Under the Apple Tree (A short story)

UNDER THE APPLE TREE

It was an exceptionally warm June day, when Adam fell from the apple tree. Unfortunately, there were no 17th century physicists to break his fall, and so he hit the ground hard. The green ground rushed up to meet him, but there was a flicker of light, golden sparks that danced like fireflies, but soon there was only darkness. He woke up sometime later in his own bed, his parents and the family physician standing over them, their faces were each a canvas painted with relief. He got out of bed, and he did not ache, there was no pain. It was strange to say, but he felt great, better than ever, in fact. He hugged his parents, and their eyes seemed to sparkle with joy, and everything felt so warm as they stood there in an eager embrace, amber light streaming through the windows. This feeling of warmth and fulfilment continued, for days afterwards in fact. His family were happier, food tasted better, and his parent’s records had never sounded so sweet. It would not be for many months until he realised, he was no longer in his own world.

Jenny walked through the rain, her annoyance painfully apparent. It was July, why is it raining? Her bright boots splashed through the mud as she trudged towards the apple tree that stood proudly on top of the hill. She climbed the slight incline, beginning to regret her decision to leave the house today, but still welcoming the fresh air. She reached the lonely tree, and straightening out her rain coat, sat on the small log next to it that they pretended was a bench. The clouds were a listless grey sheet of concrete that spread on as far as she could see, but beneath that you could see the entirety of the village. So many houses, so many windows, so many lives that continued unabated. Sometimes her and Adam would sit here for hours in the summer, listening to the chorus of crickets carried by the breeze, and the shrill cries of birds above them, as they sat below, making up stories and teasing each other. It was here where she kissed him for the first time, back when they were still young enough to think it was gross, but they soon outgrew that belief. She looked to her left, and on the bench was a wood carving; J+A 4EVER, because of course there was. She just wished she had carved it while he was still here.

It was a strange thing, being in another world. Everything felt so, so painfully similar, but everything was..better? His family were happier, his friends were nicer, and his neighbours were friendlier. As far as he could tell, everything was practically the same as before, but improved. His mum and dad were there, so were his friends, and he had never felt so overwhelmed with affection. And Jenny. She was as sweet as she had always been. It was like she hadn’t changed at all. Everyday after school they were together. They went to the cinema, or for long walks to nowhere, but mostly they just say by the apple tree, and she would rest her head on his shoulder, and he would swear that nothing in this world could compare to the way she smelled, and the way she felt as she leaned on him. If it were up to him, they would stay there forever, next to that carving of their initials on the bench. He wondered if this was the same Jenny he shared that first kiss with on this very bench, only a few years ago. He told himself it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the way her hazel eyes glistened in the orange light, and the way her lips parted to tell him she loved him, and the smile that emerged like a beacon of light when he said it back.

It was a warm and bright day, the next time Jenny walked to the same tree. The sun was high in the sky, and the world bathed in it’s beautiful glow. As she reached the top of the hill, a small scattering of sweat had gathered on her forehead, which she wiped away in a fruitless effort. Today she was not alone, she saw. A figure had seated herself on the bench, and a plume of smoke drifted from the cigarette in her hand. She didn’t seem dressed for the warmth, sat in a grey tracksuit and hoodie, with her hair tied up, but it looked unkempt and messy. She didn’t notice Jenny as she approached the woman, and finally recognised her.

“Marion?” She asked gently. Slowly, Marion turned her head, cigarette smoke streaming from her nostrils. She looked tired, she hadn’t put any make-up on, and her lips were chapped.

“Hiya darlin’” She replied, her voice harsh and croaky. Jenny would have guessed that she hadn’t spoken to anyone else today. These days, no-one really seemed to see Marion about much. “You alright?” She asked, not unfriendly.

“Yes thanks, are you?” Jenny replied, polite as she could. Marion turned back to stare at the village beyond, nodding.

“Yeah not bad, cheers.” She replied, taking another drag from her cigarette. Jenny stood behind her, awkwardly, unsure what to do. She did not mean to interrupt her, and she had kind of hoped to just sit and stare for a while. She began to slowly turn back around, when Marion spoke again. “Sit down, luv. You’re not bothering me.” She fixed Jenny with careful eyes, as she obediently sat down next to her, the carving lying in between the two of them. “I was wondering if you were comin’ here today.” She said as Jenny sat down, and turned back towards the azure sky. Not a cloud in sight. Jenny nodded. The smell of Marions deodorant was covering an underlying layer of stale smoke.

