Episode 2

#Episode 2: Enter Hrothgar
Hrothgar (August, 1991)

Monkshood, when placed with Marigold, denotes grief. If Cypress is included, it is a household in mourning.  When placed with reeds, Monkshood greens signify travel with purpose. The buds are used to warn of dangerous plots, the sort of gossip that poisons the well. On its own, however, Monkshood stands for chivalry and a call to Errantry.

          Sometimes having a best friend was a real pain. He could hear Ryan stomping through the brush, getting closer and farther as he wandered all over the place. He could hear him getting a bit angry, too—and to be fair he could see his point, if he was trying to be objective. For the past few weeks, ever since his grandma had died, he’d been doing his best to distance himself from Ryan and the rest of his friends. That is, Ryan’s friends. He had never really warmed to most of that gang, but he went with them because Ryan was his best friend and that’s what you did.
          It made Gar feel funny sometimes, this weird notion when they were all hanging out together that somehow he owed Ryan to put up with his friends, doubly so because his best friend had gotten between him and all comers from about the age of three onward. At that age, he’d believed he was cursed. Not in any sort of fantastical way—he’d have actually preferred that, as that would be something beyond his control (it’d be sort of cool)—but by something endemic to his very being.
          It started at preschool, when everyone was first learning how to say each other’s names. He was already reading at this point, and speaking wasn’t that much more difficult. The difficulty came when people asked him his name. Seriously, how do you survive being named Hrothgar Jones? You just try to slide down in your seat and pray that no one calls on you. Sadly, he was far too smart for his own good—and even at that age his teachers knew it. They called on him relentlessly, unaware or uncaring about the anxiety they were triggering every time Gar heard his name. By second grade it was much worse, as his glasses came along to further solidify his geekish destiny along with a series of haircuts that his mother had insisted on that he had shuddered at then, and angered him now.
          His parents’ sense of style and parenting seemed to have frozen around 1982. He was sure he would’ve fit right in with the hippies his parents had hung out with back in college, with his turtlenecks and corduroys and over-sized bowl cut hair. That got a bit easier as he got older, and they could see that they were going to have to give in a little, give him at least some say in the trappings of his life if he was ever going to socialize successfully. That’s how his father, the psychologist, had worded it. Ryan’s successful campaign to call him “Gar” had undone at least some of the daily damage. His parents hadn’t even put up much of a fight.
          Having two professors for parents definitely gave Hrothgar grief, but every once in a while it also led to something wicked. Or cool. Or hot. He couldn’t keep up. Interesting, possibly. Just trying to stay up to date with what to say and how to say it, and who were friends with who often left him feeling exhausted. After his grandma’s funeral, it just hadn’t seemed worth it. And while Ryan never bothered him about it when he used last month’s hip phrase, having to deal with everyone else just seemed so…pointless.
          Gar sighed as he searched amongst the tall grass of the clearing, letting the frustration get the better of him. He did like Ryan, even thought of him as an older brother, but much like an older brother the guy could sometimes really get under his skin. As they had gotten older, Ryan had tried to drag Gar with him onto lacrosse and soccer teams—even the wrestling team one fall—despite his insistence that he wouldn’t be any good at them, and had little interest. He was sure Ryan got sick of Gar constantly recommending books and anime to him too, but neither of them was willing to let go of each other.
          Hearing Ryan’s voice getting closer, he sank into the grass, stretching out on the harsh crushed grass that prodded his exposed legs and arms. Staring at the few dawdling clouds above, Gar admitted to himself he didn’t have that many other friends, really, and what friends he did have Ryan had tended to absorb into his posse. Seth had been like him, at least at first, though he was much more obsessed about designing video games than reading Dune. Ryan put up with the two of them, but his eyes sort of glazed over as they waxed long in the tooth over their mercurial obsessions.
          Seth had jokingly nicknamed him Professor once in the fourth grade, and it had somehow stuck. By middle school, Hrothgar was wearing sport jackets, complete with the requisite patches on the elbows, over his t-shirts during the spring and fall. His hair wasn’t spiked like the rest of his crew, though not for a lack of trying. His mother’s side of the family all had curly hair, and the second his hair was longer than an inch he developed strange waves and cowlicks all over his head. Gar had grown it out, instead, and his brown, feathered forelocks formed a big swoop that touched his right eye. No one at school really dressed as he did, and obviously some of his parents’ iconoclastic spirit had rubbed off earlier in life, because he found he liked it that way. He didn’t have to keep up with whatever random trend was popular and he didn’t have to be wearing 70s hand-me-downs. He made his own style, just as he made his own way through the throngs of kids in the hallways each day.
