Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Barbara Bergan


The Razzle-Dazzle’s chains clang against its pole, and the merry-go-round groans to a stop as the last of its young passengers jumps to the ground. Amidst shouts and laughter, there is a clatter of footsteps along the sidewalk that leads from the playground of the old city park out to the busy street.

Through missing front teeth, a whistle-y voiced six-year-old calls out, “Let’s play hide and seek.”

The others gather round the girl. Laughing, tugging, as children do, they ask, “Who will be it?”

The girl’s brother, older than the others, answers, “I will.”

The older boy counts, and the children scatter. Some duck behind the brown-leaved oaks that tower above small, twisted cherry trees whose bare branches seem to reach out and grab at them. Others clamber over the large rocks that juxtapose themselves at the top of the hill. One, clutching a worn teddy bear, hides behind the stone wall that marks the park’s entrance.

“Apples, peaches, pumpkin pie! Who’s not ready? Holler I!”

The boy begins his search. His sister runs to the green-painted park bench designated “home,” and calls out with glee. The boy, a good sport, allows most of the others to reach “home” untouched, then tags one—his friend. As the last rosy tinges of sunlight seep into the darkening sky, street lamps blink, then illuminate the scene with their steady glow. The boy calls an end to the game; the children cross the street, and head in different directions home.

Dark clouds scuttle across the moonlit sky. The wind at their backs, the boy hurries his sister along as they approach the house at the end of the road. Beyond the house lies the path that is their shortcut home.

The boy and girl stop short at the iron-fenced lot where a stately Victorian towers above the tangle of stalks and vines and drooping branches that had once transfixed passersby with its fragrant blooms and bountiful harvests. In another time, these grounds had provided pink-tinged roses for a crystal bowl that now sits empty on the Chippendale hall table, aromatic lavender to be dried and tied into lace-trimmed sachets and placed between fine linens, baskets of apples and ripened peaches, and immense orange pumpkins whose prickly vines always outran their allotted space in the well-tended vegetable garden. Now all is brambles and weeds… except for the old, gnarled apple tree which stands near the back gate, its few remaining fruits aglow in the moonlight.

“Look! There are still apples on the tree. Let’s pick some,” says the girl.

“No,” says her brother. “We’d better get home.”

Inside the darkened house, trembling fingers lift the edge of a dingy white curtain; rheumy eyes peer from the window. The old man spots the children outside the gate. A large black and white cat at his heels, the man shuffles across the kitchen floor, turns on the outside light, and opens the backdoor. The cat darts outside.

“It’s Old Man Quimby,” whispers the boy. “Run!” He grabs his sister’s hand and pulls her along.

“Wait! My shoe’s untied.” She pulls her hand free, and bends to tie her shoe; instead, she works the lace into a knot.

“Here. Let me do it.” Impatiently, the girl’s brother pushes her hand aside and tugs at the knotted lace.

The back door slams. The boy pushes his sister down behind the vine-covered iron fence, and claps his hand over her mouth. “Hush,” he warns.

The frightened girl closes her eyes and clings to her brother’s jacket as he struggles with her shoelace. Finally the knot is undone and the shoe tied; the children inch their way along the fence. From the other side, there is a sharp hiss; green eyes glow between the open fence rails. The cat arches its back menacingly, reaches its claw-tipped paw through the opening, and draws blood. The girl screams. She and her brother race toward the path and home.

Breathless, their hearts pounding, the wide-eyed children slam the front door behind them and lean against it. Their father, dividing his attention between the evening paper and the small, round black-and-white screen from which Douglas Edwards reports the news, looks in their direction and asks, “What’s the matter with you two?”

Their mother appears in the kitchen doorway. She wipes her hands on her apron as her eyes narrow. “You didn’t take the short cut home, did you? You know I don’t want you on that path after dark.”

The boy nudges his sister. “No, Mama, we came the long way.”

“Well, go wash up for supper.”

As meatloaf and mashed potatoes are heaped onto her plate, the girl asks about the old man. “Why doesn’t Mr. Quimby like anyone, Daddy?”

“Well, I don’t rightly know. Hiram Quimby is a strange one, the last of his family. I remember your granddad talking about him. How, even when he was a boy, he had strange ways… especially after his little sister disappeared. The other youngsters didn’t bother with him much except to tease him and play tricks on him.” The girl’s father looks across the table. “Children can be cruel sometimes; I hope that you and your brother have never purposely hurt another.”

The boy gives his sister a warning look, and she lowers her eyes. She will not be a tattletale, will not tell how, just days before, her brother and his friend had taunted the old man by ringing his doorbell and running away.

Supper over, his homework done, the boy wheedles his father into letting him and his sister watch just a bit of Uncle Miltie before bedtime. The family gathers around the new television set, but his sister is asleep before Berle makes his first call for “Makeup!”

Later that night, tucked in her bed, the girl awakens and reaches for her teddy bear. It is not there. She remembers her brother pulling her along; sees her precious bear lying in the weeds outside the iron fence. She must rescue it! Quickly, she dresses, then tiptoes down the stairs. The closet door squeaks as she reaches inside and pulls down her coat. She hesitates, looks back toward the stairs, then quietly lets herself out the front door.

A frosty November moon lights the girl’s way across the street. She turns onto the tree-lined path, then stops. Knees shaking, she thinks of turning back, but the need to rescue the beloved bear overcomes her fear. She runs toward the house that looms large at the end of the road, then cautiously makes her way along the fence to the spot where she and her brother hid. The teddy bear is not there. The cat! It must have dragged her bear inside the fence. She opens the rusty gate and creeps into the overgrown garden.

*

The girl awakens on a canopied bed in a dimly lit room. The last thing she remembers is wondering how she would ever find her bear; now it lies beside her on a crochet-trimmed pillowcase that smells of lavender. She sits up and looks around. On the bedside table is a small, gilt-framed photograph of her standing beside her brother. The girl doesn’t remember when the photograph was taken.

The walls of the room are papered in trellised roses and moonbeams dance through lace curtains at the windows. Scattered about the room are other bears: stiff, old-fashioned teddy bears with silky mohair coats and long arms and legs. A porcelain-faced doll with a startled expression peeks at the girl from a child-sized wicker baby buggy as, atop a book-filled shelf, a music box plays.

The girl’s eyes travel across the room to an open wardrobe. It displays an assortment of little girl’s dresses. One of the dresses has a wide, lace-trimmed collar and a satin sash; it is the dress worn in the photograph. The girl should be frightened, but she is not. Somehow she feels at home in this room. She cuddles her teddy bear close and is lulled to sleep by the last faltering notes of the music box lullaby.

The old man smiles as he totters up the stairs. He carries a silver tray. Quietly, so as not to disturb the sleeping girl, he opens the bedroom door. He sets the tray of milk and cookies on the bedside table, and from his pocket adds a shiny red apple.

As he makes his way back downstairs, Hiram Quimby hears the voices—the same voices that had once tormented him. “Hiding here, hiding there… hiding everywhere. We are here, you are there… we are everywhere.” No matter. His little sister is home again… and safe.

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Barbara Bergan lives with her husband in northern Delaware. Though she has entertained herself with the stories in her head since childhood, only since her own children “left the nest” has she been able to devote her time to the writing of those stories. Barbara has previously been published in Toasted Cheese and Retrozine, and is currently at work on a collection of moon-inspired short stories. E-mail: bjbergan[at]verizon.net.

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