“What happened?” I asked again, but this time I tried to imply comfort with the words.
“I took the ketchup and mustard dispensers,” he said, voice monotone. “Someone saw me and called the cops.”
“That would be me,” Officer Leprechaun said. “I happened to be down the block at the coffee shop.”
Daisy’s Coffee Express was notoriously popular for its donuts. I swallowed my inappropriate laugh.
“I was going to bring them back,” Trey said. “I wanted to use them for an art installation.”
“We have ketchup and mustard in the fridge. Why would you need to take them from a restaurant?” I tugged on Trey’s sleeve, motioning toward the house. “Thank you, Officer. I can handle this now.”
“I’m sure you could,” the officer said, “but I told Richie down at Pizza City that I would have a talk with you, and I intend to keep that promise. Richie could have pressed charges, and that would have made a lot more work for me and a lot more stress for you, financial and otherwise.”
I noticed Mr. Eckhardt standing on his front steps, a look of disapproval directed toward us. I gave it right back, arching an eyebrow. I wondered what Officer Leprechaun would think of the clothes buried in the backyard.
“Let’s go inside,” I said tersely.
They followed me into the kitchen, none of us uttering a word. I put a kettle on and directed Trey to sit at one end of the kitchen table and Officer Leprechaun on the other side. I took the middle.
“You’re not a child,” the officer said to Trey. “Can you explain why you’d take something like that? Was it a prank?”
“Technically, I am a child in the eyes of the law,” Trey said under his breath.
I warned him with a kick under the table. “Then I’m going to treat you like one,” I said. “You’re grounded. You will also write a note of apology to Richie at Pizza City.”
Trey shrugged. “I did a stupid thing. People do that, you know.”
“Mistakes are different from conscious decisions to break the law.” Even Officer Leprechaun had to know that one wasn’t going to hit its mark. Sure enough, Trey snorted.
“Except for school, you are not to go out this week,” I said. “You’ll help me around the house and in the garden.”
“How’s that coming along?” said the officer, likely already bored by the domesticity of punishing a teen.
“It’s ridiculous,” Trey said. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
The officer straightened in his chair. “If I still had a mother, I’d show her some respect.”
The teakettle went off, and Trey almost did as well. His jaw clenched, and tension rolled off him and gave the room a feeling of oppression.
“Go upstairs,” I said. “We’ll talk more later.”
The chair scraped against the floor with the force of him rising. Without sparing either of us a glance, Trey bolted from the room. I listened to him bound up the stairs. When he slammed the door, I felt the sound in my teeth.
“Teenagers,” I said, hoping that would shut down the conversation.
Officer Leprechaun studied me for a moment. “That doesn’t explain much.”
“Don’t you remember being that age?”
“I didn’t go around stealing condiments.” He softened his comment with a smile. “Richie wasn’t going to press charges for something so trivial, but he’s known Trey awhile. He’s worried.”
I am, too, I wanted to say, but I didn’t know this man very well, and our family’s grief was private. It was ours. “I know you hear this from every mother, but my son is a good kid.”
“I didn’t think otherwise, but even good kids act out when life isn’t going their way.” He took a sip of tea, winced at the heat, and then blew over the top of the mug. He wasn’t going anywhere. He was also waiting for me to say something.
“My husband died two years ago,” I blurted. “I thought we were doing okay, but maybe we’re not.”
I waited for the usual questions: How did he die? How old was he? Are you doing okay? But Officer Leprechaun simply nodded. I waited another moment, but he didn’t respond, didn’t encourage. He was probably really good in interrogations. His patience made me want to explain, to tell him that what he was seeing wasn’t really us, but a temporary us, brought on by stress and missing the person who made the family work. But then I thought death was permanent, so I couldn’t say that honestly. The stress would always be there. The missing, too.
“Can I take a look at how the garden is doing?” he said after the interminable silence.
“I’d like to see what you’ve done out there since the village threatened to shut you down.” The twinkle was back in his eye, and this time I didn’t want to put out that light.
When we walked onto the patio, I tried to see the garden through the eyes of someone who hadn’t seen it struggle to survive every day. It had a haphazard look, like thirty gardeners had come in and done their own thing. The overall effect was messy and disorganized, but I could see some improvement, some growth.
“It’s getting there,” he said kindly. “Don’t know if those tomatoes will make it.”
“They will,” I said.
“Confidence is a good fertilizer.”
“Are you trying to say I’m full of shit?”
He laughed. “Nothing of the kind.”
We walked around, my pride growing as I realized how hard the plants were working to take root. They wanted to flourish. They wanted to live. “It’s a lot of work, but I like it.”
“My grandmother had a kitchen garden, but not as big as this one. Still, she always had a lot of produce left over to share with the neighbors. What do you intend to do with all your bounty come August?”
Suddenly shy, my deal with Mykia seemed like a pipe dream. I didn’t want to tell him about my salsa enterprise, but then I didn’t want to seem unfocused either. I cleared my throat. “I’m going to make salsa and sell it at the farmers’ market. Hopefully. I just need to learn how to can without giving someone botulism.”
He knelt down, knees and cop gear groaning, and studied the tomato plants up close. “Gonna still be a while until these are ready,” he said, pointing to the now plump green tomatoes.
“So I have time to learn,” I said.
He peered up at me, squinting into the sun. “What are you doing on Sunday?”
“What?” I choked on the word.
He stood. “I have the day off. My grandma taught me how to can. It’s easy, and I could teach you in an afternoon.”
It was like a wintry wind swept through the backyard. My hands went cold, and my heart . . . was he asking me out? I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about dating. Actually going through with it was another matter entirely. The feelings it brought up—guilt, worry, guilt, sadness, guilt, fear, guilt, and a heart-stopping, gut-clenching excitement—were uncomfortably strong. It felt like cheating. It felt undeniably wrong.
But this man, this ruddy-faced bear of a man, seemed sweet. Maybe it wasn’t a date? Maybe he pitied me and wanted to help out the poor widow?
“Don’t overthink this.” He smiled, the mind reader.
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