The grass tickled between her toes as her father toiled away with the roses by the letterbox. She watched his fingers weave between the thorns to pat the soil around each bush, humming to some John Lennon song she couldn't put a name to. Despite the sun just tipping the horizon, she saw sweat prickling his brow and his eyes squinting against the light. The fine lines on his face were suddenly accentuated by shadow, and for a moment, she swelled with wonder.
'Maria, come here,' he said, waving her over. 'You're not going to learn anything sitting all the way over there.'
Excitement sparked her limbs into motion, and she crawled over to sit next to him, careful to tuck her skirt beneath her thighs to avoid the dirt.
He picked up a pair of clippers from beside him. 'Now, you need to snipe back these diseased parts here and there from the base of the plant. It helps it grow better.'
Snipping off two pieces of wood with ease, he deposited them in Maria's outstretched hand. Their rough texture prickled her palm as she brushed her fingers over them, and despite the wood's shrivelled appearance, she smiled.
'Your turn.' He passed the clippers to Maria, then hugged her to his side, giving her an encouraging squeeze.
The clippers shook a little in her grasp, but she tightened her grip nonetheless. Leafing through the bush, she spotted a blackened stem and poised it between the clipper's blades, unease flittering in her stomach. The blades snapped together, and the stem fell to ground, cut clean.
'I did it, Daddy!' she said, swiping it up for his inspection. 'Look at it! It's perfect.'
He took the stem from her and brought it into the sunlight. Pride surged in her as his grin grew.
'That's exactly it, princess,' he said, ruffling her hair. 'You're already a pro! Let's try it one more time.'
Ecstatic, she began searching in haste for another stem and grasped it in her hand. In her hurry, she cut through the wood—along with a bud on an adjacent stem. Its petals drifted to her feet, and panic crawled over her skin.
'I'm sorry! I-I didn't—' she stammered, balling her hands into fists.
Her father placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder as he scooped up the bud. He nudged one of her hands open and dropped it into her palm, caressing the petals with his fingertips.
'You certainly nipped that in the bud!' he said. 'But these things happen sometimes, princess. It'll grow again, and I'll bet it'll be more beautiful than ever.'
As if in answer, the front door slammed. Maria heard rather than saw the squeaky wheels of something winding toward the Honda in their driveway. Her father had already turned to see the commotion before she had the courage to look.
Her mother was packing three full suitcases and a bag into the trunk. Maria barely had time to register the image before her mother again banged shut the boot, then the driver's door, and squealed the car out of the drive and down the road. Her father sat stone still beside her.
'Daddy, where's Mummy going?'
Spring seeped into summer, and a number of the roses began to wilt, sinking into themselves as the heat coaxed them into submission.
Maria's father didn't tend to the flowers as he used to. Weeks dragged away, and not once did Maria see him lavishing the soil with his hands, watering the blooming buds they had saved together, or snipping away at the stems that had continued to blacken as time slipped by. The gloves and clippers he had so loved lay on a dusty table in the garage, the dirt and plant debris crumbling to the wooden surface beneath them. She dared not touch them, however. Last time she had tried, her father had spoken to her only to clarify when and how she was supposed to be home from school. He'd also stopped calling her 'princess'.
But the guilt of passing the neglected bush each day on her walk to school began to weigh on her. The half-open rose blossoms whispered their thirst to her, and after a week of this, she dumped her bag by the letterbox and filled the metal watering can sitting by the garage door. She raced back to the roses, tipping water over the most-wilted looking first before dispersing the rest to the healthier buds. A pulse of gratitude from the plant winded through her limbs, and to her surprise, Maria felt a smile curl her lips for the first time in months.
Every day after, Maria continued to water the rose bush. Her father, locked up in his bedroom, suspected nothing and never peered long enough out the window to see that his once-prized flowers were not succumbing to the summer sun. For this, Maria was glad. No innocents deserved neglect.
Winter arrived, then spring, then summer again, and Maria grew. She'd lost count of how many times the sun rose and shrunk behind the horizon when she peered out of her window each morning. During these morning observations, she noted with pride the roses had continued to bloom under her care despite their near-hibernation during the colder months. Something, she realised with some bitterness, she had learnt to do without her father's tutelage.
