Budding Hopes

an excerpt

Chapter One

As exhausted as he was at the end of his Friday night shift at the University of Maryland Medical Center, Dr. Mark Vance always found fresh energy by the time he reached Sheehan's Nursery. It didn't matter if the Baltimore streets were slick from melted snow that had frozen overnight, or that the sun was bright and chirpy. He always pulled the door open and set the tiny overhead bell into a ringing frenzy feeling like he could take on the world.

This particular morning, the shop wasn't its normal empty self. From the radio on the narrow counter, Dinah Shore serenaded the two men already waiting for service. Mark took his dutiful place in line behind them, but tipped his head to the side in curiosity to watch the owner wrapping an order of long-stemmed red roses. Another discrepancy from the norm. Though his name was painted in the front window, Ernest Sheehan rarely worked the front of the store, or at least, he never did on Saturday. In the almost eight months Mark had been coming in after work, he'd only seen the man in passing or caught a glimpse of him through the door that led to the rear of the building.

Curiosity turned into alarm. If Mr. Sheehan was manning the counter, where was his son, Hal?

His imagination ran away from him. Possibilities veered from oversleeping, to lying in bed sick, to being crushed by the morning delivery truck. By the time it was his turn, his thudding, dread-filled heart nearly choked him. Hal couldn't be dead. He was too strong, too vital. But in all the Saturdays Mark had been coming to pick up the flowers for his mother's grave, Hal had never once been absent. What could have happened?

"Good morning, Dr. Vance." Mr. Sheehan's smile was broad and friendly, as if they'd shared this weekly ritual together instead of him and Hal. He wasn't nearly as physically imposing as his son, but they shared the same open features, the guileless hazel eyes, the wide mouth. His hands were stained and scarred from his years of gardening, several fingers twisting from early arthritis. Hal's hands would likely do the same at some point in the far future. He was all set to follow in his father's footsteps, to take over the flower shop when the older man finally retired. "Sorry about the wait today."

"It's good to see the shop busy," he replied politely.

"Always busy this time of year."

Mark frowned. "This time of year?"

Mr. Sheehan paused in the middle of pulling out the lilies from the refrigerated cabinet behind the counter. "You know. Valentine's Day tomorrow." He paused. "Don't tell me you forgot about it."

He had, actually, but that was because he'd never had any reason to celebrate the holiday. He shrugged. "Too busy working to notice, I guess."

"Well, I hope for your sake your sweetheart is too busy, too. Otherwise, you'll be spending next Valentine's Day alone." He waggled a gnarled finger in Mark's direction. "Take it from someone who's been married longer than you've been alive."

Though Mark smiled and nodded, he refrained from correcting the assumption.

"Here you go." Mr. Sheehan held out the bouquet of wrapped lilies with a delicate grace that belied his burly stature. "It should be a good day for a visit with your mother. Cold, but at least the sun's out."

"Yeah." But his focus was on the flowers and the six buds peeking out at him from the paper. "Wait. Is that number right?"

With a frown, Mr. Sheehan took the lilies back and counted them, his lips moving with each number. "Half a dozen. Just like always."

"But I usually get seven."

"You pay for six."

"Well, yes, but--"

"Then six is what you get." He took the money Mark had ready, though his jovial mood had lessened. "Hal's a hard worker, but he's not really a thinker, if you get my meaning. I'll have a talk with him about being more careful with his counting from now on."

He hadn't meant to get Hal in trouble, but from the sound of it, his morbid fabrications about what might have happened were unfounded. He took the receipt as calmly as he could manage, then asked in an equally careful tone, "So Hal's all right? I was surprised not to see him when I walked in."

Mr. Sheehan hitched a thumb toward the back of the store. "We've got extra deliveries this morning because of the holiday, so he's busy with all that. Probably better that way. I can't afford all my counts being wrong this week because he can't count to six without taking his gloves off."

Mark's instinct was to defend Hal. After all, someone needed to. He would have expected a father to be the first person to know his son's worth. But then again, Mr. Sheehan knew Hal a lot better than Mark did. All of Mark's interactions with him consisted of five-minute exchanges on Saturday mornings, where the most he'd ever got from Hal was a few sympathetic words strung together in response to whatever nonsense Mark could babble about that day. He was always kind and friendly, with that shy smile that made Mark's stomach flip-flop, but that was it. Maybe he really was as simple as Mr. Sheehan made him out to be.

Mark retreated to the door, catching and holding it open for the middle-aged woman who'd been about to enter. With a small wave back to Mr. Sheehan, he said, "See you next week."

