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I started the garden after my husband died. I'm not sure why. I think it was something I always wanted to do, but never found time for. My mother had a small herb garden I used to help her with. Every day we would water the soil in the pots, and check for little green sprouts. I remember the thrill of watching stalks of rosemary slowly emerge from the dirt, and eventually bloom with purple blossom. I even got Chia Pets for my kids when they were barely school age, so the idea of growing things wasn't totally foreign to me. Why now? Perhaps I just wanted a hobby to distract my mind, a way of moving on, not dwelling on the absence of my soul mate of fifty years. Maybe on some deep philosophical level I was reminding myself of the tenacity of life, giving me hope and a reason to carry on without Larry. Or maybe I just got bored.

But that's how I discovered Sarah Dippendie. I'm sure it's not her real name, but that's what she called her blog: "Sarah Dippendie's Gardening Tips." www.SarahDippendie.com. I was fed up with scraping black soil from under my fingernails, so I looked online for suggestions. It just happened that Sarah's article that day addressed this very subject: "If you want to keep your nails clean working in the garden," she said, "scrape soap under them before you head out. This will form a protective shield under your nails. After you've finished with your plants and veggies, simply wash away the dirt, leaving your nails clean as ever."

It's the kind of advice you roll your eyes at because you can't believe you didn't come up with it yourself. And I'll be darned if it didn't work like a charm. I checked the next day, and there was an article about using rocks, stones, and permanent marker pens to make cute and natural garden markers. That saved me a trip to the store to buy the plastic ones. Before long, I was starting every day with a cup of coffee and Sarah's site. I couldn't wait to see what words of wisdom Ms. Dippendie had for me; somehow her tips were always relevant.

It took me a good month to warm to the comment box, however. Not that the people who commented were mean or anything. They all seemed quite knowledgeable and experienced gardeners, and very willing to share their thoughts about Sarah's tips, often elaborating on her ideas. From time to time they would even talk to one another. "Lovely thought, Peter! By the way, how's your mother doing?" "I tried that formula with my cabbages, and it kept the aphids off like nobody's business. How did your son's test go yesterday, Harry?" I remember one occasion when Susan's neighbor was in an accident. She left a comment simply asking people to think of her, and that she wouldn't be on for a few days because she'll be visiting the hospital and taking care of Gabby's plants. There must have been a hundred comments that day, people wishing Gabby well, and saying they'll pray for her, and so on. For weeks after, there were comments asking how Gabby was doing.

Then one day, I took the plunge. Sarah had written about the best plants for cool, wet climates, but where I live, the weather gets warm and quite humid during the summer. So I signed in as JodieElks and asked. Within ten minutes, not only did I get a welcome response from Sarah herself, but a dozen people responded with "Hey, first-timer!" and "Welcome to the garden shed, Jodie," as well as their thoughts on warm weather plants.

Before long, two or three weeks to be exact, I was a regular, asking questions and offering tips of my own. I recommended my favorite compost to GreenThumbGirl, and told MikeTheGnome to plant garlic and onions to help control his insect problem. "I'd heard chives were good for that," said Marcy, to which Dave replied, "Yes, chives too." Some days there would be sixty or seventy comments in the comment box with our back and forth.

And then there was the off-topic banter. At first I didn't pay it much attention, since much of it was to do with things I didn't understand, references to people and conversations before my time. But soon the jokes moved into my era, and I got the comments about Suzie's shed, and Peter's green doo-dah. Some of those people had a wicked sense of humor, and once or twice Sarah had to step in and remind us "We're a family show, ladies and gentlemen."

Sarah's blog soon became an important part of my day. In between eating and gardening, I'd refresh the page to see if there were new comments. If I had nothing better to do, I'd sit and refresh every few minutes. Sometimes I'd do that even if I did have better things to do. I came to regard Sarah, and those regular commenters, as my friends, as real as any flesh-and-blood friends I had ever had.

Just how much I had come to rely upon Sarah's blog for companionship came home to me one Wednesday afternoon. I had been out tending to my gardenias, and was washing my hands when the doorbell rang. It was Jenny Brower, my neighbor.

"Hi, Jodi," she said, "I just thought I'd drop by and see how you are. It's been a while."

