Scents of Life
by Robert Lowell Russell
Katie walked hand in hand with her grandfather along the forest path. Dappled light filtered through the trees. She liked the way his hand felt rough in hers and how his eyes always seemed to smile, even when it didn't show on his face. Whenever she stumbled over a stone, or a root, or her own feet, he'd steady her with a grip that was still firm and strong.
He stopped along the trail and pointed to dandelions growing in a sunlit circle among the trees. Yellow petals crowned green stems ending in spiked leaves. Some flowers had already changed to puffs.
Bending to take a handful of stems, he held the flowers to her nose.
"Their scent isn't as strong as some flowers," he said.
She grinned and blew, sending a cloud of seeds into the air, then closed her eyes and breathed in the aroma. They smelled faintly sweet, and there was something else, like the scent of cut grass. A noise like angry bees grew in her ears.
"Danny," she said.
The sound of the mower sputtering to a halt in the front yard made Katie's heart pound faster. Any moment, her father would come to the backyard where she sat with Danny. High in the cloudless sky, the sun shone down, warming her face.
Smiling at the boy beside her, she said, "Make a wish before you blow," and held a dandelion to his face.
He shut his eyes and blew, sending puffs swirling.
Before he opened his eyes again, she leaned close and kissed him. His green eyes opened wide in shock, and he wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
"What did you do that for?" he asked.
"Because I felt like it."
Danny put his fingers to his lips. A smile crinkled his mouth.
Balling her fist, she shouted, "Don't you laugh at me!" and slugged him in the gut.
His mouth made an "O."
"Katie, honey," said her father, unlatching the fence gate. "Do we need to have another talk about beating up the neighbor's kid?"
She shook her head.
"You OK, Danny?" asked her father.
"I'm all right, Mr. Poulson."
"Katie," said her father. "Take Ruffy for his walk, OK? I've got to finish the grass in back."
"Dad..." A lump rose in her throat. "Ruffy died last year."
Her father stiffened and put his hand to his head. "Of course. Guess I'm a little tired."
Her parents spoke in hushed tones that evening, and she heard her mother crying.
Katie slept fitfully. When she woke the next morning, she rubbed her eyes, then gasped. Hundreds of dandelions had been piled in the planter box outside her window.
"Danny," she said, smiling.
In the forest, her grandfather tugged her hand.
"Let's keep going."
Katie wobbled as she walked. The path at her feet seemed strangely distant.
Farther along the trail they came to a clearing filled with white chrysanthemums. Leaning close, she arched an eyebrow when she caught their scent--they smelled of paper. Nearby, a woodpecker went rat-a-tat-tat against a tree.
Katie opened the door at the knock. Danny stood on her porch wearing a rented tux with a crooked tie.
"These-are-for-you!" he blurted and stepped forward to jab a bouquet of chrysanthemums into her arms. "You look... beautiful."
Blushing, she smoothed her taffeta dress.
Danny waved. "Hello, Mrs. Poulson, Mr. Poulson."
Behind her in the living room, Katie's mother held her father's arm as she led him toward an easy chair.
"I'm not a damn child!" shouted her father, wrenching his arm free. "I can do it myself!"
Shuffling to the chair, he collapsed into the worn brown leather. His body looked small and pale against the dark brown, and his hands shook as he gripped the armrests.
Katie's mother glanced her way with a tight lipped smile.
"Danny," said Katie, turning back. "I--"
"You're staying home," he finished. "It's OK. Can I show you something? Just for a minute."
They stepped out into the warm night air and sat on the porch swing. Pulling an envelope from his jacket, he handed it to her.
"You got into M.I.T!" she said, scanning the letter. "I'm so proud of you!" She hugged him close, letting the embrace linger. "Danny..."
"You got into Stanford. I know. Your mom tweeted everyone." Squeezing her hand, he looked away. "That's great." When he turned back, his eyes glistened in the dim light. "I know how hard you worked for it."
He was silent for several seconds. "Hey, do you want to dance? I've been practicing."
"I'd love to."
They rose, and she placed her arms on his shoulders while he rested his hands at the small of her back. In the night air, they danced to a cricket's song.
Katie jolted when her grandfather touched her arm.