There was a hole.
To anyone else, it would have been invisible, insignificant maybe.
To you, however, it was a disaster waiting to happen.
One perfectly round hole, right in the middle of a leaf.
Your first thought was a rose slug or a bee, but if it were either of two, there would be more damage than just one hole.
Placing your watering can on the ground, you stood on your toes to check the underside of surrounding leaves, straining your eyes for any sign of the pests.
Your roses were just beginning to bud, and getting pests during such a crucial stage would ruin this season’s bloom.
But instead of slugs or fluttering, leaf-cutting bees, you saw nothing.
Just that one hole.
And despite the warm summer air, you could feel a chill go through you as you examined the leaf.
It was perfectly round and the edges were not pale or discolored.
This was, you thought, exactly the sort of thing your ex-husband would do.
Without meaning to, you straightened up and surveyed the street. Since it was so early in the morning, only a few people were out: an old couple who went jogging every 5 a.m., a twelve-year-old kid who got up at the crack of dawn to practice playing her violin.
You'd seen these people every day for the past year, you've noted their habits, their names, and their jobs.
There was absolutely no reason to be afraid.
And yet...and yet.
You found yourself nervously touching the pair of gardening shears on your belt. It wasn't the time to prune the roses yet; wouldn't be until they started blooming again in a couple of weeks.
But every morning, you still found yourself testing the sharpness of the shears on your finger, taking a grim comfort when even the tiniest prick drew blood. You kept it sharp, and it was hard to lie and tell yourself it was for the roses.
Without even thinking about it, you took the shears out and snipped off the leaf, watching it flutter to the ground.
Soon, it will blacken and die and will be nothing but mulch to feed your plants.
Even now, a year after you had escaped his clutches, he was still in your head.
You wonder if he always will be.
Deciding to leave watering for another day, you went back inside.
It was the sound of a van that woke you and for one, terrifying moment, your first thought was that he had found you.
He couldn't have; you had moved too far, looked too different from the woman he knew.
And if this was a movie, you would have mentally added that you were different from the woman he knew.
But you weren't, and you hated that.
You were still the same person who cowered in her chair, wrapped in blankets and too scared to move.
Waiting for the sound of engines to die down, the creak of the front door opening.
Waiting for your husband's voice, smooth, well-educated and underneath it, something darker, something that belied the good looks and charming smile.
Any moment now, he would open the door, and he would ask you--
"Daddy, is that where we're staying? It's so pretty!"
You heard the sound of the patter of tiny feet against concrete and something in your brain stopped.
That hadn't been the voice you were expecting.
"No, Peanut. That's where Daddy's neighbor lives. Look, that's where we'll be staying."
There was a pause, a pregnant silence that told you that maybe you weren't the only one who was waiting for something.
"It looks haunted! Do you think we'll see a ghost? Can I look for a ghost, Daddy?"
"Sure, Peanut, whatever you want." Relief.
Maybe there was something in children's laughter, or maybe it was the girl herself, but her cheerful laugh had you smiling, too, and somehow, the ghost of your husband felt a little more distant then.
The leather chair creaked as you stood up, curiosity getting the better of you.
There were no children in this neighborhood, too out-of-the-way, too dangerous, too dark.
But whoever was outside was, unmistakably, a child.
"Wait, Peanut, no!"
The crunch of grass underneath someone's shoes.
Your grass, as far as you know, you were the only one whoever grew anything here.
And maybe that was what made you open the door, or maybe it was the prospect of seeing someone so damned cheerful, you didn't know.
What you did know was that in the next moment, your door was open and sunlight was flooding into your dark living room, and you were staring into the gap-toothed smile of the cutest little girl you've ever seen.
She was standing on the tips of her toes, trying to reach up and grab the lowest-hanging flower. A bit optimistic considering that your bushes were about the same height as most adults. Given a few more months and maybe they’d be even higher than that.
Besides, none of the roses were blooming yet. Most of the buds were green, with only a few showing the barest hint of pink.
In the fall, the bushes would be heavy with roses, their long stems nearly drooping from the weight of their flowers.
You found yourself wondering if the child would still be here, then.
Not for the first time, you wondered how different your life would be if you had a little one of your own. Would you have had the strength to leave your ex-husband earlier then?
Or would you never have left? Would the child grow up to that? Sullen silences, quick corner-of-your-eye scowls and a mute fury that would fill the house for days on end?
And the lies and lies and lies.
No, sweetheart, you didleave the oven on, good thing you have me here with you, otherwise you would have burned the house down.
What are you talking about, we agreed that you would be the one who took out the trash. You're so forgetful. It's a good thing you have me here to take care of you.
"Do you live here?" The little girl's voice broke you out of your thoughts and for the first time you noticed how sweaty you are, felt a small droplet run down your neck.
For the first time, you were grateful for the heat.
"Yes, I do," you told her. "I've been living here for a year now. What's your name?"
"Cassie." She spoke the s sound with her name with a lisp, owing to the fact that she was missing two of her front teeth.
"That's a nice name, Cassie."
If anything, Cassie's smile grew brighter. "Thank you!"
You noticed that, despite the fact that her attention was on you, she was still trying to reach for the rose bud.
"Cassie, that's not very--"
In the next moment, somebody had scooped Cassie up in their arms and the youngster used the additional height to finally pluck the bud from its stem.
She brandished it, like a prize.
"Daddy, look what I got!"
