Short Story Ripe
Sometimes when they kissed she thought he might be ready. She would send a hopeful breath to mingle with the air between their lips and wait for him to draw it in, as if that breath inside his body might convince his tiny cells that it was time. Those tender kisses made the boundaries of […]
Sometimes when they kissed she thought he might be ready. She would send a hopeful breath to mingle with the air between their lips and wait for him to draw it in, as if that breath inside his body might convince his tiny cells that it was time. Those tender kisses made the boundaries of her skin soften, her heart race, every particle of her body want to mesh with his. In the orchard, on the plaid blanket, with the sun warming and the trees dancing around them, they kissed that way. She welcomed it and threw herself into the moment. And she hoped, prayed even, that this would be the month.
Amidst the apple trees and sunshine, she hoped, cherished, rejoiced, kissed. And then his daughter disappeared.
It happened as he stroked her cheek, a simple lightening of his mouth on hers, a minuscule space far less than an inch but big enough to break their connection. She heard the dry leaves rustling around her, the tractor pulling pumpkin-pickers in the distance. His lips left hers and the smell of earthy, fertile ground and sharp cheese hit her nose. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. It was like waking from a stupor, becoming conscious, being born.
She watched him crane his neck. He stood, popped like a meat thermometer in a done bird, and blurted, “Where’s Kaylee?”. The sound of the girl’s name hurt. Margaret selfishly wanted to hold on to his dangling hand, pull him down, bring him back. But she let go and re-corked the wine. His head whipped side to side, a throbbing reminder that he was already a father, and she, who had begun to repack the crackers and cheese, was not yet a mother.
Margaret stood beside her husband. He had told the girl to stay by the blanket, not to wander off. But the child never did listen well. How many times had Margaret told her to pick up her dirty socks, to clean her plate after dinner, to shut the basement door? The girl loved to disobey. It was no surprise to Margaret she was missing.
Mark’s eyes grew large with worry and a light sweat appeared on his skin. She knew he must be feeling guilty and for that she had a little sympathy. Her own guilt, the guilt she should have felt for wanting the girl to leave them alone, for wanting Mark all to herself, didn’t come. The picnic was over now. The girl was gone and so were the plans for a perfect afternoon.
“We should search,” he said and she nodded. She took a deep breath. She had known it was coming. This was, of course, just what the girl wanted. Margaret kept the thought to herself and offered instead to hunt the trees. She headed for the hills in the back of the orchard with a quick, impressive pace, listening to her husband call out the girl’s name. She scurried among the trees and yelled “Kaylee”, exaggerating her “ee” like a small child’s whine.
The distance between them grew, her husband’s voice softening until she no longer heard it and slowed. She poked her head between crooked branches, expecting one to be holding the girl. “Found me,” the girl would say and Margaret would struggle not to fume. She could picture the girl munching an apple and looking smug. Kaylee getting lost on purpose was irritating, yet strangely appealing to Margaret. A part of her wanted to believe the girl had done it intentionally, in order to interrupt the picnic, ruin the afternoon, prove he loved her more. Somehow that would justify the anger.
She wandered between the trees. So much for “A day at the orchard”. It couldn’t be saved now. Margaret had packed the wine, the cheese, the fresh baguette bread. The apples were picked and the picnic had been underway. She hadn’t planned on distractions. She should have known the timing was too good to be true. This was the weekend with the ripest fruit.
The dancing trees that had earlier formed a playful backdrop to their picnic grew into woody soldiers, stiff-backed growths that towered over Margaret and seemed to draw her in. They grew dense and blocked the baby-blue sky, making everything darker. Each step took her further away from her husband and the blanket.
Margaret stopped searching and looked around. Had she gone in a straight line or veered off? Everything looked the same. She couldn’t see the blanket, couldn’t hear Mark and couldn’t believe that she was lost now too. She was as bad as the girl.
She turned in circles, looking for something familiar, listening for the tractor or another wandering soul. Her head spun and though she felt dizzy, she started walking again, hoping it was the right direction. If she could just get back to the blanket, she could start fresh.
