door came this time before she made it back to her room to comb her hair and splash water on her face. She stopped in the living room, glancing down at her flannel pajamas before she sighed and opened the front door where Cuddles was already doing her happy dance and barking. So he would see her in her pajamas. No big deal. She could just give him the dog and he could go home and go to sleep. She picked Cuddles up and unlocked the door.
Ben stood on the other side smiling. “Aha,” he exclaimed as he came into the house, oblivious to Lisa’s apparel. She stood at the front door watching his excitement as he continued speaking. “She’s not getting out where I thought she was. She’s so little that she goes under the fence. I saw her this morning. I tried to grab her before she got through, but it didn’t work. By the time I got around and in the truck, she was already running through yards in this direction.” He stopped and took a breath, his eyes scanning over Lisa’s attire.
The corner of his lip quirked. “Cute jammies. The little snowmen are a nice touch.”
Lisa didn’t smile. She crossed her arms over her breasts. The cold outside made it apparent that she wore no supportive undergarments under her pajamas. “Can you let her out just an hour later? At least then I could get a shower in and be dressed before I had visitors.”
Ben’s eyes lifted back to her face. “Sorry. I think I’m going to take her out on a leash until I can get around the bottom of the fence where she’s been digging to get out.”
Lisa nodded. She felt bad for snapping at him and she was disappointed that she wouldn’t see Cuddles or Ben anymore. She didn’t know what to say. They stood awkwardly for a moment.
“Tell you what,” Ben said suddenly. “I don’t have to work tonight. To thank you for putting up with us so early in the morning, how about if I take you out to dinner?”
“I’d like that.” Lisa looked at the tiny bundle curled up in Ben’s arms. “And to be honest, she can come visit me every morning if she wants to.”
Cuddles never again showed up at Lisa’s door first thing in the morning. Instead, she arrived in the afternoons and she brought Ben with her. It wasn’t too long before Lisa would wake up and Cuddles would be sleeping in the bed between Ben and Lisa. Ben landed a job with the design software company that Lisa used to do her room layouts. He showed them how to work out the kinks in their upgrades. The company became incredibly successful and took Ben along with them. Several years later, Ben, Lisa, and their three young children mourned when they woke up one morning to discover that Cuddles had passed away during the night. They spread her ashes over Ben’s mother’s grave. On the way home from the cemetery, Alice, the oldest child who was named for Ben’s mother, leaned from the backseat. Her face looked from one parent’s tear streaked face to the other.
“Mom?” she asked. “Tell us again how you and Daddy met.”
Lisa smiled through her tears.