When I come to him, he is scattered amidst a garden of crushed glass and wilted metal.
His head is twisted to one side, mezmerized by the sanguine floret blooming beneath his cheek. He must have anticipated my arrival; his eyes drift upwards as I approach, completely devoid of surprise.
Thorny edges of broken things perforate my knees as I kneel amongst the carnage. I have never seen him before, but he considers me with a certain yearning, like he has been anticipating me for a long time. It’s a shame this is no place to exchange pleasantries.
“Do you need me to call someone?” I murmur, already knowing the answer.
The tip of an index finger twitches against marred asphalt: amusement.
“It’s already too late.” His voice scrapes shallowly through barely moving lips. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
“I can leave if you’d like.”
My own words catch me off guard. Why would I offer such a thing? He is teetering too close to the edge, his wounds flayed and raw. Violet bruises crawl up his arms and ribs in twisting vines, and a wreath of roses crowns his head. The flowers spill out of his unstoppered body, and I almost want to gather up all the petals and build him anew.
He looks like a broken bird, wings warped and angles all wrong. His stained feathers rustle at the gust of another car howling by at far beyond the speed limit.
Humans are reckless. They trample through meadows without a care, heedless of the souls that crumple beneath their feet. This precious thing has been stamped out by a careless fool, then left behind in the dirt.
Nobody notices him, but I do. It is my job to notice him.
“Ah,” the sound is expelled in a melodic exhale. His hand flutters again, like he wants me to do something about it— but I find that I cannot bring myself to touch him. My own covered hands shift in my lap like autumn leaves, scarlet satin curled into brittle fists.
“Why are you so gentle with me?” he asks. “It makes me want you to stay.”
I can’t stay. I have places to visit, people to tend to. The world cannot halt in its tracks, not even for a pretty bird with roses blooming in his hair.
The screaming of sirens cuts through the air and curls around us like creeping tendrils. I’ve been distracted. There is nothing left for me here.
“Help is on the way,” I tell him, rising to my feet. “I don’t want to see you again.”
He’s unable to crane his neck, so he studies my gloves instead, his eyes tracing each blood-red knuckle.
“What if I want to see you again?” A hint of a smile buds at his mouth. His strength is coming back. Though his body has a long way to heal, the dispersed leaves of his soul are drifting back together again, quickly recuperating itself.
I am beginning to see who he is when he is not with me, and I do not care to know.
“Don’t be an idiot,” I say. I turn and stride away, leaving him bleeding out in the road as lights of red and blue twirl across his features in a morbid dance. He will live another day. He has no need for me anymore.
The next time I see him, we are sitting in the middle of the water.
I know what’s coming. People like a challenge, even if it will destroy them. The wave will rear its head back in fury, bellowing at the sky with its anguished, gaping mouth. Someone will be swallowed up today.
“I thought I might find you here,” he says.
It’s been a while since we last crossed paths, though I don’t care to count in time. I count in faces, people who have passed me by. It’s been hundreds upon millions by now, and while I wish I could testify that I never forget a face, that would be a deception. I make it a point to try to forget.
I know him immediately when I see him.
His bones have been knit back together, his beaming face intact. Few people have smiled my way, and the ones that do go about it with an air of resignation and acceptance. He smiles at me like he is greeting an old friend.
“You’re insane,” I realize with mild surprise.
“No,” he replies blithely. “I just wanted to see you again.”
“Why would you possibly want that?”
Though I’m surprised to find that I remember him, it’s not at all surprising to discover that he remembers me.
The memory of me is an invasive weed people fruitlessly attempt to uproot and cast away, to eradicate without a trace. I have never met anybody who has desired to let it grow.
“Maybe I’m enchanted by you,” he says in a sing-song voice. His hair falls stiffly over his forehead, crunchy with dried saltwater. He's straddling the surfboard, hands splayed out in front of him, resting between his thighs. “You dance away from me, I come running after. It’s a bit beautiful, the thrill of that push and pull, isn’t it?”
The sun winks at the ocean and the glassy surface shimmers back, sparkling like a trove of gems. It’s a beautiful thing when it’s calm, but that never lasts for long.
“So you’re an adrenaline junkie.”
“No, not at all,” he replies innocently. I raise a skeptical brow at him. “I just want to know you. At least to know your name.”
I hesitate. He’s asked for something I do not have. People usually don’t realize who I am until it is too late. By then, the appropriate time for introductions has passed.