She added her husband’s name to her call. “I’m lost,” she yelled. Find me, she thought. Choose me. Love me. But there was no response. At the end of the line of trees she turned to her right and looked down the row. Nothing but more trees. Defeated, she allowed her head to drop, her shoulders to droop and her eyes to water. On the ground was a rotten, dented fruit with worm holes on its swollen cheek. Margaret bent and plucked it up, grasped it tightly in her hand. And then she marched to find the blanket.
She heard the giggle first – a coquettish, teasing laugh. When she turned the corner she saw them, sitting on the ground, eating her crackers and cheese. She fondled the apple in her hand and spied on them from a distance.
When the laughter softened, she approached and forced herself to say, ”Kaylee, thank goodness you’re okay”. The girl smiled with gourmet crumbs on her lips and moved closer to her father so Margaret could fit on the blanket. It wasn’t big enough for three and Margaret’s bottom rested on the ground.
She listened as the girl explained how she got lost and ended up near the parking lot, then stayed there and waited for her dad because she knew he’d find her. Mark laughed as she spoke, tousled her hair and smiled proudly. Nobody asked what happened to Margaret. She released the rotten apple into a paper sack. ”Time to go,” she announced. She was hungry, the crackers were gone and the apples were too sweet for her.
At home the rotten apple rested on the sill, an ugly reminder of the afternoon. The bruised fruit perched and festered, while rosy-faced Kaylee played basketball on the other side of the window.
Meanwhile, Margaret baked. She coated fresh apples with sugar and cinnamon, flour and allspice, and tossed them gently in a stainless steel bowl. When they were coated with sweetness she wiped her fingers on the apron and prepared to move on. Forming the crust. The dough had been made that morning and waited now on the counter. She pushed her clean fingertips deep into the ball. It was a sinking comfort. The pie would be more successful than the day.
Outside the window, her husband and stepdaughter dribbled with wide smiles and sweaty foreheads. The sun dropped below the trees and they shot hoops, sharing an exclusive fun that refused to yield to the day’s events.
Margaret dabbed her own sweaty forehead with her apron and watched them play. A part of her wanted to be invited to their game. Had they asked, she would have said no. She was supposed to be inside baking. That’s what mothers did.
As she stared out the window, the foul fruit teased her, jutted into her view and demanded to be noticed. It wouldn’t be in the pie, she wasn’t going to have that ruined too, but she couldn’t get herself to toss it in the compost pile. She needed to display it a while longer.
She shaped the plump dough into a long rubbery tube and held it in her fist. The top flopped over and wobbled like a limp penis, like Mark’s uncooperative organ on the nights they tried to make love with Kaylee in the house. Mark could never get into it, afraid Kaylee might hear them. Margaret prayed that when he was ready, her fertile days wouldn’t coincide with Kaylee’s visitation.
With the rolling pin she flattened the dough. The girl was the reason they were waiting. Mark didn’t think she could handle the changes a baby might bring. He had promised to work on it and try to move forward. And progress had been made, at least until Kaylee’s recent game of hide and seek. Margaret knew that the mere suggestion of the girl’s disappearance from his life would set them back.
She placed the dough in a crimped-edge pan and poured the good apples gently in. More dough was cut into strips and woven over the sweet fruit, then brushed with egg whites to make it shine. She placed the pie in the oven and cleaned the counter while it baked, wiping around a small pile of leftover dough on the counter. What to do with the little lump?
Margaret took the apple off the windowsill, averting her eyes from the scene outside, and began to peel it with short, jerky, shame-on-you motions. She wanted to be good wife, a good mother, even a good stepmother. Domestic bliss had always been the goal.
She left the soft, brown dents on the apple instead of scraping them away. She put it on the cutting board and stabbed it into irregular chunks then dropped them into the leftover dough. Wiping tears from her eyes she used her moistened fingers to seal the dough. She added no sugar, no spice before she put it in the oven.
When she had cleaned the kitchen, washed the dishes and removed her apron, when the sweet smell of apple pie had filled the air, she called them in to eat. They ran past her to wash up, her husband blowing a playful kiss and commenting on the wonderful smell as he hurried by.
The pie was gorgeous, symmetrical and shiny. It cooled on the sill, a triumphant display. On the counter was the dumpling, hideous, misshapen and burnt. Margaret took a bite of the dumpling, chewed the rotten fruit, and swallowed.