I wake up to the melodious twittering of robins and sparrows. I inhale the fresh, summery Chicago air as the sun looms high in a glorious blue sky. I throw off my Eiffel Tower bedspread, which goes flying and lands gracefully on top of my sleeping cat, Mocha.
With a startled meow, she wakes up and tries to burrow her way out in panic. “Whoops! Sorry, Mocha,” I laugh as I whisk the blanket off her. The sheet takes flight again right out of my hands, this time covering the framed photo on my nightstand of a old man with a black cat.
Thinking of Grandfather, I glance at the picture of him and his cat Rose. Grandfather and I have the best time when we’re gardening together. His roses are second to none, and have won competitions all over the country. I want to be just like him someday.
He constantly tells me, "Hannah, when I die, Rose and my prized rose garden are going straight to you. I don’t want her going to no shelter. Rose will give you the keys to the secret garden." And with a wink, he launches into the tale of how she got her name.
I run downstairs chasing the smell of Mom’s pancakes with Mocha on my tail. As I begin eating, Mocha gives me her ‘sweetie eyes’. I sigh. That kitty. I should’ve guessed she would want some breakfast. But how could I get mad at that sweet, Birman face? Giving in, I fill up her blue food dish, the rhythmic patting of Tuna Treats interrupted by the phone ringing.
Mom picks up and says, "Winters’ residence. Oh, good morning, officer.” Her forehead begins to line with worry. “What? Where? How bad was it? Is he okay? What hospital? I’ll be right there.”
My stomach tightens with dread. Who’s hurt? Why is it so important that the police had to call Mom? I debate if I should even ask. But before I can stop myself, my mouth shapes the words, “What happened?”
Rubbing her temples, Mom slowly seats herself at the dining table loaded with cold pancakes, hesitating before answering me. “You might want to sit down, too,” she begins. I join her while my brain flicks through all the possible outcomes of whatever she’s about to say.
She takes a deep breath, then rushes through the words as though this might make it hurt any less: “Your grandfather was hit by a speeding driver down on Main Street. The officer said he’s hurt pretty bad. He’s in the emergency room at Hinsdale Hospital right now. I’m going to head over there.”
“Can I come?” I ask, my voice sounding strained under the weight of all my grief.
“I suppose, but dress quickly.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you can say ‘Grandpa’.”
As we speed down the road, I hear a slightly suppressed sniffle. I glance in Mom’s direction. Tears are streaming down her face. My mom almost never cries. Seeing her this low makes me want to break down myself, but I stay strong for her sake.
“Mom, don’t worry. Grandpa’s going to be okay. He’s already at the hospital, right? Everything will play out the way it’s supposed to,” I tell her, praying my voice sounds convincing. I need the comfort as much as she does. No such luck. Mom continues to stare straight ahead, her eyes glassy.
The tires squeal as we tear into the parking lot. Busting open the car doors, we run inside. I wait in the lobby while my mom talks to the lady at the front desk. She does a lot of hand waving. Then she points to the front of the waiting room. Mom gestures for me to come to her. As we walk toward the front of the waiting room, she says, “Grandpa needs to undergo a complicated surgery. He has a lot of blood loss.”
I’m starting to freak out. Mom’s definitely in worse shape. Tears are streaming down her face, her body is shaking, and her eyes are bloodshot. Thankfully, the door opens and a doctor calls my mom towards him. It seems serious. I’m debating if I should follow Mom or not when the doctor strides toward her, a strange depth in his eyes. That’s when Mom and I know it. The doctor doesn’t have to tell us that Grandpa passed before he even got to the surgery room. He doesn’t have to say that there wouldn’t have been a chance to save him. Grandpa is gone. And he isn’t coming back.
My mom asks the doctor questions, and then he tells her that Grandpa lost too much blood. Mom cries hysterically. Her wails echo in my ears. She dials Dad and moves to a different corner of the room, leaving me to sit alone in my seat, my knuckles white from gripping the armrests of the once velvety chair that now seems coarse and rough because reality is no longer comfortable. The thought that this must be a nightmare continuously runs through my head, and I pinch myself sharply to check.
“Ow!” I yelp.
Okay. So this is definitely a living nightmare. Should I comfort Mom? Or just focus on myself?
Oh, Grandpa, I miss you so much.
‘Hannah, when I die, Rose is going straight to you…’
“Oh my gosh, ROSE!!” I exclaim, the words coming out garbled and hoarse because of my crying.
I run to find Mom, who is still slumped in the corner, talking on the phone, her business face on.
“Wait just a moment, sir.” My mom presses the mute button on her phone. “What is it?”
“Mom, Grandpa always said-”
“So do you think we should go get her right -”
“Honey, I have a lot to prepare for the funeral. Rose will have to wait. Besides, she’s not legally yours. The lawyer will need papers that prove that Grandpa passed Rose onto you. And for that, we need-” She’s interrupted by a man's voice on her phone.
