“The way this author chose plant life to shroud the passing of a dearly missed friend was remarkably well done. The structure of the story became like the scraggly yard that needed tending: overgrown, barren in places, scored with thorns and weeds. Different varieties of loss sit neatly inside of each other in this work, like nesting dolls that the author skillfully reveals one at a time. The work here is queer and intimate, showcasing how vulnerable grief makes people. How we close up at the end of a season, as though dead, yet miraculously alive – still managing to green and bloom once spring comes around again. Conversational and deeply tender, this was a story that tapped at my heart.” – Kristen Arnett, guest judge. “Wish You Were Here” by Carlee Jensen is the 2nd Place winning story from our 2021 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers. Read the story below!
I love a garden in early spring: the ground growing softer as the days lengthen, dried skeletons of perennials shedding their dead leaves to make way for new growth. I love the warmth inside a new bag of soil conditioner, the first blister from a shovel on my softened palm. Alicia steered me around the raised beds, their wood bloated from rain and snow, reciting names I could tell she had worked hard to remember. Bleeding Heart. Tiarella. False Indigo. Cardinal Flower. The garden had never really been her thing but now, she laid into each word like it was sweet on her tongue.
Jackson died in November and for a few months I barely saw Alicia at all. I helped out with the memorial service, obviously, and we texted a little afterward, especially through the holidays. We even made plans to see a movie at The Charles one weekend, though those fell through at the last minute after the dog ate a bag of chocolate chips and had to have her stomach pumped. For the most part, though, we didn’t see each other.
I felt bad about it. Jackson had asked me to look out for her, willed her to me in a dozen quiet moments. “She’s going to be so angry,” he said, one morning in the hospital when Alicia had gone to move the car, “and then she’s going to be so sad. I don’t want to think about her all alone with those feelings.” This was right before the colectomy, when it still seemed like things might be okay.
“Stop talking like you’re about to die,” I told him. I was always telling him that, long after I knew it wasn’t true: “We don’t need to discuss this, because you’re not going to die.”
“Listen anyway,” he’d tell me. And I did, because I loved him.
I loved Alicia too, in a way. I’d known her for almost a decade by then, had eaten her mother’s fish stew and held her sister’s baby. At her and Jackson’s wedding, I’d fixed the loose hem of her dress with duct tape while she stood on the toilet lid to give me a better angle. She was pragmatic and clear-headed, a good ballast for Jackson’s arrogance and sentimentality, and he had said to the very end that she was the best thing that ever happened to him. Of course I loved her. Once Jackson was gone, though, it was hard to be around her.
But then spring came. The interminable freezing darkness of winter faded to a light and lovely gray, threaded through with sunshine, and Alicia texted to say she could use some help with the garden. She sent me a photo of the weedy fence and another of her own face, double-chinned from the angle, shading her eyes with one dirt-streaked arm.
I had been gardening with Jackson since we were sixteen. The year he and Alicia moved into their house on Homestead Street, I’d spent every weekend in that sunny hellhole of a yard, pulling up weeds and turning compost, dislodging the empty shells of Bic lighters and discolored bottles of Jim Beam from the waterlogged soil. I’d traveled hundreds of miles in the passenger seat of Jackson’s filthy Prius, helping him haul pine planks and giant bags of mulch. The idea of working in his garden without him made me feel like I was being garrotted. But I said I’d come over and take a look around. I thought it was probably the right thing to do.