She wasn't wrong about that. Larry and I bought this house thirty years ago, and Jenny and Bruce moved next door not long after. We took them a casserole, and soon we were talking books, movies, clothes, and arranging shopping trips. Larry and Bruce compared golf handicaps, so I knew they were going to be okay. For the next twenty-some-odd years, it wasn't uncommon for Jenny and I to be at each other's houses a few times a week.

And then Larry passed. At first I think she wanted to give me some space. She probably waited for me to make the first move, to call her up and say, "Hey, Jenny, can we talk?" like we used to when we had problems, or just wanted a shoulder. But I never called. I had my garden, and now I had Sarah Dippendie, and all my comment friends. Death was never a subject for discussion on the blog, unless it's about annihilating weeds and pests. Personal loss, though, just wasn't ever on the agenda. And I liked that. I didn't want to talk about it. But I knew Jenny would, which is why there was a moment's awkward silence at the door. But I let her in. How could I not?

We sat in the dining room, and I even moved my laptop to the side and pushed the screen half-closed to symbolize my attentiveness. We got through the small talk about the weather, the news, and my flourishing garden while the coffee brewed. Then Jenny fixed me with that look of determination, willing me to believe how hard this was for her.

"So, how are you doing, Jodie. Really?"

I eyed my laptop. It had been at least twenty minutes since I last refreshed the blog.

"Fine. Really," I said.

Jenny reached out a hand, like she used to when I was close to tears. It was her offer of comfort, only this time I wasn't crying, so I ignored it.

"Oh, come on, Jodie, it's me. You can't tell me you're okay after you've just lost your husband of fifty years."

I didn't expect her to be so blunt, and I must admit, I cracked a bit. I almost reached for her hand, but I stopped. I glanced over at my laptop.

"I've had some time, Jenny, and really, I'm doing okay."

"Some time? This isn't something you get over in a few months, Jodie. This could take years—"

"I'm at peace, Jenny. You've seen my garden. I spend time alone with the flowers and it helps me get through."

"Don't you need to talk to someone? You've not been round since… and no-one else has seen you out except for shopping."

"I talk to people," I said, subconsciously touching my laptop. Jenny saw my hand.

"Online? You talk about Larry to strangers on the internet?" Jenny's voice was a little raw.

"Not about Larry, no. Gardening, and other things. And I like that."

Jenny sighed.

"Well, I suppose you've got to deal with your grief your own way," she said, getting up. "But I have to say, I'm worried about you. It's not healthy bottling it up. If you won't talk to me, get help. Talk to someone." Jenny met my objection before it left my mouth: "About Larry."

"I appreciate your concern, Jenny," I said, escorting her to the door. "And thank you for stopping by."

As I walked quickly back to the dining room, I felt a gnawing in my stomach. Somewhere down there, nestled under the garden and Sarah's blog, was a big sack of emotions, squirming under the weight of all I'd thrown on top. Maybe Jenny was right, that I should risk digging up the bag and letting all the hurt, anguish, and devastating sadness out.

No. No, I couldn't.

The thought of it alone was far too scary. While it was all buried deep, I could get on with my life.

There were ten new comments. The gnawing dissipated. I smiled.

A strange thing happened to me in the grocery store a few weeks later. It had been a bad year for cucumbers, so I found myself looking at the fresh vegetables, inspecting the varieties of cucumber available to me, when I heard a voice as real as the cuke in my hand.

"Fleshy, but not too large," it said. He said, actually. It was definitely a man's voice. I turned but there wasn't anyone that close by. Shame, because I wanted to punch his nose. Sure, my butt's not what it was thirty years ago, but really! I returned my attention to inspecting the cucumbers, when it came again.

"Bright, consistent color," he said. I looked around, but still couldn't see where the voice was coming from. "Not dull. And check for blemishes."

"Dave?" I said, quietly on account of other people close by.

"That's a good one," he said. I glanced right, and a middle-aged lady caught my eye and smiled.

"Just… uh… checking out the cucumbers," I said to her.

"I don't blame you," she said. "I bought three from here last week, and by the next day they were soft." I turned the cucumber in my hand over a few times.

"That's a good one." I looked, but the lady had gone.

"Is that you, Dave?" I said, again, quietly. The only Dave I knew was from Sarah's blog, so I had never heard him speak. But he always commented in short phrases, just like I heard in my head. And the tone and accent were just as I imagined.

"Excellent cucumber, Jodie."

I couldn't move for at least a full minute. It had to be my imagination, but the voice was so real, as real as rotten cucumber lady. Was I that lonely? Was my imagination that powerful? I had never thought myself to be very imaginative.

