Author's Note: The Orange was a very rare foray into pure fiction for me, and one of the few that actually saw completion - my knack for short stories is not terribly strong. This one, however, was a definite example of a concept that struck me all at once and demanded to be written down before I could get anything else done. (And even under the guise of fiction, I find that Parker's voice occasionally echoes my own far too closely.) Enjoy.
Parker remembered the orange very well. It floated about four feet above the ground, perfectly round and perfectly still. A gash of perhaps one knuckle’s width, the place from which the infamous two slices had been taken, was its only imperfection. There was nothing odd about the location; it was a perfectly idyllic setting. No otherworldly glow, no strange humming sound, no air of wrongness about the place. The only thing that pointed to something strange being afoot was the incomplete orange hovering in the air.
It was a medium-sized orange; it probably would have been passed over in the store. Though it had existed for twenty years, it showed no sign of rot or over-ripening. In fact, it looked rather appetizing. No one was going to take a bite out of this orange, though. Not now; not with the stories.
No one knew where it had come from, or why it floated, but Parker had given up wondering. He had heard the stories about the orange and its mystery since he was little. Having grown up in its shadow, it had long ago lost any wonder for him. To him, it was just one more tourist trap on a road of many. He wondered if the people who grew up near the Winchester Mystery House felt the same way.
“’Scuse me, sir?” Some college girl taking the tour. “Sir?”
Parker looked over at her. “Yes?”
“Looked like you were going zombie over there,” she said. “You okay?”
He smiled. “I’m fine. Thanks for your concern, though.”
She shrugged. “No problem.”
Parker strained his eyes to catch a peek at the tour guide. The guide looked awkward in his bucket hat and khaki shorts, like a man who wanted to think of himself as a fisherman but didn’t own a rod. Parker had only actually seen him three times so far on the tour, and had listened to him even less; he knew the place well enough not to need the guide.
He kept looking around people for a glimpse of the gazebo where the orange hung. It was a big crowd today, though, and he could barely see around them. Just his luck.
He fiddled with the change in his pocket and waited for the tour to reach its pinnacle. The image of Eliza’s face floated up in his mind and he shut his eyes, grimacing. It had been two years, yet it still hurt every time he thought of her.
“Creepy,” the college girl said. Involuntarily, his eyes flicked over to her. He returned his glance. Damn it, now you have to say something, he thought.
“What’s that?” he asked, with little else to say.
“Aren’t you listening?”
He shook his head a little. “I’ve taken the tour a lot,” he said. “Don’t really hear it anymore.”
She shrugged. “Why take it if you know it all?”
“Something to do, I guess.”
“Yeah, I guess.” She glanced away. “I’m here from Barlow County. Spring break for us. Heard a lot about this place, figured I’d check it out.”
“It’s…interesting.” It’s insane, came Eliza’s voice in his mind. He took a pained breath as he remembered the day she’d said it. The only time she’d taken the tour. Their first date.
“Creepy, though, like I said. What happened to that guy?”
“Which one? Smyth or Graham?”
“Who’s Graham?” she asked.
He held up two fingers. “Two slices gone: two men took them. Richard Smyth and Andrew Graham. And we don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
He refrained from rolling his eyes. “What caused it. What really happened to them.”
“Jesus.” She looked ahead to the gazebo. “How’d it get there?”
They had found Smyth completely catatonic, eyes wide open and an insane grin on his face. He’d been in the hospital ever since that day. Tests hadn’t shown any traces of orange in his system.
Graham had been found three days after taking his slice, wandering through the forest and eating moss. He’d gone completely blind, and the only intelligible thing he’d said was “station.” He died a week later of internal hemorrhaging.
No one knew what had done it. Neither one had any orange in their systems, even though they had both been found with a section of orange peel in their hands. People argued that the orange might have left Graham’s body in the days leading up to his reappearance, but even in that case, traces would have remained.
“Who was Graham? He talked about Smyth but-“
“He’ll get to it. Just listen.” Parker turned away from her. Jesus, no one shuts up these days.