           He was grateful for Ryan’s passion for being the unofficial Hrothgar Jones cheerleader. What little popularity he had was due to Ryan cajoling his friend into trying new things and meeting new people. He knew a few TV shows and movies that his friends quoted to each other in an elaborate shorthand code to encompass their camaraderie. Gar didn’t have much interest in rap or hip-hop, though Ryan made sure he knew at least the basics. Left to his own devices, Gar instead became gradually obsessed with the electronic music scene in London and New York. He used to daydream of being able to sneak into Tunnel, back in the days when Junior used to spin there. He imagined the big cities, even San Keros, had underground club scenes that he couldn’t even imagine. That had been another reason he was so glad he’d found Seth in his keyboarding class last year. It hadn’t taken long for them both to discover they liked the same kind of music and start to share their collections. Just this past year, Seth’s cousin had even let him DJ a bit at his party store.
           Of course, with his big interests being reading and music, he found himself much more likely to be upstairs in his room than outside getting into mischief. He always thought his parents should’ve been grateful for that, but the truth was that his parents were constantly on him to get out and socialize more. They didn’t understand that he’d rather make the perfect mix of songs to be the soundtrack to an outing than go himself. Moreover, his father had been making horrible attempts at asking if there were any girls he was interested in. And that had led to the talk. Gar stuck out his tongue at the level of remembered awkwardness, catching a poplar seed puff accidentally on his tongue. He did his best to spit it out, but he only succeeded in letting it dissolve in his mouth and on his lips as the strands got wet and started to come apart. Thinking back, he wasn’t sure who was the more grateful to flee the room after that conversation, himself or his father.
           The next day they had gotten the call that his grandma had died, and he had to help his mom to a chair when her knees gave out at the news. His dad was teaching a night class, and so he’d done his best to comfort her. He’d never known anyone who’d died before, and so outside of hugging her as she sobbed on his shoulder, he wasn’t sure what to do for his mom—or worse yet, what to say. When his father did finally come home, Hrothgar silently climbed the stairs and buried himself in the warm darkness of the blankets heaped on his bed in layers. That wordless indecision continued to grow throughout the week, a scream that he didn’t know how to voice.
           Gar was numb through the wake and funeral, and the visitation that followed. He didn’t even really cry, but he did eat. Casseroles, baked ziti, and 72 types of salad appeared during the visitation, and food kept magically appearing over the next several days. Family he had never met grabbed on to him for dear life, each murmuring words that were supposed to bring comfort to themselves, if not to Gar himself—and then they’d ask him if he’d eaten. It was as if the whole world had instead faded into the background, as if he was living, not in the actual world, but rather in some ridiculous story he had brought to life by his overactive imagination that completely revolved around his stomach. His Grandmother was gone, and somehow that broke everything, including Hrothgar himself. He felt sick in his guts, not as if he was going to puke, but more like there was a knot at its base that was never going to go away. This nameless dread was the only thing he could feel. After the first few moments when his parents had gotten the phone call and told him, where his mom and he both had sobbed copiously, he hadn’t been able to shed a single tear.
          Instead, Hrothgar spent his time trying to recall every single detail he could remember of his grandma. By the time of her passing she’d been in her late 70s, but she had always been smarter and so much faster in wit than Hrothgar that he’d immediately been intimidated and drawn to her simultaneously. Not unlike how he was feeling about Ryan these days. His grandma had been quick to laugh, though her sense of humor was very deliberately cheesy. She was quite the student too, constantly taking classes ranging from Impressionist art to ethnic history and sociology classes right up until her death. She would’ve had a library that rivaled the one his parents had, but she tended to give away her books after she’d read them—sometimes to the library and sometimes to folks she knew. Some of his favorites had come from her bookshelves. She’d been an avid collector of Agatha Christie novels at one point, and had let Gar borrow all of them in turn. That had been how he spent his second grade year, snuggled up with Grandma Rae’s mysteries in her recliner with a juice cup of Lipton, two sugars, and a squeeze of lemon. She’d sit on the couch next to him, and they had talked books and her travels and just, everything.
