Frank didn’t say a word on the drive back from the doctor’s office. From the corner of his eye, he watched Francie stare silently out the window as the houses and businesses spread farther and farther apart, bleeding into the countryside. When he finally pulled into their driveway and turned off the car, neither made a move to get out and go into the house. Silence stole into the car as the rumbling engine quieted until Frank felt he could hear his own heartbeat. He sighed.
“David will want to know,” he said quietly. Francie nodded without looking at him, her thick brown hair hanging limply around her face.
“I know. I’ll tell him.”
“No, I’ll tell him this time.” He wished he hadn’t said it as soon as the words came out of his mouth. Why had he said it like that? Why did he have to bring up the other times?
With slow, methodical movement, Frank unbuckled his seatbelt and pushed the car door open. The spring air was laden with the scent of pollen as he strode around the car. He pulled open Francie’s door and held out a hand to help her out. She didn’t take it, just stepped out and wrapped her pale blue sweater around her frail body tighter. The cuffs were frayed. She walked ahead of Frank to the door.
As soon as he stepped inside, warmth and the sweet smell of baking enveloped him, and the place had been decked in bright colors. Dried orange slices tied together into streamers draped from the ceiling, paper chains of pink and yellow hung from the potted rosemary by the patched sofa, and colorful drawings obviously done by a child were taped to the doorways. The cheeriness felt like a blow.
“Mama!” David cried, rushing from the kitchen and launching into his mother’s arms. She stumbled at the contact and grimaced.
“Hello, sweetheart,” she said. From the kitchen, Francie’s mother emerged, apron-clad and wiping her hands on a kitchen towel, peering through enormous plastic-rimmed aviator glasses. When she looked at her daughter, Frank watched as Francie’s eyes filled with tears, and she shook her head once. Frank’s heart felt leaden in his chest.
“Hey, old sport,” Frank said, peeling his son off Francie. “Let’s go outside and give Mama and Granna some time to catch up. I need your help stacking the wood pile.”
David, oblivious to the weight hanging in the room, nodded and shot out the doorway in his bare feet before Frank had a chance. He looked at his mother-in-law, but she just motioned for him to go.
He found David outside in the backyard, dashing to the pile of split logs which had been seasoning for the fireplace. Despite the spring season, the evenings had still been uncommonly cold, and Frank had been keeping a fire burning through the nights, something which made David inordinately excited every night. By the time Frank reached him, David had piled three logs in his small arms and was faltering under the weight of them.
“Look, Papa, I’m strong!”
Frank smiled at his son. “Yes, you are.”
David staggered to the wood stack by the house and dumped his load on top as Frank took up an armful to bring over to the stack as well. When Frank deposited the wood and arranged it neatly, David grinned up at him, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“Soon I can teach my brother how to stack wood as good as me,” he said, and the words sent a pang through Frank’s chest.
Frank sighed heavily and looked at his son. “David,” he said, “Mama’s not having a baby anymore.”
David’s face flickered with confusion as he let the words sink in. “But Mama said this time was different,” he said. “She said the baby was growing strong, just like me.”
Frank swallowed the tightness constricting his throat. “I know she did, sport. But we had to say goodbye to the baby last night.” Frank watched as his son grappled with his words, could see him sifting through what he thought he understood and what Frank was telling him now. A small crease interrupted the child’s forehead, but instead of saying anything, he just stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Frank. Frank knelt down and pulled his son into his arms.
Why?he thought. The question played through his mind until the word had lost its meaning.
By the time the two had finished stacking the wood, Francie’s mother had left. When they went inside, Frank found Francie setting the square wooden table for dinner. She’d changed into a simple button-down dress, still in her favorite powder-blue cardigan, and had pulled her hair back with a clip.
“Mom cooked,” was all she said. Frank grabbed some silverware from the drawer and laid it out without a word.
Dinner was a quiet affair that evening. Frank pushed his potatoes around on his plate, and Francie nibbled at a green bean. David stayed mostly quiet, his keen eyes darting between Frank and Francie throughout the meal.
“Mama?” David’s voice was high.
“Mm?” Francie’s eyes didn’t move from her plate.
“Do you like the decorations? I didn’t show you everything me and Granna did while you and Papa were gone.”
