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.

The Rose Moon

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Barbara J. Bergan


Zsu Zsu the cat watched Lynette throw a change of clothes into the open tote, then make a quick swipe of the bathroom vanity; next thing she knew, the calico was scooped up from the puddle of sun beneath the window and dumped into her pet carrier. With a quick glance at her watch—already the hour hand was nudging numeral 5—Lynette was on her way. It was a good three-hour drive to Happy Hollow Campground, in the foothills of the Alleghenies, and she hoped to make it by sunset.

Weeks earlier she had traveled to one of the area’s many resorts in search of a summer job, then changed her mind when the job was offered, choosing instead a more lucrative summer school position. The side trip to Happy Hollow had been made on a whim, but memories of leafy-green childhood summers called her back. This trip she planned to stay the night.

Lynette turned onto the Interstate, slipped a CD into the player, and bounced to the beat of The Marcels’ “Blue Moon.” The little convertible zipped along, wind-whipped auburn tresses playing about her face as tunes moved effortlessly back and forth between the years, a soundtrack accompanying scenes played out in her head.

“In The Misty Moonlight” brought a girl and boy sitting on cabin steps as the June moon gave fleeting glimpses of itself, then hid beneath cover of clouds; “Moonlight Serenade,” her parents dancing on the porch as two little girls—Lynette and her sister Mimi—giggled from the window in anticipation of “the stuck part” that required a gentle prod of the stylus each time the scratchy, old, Glenn Miller recording played on the portable phonograph.

Bluebird was the cabin’s name and it had been her family’s summer home for more years than she could remember. But she remembered the summer of her twelfth year, the summer she met Matt—Matthew Mark McCallister—and his brothers, Luke and John. Two years older than Lynette, with dark hair his fingers continually brushed from even darker eyes, Matt had been her first love. Like a puppy, she had followed him around the campground…and he had good-naturedly endured it.

Matt’s parents were missionaries. At times continents away from home, the McCallisters had spent neither of the following two summers at Happy Hollow. A rueful smile crossed Lynette’s face as she remembered the pudgy, prepubescent girl who had daydreamed away those long afternoons listening to Patti Page’s “Allegheny Moon.”

The next summer, 1958, the McCallisters had already settled into Cardinal—the cabin just beyond Bluebird—when her family arrived at the campground. No longer the uncomfortable-with-herself youngster Matt had first met, but a lively—and lovely—girl, Lynette quickly worked her way into his heart. What at first seemed only puppy love grew true, and, nurtured by telephone calls and letters that erased the months and miles between summers at Happy Hollow, grew strong.

Then came the bittersweet summer of 1961. Matt had been accepted at the university in the small town where her family lived and had called to tell her the news. No more sad goodbyes, they thought. Lynette remembered, that summer almost at its end, the afternoon they had left family behind and taken picnic basket and blanket to the quiet glade known only to them. In the sun-dappled shade, as they’d teased and fed one another treats from the basket, both had known what was to come. Afterward—her fingers playing in his hair; his tracing the freckles that bridged her nose—there had been only promises, no regrets.

Letting her thoughts go no further, Lynette tightened her grip on the wheel and turned her attention to the exit numbers that flew past. It was after eight o’clock when she turned onto Happy Hollow Road; the full moon had just begun to peek over the trees.

She stopped at the cabin that served as office.

“Well, look who it is,” said Junior as he searched for the flyswatter that lay hidden beneath the ancient issues of Field & Stream and assortment of empty packaging—potato chips; pretzels; candy bars—that littered his desk. With deadly aim, he brought the weapon down upon the unsuspecting fly that circled the top of a half-consumed soft drink, then smiled as his victim bounced off the tab and into the can. “Not many here tonight,” he remarked as he handed Lynette the key.

“So I noticed,” she replied as she pocketed the key and reached for a lantern. With a quick goodnight she was out the door.

Junior, who now saw to the campground for Pops, would in Lynette’s mind remain the bully he had been as a kid. She could still picture the more fearful than contrite ten-year-old who had blubbered an apology when Matt had found him ordering the younger children to eat the crawly creatures whose habitat lay beneath the fallen logs of the woodland fort that served as headquarters for his campaign of terror. Funny how sometimes the most bizarre memories insist upon sneaking out of their hiding place, she mused as she started the car.

The heady scent of wild roses intertwined with honeysuckle filled the night air as, accompanied by a chorus of katydids, the car crunched slowly down the gravel road. High beams picked from the darkness a weathered wooden sign; on the sign, a little bird, its faded blue paint worn away by the years. She had arrived.

For several minutes Lynette sat contemplating the place that meant so many things to her. Then she went up the steps. She set the lantern on the rickety table that stood between two well-worn porch rockers, loosed the grateful Zsu Zsu from her carrier, and returned to the car for her belongings. Fumbling for the key, she wondered what she would find when she opened the cabin door.

Bluebird’s furnishings had been updated, but the same old comfortable feelings she had known as a child enveloped her the moment she stepped inside. Bringing tears, then a smile, memories came at her from every direction as she deposited the old metal picnic basket in the corner of the tiny kitchenette where it had always stood.

She set her provisions on the kitchen table and opened the cupboard almost expecting to find her mother’s teapot and the skeff-shaped honey jar that had been part of each morning’s breakfast ritual. Although her father had preferred coffee—strong and black, her mother, an Englishwoman as fine-boned as the china that had graced the table—whether in the woods or the antiques-filled townhouse—could not have begun the day without her breakfast tea.

