He asked me a lot of questions about gardening and I liked that he seemed interested in my interests. I showed him how to lay the compost and mulch to cover the ground so that the snow wouldn’t do too much damage. My garden is small compared to most gardens. Maybe ten feet by twelve feet. But it’s all my dad will let me use of the backyard.
Atlas covered the whole thing while I sat cross-legged in the grass and watched him. I wasn’t being lazy, he just took over and wanted to do it so I let him. I can tell he’s a hard worker. I wonder if maybe keeping himself busy takes his mind off of things and that’s why he always wants to help me so much.
When he was finished, he walked over and dropped down When he was finished, he walked over and dropped down next to me on the grass.next to me on the grass.
“What made you want to grow things?” he asked.
I glanced over at him and he was sitting cross-legged, looking at me curiously. I realized in that moment that he’s probably the best friend I’ve ever had, and we barely know anything about each other. I have friends at school, but they’re never allowed to come over to my house for obvious reasons. My mother is always worried something might happen with my father and word might get out about his temper. I also never really get to go to other people’s houses but I’m not sure why. Maybe my father doesn’t want me staying over at friends’ houses because I might witness how a good husband is supposed to treat his wife. He probably wants me to believe the way he treats my mother is normal.
Atlas is the first friend I’ve ever had that’s ever been inside my house. He’s also the first friend to know how much I like to garden. And now he’s the first friend to ever ask me why I garden.
I reached down and pulled at a weed and started tearing it into little pieces while I thought about his question.
“When I was ten, my mother got me a subscription to a website called Seeds Anonymous,” I said. “Every month I would get an unmarked package of seeds in the mail with instructions on how to plant them and care for them. I wouldn’t know what I was growing until it came up out of the ground. Every day after school I’d run straight to the backyard to see the progress. It gave me something to look forward to. Growing things felt like a reward.”
I could feel Atlas staring at me when he asked, “A reward for what?”
I shrugged. “For loving my plants the right way. Plants reward you based on the amount of love you show them. If you’re cruel to them or neglect them, they give you nothing. But if you care for them and love them the right way, they reward you with gifts in the form of vegetables or fruits or flowers.” I looked down at the weed I was tearing apart in my hands and there was barely an inch left of it. I wadded it up between my fingers and flicked it.
I didn’t want to look over at Atlas because I could still feel him staring, so instead, I just stared out over my mulch-covered garden.
“We’re just alike,” he said.
My eyes flicked to his. “Me and you?”
He shook his head. “No. Plants and humans. Plants need to be loved the right way in order to survive. So do humans. We rely on our parents from birth to love us enough to keep us alive. And if our parents show us the right kind of love, we turn out as better humans overall. But if we’re neglected . . .”
His voice grew quiet. Almost sad. He wiped his hands on his knees, trying to get some of the dirt off. “If we’re neglected, we end up homeless and incapable of anything meaningful.”
His words made my heart feel like the mulch he had just laid out. I didn’t even know what to say to that. Does he really think that about himself?
He acted like he was about to get up, but before he did I said his name.
He sat back down in the grass. I pointed at the row of trees that lined the fence to the left of the yard. “You see that tree over there?” In the middle of the row of trees was an oak tree that stood taller than all the rest of the trees.
Atlas glanced over at it and dragged his eyes all the way up to the top of the tree.
“It grew on its own,” I said. “Most plants do need a lot of care to survive. But some things, like trees, are strong enough to do it by just relying on themselves and nobody else.”
I had no idea if he knew what I was trying to say without me coming out and saying it. But I just wanted him to know that I thought he was strong enough to survive whatever was going on in his life. I didn’t know him well, but I could tell he was resilient. Way more than I would ever be if I were in his situation.
His eyes were glued to the tree. It was a long time before he even blinked. When he finally did, he just nodded a little and looked down at the grass. I thought with the way his mouth twitched that he was about to frown, but instead he actually smiled a little.
Seeing that smile made my heart feel like I had just startled it right out of a dead sleep.
“We’re just alike,” he said, repeating himself from earlier.
“Plants and humans?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. Me and you.”
I gasped, Ellen. I hope he didn’t notice, but I definitely sucked in a rush of air. Because what the heck was I supposed to say to that?
I just sat there, really awkward and quiet until he stood up. He turned like he was about to walk home.
He glanced back down at me. I pointed at his hands and said, “You might want to take a quick shower before you go back. Compost is made from cow manure.”