EPISODE FOUR: The Chance to Grow
“But I don’t understand. You’ve got a million plants. Why do you want me to take care of this one?”
Xavier stood in front of the school, arms crossed. It had been a long day. Study Club had been especially difficult, with Maurice forcing them to take back-to-back practice exams for no real reason. Xavier had hoped that he could spend some extra time with Jenna this afternoon, but now she was sending him off.
“You understand how important this is to me, Xavier, don’t you?” Jenna looked up at him from her seat on the ground. “I have to go away for a few days, and I can’t bring any plants with me.”
“Why won’t your grandmother let you bring them?”
Jenna sighed. “I don’t know, but I want to respect her wishes. Will you help me?”
Xavier closed his eyes. This particular plant she wanted him to take care of was a tricky one. Jenna called it Spikeweed, even though it didn’t have spikes and it wasn’t a weed. She claimed she got the name from a video game, but Xavier had never heard of it and didn’t believe it existed. She had a huge list of things he had to do for the plant, things he wasn’t sure you should be doing for a plant.
Watering it three times a day was normal, but feeding it special vitamins and minerals? He wanted to ask her if that was safe, but didn’t want to insult her. After all, she spent far more hours on this than he ever would. He would have to take her word for it.
“Okay, since there seems to be no other choice, I’ll take care of it.”
“Yes!” Jenna jumped up and gave him a hug. He felt his face turning red.
Why does this always happen to me when girls hug me?
He smiled guiltily at the thought. A few weeks ago, that wasn’t a problem. It was a problem he could sure get used to.
“And his name is Spikeweed,” she said, pulling away from him. “He’s very sensitive about his name, so I’d be sure to use it as often as possible.”
Jenna handed him a thick green folder decorated with a sunflower. “In here is all the information pertaining to Spikeweed. You’ll find instructions regarding his feeding schedule, as well as his activity list.”
Xavier choked back a laugh. Jenna was his friend, but she was a few eggs short of a basket case. An activity list? For a plant? Thankfully he didn’t have any other friends. They’d think he was crazy.
“Hey, Xavier, what are you doing out here?”
He whirled around. It was Maurice. He smiled nervously.
“I’m here with my friend, Jenna. She’s showing me her plants.”
Xavier felt his face turning red. He hoped Jenna wouldn’t start talking about why he was really here. Maurice already thought he was a brainless buffoon and peasant who passed tests out of sheer luck. He didn’t need to give the guy any more fuel.
“He’s going to be taking care of Spikeweed for me over the weekend,” Jenna said. She gave Maurice a funny look. “Hey, I know you! You’re Maurice, the super smart guy who is running the Study Club. Xavier has told me all about you.”
Maurice raised an eyebrow.
“Well, it’s good to know that word of my intelligence precedes me.”
“He also told me that you—”
“Okay, I think that’s enough, Jenna,” Xavier said, shaking his head. He hadn’t said many good things about Maurice, but he didn’t want the guy to hear them. “I’m pretty sure Maurice has got a ton of stuff to do this afternoon, so we should let him get on with it.”
Maurice nodded. “I do, actually. Vicki invited me to go to the park with her brother. She says that he’s interested in learning more about my study habits. I thought it would be a good idea to get the little one started before he develops habits that he cannot undo.”
“Like my habits?” Xavier said dryly.
Maurice did not reply. He said goodbye to the two of them and walked off.
Xavier sighed. “You know all that stuff about teaching her little brother is hogwash. Vicki just wants to spend as much time with Maurice as possible. For all his smarts, he hasn’t realized that this is a trap.”
“I don’t know,” Jenna said, crossing her arms. “I think he knows. And I think he doesn’t mind as much as he pretends.”
Xavier raised an eyebrow. “You think he has feelings for her?”
“I didn’t say that,” Jenna replied. “I just think there’s more to Maurice than you realize.” She placed a clay pot in his hands. “This is Spikeweed. I’ve got to head home. You take good care of him, okay? He means a lot to me.”
He watched as she gathered her things and walked away, leaving him standing in the garden. What had he gotten himself into?
I guess this is what friends do for one another.
“Come on, Spikey,” he said, touching the plant. “Let’s get to work on your activity list.”
The park was relatively quiet by the time they got there. The weekend crowd wasn’t here yet, so that meant all the good spots were still open. She chose a nice table under a huge tree to set up shop. Vicki watched as Cameron and Maurice played with a Frisbee on the grass. Her parents hadn’t remembered to pick the little boy up from school, so she convinced Maurice to stop by and get him first.
The two had hit it off fairly well. Cameron was very interested in history, and Maurice enjoyed explaining it to him. She smiled as her brother caught the flying disk with his head. Cameron needed at least one good male role model in his life.
