|Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
On Monday, Jonathon Foster stepped outside the police department door and immediately wished he hadn't. The first day of spring was only a week away, but apparently no one had notified the good people of Lily, Minnesota. Here, winter still had its icy grip on the town and its occupants, as evidenced by the piles of gray snow shoved up against the sidewalks and the way the passersby skirted them without looking up, faces turned down to block the wind. They also ignored the slush that spattered their boots as they crossed the street with an indifference that Jonathon couldn't help but admire. His own boots were still clean and shiny, although he expected that wouldn't last long.
"Why don't we grab some lunch over at the diner?" the sheriff asked, coming up behind him.
Cliff Echols was a big man, born and raised on the little island off the eastern shore of Minnesota. Jonathon had quickly learned that Cliff's thick beard, flannel shirts, and laid-back attitude both comforted the locals and camouflaged the sharp mind and penetrating gaze that were pure law enforcement.
"We need to discuss some scheduling issues."
Jonathon was confused. He and Cliff were the only two members of the department, aside from their dispatcher, Kate. And though he'd only been in Lily a short time, he'd thought they'd settled into a nice routine. Cliff handled most of the repeat complaints, such as snowplowing disputes and domestic squabbles, and Jonathon tagged along. Up until now, despite boring him to tears, the system had seemed to be running smoothly.
"This week, things are going to get busy," Cliff said.
"Sir?" Jonathon stared at the empty sidewalks in disbelief.
"We're going to need to start patrolling out by Glen Woods. And how many times have I told you to call me Cliff?" he added as he held the door of the diner. When they'd been seated on cracked vinyl stools, a waitress appeared with a coffee pot and a pencil tucked behind her ear.
Cliff waved away menus. "We'll have the special. Two of 'em. Along with two slices of pie," he added, shoving his coffee cup toward her. "And keep that hot coffee coming. It's cold out there." He mimed shivering in his department-issued parka, and the waitress giggled.
The elderly man on the stool next to Jonathon looked over and nodded. "Afternoon."
Hap was a fixture in the town, and so far the only one who had gone so far as to begin a conversation with Jonathon.
"I hear you're from Norfolk," he said now. "What brings a city boy like you this far north?"
Jonathon forced his frozen lips into a smile. "Change of scenery," he answered, staring out the window at the snow-covered pavement.
Hap followed his gaze. "Not much to see this time of year," he allowed, "but just you wait until the miracle."
Jonathon furrowed his brow and turned to Cliff, who had a wide grin plastered across his face. Before he could ask, the waitress laid two plates in front of them. Heaps of whipped mashed potatoes mounded his platter, topped with a lake of yellow butter that pooled on top and flowed down the sides to mix with the peppered gravy, the chunks of sausage islands in a vast sea of cholesterol and salt. Crisp sausages lined the edges of the plate, their skins fried to bursting. Flaky biscuits were cradled in a basket and covered with a cloth to keep them warm.
Nearly drooling on his food, he forked up a mouthful before remembering his question. "What miracle?"
Cliff began to laugh, and Hap joined in.
"You'll see," was all they told him.
An hour later, Cliff pulled his Ford Ranger into a parking lot on the outskirts of town. At least Jonathon assumed it was a parking lot. The snow had been plowed flat beneath their tires, and another car was parked nearby, its grill nosed up against a snow bank.
They made their way across the flat surface, the crunching of their feet on the packed snow the only sound on the frigid afternoon. Jonathon had questioned him about the miracle on the drive, but Cliff had refused to comment, so he'd let the matter drop.
Now they were headed into the woods, with Cliff leading and Jonathon following.
"Here it is," Cliff proudly proclaimed, when they'd walked so far that Jonathon had given up hope of ever feeling his feet again. They'd come to a clearing in the trees where weak sunlight illuminated a small fence and patchy snow beneath the pine trees. Another man leaned against the fence, one foot up on the lower rail.
"Anything yet?" Cliff asked expectantly.
The man shook his head, tossed another glance over the railing, then zeroed in on Jonathon. "Who's this?"
"This is Jonathon Foster. My new deputy." Cliff wandered to the fence and peered over, his face falling as he did.
Jonathon also moved forward, both intrigued and irritated. "What is it we're looking at?"
"Nothin'." The second man hoisted himself up and spit.
"Sir?" Jonathon asked, his patience waning. "Am I missing something?"
Cliff fell to his knees, muttering to himself. "Too much snow this year." He began clearing a spot near the fence, pulling the snow forward with his gloved hands.
"Did somebody lose something?" Jonathon dropped his voice. "Or bury something?"
Cliff barked a laugh and squatted on the balls of his feet. "Lord, boy, things like that don't happen around here. I can see it's going to take you some time to get used to the quiet. No, I'm just looking for the Easter lily."
Easter lily. Jonathon mouthed the words. "Sir?" he ventured. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you, but Easter lilies aren't indigenous to Minnesota. And they never bloom this early in spring."