His polite facade faded as he stepped back onto the sidewalk. Disappointment burned in his gullet. So ridiculous to get moony-eyed over a near stranger, especially one big enough to break him in half if he ever discovered the truth, but Hal was a bright spot to his otherwise gray weekends, the one thing that made it easier to visit his mother's grave. She had been all the family Mark had, the only one to ever know all of his secrets. She hadn't judged him for them, either. Though she would have loved having grandchildren, she'd accepted his dedication to his career without argument, even knowing as she did that he used it as an excuse against marriage for those who would've paired him off with an unsuspecting girl.

"Whatever brings you happiness," she'd always said to him.

Then in ‘51, she'd contracted polio. He'd been so wrapped up in his studies, rarely home, buried in books when he was, he hadn't seen the symptoms until it was too late. Her death had almost derailed his education. If it weren't for the fact that she'd worked her fingers to the bone to ensure Mark became a doctor, he would have quit.

Now, nearly three years later, he was one step closer to fulfilling that dream, but the victory felt hollow without her around. Some of it had been mitigated when he'd discovered Sheehan's eight months ago. Seeing Hal every week had been the only thing to make him smile outside of his success stories at the hospital. But once Mr. Sheehan talked to Hal, reprimanding him about the extra lilies, probably relegating him to more menial labor, things would change. They would have to.

The urge to loiter around the mouth of the alley that ran alongside the shop in hopes of seeing Hal at work was adolescent. With a shake of his head, Mark turned on his heel and headed back to the hospital. Sometimes he left his car, a 1950 Pontiac Chieftain sedan he'd splurged on when he'd graduated from med school, parked in the hospital lot, because walking back and forth between the bus stop that would take him to the cemetery afforded him additional peeks at Hal later on in the day. Now that he thought about it, though, that was fairly puerile, too, more evidence of a silly crush than the actions of a grown man.

He sighed. It just might be time to find a new florist for his weekly visits.

The streets of Baltimore were nearly abandoned as he wound his way toward the cemetery. His drive took him through more than one neighborhood, quiet sanctuaries of domesticity with their postcard lawns, but even those appeared vacant, lost houses awaiting their owners' return. On top of his disappointing morning, he arrived at the graveyard gates more than a little unsettled, jumping at the crack of his door slamming shut, wincing every time he stepped on and crushed a dried twig in the grass.

Annabelle Vance's headstone was set off the main path, in the newer section at the rear where they'd expanded after the war. Sometimes, Mark took his time getting to it, exploring amidst the older residents. Those from the wars always pulled him to a halt. His father had died when Mark was just a baby, prompting Annabelle to pack up their things and move to Baltimore for a fresh start, but Mark had often daydreamed about what it would have been like if his father had survived long enough to serve. Would he have died overseas, leaving them alone anyway? Or would he have come back a hero, there to see Mark fulfill his parents' dreams by going on to college?

So many roads his life could have taken. If he'd had his father. If he could only like girls. If he'd recognized his mother's symptoms sooner.

He didn't stop today. His thoughts were maudlin enough as it was. Today needed to be about starting over, which meant no more considering the what ifs.

Dead leaves clustered at the silvery-gray base of Annabelle's grave marker. Mark brushed them away, ignoring how the slight breeze picked them up and tumbled them over the frozen grass. Resting the lilies across the patch he'd cleared, he took his seat on the ground in front of them, facing the headstone as if they were seated at the dinner table and he was recounting his day for her.

"I only have six flowers for you today," he apologized. "But it'll be seven again next week, I promise." He'd buy the seven from now on. The ritual of it was too ingrained by now to quit, even if he hadn't been the one to provide the extra lily.

"I think I have to find a new florist, though," he went on. "I made a fool of myself at Sheehan's." She was the only one he'd ever told about Hal, as safe a haven as any. "But it's just as well. It's almost time for my rotation to change again. I can't guarantee I'll be working Friday nights anymore."

You should be having fun, he could almost hear her say. Life is too short to be working so hard, and for what?

"For all the people I can help. I'm a good doctor, Mama. I can make a difference in so many lives."

And in yours?

He sighed. "Maybe when I'm done, I'll try settling down. I have to pretend anyway. What's one more lie on top of all the others?"

I seem to recall something about the straw and the camel.

"I'm stronger than that." He'd had to be. And he could always bury himself in his work. Some girl out there would love to be married to a doctor who made no physical demands of her, who would always be faithful because the person he really wanted was unattainable. It was just a matter of making the choice, regardless of all the hopes Annabelle had had for his happiness. Life could be about peace rather than contentment, couldn't it? Love was a bonus, not a requirement.