Mom unmutes her phone. “Yes, sorry about that, sir... What key? A safe? He had a safe? I don't know anything about it. Where is it?...”
Why does a stupid safe even matter right now? We need to be thinking about poor Rose, all alone! Don’t worry, Grandpa, Rose isn’t going anywhere on my watch. Let them worry about safes and keys all they want. Rose is my top priority!
“...OK. Thank you,” Mom says with a sigh.
“What did he say?”
“That Dad’s will doesn't say anything about Rose being yours. But there might be extra papers in his safe that prove the fact that she is. If we’re unable to find it, she’s being sent to the shelter.”
“That’s the last thing Grandpa-”
“I know. And that’s why we’re going to try our hardest to find the other papers and bring her home to us.” The automatic sliding door whooshes open behind us. Mom and I whirl around and see-
“Dad! Grandpa’s gone!” I bawl.
“And he- he’s ne- never c-c-coming baaaack,” I croak, my face in Dad’s chest.
His reassuring hands rub my back. “I know, Fluff n’ Stuff. And that’s why we have to stay strong.”
“What happened, Sofia?” he then asks my mom.
Mom fills him in.
I am staring out the window at the birds dancing in the dappled sunlight as if nothing of note has happened, when my dad gently shakes my shoulders, pulling me back into the here and now. “Oh, Hannah, you're right! We have to find this key!”
“I don’t care about keys. I’m just worried about Rose’s safety.”
“Hannah, don’t you understand? Rose's fate is in that safe. We can't take her if we don't have the necessary papers.”
Rose, keys, good… I’ve heard those words somewhere... Think, Hannah, think!
I rack my brain as we drive back home. Looking outside the window, I see geese flying away from a nearby pond. Their sudden flight disturbs the clear surface of the water, distorting the reflection of the trees around it. Such a cruel reminder of how delicate life is makes me wish I could fly away from my problems, just like the way the geese fly from the places they're ready to leave behind. My vision blurs, and I shut my eyes tight, trying and failing not to let any tears escape along with the hope that nothing will ever be the same again.
I remember helping Grandpa prune his rose bushes while he ranted about when Rose wouldn’t come back for dinner after he let her out at night, but would return two or three days later for breakfast as if nothing had ever happened. These stories would always end in how he trusted me to keep a close eye on Rose when she would be passed on to me. I never knew how soon that day would come…
I dash to my room. Mocha comes waltzing in after me, leaps onto my bed, and sits in my lap, purring.
“Thanks, girl. I needed that.”
I remember the creak of Grandpa’s rocking chair in front of the fireplace, Rose splayed upon his lap. As he rocked smoothly back and forth, his chocolate brown eyes lit up just like they always did before he would tell me the tale of how Rose got her name. It went something like this:
“Hannah, a long, long, time ago— well, not that long ago, just a little while before you were born — I went outside to water the garden. I was giving my rose plants a drink when I heard a pitiful meow from inside a nearby bush. It was one of my best specimens, with too many flowers to count. I gently prodded through the plant, trying not to graze my fingers against the thorns. Inside the bush, to my surprise, was a cat pierced with thorns from head to toe.” He whispered, “The cat's soulful green eyes peered out at me from behind its thick, black, matted fur which was extremely tangled. A lot of thorns were caught inside of the knots. I immediately took a liking to the cat. But I told myself not to get too attached. I coaxed the cat out, then drove it to the local pet hospital.”
Grandfather took a sip of his favorite lavender tea, then continued.
“I left the cat there for a few days, then I went back to check on it. The vet explained that other than a few minor scars from the thorns she (“it” turned out to be a female), was now in perfect health. He asked me if I wanted to adopt her. I said I was interested, but there was probably a younger person out there who could take better care of her than me. As I headed for the door, the cat came up to me and twined its body around my legs, almost tripping me! Every time I tried to move around her, she would lace around my ankles again!” As Grandpa laughed his deep laugh, his bright smile shone more brightly than the crackling fire.
“‘She seems to have adopted me. I suppose I no longer have a choice in the matter. This cat is a thorn in my side. And yet she is lovely. Like a rose,’ I said to myself with a chuckle. ‘Say, girl, what do you think of the name Rose?’”
The cat purred.
“And just like that, I knew the name, and the bond we shared, would stick.” Leaning over, Grandpa grasped my hands tightly, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “That’s why I don’t want her going to a shelter, Hannah. What if someone who takes her in ends up mistreating or neglecting her? That would take the good nature right out of her! At least with you, my little sunshine, I know she'll be safe...”
Tears are rolling down my face now. Mocha rubs them away with her cheeks. Suddenly I imagine Rose in an unknown alley, her black fur stretched over her bones from starvation. She bares her teeth at me, the irises of her green eyes contracted in cruel slits.
Woman up, Hannah. No time for tears. Start thinking about how Grandpa’s story will help save Rose!
“She will give you the keys to the secret garden.”
Keys, garden, keys, garden…
“Mom, Dad? MOM! DAD!”
“What’s the matter, Fluff?”
