The grove: A short story

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Sharon Pan/Staff

I can’t stand oranges.

The taste, the smell — God, even the color makes me sick to my stomach.

Blood oranges are the worst of all.

The way their insides glisten fleshy red, sticky and sweet like false hope, surrounded by pale bitterness.

The way they remind me of all that red smattered across all that orange.

We should have known better — but we were kids, and kids are stupid. You tell them not to do something, you set rules and guidelines to protect them, but no matter how obvious the intention is, they will break those rules just for the sake of breaking them.

It was fun, a little rebellion for a little group of small town kids. A town where everyone knew everyone, and your business was the town’s business. It was a living cliche, a set from “The Twilight Zone” — there was the little chocolate shop called Paradise on the street corner, run by Ziggy (named such for his atrocious driving habits), as well as the little crepe shop to its left (which solely filled its crepes with chocolate and caramel from Paradise and was run by a single chef, Nick) and a comic book shop called Adventure Comics on its right (a place that sold comics at the same 10 cent price as they were in the ‘60s and still somehow managed to stay in business).

In all honesty, it could have been way worse, and we were content enough despite the weirdly unwavering consistency of it all. Despite the fact that there were odd rules we had to follow, like the 8 p.m. mandatory curfew, and despite the fact that none of us could ever go into the orange groves after dark. That rule was an unspoken one, simply because it never needed to be spoken. The stories taught us well enough.

People who go into the orange groves after dark don’t come out.

“No need to stir up unnecessary trouble.”

We didn’t find gory bits of them, didn’t find them strung up in the trees or floating in the small creek that ran through the groves and up into the forested hills that framed the skyline of our secluded little township. They just … didn’t come back. People talked about them for a moment, wondering where they might have run off to, until someone mentions the oranges. Then there’d be silence, a meaningful look and not another mention of them again. Their desk at work or school went empty, filled or removed in a day or two’s time, and that was it.

We were a quiet, peaceful town.

No need to stir up unnecessary trouble.

The oddest thing was that almost no one moved into this town, and certainly no one moved out — at least to my knowledge. People passed through — the hotel had enough business to stay afloat with tourists, and new faces weren’t unheard of. But after a day or two, I suppose they realized there was nothing of real interest here and moved on.

It was better that way.

There are three of us. Or, rather, there were three of us: Sylvia, Mark and me. The two of them had known each other forever, born and raised in this town just like their parents. But me — I was an aberration.

I moved here when I was 10, started middle school and had been a staple in the little trio since. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. Working myself into a fold, the inevitable little cliques that already exist in small towns where everyone knows everyone — well, it wasn’t easy, let’s leave it at that. But since then, the three of us have done everything together, including that little stunt.

Days of the week taste like oranges now.

Mondays taste thick and syrupy like marmalade.

Tuesdays are sweet like orange creamsicles.

Wednesdays are as sugary as candied orange slices, and Thursdays are punchy like fresh OJ.

Fridays taste cool and refreshing like orange sherbet, and Saturdays are sharp like bitter orange rinds.

But today is Sunday.

Today tastes like blood.

I threw away the Pine-Sol again, and my mother is angry at me, but she won’t listen when I tell her I can’t stand the smell, how it sends me running to the bathroom, hunched over the toilet, dry heaving with the taste of citrus clinging to the back of my throat. I wish it would just kill me instead of pulling acid from my gut, burning like poison in my mouth.

The nausea passes, but the memories don’t.

I’d started drinking, but it didn’t help. All it had done was keep me up. It kept me out past curfew, a little later every night, sent me stumbling home after dark tasting vodka and oranges — always tasting oranges.

I couldn’t remember how I’d ended up here again.The same place we went together — except my friends replaced by a shot glass, a full bottle of Smirnoff and a swirling sense that this decision was a bad one. A really, really bad one.

“One more shot for the setting sun. One more for the rising moon.”

God, what the fuck was I doing?

Even as I thought it, I was sitting down on the metal edge of the grimy tractor that had rusted, in the same spot as ever since I could remember, and pouring myself my first shot of what I was sure would be many, many more.

With enough alcohol, I couldn’t smell the orange trees surrounding me. I didn’t care that the sky was turning a ruddy hue as the sun sank on the knife’s edge of the horizon and slowly allowed the inky night to drown it. One more shot for the setting sun. One more for the rising moon.

You know, I lied to you.

I knew exactly what I was doing.

Because after a third shot, I emptied the bottle into the roots of the nearest tree and set my glass upside down next to me.

