And here we are with the last installment of Thorns of the Apple Tree. This is the longest of the three sections so grab a cup of coffee or maybe some apple crumble and enjoy the ride.
You can find the sections of this story by following the links below. They are listed in story order for your convenience.
He couldn’t sleep. Tossed and turned and then fell off the couch. The bedroom had been out of the question. The smell as well as the loss of the mattress took away any thoughts of comfort. Their couch was more comfortable than the makeshift beds in the hospital but that didn’t help.
Terrence found himself a few times in the kitchen staring at the half rotted apple in the fridge. Thoughts tumbled with thoughts came unbidden every time he looked in there. He couldn’t remember the night before it all clearly enough, though he dug through his memories searching for anything that could lead him to the answers.
All trails lead back to the same place. The morning he woke up next to her and she didn’t wake up at all. Blood everywhere, so much he thought she must have bled out though he could still see her breathe. His hand prints consumed her flesh where he touched her, blood bubbling through to surface, red and pungent.
His fingers had stumbled over the keys to the landline with several failed attempts to dial 911. Though they found no marks on her body, no damage where he might have abused her, they still held him for questioning and wouldn’t allow him to accompany her to the hospital. It had been hours later before they finally released him.
They had missed their flight. Missed their happily ever after. All that time in the hospital with nothing to show for it but the bedroom torn up and a half-eaten rotted apple. He flipped through the channels as he sat on the couch, his phone in his hand with the dialer open. Ellen’s number had been typed in, a push of the send button and he would have her on the other end of the line. But to wake her, to call her after he already rejected her offer of a place to stay.
It wouldn’t be so bad, he told himself. At Ellen’s place he wouldn’t have to deal with the rest of the mess of the bedroom. He wouldn’t have the life they had built in the apartment to torment him. He tapped the send button and barely waited the first ring before the other end picked up.
“I wondered how long before you’d call me,” she said. She expected his call. No trace of sleep or exhaustion touched her words.
He watched out into the dark night, past the edge of his balcony. “I can’t sleep.”
“Don’t push it,” she said. “Come over, you can sleep in my spare bedroom.”
“Okay.” He tapped end and ran a mental check of the clothes to pack. Enough for a couple days, he couldn’t spend long away from the house or away from Cicile in the hospital. If he slept he could deal with the mattress tomorrow, send it down to the dump and order a new one.
Ellen lived outside the city. Not quite the suburbs but not quite the country either. It had been Cicile’s father’s house, bought with his first wife. Ellen moved in when they married and removed the traces of her predecessor’s ghost. She made it her home, more so after Cicile’s father passed away.
Terrence pulled into the long driveway, hidden by the woods on either side. The woods acted like a fence that blocked out the rest of the world.
The dark driveway gave him the same feeling every time he drove down it. He hadn’t met Cicile’s father before he passed on; heart attack, hit him out of nowhere. 52 wasn’t really that old, even then he hadn’t been married to Ellen all that long at the time. They had been together long enough to form a family bond of sorts. Ellen and Cicile seemed to be as close as a step-mother and step-daughter could be. But still, both parents, cut down too soon. And now Cicile in the hospital. Life was unfair.
Cut out the pity party, Terrence thought.
The house wasn’t all that big, definitely not a mansion by any stretch, but Harold had found a great deal when he first bought it and he made improvements on not only the house but the land around it as well. The tree line had been something from Cicile’s mother; she wanted privacy but thought a fence would not be very welcoming. Instead they planted a double line of trees completely around the property line that formed a natural barrier to the outside world.
And then there were the gardens in the back yard. Ellen kept up with the work that had already been done, even added in some fruit trees of her own. The family had never been left wanting for fresh or canned fruits and vegetables throughout the year. He was reminded of the smells of cherry blossoms from his first visit to Cicile’s family home.
It had been a spring day. The gardens were fresh planted and the few cherry trees had blossomed. That was the year she had transplanted a few apple trees from Ellen’s family orchard. It didn’t take those trees long to begin bearing fruit. And the grapevines, it had been the first time he had ever eaten grapes fresh off the vine. Their sour, sweet juice dribbled down Cicile’s and his chin as they sat in the garden picking fruit fresh from the vines.
As he pulled to a stop in front of the house, he shook his head, cleared it of the memories. He came to stem the flow of memories but they only came back with more force before he even stepped into the house.