Sure enough, the fisherman-guide began Graham’s story, and when that was done they’d reach the gazebo itself. Parker had at times doubted whether there even was a Smyth or Graham, whether they were just clever marketing tools invented to drag out the tour so they could charge more for it. He’d rejected the theory in recent years, but the way they built up to the gazebo, taking an hour when all they really needed was fifteen minutes, made the idea seem more plausible.
Idly, he began to count the clouds in the perfect blue sky, a habit he’d had since childhood. He reached fifty before hearing the tour guide say something about approaching the gazebo, and managed to count three more before they entered the wooded area and his view of the sky was cut off. He shifted his gaze back to the tour and saw the gazebo on its hill at the end of the path, less than forty yards away. There we go, he thought.
The orange hung there in the air, silent and enigmatic, a mere golden dot against the leafy background at this distance. Everyone in the crowd strained to get a look at it, and as they did, Parker slipped away into the underbrush. From behind a thick tangle of growth, he grinned in spite of himself and fingered his pocketknife as the people passed by. In his head, Eliza’s voice congratulated him.
He peered through the leaves and toward the gazebo. Not a soul in sight now. He checked his watch; it was 12:41. The next tour didn’t start for nearly an hour. He had time.
Parker slipped out of the brush, trying to make as little noise as possible, and walked along the turf toward the gazebo.
You’ve lived near here your whole life?
Yeah. You’d be surprised how little people talk about it anymore.
He winced again. Another snippet of conversation between he and Eliza from that long-ago day. He’d agreed to show his boss’s daughter around town, hoping for a promotion. He ended up falling in love almost instantly. Had it really been twenty-six years ago? Was it possible?
In the end it made sense, what he was doing. It had begun here, after all. It was the only happy place left for him since losing her. His once-blonde hair had faded to gray after only two years; his somewhat handsome face was now scruffy and haggard. Would she still have wanted him, had she seen him? He didn’t know, but he thought she would. It was one of the reasons he’d loved her in the first place.
He stood before the steps of the gazebo and looked up at the orange that floated in midair at its very heart. The orange was roped off, of course, but that was no matter. He pulled out his penknife and opened it, stepping up onto the first stair. He hesitated; his fingers slipped, and the knife fell to the worn planks with a disproportionately loud clatter. He cursed and bent to pick it up, hand trembling. It took him a few seconds before he could grip it again.
He took the last two stairs as one and stepped up to the guard rope, running a finger along its rough surface as he remembered Eliza’s perplexed gaze when she saw the orange for the first time. He’d laughed, and she’d slapped him playfully on the shoulder. Parker had kissed her impulsively when the tour was done, a move he hadn’t planned to make until that very moment. Rather than pushing him away, she’d kissed him back, and then fled to her car. He’d smiled the whole drive home and called her the next morning.
And now, here he stood in the same spot where they’d begun their journey into love, twenty-six years after that meeting – two years after the cancer had robbed him of her. He’d gone by Jim in those days; now, he was only James. Nicknames were meant for happier times.
Parker gained control of his fingers and gripped the rope. He slipped easily under it and straightened.
He reached out a hand and placed it on the orange.
It felt strangely warm to the touch, and the place from where the slices had been taken was not dried out and shriveled as it normally would have been, but in all other respects it was a normal orange. He gripped it and rotated it in the air so that the gash was facing him…
As soon as he let it go, it swiveled back to its original position, the gash once again on the other side. He laughed humorlessly and walked around it.
His hands, strangely, were now completely steady. He gripped the orange with his left hand and, after a moment, plunged the knife into the peel. He sawed downward until he held his own slice in his hand, thin and fragrant. The juice dripping into the cup of his palm stung slightly.
I don’t know what you are, he thought, looking at the orange. I don’t know how you exist. But I think you see me, somehow. I don’t think you’re really an orange. I don’t know who you are, but now that I can touch you, I can feel you. What are you?
He thought for a moment and then laughed.
I’ll never know what the hell you are.
Parker took a deep breath and dropped the knife. “I love you, Eliza.”