Frank watched Francie’s eyes scan around the room, taking in the paper chains and dyed eggs and other pieces of handmade decor. He watched as the emotions flickered across her face and she pushed them into a smile for their son, and again he felt useless and impotent.
“It’s beautiful, honey,” she said at last, and David puffed up his chest with pride, grinning.
“Granna said all we need is an Easter lily, and it will be perfect! Do we have an Easter lily, Mama?”
Francie’s eyes flicked up to Frank’s before she answered David’s question. “The cold nights last week killed our lilies, so we haven’t got any.”
David’s crestfallen expression was the final straw. The injustice of it all hit Frank just then, and suddenly he couldn’t take it anymore. He shoved his chair back from the table.
“Well, then,” he said. “David, go put on your socks and shoes. We’re going to get an Easter lily.”
David’s face lit up like a bundle of Christmas lights. “We’re going in the car?” he asked.
“We’re going in the car.”
David jumped out of his chair and sprinted out of the small kitchen toward his bedroom.
Francie cleared her throat. “It’s the night before Easter, Frank,” she said. “I doubt anywhere is going to have any decent lilies.” She wrapped her sweater around herself again and looked up at him and lowered her voice. “Do we even have the money to spend, after all the doctor’s bills?”
Frank walked over and knelt before her chair, looking into his wife’s hazel eyes. “I’m going to take care of it,” he said, pushing through the tightness in his throat. “I’m going to take care of my family, and we’re going to have a beautiful Easter together.”
Francie dropped her gaze. “Why does this always happen to us?” she breathed.
Frank’s shoulders tensed. He longed to take her into his arms and whisper that everything would be okay, but the words wouldn’t come; how could he promise her something he wasn’t even sure he believed himself? Instead, he stood and walked to the hall to fetch her jacket. He brought it back to her and held it open. Francie sighed, getting to her feet, and pushed her arms into the jacket.
“Mama!” David’s muffled voice called from his room. “Where’s my red shoes?”
Francie stuck her hands in her pockets and passed Frank toward their son’s room. “You don’t need to wear your rain boots, honey.”
Frank listened to their conversation as he walked back to his and Francie’s bedroom. From his top drawer, he withdrew a worn envelope. “Emergencies,” the scrawled writing on the envelope said. Frank opened it and pulled out the only two crumpled bills it held, sliding them into his pocket. It wasn’t as much as he’d hoped.
Frank loaded his little family into the station wagon, and they pulled out just as the sun began to set.
Paul’s Plants and Nursery was the first one they came upon with the lights still on in the greenhouse. David was bouncing excitedly in his seat as Frank pulled into the gravel parking space.
“Can we get a big one, Papa?” David asked, leaning up between the two front seats. “The biggest one they have?”
Frank smiled at David’s gap-toothed grin and wide eyes. “We’ll see what they’ve got, eh?” He cast a glance at Francie, but she was already opening her door and climbing out of the car.
Frank opened his door and let David out of the backseat, encouraging his son to go catch up with Francie. David shot ahead, a ceaseless bundle of energy, practically running circles around his mother as they walked into the main store. Shoving his hands in his pockets, Frank followed at a distance, watching them. Francie’s smiles to David were perfunctory.
He wanted to take away Francie’s pain. His own crushing grief he could bear, but seeing hers was too much. He ached to make it all right, to fix it, to set it right; but he could not, and he knew it.
As soon as the bell rang over the door as he entered the shop, the smell of soil and lilies was overwhelming. It looked as if the front half of the store had been blanketed in pure snow. White lilies covered every surface, some small and potted, some enormous in arrangements. Lilies spread over tables, stood in pots on the floor, and one display even had potted lilies climbing a ladder leaning against the wall.
“They’re perfect!” David exclaimed. He grabbed his mother’s hand and dragged her farther into the shop.
Frank stopped at one of the pots of lilies nearest him, a moderately sized one that looked as if it would have a few more good days in bloom. He pulled the brown paper price tag over so he could read it, and his heart sank. It was more than twice what he’d hoped it would be. I can’t even give my wife the Easter lily she deserves, he thought miserably.
“That’s a fine plant there,” came a voice from beside him. Frank startled and looked up. An elderly man with a grizzled beard was looking at him, wiping his hand on a dirt-smeared apron.
Frank pushed the price tag back. “I think it’s a bit bigger than what we’re looking for,” he said, feeling heat rising to his face.