Her parents had met in London, during the war, and, dancing to the music of Glenn Miller, had fallen “helplessly and hopelessly in love.” That was the way her mother had always told the story; it had been one of Lynette’s favorites.

Zsu Zsu’s persistant meow interrupted her reverie and she finished unpacking, then set about preparing their evening meal. Silky fur rubbed against the backs of her legs as the cat, doing perfect figure eights between her feet, purred in anticipation of canned tuna.

While Zsu Zsu devoured her dinner and daintily licked her paws, Lynette slathered Dijon on a chunk of rye bread piled high with Swiss cheese and uncorked the bottle of Pinot Grigio. With sandwich and wine glass, she made herself comfortable on the porch as stars twinkled in the inky blackness and the moon began its climb.

The Rose Moon, that was the name given full moon in the month of June. Moonlight, especially that of the full moon, had always held a certain fascination for Lynette, who had written countless odes to the goddess Luna. As she searched the darkness, not quite sure what it was she hoped to find, she wondered how anyone could possibly see a man in the silvery orb that ruled the night sky.

With icy-cold fingers, a chill touched her shoulders and sent her into the cabin for the sweater left hanging by the door; as she stepped back outside, she noticed the glow of a lantern bobbing toward Cardinal. She poured another glass of wine, settled back in the rocker, and listened as the soft whisper of leaves joined babbling brook in concert.

Lynette’s eyes opened wide. How long had she slept? On the breeze came familiar falsetto from the summer of 1961—“There’s A Moon Out Tonight…” She pulled herself from the rocker, went to the porch rail, and remembered the boy who had stood in the very same spot and kissed her as the song had played on the radio. How strange to hear it again this night.

“Time to go in, Zsu Zsu,” she said, but the cat thought not and was off the porch in a bound. Lynette followed, calling her name, but Zsu Zsu was nowhere to be found.

Cold and tired, enticed by the thought of a hot cup of tea, she was just about to climb the cabin steps when a tall figure stepped from the shadows. In his arms was the wayward cat.

“Is this whom you’re looking for?” the man asked. Before Lynette could reply, he continued, “She decided to pay me a visit. I’m staying at Cardinal…name is Mark.”

His easygoing, almost familiar, manner put Lynette at ease and she introduced herself, even invited him to join her for tea.

“Thanks, that would be nice,” he said as he lowered himself into a porch rocker and Zsu Zsu made herself comfortable on his lap.

How foolish, Lynette thought as she went to put the water on. Inviting a stranger to join her for tea in the middle of the night—nevermind that this tea party was to take place in a cabin in the woods—was probably not a wise thing to do. But then, from her very arrival, the full moon looking down upon things that seemed to move in three-quarter time, the evening had taken control of itself, dictating her thoughts as well as her actions.

Zsu Zsu tumbled to the floor as Mark jumped to open the screen door; over the tea tray, eyes met with what seemed a flicker of recognition. Lynette felt her heart drop to the depths of her being, then bounce back. She tried to regain her composure as she set the tray on the table, but almost overturned the lantern. As he reached to steady the flickering light, Mark’s fingers brushed hers and she felt the magic of the the moonlit night.

Over three pots of Earl Grey, they talked the night away, sharing stories from their pasts, hopes and dreams for their futures. Lynette told of childhood days spent at Happy Hollow, of a lost love, and of the peace she found in the poetry she wrote. Much of his life spent on the move, Mark, an amateur astronomer, shared tales of sunsets on the Serenghetti, full moons over the Amazon.

Dawn’s first rosy rays had pushed their way through cracks in the blue-gray sky when finally the two said goodnight. Lynette watched from the porch, surprised that Mark knew of the shortcut between Bluebird and Cardinal, then went inside. Gently, she moved the multicolored ball of fur from the middle of the bed and tumbled in beside it.

It was afternoon when she awoke. Happily humming “Moon Glow,” she showered and dressed, then filled the basket; her plan, to invite Mark on a picnic and share with him the special places she had told him of. Basket in hand, cat at her heels, she opened the cabin door—on the porch sat a rusty, old coffee can brimming with wild roses and water from the stream that meandered behind the cabins. How sweet, she thought as she plucked a bud and poked it through the bottonhole of her shirt. Taking the shortcut, within minutes she was at Cardinal.

The cabin seemed deserted. She knocked at the door, but he did not answer; she sat on the steps and waited what seemed hours, but he did not come. The warm sun found its way through the canopy of green, bringing with it memories of another summer day and Lynette, her cat following behind, set out for the spot she had long ago shared a picnic with someone dear.

She spread her blanket in the quiet glade, fed Zsu Zsu a bite of sandwich, then took from the basket a stub of a pencil and a small notebook. Pale moon still visible in the clear blue sky, she wrote:

Most beautiful of blossoms,
love’s longing in your scent.
You watched with me the Rose Moon
as across night’s sky it went.

Blooms bright in the moonlight,
the thorns I did not see.
I should have looked more closely
and known ’twas not to be.

She took the rosebud from her shirt and pressed it between the notebook’s pages, gathered her things, and returned to Bluebird.

All her belongings in the car, Zsu Zsu in her carrier on the porch, Lynnette took one last look at the bouquet left on the kitchen table, then closed the cabin door. She knew that she would not return to this place.

Charlie Parker’s “East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon”—the last track on the CD—played as she stopped before the office. She left the motor running and went inside. Handing Junior the key, she asked, “The man who was staying at Cardinal last night…has he already checked out?”

Junior looked at her quizzically. “There was no one at Cardinal last night,” he said.

Lynette smiled; somehow she knew that would be his reply.

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Barbara can be reached at BJBergan[at]aol.com.