Ellen met him at the door. She hugged him and pulled him inside before he could return to the car for his bag. Inside hadn’t changed since the last time he had been there with Cicile. Spartan decorations kept the interior clean and organized. Pictures of the family could be found along walls and on shelves but few extraneous decorations accompanied them. Cicile’s need for clean had to have come from somewhere.
The differences between the two women came out strongest in how they decorated their homes. Cicile’s lighter colors and pastels contrasted the dark woods that filled her step-mother’s home.
“I made up the guest bedroom earlier,” Ellen said. “I thought you might need a break from the apartment.”
Guest bedroom, it had been Cicile’s when she lived at home. “Thanks, I am exhausted. If you don’t mind…”
Her warm smile didn’t fade. “Absolutely, do you remember where it is?”
“Third door on the left?” After he grabbed his bag from his car he found the guest room. He didn’t see Ellen on his way back. She had changed the room since the time Cicile had lived there. It helped that she had taken most of her life with her when she and Terrence moved in together.
He hadn’t heard much of Ellen’s family, conversations had always been about Cicile’s father and Ellen as she grew up. She never talked about her mother much and he hadn’t pressed it. The few times she mentioned her had been in passing. Ellen had been the mother she remembered the most.
As Terrence stripped down and dressed in his night clothes he grew conscious of the house’s night sounds; the creak of the floor settling, the huff of the furnace as it kicked on. The place had a personality outside of the feminine touch of its decorations.
He climbed into the bed and felt its siren’s call pull him toward sleep. As he drifted off, a victim of his own exhaustion he could hear noises that grated against the sounds of the house settling down for the night. A soft click and creak of a door, the door to the guest room. He had closed it tight before he stripped down, he had been sure of that. Sleep claimed him before he could think on the sound further.
He had been locked tight in deep slumber, his dreams few and far between. The morning air had a tinge of bacon that pulled him from the darker reaches of night. His eyes popped open with the rumble of his stomach. He stretched and climbed out of bed, more refreshed than he had felt in days.
Terrence changed from his pajamas and tied his shoes before he stepped into the hall. He followed his nose to the kitchen and a table laid out with pancakes, eggs, and bacon. “When do you sleep?”
Ellen turned off the stove as she pulled the last few pancakes from the skillet. “I’ve always been an early riser,” she said. “Even when I end up in bed late it is hard to break the habit. I hope you don’t mind, I thought you might not have had decent food in a while.”
His stomach screamed at him. As much as he wanted to get the rest of the day over with and get back to the hospital he couldn’t ignore his empty stomach. He sat down and filled his plate with pancakes and bacon. “It has been a while. The junk machines at the hospital don’t do much for real food.”
“I wasn’t sure how you liked your eggs.” She set a plate of fresh fruit on the table. “I hope scrambled are ok.”
He buttered and added syrup to the stack on his plate. “Never really been an egg person,” he said. “I hate to say it but you might have gone a bit overboard.”
Her soft laugh cut through the air as she picked at some eggs and bacon on her plate. She pushed them around the plate without taking a bite of any of it. “Are you going straight to the hospital?”
“I had a couple errands to run first,” he said. “We need a new mattress…”
She looked up at him and then past his shoulder. “I’m sorry for all of this. You both were just starting your life together.”
He stopped to breathe between bites but just barely. Juice washed down the last of the pancakes before he wiped his chin with a napkin. “I’m not ready to give up just yet,” he said.
She shook her head as she focused back on his face. “I didn’t mean… I mean…”
“I know. I said it to reassure both of us really. Doctor Panok is one of the best.”
“That’s what I heard too.” She placed a few pieces of fruit on his plate before she returned to her own plate and more eggs to push around.
The few slices of apple on his plate had started to brown. In the brief few minutes before Ellen had sat down to the slices now on his plate, nature had taken a toll. They had not yet begun to shrivel but still reminded him of the desiccated apple he found in the apartment the night before.
“What do you think she meant?” he said. “Yesterday, when she spoke to us?”
Ellen looked into his eyes and caught him off guard with the strength buried behind their soft exterior. “I think she was delirious, breathing out words that have nothing to do with the world we live in.”
“Oh,” he said. “You don’t think she was giving us a message?”
“You should eat your apples,” she said. Those are special, from my family’s farm in the old country.” She smiled as he absently picked up a slice and touched it to his lips. “Dr. Panok has a lot on his plate right now. We shouldn’t trouble him with wild theories.”
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