I stare down at the glossy resin of his board, the floral design painted into it. A vivid vermillion rose peeks out from between his fingers, and a cluster of sunflowers and daisies frame his knees.
“Garden,” I answer without thinking. “You can call me Garden.”
“Pretty,” he hums.
I startle at the word. I’ve never been called pretty before. I’ve never met anyone like him, who welcomes me with open arms. Some people want to know me out of desperation, but this is not the same. He is calm and curious; reckless, yet level-headed.
“Will those be coming off today, then?” He casually nods towards my gloves.
“Not like this,” I murmur. “Not yet.” I cast a worried eye out for an approaching wave. Any minute now, we will be swept away.
“Will you bring me to the shore then?” he asks calmly.
I sigh. I’ve broken enough rules already. What’s one more?
I sweep the water behind him, gently nudging him back towards the sandy beach. Once it’s shallow enough for him to stand, he slips off and rises to his feet. The water nips at his ankles harmlessly, like a small animal begging for attention.
He playfully draws an arc in the sand with his toe, as though he has not just skirted certain doom.
“I know what you are,” he says suddenly, looking thoughtful. I turn to stone.
“Of course. You’re my guardian angel, aren’t you?”
I cast my eyes down. “Something like that.”
“I’ll be seeing you again soon,” he says.
“I’d rather you not.”
He only laughs.
He is one of those full-body laughers, the ones that throw their head back as their shoulders shake and tears slip from their eyes. He laughs with his whole chest, his voice ringing out unabashedly as though I have just told him the funniest joke in the world.
He must have a morbid sense of humor.
I feel the corner of my mouth tilt up, and quickly check myself. I drink in the sight of him— memorize the line of his shoulders, the ridges of his knuckles, his wide joyous mouth and gleaming eyes. I take a photograph in my head so that I can remember this human exactly as he is now, when he is blinding and vibrant and carefree. I memorize him so that I won’t have to see him for a long, long time.
When I walk away, my footsteps leave no impression along the shoreline. This is how I come and go, approaching with stealth, creeping up on those who are either surprised to see me, or have already been waiting.
But no matter the reception I get, the departure is always the same. Rather than bid me farewell, those I touch yearn to forget that I was ever there.
My heels dig into the sand. I’m afraid to look back. I’ve already painted him into my memory as a keepsake, and that is all I will allow myself to have for now.
I keep my back to him but angle my head just slightly to the side, just enough to let him know that I’m listening.
“It was nice seeing you today,” he says affectionately. “Until next time.”
He finds me again, just as he promised he would. It’s not abnormal for people to come knocking on my door, no matter the day or hour, but it is a surprise to see him here. I’m not sure that it is a welcome one.
“How did you find me?” I ask.
“You know how,” comes the simple answer.
I can no longer look him in the eye. “How long?”
He doesn’t answer. Like me, he does not like to think in years, months and days, hours, minutes or seconds. I count the time in faces, and he seems intent on making sure that mine is the last one he sees.
“You’ll have to stay by my side now,” he whispers, twining our fingers together. Marble skin slips against sleek silk; I burn to hold him with my own flesh. “My guardian angel.”
“I want to dance with you,” he says to me one night.
He’s flickering. He no longer does reckless things like surf impossible waves or walk across the street without looking both ways. He has no need to; I am inscribed upon his soul.
“That’s not a good idea. I’m a dangerous person to dance with.”
“Why? Are you going to step on my toes?” he teases. I can’t help but smile.
I let him lead me to the center of the room. There is nothing but plain speckled tiles beneath our feet and four white walls on all sides. It is a grand ballroom, and we are royalty with crowns on our heads and dying stars in our eyes.
“We don’t have music,” I observe.
“We’ll make our own,” he says, and begins to hum.
One, two, three; one, two, three.
I let him stand on my feet so that I can move for him, propping him up against me and breathing life into his weary bones. I have never done this for anyone else before.
As we sweep around our sterile little castle, a rhythmic beeping fills the background, a metronome to guide our steps.
Sometimes it stutters. When it does, he stumbles, but I’m there to catch him. The beeping continues its steady pace. He continues to hum. We dance together as the sun rises and sets, and rises and sets, his skin an alternating reflection of luster and umbra.
His hair glows in a bright halo as dawn sashays through the window. He is all things golden and finite, a rapidly burning sun.
