“Have any of those apples left? The big yellow ones?”
The young man across the counter opens his mouth to answer, but is cut short by the darting of the woman's eyes. The circles of foggy green springboard and ricochet off the walls of the farmer’s market, as if chasing a particularly petulant fly. The cashier’s gaze follows. Her finger thrusts past his cheek, yanking him back to attention.
“Right that way!”
“Ma’am?” He raises his eyebrows, glancing back to the rows of fruit crates. The woman’s thin lips quirk up.
“That way. They were over there last I saw them. Always the third box down… of course, Olivander’s has been jumbled up all-new, word from the bird.” She shakes her head. “Mm mm mm. Shame, shame. Oh, but ya want to know something just wild?” She leans in, tapping the desk wither her nails. The man behind the counter watches with a courteous smile. “Did you know there used to be only six bins and a tent here? Only six! There wasn’t a soul who wouldn’t flip their wig passing it though, truely. If you had the coin for it, you stopped. Sometimes even if you didn’t have the coin for it. Olivander does grow the best fruit; please do tell him I said so. Haven’t seen the old vender around recently.”
Another man in a big red apron speeds up behind the cashier, passing him two yellow apples beneath the counter. He winks and darts back off. The old woman keeps on, her glassy eyes bouncing.
“You would’ve liked it better I think. They used to pay their little ol’ farmhands a commission of sorts. If you sold enough for one day you’d get a little somethin’ extra. Oh, it was pennies from heaven back then! My husband lives off that commission.”
“Oh, does he? What’s his name?” the cashier asks politely. The woman’s eyes light.
“Jasper! Silly question; the man can’t walk through a room without making his presence known.” She laughs abruptly and leans further in. The boy’s hands instinctively go out to catch her. She doesn’t seem to notice. “Between you and me, today is a very special day for us.” She winks.
What might that be, Miss?” The woman startles upright.
“What might that be, Miss? Your special occasion?”
“Occasion? Well, I’m not entirely sure…” Her brow furrows. “Oh! Did I tell you today was special? It was circled in red on my calendar! Red’s reserved for my husband. Is he around?” She tilts back to see around the counter.
The manager loops back around, moving the apples from the cashier’s hands to a bag and passing them off to the woman. The cashier blinks, looking timidly to his feet like a scolded dog.
“Now you have a wonderful day Mrs. M.,” the manager says with a nod.
“Oh! But I haven’t paid you! Olivander may be generous but he does not give freebies.” The manager gives an odd smile.
“Always will make an exception for you, Mrs. M.”
“No, no. I won’t have it.” She holds her head up, throwing down a handful of bills. She’s darting away on little legs before the man can get in another word. He yells after her anyway.
“Won’t have it!” she shouts back, a little giggle slipping from her mouth as her hand clamps over her big flowery hat to keep it from blowing off. “Do keep the change! It’ll be my little commission for you! Have a lovely eve boys!”
The two men watch her leave, the cashier with a confused grin, and the manager with one of those strange smiles men give, the kind that doesn’t quite reach their eyes. Business goes on.
“You little rat! Get back here!”
“Thought ya told me to scram, mister!” The boy laughed, running wildly with a hand jammed in each pocket. The apples bounced and dragged his trousers from their place, but he would tug them up and push the apples down in rhythm with each step.
“I’ll tell yer mother! I’ll tell ‘er! Thieving bastard! ‘At earns enough belts ta make ya hind bloody!” The fruit-stand man called after. He was still giving chase. Jesper grinned foolishly. He did admire perseverance.
“Find my mother?” He looped around the corner, causing the old vender to yelp. “Well, that would be quite the feat.” The boy risked glancing behind him and, upon seeing how far back his pursuer was, turned around altogether, racing in a backward jog. He skipped back, taking his cap in a hand and swooping down in a bow. “Pleasure doing business with you!”
The boy didn’t hear the rest. One moment he was upright, and the next he was on the ground.
“Shshshhhh.” The boy rubbed his head. Blue spun. Black speckled and swarmed like gnats. Get up, get up, get up. Brick walls waving it and out on all sides. His feet shook up under him and something caught. He was on the ground again.
“Wow, real classy.”
Who the he-
“Well, aren’t you gonna apologize and help me up?” The voice was small, airy and, as Jesper noticed, blown up with that stupid superiority only girls could manage. The boy got up again, blinking. Red curls formed over a round freckled face. Her eyes were a narrowed pukey green, and her orange eyebrows fell so hard over them they looked like they were gonna be crushed. She sat, splayed against the concrete, lip out in a pout. She waited. He smirked.
“You have legs.” And just like that, he was off again, sprinting despite the throbbing in his head. She scoffed.
She didn’t catch up to the boy for some time. It had to have been at least twenty minutes. It took five for her to realize he wasn’t running from Olivander anymore. The vender was long gone.
She found him resting by some bushes in Evergreen Park. It had been raining, and the grass bent over enough to look like it was pouting at the glum weather. The boy’s black hair was all wet, but she was pretty sure it was sweat, not rain. His chest went up and down quick enough to tell her she had him. She slipped behind a tree, watching. Just he wait till her mother got a load of this.
His hands dug around his pockets for a moment. They came back with something yellow. She squinted at him. So, that was why he was running from Olivander. He was a simple pickpocket. She was run straight over by a dirty little pickpocket. Her daddy could put folk like his away for good.
She strode right on up to him.
“Whole lotta work for a whole lotta nothing.” His lidded eyes went up. He chewed for a while. After he realized she wasn’t turning away, his shoulders shrugged.
“Not your good apple.”
