We were at Allen Acres, a farm the next town over, collecting our share of fresh produce for the week. Most of the work was done for us: tomatoes, spinach, hot peppers, and every type of lettuce imaginable had been harvested and placed in big yellow tubs. All we had to do was pay for what we wanted.
“Feel free to pick some flowers, if you’d like,” the old farmer named Dave said. He was sitting under an umbrella outside the old red barn. He was gnarled and tough like a tree root on the outside, but rather soft-spoken.
“Can we, Mom?” Charlie asked. I’ll never forget the way his eyes shone as he looked up at me – the dimples on his cheeks.
“Sure, buddy,” my husband Gabe said, beating me to the punch.
Before Charlie rushed off down the dusty farm lane, Dave stopped us.
“Here,” he said, handing us two pint-sized cartons. “Pick some cherry tomatoes while you’re at it.”
We set our bags of vegetables down in the cool shade of the barn, then let Charlie guide us toward the “Pick Yer Own” flowers and, evidently, cherry tomatoes.
“Charlie,” I called after him. He had gone a little too far ahead, and started weaving off the path. We kept him on a proverbial leash, but it wasn’t all that tight. We liked to let the kid breathe.
The flowers were first. We watched as Charlie plucked a small bouquet.
“These are for Grandma, okay?” he said. That was something we loved about him: he had the biggest heart of anyone we’d ever known.
“You’ve got it. We can bring them to her later,” I said as I handed him one of the small cartons. “Here, you go ahead and get started. We’ll be over in a minute.”
“Okay,” he said as he took off down the lane.
“Hey, hold on!” Gabe pulled out his phone. “Let me get a picture.”
Charlie ran back without complaint, kicking up dust. He was laughing.
“Show Grandma your flowers,” I said as Gabe took the picture. A single shot.
And then Charlie was gone.
Gabe bent down on one knee. He touched my stomach and whispered to our little girl. We hadn’t thought of a name yet. Then, he plucked me a bouquet of flowers.
He bowed and held them out for me. “My lady.”
“How very kind of you, sir,” I replied. He kissed me gently.
Flowers in one hand, Gabe’s in the other, we strolled down the lane. Birds chirped and butterflies flitted around us. The smell of freshly cut grass lingered in the air. A tractor rumbled nearby.
When we rounded the corner and walked toward the lines of tomato plants, something seemed off: a lone carton sat upside down on the ground. We walked closer and picked it up. Then we saw the flowers, scattered across the path in disorder.
“Charlie?” Gabe let go of my hand and jogged ahead. He looked left, right. “Charlie!”
I ran through rows of vegetation and swatted everything in my path aside. “Charlie!” I belted out over and over until my voice cracked and something inside me broke.
I stopped and held my flowers and two empty cartons that were supposed to be filled to the brim with cherry tomatoes. We were supposed to be picking them, eating them – even though they weren’t washed yet – and the little seeds and juices were supposed to get on Charlie’s shirt. I was supposed to scold him because that’s what mothers do.
The cops came. The sun set. The stars shone. Gabe and I wandered the fields like lost ghosts, wailing.
We don’t go there anymore.
Three months later, we name our daughter Charlotte, and we worry about the day when we’ll have to tell her the story about her older brother.
Justin Deming lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley region of New York. His fiction has appeared in Fifty-Word Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, Spelk, and elsewhere. He can be found on Twitter @j_deming_.