One Step Forward by A.W. Hill

Judy stares at the dying houseplant on the table. The last yellow leaf clung to the stem byits petiole, attached only by stillness. First the African violet, then the begonia, now the philodendron. She avoids any movement of the table, the pot, the air around it. Judy holds her breath, believing in hope, in resiliency, the regenerative power of nature. But she knows. Somehow, things aren’t working.

She lives a mundane life. She comes home from the same job she has held for 20 years, to eat bland food under cloudy winter skies. She longs for just the tiniest bit of colour in her life. A touch of green. The promises of spring.

Rose, at work, suggested a cat or a dog; Rose volunteers at the animal shelter. But Judy sticks to her rules: If she can keep a house plant alive for a year, she will get a fish. If she can keep a fish alive for a year, she will get a cat. She memorized the advice from the magazines: Take small, realistic steps. Set attainable goals. Envision success. She dreams of herself in a white dress; her husband-to-be waits at the front of the church. He has no face, not yet. If she gets a fish, she will add another goal—one after the husband. That goal is so precious she scarcely permits herself to imagine it. She doesn’t want to jinx anything. One step at a time.

Her secret compromise with herself is a stuffed cat. If anyone ever comes over and asks, she will tell them it is a beloved memento of childhood. It gives her comfort. Sometimes, for just a few moments, before she falls asleep, she pretends it is real.

Anthony in his overalls with the dinosaur on them. She in her favorite top, the pink one with the kitty cat. They loved watching the coyote chase the road runner off the cliff. It was only when he looked down that he plunged to the bottom of the canyon. Who doesn’t long to fly, long to hang suspended in mid-air? The key is to not look down. Now, sometimes in her night time dreams, sometimes on the bus to work, or in the shower, she hears her mother’s words: It’s a beautiful day. Turn off the TV and go play outside.  Keep an eye on your brother.

Together, she and Anthony planned. The ladder lay propped against the wall of the garage, where yesterday the man cleaned the gutter. The soft grass will be the canyon. She held the ladder steady as Anthony climbed. “Don’t look down,” she said.

You had one job.

The stories in magazines and on television give her hope. They promise: Love will come when you least expect it, from an unanticipated source. Still, she wants to be prepared.

So she waters her plant every day. She reads that central heating makes apartments very dry so she waters it carefully, until the water runs through the hole in the bottom of the pot, just like the article said. Judy talks to the plant, strokes its leaves. She places it right up against the window, so it can get all the good sunlight it needs. She feeds it with the blue powder once a week.

No, the philodendron is a goner. She turns her back on it so she can think. The articles tell her: Trust your heart. Trust your gut. They do not say what to do when the two conflict.

The cartoon images from childhood come to her. The devil sits on her left shoulder, an angel on the right. It is the devil who tells her to get another one. She wants it. She must persevere. The angel suggests that perhaps she should take some time. Reflect. She should trust the angel. But isn’t the devil just a fallen angel? Just an angel who made a mistake? We all make mistakes. She can understand an angel who made a mistake.

She thinks: I don’t have time. At the DIY store, from the array of tabletop palms, succulents, and tiny potted tropicals, the lucky bamboo calls to her. With the faith of a lottery player, she puts the stems in her basket. This will be the one.

A.W. Hill graduated from Duke University in the mid-1990s with a degree in English. Today, she lives in Durham, NC, where she works as a consultant to higher education publishing. This is her first fiction publication.

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