My grandmother’s garden was a piece of Utopia. When I was little, that sixteenth of an acre was my own little kingdom of magic and mystery. Grandma would pull the lady lip flowers from their vine and, with the assistance of toothpicks, create little flower people to populate my world.
There was a giant, petrified mushroom in that backyard. At three feet in diameter and about two feet in height, the fungus was mottled brown and had a hole at the base of it where a ground squirrel lived. My grandma told me it was a fairy in its own way. I smile, thinking about it now.
The summer of my fifth year, I made my first best friend in that garden. Her name was Penny Carstova and she lived in the house next door. The backyards of both houses were linked by a gate set in the dividing fence. I remember very vividly that the brief glimpses I managed to get at Penny’s own secret garden hinted at her wealthy upbringing.
Regardless, we instantly bonded in the magic of my grandmother’s garden. Penny was almost as imaginative as I was, but she was much smarter and wiser. Between the two of us, my grandmother’s invisible fairy kingdom came to life. As suddenly as we have become the best of friends, Penny became a royal fairy advisor and I had transformed into a fairy knight and royal guard.
Years passed by and the both of us went our separate ways in school. But that didn’t keep us apart for terribly long. Even through middle school, I knew that if I ever needed a smile or an ear to talk off, I could just knock on the red, wooden gate and Penny would inevitably be there.
We grew up together for all intents and purposes. She wasn’t my only friend, but she was certainly one of the best. I wouldn’t have minded indulging in a magical lifelong friendship with her. She was that genuine of a person… But I suppose words like lifelong and magical have shady definitions at times–often as shady as the “fairy” hole beneath that giant, rotted mushroom at the heart of that mystic garden–and things like Time and Fate have no substance.
When my parents split, I moved far away and lost contact with Penny for a couple years or so. Upon visiting my grandmother the following summer, I made it my mission to knock on the fence and meet with Penny like we used to. She had once been a constant presence in my life, and I needed a taste of that old stability again. I’d tell her all about the things I’d been through, and all the things I’d seen, because I knew she would understand. She always had some kind of advice.
But when I knocked, no one answered. I gave another tap on the gate, but still no one came to reply. Worried and curious, I used a stick to pop the gate’s latch through a space between the wood planks. The door swung inward. With a chest-rattling bang, the gate hit the backside of the fence and exposed the tangled, dying overgrowth that blanketed the backyard that was situated next to my grandmother’s well-managed garden.
At first, I was confused. The yard looked like it hadn’t seen water in years. The house to the East was in bad shape. It had all the obvious signs of having been abandoned for years–maybe even a decade.
Disappointed and morose, I returned to my grandmother’s house. I popped the question that had been itching at me all day later that evening at dinner. “Hey Granma… Did Penny move?” I asked her after most of the meal had been consumed.
Over her wine, she gave me a funny look. “Who?”
“Penny, Granma–Penny Carstova. You know, the one I used to play with whenever I was over here…”
My grandmother shrugged, saying she didn’t know any Penny. “Oh, but doesn’t that bring back memories,” she said with a tipsy smile. “You used to think you were a fairy queen’s royal knight or something–made me laugh so hard when you’d run around out in the yard, shouting orders at your knights and whatnot.” I didn’t say anything to that, but I rolled my eyes and figured that she probably just couldn’t remember.
That same night, unnerved that I couldn’t get a definite answer from my grandmother, I asked my mother about the same on the car ride home. “Ma, you remember my old friend, Penny, don’t you?”
“You talked about her all the time–how could I forget?” she replied with a small smile.
“Well I don’t think she lives next to Granma anymore, but when I asked about it, Granma said she didn’t know…” I relayed to her.
My mother narrowed her eyes in thought and pulled out her phone. She dialed my grandmother as I came to find out. Holding the phone to one shoulder, she said, “Ma. Hey… Yeah, we’re almost home. Listen, do you remember that Penny girl who Bleu used to play with?” There was a moment’s pause and then my mother said, “No need to get all defensive, Ma, it was just a question. If you don’t remember, that’s just fine… Just a second.” She glanced at me and asked, “What was her last name again?”
My mother didn’t say anything for a long time. She just stared at me and blinked a few times. Then she slowly spoke into the chattering phone, “Dunno why I didn’t… Ma, didn’t Penny Carstova and you used to play cards?” I gave her a weird look as she continued to stare at me as much as she could while driving and holding the phone to her shoulder. “Yeah,” my mother said, “That’s what I was afraid you’d say… Thanks, Ma. Yeah, I’ll call you later.” Then she hung up.
My mother slowed down and pulled us onto the shoulder where she parked. It took her a moment to collect her thoughts before she said to me, “Penny Carstova doesn’t live in the house next to your granma’s anymore.” There was a pit in my stomach that had been there since I had discovered the current state of Penny’s backyard. At my mother’s coaxing, it had risen up into my throat and had begun to expand. “In fact…” my mother continued. Her eyes were fixed to mine and her expression was empty of emotion. “… Penny hasn’t lived there for almost thirteen years now.”
“What?” I blurted. “That’s not possible though–I’ve been playing with her since I was little, Ma, you know that! I mean, I heard her mom call her and we talked about school and we protected the mushroom together and had a sleep-overs in the gazebos and…”
My mother was shaking her head at me. “I know…” she said, measured and even. Then she took a deep breath and she said, “Penny Carstova was an old widow that Granma used to visit all the time… but she died a long time ago, Sweety. Nobody’s lived in that house since.” The pit in my throat exploded and the shards embedded themselves in my neck and chest.
There isn’t one word for what I felt then. There are almost too many emotions to account for. (Confusion and loss. Fear and fascination. Denial… but also a quiet acceptance.) Penny Carstova had been a girl my age with a big imagination and an even bigger heart. She always went home before sundown and I’m sure she ate all her vegetables. Her favorite color was yellow and her most prized possession was a black, leather headband her father had given her for Christmas one year. She went to a private school and had a crush on a boy named Steven Jordans. She had the prettiest dark brown hair that curled around her big, doe eyes.
She had been one of my best longtime friends. She died before I was born.