“Your brother’s a fun little boy,” Maurice said, walking toward her.
“I know.” She watched her brother throw the Frisbee straight in the air, trying to catch it with his head again. She sighed. “He doesn’t get out much, but I know he needs it.”
“It’s hard trying to raise your brother.” Maurice sat at the table. “I know. I’m trying to do the same with my sister.”
“You should’ve invited her,” Vicki said, reaching for her drink. “I would love to meet her.”
Maurice shook his head. “No, Katy doesn’t like the outdoors. Every evening I force her to sit in the back porch with me, and she hates it.” He paused. “Unless it’s really dark and the stars are out. Then, she doesn’t want to go back inside.”
“Why do you sit on your back porch?” Vicki could tell her question struck a nerve. She tried to take it back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“No, it’s okay,” Maurice said, rubbing his face in his hands. “It’s just something I started ever since my mother left. It’s kind of a routine now, and I’ve gotten used to it.”
“So what do you do with your life, Maurice?” Vicki asked.
“Well, I go to school. And I run the Study Club.”
“No, no,” Vicki shook her head, “what do you do? With your life? You can’t possibly study and do schoolwork all the time.”
Maurice nodded. “I do. That’s how I make it through life, Vicki.”
She blinked twice. Was he really hiding from his pain in schoolwork? She couldn’t blame him, though. She was doing the same thing; although she wasn’t doing schoolwork, she was hiding her pain in other things. Like her obsession with Maurice.
“Does it help?”
Vicki felt tears welling up in her eyes. We are two sad, pathetic children, trying to figure out what we are to do with ourselves in this crazy, messed up world. Why doesn’t he see how alike we are? How we could help each other?
She sighed. It was going to be a long afternoon.
“Okay, so the next item on your list is—”
Xavier squinted at the paper in his hands. He couldn’t possibly be reading this right. Did it really say to watch the History Channel for thirty minutes?
Is Jenna out of her mind? Who does this nonsense for a plant?
He closed the folder and picked up Spikeweed.
“I don’t know what’s up with Jenna,” he said, sitting on his bed, “but I’ve gotta respect her wishes.” He turned on the television and found the channel.
“Which way are your eyes? How do I know if you’ll be able to see?”
The plant doesn’t have eyes, you dummy. It can’t see no matter which way you position it.
He felt ridiculous.
Xavier left the plant on his bed and headed for the kitchen. The next activity on the list was an evening snack, which consisted of peanut butter and salad dressing. He wondered if Jenna had made all of this up to torment him, or if this was really what Spikeweed needed to eat.
“What are you doing with that?”
It was his father, sitting at the kitchen table, reading from the newspaper. Xavier swallowed hard.
“I’m feeding Spikeweed.”
His father nodded, not looking up once from the paper. “Yes, okay, I understand.” He had explained the ordeal to his father when he walked in the house, and although his father claimed he understood, Xavier was almost sure he didn’t.
What do you know about having to care for some annoying plant that has a million things to do, lists of what he can and cannot eat, places where he can go and places that will kill him? No, Dad, you don’t understand, so stop acting like you do!
Of course, he’d never say this to his father. He was just angry and he was letting it get to him. All of his plans for the weekend were put on hold for this silly plant, and it just wasn’t fair.
You could have said ‘no’ to Jenna.
The thought made a lot of sense now that he’d already done the opposite. He sighed as he clambered up the steps, the peanut butter and salad dressing containers in his arms. This was going to be a long weekend.
“Will you come with me in the water, Maurice?”
He shook his head at the little boy sitting next to him. “Not today, Cameron,” he said, taking another bite from his sandwich. Vicki had done a great job with this picnic. He wanted to thank her, but he wasn’t sure how to do it without giving her any ideas.
“Oh, come on, please? I really, really, really want to go in the lake and Vicki says I can’t go by myself,” the boy begged.
“Why don’t you ask Vicki, then?”
“Because she doesn’t know how to swim.”
Maurice raised an eyebrow and met her gaze. He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Cameron, but I won’t be going in the water.”
Vicki shot her brother a look. “Don’t ask him again,” she said. The boy ran off, clearly upset.
“You could’ve told him you don’t know how to swim,” she began, giving him a look. “He would have respected that.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Vicki said, waving her hand dismissively. “I know how embarrassing it is to admit you don’t know how to swim. I was almost a lifeguard two summers ago. I had done the interviews and everything, thinking that swimming can’t possibly be that hard and I’d figure it out once I started training.”
“And you found out the hard way.”
