It was an ordinary, unremarkable day. Her mood was quite tolerable, despite the fact that the sky threatened to pour a thousand cubic meters of water onto the land. It didn’t make any difference to her. Another sweltering rainy day, like dozens of other days she spent under the pouring rain. When she left the office, evening shade was beginning to fall on the city slowly covering everything around with its mysterious tone, involving the land in its in-between world, without asking for a permit.
She wished a good night to the guard as usual and went outside via the front door. She took a deep breath and realized that there was no sense to count on the freshness of the evening breeze, the air was too thick and humid.
“Nina,” an unknown voice called her name.
She turned and saw a woman in a beautiful dark-purple cloak with a little bag in her hands. She walked right up to her and smiled.
“Nina,” said the woman, “You’re Nina, right? Alex’s mom.”
“Yes, hi, and you?”
“Oh, well, of course you can’t remember me; I was sitting at the farthest desk at a PTA meeting. But I remember you and wanted to thank you for the help you rendered to Taylor. Remember when he broke his knee.”
“Taylor? Oh yeah, of course, I remember. Poor thing, how’s his leg?”
“Everything is good, thanks! Already almost all healed. He talked about you a lot.”
“I’m glad he`s fine.” Nina remembered the boy with whom Alex recently came home.
The boy had scraped his knee that day, and Nina treated the wound and fed both boys with some homemade delicious food. Taylor spent some time at their house, telling some stories and she didn’t remember what they were about. Only one thing stuck in her mind that day. It seemed to her that the boy obviously was not in a hurry to go home. Even more, he didn’t want to leave.
“Excuse me, but I have to go. Alex is at home by himself and the rain seems about ready to start soon, I wouldn’t like to get wet”
“Oh, sure, I am sorry. Just one last thing, we are going to host a small event next week. Nothing special, just Taylor`s dad decided to invite his son`s entire class before the school break. Would you come and join us, please? The boys get along well with each other. What do you think?”
“Oh… thank you, I don’t know, I mean next week… most likely”
“Next Friday. Thursday is the last day of school and we are welcoming all on Friday. The boys could just discuss what they`d do during the break. We can organize a trip wherever you might like. It`s quite boring for them to sit home and to be discouraged along with the autumn weather.”
“Yes, you`re right. Friday, I think we’ll be able to come. Alex will be happy, I’m sure.”
“Perfect! Here’s my number.” The woman held out a small piece of paper with the number “Send me a blank text and I’ll reply with the address. All right, see you next Friday.”
“Yes, thank you. Say hi to Taylor.”
Nina sent a blank text message to the number written on the paper. She could not remember that woman, but according to the woman’s assertion, she was the mother of Taylor; it’s probably the way it was.
Nina hurried to the train station, “I`ll talk to Alex first,” she thought and walked faster.
The first drops of cold autumn rain caught her at the stairs to the train station. She was so eager to go down that she accidentally slipped but managed to grab the railing and stayed on her feet. Quickly recovering, she realized that her awkward movements inadvertently bumped into the old lady, who was selling flowers at the exit of the train station and also was in a hurry to shelter from the rain in the subway. Nina turned and started to apologize looking at the old lady with puppy eyes.
“Oh, my God, I am so sorry. Are you okay? I didn`t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry.”
“I am fine. But my flowers have suffered.” the old lady looked at the crumpled bunch of daisies peeking lonely out of a deep plastic bucket with regret
“Oh, I am so sorry, let me buy them,” Nina suggested. “You won`t be able to sell them, and I’m still to blame. How much?”
The old lady eyed Nina from head to toe, then looked at her purse with distrust. Nina has already put her hand into her purse to get some money.
“Fifteen dollars. But I`ll give it out for ten, this is the last bunch, anyway.”
“Okay.” Nina agreed, pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her purse and handed it to the old lady.
The old lady took the bill and handed Nina the entire bunch of daisies. Then she put the bucket on the floor, took out her modest wallet, and began to count the money, trying to find the change.
“Oh, if I knew, I wouldn’t buy my meds in advance. Now I won`t find ten dollars change.” the old lady grumbled with regret, shaking her head and glancing at the twenty-dollar bill that almost belonged to her.
“Maybe I’ll run and get change somewhere around?” Nina tried to offer her help
“Oh, no, there is no single place to exchange.” The old lady finally got upset, “all the stalls were recently demolished, and the nearest shop is too far to reach, especially in the rain.” The old lady seemed quite resigned to the fact that she would have to give the money back and take back her miserable daisies. To be sure, she fumbled in both pockets of her cloak then looked into her old shopping bag and a glint of hope flashed in her eyes. A feeble, barely noticeable hope. She raised her head and asked softly,
“Maybe you need magic acorns?”
“Acorns?” Nina asked in confusion
“Yes, but not regular acorns. These are magical acorns. I can give them to you instead of change.” Now the old lady had puppy eyes.
