The Child and the Apple Tree

When the child was twelve, the apple tree in the backyard began to decline. The apples fell that autumn like any other year. They spread across the grass around the tree like a pebbly green sea, and when nobody was looking he picked them up and took bites out of them as they lay on the ground. Its leaves unfurled and deepened in the September sun that held out the last charms of sun-drenched summer before tucking them away with the receding heat. The apples were less that year. The child didn’t notice. He was too busy to snatch up more than one apple before he careened off through the woods, howling his strange song. He lingered on the edge of childhood that autumn, beginning to grow lanky but still clambering up trees and chasing imagined bandits and heroes. He didn’t climb the apple tree anymore. Now it was all the oaks and maples that boasted tall trunks, sturdy branches, and leaves that lost their green and gleamed with warmth instead. The child was proud that he could scamper up like a squirrel, clinging to the living wood and perching on a jut of branch too high to see.

The apples fell, and crowded on the ground, and rotted there to soft forgotten mounds of what once was crisp and sweet. The animals gouged chunks from the fallen fruit while the child fought villains too terrible to name in the clearings of the forest. He won the battle against the beasts who terrorized his kingdom. He scared himself on the highest creaking branch of the oldest swaying tree and clambered down again, sweating. He shot a scornful, guilty glance at a girl who smiled at him in the cafeteria. The child was less a child, and the apple tree died.

Its demise was slow, almost imperceptible. Its leaves fell and crumpled on the scattered apples instead of rusting red. The tree stood stark and empty in a forest of trees still bright with autumn plumage. Its green leaves and fruit moldered on the ground. In the winter, snow piled in glittering drifts in the forest, and the trees shuddered and shivered in the cold. Snow lined the branches of the apple tree and frost encased its twigs. Inside the dead white, the apple tree froze. Its wood dried and became brittle until the ravages of a blizzard cracked two branches. In December the child dragged a sled that was too small through the forest. He stopped in awe when he saw the apple tree. He gazed at the jagged pale stubs poking out from it, undignified and crude. The child picked up and tossed away the lost limbs that were beneath it. He reached a hand to the trunk, where the life of the tree was dying embers, but he moved his small warm hand away from the bark when he felt the cold grasping at him.

When the spring came, the snow shrank to wizened shreds on the dirt. The daffodils burst into color, banishing the cold. The child ran through puddles and cursed at his mud-spattered clothes. The apple tree still stood, but it had no life returning. Its wood was dry and its branches lit no leaves. While the child made new games in the chittering forest, the apple tree shriveled. The child became a hero and saved a kingdom. Sometimes he stopped to look curiously at the apple tree’s plain lines, the curves uninterrupted by green and the spiky wounds that would not heal.

In summer the forest was brilliant. The sun filled it with stained-glass leaves and light-spotted shadows. The animals whispered and cried out. The child sat in the crook of the old oak with a book, unmoving for hours. The apple tree stayed dead and cold at the edge of the woods.

When autumn came, the child was still less a child. He had less of the bright-edged certainty of a hero, and none of the duller calm that he thought must be coming. Sometimes he came to the forest and told himself stories, still. These were not described in sweeping gestures and wild rollicking. These stories crept out in murmurs. He sang less now and did not howl. In October the apple tree was white against the blood and flame of autumn. It heaved a sigh of twisted wood and relinquished the last threads of life. The not-child stayed a moment beside it, his hand warm on its creased surface, before he went on.

Just Breathe

“Hold on a minute, let me just look for my glasses. You know I just put them down on the counter right here and now of course they’re gone again, would you believe that…”

He went on. Alex ignored him. His father could talk like nobody he’d ever met. His voice was a constant low rumble, mumble of words that dripped out of him like a faucet nobody could fix. He just seeped words, wasting breath, until everybody near him was half crazy and looking for a wrench. Or something else heavy. Alex heaved in a breath and held it in his lungs, summoning patience. His father was sick and needed patience, not a surly son. The old man was still shuffling around the kitchen, leaning over the counter like he was falling in slow motion to peer at the smooth stone. “I can’t find them anywhere,” he said. “My goodness look at that they just disappear, don’t they?”

“Let’s go,” said Alex.