I grabbed three cucumbers and made my way to the checkout. As I passed by the canned vegetables, I heard a very audible "Ewwww!" but the aisle was empty. It was a female voice this time. "How on earth anyone can prefer canned mushrooms, I don't know. Avert your eyes, Jodie!" That was definitely SuzieFresh, but I don't ever recall her talking about canned mushrooms. If it wasn't for the fact I'd heard Dave in my head just a few moments ago, I would have dismissed it as my mind making up things. Sure, SuzieFresh would have said something like that about canned mushrooms. But I heard her, right there in my ear.

My heart was racing by the time I reached the checkout and put my cucumbers down. I felt like I had run all the way from the fresh produce, so I was glad for a moment to catch my breath while the man ahead of me unloaded his basket. He was just finishing up when a newspaper headline caught my eye, something ludicrous about a young soap actress and her baby from Neptune.

"You never can tell, Jodie," came a calm but firm lady's voice to my ear. "You never can tell what these young people get up to." That was DollyBird. "I mean, Neptune or Nevada, Venus or Vegas, they're all so flighty and unanchored these days…" I closed my eyes, shook my head, and whispered stop stop stop stop stop!

"Are you okay, ma'am?"

The checkout girl seemed very concerned, and I probably gave her good cause.

"No, uh, I'm fine thank you, Leeanne," I said, pulling a smile as I read her name tag. "Just fine."

By the time I got home, I had about convinced myself that I was recalling things from the blog, and it was just my brain having a bit of fun. I put the cukes in the fridge, got the coffee machine going, and sat down at my laptop. I pulled up Sarah's blog and hit refresh. There were new comments. I scrolled down. Peter made a joke about MelissaP's new rake, MandyTastic shared a lovely story about her young daughter's first attempts at potting plants, MikeTheGnome had a question about corn, and then there was this from Dave:

"Hope the cucumbers taste good, Jodie!"

I didn't hear the coffee machine stop.

I went to bed that night without commenting. What would I say? I wanted to ask Dave, SuzieFresh, and DollyBird if they were in my head today at the grocery store, but how to do that without sounding like a loon? What if I am a loon? Perhaps Larry's passing had a deeper psychological effect on me than I first thought. Maybe I'm hearing voices because I miss hearing Larry's. This isn't a large house, but it feels enormous without him. The master bedroom misses its master. The king-size bed feels empty without its king. Wasn't my need for companionship what drew me to the blog and the comments? Why wouldn't I bring my blog friends to life in my head? I need to fill the void somehow.

Those thoughts, while not exactly cheerful, gave me strange comfort and helped me sleep. By the time I woke up, I was a lonely old woman with a healthy imagination, not a doddery old fool with imaginary friends. That may not sound like much, but it meant the world to me.

After my first cup of coffee, I opened the laptop, checked my email, then hesitated. Did I want to check Sarah's blog today? I laughed at my sudden relapse into panic and typed the address. The blog said Sarah was taking the weekend off, so there wouldn't be articles. However, she invited people to comment as usual. There were a couple of groans, and some hoped Sarah had a relaxing weekend, but that was it. I added my sentiments along a similar vein, and closed up my computer. It was Saturday, and I wanted to go to the garden store.

It took about fifteen minutes to drive out to Harry's Hot House, our local purveyor of all things gardening from seeds to riding mowers. Harry was talking at the checkouts and acknowledged me when I entered. Before I stumbled upon the blog, Harry had been my go-to-guru for all things gardening, which was nice for him and good for his business. I ended up buying nearly all my supplies from him. I paused to look through the gardening magazines on the rack, and giggle at the pretty models wearing rain boots and holding shears, who probably never had to use soap under their nails to stop the dirt piling up.

I was heading down the mulch aisle when it happened.

"Shame about the weekend hiatus," said a voice. I snapped my head left and right, but there was nothing but wood chips and bags of pine needles.

"I suppose she deserves a weekend off once in a while, though, don't you think, Jodie?"

"Is that Marcy?" I said, under my breath.

"Sure is! So glad you recognize me. Have you eaten those cucumbers yet?"

"I… what is this?"

"Ooo—bark granules and wood shavings. See over there? Good for your perennials, Jodie."

"Dave?" That came out almost above a whisper, and I blushed.

"Is that what you came for?"

