Today is October 7th, a day for love and a day for death. The joyful screams of children suffuse the air of the Green Valley Apple Orchard. Families are filling little red wagons with freshly picked apples. It’s a bit late in the apple season, but that doesn’t stop me or any other people here from looking for the last unpicked treasures.
Two white paper bags dangle from my hands as I wend my way through the rows of apple trees. The green leaves of the apple trees rustle in the wind, and a little chill worms its way through my designer sweater.
I’ll have fewer apples this year. Julian’s not here to carry more bags.
Julian and I met at the Green Valley Apple Orchard on October 7th. Our orchard. Standing on opposite sides of a Granny Smith tree, we both reached for the same apple. Our fingertips touched, and we stared at each other for a second.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Julian mumbled and quickly retracted his hand. “You can have it.”
“I didn’t think anyone else liked Granny Smiths except me,” I said as I set the apple into my bag.
“Right? I love everything sour and tart.”
“Well, then you’ll love me,” I joked.
The corners of Julian’s mouth lifted. “Can I take you out to dinner, ah….”
“Yes. I consent to dinner with a stranger.”
“Technically, I’m not a stranger since you’ve already met me,” Julian winked.
A branch laden with deep red Cameo apples hangs in front of me. I pluck one and then stop. Should I take more? Or I should just get some more Fuji and Golden Delicious apples? I agonize over the apples for a few more minutes before deciding to pick them all.
Julian was always good at choosing apples.
“Which apples should we start with?” I asked. It was October 7th, our first anniversary of meeting.
“Honey Crisp,” he said confidently and handed me two paper bags. We strolled over to a tree bearing glistening, crimson Honey Crisp apples. My mouth watered.
“OK,” Julian popped open one of the bags for me. “Pick away.”
“Uhh, I don’t know which ones to take.”
“Just pick them all, sour tart. It’s not like you’re choosing wedding rings or floral arrangements.” A strange analogy to use. I threw Julian a quizzical look and started dropping apples into the open bag. Before I could put the last two in, Julian stopped me.
“Let’s eat these two.”
“But, the sign said we aren’t supposed to–”
“Pfft. No one cares.” We both took an apple. “Close your eyes when you bite into this one.”
“An apple a day…” I started.
“Keeps the doctor away!” Julian finished, and we tapped our apples together like we did every day.
The waxy apple peel burst open as I bit into the apple with closed eyes and the tart sweetness flooded my mouth.
“Open your eyes,” Julian stood before me on one knee, a ring with an apple-shaped diamond in hand. “Marry me, Agatha?” he asked expectantly.
“Yes, of course, yes!” I slid the ring on my finger and kissed Julian then and there. “I consent to marry a stranger!”
“Technically, I’m not a stranger since you’re now my fiancée,” Julian said onto my lips.
I’m careful not to step on the fallen and half-eaten apples littering the base of each tree, rotting in the afternoon sun. The apples are discolored and fermenting, their scent mingling with the tantalizing aroma of warm apple cider donuts. Flies buzz in the air.
For some reason, there were never as many rotting apples in the orchard when Julian and I came here in years past.
“Julian! Do we have a protractor anywhere?” I shouted from the dining room of our house.
“What do you need a protractor for?”
“I want to get the angles for the apple centerpiece just right.”
Julian walked into the dining room, fiddling with his tie and trying not to drop the phone balanced on his shoulder.
“Sorry, we don’t have a protractor,” He scrunched his eyebrows in response to something someone on the phone said. “No, didn’t you see the edits I made? Don’t publish the original!”
“Seriously?” I groaned and handed an apple to him. “Where are you going?”
“Work function,” he grabbed the apple. “Yes, it’s in the folder!”
“But…I thought we were having dinner together tonight.”
“Sorry, change of plans…Just figure it out, Brady.”
“An apple a day…” I held up my apple, trying to keep the disappointment at bay.
“Yeah, yeah…Keeps the doctor away,” Julian distractedly tapped his apple against mine. “Alright see you there, Brady.”
