The Cabin at the End of the World(5)

“Wow. I see this has all been carefully planned and negotiated.”

“I can’t wait to be eight.” A loose strand of hair falls out of her ponytail and in front of her face. She quickly stashes it behind her ear.

“You know what? I think I have something for you. Nothing too great, but let’s call it an early birthday present.”

Wen knits her brow and folds her arms again. Her dads told her in no uncertain terms to not trust strangers especially if they offer you a gift. She really hasn’t been out here by herself for too long with Leonard, but it’s starting to feel a little long. “What is it? Why do you want to give it to me?”

“I know, it seems weird, and it’s funny, but I thought I might meet you or someone like you today and I was walking down the road out here and I saw this”—he starts fiddling with the breast pocket of his shirt—“and for some reason I thought I should pick it up, even though I never do that kind of thing normally. So I picked it. And now I want you to have it.”

Leonard pulls out a small, droopy flower with a halo of thin white petals.

As uncomfortable as she was a moment ago at the thought of a gift from a stranger, Wen is disappointed and doesn’t try to hide it. She says, “A flower?”

“If you don’t want to keep it, we can put it in the jar with the grasshoppers.”

Wen suddenly feels bad, like she is being mean even though she isn’t trying to be mean. She tries a joke: “They’re called grasshoppers not flower-hoppers.” But she feels worse because that sounds mean for real.

Leonard laughs and says, “True. We probably shouldn’t tamper with their habitat too much.”

Wen almost mock-faints into the grass she’s so relieved. Leonard extends the flower over the grasshopper jar, across the expanse of lawn between them. Wen takes it, careful not to brush his hand accidentally.

He says, “It’s a little squished from being in my pocket, but still mostly in one piece.”

Wen sits up straight and reshapes the curled stem that’s about as long as her pointer finger. The stem feels loose and will probably fall off soon. The middle part of the flower is a little yellow ball. The seven petals are long, skinny, and white. Does he expect her to stick it in her hair or behind her ear or run inside to put it in a glass of water? She has a better idea. She says, “It already looks kinda dead. Can we pull it apart and make a game of it?”

“You can do whatever you want with it.”

“We’ll take turns pulling off a petal and when we do we ask a question the other person has to answer. I’ll go first.” Wen plucks a petal. “How old are you?”

“I am twenty-four and a half years old. The half is still important to me.”

Wen passes the flower back to Leonard and says, “Make sure you only pluck one at a time.”

“I will do my very best with these big mitts.” He follows Wen’s instructions and carefully plucks a petal. He pinches his fingertips tightly together to ensure he only pulls out one. “There. Phew.” He passes back the flower.

“What’s my question?”

“Right. Sorry. Um . . .”

“The questions should be fast and the answers fast, too.”

“Yes, sorry. Um, what’s your favorite movie?”

“Big Hero Six.”

“I like that one, too.” He says it matter-of-factly, and for the first time since they’ve met, she wonders if he is lying to her.

Leonard passes the flower back. Wen plucks a petal; her hand is quick. She says, “Everyone usually asks what is your favorite food. I want to know what your least favorite food is.”

“That’s easy. Broccoli. I hate it.” Leonard takes the flower and pulls a petal. He quickly looks behind him and back down the driveway again and asks, “What is your first memory?”

Wen isn’t expecting that question. She almost says the question isn’t fair and is too hard, but she doesn’t want to be accused of making up the rules as she goes, which she’s been accused of before by her friends. She’s sensitive about being fair when playing games. “My first memory is being in a big room.” She spreads her arms wide and her notebook slips off her lap and into the grass. “I was very small, maybe even a baby, and there were doctors and nurses looking at me.” She doesn’t tell Leonard all of it, that there were other beds and cribs in the room with her, and the walls were green tiled (she remembers that ugly green vividly), and there were kids crying in the room, and the doctors and nurses were leaning in close to her and had heads as big as moons and they were Chinese like her.

Wen reaches over the jar, almost knocking it over, in a hurry to get the flower back from Leonard before he breaks the rules and asks a follow-up question. Another petal is plucked away and she rolls it up into a ball between her fingers. “What monster scares you?”

Leonard doesn’t hesitate. “The giant ones like Godzilla. Or the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies. Those movies scared the heck out of me. I used to have nightmares all the time about being eaten or squashed by T. rex.”

Wen has never been afraid of giant monsters but hearing Leonard talk about them and then looking at the trees stretching beyond where she’ll ever reach, and how they bend and wave easy in the breeze, she can understand being afraid of big things.

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