"Scott? Scott Lang?"
You never knew that your neighbor had a kid, much less a kid as cute as Cassie.
But it was, indeed, Scott Lang who had lifted Cassie in his arms and was currently looking at the bud the way someone would look at a cockroach or a piece of slime.
"You didn't...get that flower from the bush, did you, Peanut?" he asked Cassie.
Here, Scott threw you a pleading glance.
"Oh, man." Scott readjusted his hold on his daughter. "Uh...Peanut. This is Sylvia. She works at the flower shop we passed by earlier. Some of the flowers there are from her garden."
You winced. What on earth ever possessed you to take the name Sylvia, you'll never know.
"Like those?" Cassie asked, pointing to your marigolds.
You couldn't help but smile. The marigolds sold at the store were from your stock, though of course, you specialized in roses.
"Yeah. And you know what, these flowers are very special to her. You wouldn't want people to just start taking stuff you like, right? Like your doll?"
"Oh." Cassie looked down at the bud in her hand, her face a mixture of sadness and disappointment. "No."
"Scott, it's okay, really--"
But the girl thrust her little fist at you, still clenched tightly around the barely-pink bud. "I'm sorry for taking your flower. You can have it back if you want."
Scott mimed taking the flower from behind his daughter's back.
"It's just one bud," you relented. "And besides, if you're still here in the fall, I'll give you a prettier one. When they've fully bloomed."
"No, thank you," Cassie said. "I like this one better."
Well, that was certainly new.
"I guess you can keep it then," you said.
Cassie's cheerful, high-pitched yell nearly made Scott drop his daughter.
"Daddy, can I show Andrew? Please?" she asked, struggling to get out of his grasp.
"Sure, sweetheart, just be careful he doesn't get out of his leash." He set her down and watched as she headed toward their van.
"I didn't realize you have a daughter, Scott," you said quietly.
Watching her, Scott smiled.
"Yeah, her name's Cassie. Though I suppose she's already told you that."
Scott looked down at his shoes for a moment, then took a deep breath. "Look, Sylvia. I'm sorry. I know how much your plants mean to you. If there's anything I can do..."
"It's fine, Scott, really. I haven't seen kids in a while. It's...nice."
Too nice, if the ache in your chest was anything to go by.
"Your...husband didn't want kids?"
"Ex-husband," you corrected. "And no. He didn't. He said they got in the way of work."
"But you did?" Scott asked, and his voice was gentle. Heat crawled up your neck. Gentle, he was always gentle with you.
"Yeah," you said, and your throat felt raw at the admission. "I did."
"I'm sorry. Cassie...she means everything to me. I mean, her mom and I didn't exactly work out. But Cassie, she's amazing."
If you had married anyone, anyone, other than him, would you have had that, too?
"Look, if you want, we're having dinner and a movie tonight. It's nothing special, just take out and some old flicks she likes. But if you're into Chinese and Hellboy?"
Scott looked hopeful, too hopeful.
And sweet and kind and understanding and suddenly you were standing in front of your front door again, hearing Scott tell you what a great night he'd had, and were you free next Friday? Because he knew this great restaurant with a really nice view...
Before you knew it, you were shaking your head, stepping inside the safety of your home.
"Scott no, I'm sorry. I really am. I'm just not--"
"Not ready?" Scott supplied. "Hey, I know. It's just dinner and a silly movie. Look, it's not even a nice dinner, I'm basically letting Cassie eat some junk food while she's away from her mom. She spent the entire trip here complaining about brussels sprouts."
And despite yourself, you were laughing.
"Yeah. Talked about she kept feeding it to Andrew."
"And Andrew is...?"
"Her pet...it's kind of complicated. But come on. Cassie likes you, I can tell."
And suddenly Scott was close, too close, one hand brushing against yours.
You should count yourself lucky you have me. I'm the only one who'll ever put up with you.
You stepped back, nearly stumbled on your phone feet, because God, his voice was still there in your head.
And it burned. It burned you to think that despite more than two years away from him, he was still inside your head, he could still affect you.
When you could concentrate again, Scott had not moved, his hand still clenched around where yours should be, grasping air.
There were several breaths of silence, and you could hear Cassie's happy laughter from the van.
"He hurt you," Scott said, and his voice held no anger or disappointment, only shock.
Maybe that was what helped.
"He never hit me, no."
"But he hurt you anyway," Scott said softly.
"Yes." You nearly choked on that word alone. But at the same time, it felt good to say it. It felt good to admit it. Now there was one more person who knew.
"Scott, whatever you're looking for, I'm not ready. Not yet. I'm sorry. There's still some things...." He's still in my head.
"Not yet?" Scott repeated, and his mouth curved around the words, into a smile.
It was sort of surprising, to hear those words come out of your mouth.
Maybe not today or tomorrow. But someday, if one was willing to wait.
Judging by the look on Scott's face, he knew what it meant.
"Then how about you come as a friend?" he said, gently. "Just a friend. And we'll work from there."
You looked at him doubtfully. "Just a friend?"
"Or like a business transaction. Cassie picked your rose, after all. I've seen what those are worth," Scott amended.
"So, it's a business proposal?"
"A business proposal," Scott agreed.
A business proposal. You liked the sound of that.
"Okay then, Mr. Lang. You have yourself a deal."
Scott's smiled, and right then, he looked just like his daughter, who smiled like she had the sun inside her.
"Seven?" he asked.