In the background, Maria could always hear him rustle around in his blankets, even at 8 in the morning, moments before she left for school. Often, as she turned the lock in the door, she heard the same sound, as if he hadn't risen since she left, but when she slipped into the kitchen for an apple, the same plate littered with crumbs sat by the sink.
If she ever did cross his path, her father looked elsewhere, mumbling under his breath. She always swallowed the lump in her throat whenever this happened, and the one time she'd found the words, she asked, 'Daddy, why?'
'I don't know what you're talking about,' his raspy voice had replied. 'You're just like that damn woman.'
Hearing that made Maria tuck herself away in her room and peer out at the oil stain where the Honda used to sit. She visualised its red paint chafing in the wind as her mother sped along a highway by the ocean, barking her joy to the world, unaware of the time weighed upon her.
On her seventeenth birthday, Maria spent her morning cultivating the roses that now were in full bloom, dipped in dew. She imagined she could feel their gratitude coursing through her fingers and pumping like blood through her veins, cajoling a small grin. She kept clipping away at the bush—until a shadow blocked the early morning sun. She stared up into grey eyes and black, thick-rimmed glasses.
The stranger beamed. 'So, what's happening here, princess? I'm Ben.'
The phrase, coming from Ben, didn't undo her as she expected. 'Maria.'
They spent the day chatting away about Ben's Rottweiler Targo, his passion for restoring Impalas, and his backpacking trips around Asia. She recounted her difficulty with Maths, her lack of a learner's permit, and how she was the sole caretaker of the rose bush they sat by. Despite the dirt crusting their legs, they continued to talk long into the day and then the evening, and Maria relaxed into their connection. At their parting, after an exchange of numbers, she caressed her flowers in thanks.
Weeks went by. They cocooned themselves from the world and everyone, descending deeper into abyss—or was it ascending above? Maria couldn't tell, but that mattered little. She was safe. Someone was there, someone whose emotions she touch and mould, who was open and vulnerable with her. Ben, this wonderful man, didn't shut her out with no warning or reason. What were her chances of finding this again, she thought. And, on impulse, she asked Ben to marry her as they sat on the end of his bed.
Several days after Maria's proposal, her father collapsed beside the rose bush.
A heart attack, the doctors said, but they didn't find the note in the letterbox detailing her father's requests for his funeral.
Her father's funeral took place on a summery day in December amongst a small audience of relatives. In this crowd, there were few familiar faces, only names. Maria had invited her mother, but with a newborn and husband, she'd refused her eldest daughter's invitation.
No hymns were played nor a eulogy read, as asked for by her father. A hum of John Lennon's Imagine instead echoed through the hall, and the roses adorning his coffin drifted under the pressure of the air conditioner. Everyone spilled from the pews in single file, placing their flowers on the table in front of the casket, with Maria and Ben taking the rear.
She laid her freshly-cut rosebud on his coffin in silence. Her lips pursed. Memories flashed in her mind unrelenting, cutting through her even as tears prickled her eyes.
She ran. As she escaped, a single thought resounded in her mind:
I forgive you, Daddy.
Maria replanted the rose bush with another two seasons before the wedding ceremony. Though several of the buds were blossoming, the rest of the plant had withered in light of the many seasons they had seen. Who was she to dictate nature's will when it came to death?
Six months on, the preparations were overseen by the new roses in full bloom. White deck chairs wreathed in roses separated by an ivory carpet, stereos whispering ballads, people bustling about—the scene relieved the tension cording Maria's shoulders as she watched from the window. Not a thing was out of place, and everyone who had been invited had RSVP'd. Nothing was wrong. Ghosts might linger about, but their presence flitted about on the periphery of their happiness.
The ceremony itself was blurred in her memory, a haze of white, sunshine, crimson, and a symphony of spoken words. The awe on Ben's and her mother's faces as she wandered down the aisle played the most vividly in her mind's eye, accompanied with the lightness she'd felt as a child in the garden with her father. This feeling grew stronger through the reception and her and Ben's journey to their honeymoon.
A new beginning, a new life.
While unpacking her luggage, Maria discovered a small rose bud filed beneath the photo of her father she'd brought. She smiled gently, placed it on her side table, and fell asleep in Ben's arms, the warmth of her father's love lulling her to sleep.