Julian finally finished tying his tie and pecked me on the cheek. “Bye, sour tart.”
He breezed out the door, forgetting his apple on the table.
A lady whose nametag says ‘LUCY’ weighs my bags of apples at the checkout table.
“That’ll be eight dollars and fifty cents, dearie,” she informs me. Dearie? Oh, good lord.
I pull out my debit card to pay. “Oh, dearie, we only accept cash.”
“Seriously? You guys accepted cards last year. I mean, we do live in the twenty-first century, you know,” I huff.
“Dearie, I’m very sorry–”
“May I ask why you don’t take cards this year?”
“Uhh, dearie, I really don’t–”
My voice rises. “I mean, this is ridiculous! Who runs this place? Could I speak to them?”
A man gives a disgruntled sigh from the line that has formed behind me. I shoot him a death glare and turn back to Lucy.
“Or perhaps have a system to file complaints?”
“Speak up, woman!” Lucy’s face hardens.
“Wake up, Julian. Wake up!” I shook him awake.
“Uurrhhwwwhhff! What’s going on?”
“It’s October 7th! Our anniversary. Time to go to the orchard!”
“Ughh, Agatha, I’m so tired right now. Could we skip this year?”
“Skip? SKIP?” I began crying softly for a good measure. “You want to skip our dearest tradition?”
“You will come to the orchard, Julian Meadows.”
“Now, apologize by asking me to the orchard.”
“Would you like to go to the orchard, sour tart?”
Ignoring the dig, I smiled. “I consent to go to the orchard with a stranger.”
“Technically, I’m not a stranger since you’re my wife,” Julian sighed.
“Just buy your apples already, lady!” The man who sighed earlier yells.
I ignore him and take a deep, calming breath, trying to smile. “You know what? It’s fine. It’s fine. I’ll pay with cash.”
I dig out some crumpled dollar bills and coins from my wallet. “There. Eight fifty-five. Do you have change?”
With a stony face, Lucy swipes the money from my hand and slaps a nickel into my palm.
“Next!” she hollers. No ‘have a nice day, dearie’ or ‘goodbye’? Rude. No tips for you today, Lucy.
I smoothed my ebony hair and adjusted Julian’s tie as he rang the doorbell to Brady’s house. I sorely regretted wearing my red sleeveless dress; it was freezing out here.
Champagne flute in hand, Brady opened the door. “Hey, Julian!” He nodded at me. “Agatha. Come on in, guys!”
“Jingle Bells” started playing from a speaker somewhere as Brady took our coats.
Julian went to get us drinks, and I made my way to the appetizers. One minute passed, then two. The people around me laughed and danced. Where was Julian? It didn’t take that long to get a drink.
I walked over to the drinks table to find Julian chatting with a young brunette. Is he flirting?!
“Julian? My drink?”
“Oh, sorry, here you go, Agatha,” he handed me a martini. I hate martinis but took a sip anyway. “Agatha, this is Christie,” Julian pointed to the brunette. “She’s a new intern at the company.” That little slut. Who does she think she is, stealing my husband?
I smiled stiffly at the girl and shook her hand hard, “Nice to meet you.” Not. “Do you want to dance, Julian?” I put my hand on his shoulder.
Julian glanced at the girl and reluctantly agreed. “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” was playing as I swept Julian onto the dance floor. I swirled and twirled, but Julian’s eyes were absently roving the room, up and down other girls’ legs.
“Eyes up here, Julian,” I hissed.
“Jesus, Agatha, I was just admiring the Christmas Tree.”
Yeah right. “How come you don’t call me ‘sour tart’ anymore?”
“Uhh, I don’t know, I guess it just slips my mind.”
“Like how I slip your mind?”
Julian spun me around. “Lay off, would you? Can we just enjoy the party?”
Striding over to my car, I start munching on a Fuji apple. I’m setting my bags of apples on the passenger seat, where Julian used to sit when I notice a dark spot in the flesh of my apple. A worm. I extract the thing with my fingernails and hold it up in the air.
