He was young when they tore down Tonica’s grocery store, young enough that he could stand across the street and watch the building collapse in slow motion for hours without having to rush off to a part-time job or homework or a girl or anything. As long as he was home before six he had the afternoons to himself.
When they brought in the wrecking ball he snuck out of his room in the middle of the night and crept across the construction yard nauseous with adrenaline to write ‘Peter’ in black marker on the front of the ball. In the daylight you couldn’t see it but he knew, and rejoiced to watch himself pounding the store to rubble.
On his way home the routine jumped up from the bottom of his spine and choked him so he turned left where he always turned right just to be different if not new. It took him miles out of his way and Elsie would worry but the routine had its hand on his heart.
Where the road merged with his normal route he stopped the car and got out. Soon he’d make the turn and settle back into himself but he wanted to savor this stranger a moment longer. He was stopped in front of a house with a big rose garden that he’d driven past a thousand times, but suddenly he thought he’d bring a rose home to Elsie, just because she’d like that. As soon as his hand touched the blooms, the thorns bit deep into his flesh and the door of the house burst open and out came a giant of a man dressed all in green.
“You’ve touched my roses,” said the green man, not unkindly.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said. “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“I don’t mind,” the giant said, “but there are rules I have to follow. You can have the rose if you give me your head.”
It was on his lips to say no, nevermind, it was just a whim, anyway, but the routine grabbed his heart again and so when he said yes, sure, okay, it was the stranger who watched the man in green run to grab the axe.
The night Peter died his father came to him and hugged him and looked at him without saying anything. His father had died suddenly and left him with a raw spot when the goodbyes and questions he hadn’t asked rubbed at him. Some rare, wondrous question tugged at his lips – the right question, finally, the perfect question – he died with it thundering in his ears, still wondering.