"Well… actually, I… wait, you're not real!"

"Is everything okay, Miss?" I didn't notice one of Harry's assistants approach. I smiled my most disarming smile.

"Oh, sure, just mumbling to myself. Helps me remember what I need." I wanted to add, "I'm not crazy, really," but perhaps I would be protesting too much.

"She's real pretty. What's her name?" That voice was JimmyC, I'm sure of it. He often commented on the girls who work at his local farmer's market. A bit of a ladies' man, we used to call his sort. But what was he doing in my head? Without thinking I glanced at the assistant's badge.

"Amanda," JimmyC said, as clear as if he'd been standing next to me. "Shake her hand and kiss her cheek for me, will you Jodie?" My eyes glared, but thankfully Amanda had already turned so she didn't see.

"Kiss her cheek? You wash your mind out, JimmyC—that's not what you were thinking!" SuzieFresh?

"Awww, just a bit of fun Suzie!"

I picked up a bag of wood chips and a bag of bark chunks, and walked quickly back to the checkout.

"You're done, already?"

"Yes, Dave, now hush!" I tried to be firm, but it was hard without attracting attention. The voices stayed quiet while I paid for my mulch, and left me alone all the way to the car. I buckled up, turned the key in the ignition, and then a new voice started.

"Hello, Jodie! Won't you join us?"

"DollyBird?"

"It's been such fun talking to you all this time, how would you like to meet up?"

"Who is this?"

"You don't recognize me, Jodie?"

"No," I said. I put the car into gear and started backing out of my parking space.

"It's Sarah. Sarah Dippendie."

I nearly backed into the cars in the opposite row. I slammed on the brakes and put the car in park.

"Sarah Dippendie?"

"Wouldn't you like to join us. For real?"

"Well," I though carefully about what I was about to say. "It would be nice to meet everyone. For real, that is."

"How about now? You're not doing anything special at the moment."

It didn't escape my notice that Sarah wasn't asking. As it happened, she was right.

"Now would be okay," I said, cautiously. After all, I was talking to disembodied voices in my head. What kind of a meeting was this? Perhaps it was all an elaborate trick, some hi-tech gadgetry that I was about to find out about. What else could it be?

"Pull out onto the main road and take a left," Sarah said. I shifted into drive, and left the parking lot, just as Sarah instructed. "Carry on for about five minutes, then take a right. I'll warn you when you're close."

We passed a few stores, some gas stations, and a couple of neighborhoods before Sarah's voice came back in my ear.

"Next right, Jodie. Then keep driving for about ten minutes." I did as she said. It was very quiet except for the hum of the car engine. Outside the landscape was open fields, with the occasional road intersecting. I kept an eye on the clock. Five minutes into this stretch, Sarah's voice came back. There was a strange tone to it.

"You drive kinda slow, Jodie."

"I'm driving the speed limit. Fifty-five."

"Do you see any speed cops?"

I glanced at my side mirrors and my rear-view mirror. "No."

"In fact, do you see anyone else on the road?"

"No." I could feel my heart pick up speed.

"Go on, Jodi. Just a little more pressure on the gas."

I watched the needle move up to sixty, then sixty-five. Without any conscious influence, my foot seemed to be applying pressure to the pedal. I gripped the steering wheel.

"Hey, relax, Jodie," Sarah said. "It's alright." Seventy. Seventy-five.

"I-I'm not comfortable with this, Sarah. The road's not safe at this speed."

"Sure it is," said Sarah. "Would you like me to drive?"

Before I had a chance to answer, it was as if all feeling left my arms. I could see my hands on the wheel, and my arms connected to my hands and my shoulders, but they weren't taking any signals from my brain. And yet they were keeping control of the car, so they must have been taking orders from someone.

"It's down here, down the road on the right here," said Sarah. My hands made the right turn without braking. It was the first time I'd ever felt a car skid. I closed my eyes expecting the worst. Would there be a thud? Would I feel it, or pass out before we hit or rolled? We straightened out. Sarah was laughing.

"Did I scare you, Jodie? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. Kinda."

When I opened my eyes, we were on a gravel road, but still traveling at seventy-five, eighty miles an hour.

"Slow down!" I shouted.

That's when I saw the wall.

Then nothing.

