(V is back. She was a bit homesick for family earlier this evening, poor sweetheart, but I think it will go better for her as she gets re-acclimated. We're just glad to have her around again. And since she's now asleep, it's time to bring this baby to a close.)
Actually, Brad had been so caught up with other issues that he'd hardly had the time or thought to notice the caprice. School was about to start, and Brad was preparing for his freshman year of high school -- and rather abruptly he'd learned that his aunt didn't want him around any more.
He'd walked into the condo unannounced after a full day spent at Victoria's place, and overheard his aunt talking on the phone, her voice hushed but intense. He wouldn't have listened in, except he caught the sound of a familiar name as he walked by:
"...well, he won't tell you, Melanie, because you're his baby sister and he'd let you walk all over him. But I won't. We agreed to take Brad for three weeks just while you got your act together -- well, you've had three months to get your act together. And now school is starting, and I'm not about to sign him up for high school here when he's supposed to be back with you. He's a good kid, but this was never meant to be a permanent arrangement."
Brad didn't eavesdrop any further. He fled into Samuel's room, quietly closed the door and began to gather all the clothes he could find.
"What are you doing?" Samuel asked from his side of the room.
"Packing," said Brad shortly.
"I have to leave."
"Because I'm not wanted here," Brad murmured. "I guess I'm not wanted anywhere."
His mother had only sent him here to get him out of the way, and now he'd overstayed his welcome with his aunt and uncle. For a moment he thought of camping out in Victoria's yard, but with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, he realized it was probably only a matter of time until he wore out his welcome with them, too. He had a vague notion of getting on the bus and letting it take him to some random town in a state he'd never seen before, but he had no money. Hitchhiking was dangerous, and he was pretty sure hiding out in freight trains was dangerous too.
Still, with nothing better to do, he kept packing. He reached up to the windowsill to retrieve the daylily doorknob, and as his hand closed on the cold metal, he glanced up at the caprice. It was horribly withered. All the flowers had curled up and fallen from the branches, and most of the leaves were gone as well. The remaining leaves were mostly dry and crunchy. Brad had never seen the plant like this. The room began to blur.
"Are you crying?" Samuel piped up.
"This is my room."
"GET OUT!" yelled Brad, and he nearly chucked the doorknob at Samuel, who yelped and beat a hasty retreat.
When he was sure Samuel had gone, Brad wiped his eyes and continued to pack as fast as he could. He knew he couldn't go out via the front door. Samuel would almost certainly have gone to his mother to complain about being kicked out of his own room, which meant he would be getting a visit from his aunt very soon. He zipped up the suitcase, carefully retrieved the caprice, opened the window and slipped out into the warm early evening. Time to pull up the stakes again, kiddo, he thought grimly.
With no clearer idea of where he should go, Brad found himself heading in the direction of Victoria's house. He wanted to run, but realized that running would only draw unwanted attention -- and besides, he was worried about the caprice. It was much the worse for wear from neglect and didn't look like it was prepared to take any additional abuse that night. He cradled it in the crook of his right arm, talking rather forlornly to it as he walked.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I'm so sorry. Don't die. Please. I'll find you a place. Just don't die."
When he got to Victoria's, Brad turned early and went through the side yard, stepping carefully to avoid bruising or treading on any of the herbs. He could hear Victoria and her mom talking and laughing in the kitchen. It would be so easy just to walk in through the back door, rejoin them, confide in them -- but even though he longed to do it, he was convinced this would be a mistake. He didn't want to find out if they would, in the end, reject him as well.
Quietly, Brad stole out to the pool. He put down his suitcase, scooped up a handful of water -- startling Finn in the process -- and tried to water the caprice. It didn't seem to show any immediate improvement. He tried talking softly to it, but it didn't respond to his voice. He should have paid more attention to it. What did he need to do?
Then, suddenly, he remembered something Victoria's mom had once told him. "If you've got a potted plant that suddenly seems unhealthy, be sure to check the roots. It might be suffocating itself in a pot that's too small for it." Brad tipped the pot over and gently eased the plant out. It was horrifyingly rootbound. He tried gently teasing the roots apart around the edges, but they weren't coming quietly, so he pulled out his penknife and started slicing through the rootball, sympathetically wincing and hoping this wasn't yet another instance of the caprice not being like other plants. Eventually he had it pretty well opened out. But where was he going to plant it?