“Yes. It’s a beautiful day, I thought I would get out of the house for a bit.” She said, also staring beyond. Marion made a noise in agreement. Jenny had wondered if she had been out at all, at least she had gotten a little sunburn on the back of her neck and forearms, from her expeditions to school and back. Marion looked pale, like paper, almost sickly. She took another drag of her cigarette, before dropping it below her, and stubbing it out with her trainers, letting a final plume of smoke escape her lungs as she did. She sat forward, her hands together, almost in apprehension. Jenny continued to sit upright, her hand shielding her eyes, as she watched the village below, her imagination once again stirring, but from her peripherals, she could see Marion was sneaking glances at her. She soon got the feeling she wanted to say something to Jenny, but somehow couldn’t get it all out. Jenny turned to her and smiled, gently, and Marion tried to force one out, the ends of her dry lips curving, but it proved to be too much of an effort, and she turned away again.

“Do you come here a lot?” Marion asked, finally, still staring forward. Jenny chewed at her lip.

“Sometimes. When I’m sad, or need to clear my head, I guess.” Marion nodded, still not looking at her.

“It’s nice, up here. I try to stay away from it, to be honest, but when I do come up here…” She began to trail away. Looking up towards the sky. “Yeah..it’s nice.” She said again, her right eye closed to shield from the sun. Jenny looked at her, her face a mix of concern and sadness. Of course. It was hard for Jenny to come here too, this was the last place she saw Adam, before he dissapeared. Marion took a deep breath, then stood up suddenly. “Right, I’d better be off, luv. Say hi to your mum for me. See you later.” With her hands in her hoody pockets, she turned to leave.

“Oh, bye Marion.” She watched her walk back, and bend down to pick up a fallen apple from the floor, and stash it back in her pocket.

Adam and Jenny reclined on the sofa, watching an animated film they hadn’t seen since they were kids. Her head was rested comfortably against his arm behind her, and their feet nestled against each others. The sun shone brightly outside, signifying the end of the rain, and the world outside seemed to soak it up in grateful nourishment. Half the time he was not even paying attention to the film about cartoon cats that sang, instead he watched her gnawing on her thumbnail, oblivious to the world, or when the way she chewed her lip, or the way her chest heaved when she breathed. Everything about her seemed so natural, so pure. Her eyes were like portraits he could get lost in, her hair was soft as silk, and her pale skin was smooth, like a pebble carved from the ocean waves. There was nothing he did not like about her, not even that mole on her back she hated. He leaned in to kiss her on the head, and gave her shoulder a squeeze. Reactively, she curled around and turned to face him, her hand on his chest, and in a moment he would gladly say he have be his last, they smiled at each other, and moved in for a kiss. But with the amazing timing only parents possess, he heard the front door open and his mum and dad came bustling in, both loaded with arms full of shopping bags, loudly continuing whatever conversation it was that had begun before. Jenny moved away and sat bolt upright, and Adam removed his hands back to himself, both blushing profusely, when his mum spied him.

“Hiya hun!” She called out, as she placed her bags with a sound of effort. Adam looked at Jenny before responding.

“Hi!” He called out, trying not to sound flustered, but evidently she noticed and approached him to see if he was okay, and emitted a brief squeak when she noticed Jenny was there, who gave her a sweet smile.

“Oh! Hiya luv! Didn’t see you there! You alright?” She asked, although as always, didn’t wait for an answer. “Dave! Jenny’s here again!” She called out to her husband as he unloaded the bags.

“Hello!” He called, too busy looking at tins of tomatoes and beans to turn around. Besides, Jenny was always around nowadays, he wasn’t exactly surprised.

“Are you staying for dinner, luv? Got some chicken for fajitas tonight.” She asked earnestly, as if it were some foreign delicacy. Although to her, Adam supposed it probably was.

“Oh! Well, actually we are, uh..” Jenny began, but soon looked to Adam for help.

“We’re going out in a bit mum.” He finished.

“Ooh! Where you off to?” She said, with no feigned enthusiasm, when his dad finally came into the living room.

“Marion, don’t be so bloody nosy. Let the youngin’s have their fun.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and gave Adam a wink, before kissing her on the cheek. “You alright for money, lad?”

“Yeah, yeah fine thanks dad.” He said, smiling at Jenny. His dad smiled back.

“Good, good. Come on you, lets get these fajitas started, I’m starving.” Leading her back. Jenny smiled at him again, and resumed her position of leaning on him, with his arm behind her, as they continued to watch the rest of their movie. He kissed her on the head a second time, and sighed deeply to himself, a picture of contentment.