"This one does," Cliff argued. "It's our miracle flower."
Jonathon stared, trying to figure out if this was some sort of hazing ritual. Should he play along? He tried a tentative smile.
"Spring comes late to these parts," Cliff continued as he stood and gripped the fence post. "Winter is long and hard and lonely on the island. Once the ferry docks for the season, folks start feeling stir-crazy. Sick. Desperate." He glanced at Jonathon. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you."
Jonathon averted his eyes.
"But when the lily blooms, we know that spring is finally here. It's not just about the flower; it's about hope."
"So what you're saying," Jonathon began, "is that an Easter lily blooms here, in this spot, every spring?"
"But that's impossible. Easter lilies can't survive the winters here."
Cliff bobbed his head. "I know. That's what makes this one a miracle."
They turned at the sound of cracking snow, as a woman and two small children snowshoed their way down the trail. Cliff shook his head slowly at her expectant smile. "Not yet, I'm afraid." His voice was soft. "But I'm sure it will be any day now."
The children's faces fell as they turned back, shooed by their mother.
"It's got to," Cliff added under his breath.
By Thursday, Cliff's normally cheerful countenance had turned grim. "Something's wrong," he fretted, poking a toe gingerly at the soil. "At this rate, we're going to have daffodils before the lily comes up." He stated this in a tone that would be used to announce the presence of noxious fumes.
Jonathon cleared his throat. "Sir? I'm not sure I understand the problem. Daffodils bloom in spring." He glanced over the fence. "Unlike Easter lilies. I know you all believe in your miracle, but…"
Cliff interrupted. "The lily always blooms first. The only year she didn't was ten years back. Some hikers found a crocus out near the old Anderson barn. And then Lily Hopkins died." He narrowed his eyes at Jonathon. "You may have us pegged fools, Foster, but folks around here take these superstitions seriously. If someone finds another flower first, we're going to have a lot of hysterical people on our hands. I'm sure I don't need to tell you how quickly that can turn ugly."
"So what do we do?" Jonathon had dealt with rapists and murderers back in Norfolk, but the thought of hysteria brought on by a lily left him clueless.
"I think we'd best check with Hap," Cliff said at last. "He knows plants."
He headed down the path further into the woods, navigating the twists and turns with ease. Jonathon was imagining a death due to exposure, his body chewed by wolves, when they turned a corner and came upon a small cabin. A hand-lettered sign out front read "Hopkins Estate."
Cliff climbed the steps to the porch and knocked on the front door. When no one answered, he cupped his hands and peered in through the front window.
"Hap?" he called. "You in there?"
"Maybe he's gone out," Jonathon ventured.
Cliff waved an arm. "There aren't any tracks."
Jonathon realized it was true. It had snowed Tuesday night, and the white blanket lay completely untouched save for their prints up the stairs. No one had gone in or out of the house in at least two days. Cliff tried the door and found it unlocked. "Hap?" he called again, pushing it open. "Is everything all right?" He stepped into the living room, then stopped and backed out.
Jonathon scrambled up beside him, gun drawn.
"Put that thing away," Cliff said, pushing down the firearm and removing his wide-brimmed hat. "He's dead, and even if he weren't, Hap Hopkins never hurt a fly."
"What if his killer is still here?" Jonathon asked.
Cliff blinked. "Killer?" He shook his head and sighed. "Hap was eighty-seven." He moved aside so Jonathon could take a look. "I'm guessing he just fell asleep in that chair and never woke up. It was probably that damn lily," he muttered.
Jonathon moved to the dead man's side and took his pulse. Finding none, he turned to study the cozy room of the cabin. His eyes fell upon a workbench in the corner, where a sunlamp was beaming down over a flower pot.
He jerked his eyes to Cliff, who was staring silently at the lily on the table.
For a long time, neither spoke. It was finally Jonathon who broke the silence. "We'd better get going. We're going to need to notify his next of kin."
"He didn't have any family left," Cliff said softly. "His only son was killed in Vietnam. And Lily, well, the cancer took her ten years back."
He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand before stepping outside to make the call.
Jonathon remained standing near the workbench, marveling at a man who had lived his entire life on the same small, isolated piece of land. Hap had outlived his entire family, and while Jonathon had detected a sadness in his eyes, there had been strength there, as well. Strength born of hope.
"Coroner's coming. It might take him a while to get back here." Cliff glanced around the cabin as he came back in, his eyes falling on the still man in the corner. "We can wait outside, if you're more comfortable."
"Actually, Cliff, I think I'll take a walk," Jonathon answered, holding his coat shut as he ambled toward the door.
Cliff studied him a moment, glanced at the empty table, then nodded. "It's about time you called me Cliff."
That afternoon, the miracle lily bloomed once again.
Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared online at Writer's Weekly and Wow! Women on Writing, and in a recent issue of Writer's Journal. Her first middle-grade novel, How to Host a Ghost, is available at major online bookstores.