God, how Raymond hated the city—it was a festering disease, spreading across the countryside. Every time he blinked, every time he slept, every time he turned his back, the steel girders creaked and the concrete walls closed in around him. In his forty-three years of life, he had remained the same, still a country bumpkin by heart. Not just by heart, but by liver and kidneys, brain and lungs, sinew and skin. He couldn’t stomach the city; his anatomy just wasn’t designed for it. Where the country expanded, the city contracted. Where the country stretched, the city shrank.
Monday through Friday, Raymond couldn’t wait for the workday to end, so he could jump in his car and watch the city disappear in his rearview mirror. His wife on the other hand, loved the city and cursed the day Raymond bought their ‘charming’ country home, but ‘charming’ was in the eye of the beholder. She wanted a modern loft in the commercial district, surround by trendy boutiques and fancy restaurants. After some impressive fights, or what Raymond liked to call ‘martial negotiations’, he ultimately got his way and their relationship had become as divided as their views.
On the drive home, Raymond watched the towering pines march by his open window, chased by the occasional grove of orange trees. He rejoiced in the warmth of the wind blowing through his brown hair. Sure, he could have saved an extra ten minutes on his daily commute if he had taken the main road, but he enjoyed sticking to the back road, even if it was longer.
What made this road different from the millions of others crisscrossing through the receding countryside? That’s simple, its seemingly wide-open expanse, its apparent lack of beginning, its evident lack of end—and that smell, the most wonderful of smells lingering through the valley. A recipe of sweet citrus and fresh pine trees—not like those generic store bought, tree shaped, green air fresheners—but real fresh pine needles. The scent awoke some far-off corner of his brain where the thoughts of his childhood had been banished to live, forced to make room for those pressing adult thoughts of money, health, and pension plans. It lured those darkness dwelling memories out into the open and he felt like a kid again, bounding through an endless Christmas tree farm. Running over branches, leaping over logs. This was definitely the life for Raymond, alone with his thoughts, breathing in the air of the wild, making his way home to a cozy cottage and a beautiful wife.
About twenty minutes into Raymond’s nightly trek home, something about a mile up the road caught his eye—a building of some sort. Oh dear God no, he thought, please don’t let it be more housing, not out here. I wish these damn people would just stop building—stop expanding. We don’t need to cut down any more trees just to build more malls. How many more stores with black scarves and dangly earrings do we need? Raymond had hoped that he moved far enough away from the disease of the city—but the true nature of a disease is to spread. That’s it, he thought, no more. He was making his diagnosis. He was going to march right in there and let them have it, serve them a mouthful.
Raymond pressed his foot down on the accelerator, shortening the distance between the structure and himself. Relief flooded his body like an analgesic opiate as the new building came into view. It wasn’t a parasitic monster land developer, or a cancerous mini-mall, or corndog and French fry pusher. It was just a small flower shop, off to the side of the road, bordered by the towering pine trees. He recoiled, backing off his premeditated thoughts of verbal murder and returned back to his happy state. How odd, he thought, I’ve never noticed a flower stand on this road before.
As he got a little closer, he realized it resembled more of a small lean-to than actual full-fledged shop. Raymond craned his head out the window to read the homemade wooden sign above the shop. A smile formed as he read it. Crude letters, painted in black, spelled—
Raymond, amused by the sign, decided to pull his car over toward the side of the road to investigate the scene. He could hear the crunch of rocks under the tires as he rolled to a stop. He silenced the engine and just as he stepped out of his car, an old Hispanic man with a large straw hat came out to greet him. Dust settled quietly around them. The man flashed a friendly crescent-shaped grin and outstretched one of his sun-dried tomato hands.
“Hello my friend, I am Manuel Rolando Ortega—but you can call me Manny.”
Raymond extended one of his own hands in reply. As they clasped and shook, he felt the man’s hand; it was stiff and callused. From years of hard labor no doubt, Raymond thought. Until that moment, he had never though about the appearance of his own hands. Never forced to exert themselves or weather with the world around them, they were remarkably soft and smooth—the unrealized reward of life less laborious. The taste of embarrassment soured his gut and he felt as if he were almost insulting the man by having such privileged hands.
“Nice to meet you Manny. I’m Raymond, but you can call me—Raymond.” He smiled, amused by his witty humor.
“Ah, you made a joke,” Manny said. “Come my friend, take a look at all my beautiful flowers.” He took hold of Raymond tenderly by the forearm and led him toward the flower shop.
“You are my first customer of the day,” Manny said.
Raymond glanced down at his wristwatch. “But it’s almost five ‘o’ clock.”
Manny just shrugged his shoulders. “It’s been a slow day.”
“Doesn’t look like you get much business out here?”
“No,” Manny said. “Not since they built that new highway a year ago.”
“Really, how do you manage now?”
“Oh—I do all right. I’m happy. I’m my own boss. I get to close whenever I want. I never have to work on holidays.”