It was still oppressively warm when Marion returned home, with her bright blue plastic bag containing everything she needed to get through the week- coffee, ibuprofen, a large bar of Galaxy chocolate, and a pack of cigarettes. She placed the bag on the kitchen counter, and sighed, her hoody clinged to her body and she tried to shake it off, grateful to be away from the sun. She put the kettle on, and switched the radio on, grateful for the company. As she waited for the water to boil, she put away a jumper she had left on the sofa and washed her face in the bathroom basin, and took a long look in the mirror. Christ, she looked old. The ol’ “crows-feet” around her eyes began to look like those from an ostrich, and her eyes were surrounded by dark circles. She resigned and sighed, returning to the kitchen, to make herself a weak coffee. She stood by the window and looked into the garden, sipping slowly. She moved her hand into her hoodie pocket, and her hands clashed against the apple she had stowed away previously. She had completely forgotten about it, and pulled it out and placed it on the counter. She lit herself a cigarette and opened the back-door, allowing the wisps of smoke to escape. She watched the sun as it began to hide, and found herself looking back at the apple. About three-quarters of it’s surface was a dark and ominous red, while the rest was a pure and vibrant green. The broken stem towered above it, with a small leaf still attached. It looked like the kind of apple advertisers would use to promote some apple-based product, as picturesque as apples could possibly look, she supposed. She felt drained after her short walk. She turned back to the garden and saw the neglected garden chairs and table, almost overrun with grime and dirt. It was impossible not to think about Adam. She was sitting right there, with her friends when she received a call from David, slightly exasperated, but Adam was always out and about, so she didn’t worry about it, not for a second. It was Friday, the sun was out, and she was tipsy with her friends. In fact, all she could remember feeling was annoyance. One afternoon of peace, no nagging from David, no mischief from Adam. Everything felt so perfect, that afternoon. It wasn’t until the next morning, when Adam hadn’t shown up, that the gravity of the situation begin to hit her. She flicked the cigarette outside, and it joined the degrading pile in the corner, and exhaled a final cloud of smoke before closing the door. She tried to release that feeling of deep, permeating shame that accompanied that memory, but it was set deep inside her. She took her coffee and the apple and crossed into the living room and placed them both on the coffee table. She clambered up the stairs and opened the closed door to the room opposite hers. The one that used to be Adam’s. It was never easy coming in here, of course it was very different to when he used to live in it. Part of her had wished she could have kept it exactly the same way as he left it for when he came back; Those Simpson’s bedsheets, games console in the corner, socks sporadically scattered over the floor, but honestly, she needed the storage space. When David was still here, they somehow managed to make do, but even though it was just her in the house, she suddenly had much more stuff than she knew what to do with, so she just piled it in here. All of Adam’s belongings had been given to charity or his cousins. In some ways that made things easier, but she constantly thought about what would happen when Adam comes home. Probably live with his dad, she assumed. She grabbed the nearby easel and her old packets of acrylic paint and made her way downstairs. She set it up in the living room, and turned the radio up a little bit. She was about a third of the way through, when she heard a knock at her door.

It was about 11 o’clock by the time they made it to the apple tree. She firmly grasped his hand and seemed to swing in the breeze, laughing. The night was still warm, and the brief flash of wind was welcomed and refreshing. Most of the village was dark, only a few street-lights radiated like dull stars ahead of them. The chorus of crickets was in full swing, and a few flies busied themselves in front of them with some purpose. They sat down, all smiles, leaning against each other, hands enclosed within each-other’s in a warm embrace. Adams other hand was in his jacket pocket, desperately clasping the object within. He had never felt so nervous. She spoke about the village underneath, but he was barely listening. He just chuckled when she laughed, and took a deep swallow. It was now or never. He looked over to her with apprehension, but when she looked back, her eyes sparkling in the absent light, he knew he was making the right choice.

Jenny had never been to Adam’s house before. Marion had always intimidated her in a way. She had never met David before, and as far as her mum had told her, he was out of the picture now. She knocked against the glass and waited, suddenly feeling a little bit nervous. For a while, it seemed like no-one was there, until she saw a shambling silhouette through the distorted glass, and unshackled the lock, and opened the door. When Marion saw her, her eyes widened in surprise.

“Oh, hiya luv.” She said, her voice full of curiosity.

“Hiya Marion.” Jenny replied, trying to inflate her voice with enthusiasm and friendly tones. “Sorry to bother you..” She began, waiting for Marions approval before continuing.

“No, you’re alright. Want to come in?” She opened the door further and Jenny walked in.

