“Do you need help?”
“How are you going to help me, Steven? You don’t know anything about gardening.”
“Well...my mom used to have a garden. Before...she…”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to...of course you can help. Go fill up this water bucket.”
Steven was glad to be doing something. All his other friends were gone at summer camp and his grandmother had made him go outside and play. He didn’t mind being outside. He didn’t know what to do. After throwing rocks down the sewer drain for awhile he decided to see if Nina was home. He hadn’t seen her since school got out for the summer and he realized he missed sitting by her in class.
“Where should I pour this?”
“Not yet. I’ve got to finish adding dirt. Mom and Dad let me have my own tomato plant this year.” She said as she pointed to the wooden box separated from the rest of the garden. “Pretty cool huh.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“Well, duh. I planted it this morning.”
“How long will it take to grow?”
“If you don’t pour this water over here, nothing will ever grow. I’ll tell you when to stop.”
Steven fumbled forward with the tin bucket in his hand. No ship could have withstood the tsunami-like waves sloshing inside the watering bucket. One wave jumped out to meet Nina.
“Hey, watch it,” she said.
“Don’t you want to grow too?”
A joke? Steven couldn’t believe it. Did he make a joke? A poor joke; but still a joke. Nina didn’t know how to respond. So she didn’t.
“Okay that’s enough. Put it down. I need your help carrying something.”
“In the castle,” Nina said with a smile. Steven knew exactly what she was talking about. With that single phrase he went back to the days when they used to play make believe before going to school. Nina’s garage had been many things; a spaceship, a submarine, a museum, and a castle.
As they were approaching the drawbridge Nina said, “I’m still mad at you for spilling water on me. But that was pretty funny what you said.”
“What did I say?”
“About growing. Like I’m a plant.”
“Sometimes I wish I was a plant. I’ve helped my mom and dad grow so many beautiful flowers and delicious vegetables. Sunflowers as tall as the house. Tomatoes as big as your head.”
Steven didn’t know what to say. He had never thought about being a vegetable before.
“And you get to be outside all day. And people spend a lot of real time with you. A garden can’t grow without a gardener who cares.”
“That does sound nice.”
She didn’t respond. They breached the castle doors and were searching for their treasure. She was scanning every square inch of the garage like a doctor looking at an x-ray.
“There it is,” she said as she pointed to the large wire hat.
“What’s it for?”
“You put this in the ground over the tomato plant and then it helps it grow up straight.”
“It needs help to grow up straight?”
“We all do. Now help me carry this to the backyard.”
Steven spent the rest of the afternoon helping Nina with whatever she needed. He didn’t care much for gardening, but he was glad to do something. Plus, he liked hanging out with her. They were cleaning off the hand rake when Steven heard his grandmother calling him to come home for dinner.
“That’s my grandma. Must be time for dinner.”
“How could you tell? Was it by the way she said, ‘Steven, time for dinner.’’’’ Steven didn’t react. “That was a joke. You can laugh.”
“Oh sorry. That is pretty funny now that I think about it. I better get going. See ya later.”
“I’m going to be gone tomorrow, but do you want to come back on Thursday? My mom is going to let me plant the green beans all by myself. But I could use some help.”
“Okay. That sounds good. Bye.”
Steven went back that Thursday. And that Friday. And the Tuesday after that. And two or three times a week for the entire summer. One day, a few weeks before school was going to start he got a call from Nina. She told him to come over right away.
“Sorry it took me a little longer to get here. I was at Jackson’s house. Is everything okay?”
“Yes!” she yelled. “Everything is great. Everything is so great. Look.”
She reached into the waist-high plant separated by the metal spine and showed him a bright green jellybean.
“Woah. A tomato. You did it.”
“We did it.”
“That’s so cool. Remember when this was dirt in a box. Now...tada...tomato .”
“How many are in there?” Steven asked.
“That’s the only one so far. But look on this side of it. Do you know what Florida looks like?”
“I’ve never been to the beach.”
“No, I mean the state. Like on a map.”
“Well, on this side of it there’s a little brown spot that looks like…”
She stopped talking immediately. Steven had never seen her make that face. Her eyes became two garden pails tipped ninety degrees. She held it up. The baby tomato was plucked from its life source.
She yelled and threw the tiny shot-put into the woods that lined her backyard. She ran inside and was gone. Again, Steven didn’t know how to react. He stood there awhile before getting an idea.
He didn’t see Nina for a few days. He wasn’t upset. She had spent so much time with this plant. She had filled a box with dirt and massaged it with her own hands. The seed was purchased with her own money. She had told Steven that one day, instead of getting a vanilla brownie drumstick, she got a strawberry push-pop from the ice cream truck. That’s all it took. It was a few tomato seeds after all.
But it had become more than that to her. It was the evidence of her hard work. She did it by herself. Without her parents’ help. She turned a seed into success. And in the excitement of her success, she had squandered it all.
He knew Nina’s family would be gone a few days on their end-of-summer vacation because she had already asked Steven if he would water the plants. This was before the incident. He was going to do more than water the plants. He was going to fix it.
The Sunday Nina and her family got home from vacation; Steven was waiting for them. For Nina. He had something to show her.
“Hi, Steven, what are you doing here? Is everything alright?” asked Nina’s mom.
“Yes ma’am. I have something to show Nina.”
“Okay, don’t be too long. It is getting late.”
Steven and Nina walked around the castle to the garden in the backyard.
“Did you have fun on the beach?”
“Yeah! It was incredible. Palm trees everywhere. Beautiful flowers everywhere. I pulled a coconut off of a tree. Then we ate it. It was cool.”
“Is everything okay with the garden?”
“That’s what I want to show you. Look,” he said. He led her to the tomato plant. He reached into the tomato bush to reveal a greenish jellybean with a Florida spot that had been taped to the stem.
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