And I sat.

I sat as the moon crept higher into the night sky and hung, orange and glistening, in mockery of the tiny fruits dripping from the branches of the hundreds of trees all around me.

7:50. 7:51. 7:52.

I could smell the oranges again, the vodka’s protection wearing thin as time ticked steadily on.

7:53. 7:54. 7:55.

I still had the chance to leave, but I didn’t. Why would I want to now? I had come all this way; I wasn’t going to leave right when it was about to get good.

7:56. 7:57. 7:58.

If a cop saw me out now, especially here, of all places, I could be arrested. But who were they kidding — the curfew was for everyone. That included them too. There was no one on patrol, no one leaving work or parties. There was —

7:59.

dead —

8:00.

silence.

Nothing.

Sundays.

Sundays taste like … blood. Blood oranges.

Are blood oranges supposed to taste salty? Taste hot? Taste like iron? Taste like so much red all over?

I … I’m not sure.

But today is Sunday and it tastes like blood, and it’s 8:01 and I’m sitting in the grove past curfew in a town that never changes and seems to never have anyone new move into it.

“Until we did.”

No one new until me.

Today is Sunday and it tastes like blood, and it’s 8:02 and I’m sitting in the grove past curfew in a town where no one stays out past curfew and certainly not in the grove.

Not in the grove past curfew until me.

Today is Sunday and it tastes like blood and it’s 8:03 and I’m standing, walking though the grove past curfew in a town that fears the smell of oranges at night past 8 o’clock, because smelling oranges past 8 o’clock means it’s already too late and no one, no one wants that.

No one wanted that until me.

Today is Sunday and it’s 8:04, and suddenly for a moment, it doesn’t taste just like blood but like oranges too, and I’m standing under one orange tree that looks just like all the others in a town where no orange tree is like the others and no one picks an orange past the mandatory curfew.

No one until me.

Today is Sunday and it’s 8:05. It doesn’t taste like blood anymore because I’ve filled my mouth with orange slices, picked from the tree we stood under past curfew in a town that never went to the grove past curfew, knew to fear the smell of oranges past curfew and certainly never picked an orange past curfew.

Until we did.

And now I taste blood again, and I can hear them talking like I always do.

I taste oranges, and I can hear them screaming like I always do.

Like I always do when I come past curfew and eat oranges from this tree just so I can see them one more time.

I know they hate me.

I know they hate to see me come to the grove like this, hate hearing my voice, hearing my crying and pleading and begging, but I do it anyways.

And I like the agony it causes me to see them, because I know I deserve it, though I think they think I don’t. But I do.

Sylvia and Mark. They live under the orange trees now. They all do, the ones who went into the grove past curfew so unwisely. All except me.

All except me, because I was the first in so long. The first in ages to come in from outside, to be born in Mercy Hospital in Oregon instead of the local emergency room, to speak my first words in a house on Lewis Street in Silverton instead of here. The first to enter this town with something the others could cling to still intact.

Sundays taste like blood and oranges, because that was what filled my mouth that Sunday when suddenly my hands weren’t mine and my voice wasn’t mine, and the rock in my hands wasn’t mine and the thoughts in my brain weren’t mine. When the actions taken weren’t any actions of mine, and when the friends lying dead at my feet with their blood in my mouth and oranges in theirs weren’t mine.

When the knowledge of what this town was wasn’t mine but this, and all that mentioned before was given to me all the same.

“I don’t know what that thing is, other than it was less a thing and more a feeling.”

Because this town never changes and hasn’t changed for longer than I, or anyone in it, can really remember. Because the people in it glide from day to day and accept the rules placed before them — the ones that are really, really quite simple.

No one out past curfew. No one in the grove after dark. No one moves out, and no one new moves in.

Because the thing about rules is that they are made and put in place by something in authority to keep a group in line.

Something, not necessarily someone.

I don’t know what that thing is, other than it was less a thing and more a feeling. Something horrible.

When I was younger, I remember vividly a dream I had. It was completely, mind-numbingly normal until something interrupted it. Not an image or a thing, but a sound. A sound that made everything in my dream and in my mind freeze, like a movie stuck in pause for what felt like an eternity before I woke in a cold sweat and a panic more paralyzing than any I had felt since. I know what the sound was like, though I couldn’t exactly remember what it was. Like a mixture of static and music, enough to set your teeth on edge, something rawly unnatural, something you knew was just … wrong.

