Lora ripped the last dandelion out of the earth alongside the driveway and pitched the weed into the bucket resting between the hostas the previous owners had left behind. Coming to her sneakered feet, she hefted the pail and scoured for any miscreants she had missed. Flush leaves bounded in the summery breeze, the dirt beneath their striped canopy finally free from lurkers and clandestine sprouts.
Giving the ferns a nod of farewell, Lora rounded the corner of their two-story colonial and faced the front yard. She scanned the trimmed grass she had mowed the hour before, the smell of gasoline and cut blades hovering like fog. Checking the slate pathway leading from the sidewalk to the brick stoop, she eyed the mulch steeping between the irregular slabs.
The mottled brown and plowed lawn remained uninterrupted by errant green specks.
With a satisfied bounce to her step, Lora checked another item off her list of chores and crossed to the blooming cherry tree separating their property from the Crane’s stone manse. The shade cast by the spindly branches vanished beneath the Crane’s hearty maple, its gnarled trunk thicker than her waist.
Kneeling beneath her slimmer cherry, Lora breathed in the sweet scent of flowers transitioning into leaves while the damp ground seeped into her tattered jeans. With spade in her gloved hand, she glowered at the first tiny maple sprouting within the cherry’s protection.
“You don’t belong here.”
Lora glanced up, budding tree clenched, the spade held stiff. Hours speed walking through half-lit urban streets poured into her heart, making it patter like her feet had on cracked and battered concrete.
A gust stirred the cherry’s branches, the soft rustle of petals reminding her of their suburban escape.
Putting the darker memories aside, she sought the speaker.
The Crane’s diminutive stone gnomes with their gray pointed hats, A-line dresses, and buttoned jackets, stared back from alternating spots at a perimeter of hedges the hired gardener kept trimmed for the elderly couple. Petite evergreen leaves lined the exterior like a moat, protecting the occupants and their newly arrived family in a silent but ever growing barricade.
Down the street the Martin’s kids rode their bikes and teased each other about a new trick. A clang of gears, scrape, clatter of frame on asphalt meant one, the littlest Lora guessed, hadn’t succeeded. Laughter rebounded a moment later and the spin of tires resumed.
Along the adjoining thoroughfare, traffic puttered, taking with it the majority of the neighbors. Driveways sat as vacant as hers, everyone having headed out to enjoy the first warm and blue-skied weekend.
Or, she suspected, they were at work like Mark.
With a reminder to wear a hat next time to ward off the mind-muddling sun, Lora knocked the dirt off the maple’s roots, and added the limp three leaves and slivered trunk to her bucket.
Lora stiffened again. She turned her head slowly toward the distinct German emanating from the Crane’s direction.
The largest of the stone gnomes had crossed the neighbor’s manicured lawn somehow and now rested at the edge of the property. His lederhosen stood out in ridges over a portly belly where his two hands lay. Pitted eyes looked out from an ashen face.
Lora met them and squinted. “Hello?”
The stone statue wobbled in what she took to be some kind of bow. “Guten tag, Mein Dame.” Despite his rocky facade the little man’s mouth moved, his stony brows arching innocently, his lips spreading into an apologetic smile. “I do hate to pester.” German accented his English and the gnome’ gray went slightly brighter, like frost had coated his cheeks. “However, we have been talking and feel we need to speak.”
Lora eyed the other gnomes half-hidden in the hedges. None of them had moved but she had the distinct impression they watched from their nestled spots in the earth.
“My kin and I. We have heard things and well, you seeming like such a lovely Fräulein, we cannot let it go on like this.”
His words washed over her as Lora stared at the statue. “You’re a garden gnome.”
“And you are being lied to.”
Falling onto her butt, Lora braced a hand on the ground, keeping herself from toppling completely. “Excuse me?”
“Your husband, Herr Mark, he is not where you think he is.”
Lora’s face flushed and her throat constricted. “Excuse me?”
The little man wobbled again, this time in seeming self-reprimand. “I do get ahead of myself. My apologies, Mein Dame.”
“Wait a second—”
“If you do not mind, I would rather not.” His carved eyes flickered toward the roadway and back. “I can only remain like this for short time. We would not want the neighbors to catch me, would we?”
The image of the gnome talking or her conversing with an inert statue filled Lora’s mind and pictures of insane asylum jackets followed.
“Good. I will be swift. W have overheard Fräulein Ashley inside.” The gnome wobbled, tipping the peak of his cap at the Crane’s house. “We believe she and Herr Mark have made certain acquaintances.”