“Mine now.” He took another bite and then cringed, spitting it out by her feet. “Brown part.” She looked down at the glob, and then back to the sweaty creature that secreted it. Boys were disgusting. The boy sighed. “You want something, or are ya just here for the show?”
“I’m here for an apology.” He laughed. She didn’t falter. “I’m not kidding.”
“Should be. You were the one in my way.”
“You shouldn’t have been running my way to begin with! Pesky thief.” She kicked his spit up apple into the dirt. “Return what you took.”
“Why should I?”
She looked at him for a second, eyed the puddles in the muddy grass behind him, and without missing a beat, shoved. She snatched his apple from his hand mid-fall.
“Hey, give it back!”
“Why should I?”
“Mine now.” She mimicked his nonchalant shrug and went to bite it. He held out a hand.
“Oh but you wouldn’t eat stolen property now, would you.”
She turned on her heel and took a great, big bite of apple.
“Hey! Hey, get back here.” He was on his feet. So was she. “You owe me an apple!” She smiled, and her mouth dug into another bite.
She didn’t look back, but if she had, she would’ve seen the way the boy’s lips crept just a little higher than usual. She would’ve caught the little glint in his eye that reflected some gears that were churning and holes that were being filled. She would’ve wondered at that look. Maybe she would have known what would come. Maybe she could’ve stopped it.
But the girl didn’t look back, after all.
The inside of the little salon is quaint, walls lined with homely paintings of birds and women and queer sets of framed scissors. That was a staple of Penny. The old woman always thought her a quirky and rather odd girl. The old woman rather liked her for it. She leans her head back in the washbowl. Penny spins around in her rolly-chair, pink perm swishing with her.
“So, what’s the occasion this time, Mrs. M?” her big red lips stretch wide.
“Ain’t that a bite! Like you don’t know?” Penny scrubs lightly into her scalp, lips holding their grin. The old woman waits for her guess. The guess doesn’t come. “Come now, I’ve only talked of it for months now. Surely you recall.” Penny blinks her big copper eyes at the woman and laughs a little.
“Can’t say I do, Mrs. M. Care to enlighten me?”
Mrs. M holds out her hand, grinning at the old silver band on her ring finger. She giggles lightly. “Today is the day. Before he’s deployed, I know, but I love him. Today’s the day...”
Penny’s smile goes little. The old woman smiles all the wider at the old ring, eyes alight as if it were new. Her eyes narrow suddenly.
“Why is my hand so…” She drifts off. Fog moves back over her eyes. “Did I tell you today was circled in red? I’m getting something for my husband…”
She breathed deep, hearing his words, but at the same time hearing nothing. She fingered the silver ring on her finger, nails going white as she pressed it.
“My father did it before me, Liv. I’ve known good men to do it. I’m honored to do it too.” Jesper's voice was low, serious. She sometimes didn't know if he ever could be serious. She rather liked to be left wondering.
Still, Olivia Marks forced her head in a slow nod. She squeezed her legs tighter to her chest. She tried to laugh.
“You came a long way from the little apple thief, huh?” His lips quirked up on one side. She watched the way it made his cheek dimple.
“Maybe not.” He pulled out the yellow fruit from his pocket.
“Jesper!” She laughed a little through a sob. He smiled, tossing her one.
“Next one’s on you.”
“At this rate, there’s probably fifteen dozen ‘on me’.”
“Well,” he took a bite, “better start buyin’.”
The old woman walks out of the salon at half-past six. Olivander’s plastic bag sways in her hand. Her legs move down a familiar alley, eyes wandering through brick walls like they’re pursuing some dream. She goes past the post-office, some buildings she never knows the name for, a park-
She stops at the park, something getting heavy in her chest. She puts her fingers over a ragged green bush, and she squeezes.
“You know, you’re never getting it?” She didn’t move from the dry grass, hands behind her head, eyes to the stars. She never wanted to move. Her eyes closed.
“That apology,” the corner of his lip quirked up the way only it did. Her lips mimicked the expression.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said lightly, eyes closed. “What do you want, before you're deployed."
“Backseat bingo?” he offered. She shot him a look and he laughed. “I only kid, Liv. I only kid.” He looked into the stars for a long time. She did too.
“It’s an awful thing,” he said. She turned to him. “An awful weary thing, growing old.”
"...It is." She paused. "Wearier still to have to be old in young bones."
“Yes?” She felt his eyes on her. She felt his smile. She felt it, and it burned up in her throat. She didn’t look back.
“What I want," he ran his fingers through the grass, "is that yellow apple you owe me."
They watched the stars, and the stars watched back.
“I just couldn’t seem to find it,” the old woman whispers. The wind carries the sound away. She puts a hand on the big maple tree, staring down at a little gray stone with block black letters. She tilts her head at them, squinting. She slips her shoes off. The grass is cold and wet from the dew, but she does laps anyway. She does one, and then another, and then a few more, thinking. By the end of it, she isn’t entirely sure what it is she was supposed to be thinking about.
She stops, sighs, and stares at the stone. The stone stares back. The wind blows around the two of them. She squeezes her apple bag.
Soon she’s sitting, and she sets one apple on the grave. She goes to bite hers. A throb goes through her teeth and she jumps, putting it down and laughing a little. She looks to the gravestone. The stone doesn’t laugh. Her smile withers a little.
“What a weary thing it is," she whispers, "to be young in old bones."
She lays a hand by the gravestone. She stares at her papery fingers, near, but not quite touching the cold, empty gray. It’s what they’re supposed to do for a while: the close without the touching. Her fingers lift a little, drifting over the yellow skin of the little fruit. She knows it belongs there.
She can’t quite recall why.