“And what is their magic about?” Nina asked just in case. She already knew that she was not going to see her ten dollars change. Anyway, she couldn`t take all the money back from a poor old lady, especially because just a few minutes ago she had volunteered to buy the last bunch of daisies to make amends for her recent colliding into her.
“They’ll bring you happiness. Look, here are five acorns. One for you, one for your son, and the three remaining will also find their owners soon. Five, exactly for the whole family. A one small personal happiness for each one. You’ll see, they’re magic.”
Nina heard the word “son” and remembered Alex, thinking that he must be sitting there alone, waiting for her, and she stood there talking with the old lady. She quickly nodded, agreeing to an unequal deal. The old lady happily handed her five dry acorns then quickly picked up her bucket and disappeared, dissolving into the crowd of motley people.
Nina felt the small rough lumps in her hand and turned around. She looked around, quickly put the acorns into the pocket of her jacket and hurried home.
Only on the train, she began to think about the strange conversation with the old lady and she realized that the lady had mentioned her son. “But how does she know about my boy?” Nina thought, and that thought scared her a bit. She looked in her bag and checked if everything was in place, but not finding anything unusual, she calmed down. She came to a conclusion that the old woman did not look like a crook or thief. “Probably just caught a lucky saying about the little boy, or maybe she saw us together when Alex came to see me at work another day.” Nina finally calmed herself.
A bunch of daisies failed to survive the trip in the congested train and Nina had to throw it immediately at the exit of the subway. She was a little sorry for wilted petals and money paid for them, but neither one nor the other could be returned. She jumped over a large puddle and after a few more steps reached the door of the supermarket. Nina knew that they don’t have a single drop of milk at home. She remembered Alex poured the last milk into his bowl of cereal that morning. Nina took the cart and quickly ran through the rows of colorful goods. She got only what they needed, paid at the cashier, and with full bags, headed for the exit. The cleaner couldn’t catch up to wipe the floor after all the numerous visitors and Nina was unlucky again.
She stepped on the wet area, and turned and slipped. The bag in her right hand outweighed her and when Nina slipped on her feet, she swung and hit the wall with her whole body. She managed to resist falling and stayed on her feet but sacrificed a bag of groceries, which fell down on the floor with a clatter. People around hurried away with their own business, and nobody was paying attention to Nina, who barely held back the tears picking up her purchases from the floor, her bag that was lying nearby, or the groceries scattered around both. At that point, Nina wanted to disappear or better even, never to exist. She was hurt and sad from the fact that in the vast world there was no person who would support her, who could help her at that moment with the groceries, with her son, or simply, could be there by her side. She was okay with being single and wasn`t looking for anyone. She was quite satisfied with her life. She had a clear understanding that everything would change. Alex will grow up and she would have to let him go and once again she would finally find herself lonely, but she tried not to think about it. Only in moments of failure and weakness, was she unbearably sad from the injustice of loneliness.
She had already picked up almost all the groceries when a hand reached out and handed her a pack of milk. It was her milk, which somehow managed to roll further than the pears did. She took the proffered pack of milk, thanked the stranger, and without raising her head put it into the bag with the rest of the stuff. The same hand offered her a pack of rice. She thanked the person again, but this time raised her head and looked at the assistant. It was an ordinary man about 35 years old. He was dressed in jeans, a colorful shirt and a thin jacket despite the current weather. She noticed his eyes. She had never seen such a deep but at the same time transparent blue eyes.
The man smiled at her and asked, “Are you ok? Need some help?”
“I am fine, thanks. Just dropped the bag accidentally.”
“Is this yours?” The man handed her the acorn.
Nina put her hand into her jacket pocket and counted the acorns with her fingers. There were only four. How did that one manage to fall out? Probably, she accidentally pushed it out of her pocket when she hit the wall.
“Yes, it`s mine.” Nina felt a bit awkward. “You may keep it.”
“Ha, ha, why do I need it?” the man was amused by the situation.
Nina also understood the stupidity of what was happening, but in her thirty-four years she hadn`t managed to learn the way to disappear unnoticed.
“For happiness. The old lady who gave them to me today instead of giving me change said that these acorns are magical, and they bring happiness.”
“Ha, ha, then you better take it back, I don’t need someone else’s happiness.” The man almost laughed, handing Nina an acorn.
“I have four more. Too much happiness for me. Keep it, and thanks for the help” She quickly got up, took the bag with the groceries, and without looking back, went out of the store. Nina tried not to think about the way she looked in the man`s eyes and all she wanted was just to forget that ridiculous day.