“All right,” his father said, dubious. “If you insist then we’ll go but you’re going to have to read labels for me, you know, I won’t be able to see a blessed thing.” The prattle didn’t cease as they got out onto the street. “It’s really a good thing that we live so near a grocery store–” Alex’s mother had died three years ago. His father hadn’t yet adjusted to speaking in the singular. “It’s really so convenient and it’s a good one too, shame about that other one that closed, what was it called? Oh look, there’s a Chevy, you know that was my first car, or was it a Dodge? Can you remember? Of course you can’t, you probably weren’t even born yet, were you? Did you know that Jonathan is coming over tonight? We’re going to heat up some dinner for him. You know I think most of the time he doesn’t eat much of anything. We’ll give him a good meal, you know I’ve got plenty in the freezer.”

Most of the time Alex could tune his father out until the words all blurred into pleasant static. He’d only been staying with his father for a week and already he felt like his teenage self, rolling his eyes when nobody would see and counting the days until he could leave the house. They walked down the same familiar street he’d known as a kid, except the barber had gone out of business and a cute stationery store had taken its place. The grocery store was almost the same. Some of the canned food was probably the same too.

His father wanted to share with everybody. It made Alex’s skin itch. They got through three aisles before his father said, “Well then I’ve had enough, we’d better go home now.” Of course, then they got to the cashier and he started up again. “Hello there, how are you, too bad about this weather isn’t it, I lost my glasses somewhere in the house and it’s very silly but I just couldn’t find them anywhere, this is my son Alex staying with me because I’ve had a touch of pneumonia but not to worry nothing serious I’ve got some medicine and it’s really very nice of him to come visit. What’s that? Oh, yes, here’s my card, sorry about that, you can tell I’m having a busy day, forget my own head if it wasn’t screwed on.”

Alex shouldered the bag and they started back again. He said, “Dad, I’m pretty sure there’s milk already in the fridge.”

His father said, “No, of course there isn’t, I used it all up this morning, don’t worry.” He kept talking all the way back home and into the kitchen, where he said, “Oh, goodness, look at that, there’s half a quart of milk still in the fridge, you ought to have reminded me it was there, now there’s too much and it’s sure to spoil, isn’t that too bad.”

Alex drew in a deep breath and held it.

The Gremlin

The gremlins always come in the morning. They like the early hours, when the sun is so timid a suggestion in the sky that everything is barely touched with light. They can creep about then, and sneak under hedges and through windows. That’s when Jenna found one, at five in the morning in her kitchen. It was eating her cereal straight out of the box.

She assumed she was dreaming, all alone in her quiet kitchen as a little furry creature with stubby horns froze and stared at her, paw half out of the box with a handful of Raisin Bran. They looked at each other and then the gremlin raised the waiting hand to its mouth. When it bared a bristling row of teeth, Jenna’s throat caught around a sound — not a word, not a cry, just half a startled “oh!’ The gremlin hurled the cereal, scattering flakes and raisins across the counter, and bounded out the window. Jenna went back to bed and dreamed strange dreams.

A week later, it occurred to her that all her Raisin Bran was gone, though the box still sat empty on the shelf. It must have started on the corn flakes too, because the top of the box was a ragged mess of cardboard. She poured some carefully into a bowl and left it out on the counter. She left a spoon next to it, just in case. Gremlins probably didn’t use spoons, but if they did then this one would have one. She left the window open, afraid that the gremlin’s long-fingered paws might break it. The gremlin was so quiet coming in that it didn’t wake her at all, but in the morning the bowl was clean and empty.

Over the next couple of weeks, Jenna learned some lessons. She discovered that if she woke up and went for a snack, she could sit quietly with the gremlin and eat cereal side by side. As long as she didn’t make any noise, it didn’t flee her. Sometimes it sidled up to her, scooping cereal into its mouth and nibbling on the ends of her hair.

She discovered that the gremlin absolutely refused milk in its cereal, dumping the bowl upside down on the floor in disgust. She discovered, too, that if she gave it Cocoa Pops it tore around the kitchen and knocked over everything that wasn’t fastened down. The sugary cereal went right in the trash after that night.

Jenna is cautiously friends with the gremlin now. She’d never been able to sleep once the sun pushed through the windows, so she gets up at five. It comes in a bit after that and crouches expectantly on the counter while she pours it Raisin Bran (still its favorite.) She makes herself a bowl of Cheerios. Sometimes they split a piece of toast.

A Woman Named June

June never liked to be in anyone’s face. She was the type who would be in the room so quiet you didn’t even notice her. Her therapist liked to talk about this tendency for “passivity. A kind of introversion that lets you fade into the background. Your relationship with Matthew shows me this desire to, you know, not be any bother. You don’t want to be trouble to anyone so you take it all on yourself.” It’s very comforting to hear her life explained to her like this. June sits in her therapist’s office and nods. She doesn’t want to disagree, and she wouldn’t know what to say if she did.