“Honey, are you alright?”
“Listen, I think I know where Grandpa’s safe key is. Can you drive me to his house? We’ll need a shovel. Please? The sun will set soon. We don’t have much time!” Rose could be in danger at this very moment! She’s probably slipped outside. If she’s gone, we’ll probably never find her, and she’ll be a stray roaming the busy streets with no one to give her a loving home!
Mom’s soothing voice interrupts my thoughts. “Well, I’m OK with it if you are, Adam.” I groan inwardly. Does she not realize how high the stakes are here?
“I’m fine with it. Come on, let’s go. Grab the shovel - whatever we need it for - and get in the car.”
I say bye to Mom and throw open the door. A rush of warm summer air brushes my face. I grab the shovel, then leap into the car. Dad backs us out of the driveway and we speed towards Grandpa’s house.
“Trust me, Dad, you're not going to regret this, I promise you.”
“I’ll take your word for it. But, Fluff, can you explain how going to Grandpa’s house is helping Rose?”
“Because Grandpa always said, ‘She will give you the keys to the secret garden.’ ”
“‘She’ is Rose, ‘garden’ is his garden with rose bushes, and the ‘keys’ are just the one: his safe key!”
“But where in all his rose bushes would it be?”
“The one he found Rose in.”
“Wow, Fluff, you're real smart! I'm so proud of you. We’re here now, so go out there and find that key!”
Don’t worry Rose, I came to save you.
We dash out of the car and across the driveway, our feet crunching against the pavement. Dad fumbles with the key, then finally manages to unlock the door, taking the shovel and dragging me across the porch and into the house.
Rose comes running. I breathe I sigh of relief. She’s still home, safe and sound.
“Don’t worry girl, it's just Dad and me.”
As I walk briskly towards the backyard door that my father has just disappeared through, I am overcome by a tsunami of nostalgia at the sight of Grandpa’s favorite rocking chair by the old fashioned fireplace. I collapse onto it and, surprisingly, no tears come. My heart is too heavy. Rose cautiously approaches as I rock, then lowers her body at the foot of the rocking chair, and jumps into my lap, nestling her head beneath my hand. I smile and scratch her right behind the ears.
Setting her on the floor, I stand, and then Rose follows me to the back door, which opens with a loud creak. As I step outside, my nose fills with the delightful scent of roses.
“Come on, Rose. We have to get digging,” I tell my little black cat as we run to the garden.
I see Dad in the middle of the garden, and call to him, “Grandpa always said that he found Rose in his best bush with too many roses to count. Dad? Any luck?”
“No…I mean yes! Praise the Lord, I think I’ve found it!”
I sprint to the other side of the garden with Rose just behind. The bush was a beauty, all right. With a lot of roses to count. I am just about to start digging when Rose laces herself around my ankles and meows pitfully.
“Cut it out, Rose. I’m trying to get you your key!” I scold.
But she won’t listen. She circles around my legs a few times, then sprints away through the bushes. I follow her, trying not to lose her in this maze of rose bushes. And there it is. The most beautiful thing I have ever laid eyes on. With countless roses red as rubies, each one seeming to shine brighter than the last.
“Dad! Rose found it! Bring the shovel!”
Dad bursts through the bushes, then he and I begin digging like mad. Rose sits up straight with her tail around her legs. She seems to know how important this is. We hear a metallic clunk when Dad plunges the shovel and its tip smacks into a web of roots. I squat and feel about and touch something hard. Dusting away the soil, I see it. The key. It’s copper, and the handle is intricately designed in the shape of a rose.
“You see that, girl?” I say to the cat. “That key right there is your ticket to a new life with me.”
Rose blinks as if in wholehearted agreement.
“Hannah, I’m so proud of you,” Dad says. “Come on, let’s get this key to the bank. We’ve gotta get those papers!”
We speed into the bank parking lot, burning rubber. Dad and I race inside. He talks to the man at the front desk, who nods and gestures for us to follow him to Grandpa’s safe deposit box #1218. Dad takes the key out of his pocket and gives it to the clerk, who unlocks the safe. Dad rummages through it for what seems like forever and finally pulls out a thin packet.
“This is it, Fluff, Rose is ours!”
Dad thanks the clerk and we leave.
“Rose! We found the legal documents! You’re mine! MINE!!” My sudden scream startles her, and she cowers in fear. I laugh, then scoop her up and scratch her behind the ears.
At the burial, I stand beside a mound of fresh dirt, careful as to not disturb Grandpa’s grave. His headstone is a fine bronze, with roses engraved in the corners. Gently placing a red rose on the headstone, I whisper:
Grandpa, thank you for always telling me Rose’s story. It’s a good thing you did, otherwise I would never have found that key! But I couldn’t have done it without Mocha and Rose. It’s good to know that your furry friends always have your back and are willing to lend an ear, or paw, whenever you need it. You just have to listen carefully to hear what they're trying to tell you. I know now that I should listen to my cats - and my heart - no matter what.