Leslie loved the fresh greenery of Leiland’s street corners. A few years ago, the mayor began a “Beautify Our City” initiative. Every weekend, citizens from all walks of life—the seniors who still had enough pep in their movement to walk and bend without suffering, to the middle-aged and working class, to the high school students looking for extra volunteer hours—they all joined together as one body on assignment, Mayor Richardson heading the brigade, to plant grass, small trees and shrubs, and flowers, including daffodils, lilies, chrysanthemums, lilacs, azaleas, and daisies, along the roadways and on the medians throughout town.
The goal was to make Leiland feel more welcoming to those outside of town, especially travelers coming off Highway 87, where they would often endure miles and miles of gray road, overgrown weeds just off the shoulder, and the noise blocking walls built up behind them—hardly any appealing sight to witness at all apart from the occasional billboard advertising fast food at the next exit. Mayor Richardson had hoped the new vegetation would invite visitors to stay awhile, get to know this quiet, quaint little town, and maybe even decide to make it their permanent place of residence.
Leslie couldn’t say if the population of Leiland actually grew as a result, but she could testify to the initiative being a definite success, at least for her. For she often resolved to walk to places rather than drive just to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the city’s flora, smelling the blossoming azaleas in the cool, early Spring breeze, just in time for annual azalea festival in Wilmington every April.
But today was different. She drove on the outskirts of town and watched out the window as the precious green vegetation of Leiland transitioned to the cool dankness of concrete and red clay, and then she passed the sign: “Welcome to Pleasant’s Edge”; it was anything but pleasant.
She turned to Gregory, who sat next to her in the passenger’s seat. He was quiet most of the ride, only speaking up to direct her where to turn. Leslie tried not to worry about him—what was going on in his personal life, why he had dropped out of college after finishing just one semester—she wanted him to know that no matter what he did, she would always support him; he was her son after all. She only wished he would speak to her more and try not to take Tony’s abuses so personally; his brother’s unfiltered mouth being the only reason Leslie could think of for why Gregory never wanted to stay home.
“You know Tony and Kerry will be moving out soon,” Leslie said. “Your grandmother’s giving them one of her rental homes.”
He said nothing, only rested his elbow on the door handle, put his chin in his hand and continued to look through the window. What was he thinking? Would he even tell her?
Leslie sighed. She’d thought the news would at least get a reaction from him. To know that all the noise of Tony and Kerry arguing, and Tony taking all of his anger and frustrations out on his quiet and reserved little brother would finally cease. Then it would only be Leslie and Gregory left in the house, and they could seize the opportunity to repair their relationship, restore that tightly weaved mother-son bond they once shared when Gregory was a child, before his father passed.
“It’s just up here.” Gregory pointed right of the intersection just ahead, and Leslie turned into a dilapidated trailer park, where the siding on the houses cracked in places and the roofs either slanted or sunk in. On one home she even spotted the clean entry point of a bullet hole in one of windows, the glass cracked in a spider web-like pattern surrounding it. To her right, on the other side of the street, a barbed wire fence stood at about seven feet tall and extended down to just beyond where she could see an end. Posted on the front of the fence, every twenty feet or so, were “No Trespassing—Authorized Personnel Only ” signs. Behind the fence, a mound of gray rubble, just as wide as the fence itself, towered over the neighborhood.
“Please don’t tell me she lives here,” Leslie said as she put the gear in park. She regretted making this drive without first considering where she was taking him. She had been so desperate to get Gregory to trust her again and open up to her that she had been willing to take him to the home of a girlfriend she’d never even met, and it had to be in the worst part of Cumberland county, to further worry her. Pleasant’s Edge wasn’t known for its herbaceous greenery like Leiland, or for its friendly neighbors exchanging pleasantries. Pleasant’s Edge was infested with crime and rampant drug use. More people were dying of gang violence and heroin overdoses in Pleasant’s Edge than in anywhere else in North Carolina, and Leslie had just dropped her youngest son off at its front step. Was he in any of those things also?
“At least tell me this girl’s name,” Leslie said as Gregory opened the door to get out.
“Tammi,” he said. No details on who Tammi was, how they met, how long they’d been seeing each other, if she was a sweet and respectful young lady—though her environment warned that she was anything but. Nothing to give Leslie a clear indication of who she’d just handed her son over to, other than a single name: Tammi.
“Will you call me to come pick you up later?” Leslie asked, but she wanted “later” to be now. She wanted for Gregory to get back in the car and they speed off back to Leiland, back to safety, back to the cover of precious trees and flowers and herbs, symbolizing a city that cared, before he got into any more trouble, which he would surely find here.
“Nah, I’ll have Tammi’s mom take me home.” Gregory slammed the door behind him and crossed in front of the car to the yard of the trailer Leslie had parked in front off.
Leslie started to roll down her window to ask when he thought that would be. She feared it would be another week before she saw him again. Granted he was old enough to make his own decisions now, she wanted to remind him that he still had a home to come back to. He shouldn’t feel obligated to shack up with this girl in poverty as if he had lost everything, including all hope and all dignity.
As he walked up the driveway, she heard something shatter underneath his foot, and he briefly stepped with a limp before regaining his stamina and continuing to the house at a quicker pace to disappear in the darkness behind the open door.
Leslie remained parked in front of the trailer, wondering if anyone from the household would come out to greet her. Was it just Tammi who lived there, or were there others? Did she have roommates? Were her parents the actual homeowners? Leslie knew she couldn’t linger any longer, the indigenous folk would start to suspect something wrong. Already she could see through her rearview mirror, two men in all black, wearing black du-rags tied around their heads, approaching the car. She looked back to the trailer, where the door was now closed, and her eyes fell to the shattered glass on the sidewalk. She floored the gas without thinking, without realizing what she’d just left her son to. She wanted to erase it from her mind, but there was no way she’d be able to rest that night knowing that a broken crack pipe lay just outside the home she had allowed her son to enter.
It is Short Story A Day May, and all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt asks us to shape our characters’ physical world. For this one, we switch back to Leslie and “Lost Boy” to take a glimpse into the stark contrasts between the towns of Leiland and Pleasant’s Edge just next door. To learn more about my novel in progress, “Lost Boy,” read my 2017 A to Z Challenge from the beginning here.