“Sound’s like you got it made,” Raymond said as he scanned the front of the flower shop. The words tumbled out of his mouth, but he didn’t believe them, they were just costume pieces sewn together to hide his real feelings. From the road, the shop looked fine, but up close he could tell that it was in desperate need of repair. The roof was sagging inward, the walls were riddled with holes, and the floor was rotted clean through in most places. In contrast, all the flowers inside were magnificent and bright, some of the most beautiful he had ever seen, an array of colors from an artist’s palette.
As Manny turned to face Raymond, he noticed that the man’s clothing, just like the shop, had also seen better days. His work shirt was sheer and nearly worn through in quite a few areas and his faded tan khakis were stained and severely moth eaten. A strange feeling of sorrow fell over Raymond, sorrow for this man named Manny. A man who he knew absolutely nothing about, but knew everything at the same time. Manny did say that he was happy, didn’t he? So who are you to think otherwise, Raymond thought? You know that nose of yours? Keep it between your eyes and out of other people’s business.
Manny, protected by the shade of the flower shop’s sun-faded awning, took off his large straw hat, exposing his salt and peppered hair. “So let me guess,” Manny said, pulling Raymond from his thoughts. “You saw my store and stopped off for some curious reason—and now want to buy your wife some flowers?”
“Yeah,” Raymond said, with a touch of surprise in his voice. “How’d you know?”
“Oh, I’m psychic,” Manny said.
“Really?” Raymond held the breath in his throat.
“No—not really. It was just my turn to make a joke. I noticed your wedding ring.”
Raymond looked down at his ring and spun it with his thumb. “You’re very perceptive.”
“Why thank you, my friend.”
Raymond reached into the front pocket of his slacks and pulled out two crisp twenty-dollar bills, his left over change from his stop at the gas station earlier that morning. “I need a dozen of something, but I haven’t a clue what? I’m ashamed to say that my wife and I haven’t been getting along lately. I need something that says ‘I’m sorry’, something that will—flush all this troubled water under the bridge.”
Raymond handed Manny the two crumpled bills and his crescent smiled returned, doubling in size this time.
“What can this get me?” Raymond said, believing that forty dollars was way too much to pay for a dozen worth of anything, but even though he didn’t know a single thing about Manny, he sincerely liked him. It was the least he could do. He probably would have just offered to give the man some money, but he had the notion that Manny wasn’t the kind of person who accepted charity.
“Oh,” Manny said. “I will give you some of my special roses—a whole dozen of my special roses. That’ll do the trick, quiet down the—rough waters.”
“Perfect,” Raymond said. “What makes them special?”
“Why—you tell me?” Manny said, standing proud. “Can’t you smell them?”
Why hadn’t Raymond noticed it before? That overwhelming smell—a smell of roses so potent that he could no longer smell the wonderful Christmas tree scent of the hidden valley.
“I can smell them.”
“Of course you can my friend, you can smell them for miles. They are the most succulent smelling roses in the world,” Manny assured him. Sprouting with the glee of a child at show-and-tell, he hurried over behind his makeshift counter. “There’s nothing in the world my roses can’t fix.”
Manny produced a clouded glass vase from under the counter and filled with a dozen of the largest, brightest red roses Raymond had ever seen. The rose buds were the size of apples. “You like?” Manny said.
“They’re perfect,” Raymond replied. “I’ll take them.”
“Trust your friend Manny, you won’t regret it—but remember to take care of them. These roses are like a beautiful woman, you have to treat them right or they will shrivel before their time. Their beauty will be lost for all eternity.”
“I promise, Scouts honor.”
Manny looked up at him with a confused look on face. “What is this ‘scouts honor’?”
Raymond searched his memory for a simple way to explain the term. “A special promise I learned when I was a kid.”
“Ah, a promise from the child inside you?”
“Yeah,” Raymond said. “I guess that’s what I meant.”
Manny handed the dozen of red roses to Raymond.
“My wife will really love these,” Raymond said as he dropped his glance down to his wristwatch. He snapped his eyes back up toward Manny.
“I better hurry up and get going, my wife’s supposed to go out with friends tonight and want to give these to her before she leaves.”
“Don’t worry my friend, I’m sure once she sees those—she’ll pay no attention to her duties with her friends.”
“I don’t know. She really looks forward to taking the train down to Fillmore and meeting her friends for dinner once a week. Here,” Raymond said, fishing another twenty-dollar bill out of his black leather wallet. He handed it over to Manny.
“I feel like I’m stealing these roses for only forty-dollars, so take this and we’ll call it even.”
Manny, now holding three twenty-dollar bills, stared down at his sun-dried hands. Raymond could see the hint of a tear building up in the corner of his eyes.
“Thank you so much.”
“No thanks needed—I should be thanking you.” Raymond said. “Well, I better get going.”
Manny’s took Raymond’s hand in his and shook it happily. Raymond patted him on the shoulder and began to walk back to his car.
“Have a wonderful day my friend,” Manny said.
Raymond quickly spun back around toward Manny.
“You too—and I hope business picks up.”
“That’s why I made the new sign. Do you like it?”
A smile formed on Raymond’s face as he remembered the sign and it’s crude letters painted in black.
“Yes I do. It’s just like your roses—it couldn’t be more perfect. See you soon.”
“Goodbye my friend.”
Raymond spun back around, walked up to his car and began to unlock the door.
