Even as a six-year old, she was good at berating herself. How could she have been so stupid? She had forgotten to bring the lilacs for her teacher. If she hurried, though, she still had time to go home and get them. She carefully crossed the quiet street to walk properly on the other side.
Her mother was in the kitchen, hunched over the sink, eating a piece of toast.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the mother snapped as she wiped jam and crumbs from the corners of her mouth.
“I forgot the lilacs for my teacher,” the little girl whimpered.
Her mother reached across the stack of unwashed dishes, holding onto the sleeve of her bathrobe so it wouldn’t dip into the congealed grease pooled on the dinner plates, and grabbed the lilacs from the mayonnaise jar at the back of the cluttered counter.
“Here, take it. Don’t know why you’re giving them to your teacher. Mrs. Atkinson gave them to you.”
The little girl knew better than to explain or defend why she wanted to take the sweet-smelling sprays to her first grade teacher instead of keeping them for herself. She knew not to ask for a piece of paper towel to wrap around the dripping lilac stems.
Her mother was already holding the back door open, then let it slam against the girl’s backside before she was completely over the threshold. The lock clicked.
Grasping the lilacs in one hand, and carrying her lunch kit in the other, she set off down the driveway.
But the girl was going to be late for school. She took off running, her too-long corduroy skirt billowing up with each stride and her socks sliding down around her ankles. Faster, faster.
The sudden rasp of gravel grating her knees stunned her. For a shocked moment, she lay on the shoulder of the road in silence, cold stones pressed against her chin. Then, the pain in her knees bit at her, and she sat up. The skin was scraped away, and already blood was trickling down her shins.
The lunch kit had sprung open, the contents strewn in an arc. With trembling hands, she put the cheese sandwich and graham crackers back in the tin box and reached for the thermos. With dismay, she heard the ominous tinkle. The thermos was broken.
Worst of all, the lilacs were smashed, the petals scattered like confetti.
An animal-like howl swelled out of her. She stood by the road, in the middle of the shattered lilacs, and wept. The keening wails tore through her little body, and the sun dimmed, as she mourned for the flowers destined as a love gift for a teacher who didn’t like her. For the spanking she knew she was going to get for breaking the thermos. For never being able to please either her mother or her teacher.
A curious neighbour peered out her front door and withdrew quietly.
Then, resolutely, the girl swiped at her tears with the ragged cuffs of her sweater, gathered up the remnants of the lilacs in her gritty palms, and walked home, blood sliding into her rumpled socks.
As expected, when the door was unlocked, her mother’s fury poured out. The girl was spanked, but she didn’t cry out or respond to her mother’s raging. The scuffed lunch kit was pushed onto the counter beside a milk bottle sitting in a ring of curdled scum.
Again, the little girl started for school, without a lunch, but still carrying the battered lilacs. As she passed the marred spot on the roadside, she gave a shuddering sob. Tiny blossoms lay like fallen stars in the gravel.
The teacher received the wilted lilacs without comment, shoving the stems indifferently into a jar of water. She barely glanced at the little girl before turning to fawn over another child clutching a handful of sunny daffodils.
Vaguely aware of her stinging knees, the girl gazed with contentment at her gift, a bedraggled offering set in the row of bright bouquets on the window sill. Like a newly unfurled petal, her upturned face glowed, and she radiated the gentle and quiet fragrance that is only released by crushing.
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