          The next weekend his mother had dragged him off to his grandmother’s house to help sort through all her things. That said, going through seven decades worth of stuff didn’t seem like a load of fun—more like a load of work, instead. The only cool thing had been when his mom had said that anything he wanted to keep for himself, he could, if he checked with her first. His grandparents had traveled extensively when they were younger, and they had gathered a bunch of really cool art, books, and curiosities from their adventures. Apparently, his Uncle had laid claim to some of the furniture and antiques and mom wanted some herself, but anything else was fair game. Hrothgar frequently was called a pack rat at home, having almost weekly fights about cleaning his room with his father, who was the neat freak. His mother wisely stayed out of it, as the state of her study at home would’ve made her the queen of all hypocrites if she’d uttered a word. If his dad and mom fought about that, he never heard it. He was just grateful they never saw his locker.
          The knot of dread was heavy with him as they pulled into the driveway. The house was silent except for the constant ticking and periodic gongs of the grandfather clocks his grandfather had gathered and repaired over the years. There was a small mountain of boxes already in the living room, implying his Uncle Ben had already been to the house and staked claim on what he wanted. The back porch was likewise filled with mounds of stuff—he could see stereo speakers almost as tall as he was peeking out of the pile—and his grandfather’s set of golf clubs was sticking out of their leather bag as they leaned against the glass end table. That strange detachment lingered with Gar, the simultaneous sense of wrongness side by side with a sense of discovery. He didn’t want more stuff, he wanted his grandma back. He wanted to laugh with her at her horrible jokes, and go out for pizza when she burned dinner on the stove because she was too busy telling him what she’d learned in class to pay attention.
           In the end, it was as dreary as he feared. They started in her bedroom first, clearing out the dressers and closets before moving onto the bathroom. It took hours. When they finally took a break, he looked into the rooms across the hall. The guest rooms still had the beds he’d slept on when he spent the night, the bold Grecian patterned bedspreads still tucked tight around pillows that would never be used again. He briefly thought about asking his mom if he could take the matching desk chair; its royal blue frame would clash with the pale yellow of his bedroom walls in a way he found pleasing.
           Looking into the smaller guest room, he saw the small bin of toys Grandma Rae had gathered, many were holdovers from when Gar himself had been little, but he boxed up the toys and placed them with his uncle’s boxes. He was sure the girls would appreciate it, even if his uncle hadn’t thought of it yet. There were a few things he wanted that he put aside for himself, as it turned out—a parrot sculpted in marble his grandma had picked up in Spain when his grandparents had spent a summer in Europe before he was born, an Impressionist-inspired undersea painting that had hung in his grandmother’s kitchen, and several books on botany and flowers that had always been in his grandma’s living room. When he had finished boxing up what he could, he called down to his mom in the basement to let her know the rest of the living room was ready to go. A moment later, his mother called out to him.
           Hrothgar came downstairs to find his mother sitting with her back against a large box, her legs splayed within a semi-circle of pottery; each partially unwrapped from the newspaper that had protected it. He recognized some of the vases and bowls Grandma Rae had proudly shown him, hard earned efforts she’d brought home from her art classes and others he assumed she had found at art sales at the college as well as yard sales—something she’d done quite a bit of the last few years. She’d taken him to one of the pottery classes a few years back. He’d made a small bowl for his mom’s birthday and had made a sad attempt to make a unicorn for himself. The chipped white glazed monstrosity, its horn as big as its legs, still stood by his alarm clock on his desk back at home. He hadn’t thought about it in months, it had just rather become a thing that was in the place it always was, a placeholder.
          He found his mom kneeling on the cement floor, looking into a shoebox with a small, wistful smile on her face that somehow softened her dried, red eyes. She motioned Hrothgar over, saying softly, “Leave it to mom…,” as she handed the shoebox to Gar. Inside was what looked like a small purple diary or notebook. Beneath it was a larger notebook the color of cardboard, both bound with spines warped through humidity and age.
           “These were your grandmother and great-grandmother’s,” Gar’s mom continued after taking a moment. “Somewhere down here, if she kept these, there ought to be at least a few more—maybe even your great-great grandmothers. Grandma Rae’s flower shop had been on mom’s side of the family for at least three generations. Your Grandma grew up working in the shop alongside her mom. Her mom taught her about the different flowers using a journal she’d kept as a girl herself, with pressed dried flowers in it she’d started when she was still in Scotland, as a young girl. Your grandma did the same thing, started one of her own. I think if we dig a bit deeper into these boxes, your great-great grandma’s flower book is in there, too.”