I remember consciousness coming very slowly, like waking from a deep sleep. It's strange how there's an order to the way your brain re-activates itself, almost like a computer starting up. You don't suddenly go from blank screen to Facebook. It has to display the computer maker, then up comes Windows and the little spinny wheel, then the wallpaper screen, and so on. My brain, being a particularly old computer, was taking a while to re-start. I remember that first sense of consciousness. I didn't see, hear, smell, or feel anything, but I was aware that I was not dead. And then I picked up a noise, a quiet rumble at first, that gradually turned into a collection of indistinct voices talking as if at the far end of a tunnel. Quiet, but unmistakably people talking. Then the muscles started powering up. I moved my jaw, my tongue, even tried a frown. Finally, I tried opening my eyes. Slowly. Memories of a fast car and a brick wall flashed in my mind. I had to be in hospital, and the voices must be nurses talking outside my door.

So, why did it feel like I was sitting in a chair?

"Jodie?"

I felt a hand on my arm. It must have been there before I woke up, because I don't remember feeling anyone touch me. My eyes were now open. A face came into focus. A pleasant face, early thirties, blonde shoulder-length hair kind of side-parted, pale blue eyes, sharp nose, and a warm smile.

"Where—?" I tried, but my throat felt dry, and the face shushed me.

"Just relax. I'll bring you some water. The effect can be a quite draining, but you'll be yourself in no time."

The blonde girl left. There was something about her voice that scratched at the back of my memory, but I couldn't place it. Mind you, I was so disoriented, my own mother could have talked to me and I wouldn't have recognized her.

I was in someone's sitting room, in a soft armchair, with deep pile carpet at my feet. I was barefoot. I'm never barefoot. I've always worn socks or stockings—except to bed and in the shower, of course. The wallpaper pattern looked of a different generation, but not old fashioned. There was an overstuffed couch in the room, and a table on which sat a laptop. It was closed. A bookcase sat next to one wall, full of books, though I couldn't make out any of the titles. No television, which wasn't a tragedy. Some pictures on the wall, gentle landscapes in watercolor.

I looked down and saw I was wearing a robe. Not a bath robe, more like a kimono, long and silky, and pure white. It felt good against my skin. I relaxed, took a deep breath, even smiled. There was something comforting about the smell of the room, something that reached back to my childhood. My mind was transported to my home when I was a girl, about eight years old, sitting on my mother's lap while she read to me. I closed my eyes and remembered the warmth of her body, the fingers of one hand stroking my hair while she held the book with the other. I don't recall what book it was, but it was illustrated with watercolor landscapes.

There was a knock, and the door opened. I only just then noticed the door in the wall opposite me. I quickly wiped a tear from my eye and tried to get up to receive my guest, but she waved me down. It was the blonde from earlier. She was in a blue short-sleeve dress, designed to be practical rather than elegant or pretty.

"Here's your water, Jodie. How are you feeling?" She handed me a glass, and I sipped from it. The water was strangely nourishing, and I felt my thirst quenched almost immediately.

"I'm fine," I said. "Doing… fine. Where am I? Who are you?"

The lady smiled.

"Don't you remember me, Jodie? After all this time?"

That voice. Its calm, measured cadence. Its soft yet compelling tone.

"Sarah? Sarah Dippendie?"

The girl nodded.

"You—you tried to kill me! The car... the wall..." Sarah took the water from me and gripped my hand.

"Settle down, Jodie. Everything's all right." I felt my anger dissolve as I sank back into the chair. "It's hard to deal with just now, but you're where you wanted to be. You said you wanted to meet us, so here we are. Dave, Suzie, Mike, Dolly, Jimmy, they're all here. You can meet them in a moment. First, though." She walked over to the table, picked up the laptop, and brought it to me. "Open it."

I did, and the screen immediately showed Sarah's blog. She was still on her weekend blog break, so there wasn't a new post. Out of habit, I scrolled down to the comments. I saw the same ones from earlier wishing Sarah a nice blog-free weekend. Then there was a comment from Dave: "Jodie's coming to meet us! Better be on our best behavior." This was followed by comments from the regulars saying how much they were looking forward to seeing me "in the flesh" at last. I looked up at Sarah.

"You can meet them later," she said. There was a knock at the door. "I have someone you need to see first."

The door opened.

"Jodie!"

"Larry?"

About the Author
Colin D. Smith is a writer of short stories, flash fiction, novels, blog articles, and sometimes-humorous tweets, living and working in Greenville, North Carolina. You can find him online at www.colindsmith.com/blog.