The man nodded. “That’s no problem. As you can see, we’ve got plenty. I just brought over some new ones from the greenhouse this morning. Feel free to look around, and let me know if you have any questions or need help with anything.”
“Papa!” David called. Frank looked up to see David staggering forward from the back of the store with the biggest lily he’d ever seen. With at least six pure white flowers already opened and four more still closed, the plant looked strong and healthy.
Francie followed behind David, a crease between her brows. “David, Mama already said that one’s too big.” But Frank didn’t miss the longing way she looked the flowers over.
The old man beside Frank chuckled. “Why, you’ve a good eye, little man,” he said to David. “That’s the best lily we’ve had all season.”
David grinned. “I knowed it was the best one. It’s big as me!”
Before his son could drop the plant, Frank stepped forward and plucked it from his son’s hands. He cleared his throat, feeling suddenly awkward with the old man watching them. “Your mother’s right,” he said. “This one’s probably too big.” His eye fell to the price tag hanging by a purple string, and he swallowed. “Why don’t you show me where you got it so I can put it back?”
David’s shoulders slumped, disappointment etched in his open face.
But the old man stepped in. “No worries,” he said, “I can take that.” He took the lilies from Frank and held the pot against his hip with one arm, like one would hold a child. “You might want to check the greenhouse,” he said. “There are some real nice ones in there, and they’re still little enough.”
David looked up at Frank for approval, eyes like saucers. Frank nodded, and David scurried to the door, Francie following after.
“That’s a mighty fine family you’ve got there,” the old man said. “I never got around to having one myself, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve wondered if that might’ve been a mistake. I’ll never know, I guess.”
Frank, feeling uncomfortable, didn’t know what to say. He shifted his weight and looked toward the door. “Well,” he said after a moment, “I guess I should follow them.”
The old man waved his free arm and turned away. “You go on,” he said, moving to put the enormous lily back. “Just bring the tag for whatever lily you choose in here, and Micah out there in the greenhouse will take the lily to your car for you.”
Frank thanked the man and stepped outside into the evening air, following the lights spilling across the gravel parking lot from the greenhouse.
“Were more than we thought,” a deep voice finished saying from inside the greenhouse when Frank stepped in. Francie stood in the center of the greenhouse, bathed in fluorescent light, holding David’s hand. A boy, not more than sixteen or so, gestured around at the hundreds of plants on raised beds. “Lilies can be finnicky,” he went on, “so we usually plant more than we’ll need on the assumption that a lot of them won’t make it. This year, though, almost every single one survived. That’s why we’ve got so many both up in the store and here.”
Frank walked over to his family. Francie looked up at him as he approached and held out her hand. For a second, he thought she meant for him to take it but then realized she was pointing to the raised bed lined with potted plants just behind her. A small lily in a terracotta pot, covered in green blooms still tightly closed, swayed slightly as he neared it.
“We found one,” she said, her voice subdued. Frank glanced at the price tag and smiled.
“It’s perfect,” he said, meeting her eyes. “We can watch it bloom together.”
Biting her lip, she nodded. “I’d like that.” She picked up the lily and held it close.
“Will it grow big as me?” David asked, wrapping his arms around Frank’s legs and looking up into his face. Frank smiled and swung his son up into his arms.
“We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”
Frank trooped the family back into the store, and he paid for the plant. The old man grinned when he saw the lily they’d chosen and said this one would probably grow to be even bigger than the one David had wanted, which made the little boy clap and laugh. Frank only watched Francie’s face as her eyes followed their son’s excitement over the flowers. It wasn’t the grand, beautiful plant he’d imagined for them, but something about the quiet promise those unopened blooms held seemed fitting just then.
He didn’t say anything on the drive home. From the back seat, David chattered happily, thrilled to be seated with the lily. Frank listened to his son but glanced at his wife. Turning her head slowly toward him, unshed tears in her eyes sparkled under the passing streetlights. She didn’t say anything; she didn’t have to. Frank swallowed as he slowed the car to a stop at a stoplight. He couldn’t take her pain away, nor could she his; but they didn’t have to. They could ride this out together, and they would be stronger for it. As long as they had each other, he knew they had the ability to make it through anything.
Without a word, he reached over, took her hand in his, and squeezed.