When she walked up High Street last week she ran into Matthew. She can’t stop thinking about it. He was surprised to see her, hey June I haven’t seen you in ages how are you doing I hope everything’s going well. Matthew always did manage to talk a lot without communicating much of anything. She said she was doing fine, thanks, and asked how he was. He rattled on for a while, and she nodded. He said it was great to see her, and she nodded. He hugged her goodbye and she froze, stiff and unresponsive and too startled to bring her arms up around him until he was already pulling away. That’s how it had always been with them anyway.

When she told her therapist about this encounter, her therapist’s mouth twisted and her eyes gleamed with speculation. June could just feel the analysis waiting to rush out. She didn’t hear any of it, though. She heard her therapist’s voice tumbling over her and caught the odd word–aggression–anonymous–relationship–depression. June’s mind was roaming, though, and she nodded and nodded without taking in any of the explanation of her life.

When she left her therapist’s office, she sat in her car in the parking lot. She put the key in the ignition but she didn’t start the car. The expectant light on her dashboard faded, disappointed. June folded her hands in her lap and stared ahead. She didn’t know how long it had been (five minutes? thirty?) when she was jerked from the reverie by a tapping. Matthew was outside her window, smiling his well-isn’t-this-funny smile. She rolled down the window and he burst into speech. Hey June so funny to see you again twice in a week after a whole year seems strange doesn’t it what are you doing here? She looked up at his eager face, the sweat shining on his forehead and his abashed smile. June said, “I feel like a robot.”

“Yeah,” said Matthew. “I know what you mean.”

June nodded, then she got in her car and drove away.

On the Other Side of the Universe

Once he got to the other side of the universe, he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. He had tunneled for so long, chipping and scraping at the rock until mountains of fine soft powder were piled in the path behind him. The other side of the universe had broken on him, all of a sudden, like the unveiling of a face before him. He had stood, awed by it, and a little scared. A small wish surfaced in his mind that the veil would draw across the face again, and the features be misty and far once more. There was a citadel on the other side of the universe, a great staggering thing built of feathered balustrades and climbing towers. It reached the sky and pierced the heavens, and he imagined that past the boundless blue there must be twining iron and stone still reaching farther.

He had come to be a hero. He had followed the dragon through the universe, through the rock and out to the other side. He was meant to be a hero and fight the dragon until it died on his sword and order was restored. There was probably a maiden to save, or a kingdom to vanquish. His mind was clouded and his memories elusive. When he reached for them, they scampered away. There must have been something, some thread of reason that he had made this journey. There was a reason that he was standing before this vast citadel that rose glorious and deadly before him. He just didn’t know what it was.

When he took a faltering step forward, the ground melted and swayed under his foot. He stumbled, and caught himself. The world on the other side of the universe was treacherous. It might have been trying to toss him back out again. So then, he thought, it doesn’t want me. I must be here for a reason, see? But the reason was not there. No dragon spiraled the towers of the citadel. No gust of wind fell from its wings. Whatever he had followed was not there. He took another step, and trembled. The ground was roiling now, tossing like the sea. He fell to his knees and clutched at the earth beneath him – or was it earth? – gritting his teeth and clenching shut his eyes. The citadel did not move. It stayed motionless and immense while the ground surged before it.

Would he go back, shaking and retreating from this place, or would he claw and pull himself closer? He clutched at the ground, his muscles straining, and he fixed his eyes on the tower that thrust through the sky.

He was supposed to be a hero. He did not know what that meant, but it did not mean turning back and whimpering away through the tunnel he had dug for so long, with such determination that it had shredded his fingernails and made his fingers bleed. He dug his fingers into the ground and hauled himself forward. The citadel wavered in his vision as he rose and fell with the waves of the earth, but he did not stop. It was closer now, and closer. He would reach it.

When he had dragged himself across the heaving earth for hours, the citadel was in his reach. The iron of the wall was cold under his palm. He curled his hands around its ridges and ignored the quiver in his muscles, weak with fatigue as they were. When he reached the first flat platform of the tower, he curled up on the smooth stone floor. In front of him, as he faced out, the wall of rock rose gray and infinite. His tunnel was a pathetic hole halfway down, a little black spot like a drop of ink on the endless page. The ground where he had crawled was still rolling and falling. He watched it until he fell asleep.