“Of course he knows her. We had her over when she and her brother’s family moved back in.”
“Yes, well, I am afraid hellos are not where it ended.”
“You’re suggesting that my husband and Ashley are having an affair?”
“I am suggesting nothing. I am telling you what is true. We have—ah.” The frost returned in blizzard depths. “Heard things.”
Lora stared at the little man. He stared back.
After a long stretch of silence, he wobbled back and forth, denting the soft earth. “I am sorry to be the bearer of such unfortunate news, but like I said, my kin thought it was the only decent thing to do.”
Lora cast her gaze into the lush grass at her side. Among the blades the late phone calls from the office, the times she had rung and ended up leaving a message instead of hearing his voice, the way he had started doing laundry and cleaning on her late nights, tallied. Spring cleaning he’d called it. Busy projects. Tight deadlines.
Whatever they all were, they’d begun, she realized, in the last two months since Mr. Crane’s first incident.
Finding their neighbor wandering outside in his bathrobe hadn’t been nearly as disconcerting as the elderly man’s babbling explanation.
“I’m looking for the little people.”
The emergency medics had nodded, and after taking his vitals, helped him inside while a worried Mrs. Crane looked on.
Richard, Eliza, their two kids had arrived the following weekend. Ashley on the next. They’d all been so thankful, so pleasant, so—
Ashley’s flashing smile, the bob of her blonde curls, the too tight tank tops and glued on jeans burned onto Lora’s retina. Richard and his family had moved in for the duration, the youngest Crane daughter had explained while leaning against their kitchen counter and sipping on the third or fourth cup brewed in their freshly unboxed coffee pot. She planned to stay a few days at most, unless of course, the situation changes.
Lora glanced up and found the divot where the gnome had been. He had snuck back in whatever form of locomotion little stone people used and stood where he always stood, beneath the window of the downstairs bedroom.
The panes glistened and shadows seemed to move, undulating in time with a curtain’s billow.
Lora shuddered and put her back to the house. She laid her hand on the cherry tree’s trunk and sunk her spade into the earth.
“You’re getting as crazy as Mr. Crane.”
She chuckled at finding herself talking to the tree as if conversing with bark was somehow better than gnomes or the little people the elderly man had sought. The laugh made her feel more manic and Lora put her attention into attacking the maple transients instead.
She had harvested the lot by the time Ashley’s mint-green hybrid turned into the Crane’s driveway.
Lora couldn’t help but watch the other woman flip the visor and tend her shag of hair. She’d reapplied her lipstick and bounded from the driver’s seat before Lora could look away.
“Heyas.” Ashley waved, and her grin seemed too big for her face.
Lora waggled the spade.
With a particularly perky jaunt to her heeled stride, Ashley swayed toward the back entrance of the manse, whistling some unfamiliar tune. A tinkle of keys and open door took her out of the neighborhood and Lora centered herself on the cherry.
She’d managed to loosen her grip on the spade’s handle when Mark drove up in their clunking sedan moments later. Pulling into their driveway, he left the engine idling while fussing with something.
His gym bag, reasoned Lora, or maybe he picked up groceries.
Despite her logic, when he emerged from behind the wheel, she spied the rows plowed through his hair from a fresh rake with his fingers and the way his tee shirt looked more rumpled than usual after a few hours at the office. Slinging his gym bag over his shoulder, he scanned the lawn and beamed a smile across the trimmed blades.
“Looks beautiful, Lora.”
She hoped she had imagined the quick flash of his eye toward the Crane’s. “Thanks.”
“I’m going to take a quick shower, and then I’ll come help.”
Lora waved him off with the spade. “I’m almost done.”
“Then I’ll see you in a bit.”
Nodding, she returned to the plucked ground.
Her back arched and her shoulders curved, however, when she heard the same unfamiliar tune hummed in Mark’s baritone. His timbre blended with her memory of Ashley’s higher pitch, all lying upon the backdrop of the undulating curtain throbbing in Lora’s mind as Mark mounted the front steps and sauntered inside.
“You’ll see me all right.”
Stabbing her spade into the earth, Lora stood and tore off her gloves. She threw them to the ground, set her hands on her hips, and eyed the gnomes aligned under the hedges.
The little man wobbled.
Or did he?
Lora scrubbed her face with her sweaty palms. The smell of earth and her own solidity bolstered her spine and she pivoted from the cherry tree. Marching across the lawn and up the steps, her fingers itched at the possibility of plucking a final weed from her sanctuary’s midst.