The garden was overgrown now. It took effort to push through the heavy gate as vines had tried to seal it. The place was full of living things, but it felt like a tomb.
Above, the sky stretched grey and unforgiving. Everything was lit in cold, harsh light.
Marianna zipped up her coat all the way. The place had never seemed so lifeless. It gave her a prickling sensation up the back of her neck.
Her footsteps were muffled by the lichen that coated the uneven paving stones. Everything was silent. Vines twisted all around, trees stretched in unruly directions, but it seemed no animals had made their homes there. Of course, the year was drawing to a close. Any animals with an ounce of sense were hibernating or flying South.
That's where I should be, Marianna thought, crossing her arms over her chest. It was mad to come here. If I were sane, I would be on a flight to the Caymans. Ten thousand dollars she had won. And she had spent most of it traveling to England to visit an old house that was probably long empty. No one had answered her knock and, from the look of the garden, no one had been there in ages.
Marianna slowed to a stop. Looking around at the thick bushes and waist-high weeds, she thought back to the days when everything had been neatly trimmed and beautiful. Now she had to wade through clover and step over thistles, pushing back hungry branches to make any progress. But back then she had skipped down the path, looking over her shoulder and laughing at the one who chased her.
She blinked. For just a moment, she thought she had seen something moving amidst the ivy. But when she looked again, there was nothing.
It was being back in this place that did it to her. The garden was far too full of childhood fancies. She would be glad to get away.
Still, she didn't turn back. Placing her feet with care, not wanting to ruin a new pair of shoes, Marianna continued to work her way through the foliage. When she turned the corner, a scream rose from her chest and caught in her throat. She was not alone.
The old man was standing by the weed-choked fountain. His face was tipped up towards the sky as though enjoying the warm embrace of summer sun. His white hair was like a puff of cloud. His face, as chipped and cracked as the stones beneath their feet, was the deep golden-bronze color only gained by spending a lifetime out of doors.
He stood so still and placid that he might have been a lawn ornament. When Marianna was a child, that was exactly what he had seemed: something that merely added character to the garden. It would have been incomplete without him there.
But now she had not expected to see him. The staff was gone, the garden forgotten. This ancient man should have been living with family or in an assisted living center, not standing in a cold, abandoned wilderness.
As Marianna stood gawking, the old man turned his face towards her. His eyes were a washed out shade of blue, like a painting of the sky that had been exposed to the elements. They took her in from head to foot and the old man smiled.
"I knew you would come back," he said.
"What happened to this place?" Marianna asked, forgetting society's pleasantries in her curiosity.
"You stopped believing," the old man answered, still smiling but his eyes dull.
"But a garden doesn't fall apart because of that."
"It does when it's tended by fairies."
Not this again, Marianna thought, shivering. She held out an arm to the old man.
"You shouldn't be out here. It's too cold."
He turned his face back to the sky.
"The passage has been closing since you left. Soon there will be no way through." He shook his head at the tragedy of it.
"Through to where?"
"I am the Gatekeeper, but you are the key. Without you, the door will be closed forever."
Marianna rubbed her arms. "What door?"
"Do you remember your childhood, Marianna Aentivus?"
"Of course I do."
"Do you really?" He looked at her again, leaning forward, his gaze fixed on her face. Marianna looked back for as long as she could, but felt her stomach twisting into knots until she turned away.
"I don't know what you mean," she said with her back to the old man.
"Why do you deny the truth?"
Without looking, Marianna knew the old man had not taken his eyes from her.
"Because it's crazy," she told him.
"The truth often is."
"Not like this."
"But don't you miss it?" the old man whispered. "The gardens full of life? the music that always fills the air? the magic?" There was longing in the ancient voice that stirred in Marrianna's heart. She recognized the feeling. She had carried it inside herself for nearly fifteen years.
"It isn't real." The words spread from her lips like a toxic fog, spreading across the garden. Vines and branches seemed to draw back, shying away from the idea.
"You don't really believe that." The old man's voice shook with pain, as though she had just punched him in the stomach.
Marianna closed her eyes against the onset of tears.
"Yes, I do."
Today's Novel Idea Promlted by: "The garden was overgrown now." Posted on my page, Creative Teen Writers.