He awoke when the light of dawn drenched the citadel. He turned, in awe, to look at the black shadows that cut across the towers and turrets, and the pale light that blanched the building in stripes. The warmth of morning crept close to his skin as he shivered in the shadow of his walls. He gathered his strength, looked up, and began to climb once more. There was no reason to it now, no dragon and no maiden. He did not know what he was following, or if there was anything above him. He reached and gripped and pulled himself upward.

He climbed all day, and slept again at night. The ground below, still tumbling, looked very far away now, but when he tipped his face to the sky there was still a ceaseless stretch of stone and iron above him. He climbed, and slept, and climbed again for a long time. His skin hardened. The hold he had made in the rock of the universe disappeared, a forgotten blot long past. The towers thinned and twisted. No dragon could nest this high. No human had ever reached this height.

He had to be a hero, by now. The crag of tower where he was clinging was nearly at the sky. He could barely breathe, but he could see the blue above him, and the place where the tower broke through it. In another day he heaved himself over an edge of stone and his head scraped against the sky. He curved himself around and put his fingers through the edge of the wound in the sky, between its curling edge and the iron that shot through it. He shoved, and bent the sky back. The edge of the sky was sharp, and it tore and sliced at his hands. He ignored the pain, for he was a hero. When there was a space enough to shimmy through, he clutched at the crumpled edge of sky and drew himself over.

For a long and shuddering moment, the hero lay gasping on the top of the sky. Above him the towers of the citadel pushed endlessly into the black. He sat and caught his breath, and then he began to climb again.

Talking to a Stone

The house was newly dusty when they entered, lugging the trunks and boxes and suitcases and shopping bags full of odds and ends. The floor was covered with the fine sawdust like a soft thin carpet. Their shoes left shapes engraved into it as they walked. Colin complained, “Think they could have swept or vacuumed. Jeez.”

Zoe rolled her eyes at him, twisting around to make the face and hauling a box after her. It skidded in the sawdust, leaving a clean patch of floor behind it. Colin wandered away, tipping his face up to look at the moldings and the light that touched the walls. “It’s bigger than I remembered,” his voice echoed back at her. “Wait, look, they left a cabinet thing. A night table, maybe? Come in here and see.”

Zoe let the box-end drop with a whisper of dust scurrying away from the thud. There was a little wooden set of drawer with a table-top in front of Colin, and he was staring at it quizzically. He didn’t turn his head when she came into the room, just said, “Seems odd they’d leave it, doesn’t it? It’s not like it could’ve been from the last people who lived here, and I can’t think the builders would need it for anything, right?” Zoe shrugged, and opened the first drawer. There was nothing in it but a pebble, the size of a quarter, so dark as to be almost black and bumpy, like it had been craggy until it spent half of eternity in a riverbed.

Zoe leaned down and picked up the stone. It sat in her palm while they both stared, brow-furrowed, at this thing so out of place in their dusty new home. Then it moved. They both started a bit, and looked at each other. Colin said, “Did you see–” and Zoe nodded. The pebble wiggled again, shook itself as though it had been sleepy and was waking up. It kept moving, back and forth and side to side. Perhaps, Zoe thought in a dazy dreamlike way, it was dancing. She held out her hand to Colin, as if to ask him to take it, and he shook his head, his hands fluttering in the air. “No,” he said, “I don’t want the thing. Put it down.”

“No,” said Zoe. “What if it runs away?”

“Runs away? It’s a rock. What’s it going to do, escape into the wild?”

“Maybe,” she said. “How is it even moving?”

Colin hunched his shoulders up to his ears. “I don’t know. God. Let it escape then. What’re we going to do with it?”

“You look like a turtle,” Zoe said. Colin scowled at her instead of relaxing. “We’re going to keep it. For now. Why not? I’m going to put it back.”

The drawer was still open. When Zoe stretched her arm toward it, ready to place the pebble on the wood, it began to tremble. It wiggled and shook until the thing was practically vibrating, buzzing on Zoe’s palm. She drew her hand back, startled, and curled her fingers around it. “I guess not,” she said. “I’ll keep it with me, then.” She slid it gently into the pocket of her jeans and patted the lump it made in the denim, stretched over her thigh. Its shiver slowed and stopped. “We should move in more stuff, and we can look at it later. I don’t know. Let’s just get this done.”

Colin nodded, and they went back to the truck to keep unloading. When they were both bent and grumpy with the ache of moving and their faces were gleaming with sweat, they stopped. Zoe set to assembling their new bed and Colin made oatmeal on their new stove. The pebble in her pocket thrummed while she moved, until it was shaking hard again. She plucked it from her pocket and held it between her fingers, before her face. “Listen,” she said, “This isn’t going to work if you’re just quivering all the time, okay? It’s distracting and I’m going to put you down.”