I think I am a little bit in love with him.
As I stay, I learn to tell time as people do. I count the time in the reddening of the trees, where autumn spins green into gold. Winter comes with a vengeance, the days moving by at a glacial pace as the down feather snow gathers into a suffocating duvet of white.
I despise the winter. He says it makes his bones ache and his lungs feel small.
Spring is a warm melody of birdsong and as transient as the dandelion seeds swimming in the breeze. Some days he just sits by the window watching them float by, and he asks me to make a wish. Every time, I wish for the same thing.
I wish I had never met you.
I don’t want to say it out loud, but he wheedles it out of me. When I tell him, he goes quiet, and asks me why I would want such a thing.
“Because I love you,” I say.
He stares at me in bewilderment, and it’s clear that it has never occurred to him that I have the capacity to feel. It has never occurred to me before either.
Sometimes the truth leaps from your lips before your mind becomes aware that it is fact: I love him.
He is still not content with my wish, but seems pleased enough with my reasoning. He does not ask me again.
Summer is sweltering days and cold sweats, sunk beneath an ocean of blankets as he clings desperately to my hand. We do not dance anymore. Instead I lie next to him, shoulder to shoulder, ankle to ankle, our breaths colliding above us and embracing like lovers.
The metronome still fills our silences, but I no longer hear the music in it. Beep, beep, beep. The same repeated motif, a diminuendoing phrase.
Seasons pass; not many, but just enough. One day, he makes a request.
“Garden. My angel. You love me, right?”
It’s spring again, but his skin is translucent as sleet. I brush his limp hair back from his forehead, appraise his dulled eyes and longing mouth. I have him memorized, the boy who was dazzling and vibrant and laughed with his whole body.
“Of course,” I reply. “More than anything.”
“I want to be with you forever.” His eyelids shudder. My thumb sweeps back and forth across his cheek, trying to keep him awake.
“You still have so much to offer the world,” I say feebly. “I don’t deserve to have you.”
Sometimes a lie leaves your lips before your mind realizes that it is a lie. He is fading. He has nothing left to offer the world.
We have been dancing around each other for far too long now, he and I.
The metronome stutters again. Our waltz is coming to an end.
One, two, three. Beep, beep, beep. One, two, three.
“Is it time now? Will you hold me?”
“Yes,” I say, sotto voce. “It’s time.”
At long last, I shed my gloves. They tumble onto the bed in a pool of crimson.
He feels just like I imagined he would— like brightness and warmth, a flickering incandescence kissing my naked palms.
“You know who I am. You’ve known all along.”
“Yes, I’ve known,” he says with a flimsy grin.
“I’m not a guardian angel.”
“You are to me. I’m glad to have known you, and to have loved you.”
The boy who has broken his wings and mended them, who has learned how to fly and fallen back down to Earth, looks up at me with shining eyes. He is not broken, or trampled, or faded. He is whole again, and he is mine.
I lean down as he breathes me in.
One, two, three. One, two, three.
Our lips finally touch. The flame sizzles out, leaving a glowing ember in my arms.
One, two, three. One…
The song draws to a close, the last note resonating endlessly. His last breath is plucked from his throat in a sigh of relief.
“Rest,” I whisper. “You’ve worked hard.”
He laughs, and his whole body shakes in my arms.
“Later, I want to dance with you.”
I press my lips to his forehead. “Later,” I agree.
I hold him as he sleeps.
Outside the window, spring performs a ballet of efflorescence. The fragrances of new life pirhouette through the air en pointe, while flowers paint the stage in jewel-toned hues: ruby, amethyst, citrine.
There are flowers inside the room now too, some in vases, others finely costumed in skirts of cellophane and ribbon.
I’ve always found flowers to be a thing of unparalleled versatility. They can be given in a celebration of love, or as a show of apology. They can celebrate new life, or they can serve as remembrance in the wake of death. We are constantly surrounded by gardens.
I will be his garden now. I will be every flower, of every color, of every meaning, of every significance. When he wakes up, I will tell him that I love him.
Then we will don our finest garments, and I will lead him into a sparkling ballroom where waterfalls of crystal pour from the ceiling and golden tiles gleam beneath our feet.
I will ask him to dance with me.
We will waltz together as time crawls by, though we won’t bother to count it, and there will be a grand symphony roaring in our ears.