Vicki shook her head. “No, not really. I walked off the job when the first kid got in the water. They fired me, but I already knew it wasn’t where I needed to be.”
Maurice nodded. “And where do you need to be?”
“With Cameron.” She sighed deeply. “It’s not easy for me, doing what I’m doing, trying to keep him alive. My parents don’t care, as you can tell. I kinda want them to leave already, so they don’t keep giving him false hope that one day things might be different.”
“Things might change, Vicki,” he said slowly. “You never know with people.”
She didn’t respond.
He sighed. “Where did Cameron go?”
“He kinda just ran off.”
Maurice stood up. “I think we should check on him. He was a little upset.”
Vicki joined him. “That sounds like a good idea.”
They walked together in silence for a few minutes. The path they were on led to the small lake in the center of the park.
“Do you ever think we could be friends?”
Maurice raised an eyebrow. “Maybe. In the future.”
“After we graduate?”
He paused. He needed to choose his words carefully. No use giving her any false hopes about—
Maurice felt the blood drain from his face. That was Cameron’s voice, and it was coming from the water not two feet away. He pulled his uniform shirt over his head and handed it to Vicki.
“Hold this,” he said, making for the water. “I’m going to get him out of there.”
His father was still sitting at the kitchen table when he came down to get some more food for Spikeweed. This time, his father was eating something and looking at his phone.
“Must be nice to do whatever you want on a Friday night,” Xavier said under his breath.
“What was that?”
“Oh, nothing,” he said, opening the refrigerator.
“No, no, I heard what you said.” His father set his phone down. “Come over here, son. I want to talk to you.”
“But I have to get this for Spikeweed—”
“Come over here.”
He sat in front of his father.
“Dad, I have to—”
“Listen to me for a moment, okay, son?” His father smiled. “You’re running all over the place, trying to take care of this plant of yours.”
“His name is Spikeweed, and he’s not my plant.” Xavier felt the hostility in his voice and sighed. He didn’t mean to be cross with his father. He was still upset over the whole deal.
“Okay, then, you are running all over the place trying to take care of Spikeweed.” He father shook his head. “You don’t have to be upset about this. In fact, come a few years, and you’ll be doing this all over again, except, you won’t be able to give it back.”
Xavier sat up straight. “What are you talking about? Do you know something I don’t, Dad?”
“Yes, son.” He folded his hands together. “This whole experience you’re having with Spikewood is a lot like having a kid.”
Xavier resisted the urge to tell his father that is was Spikeweed, not Spikewood.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when you have a kid, you’ve got to rearrange your entire life. You can’t do the things you used to do when you were single. You’ve got a whole list of activities your child has to do, plus you’ve got to feed it specific foods so your kid doesn’t die.” His father shook his head. “A child is a whole lot more work than your friend’s plant.”
“So what you’re saying is: you think this is bad, wait until you have a child?” Xavier frowned. “And this helps, how?”
“I’ve been in your situation, Xavier, and it’s been a whole lot harder than Spikewood. You were a whole lot harder than him. I mean, you still are, but you know what I mean.”
Xavier nodded. “Yeah, I guess.”
“I’m not trying to make myself into something greater. I just want you to know that I understand. And I’m glad that you are taking the first steps to being a responsible adult.”
“A responsible adult, huh.”
“Life is going to change pretty soon, Xavier, and you aren’t going to be able to go back to how you lived as a child. This is just the first step.”
“Yeah.” He stood up. “Well, I’ve got to go now, Dad. Spikeweed’s ready for some more food.”
His father laughed. “You take care of him, son. And remember to thank Jenna when you return him on Monday.”
“Thank her for what?” Xavier grumbled. “ A headache?”
“For the opportunity to grow.”
She didn’t even have time to protest. Maurice was in the water, splashing and flapping along with her brother and there was nothing she could do about it. She felt the panic come on then, but knew she could not give in to it. As she watched Maurice disappear under the water, she knew it was too late to be strong.
They’re going to die.
Vicki rushed to the edge of the lake. Memories of her father trying in vain to teach her to swim filled her mind. She had always protested, hating the water. If only she had known how to swim! Then, she could save her brother. Instead, she let Maurice go in there. For all his perfection, for all his knowledge and expertise, that boy did not know how to swim. And now, because of her, they were both going to die.
She knew that calling their names wouldn’t accomplish anything, but she had to do something.
I can get help for them!
The thought barely had a second to register before she saw them. Maurice struggled to stay afloat as he pulled her brother to safety. Tears of joy found their way to the surface and she clapped her hands together.
Maurice grunted as he dropped her brother onto the bank. He immediately began pumping the boy’s chest, trying to get the boy breathing. Finally, her brother began to cough, sputtering water everywhere.
