Malik didn't return to the mansion until a month after his mother's funeral. She had lived in the large home with a few housekeepers and a cook. The gardener had passed years before, and while the hamdyman nurtured the garden to the best of his ability, the roses withered and the trees drooped. His daughter was about to start High School, so it was time for a change anyway.
Malik, his wife, Yafiya, and daughter Zahrah, moved into the great mansion two weeks before school started. They left their estate outside town, for the smaller surrounds of the city home. The family settled in while their servants cleaned and ordered the mansion. But the garden remained wilted and brown.
Zahrah sat on a rusting metal bench, despairing. Her father found her there.
“I know how you loved the gardens in the country,” he said, resting a comforting hand on his daughter's shoulder.
“Grandma taught me to,” she said. “How could she let it get so bad?”
“Do you want to revive the garden?”
She shook her head, her eyes tearing. “I will be too busy with school. Dad, would you hire a gardener?”
He squeezed her shoulder. “Certainly.”
“And not just any gardener,” she cautioned, “one who's family has been in the business for generations. So we can trust that they really know what they're doing.”
“I promise, Zahrah.”
“Thank you, Dad.”
A week later he had a gardener. The gardener had a son. Together they dug out the weeds, they replanted roses and jasmine.
Zahrah and her mother returned, laden with bags of clothes and school supplies. Her father greeted her at the door.
“I found a gardener,” he said.
Zahrah dropped the bags just inside the door and ran to the garden. Her father's chuckle echoed through the cavernous room and followed through the halls. She shouldered open the garden door, and hastened down the short stair into the garden. The gardener's son looked up from trowel and dirt.
“Oh, thank you! Thank you!” She called to the gardener and his son.
The gardener nodded, but his son beamed.
“The garden must mean a lot to you, miss,” said the Gardener.
“It was my Grandma's. I'd help, but school starts next week...”
“Where are you going?” asked the son.
“The one over on D'Oro Ave.”
“So am I!”
Zahrah grinned. “What's your name?”
“I'm Zahrah. See you in class, and thanks again!” She waved and returned to her rooms, where the servants sorted her school clothes.
By the time Zahrah and Harith plunged into finals, ending the academic year, the garden bloomed. Zahrah would find bouquets of fresh flowers around the house, and she knew it was Harith. He left them at her favorite garden bench, at on the table in the breakfast nook where she studied, and in a vase next to her bedroom door. He continued to pass her flowers into their sophomore year and junior year, though they barely had a chance to talk at school. Occasionally, in the gardens they swapped stories of gardening, of their days at school, teachers and exams.
Meanwhile, Makil tended the district office of Imad Corp., as his father had before him. The company was in the midst of expansion, and CEO had come to town three months before Zahrah's prom. Makil invited the CEO, Kadar, and his family to dinner.
Kadar had one son, Sami, who was about Zahrah's age. Over a dinner of Hummus, olive bread, and lamb, Sami watched Zahrah. She blushed and tried to keep her head tucked down, with the bouquet of lavender, geraniums and daisies between them. Malik noticed and aproved, letting his daughter know it with a quirk of his lip.
Zahrah felt a stone settle in stomach. Sami's chiseled features and dark complexion were certainly appealing, but she wasn't interested.
The next week, Sami transferred to her school. He shared several classes with her, and found his way into conversations. Harith glowered at a distance. Then prom neared.
Sami asked her out before Harith could. She weedled out of the conversation, and fled home as soon as the school bell rang.
“Should I?” she asked her father over dinner.
“Sami has wealth and position, should it work,” he shrugged, “You will at least maintain quality of life.”
“But I love Harith!” she blurted. Her hand flew to her mouth, as if by covering her lips she could stuff the words back behind her teeth.
“What?!” her father thundered.
“Please, Dad. Please.”
“All right, if you claim Harith is the better man, let's devise a contest.”
When the gardener and his son returned to tend the flowers, Makil called Harith to meet him. Sami was already there. The two boys scowled at each other, but sat respectfully before Makil.
“It is my understanding that both of you wish to take my daughter to the prom.”
“Yes,” they said, in unison, then swapped glares.
“You will go on a treasure hunt around town, and whoever returns with more items, shall win.”
Both boys agreed, and marched to the front door. Zahrah hid in the shadows of the porch,sitting still. When she saw Harith, she stood. He turned upon hearing the creak of the bench swing.
Sami had already climbed into his fancy ferrari, and already sped down the street.
“I have something for you,” Zahrah told Harith, “Here,” she pressed a plastic square into his hand.
“Your credit card?”
“There's a note on the back. If you don't exceed the number there...all will be well.”
“I love you. Go. Win this so I don't have to see that annoying Sami again. He's got a head start already!”
Harith said nothing. He tucked the card into his wallet even as he hurried to his old truck. It spluttered groaned as he started it up. Zahrah watched from the doorway.
Sami hit a red light at the intersection. He pounded the wheel with an open palm.
