Red hair was only barely visible behind branches full of ripe apples and lush green leaves.
The breeze picked up, causing Courtney to shiver. She rubbed the sleeve of her thick flannel to try and warm up. Yesterday, she swore it was summer, with the warm air and sticky afternoons to prove it. But today she felt the cold bite of Autumn in the air. It made her nervous.
"Are you ignoring me now?"
"I'm thinking,” came June’s reply, her voice barely audible from a few yards away.
"I thought we were going to have fun today." Courtney sighed. That's what this trip was supposed to be about. Relaxing. Having fun for once. It had been a tense week.
"I don't know why those things can't happen at the same time."
"I'll just pick apples in silence by myself, then," Courtney said.
There was no response from June who was now completely out of sight. The silence aside from the quiet thumps of apples hitting the basket was maddening. Courtney didn't even know if June was even picking apples. Courtney had never been the one who was good at making things fun. She was too focused on winning or achieving a measurable goal. Take today, had she gone alone, she would have challenged herself to pick a certain number of apples or something to focus on to pass the time.
June was the light spirit, the happy one. The one filled with laughter. June knew how to have fun and never took anything too seriously. That had its disadvantages, but during a bonding activity it was useful. But today she was not herself. Courtney didn't know what was wrong and frustration was quickly enveloping her thoughts.
She walked faster to try and catch up to June. She looked around until she saw that red spot of hair behind a tree trunk. The trunks on apple trees were small, but June was a tiny person, her limbs almost bird-like with their delicacy at times. She was facing away from Courtney, but from this distance she could see there were two apples in her basket.
"Do you not like the orchard?"
Again silence. Courtney was getting to the end of her rope.
"This was your idea. If you didn't want to come, we didn't have to."
"I did want to come." June's voice was soft, but she didn't turn around.
"Then talk to me, what's going on here?"
The trees surrounding them were full of apples. It was one of the weekends halfway through the season. They had planned it for months. If only June would have as many words as these trees had apples.
"I'm sorry. I wanted to have fun too."
"Then what's wrong?!" Courtney shouted, exasperated. She slapped her hand on the nearby tree trunk in frustration.
"That's what's wrong." June turned, tear tracks visible on her face. "I can't do this anymore. I'm so tired."
Courtney immediately felt as though a bucket of cold water had filled her veins. She stepped in front of June and grabbed her hands. "Hey, it's alright." Courtney's voice was soft now. "What can't you do anymore?"
"This. Pretending it doesn't hurt me when you lose your temper over and over."
Courtney swallowed, her mouth feeling dry. Adrenaline shot through her limbs.
"I…" Courtney stuttered. "You know I'm sorry about that. I'm not expecting you to hide anything or pretend."
"But I do have to pretend." June said, her hands hanging limply in Courtney's grip. "That's how I get through the day without crying. That's why I'm in a fucking fruit field right now instead of back home."
Courtney was startled. June never swore. Courtney racked her brain for what could have possibly happened this morning that caused a reaction. They were a bit rushed getting out the door to get here early, but nothing bad happened. Fights were enviable between any two people but she couldn’t remember anything like that happening this morning.
June stared at her hard. "You've never had to be responsible before," she quoted, a mocking tone to her words.
"Hey I didn't mean.." Courtney's words died in her mouth. She did mean it.
"You did mean it."
"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings." She sighed. That much was true.
"I've made a decision. In a sense, you're right. I haven't been responsible for fulfilling my family duties."
"You know that's not what I meant."
"I know." June ripped her hands out of Courtney's light grip. "What you meant was that I'm too foolish and childlike for you. What you meant is that I'm not serious enough for you," June's voice continued to rise. "And what you meant was that I'll never understand you because I don't choose to drag myself down with other people's problems." June's volume was almost a yell. But not quite. June never yelled.
Courtney could feel her adrenaline attach like a magnet to this new target. She knew her body's sympathetic nerve system was about to go wild, but as usual, she would never be able to control it.
"You don't know anything about my life. You never understood what I had to go through! At least I help people with their problems! " She shouted.
"You don’t. The only thing you understand is control," June said, her voice soft again. "Controlling people’s problems is not helping them. And it doesn't make the way I chose to live my life irresponsible."
"You've always been spoiled." Courtney spat harshly.
"I've decided I’m leaving,” June’s voice shook. “Today. Right now."
"This is what I mean. You just run away. You don't stick around when things get difficult."
"No," June said, "Being with you was running away. Leaving is what’s difficult here."
"What is that supposed to mean? I was just some cheap entertainment for you?"
"Don't." June's tears began coming again. "You can keep all of my things. I won't need them where I'm going."
"What?" That took the wind out of Courtney's sails a bit. "No, wait June—"
And just like that June vanished. The basket she had been holding rocked gently on the ground where it had fallen.
Courtney fell to her knees, her full basket of apples landing in front of her. A couple bounced out with the rough landing, rolling away down the slight slope of the hill. She was never coming back. There was no way to track her down. Where June was going was no place a human could find her.
She looked up into the morning sky. She had no tears, those would come later, if she was safe. Her whole body only felt numb from the constant fluctuation of emotion. She was stuck in a constant cycle of trying to calm down and then vividly remembering the moment June left. Over and over.
How could June do this to her? June had never spoken well of her family, and it was unthinkable that she would really go back to them. It was something she was clearly using as an excuse. Courtney's rage began to grow as she thought about the accusations June had thrown at her.
She got up stiffly and grabbed a single apple from June's basket. She left the other in the bottom. Alone.
She slowly walked out of the orchard. One step after another. Memories of June darted quickly in and out of her consciousness. The happiness she had felt in those moments only accented the pain she was feeling now.
The time she and June danced under the stars in their pajamas all night.
June's eyes lighting up when her chosen name was used.
Eating so much chocolate they both got sick.
Late night movies.
Their first kiss.
The memory of June's sugar covered lips on hers twisting into an innocent smile was too painful and she blocked it out the best she could. She hated the pain and the weakness it was sure to bring. Thinking about it made her angry.
She shook out her shoulders and focused on the weight of the basket of apples. It seemed heavier than before. Lots of things seemed easier with June around. She focused on the burn of her biceps as she held the basket in place in front of her. It was just like lifting weights.
As she walked, she noticed the lush green leaves of the trees slowly turning to yellow. Much faster than usual. She stopped and watched as yellow turned to orange turned to brown. The wind picked off the now brown crunchy leaves from the branches, sending them floating away. Her rage dimmed as she watched the transformation of colors before her eyes. Maybe June really did go back to her family. Her heart ached.
She eventually got moving again and arrived at the payment stand to pay for her apples. Children were running around behind her, their shrieks of excitement feeling like an intrusion into her space. She placed the basket on the scale. Nine pounds. What was she going to do with nine pounds of apples? She didn't even know how to bake. Or can. Or whatever people did with apples.
"Cash or credit?" The cheerful worker asked her. The worker's hair reminded her of June's. No. That wasn't right. June's was more orangey red, this woman's hair was not. No one was like June.
Courtney wordlessly handed her card over. The transaction went through, and her receipt was handed over. She crumpled it up and put it in her jean pocket.
She turned to leave.
"Don't forget your apples, sir!" A common mistake her short hair often encouraged, but today she didn't have any room to care one way or the other.
She grabbed the bag, weaving her hand through the handles so none of the apples would fall out. A glance at the woman proved she was still smiling happily, unaffected by Courtney's stoic demeanor.
"Happy first day of Autumn" The clerk chirped at her.