THE LAST HEIRLOOM • by Jill Coursen

Sarah hopped on her bike with her gardening supplies secured in the sturdy wicker basket. The morning had a slight chill, a welcome relief from the midsummer heat, but she didn’t feel relieved. Her morning trips to the community garden were the highlight of her busy days, a calming infusion of nature before heading to the office. The change in temperature foretold the coming autumn and the end of the gardening season.

She suspected that this would be the last of the tomato harvest. Sure, there were still squash and carrots, but they pretty much took care of themselves. The tomatoes had been coddled like children. The seedlings, started indoors while the ground outside was still white with snow, were pampered until they were strong enough to survive the outdoors. In early spring, the soil was turned and improved with compost, laying a rich foundation for the seedlings to thrive. Once planted in the earth they were faithfully pruned and watered until finally, nearly 4 months later, the first tomatoes ripened. The months of waiting had paid off with a summer of tomato bliss filled with fresh salsa, gazpacho, and homemade tomato sauce. It was all coming to a quick end.

She slipped through the garden gate and pulled her bike up next to her designated plot. Her heart sank when she saw the lone ripe tomato. It was a perfect heirloom specimen — the size of a softball, yellow and orange with red hues around the bottom. The other remaining fruits were still hard and green. It was clear that they would never ripen in the cool evenings. She snipped the stem of the ripe tomato and felt the hefty weight of it in her hand.

I could eat it right now, she thought, fresh from the vine and still moist with dew.

She pushed the temptation aside. This was the last summer tomato and she had to make the most of it. She wrapped it in a towel and delicately placed it in the basket. “There you go, beautiful. No bruises for you,” she said. She pedaled out of the garden, careful not to damage her treasure, and thought about her last tomato meal.

Bruschetta with fresh herbs? Under the broiler sprinkled with Parmesan?

Sarah took a quick survey of her surroundings: a crowded bus stop on the corner, a group of kids kicking a soccer ball, damp leaves on the sidewalk. She decided to pull out onto the street. A typical urban street, it presented a minefield of potholes, steel plates, and debris; but at least it was predictable. She was so focused on maneuvering between the obstacles in her path that she didn’t see the squirrels until it was almost too late. She slammed on her brakes and came to an abrupt stop. The pair continued their game of tag across the street unfazed, while the tomato jostled back and forth in the basket. So much for the predictable route!

Shaken, she turned back up onto the smooth sidewalk and glided the remaining block to her building. Once inside the elevator, she started to relax as the doors closed together.

Sliced thick over spicy arugula? Drizzled with aged balsamic?

A hand slid between the closing doors, followed by a man squeezing his way through the gap. “Down, Daisy,” the man said to the large dog by his side, but Daisy was eager to greet her new friend. Tail wagging, she backed Sarah into the corner and buried her curious nose deep into the basket. Sarah grabbed the tomato and held it high over her head, sacrificing herself to the flurry of wet kisses. When the elevator finally chimed at her floor, she bolted through the doors.

At home safely at last, she carefully unwrapped the towel, dreading the mess that she knew she would find inside. But the tomato was still flawless, its ripe fragrance filling the air.

Simply prepared with fresh mozzarella, olive oil, and a sprinkle of sea salt… perfection!

Waiting until dinner would be unbearable. She pulled the cheese from the refrigerator to warm up and then rinsed the tomato, leaving it on the counter to dry while she changed into clean clothes.

Her jaw dropped when she walked back into the kitchen. There stood her husband, a huge grin across his face, with the remnants of the tomato in his hand. Traces of fresh juice rolled down his forearm and stained his sleeve.

“Oh, babe! This was the best tomato!” he said. “Where are the rest?”

Eyes wide, she lurched forward for the last glistening chunk left in his hand.

Jill Coursen currently lives in Maryland. A biologist by day, she writes fiction for fun and to prepare for a second life as a writer. Until she finds her voice, all genres are fair game.

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