“Today’s your lucky day, my friend,” I say and crush it under the heel of my Gucci boot.
“I was thinking of buying an apple sapling and planting it today,” I told Julian over breakfast. “It’s a gorgeous spring day outside.”
“Sure, do whatever,” Julian muttered without looking up from the newspaper.
“You don’t want to plant it with me?”
“I’m sorry, Agatha, work is just–”
Pitifully, I whined. “You never make time for me.”
“We went to that party together.”
“That was months ago!”
Julian stayed silent so I declared, “Well if you don’t want to plant it with me, I’ll just plant it myself!”
That day, I went to the Home Depot and brought a Granny Smith apple sapling. I dug a hole in the front yard, put the sapling in, and covered it in fresh mulch. Leaning back on my heels, I admired my work. Oh! Forgot water.
As I filled a bucket of water in the bathroom, I noticed Julian's phone near the sink. Poor thing, he must have forgotten it. I tapped on the screen to see his background picture, only to find out he'd changed it. Instead of a selfie of us at the apple orchard, an image of a beach glowed up at me. Why would he do that?
Suddenly, Julian's phone dinged and an email popped up. From 'Christie Woodward'. I set the bucket on the floor with a thud and gripped Julian's phone. The email read:
Hello, Julian. I just wanted to let you know that I finished the article you assigned me to write. Would you mind looking over it and giving me feedback? Thank you!
Leave my husband alone, you evil homewrecker! And Julian! You adulterous bastard!
Sucking in a breath, I tried to calm the racing thoughts, but to no avail. I stormed outside and dumped the water over the apple sapling.
The colors of fall zip by on the drive home. Some tree leaves are still spring green, while others have started to turn toward the top, creating gorgeous yellow-to-green color spectrums. Other trees are as orange as pumpkins and red as apples.
I love fall. It’s too bad Julian’s not here to admire it too.
The window was a square of darkness as I looked through it onto the empty street. It was nine o’clock on a Tuesday, and Julian still wasn’t home. Where was he?
A white car pulled up to the house under the garishly bright street lamp. Scrabbling for the latch, I shoved open the window. Julian stepped out of the passenger seat while Christie walked over to him from the other side of the car. My vision went red.
“Thanks for the ride, Christie. I hadn’t realized how low I was on gas.”
“Any time, Julian,” the girl trilled. Julian gazed at her, and they both leaned forward.
Street lamp illuminating his face, Julian gave the girl a bewitching smile. “Good night, Christie.”
He never smiled at me like that. Angry tears began dripping from my eyes and splattering on the windowsill. Stop, I told myself. Save them.
Who knew trees grow so well when watered with woe and wrath?
My tree greets me as I pull into my driveway. I step out of the car and beam with pride. It's so healthy and tall now.
Julian sat beside me on the couch and leaned into me. “Sour tart. You know I love you.”
“Don’t sweet talk me. What is it?”
Huffing, Julian leaned away. “About Friday. The 7th. I have a stupid board meeting.”
“I can’t come to the apple orchard,” Julian said quickly.
“What did you say?” I asked, my jaw rigid.
“I can’t come to the apple orchard.”
I jumped up and screeched, “We go to the orchard every year! What do you mean, you can’t come?!”
“Agatha, I really can’t miss this meeting–”
“I knew it! You’re just going to visit Christie!”
“You’re cheating on me!” I started sobbing. “How could you?!”
Julian stood, holding up his hands. “Christie is just a colleague, Agatha! I’m not cheating on you!”
“Yes, you are! You were flirting with her at the party!”
“We were just talking–”
“STOP MAKING EXCUSES!” I screamed and pushed Julian onto the couch. He gaped at me for a moment, and then his face turned ugly.
"You have the nerve to yell at me? You're so obsessive! Who needs a protractor to set up a centerpiece?"
"I want our house to look nice!"
"And I dread every October 7th–"
"Don't you even start!"