Brad looked around and, for the nonce, settled on his little plot of ground just to one side of the aspen colony. The trees had already felt the cold of early autumn and had turned an unbelievably luminous gold, as though King Midas had touched them. As he brushed past, Brad impulsively plucked a twig from the aspen and stuck it in his shirt pocket. Victoria had once told him that if you wore a bit of golden aspen it would bring you good fortune, and although Brad suspected that this, like so many of Victoria's pronouncements, was something she'd made up, he still liked the idea. He knelt in the center of his plot and began to dig at the loose, still-warm soil with his hands.
When he eased the rootball down into the hole and carefully covered it up with soil, Brad didn't hold out much hope for the caprice. It still looked dry and withered. Maybe it needed watering. He went back to the pool, filled the old pot with water and carried it back to his plot -- and nearly drizzled it all onto his foot. In the few short moments he'd been gone, the caprice had begun shooting up and out, clearly in the process of growing into a full-sized tree. It was more vigorous and strong than he'd ever seen it, even when it first bloomed. There were no flowers now in the branches, but as he looked up he could see swellings of purplish-blue forming among the leaves. The caprice was bearing fruit. And Brad suddenly had a strong desire to taste it.
He wasn't good at climbing trees, and the lowest branch was already too high for him to reach. Brad ran, grabbed his suitcase, gingerly climbed atop it and managed to grasp hold of a branch and swing himself up into the still-growing tree. It was hard to keep hold when the branches were spreading and swelling beneath him, but he managed to shimmy out onto a branch, lean out precariously and pluck a blue-violet fruit. He didn't even wait to climb down. Instead he peeled away a bit of the skin and took a bite of the peach-like flesh.
It didn't taste like peach. It didn't taste like any food he'd ever had. It tasted like reading a book of poems, or figuring out a puzzle, or looking up at the stars. It tasted like knowledge. And it told him exactly what the caprice was for, and what he had to do next.
First, he got down from the tree with only minor damage to his pride (and his backside). He dusted himself off, opened the suitcase, ripped a page out of his notebook and wrote a note, which he folded up and left next to the tree. Then he dug around in the suitcase for a while before his fingers finally closed on the doorknob. He could hardly see it in the gathering darkness, but he could feel the daylily stamped on its surface, and smiled. Groping in the dark, he made a slow circuit of the tree trunk until he finally found a knothole that was just the right size. He pushed the doorknob into the hole, turned it slowly, felt something give beneath his fingers. The trunk groaned softly as Brad opened the door that had formed in the tree. He grabbed his suitcase, took a final look back at Victoria's house, then walked through the doorway and closed it firmly behind him.
Brad had always been fairly tidy for a boy; he didn't like to leave messes behind. So it's probably just as well that he didn't know what happened after he departed. There was a great deal of hysterical crying and carrying on from both his mother and his aunt, and a number of search parties were sent to try to find his whereabouts. Everyone in the neighborhood was interviewed by police on multiple occasions. After a year, the trail went cold.
The only things ever found related to Brad's disappearance were never brought to the notice of the police department. Victoria found them all in her own back yard. One was an old brass doorknob with a daylily stamped into its surface, which just happened to fit the door to Victoria's room perfectly. Another was an empty plant pot, found next to the garden plot that had been Brad's. The last was a note, left in the empty center of the plot, addressed to "Her Majesty Queen Victoria." When Victoria read the note, she hid all these things until the whole business had blown over. She was not about to betray Brad's secret.
Sometimes, when she felt lonely, she would close her eyes and imagine the place Brad had described to her in his note -- the place he'd wished aloud for, the place the caprice had used all its energy to make real for him. He described it as a land of super-fertile soil, but no native seeds, where nothing had ever grown before; a land where one need only dig a hole and plant an object, any object at all, for it to grow. He had described to her a living house of daylilies that followed the sun, where every day there was a different room to discover because the house had grown and changed during the night. He had described a mirror plant he would grow that would let him look into the past and the present and the future. He had described the house as surrounded by golden quaking aspens, and flanked by two metal trees grown from his pocket change, with perfectly spherical fruit that made soft sounds like chimes when the wind blew. He had told her he would make and grow things beautiful beyond description in this place, the one place where he would always be home.
But it was the last few sentences of the letter that made the greatest impression on Victoria. Here is what it said:
There was only one thing I left out of my wish, and that was a friend to share it with. You told me once that when one aspen quakes, every other one quakes with it. So when the aspens in your garden quake and there is no wind, you will know it is because I am thinking of you.
Victoria's neighbors still think she is odd. She still has no intention of changing herself to please them. But she has changed. She is not as impulsive, not as quick to speak or laugh as she once was. It is as though she is listening for something. Sometimes, Victoria walks through the shaded garden out into the aspen grove. Even on the most windless night, when she stands among the aspens, they will begin to tremble in the stillness, and she finds she is trembling with them.