“Two bedrooms, two bathrooms.”
Brian gestured down the hallway like he had many times before, but this time, he knew the walls were listening with their pierced ears. His client massaged her floral handkerchief between dough-soft thumbs.
“1,400 square feet.”
She ran her free hand along the walls and noticed they felt like peeling bark during a heatwave. Her fingers dipped into every dent and slipped along every curve.
“In a nice neighborhood. It seems perfect for you,” Brian admitted, tapping his short nails against the clipboard until his nail beds throbbed.
The woman, Mrs. Dubois, shook like the Earth would crumble at her feet. Her lips vibrated as she spoke and her words were heavy with gravity. She set all her weight on a stolen cane from the nursing home down the street.
“I’ll take it,” she mumbled. “And call me Pearl.”
“Yes ma’am. I’ll need the payment on Tuesday.” Brian smiled and felt crooked, gray lines stretching across his forehead. “Yes, Pearl.”
She carried a large pleather purse. It was stuck between brown and orange and soft as a baby’s bald head. Her hands were glued to the side and she hobbled farther into the house. Brian followed her, after a moment’s hesitation, into the kitchenette.
There was a small window—framed in wood—that had a view out to the garden. It looked almost unreal, like a painting, lively and green unlike the rest of the home. Pearl was transfixed by it and leaned over the sink until her breath painted it a silvery white cloud.
“A garden, good.” Her voice was splintered.
Brian stood from afar. The outside was lush. The garden had the beady eyes of young tomatoes and the first tickles of carrots. “Can I help you with something?” he asked.
“Come to my old house,” she commanded. There wasn’t another option in the air so Brian agreed. Her hair tangled in the spout of the sink and faded into black when it dampened. She chuckled, tucked it clumsily behind her ears, and knocked her whitening knuckles onto her car keys.
It was a quick drive down unpaved roads. Brian bounced in his seat and swayed like he was in a rocking chair overlooking a forest. But there was a forest, on one side of the road.
Pearl’s house was small, smaller than the one she was buying. It used to be yellow but now it was the color of year-old cavities. There was a small garden in the front and she led Brian around the back.
She had a small backyard, and the first thing he noticed was a huge tree. It was stripped of leaves and vulnerable and naked. Brian almost wanted to look away when the screaming of the wind caught under its branches made his eyes glaze over.
On the tree, hung glass bottles of bright hues. Blue like the striped socks in Brian’s cracked dresser and red like the too-heavy books on his shelf. They seemed frozen in the air with violet shadows and a chest that wouldn’t rise. Brian thought they resembled birds from exotic places he’d never visit, caught in a net to their utter shock. Freedom shaved from their wings in a matter of seconds.
Pearl smiled lightly when they came upon it. The tree loomed over them and provided a hug of shade, even in the dead of winter. There was a table settled directly under it and Pearl dragged a rusted chair out and offered it to him.
“Sit,” she cleaned her lips with the bottom of her tongue, “I’ll be back with refreshments.”
The tree was like a rainbow and Brian couldn’t look away. His hand immediately flew up onto the rotting bark and traced every weathering scar. He swallowed air like he always did when he was nervous.
Pearl was limping back a few minutes later. She balanced a small black tray in her earthquake arms. On it was a pitcher of water and hunks of something a vivid yellow.
“Lemon water?” she asked.
Brian nodded, “Thanks.”
The liquid climbed up the edge of the cup end created little waves when she poured it. Her bracelets compassed her wrists and sang whenever they touched. They were pink and orange. They reminded Brian of something he’d buy for his wife.
He sipped lemon water and loved the sour taste. He imagined board games on long nights and palm trees out in a field. “So, Pearl,” he began, pressing his fingertips against the cup to make prints, “if you’re comfortable telling me, why did you go to prison?”
Pearl chuckled. She took long gulps of water and watched her outlined reflection in the pitcher. She was pretty, once. But not now with her face that resembled a wolf’s and feet that could barely stain sand on the planet. “I killed a man.” A simple sentence. “I was drunk and got in a fight at a bar.” She sighed. “Fifteen years of no visits and molding bread.”
Brian nodded slowly, touching the dustings of his beard and glancing back at her car. “Why are the bottles here?” He faced her.
She laughed again, lightly, although nothing was funny. Perhaps she found the triangular sun amusing. “The bottles symbolize my mistakes. I think too much and I drink too much.” The bottles still had labels. Each one cheap and from a liquor company Brian had never heard of. “But I’m here, in a dying garden, finding words to thank my hero, Mr. Brian Grant.”
Brian’s nose and cheeks were spray-painted a soft red. “You’re welcome, Pearl. I’m glad I can help.” He smiled and she slid her hand onto his. It was shriveled and cold like a pile of rose petals from months ago. “Although, it’s getting late. I have one more appointment with a client and I can’t be late. Thank you for the lemon water and stories.”
“Thank you for understanding.” Pearl stood and offered her hand. Brian did the same and they shook. Her hand twitched in his and he thought the sky’s lips might’ve been quivering.
She clinked their glasses together as he walked back to her car. “What did your other client do to get in jail?”
“He bribed colleges to let his daughter be accepted.”
She stayed silent.
Pearl drove him back to her future home. His car was there like he left it and he locked the clipboard into his elbow. Neither of them said anything, just exchanged half-smiles until Brian’s car door shut.
He saw her face in the rearview mirror, a side profile, looking at her new home with blurred eyes. Brian stepped on the gas and drove away.