"–because you make such a big deal about it–"
"It's our anniversary! Of course it's a big deal!"
"–I can't even leave the house without you knowing–"
"You're my husband!"
We both gasped for breath, spent.
Julian plopped on the couch and ran a hand through his blonde hair. "How about we both calm down and apologize for…that. I'm sorry, Agatha."
"Yeah, sorry," I said, even though I was still boiling inside. "I'm going to get an apple. Do you want one?"
I returned a minute later with a plate of apple slices.
"Granny Smith?" Julian asked as he popped one into his mouth.
"Yes. I picked them this morning from my tree."
"Ugh," he gagged. "No offense, Agatha, but this apple is awful. It tastes like bitter almonds."
"Just keep eating. They have a great aftertaste," I held up an apple slice toward Julian. "An apple a day…"
Julian rolled his eyes, tapped an apple slice against mine, and stuffed it down his throat with a grimace.
"Keeps…the…" Julian started struggling for breath. His blue eyes shone with panic and he clawed at his throat. "Keeps…"
"Keeps the doctor away," I murmured as I watched the life bleed out of my husband.
I run my fingers down the trunk of my tree and pull off a plump apple.
You wouldn't notice it if you didn't know where to look, but next to my tree, there is a sliver of disturbed earth. I glance down at it and hold the apple out.
"Want an apple, Julian?"
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A very enjoyable twist! I like how we're only gradually introduced to how Agatha blows tiny things out of proportion. When she blows up at Lucy was the first real sign that something was really off. It starts off as a feeling of loss, and considering the title, I wondered if Julian died (like, he missed his daily apple being a metaphor for missing the signs of cancer or something, until it was too late). But as the story goes on, we see this cheating angle instead. Of course, the actual end was very different. Agatha initially appears to...
I'm glad you enjoyed the twist! And thank you for your analysis! You definitely read more into the meaning of the missed apple than I ever did (although, your interpretation of the apple is very interesting! An idea for another story perhaps...)
Where to start on this lovely dark piece (how I love the morbid)--first off, the parallel structure on this line of dialogue was a very clever device 😍 : “Technically, I’m not a stranger since you’ve already met me,” Julian winked. “Technically.” It's such an artistic way of showing the passage of time without outwardly stating it or using a time tag. One of my favorite things to do is to make readers *hate* a certain character. I think I can speak for everyone when I say we HATE Christie!!! And yet you've made us identify with and lov...
Aww, thank you so much! Yess, cheers to everything dark and morbid (to the point where I feel like it's the only thing I can write without being cheesy 😆) I'm glad Agatha came off as a true character, since I was afraid she was too over-the-top. The prompt really helped me nail her character, though. As for the apple orchard, I actually got the idea for this story when I went apple picking with my family. I was looking at the rotting apples and I thought, gee, wouldn't it be interesting if there was a rotting body under the rotting appl...
Great story! I especially liked that the two women were named Agatha and Christie. Clever! Nice, dark story. Keep writing, Sophia.
Thank you so much! I just couldn't resist having an Agatha and a Christie in one story.
Hi Sophia, woke up early so I've got ten minutes. There's so much to like in your story! I love the apple imagery, how this has so much description which develops all the senses of the look, taste and even touch of the apple. Lots of actions developed the characters well, like their bumping apples and their ritual of the Orchard visit ( great idea, wish we had that here in Germany!) More than this, I think you handle the narrative structure and flashbacks really well. No easy feat, so well done. I can see one clear area where you could work:...
Thank you so much for your constructive feedback! I realized as I was writing that the dialogue was a bit off, especially in the falling-out scene (where it felt very superficial), but I didn't really know what to do about it. You're right about the all-caps; it makes Agatha sound kind of ridiculous. I'm glad the structure worked. I was worried it might confuse readers, but I felt it was necessary to build some suspense and slowly reveal Agatha and Julian's deteriorating relationship. I love Kevin's work! I need to go back and revisit hi...
Snap with the inspiration!