“Could you gimme a ride?” asked an old homeless woman on the island.
Sami recoiled in the seat. “No way!” He rolled up his window and raced forward as soon as the light changed.
Harith hit a red light at the intersection. He sighed, and swiped a calloused hand through his dark hair.
“Could you gimme a ride?” asked the old homeless woman.
“Where to?” asked Harith.
“The local YMCA.”
“Hop in,” said Harith, opening the door. “I think I can make the time.”
Her pockets rattled with pills. Her clothes reeked, but not as bad as the manure he hauled for his father. She stuffed plastic bags at her feet, full of empty soda cans and glass bottles.
Sami sped to the first place on the list. But when he glanced down to review the address, he missed the light. An Escalade rammed his ferrari on the passenger-side. He spun. The SUV squealed to a halt. Sami couldn't think straight. Was that a concussion? There was someone shouting at him. Then, sirens. He lay flat on his back, a swirl of faces around him.
Somewhere near by, a woman wailed. “It was green! It was green!”
Doors closed all sound out. The sirens just grew louder.
Harith and the woman arrived at the YMCA. She convinced him to help her inside, to find a cot. They checked in at the main gate, before winding through the halls toward the beds. As they passed the basketball court, they heard shouting.
The guide held up a finger, as if to say, “One moment.”
Harith and the old woman followed.
“It's the Governor!” Someone called.
Harith looked around, sure enough, a whole camera crew and security detail milled about the room. The media people shifted, or stood helpless, loaded down with their heavy equipment. The security men were on their knees with a woman in a thin skirt and blazer. She must have been the reporter conducting the interview.
“Here,” the old woman pressed pills into his hand. “Give it to him.”
Harith handed over the pills. The security guard nodded, and called for water. Harith, knelt to the side, waiting. When he looked up to find the old woman, she was gone. He presumed she vanished in pursuit of a cot.
When the EMT arrived, he unpacked the kit. The Governor lifted his head. “I'm okay, I'm okay.”
The EMT shook his head in befuddlement. “What happened?”
“We were given a pill, from him.” Said a security guard.
“And you administered it?!” responded the EMT.
“Yes,” said the security guard, sheepishly. “It looked exactly like his medications at home.”
“What are you taking?” asked the EMT of the Governor.
The Governor rattled off latin titles that Harith could not understand.
The EMT's shoulders drooped in relief, then he looked over at Harith. “It looks like you saved his life.”
“I've got to thank him properly!” said the governor. “What were you doing today...?”
“Halith,” he said.
“Halith! What are your plans today?” the Governor picked himself up.
Halith wet his lips. “I have these things to find, sir.” He handed the Governor Makil's list.
Sami woke in the hospital. The nurse told him they were only holding him for a few hours, but his car had been towed. It was sitting in a shop on Broadway. They had the address.
Sami nodded. “How soon can I leave?”
“We'll let you know,” said the nurse.
The Governor, driver, and the whole media crew helped Halith find the items Makil marked. The Governer added a few items of his own, clothing Halith for his prom. His story was to make the evening news. Then on the steps of the state capitol, he was bestowed with a brass ring, with the state seal fixed into the band. The photographers took pictures of Halith shaking hands with the Governor.
Sami stumbled into his clothes as soon as they let him go. He called for a taxi and they met him in front of the hospital. He passed the address of the shop to the driver, and climbed out as soon as the driver stopped. The taxi sped off, the wheels kicking up excess sprinkler-water filling the gutter. Sami cursed and lifted his arm to guard his face. Still, his entire right side was covered in splattering drops.
“My car?” he asked the mechanic on his coffee break.
The mechanic guffawed. “Two weeks. At least.”
Sami grumbled. The mechanic saluted him. On his way out of the shop, he slipped in grease, and landed on his left side.
He had to call a new taxi to ferry him from place to place. The taxi driver did him no favors. Sami landed in mud, trudged through an alleway to find a back entrance to a shop where he stepped in dog feces. On his way from the shop, he hid from some thugs in the alley, and when he stood he was mired in dirt.
By the time he returned to Makil's home, he was ragged and dirty. But he still beat Halith. Makil was displeased by the state of him, but grateful that it was Sami and not Halith. A servant saw to Sami's bath, rinsed and dried his clothes. When he was as clean as his tattered jeans and shirt allowed, he sat with the family.
Makil and Sami made plans for Zahrah's prom. She, meanwhile, sat dejected and silent. Her head hung over her hands.
Then there was a knock on the door. Halith entered with all the items requested, clad in his tux. Zahrah's eyes lit, her shoulders straightened.
“What is your story?” Makil asked, evaluating Halith.
After Halith told him, and allowed: “Zahrah and I have even been promised to be interviewed on the day of the prom. I promise, it will give you and your company a lot of positive press.”
Zahrah swallowed a giggle, poorly. Her father relented, dismissing Sami. On the night of the prom, Zahrah and Halith danced till midnight. For once, they didn't have to hide.