The white house was spacious, well-adorned, and beautiful, but they made Lily live under the stairs.
Her family said it was her fault. She’d been damningly different from her beginning.
When she brought in the little bird who’d fallen from the nest too soon, her sister screamed for their parents, “Get this filthy thing out of the house.”
When Lily found the hand-stitched bear whose smile made her happy, her brother laughed at it. “You two are perfect for each other, lumpy little pieces of junk.”
She lived apart. For the first years of her life, Lily took for granted that she was wrong, dirty, and embarrassing.
But on a warm day, when she was nine, Lily sat quietly outside, trying hard to hide the small smile blooming on her face.
As the sun shone down, she wondered if there might be another place. A place far away from her family.
Unfortunately, her family caught that smile and realized it had nothing to do with their possessions and privilege. They put her back under the stairs to make it clear she was wrong, dirty, and embarrassing. Not them.
But the gardener had seen the smile on Lily’s face too. He had fed worms to the little bird put back under the tree and made the lumpy little bear, intending to warm Lily’s heart. He understood Lily was forgetting what her family needed her to remember.
On a particularly beautiful day, when Lily was particularly sad, she finally noticed his ramshackle cottage behind the tree trunk fence.
The gardener was crouched low over a riot of flowers humming with life and giving off a scent so heavenly Lily’s spirits were immediately lifted.
“Oh my,” Lily said, taking deep gulps of sweet air. The gardener dropped his trowel and whirled around.
On days too gorgeous to do anything, the pair sat and watched the echinacea flowers, abuzz with Lily’s favorite hummingbirds. On rainy days they read Huckleberry Finn, a book too contentious for the white house.
Lily wished to stay forever behind the tree trunk fence where anything seemed possible. But the gardener was always forcing her back between the guardian trunks, back to shame and judgment. “They must never know you come here,” he told her, with something like fear in his eyes.
“But they don’t care what I do. They want me gone as much as I long for it.”
The gardener shook his head. “They don’t want you gone; they want you more like them.”.
“Don’t you want me here?” Lily asked. The lessons of shame embedded deep and ready to rise to the surface even where she was shown love and acceptance.
“Of course I want you here,” the gardener said, gripping her arms. “It’s because I want you here that I don’t want you caught.”
Lily was dreaming of escape when she awoke to the whine of an engine. She blinked her eyes, confused that the gardener was mowing so early, but as the muted crashing began, she dashed to the backyard.
A mile away, a compact tractor methodically pushed the tall trees and ancient fence onto the cottage. Lily screamed as she felt the assault in her chest, wrecking the place of her sweetest memories. She made to run across the yard, but her mother grabbed her wrist.
“What are you doing?” the woman hissed, and Lily was stunned into stillness looking at the smooth manicured hand that encircled her wrist. She could not remember a time when this woman had touched her.
“Where’s the gardener?” Lily asked, tugging away and turning to go to the cottage, stopping when she saw it was a heap of wood being carried away. “What happened to the gardener?”
“He is not a gardener, Lily.” Her mother answered without looking. “He mows the lawn. He will continue to do so. Everything is normal now.”
Lily spent the day sifting through the remnants of the cottage looking for a flower to press between pages, roots to replant and nurture, a splinter of recognizable wood, but everything had been effectively pulverized.
After several days of mourning, earning her family’s chagrin with her tears and dirty fingernails, Lily saw her friend again. The old gardener was on his hands and knees planting sod over his home.
As Lily watched the smooth, green facade cover the memory of color she had loved, all the sadness swirled in her chest and began to coalesce. The vulnerable emotion solidified into something new and powerful. Fury. It felt dangerous and good.
Lily was furious. And she liked it. Conveniently, the people destined to receive Lily’s rage were the very same people who’d taught her how to punish. Finally something like justice.
After so much imagining, the girl under the stairs began to plot. The gardener’s torturous mowing gave her the solution. In secret, she followed him to the garage where he parked the mower. She siphoned slowly.
Soon a night came when her family had plans. Before leaving, they sneered at Lily. No longer pretending she could come if only she were more like them. It was an appropriate goodbye.
She started in the dirty little room under the stairs, then she tripped through the grand, glittering rooms of the white house with her tin of stolen gasoline, dropping lit rags here and there.
Lily watched from a safe distance as the windows shattered and the white house blackened. At the sirens, she fled. The gardener was waiting for her. Just like the first time they met across the garden bed, he would be glad to see her.
Eliza Burks is a sexual assault survivor who writes to process her trauma. She finds herself frequently ruminating on women’s power and identity. You can find her thoughts on romance at her blog, “A Dish of Romance.”