“Oh, Cameron, you’re alive!” She pulled her brother into a close hug, not caring that she was ruining her clothes. He was her brother, and he was alive.
“Cameron, I don’t know what I would’ve done if you had drowned,” she said in between sobs. “You’re the only one I have left.”
“Do you have a towel?” Her brother said, his breathing still labored. “I’m cold.”
Vicki laughed and dashed to their table. She grabbed two towels and ran back. Maurice sat on the ground beside her brother, breathing heavily. She handed Maurice a towel and began to dry her brother.
“You saved my brother’s life, Maurice.”
He nodded. “It had to be done.”
“Why’d you do it, though? You don’t know how to swim. You could’ve died and then I’d have lost two people.”
Maurice draped the towel around his neck and looked her straight in the face. “Because he’s your brother. I know what it’s like to lose family, Vicki. I couldn’t let that happen to you.”
“But what about your sister? She would’ve lost her brother if you had drowned.”
“There’s something I haven’t told you, Vicki.”
She stopped toweling her brother. Cameron grabbed for it to finish drying his ears.
“What are you talking about?”
Maurice crossed his arms and leaned forward.
“I know how to swim.”
“I didn’t correct you earlier because I didn’t feel like getting wet.” He looked at her brother. “It’s a good thing I knew how, isn’t it Cameron?”
“Yup,” the little boy said, beaming as Maurice patted him on the shoulder. “I could’ve been dead.”
“Thank you, Maurice,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. Why was this all so difficult? She had convinced him that teachers and students could be friends, but with every second they spent together, she knew it would never be enough for her. Why wasn’t she satisfied? Why couldn’t she control herself? Why was she so in love?
“Well, it’s been a fine afternoon,” Maurice said, “but you’d better get your brother home. He needs to be cleaned up, and he should probably get something to eat.” He handed her the damp towel. “I have to get going myself.”
“Thank you.” She paused and bit her lip, wanting to hold back the words, but knowing they were necessary and true. “You’re a good man, Maurice.”
“I’m only seventeen years old,” he replied, shaking his head. “I have a long way to go before I get to the status of man.”
Vicki smiled, realizing that he was teasing. “You’re a good teenager, then. Is that better?”
Although he didn’t smile, she could hear it in his voice. He was going to be a good man one day. But more than that she knew he would be her good man.
She was certain of it.
Jenna had been nice about it. She didn’t ask any questions when he returned Spikeweed on Monday morning. She thanked him and he thanked her, then they went their separate ways. He had gone through the rest of the day on auto-pilot, thinking about what his father had said.
“Life is going to change pretty soon, Xavier, and you aren’t going to be able to go back to how you lived as a child. This is just the first step.”
He didn’t like change. As much as he enjoyed his new school, he didn’t like having to start things. He didn’t like having to leave things behind, either.
Couldn’t I just freeze this moment in time? Couldn’t I just stay here forever? I have everything I want. Nothing is going wrong. Why does it have to change?
He was no stranger to change. He had only just moved to this school a few months ago, and they’d moved into the new place a few weeks before that. Because of his father’s job, they’d moved to least a dozen new houses in the last ten years.
Xavier was no stranger to change, but he was no friend either.
“Good. You haven’t left yet.”
He jumped at the voice. He turned around to see who was standing behind him.
“Maurice?” Xavier frowned. “What are you still doing here?”
“I’d like to ask you the same thing.”
“I’m waiting for my ride,” Xavier replied, slipping his hands into his pocket. “Don’t you have your bike? It’s already almost five. You should be long gone by now.”
Maurice nodded and leaned against the school building. They stood in front of the school, a few steps away from the main doors. His father liked him to stand in that area because it was easier for him to get in the car.
“I’m just not ready yet,” the boy said, sighing.
Xavier stood straight. This was entirely new from Maurice.
“Are you doing all right, Maurice?”
“No, actually, I’m not.” Maurice looked him square in the face. “I’ve got a problem, Xavier.”
“And you’re coming to talk to me about it?” Xavier laughed. “But I’m just a lowly peasant. I have not the brains to converse with you on any level, much less give you advice.”
Maurice shook his head. “I’m not asking for your advice. I need to tell someone before my head explodes.”
“Whoa there, buddy,” Xavier said. “That wouldn’t do. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I don’t know how to say this,” Maurice said, running a hand through his hair. “I think,” he paused and closed his eyes. “I think I’m in love with Vicki. And I don’t know what to do about it.”
Xavier felt the edges of his mouth turning up in a smile as he crossed his arms.
Well, well. I guess, change isn’t so bad after all.
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