“Her name is Rose, isn’t it?” Manny yelled out, catching Raymond off guard.
Raymond, opening his car door, looked up in surprise.
“Rose—your wife’s name is Rose isn’t it?”
“Yes, how did you now?” Raymond said, bewildered by the comment.
“I’m psychic, remember?”
Manny flashed him the crescent smile and Raymond returned the favor.
“That you are Manny, that you are. Have a nice night.”
“You too and don’t worry, I’m sure once you give her the roses, everything will be just fine between you and your wife.”
Raymond, still bewildered by the strange exchange of words, waved. He slowly got into his car and started the engine. He stared at Manny through the rearview mirror. He was still standing in the same spot, staring down at the money in his hands.
Raymond slowly pulled back onto the road—destination home sweet home. With the bright red roses on the passenger seat next to him, he watched as Manny shrank in the rearview mirror, until he was just a small speck amongst the towering trees.
Ten minutes later, Raymond arrived at his country cottage, some forty miles from the closest suburb, where none of the city’s wicked sounds could penetrate. Carrying the vase of roses in one hand, he walked up the porch and reached out his free hand to unlock the front door. Without warning, his wife, on her way out of the house, swiftly swung open the door and they startled each other. His wife, Rose, was dressed in her favorite pair of black dress slacks with her favorite baby blue sweater. Raymond smiled at her and she returned with one of her famous smiles that could melt ice.
“I was just on my way out,” She said.
“Here beautiful, I brought these for you.” Raymond said as he handed her the vase of Manny’s special roses. Her cheeks blushed, turning the same color as the roses.
“Oh honey, you shouldn’t have,” She said, hugging him. “They’re so beautiful.”
“Roses for a rose named Rose,” He said softly.
“Where did you get them? I’ve never seen any near this big?” Rose leaned her head forward to inhale the scent of the roses. “And they smell so—amazing.”
“I stopped of at a this flower shop down the road.”
“On your way home from work?”
“I never knew we had a flower shop out here.”
“Me neither, but Manny just put up a big sign, that’s how I noticed it.”
Raymond smiled as he remembered Manny’s hand painted and perfectly misspelled sign.
Rose looked utterly confused. “Who’s Manny?”
“Oh, Manny’s the gentleman who owns the flower shop.”
“Well, look’s like you’ll have to stop by there more often.” She smiled another one of her rose smiles.
“We’ll see.” Raymond said. He glanced down at his watch and quickly snapped his eyes back up toward Rose.
“You better get going, or you’re going to miss the train.”
“All of a sudden,” Rose said. “I don’t fell like going anymore.”
Manny was right, Raymond thought to himself.
“What about your friends?”
“They’ll still be there next week.”
“Then it’s settled.” Hand in hand, they walked into the house and closed the door. That night as Raymond and Rose slept, they held each other tightly. Never once did they let go, until the sun rose the following day.
In the morning, after showering and shaving, Raymond sat down and enjoyed a wonderful breakfast of toast, bacon, and hardboiled eggs with his wife. As they sat across from each other sipping coffee, he unfolded his morning newspaper and the front-page headline caught his eye
TERROR ON THE TRACKS it was called. The picture below it was a scene of panic and horror; a crumpled and burning train lay some fifty feet from the tracks with a small army of firefighters battling the blaze—the product of an unfortunate derailment. As he read further, he learned that the previous night, a train bound for the small town of fillmore, collided with a herd of cattle, causing it to careen from the tracks, where it exploded only minutes later. There were no survivors. His jaw dropped and he stared at his wife.
It was her train.
She glanced up and saw the look of horror on his face. “What’s the matter dear?”
Raymond couldn’t speak, he just handed her the newspaper. She skimmed the headline and looked back up at him. Raymond’s eyes began to water; hers began to drain. Raymond got out of his chair and pulled her close—tighter than he had ever done before.
“I could’ve been on that train,” She said in-between faint sobs.
“But you weren’t,” Raymond said. “That’s all that matters now—you weren’t.” As he held her in his arms, he thought about the prospect of nearly losing his wife—his only love in life. She could have been there—mangled, lying underneath that train, screaming for help as the flames licked her body like a serpent’s forked tongue. Their twenty years of marriage over in a flash, snuffed out. Their hopes of the future extinguished in the blink of an eye. Every night coming home alone to an empty house in a dark canyon, sitting quietly in a lonely loveseat in a dark corner, alone with the thoughts of a darkened mind and memories of a life stolen. Then Raymond’s thoughts quickly shifted to a small flower shop, on a long stretch of deserted road, and a small man named Manny, with a crescent shaped smile and sun-dried tomato hands, that held a dozen special roses. The same roses that would ultimately save his wife from dying in that horrible train wreck. At that instant, he knew what he had to do.
“I have to go dear,” Raymond said.
“No please,” She cried. “Not right now,”
“I have to, I need to thank the man who saved your life—and mine too.”
He gave his wife the longest kiss goodbye he had ever given her and quickly hopped into his car. He was going to the ‘flour shop’. He was going to visit his new friend Manny.
I will give you two different endings and allow you to control the outcome of the story and the fate of its characters.
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Thanks for reading,
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