Alex waited for her at home. He was quite tall and strong for his age of twelve. There had always been a complete understanding and trust between them. That day he noticed her mood and decided not to pester her with any questions or routine conversations. Despite his age, he understood his mother. He knew that sometimes she just needed to take her time and stay by herself, and that that didn`t mean that anything was wrong. Once in a while everyone wants to hide from the eyes of others, even the eyes of the closest and dearest people. In those days Alex tried not to disturb her. He quietly ate his dinner and went to his room, pretending that he needed to do his homework. She was grateful to him for that and with a slight feeling of guilt but not without a certain pleasure she spent some time by herself.
The weekend flew by and the weekdays followed one after another. Thursday night Nina got a text from an unknown number. No greetings, no goodbyes, just the address and time. She didn’t understand what that was about and was going to delete the message but remembered about the event, which was held at Alex`s friend`s house. She had completely forgotten about it.
“You’re friends with Taylor, are you?” she asked Alex.
“Well, not kind of best friends, but we communicate. He is a nice dude”
“Taylor is the one who hurt his knee recently, right?”
“Well, we seem to have the only one Taylor in our class, why?”
“Nothing.” Nina tried to decide if they`d go to the event. “There will be an event in their house tomorrow,” Nina started not confidently.
“Yeah, I know. Taylor mentioned something the other day. His father wants to meet the parents of his classmates and all that, you know. They recently moved, so they probably want to make some friends”
“Recently? Yes, exactly. That`s why I don’t remember her.”
“Never mind. So, what do you think, shall we go?”
“I am on for it! He definitely has a new PS! His father is a pretty rich guy. Well, I don`t mean that… you know… he is basically a nice dude, not boring and not classy, and not arrogant.”
“Okay. Then tomorrow we’ll go for a while.”
Nina could not decide what to wear. She wanted to look attractive, but at the same time not too flashy. Secretly, even kept from herself, she did not lose hope to meet happiness, and maybe even have another child. Alex will grow up soon, and he won`t be up to an aging mother, and she didn’t want to bother him.
Her wardrobe was not exactly overwhelmed with a number of outfits, but it did simplify the torment over the choice. If I wear a strict skirt, they’ll think I’m a prude and a bore, Nina thought. An open cocktail dress will obviously be out of place, Actually, it’s more of a child’s event. I need something between the strictness and openness. She could not understand why that event suddenly became so important to her. The day before she hadn’t even remembered about it. A strange feeling of anxiety and joy languished in her breast as if she were going to the prom, like seventeen years ago. She worried and couldn`t take her eyes away from her reflection in the mirror, trying to justify her own imperfection. Alex had already been sleeping when she finally decided on the outfit. Her choice fell on a suitable delicate powdery-colored dress, moderately strict and moderately open. Happy with the choice, she got into bed and immediately fell asleep.
That night in her dreams she saw the acorns. Four out of the five acorns she had gotten instead of change, in her dream grew up into beautiful trees. Two older and two younger. The fifth acorn lay in her hand and she could not understand what she had to do with it: to put it into the ground and allow it to turn into a beautiful tree? to return it to the pocket of her jacket? or to throw it into the garbage disposal? She stood between the trees, holding a little acorn and thinking over its fate. She hadn`t made a decision, the alarm dug into her dream with its sharp unpleasant sound and an acorn was left lying on her palm.
Nina woke up, remembered the dream and immediately forgot it. She hurried to work.
Friday did not surprise her at all. Everything was the same as always. The same faces wishing a good weekend, the same reports, the endless flow of people in the subway and the same thoughts.
But in the evening Nina dressed up and was ready to go out. The dress she chose fit her and was perfectly matched with jewelry and shoes. The entire outfit looked even better than she imagined. Alex also put on a fancy shirt and jeans. It was decided to take a taxi not to screw up their outfits in public transport.
The car quickly took Nina and Alex to the desired address – the address mentioned in the short text message. There were a lot of cars next to Taylor`s house already. Nina was pleased to see that they were not the first and it wouldn`t be difficult to find some known faces among parents of Alex`s classmates. They entered the house. Alex noticed his friends, he gave Nina a questioning gaze and she shrugged and nodded towards children, implying that she’s fine, and he can go and have fun.
She quickly found some friends and felt quite comfortable. After few glasses of juice, she asked to excuse herself and went in search of a bathroom. At that moment, Alex was passing by along with Taylor: the junior event host.
“Hi, Taylor” Nina began from afar, “nice house. Where’s your mom?”
“Over there,” Taylor pointed up and looked at Nina in a strange way, then grabbed Alex`s hand and dragged him somewhere into the other room. Nina’s inertia moved her to look toward the stairs leading to the second floor, and she did not have a chance to ask about the bathroom. She sighed and continued the search. The house was bigger than it seemed to her from the beginning. She returned to the hall and decided through logic to determine the location of the restroom. The first door she opened was a back-room door, then a closet, then she found another utility room. She got a bit angry but couldn`t beat a nature and continued to look for the bathroom. Nina decided to look in every door until she could find the right one.