“Yes, thank you. I won’t keep you long, just spoke to mum, she wanted me to bring you something.” Marion looked to the bag Jenny was carrying, as she came in and took off her shoes. “Mum just told me she found this old cake tin that was yours, she kept meaning to bring it round, and I thought ‘cos I saw you earlier..” She raised the bag and Marion took it, inspecting the old metal tin within.

“Oh bloody hell, I’d forgotten about that!” She said with genuine surprise. “Thanks luv, and thank your mum for me.” It was an old cake tin, from a bake sale they had participated in, a few years ago. Jenny’s mum had been so impressed with Marion’s carrot cake she had to take the rest of it back with her, and had summarily forgotten that the tin was in their cupboard for all of this time. Truth be told, they hadn’t really spoken at all for a long time. It wasn’t until Jenny saw Marion earlier at the bench did she even remember they still had it. Jenny followed Marion until the kitchen. It was dull and dark in the house, compared to the brilliance of outside, but nice to get out of the sun for a bit. The house smelt of smoke, and she could hear the radio advertisements loudly, which Marion turned down to talk.

“Can I get you a cuppa, hun?” She asked as she put the cake tin on the counter.

“Oh, yes, please.” She replied, trying her hardest to sound cordial. Truth be told, it was a bit too warm for a hot drink, but part of her felt obligated to say yes. When she saw Marion earlier, there was a part of her that sank. She had never really thought about her until now, they had never spoken about Adam together.

“How’s your mum, she alright?” Marion asked as she filled the kettle and turned it on. The water began to boil and steam poured out from the top.

“Yeah fine thanks, she says hi.” She replied, feeling more than a little awkward. Marion smiled at her, at least attempted to, and busied herself with making her a tea. She passed it over to Jenny who accepted it with a smile and a thanks, although she could already see there was way too much milk in there.

“Shall we go in the living room?” She asked turning towards the door, and Jenny followed. The living room was cosy, with two sofas and an old TV, with warm coloured walls, and appeared to be well kept. Jenny was half worried the house might be in a bit of a state or neglected, but she was pleasantly surprised. An easel had been set up with a canvas, and next to it was a selection of paint. On the canvas it appeared to be the start of a picture of the apple that was carefully placed on the coffee table. Jenny had wondered if it was the same one she had taken from the tree.

“Oh sorry, let me just move this…” Marion said, trying to move the easel, in a flurry of what seemed like embarrassment.

“Oh don’t worry Marion, I didn’t mean to disturb you or anything, I’ll be out of your hair soon, I was just..seeing if you’re alright.” Marion stopped and smiled a little at that.

“Yeah..yeah I’m fine luv, dontchu worry. It’s just..just a..” Her voice trailed off, and Jenny genuinely thought for a second she was going to cry. She looked around the room again. Weirdly, there were no photos of Adam there, or of her ex-husband, all of the photos on the mantle piece were of family members, cousins and siblings, Jenny had guessed. Marion had her hand up to her face, the other one firmly grasping her coffee mug, she looked to be deep in contemplation.

“What are you painting?” She asked, as if she hadn’t seen what it was already. Marion turned to look at her slowly.

“Yeah, yeah it’s nothing reall-” She paused and looked into Jenny’s eyes, as if remembering who she was speaking to. She turned the easel so Jenny could see it. She had only really begun, so Jenny would hate to critique, but it looked kind of rough so far. Still, she smiled pleasantly.

“Oh cool, is that an apple form the tree?” She asked, and Marion looked a little surprised.

“Yeah, It’s just a thing I’ve been doing, I guess. On this date each year, I like to take an apple from there and paint it. It was…it was my therapist’s idea, really, said it could help a little bit. It does, I think.”She took a sip from her mug, as if it were some laborious task. “How you been getting’ on? How’s school?” She said in a friendly way, obviously eager to change the subject, and Jenny told her that she was almost finished with sixth-form, she’d be looking to go to university soon, hopefully to study psychology, and Marion’s eyes lit up.

“Bloody hell, uni already? Can’t believe it!” She managed a little laugh. “I remember when you were iddy-biddy, we used to come round in the summer so Adam could play in that paddling pool..” She stopped, seemingly regretting saying his name. She looked away, but allowed the smile to remain on her face, seemingly savouring the way it felt. Jenny frowned, and leaned in a little closer.

“How..how have you been, Marion?” She asked in a serious voice. Marion looked back at her, and choked back a sob, her eyes glittering with moisture. She took in a breath, as a way to console herself.