-Yes,- said the stone. -But. Listen.-

Zoe jumped and almost dropped it. Its voice in her head screeched. “Sorry,” she said to it. “Uh. Sorry. What in heaven’s name are you?”

-I’m a stone,- said the stone. -Can’t you tell?-

“Well, yes,” said Zoe. “Most stones can’t talk, and the normal non-sentient kinds are just all over the place. You know. Outside. Not in a drawer that is mysteriously in the living room of our new house.”

-Those are the boring kind of rock,- the stone said. -I’m the interesting kind. I used to be a boulder, you know. Great hulking thing. Long time ago. You know what you don’t want to happen to you when you’re a boulder? Have a bloody evil sorceress stub her sodding toe on you and curse you into consciousness.-

“You’re being funny,” she said, suspicious. “That isn’t it.”

-Not exactly,- the stone admitted. -Listen. I’ll tell you a story, alright? A true one.-

When Colin came to find Zoe a half hour later with a bowl of oatmeal and a bent spoon, he found her sitting on the half-made bed, talking to a pebble.

In the Rain

It was raining the kind of rain that slicked the pavement so that the road was a glistening black mirror stretched out before her. The stoplights and the signs screamed out in brilliant reflections down the highway, and everything in the night was a bright mass of light against darkness. She drove on.

It wasn’t that much farther to get home. The problem was just that everybody was paralyzed in the downpour. They crawled along at ten miles per hour under the speed limit, except for the madmen who raced by in the left land and hurled water from their tires onto everyone’s windshield. It was a highway without a barrier between lanes, and Jill was terrified that she was going to keep driving without really being able to see where she was going until she was just casually barreling down the wrong side of the road in the rain.

There was a stoplight coming up, so she eased her foot down on the brake. Somewhere in the middle of slowing down she sped through a puddle. Her tires slipped and crunched on the road, and she was seized with the horrible feeling of half-floating while the car spun away from her. Then the puddle was past and her panic was over. The cars lined up at the stoplight and its flare against the black sky had a deadly kind of beauty.

Jill looked around, her eyes drinking in the slippery lovely sight of it all even though her brain was shrieking. There was a car to her left, and a man peering at her from behind its steering wheel. He was probably her age, but she could mostly see his dark eyes looking at her through the streaking rain on the windows. She smiled at him, her practiced hello-stranger smile, and then the light turned green. The man in his car turned left, and she went on straight. It wasn’t until she was past two more stoplights that she realized.

The man at whom she had smiled a polite smile, he was familiar. What was his name? Alex, maybe? Jill couldn’t remember where she knew him from, but the set of his jaw was familiar. She definitely recognized his scruff of hair. His eyes, though, were unmistakable. Through the blur of rain and time she remembered that stare.

God, it must have been high school when she’d last seen him. She squinted at the sprawling mess of rain and traffic in front of her, trying to remember. She couldn’t tell if he had recognized her as well. She couldn’t believe that she hadn’t recognized him at once. She’d thought she was so in love with him, in high school. Her teenaged self had sighed and gazed about him. He’d been her first love, her first sex dream, her first almost-boyfriend, her first almost-sex. He’d broken her heart, of course. The rain seemed to let up now, finally, but she was almost home. Her car pulled off the highway and she was on her street in minutes. Because of the rain, probably, there was no parking. She circled the block twice until she wedged herself between two others, and then covered her head with her jacket and ran inside.

Jill sat in the kitchen for a while after she got in, her forehead against the chill of the window and her eyes unfocused. Outside, the rain calmed to a dull drizzle, but everything still gleamed. Absentmindedly, she ate scrambled eggs. There was nothing else to do, so she went to bed. The sheets were cold, so she put socks on. The world outside seemed to quiet a bit once she was under the covers again, until it was a subdued buzz hovering outside. She thought about Alex as she fell asleep, how she’d smiled tightly at his dark eyes and would probably never see him again. Oh well, she thought, as the rain beat a steady patter on the roof and dripped down the fire escape. Too bad. He’d driven off in a different direction, and that was it.

When she woke up, she was confused. There was a bad taste in her mouth, a muddle in her head, and a knocking at the door. She shuffled out of bed, getting caught in her blanket, and stumbled all the way until she could pull the door open. It stuck and protested until she yanked, and then she looked up at Alex.