The next door she opened was the office door. A man sat at the desk. He looked about thirty-five-years old was dressed in a bright shirt. His face seemed familiar to Nina, but she could not remember the name. He raised his head, looked at Nina and smiled.
“Have you given away all your acorns, or did you save at least one for yourself?” the man asked
“What acorns?” Nina got confused and didn`t figure out immediately what he meant
“What acorns? Of course, the magic ones!” The man got up from the table and headed to Nina “Come in, please, I have a great collection of books, and I could arrange an exclusive tour of the house special for you.”
“Just tell me where the bathroom is, and we could take a tour later, and I`ll also express my admiration to your collection of books, but a little bit later, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, sure, right there.” He pointed to the door from the right at the entrance to the office. “But I’m waiting for you here if you don’t mind” he smiled again, but Nina had already disappeared behind the next door.
After she was done, she returned to the office in a better mood.
“Now we can introduce each other,” Nina smiled sheepishly, “I’m Nina, Alex`s mom.”
“Nice to meet you, Nina. My name is Michael, I’m Taylor`s dad. So, what happened to the rest of the acorns? You still haven’t answered.”
“Acorns” Nina looked into his face and finally realized why it seemed familiar. It was the same man that helped her to pick up the groceries from the floor in the store on that rainy day, exactly a week ago.
“Oh, Yes, the acorns” she got lost for a second “No, I didn`t give them away yet, I still have four left. Well, two that I will leave with me. One for me and one for Alex. Who knows, maybe they will appear really magic. The other two, I can give them away to you, if you want. One for Taylor, and one for your wife.”
“Hmm… You`re generous lady!” Michael said and looked at Nina with a strange gaze.
She thought she noticed a tinge of sadness in his eyes and at the same time, his gaze was appraising.
“I’ll take just one for Taylor, we don`t need the extra one. And the rest you will have to give to someone else or keep it for yourself. You’re a young and attractive woman, I’m sure it won`t be difficult to find someone with whom you would like to share the happiness.” He spoke with such sincerity that Nina wanted to believe him.
She wanted to attract him, she wanted him to continue to talk and she would listen to his voice. She didn’t understand why he only talked about Taylor and tried to flirt with her. She looked around the office, her gaze lingered on the shelves with photos. There were only Michael and Taylor pictured on all the photos. She never found pictures of the woman who had invited her to that event.
Michael realized she was confused and could not understand where his wife was. He came a little closer and said, “”In vain, you won`t find a woman`s photo. Taylor’s mother abandoned him immediately after birth. She just threw him into the snow and left. I didn’t know her, and didn’t want to know. My dog found him, and since that moment I became a father, but my son has not yet gotten a mother.”
Nina felt as though she were doused with ice water. Her skin was crawling, and her eyes could hardly keep back tears. She imagined the baby hastily wrapped with a thin blanket lying in the snow and choking on his own cry of frustration.
“I told him that his mother died in childbirth. I`d like him to continue to think the same. Do you understand me? But he has a fantastic auntie – my sister! You must meet her. It was her idea to host this event”
“Auntie… Of course… don’t worry.” Nina shook her head barely perceptible
Michael smiled and resumed his usual semi-joking tone.
“Back to our, or rather your, acorns”
“I think that, after all, you need the extra acorn.” Nina was embarrassed again and even blushed slightly, realizing that she liked Michael and since he had no wife, she could answer him in return.
“You know what I think?” Michael said, and not allowing her to answer he continued, “Let`s keep it with you, and time will show which one of us would need it more. But we then have to stay in touch, at least to share the news, otherwise, how will we find out who needs the magic acorn.”
“Indeed, how will we find it out otherwise,” Nina picked up the game and did not hesitate to smile in response to Michael`s open smile.
“Taylor and I, we would love to give you and Alex a ride home after the event, if you don’t mind. And on the way, we could stop by somewhere, for example, in the movie theater. What do you think about this idea?” His confident tone could not leave Nina indifferent. She thought Michael was one of those men who knows what he wants and on whom you can always rely.
“I am on for it,” Nina said, shrugged her shoulders and coyly lowered her eyes, but a second later raised them up again and met Michael`s gaze. She liked what she read in his eyes. It seemed to her that for the first time she could feel the solid ground under her feet, and the earth finally settled in and stopped running from under her feet. She felt confident and secure, her fears had receded and her loneliness had dissipated with a weak shadow under the light of his gaze.
“Perfect” Michael said almost in a whisper
Twenty-four years have passed since that day. Mom just today told me this story with tears in her eyes and pinned a pin with an old dried acorn on my wedding dress. Both of my older brothers Alex and Taylor have already gotten their acorns and are raising their own gardens. Now it’s my turn. Today I will recite the oath of allegiance under the shade of two stately oak trees that have grown in our backyard for twenty-four years.