          Gar opened the yellowed pages and found a small sprig of Lilac, pressed flat between the pages. His grandmother’s blocky writing filled most of the page, describing the pale pink flowers in their prime, and how she’d plucked it from one of the first sprigs into bloom in the hedge that separated her property from her neighbors. Next was a long tendril with drooping thin leaves that partially fell to dust with Hrothgar’s attention. The page smelled like licorice, but if he was reading it right, his Grandma Rae had earmarked this page for a sprig of Tarragon she’d fetched from her mother’s own herb garden. The next page had Rosemary written clearly at the top, and the clipping of evergreen the folded page housed was still fragrant if he stuck his nose close enough.
          He had to admit this was actually cool, at least to himself. As he skipped forward several pages, he found a paper-thin puck of what once was Thyme, and towards the end what he assumed without even looking was sage—it smelled vaguely of turkey stuffing. Or maybe that was just his stomach talking—he was tired of casseroles. Turkey sounded good—maybe some stuffing, some cranberry sauce. Of course, given his surroundings, that made him think of the singular time his Grandma Rae had cajoled the family to let her host Thanksgiving. The turkey itself was about the only thing that ended up coming out unscathed—even the mashed potatoes were annihilated thanks to some milk that had gone bad.
           The whole room suddenly filled with the smell of that meal, before dwindling back to the smell of the sage trapped in the page of the book. At the end, there had been the almost sickly sweet smell of cloves and hyacinth, something astringent he thought might be lemongrass—one of his grandmother’s favorites—and wet grass, maybe clover?
          “Mom, do you smell that?” asked Gar, shaking his head to get the heady perfume out of his head.
          “Smell what, honey?” Gar’s mom looked up from what apparently was an incomplete china set rimmed with holly leaves. “Looks like I found one of the Christmas boxes…”
          “That?” insisted Hrothgar, waving his hands in an exaggerated manner in the air. “It sort of smells like Grandma Rae’s stuffing and a wet garden all ground together.”
          “That’s…an image. Might’ve been an improvement,” his mother laughed, “But no, I don’t smell a thing except for this musty basement. Must’ve inherited your grandmother’s nose. Probably just the herbs and flowers from the book getting to breathe after all this time.”
          Gar nodded, but even as the smell dissipated, he felt it had come from around him rather than wafting up from a few old pages—as if the house itself had exhaled somehow the smells of his grandmother’s life only to take them in again with another breath.
          “Those books were what inspired me towards my own research, really,” his mom continued, unaware of Gar’s brief disorientation. “I hated the flower shop, the business of it. Your grandma and grandpa used to fight about it all the time when your Uncle Ben and I were little, but I was fascinated by what flowers people picked for which occasions, and why. I used to pester all of your grandma’s customers, asking what occasion they were celebrating and then watched carefully as mom would build something for them, describing the meaning of each addition. She reminded me of a librarian, really—a librarian of flowers!”
          Gar’s mom smiled at the notion, and Gar did as well. He could just picture Grandma Rae behind her bright red glasses, always too far down her nose, shushing noisy customers as she told a story with the flowers she gathered for them.
          “And so my study of flowers in history was born!” his mom chuckled. “I don’’t think mom ever really understood that I loved the flowers as much as she did—just in a different way. She was so passionate about getting the right arrangement, and for me it was all about my head, I guess. I wanted to know the whys and the history of what symbolized what, and how it changed and why.” His mom closed up the box of Christmas China, folding the flaps one upon the other as if packing up the memory alongside the gravy boat and dessert plates.
“I guess I’m rambling. In any case, I thought you might like to look through those flower diaries. It might help you know your grandma a little better, might make her feel closer,” and reaching out from a crouch, pulled him into a half hug, her chin resting on the top of his rustled hair.
          They worked in silence for a while, occasionally showing the other some treasure they unearthed as they unboxed and repacked the basement. After a full day of packing and searching, he did find the final flower journal, buried in a box at the bottom of a stack built years before, if the condition of the boxes were anything to go by. He’d closed the bottom box just as quickly as he opened it, at first. It reeked like all the sweaty feet of the world had gathered to express their stench. When he braced himself and opened the box a second time, he discovered amidst the newspaper and paper towels three pairs of bowling shoes—and an oatmeal colored book about the size of one of Grandma Rae’’s oversized books with print the size of Texas. Opening its pages, he saw his great-great grandmother’s book had cracked its binding in storage, the ink already begun to fade.
          He started to go through this oldest flower book first. It took a while to figure out his great-great grandmother’s handwriting, with its loops and whirls so different from the simple printing of his grandma. It was a thick book, its pages expanded from years of boxed storage and the general cold dampness that basements bring. Nevertheless, he was riveted. There weren’t just ‘flower shop’ flowers in those pages. Apparently his grandma’s mom had, as a girl, gone out into the woods and moors and found all sorts of flowers, clearly marking where she found them, their original color, and whatever information about the plant she could find out—and sketched many of them as well.