“It’s hard, luv.” She looked out of the window, her voice was thick. “Y’know, I’m ‘ere all alone and..” She topped herself, allowing herself to breath in again. “Everything reminds me of him.” She turned to her again, and a tear left her cheek. “I know I wasn’t the best mum, probably not even a very good one. But he was my boy.” The emotion congealed around her voice, and she lifted a hand to her mouth, her eyes were leaking more now. Jenny sat awkwardly, not knowing what to do, and feeling her eyes grow hot herself. “I’d give anything to have him back, Jenny.” She sniffed, sounding a little more under control. “Anything at all. He was a little terror, he was.” She unleashed a short laugh, amplified by emotion. “Always trying to wind me up or get into mischief, you know that.” She smiled at her, with more warmth than she showed all afternoon, and Jenny reciprocated, and wiped her eye with her hand. “Yeah we didn’t get on…but..” Her voice grew heavy again.

“But then, some…bastard…decides they’re going to-going to..” And now that emotion seemed to turn to anger. “I mean, he was my boy! Who would, just take him like that! And do, god only knows what with..” She sunk into her hand further, and sobs began to escape. Jenny’s heart fell. No-one knew what happened to Adam. She had tried not to think about it really, but it was clear that Marion had thought of nothing else. Truth is, Jenny never really thought about what happened to him, it was harder to rationalise than she thought, because in a worst case scenario, some evil, putrid human had abducted him, for him to never resurface, alive or otherwise. And best case scenario, only meant that he ran away, that his family was not good enough for him. That she was not good enough for him. She felt a tear run down her cheek too.

“Marion. We..we don’t know..” She began, but she just couldn’t finish it.

“Oh we don’t know?” She asked, rallying on Jenny, with a look of almost contempt. She looked like she began another sentence, but looking at Jenny’s heart eyes, she quickly stopped. She just nodded, and took a sip form her coffee, and grimaced when she realised it was cold. “..Do you want another one, luv?”

Jenny didn’t stay long after that. They gossiped a little about the people from the village and her mum’s friends, and told Jenny a story she heard about one of them recently, and elicited a genuine laugh from her. It was a beautiful sound, one that she had missed. She was a good kid. She wondered what would have happened if Adam was still here, if they would have ended up together. She saw the carving in the bench, and liked to think so, but she doubted it. Jenny was smart and beautiful, she must have all the boys after her. Soon Jenny had to go, and they hugged before she left, bonded after their heart-to-heart. She promised to call her mum soon, and closed the door, shutting out the outside world and it’s dying light. The house suddenly felt very dark and very empty. She had another cigarette, and felt newly refreshed. It was nice, actually having a conversation with someone outside of work, or a shop employee forced to be friendly to her. She was feeling more like her old-self. Maybe she would give Jenny’s mum a call after all, it’s been so long. She turned the radio back up, and continued painting. Her yearly routine, she felt like she had been getting better since she started. It was like an exorcism, ousting all of the bad stuff that seeped into her soul, and getting it out on canvas. It was David’s idea, to see that therapist, and while he might not have been able to help with many things, this one thing definitely did. She no longer dreaded the anniversary date, now it was more about creating something, not mourning. She would swear this was the best one she had done so far. When she was done, she put it and the easel back in Adam’s room, with the other paintings. There were so many of them now.

Adam stood at the tree, the anniversary of when he had first fallen. It was strange being back here, without Jenny. Just like the day he fell. It was a strange thing, being in another world. He thought about it constantly. But he was sure. It wasn’t just that everyone seemed happier, and the world more positive. It was hard to explain, but there was a shimmer to everything. Like a golden glow, a sepia cloud that made the world seem warmer. He had tried telling Jenny once, like he thought he fell so hard and landed into another world, and of course, she just laughed. She told him he probably knocked something in his head that just made him feel happier, and maybe that was true too. He smiled at the memory, and fiddled with the ring on his finger, thinking of the one he had given to Jenny at this very spot. He was happier. Everything in his life since that day had been exemplary, nothing seemed to go wrong. Some nights he wondered if he had hit his head, and this was all some wonderful dream born from a boy in a coma, but then each morning, he would wake up and carry on, almost surprised he didn’t wake up to his parents and the family physician and their worried faces. Sometimes he wondered, if the world left behind him had another Adam to replace him. Maybe the one from this world. Maybe he was dealing with his mum, not the smiley one from this world, but the one who always seemed to be on the phone, gossiping with someone, who nagging him to clean his room. Sometimes he wondered if he climbed that tree again, and fell from it, would he return to his own world, as if nothing had happened? Would it just wake him up from this beautiful dream? Would his parents say they’ve missed him? Somehow, he doubted it.

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