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The First Few Roses by Douglas Campbell
Gumshoe Review *Story  ISBN/ITEM#: SS022011
Date: 19 January 2011 /

This month's story reminds us that there are more mysteries that require solving then the ones involving death and/or destruction. There are also the mysteries of everyday life--the ones that touch us no matter how old, how wise, or how well we think we know our neighbors.

The First Few Roses

By Douglas Campbell

Still in his nightshirt, Morris left his bedroom, his old legs slow and morning-stiff, his heart fluttering on the light wings of a modest hope. Inspecting and admiring the first few roses that bloomed each spring had become a small but lovely ritual of his old age, and the previous evening he'd seen rosebuds spreading open, exposing the pale pink flesh of the first virginal petals. Untouched by blight or insect, tufty and plump in their whorls, curls and layers, the first blooms always took his breath away.

At the end of the hallway, Morris looked out the window. Yes nine roses! He shuffled back toward his bedroom and heard the UPS truck clatter up his driveway. That would be Carl, the driver who'd served the neighborhood for years, delivering Morris's new jeans.

Probably the last jeans I'll ever need, Morris thought.

Strangely, it seemed to take forever before Morris heard Carl start his truck and depart. Carl was ordinarily in a zip-zip hurry. Well, maybe Carl loved roses, too.

One of the things Morris hated about old age was how everything took forever, even simple things like getting dressed. A dog began barking out in the street in front of the house. From his bedroom window, Morris saw Brutus, Dennis O'Brien's shaggy mutt, but didn't see Dennis anywhere. Probably busy doing something nice. Dennis was thirteen, a troubled adolescent whom Morris had befriended. Dennis mowed Morris's lawn, and was a devotee of slasher movies. He'd been caught recently ringing people's doorbells, then running away, leaving mutilated frogs on their front steps. His mother had sentenced him to do something nice for someone every day for two weeks.

"What are these slasher movies?" Morris asked one day.

"Super gory," Dennis said. "Some guy goes around hacking people to pieces. Women mostly."

"Surely you could find something more intelligent to watch," Morris said.

Dressed at last, Morris went downstairs and out to the patio. He walked to the rose trellis and stood there gut-sick, utterly baffled. The blooms he'd just seen from his window had disappeared! All nine of them.

Carl? He'd stayed so long--had he delivered a package and left with a bouquet? Then Morris spotted footsteps, plainly visible in the dewy grass. They led straight to the back door of his neighbor, Clara Wilkins, a hulking madwoman with a menagerie of eleven cats and a violent, larcenous history. She'd once smashed an abusive boyfriend in the face with a brick, and last month Morris had read in the paper about her shoplifting arrest at Target. She too grew roses, but with little success, due to her relentless pruning. Morris had told her to let them grow during summer so the leaves could make energy to be stored in the roots.

"But they get so messy-looking," she said.

"What's that you've mulched them with?" Morris asked, pointing.

"Cat litter. Mulch and fertilizer combined!"

"That stuff might have nasty chemicals in it, Clara."

But she went right on doing things her way, growing sickly roses.

"Oh, I just love fresh flowers in the house," Clara once told him.

Well, today she had them. Nine roses.

Tomorrow the second wave of blooms would be ready for her to steal. They'd be beautiful, yes, but nothing could ever quite match the first bloom of things. Those were the experiences he remembered: his first roller coaster ride, first snorkeling trip to the coral reefs off Antigua, first lovemaking with his wife, Sasha--dead four years now--the sex fumbling, but the passion sublime.

He couldn't simply knock on Clara's door and accuse her. Over the years, she'd occasionally strolled over to view his roses. She'd certainly remind him of that and deny the theft if Morris cited her footsteps in the dew as evidence. And he'd often seen Clara stalking around her yard with hedge clippers, obsessively opening and closing the blades. Morris wasn't prepared to play the victim in a real-life slasher movie.

He'd have to catch her in the act.


At five-fifteen the following morning, Morris sat in the dark in his living room, windows open, listening for any sound from the patio. Even if Clara struck at first light, he'd be ready. A dozen fat, fresh roses waited, with broad, ruffed faces like pink lions.

But in the soft embrace of his recliner, Morris fell back asleep. He awoke to a barking dog Brutus again? and sunlight streaming in the windows. Stiff from sleep, Morris shuffled to a window and looked out. His roses were still there.

A moment later, Dennis O'Brien strode into view. He glanced around, then went to the trellis and began cutting roses.

Morris stepped out the back door. Dennis whirled to run, then stopped, seeing he was caught.

"What do you think you're doing?" Morris said.

Dennis shrugged. "Making a bouquet."

"For whom?"

"Mrs. Anderson. I'm supposed to do something nice for her today."

"You can't do something nice for Mrs. Anderson by stealing roses from me," Morris said.

"Come on, man." Dennis pointed at the trellis. "You're going to have hundreds. I thought we were friends."

"Taking without asking--even from friends--is stealing."

Dennis rolled his eyes and sighed. "Sorry. Don't tell my mother, okay?"

"I won't," Morris said, "but you're going to mow my lawn for free next time."

Dennis flung the cut roses down on the concrete. "Fuck, I am. I don't mow for free," he said, and walked away.

Morris slumped into a patio chair. Overhead, two robins swooped and dove, harrying a big crow, protecting their territory. It looked exhausting. Morris leaned back and closed his eyes.

He was always tired these days, his strength robbed by age. How ridiculous, he thought, getting all worked up about a rose thief, when the most notorious thief of all strutted free. No thief could surpass Time himself, the brazen outlaw who did his work right in front of your eyes, and who'd never spent a single moment behind bars.

About the Author:

Douglas Campbell's fiction and poetry have appeared online and in print, in publications such as Many Mountains Moving, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Litsnack, and Jabberwocky. This is his first published mystery, but he hopes it won't be his last. Douglas lives and writes in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The First Few Roses Douglas Campbell, February 2011.

Our Readers Respond

From: John C. Mannone:
Great story. I thought I knew what the ending was going to be; I am glad I was wrong. Nice job on this poignant and realistic piece.
From: Jeanne Holtzman:
Such a lovely story, Doug!

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