          While some of the writing seemed to Gar to discuss what might best be paired with what in an arrangement or whether it could be grown indoors and what soil would be best, she had also taken steps to mention whatever meaning the plants might have had to her parents’ customers or she’d discovered in books at the time. Some of the flowers pressed into the fragile pages he didn’t recognize at all, and Gar wondered if maybe they were native to Scotland—or if she had learned a name for them as a girl that was different than what was used here in the States.
          In the end, he took all three journals home with him. He left the golf clubs for his uncle, and was relieved when his mom let him keep the Spanish marble parrot and the painting, as well as a few books and pictures of the two of them together. He also picked a glass disk that had hung in his grandmother’s picture window for as long as he could remember, catching it as his mom unspooled the fishing line wrapped around the curtain rod it had hung from. At the last minute, he asked after the Grecian print chair from the guest room and got that as well—and that was that. Another pile of boxes in the living room, sticky notes on some furniture, and the few pieces Hrothgar was walking out the door with—that was the totality of Grandma Rae’s legacy. Well, that and her glasses. He’d inherited those by necessity the day after her funeral. But then, as he was the only other member of the family that wore glasses, he felt like she would’ve liked that he took them.
          They turned out the lights and locked the door behind them. The housing market was booming, and it took only three weeks for Grandma Rae’s house to sell, stripped to its bones awaiting strangers to build on the Hutchison family’s dreams with their own.
The bottomless hole in his gut never really went away, either. Much like that house, he had been hollowed out by the experience and didn’t have it within him to refill that void. He spent his time by himself, only appearing in the morning for breakfast before school and then again at dinner before disappearing back into his room. At school, he stopped volunteering answers or showing up for the few clubs he’d joined and his teachers, bewildered, contacted his parents. They preached patience, and explained the “situation”: Hrothgar was processing a terrible loss; he needed some time to bounce back, please contact them again if his grades slip. Professors though they were, his mother and father decided after two solid weeks of holing up in his room that Gar needed to get out of the house, to stop ignoring his own life and friends. He’d just looked at them blankly, shoulders slumped, and gone to the phone to make plans with Ryan within their earshot.
Gar went upstairs to change his clothes and spied the flower journals on his bookcase. He grabbed both his grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s and shoved them in his backpack alongside the latest Darksword novel and a flashlight, and with the vinyl pack slung over one shoulder, bounded down the stairs and shouted to his parents he was going out as he slammed the door to the garage behind him. He grabbed his bike, hopped on its seat and coasted down the driveway before either of them framed a response.
          That day he did go to Ryan’s house, his best friend’s mom making a bit of a fuss once she saw him. It was one of the things Hrothgar dreaded the most—for the foreseeable future, every single person who saw him was going to bring up his grandma’s death. Everyone had to apologize and offer aphorisms that they knew wouldn’t help but yet felt obligated to utter anyways. It was as if he wasn’t even a person, just the ghost of her death. Ryan, at least, hadn’t done that at all. He’d launched into a long list of everything he’d missed the past few weeks, who was dating who, who got into a fight, what had happened on some of their favorite shows. Gar drifted in the sea of the minutiae and was utterly grateful that, to his friend, he was always going to be Hrothgar the Professor, and not whatever it was he had become.
          He stayed until the sun started to dip below the horizon of the development, the world painted a palette of Day-Glo orange and purple as the shadows of the trees and houses began to grow. Once he made his goodbyes, he hopped onto his bike and headed not to his house, but east, towards the edge of the housing development and the wooded preserve that rested on its border. There, under the dying light, he’’d opened the book of his grandmother and begun to explore.
          For the weeks following, he’d eventually bring all three books to identify the trees, saplings and flowering weeds that only got thicker as he ventured further, slowly moving further and further from the houses and into the deeper forest. Eventually, he’d stumbled across the river bordered by a virtual grove of flowers, flowering bushes, and baby saplings dropped from the larger trees above. That’d been the first time he’d seen him.

          And for the first time in weeks, Gar finally felt something again.


2 Responses to “Episode 2

  • Teared up at the memory of Grammy’s glass disc hanging in her living room picture window… sorry I am just getting around to reading these, but am really enjoying them!

    • Glad you’re enjoying it! There’s a lot more to come, and Episode 6 things get…strange.

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