The Flower Thief
                                                                     By Camille Cole

         Margaret sat on the swing in her backyard. Her head rested against its chain; the toes of her white
    sneakers scraped the dirt where grass had worn thin. She wondered if old lady Losey was home. Her eyes
    shifted in that direction, but her head did not move. Maybe she would sneak over there to see if she could
    catch sight of any movement inside the house. It was spring, and the tulips in the garden of the neighbor’s yard
    were in full bloom. She and her mother and father had been living in her great grandparent’s farmhouse for
    almost a year, but she had never  laid eyes on Miss Losey.

         She slid off the swing and stood still, straightening her pink and white striped dress, imagining her Aunt
    Maggie’s beaming smile when she  handed her the bouquet of colorful blossoms. She saw and image of her
    mother and father’s faces the night they told her that Miss Losey had complained about her picking the flowers
    in her garden. She was not allowed to go in that yard again.  If she picked so much as one more bud, there
    would be Hell to pay.

         She missed her Aunt Maggie, one of the people she loved that had been left behind when they moved to
    the country. Maggie would bring Margaret into her warm kitchen whenever she knocked on her back door. They
    would sing songs like Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder while Maggie did the dishes and fixed
    dinner. Margaret wanted to give her some flowers tonight when her aunt came out for a visit. She wanted to
    share what she had found here to be beautiful and irresistible.

         Margaret neared the Losey backyard; the brilliance of its garden twinkled like a million colored stars. Red
    and yellow tulips shimmered in the faint breeze and the afternoon sunshine--some wide open and some waiting
    their turn. The flower bed rippled across the backyard and around the far corner of the house like a curious
    parade of colorful clowns. She had never seen so many flowers in one place.

         Margaret stood still at the edge of the yard where the weeds on her side ended and the
    freshly mowed carpet of the Losey yard began. Barely taking a breath, she listened. A choir of returning robins,
    cardinals, and little brown finches resounded from branches of overhanging trees where new, crisp green
    leaves shaded the far end of the neighbor lady’s landscape. She scanned the terrain of the forbidden garden.
    Her mother’s black cat sat motionless beneath the shrubbery on the far side of the yard. If Margaret were
    caught, she could run toward the cat and claim she was trying to save it. If not, she would grab just a few of the
    flowers and run back to her own yard.

         She turned to see if anyone was looking out the windows of her house. Her mother would be taking a nap,
    her father at work until much later in the day. The heavy velveteen curtains lay quietly against panes of glass.
    There were no shadows inside. She looked back at the neighbor’s lawn. The cat had disappeared. She took a
    step across the border and paused, teetering between the two worlds, drawn to one and frightened of both.
    This terror pulled her forward into the  green blanket of new grass. A few more steps and she halted again,
    frozen in full view of Miss Losey’s dining room window. She stared at the blank space of  glass, imagining the
    angry woman bursting out the back door.

           She took off running toward the tulips. Inhaling and exhaling between clenched teeth, Margaret began
    plucking the rubbery-stemmed flowers. She hoped to get one of every color so Maggie could see the full delight
    of this magical world. Too frightened to think straight, she harvested each bloom randomly and quickly. Sticky
    flower-stem juice covered her hand, reminding her of the blood that had coated the side of her face when she
    fell against the coffee table last week. She never looked up, nor did she see Miss Losey come around the
    corner of the house. She only felt the hand on her shoulder and then her skin turn to ice. Tears filled her pale
    blue eyes.

         Margaret dropped the flowers and hung her head. The hand on her shoulder felt electrified and she feared
    it would crush her skin and then her bones. She wept.

         “Your name is Margaret, isn’t it?” A gentle voice demanded. The woman waited for her answer, releasing
    her arm.  In the silence between them the young girl sensed something about the mysterious woman that
    surprised her. She looked up slowly, cautiously.

         Miss Losey towered above her and Margaret raised her eyes to a weathered face topped with striking white
    hair. The woman wore an apron that appeared to be covered with paint splotches instead of bacon grease.
    Relaxing slightly, Margaret hung her head again and stared at the blades of grass beneath her PF Flyers, the
    sneakers she had wanted so badly last summer that were now worn out.

         “Come with me, young lady.” Still, the voice seemed to lack the danger that Margaret had feared. There
    was something inviting in the woman’s tone and in the feel of her warm hand when she took Margaret’s in hers.

         Miss Losey led the way past the garden and through a breezeway on the other side of her house. The
    screen door creaked as Margaret entered a dark kitchen brimming with cooking aromas. It smelled to her
    vaguely like dinner at Maggie’s house; maybe cookies, too. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand;
    there were no more tears. Her heart sighed.

         Miss Losey motioned Margaret to keep going, through the kitchen door and into the dining room. A large,
    shiny wooden table took up most of the space in this room; light reflected through the curtains onto the glass
    doors of a hutch cabinet filled with flowered tea cups and china girls in flowing skirts. Margaret wondered if she
    would be allowed to touch these figurines. She paused and the woman released her hand and moved ahead
    into the next room.

