Two boys walk across a forgotten field towards a lone apple tree.
The tree stands so wide and tall it can be seen from their homeroom window, its trunk looming below fat branches. School is out for the day, and a few hours remain before darkness stirs and warm orange windows call them home for dinner.
In the cool air they smell a whisper of winter, but for now light jackets are enough. The scent of dry earth fills their nostrils, mingling with diesel fumes from the nearby highway. A semi horn blares and the race is on.
Even though copperheads are known to thread here, the boys sprint, snapping dried grass and crushing brown stalks. Among the rocks and roots, rusted metal pierces the earth’s surface, and oily puddles swell with mutated rainbows. Mud darkens their shoes and splatters their jeans.
Soon they reach the trunk, the faster boy slapping the bark in triumph. It’s cracked and craggy and rougher then he expects, and he shakes his hand in pain. The trunk is huge, at least twice the wingspan of his father’s arms.
The soil beneath the canopy is dry and heartless but heaped with apples so healthy they shine. Among them are the uneaten Father Time has rendered brown and shriveled. He can smell them now, sour and wet.
The other boy is seconds behind, hop-skipping over fallen apples. He clears some, and kicks others. They laugh as the rotten ones pulp apart. One smears, the dark peel parting smoothly.
Destroying apples is their game, and with a broken shovel handle, they take turns smacking home runs and showering each other with sauce. Then they dodge around the tree, flinging fruit, bruising each other with hard ones, and splattering the softies. Later they call a truce and pelt a curious copperhead until it darts away.
When they tire, raindrops have been spattering their skin for some time. Now larger drops pound the ground. They duck under the canopy, and with their backs to the trunk, listen to the leaves chattering in the rising wind. The sound of traffic is faint enough now to hear the dead grass sigh.
The boys take turns calling out what they see. Tire tracks. Sunken paw prints. A paint can with the lid rusted shut. Beer bottles lightened with age.
Nearby is a crumpled cigarette package, its colors drained. A soggy cigarette has inched out and curled like a worm. Shiny horseflies buzz around a crumpled candy wrapper. Farther out they see a cardboard box, warped dry after a previous rain, but now damp and sagging again.
Their eyes return to the tree, and they search its mighty limbs for apples soon to fall. Knotted around a high branch is a rope. The threads have frayed, and water has bled away all color, but the boys recognize the stacked coils, and the jutting loop big enough for a human neck.
They run all the way home.