It was the plummet in the pit of your stomach when you look down from great heights, the sense of utter smallness when you stare into a pitch-black sky in the desert, just before the first stars and moon rise and without the light pollution of civilization — of life — to illuminate the night. Just a black hole on all sides, feeling simultaneously infinitely vast and immensely small, so much so of both to be suffocating. And as your breath left you it just felt… cold. Like your lungs filling with ice instead of air, and your blood running through sleet clotting in your veins, immobilizing you as this … thing washed over you. As it seeped underneath your skin, sliding like a papercut across your flesh, micro-cuts forming on your tissues as it seeped in, slicing under your fingernails and gliding up behind your eyelids. And you can feel it the whole time like it was real though you know it’s not, though every logical thought in your mind is screaming it can’t be, it can’t be. That the feeling of things crawling under your skin, of thin raised lines curling like tendrils alongside your veins aren’t this thing inside of you, of the pain that ignites every inch of your body to push between the narrow fibers of your muscles and through the pores of your bones to the marrow and filling the core of your being with inky static and terrible, terrible thoughts isn’t actually real.

And of course, the taste of oranges.

Always the taste of oranges.

And suddenly you see a you that’s not you doing things you would never do.

And the worst part is that maybe a little bit that is you likes it too.

And as you do things you wouldn’t do and as you’re covered on the outside in what should be on their insides and as you’re looking into the eyes you saw so often squinted in laughter now glazed and glassy, God, they were dead eyes, eyes staring into the nothingness that were your eyes, eyes that were looking on with something other than you behind them.

And you can feel their weight as you dragged them to that little stream in which floating bodies were never found because it doesn’t flow toward the town and it doesn’t flow away from town and bodies dropped into that water don’t float at all as the water reaches up and the bodies slip down, down, down into the stream. And you know there’s a bottom, you’ve seen it before, but tonight — tonight, it’s an abyss and they say if you stare into it, it stares into you, but what if what’s supposed to be staring back is already inside of you?

You know that this thing eats something inside every person here when they’re born, not a soul or spirit, but something else. An ability to be anything but a moving piece in the board game of this town that never changes. Because boards don’t change; they are just a backdrop for the game, and being born here means you get to be nothing more than another piece to play with, a mere toy meant to satiate this thing’s curiosity (if it could have any). And it knows that people like me will come because they always do. People who still have a will, or rather, a component of will. A variability. A fate outside of living and dying in this little town.

“Tonight, it’s an abyss and they say if you stare into it, it stares into you, but what if what’s supposed to be staring back is already inside of you?”

A destiny that can be taken away.

People like me, we come and we live and we have an itch to see.

To see what happens after 8 o’clock in the grove.

And when we finally succumb to the call, the call of curiosity, of hunger, we learn. We learn that we are simply conveyance systems for the feeding of the Abyss.

For being so empty, it is terribly hungry.

And it consumes. It consumes its own toys and it generates a new one.

And the new toy is you.

And no guilt you feel or ghosts you see of the ones you fed into the maw of the Abyss can save you from reliving that moment every night, from coming to this place every night and picking the oranges, from picking up a rock and hunting down the friends you have struck down hundreds of times by now, of feeling the hot wet spatter of blood across your arms, chest and face as you bring that stone down again and again, from feeling the heaviness of their bodies on your back or from watching as the shadows of their bodies slip into the mouth of nothing.

Not even the slogging of your feet moving with an intent that’s not yours, carrying you back to the tractor where you left your shot glass; or the gradual sensation of bleeding out as you leave the orange grove and with it, the Abyss; or the numb collapse of your body onto your bedroom floor beside a bed that hasn’t been slept in in weeks; or even the final release of sleep can save you from the empty gaze of your friends’ eyes.

But it’s Monday now.

Mondays taste like marmalade.

And marmalade tastes like hope today, because there is one more rule here.

There is one outsider in town to house the Abyss.

And suddenly I notice that the driveway next door is filled with a new, black car with a license plate from Washington instead of the usual California, and there’s a stack of boxes beside it.

Yes.

Mondays taste like marmalade and hope.

Because the rule is there is one outsider in town, and now there is two.

There should be one and now there’s two.

“And the new toy is you.”

One can get out.

And as I’m getting into my car, I see the new face. And it’s you.

Welcome to the grove, friend. Enjoy your stay. And remember:

Don’t stay out past the curfew.

Don’t go into the grove after dark.

And whatever you do, if you find yourself out at night, don’t eat the oranges.

 

Contact Olivia Staser at [email protected].