    “Come sit here next to me, Miss Margaret,” Miss Losey called from the living room settee. The girl followed her
    cautiously through the half-opened pocket doors. More light shone through crisp sheer curtains, half blinding
    Margaret as she inhaled a new scent, something like the cloth doll with the china head hidden behind the long
    dresses in her Aunt Maggie’s closet.

         “I’d like to show you something.” Miss Losey said once Margaret had scooted back against the sofa, her
    feet straight out in front of her. She noticed that her knees were dirty. The neighbor lady stood up and lifted a
    photo album off the end table. Bound in a deep reddish purple velvet cover, a golden monogrammed “L”
    decorated the front of the book. Margaret eyed the glittery edges of the thick cardboard pages as the woman
    nestled in closer to her and pulled back the cover and turned with care to a page where the album had been
    opened many times.

         “Do you see this woman here?” A young lady with tightly curled hair and piercing eyes stared out from the
    pages of the book, past Margaret. Her throat was covered in a high lacy collar and the expression on the face
    of the woman in the photograph left no doubt about her determination. Her image was framed inside an elliptical
    mat, embossed with gold leaf and swirling, hand-painted accents. Though the picture was in sepia tones, the
    woman’s cheeks had been touched up, slightly, in a soft shade of pink. Her eyes and crimson face made her
    look as though she might yet have something to say from her hiding place.

           “This was my mother, Lily. We lived in this house when I was a small girl like you. In the springtime, she
    planted the flower gardens out back.”

         Margaret looked up at Miss Losey and saw that she was staring off beyond the ceiling of the parlor.
    Margaret thought that maybe this woman could see into the past by looking through the ceiling.

         “She would work those beds from morning ‘til night.”

         “Did you have any brothers or sisters?” Margaret asked Miss Losey in a soft and reverent voice.

         “Yes, I had one brother, Ned. He and I used to play with your grandmother and her two younger sisters,
    Maggie and Bell, out in the cherry orchards. We’d play there all day sometimes in the summertime. Our mothers
    would pack us a lunch, but that was all before the accident.”

         “What accident?”

         A banging sound in the kitchen tore the young girl and the woman from the story, from the past. Again there
    came a loud knock on the outside of the kitchen door. Miss Losey stood and placed the album on the sofa, next
    to the embroidered pillow; another knock snapped the air inside the house, louder and more insistent this time.
    Margaret yearned to stay hidden in that room with Miss Losey. She wanted the knocker to go away; she wanted
    to hear about the orchards, about her grandmother, and about the brother Ned.

         Her mother’s voice trumpeted through the screen door, her out-in-public friendly voice that Margaret knew
    meant she was really furious and as soon as everyone was out of sight she would let Margaret know all about it.

         Was it too late to hide? The young girl’s eyes darted around the room. A bulky easy chair sat diagonally in
    the corner. She could make a dash and hide behind the chair, but the two women ascended like the drums of
    doom. Would Miss Losey turn her over to her mother? She looked up as they entered the room.

         Her mother smiled, but stopped short of entering the room. The sunlight that had previously warmed the
    living room had faded, revealing dark and tattered furniture, a shabby rug. Margaret felt goose bumps on her
    bare arms and began to rub the palm of her hand on the worn nap of the sofa.

         “I’ve been looking all over for you. Do you know how much you worry me when I can’t find you?” Her mother
    crossed her arms under her breasts. “The cleaning lady said she saw you in this backyard.” Margaret’s mother
    glanced in Miss Losey’s direction and back at Margaret. “What have we told you, Margaret, about coming into
    this yard and bothering this poor woman?”

         Margaret stared at the floor to hide her shame and her tears, humiliated to have her new friend hear her
    mother talk to her like this. She scooted down off the sofa, but held back, tracing the outline of a large flower
    pattern in the rug with the toe of her sneaker. Her mother crossed the room in three long strides and grabbed
    her arm.

         Margaret looked back as her mother dragged her across the threshold and through the pocket doors
    meeting the cool blue eyes of the woman who had  befriended her. Miss Losey held the key to secrets that
    Margaret hadn’t known existed just hours ago.

         “I’m so sorry, Miss Losey. We won’t let the child bother you again.” Margaret’s mother grabbed the screen
    door without letting go of Margaret’s arm, without waiting for an answer from the neighbor. The door slammed
    loudly behind them and the mother and daughter flew in tandem around the side of the house, along the
    narrow sidewalk. Margaret tried to stop, but her mother yanked angrily on her arm causing Margaret to lose her
    balance and land with a jerk into the corner of the tulip bed.

         She looked down in horror at her worn out sneakers, her toe sticking out the frayed hole, as the bright red
    and yellow blooms were collapsing into the dirt. Ripe flower stems snapped and delicate petals settled into an
    injured clump. Her heart pounded as she jumped back and looked up at the window where the woman with the
    white hair and the kind eyes stood watching. Margaret knew then that she would be back. She knew that the
    next time she would knock on the door, and she would ask Miss Losey what had happened to her brother Ned.
    She would ask about the olden days and what her grandmother was like when she was a little girl. She dreamt
    about the flowers that night, about the mother of the neighbor planting them with care. She awoke with the
    resolve to never steal one of those flowers again.