Spilled dirt and paranoia…

Excerpt from Chapter Four:

The next morning, Austin got ready for work with all the enthusiasm of a spoiled monarch, keeping life in stasis until he was finally gone. Hannah and Paige had been dressed and ready to go outside for hours, pacing and watching while the cool dawn slipped away. As soon as his car was out of sight, they rushed to the back door and out into the yard

Hannah held Paige steady while the toddler balanced along the rock wall of one of her raised garden beds, allowing a quick chance to peek at some of her perennials in their developing stages. Their anticipated emergence from the ground each year was a micro-holiday. They gave her something reliable to look forward to. Another reason to be thankful.

She chased Paige across the lawn and checked for her rescued Jack in the Pulpits and Wake-robins under the trees, but there were no signs yet. The snow drops and crocuses were finished blooming and their leaves were turning brown. The alliums and the hyacinths were getting old and their flowers were spent and raggedy.

Other than the fading early bulbs, everywhere there were signs of life, bright greens, shining new leaves, shoots pushing from the soil. The air was moist and clean, the grass still wet with dew. The hummingbirds were out taking turns at the feeders and she held her breath while she watched them. They would remember her soon and ignore her like she wasn’t there, but at this time of year they were still skittish.

Paige was now busy collecting twigs from the grass and stacking them a pile. To her it was all play, and Hannah was glad that she was occupying herself with something entertaining and helpful. When the pile was as high as her ankles, Paige leaped on it with her rubber boots, snapping and crunching the twigs into smaller bits.

“What are you doing?” Hannah asked, forever amused by Paige’s antics.
“Gathering wheat to make bread,” she answered seriously, without looking up.
Hannah chuckled to herself. Things are so rarely what they seem.

She walked out next to the road to see if the previous year’s day lily transplants were starting to push up. There was a nice clump of green shoots, almost five inches tall. They looked strong and healthy, like they had been there for years. On her way back through the little wooded area she met up with Paige.

“Here, Mommy,” she said proudly, holding the plastic pot containing the slipper orchid.
“Oh, Honey, I haven’t decided where to put it yet,” Hannah said as she bent down to take the pot. “Thank you,” she offered as she reached out for it, not quite getting a grasp before the youngster let go.

The pot fell to the ground with a thud, spilling its contents out across the stone path. Paige glanced up at Hannah with a look of surprise and stepped back, kicking dirt from the tops of her black rubber boots. “Uh, oh. Mommy drop it.”

With an exasperated sigh, Hannah bent down to put it back together. The slipper orchid rested on its side, its stiff, spindly roots comically poised. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’ll be okay. Guess this flower needs a new home, huh?” She picked up the plant, carefully placing it to the side, and began to scrape the dirt together. Something oddly shaped, like a small pebble, caught her eye. She picked it out and examined it. It was pale brown and more lightweight than a stone. She set it on the stool for later. As she continued, she discovered more pieces of similar size and color and set them aside as well.

“Look, Paige, I think these are little bones,” she said, pointing to the bench. “It must be from some little animal.”
Paige looked at them and squatted down over the empty pot, sifting through the remaining dirt with her tiny bare fingers.
“Another one,” Paige said and placed it with the others. “Another one, another one, another one,” she continued with each find. “Something,” she said. “Look, Mommy.”
Hannah looked up at the child’s hand. She had a small ring around her dirt covered thumb. The comprehension of what she was looking at took a few seconds to assemble. 
“Let me see, Honey,” she took the ring off Paige’s finger. “It looks like gold.”

Realization of something not quite right swept over her like a gust of hot wind. Her hands began to shake and she felt light headed as she stood up to look on the stool. What she saw sent her back down to her knees.

“Pretty ring,” Paige said. The toddler reached out to take the ring from Hannah’s limp fingers, dropping it accidentally into the leaf litter.
“Oh, my goodness!” Hannah sifted frantically to find it.
“Here,” Paige said, plucking it from between the leaves. “Paige finded it. Paige’s ring.”
“Let’s go wash it off,” Hannah said, trying to sound calm. “Maybe we should go inside.” She carelessly gathered the plant back into the pot and shoved it back between the tree roots. “Come over here to the spigot,” she commanded, grabbing Paige’s hand.
Hannah turned on the water and roughly rinsed Paige’s hands, causing her to cry out when she tried to dig dirt from under the little girl’s nails. She rinsed the ring and looked at it in her palm.
“Mommy is mad,” Paige said.
“No, Honey. Mommy isn’t mad. Mommy is worried about this ring.” Hannah quickly kissed her on the forehead.
In the kitchen Hannah found an old toothbrush under the sink and scrubbed the ring vigorously with Bon Ami and then threw the toothbrush away. She washed it again with a handful of soap, holding it several minutes to rinse under the running water while she contemplated the possible reasons for a gold wedding band to be in the roots of a shallow growing plant.
She got out a magnifying glass and held the ring up in the light of the window over the sink. It was about five millimeters wide and made of pinkish gold. It had a design of alternating ivy leaves and wild roses engraved all the way around. Inside, there was a three word inscription that wasn’t in English, along with a few jewelry hallmarks.
Paige had been watching her, curious at her mother’s behavior. “Can Paige see?”
Hannah bent down, holding it out in her wet palm. “See the little flowers and leaves? They go all around. Isn’t that nice?”
“Nice,” Paige agreed, nodding her head. She stuck out her finger and touched it. “Paige can hold it?”

Hannah stood up and looked out the kitchen window. She could partially see the painted stool in the wild area. This is real, she thought. This ring is in my hand and it’s real. It was in the roots of that plant. She looked back out at the milking stool, scarcely able to grasp what was there.

“Paige can hold a ring? Please?”
“Not right this minute, Honey,” Hannah answered. She rinsed the ring again and placed it in the windowsill. A small puddle formed around it. It was a normal thing to see sitting in a kitchen windowsill over a sink. She put rings there all the time. Only, this one wasn’t normal.
“We need to go back outside right now and water that plant,” Hannah said. She grabbed a zippered sandwich bag and headed for the door. “Come on, Sweet Pea.”
Paige followed to the edge of the trees and stood watching curiously as her mother put on her garden gloves and carefully scraped the little pale brown pieces toward the open baggy. She dropped her doll and rushed to Hannah. “Paige help. Paige help, Mommy.”
Hannah swiftly raised her arm to block and the collision caused a few pieces to roll off the stool. She quickly sifted through the leaves for them, staying on guard.
“Careful,” Hannah said, trying not to sound irritated. “Go stand by your dolly.”
“Paige help Mommy,” the child insisted, stomping her foot.
“Get your dolly off the ground, Darlin’. I’m going to water this flower now.”
She gently pushed Paige away with the back of her arm, feeling as if she would explode. She wanted to get this done and get back inside. She couldn’t think straight. She searched through the leaves over and over, horrified that one piece could be loose on the ground.
She got a seed tray and dumped the plant out onto it. Spreading the dirt out in the tray, she spotted two more pieces and placed them in the baggy. After quickly re-potting and watering the orchid, she threw her gloves into the grass and ushered Paige to the open back door.
“Go on in and take your shoes off, sweetheart.”
She held the baggy up to the light and looked at what was inside. The shapes were distinctive, though she didn’t want to believe what she was seeing. It was, however, undeniable. Clustered together in the bottom of this plastic bag were the tiny bones of a human hand.

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