Now, for my story. This week's Chuck Wendig Terribleminds.com challenge was pretty simple. We were supposed to pick three names of types of apples from a list, and use them in some way in our story, as apples or just as weird word combos. Naturally, I read it in a tearing hurry and didn't get it right. Instead, I selected just one and used it as the title of my story. Close enough, since no one is grading us. Are they? Hope I'm not going to get sent to the principal's office again!
Claire sat under a tree in the middle of the orchard, throwing hard, tiny apples at the tree trunks. The apples were the extras, the ones the trees shed because they couldn’t grow so many on one branch. The small missiles thwapped against the tree-trunks like little bullets.
Claire could throw, as she could do so many things, because of her brother Jim. Jim had mostly taught her to throw by mocking her attempts until she mastered the art. It had taken a lot of watching him play baseball to figure out what she was doing wrong, and still longer to learn to do it the right way, but she’d done it so she could finally hear Jim say, “Good pitch, Sis. You’ve sure gotten over throwing like a girl.” Claire refused to say she was learning to throw “like a boy.” Throwing with power and accuracy was just throwing well, not like a boy.
Ping! She nailed another tree. Splat! That one had been half rotten, and spattered satisfyingly when it hit the gnarled trunk. Claire didn’t feel satisfied.
Claire was sitting in the orchard because Jim was gone. For all her 12 years, he had been there, teasing her, fighting with her, and teaching her how to live. Now he had gone off to fight in the War, and everyone said what a wonderful thing that was. Everyone but Claire.
Well, everyone but Claire and her Dad. He had refused to say a word against Jim’s going, but she knew when he was unhappy by the tight look on his face. That look had come onto his face when Jim announced he was enlisting, and it never left anymore.
To make matters worse, Claire and her father were both realizing that it had been Jim who had raised her, in his own boyish way. Their mother had died of the ’flu when Claire was a baby, but thanks to her brother she’d never missed having a mother. Until now. Now she not only had no one to teach her to be a girl, at an age when she was beginning to realize it might be a good thing to learn, but she had no one to teach her to be a tomboy, either. No one to admire her for hitting every tree she aimed at, and no one to scold her for getting grass stains on her Sunday dress from climbing trees after church. Dad never noticed.
Claire heard her father call from the house, and climbed to her feet. She took her time brushing the dirt and grass from the overalls she wore everywhere but school and church, knowing that the dinner he called her to would be poor, their time together strained. Without Jim, neither of them new how to talk about missing Jim.
She paused beneath the tallest tree in the orchard—the only one that wasn’t an apple tree—and peered up through the branches. Father had never been willing to cut down the huge old pine, and at the very top there was always a crow’s nest. Every year Claire vowed she would climb up and look into it, as Jim had done. She never had done it. Not yet.
When the telegram arrived, only weeks after Jim had gone into the trenches, Claire knew the world had ended. Everyone knew what it meant when you got a telegram, if you had a boy at the Front. She didn’t even stay to see Dad open it, and she didn’t stop to hear the delivery boy’s sympathy. He’d known Jim at school, so he meant it. But he’d said the same words to so many families.
Claire fled to the orchard, to the trees. She stopped beneath the old pine, and began to climb.
Claire didn’t stop until she reached the top, and could see into the crow’s nest. The bird was away, stealing apples or eating worms. She looked at the nest, a mix of old weaving and new, and far larger than seemed necessary for the single egg that lay there. The egg was smaller than she’d expected, to hold all that potential life. Life like the one Jim wouldn’t get to have now.
Suddenly she hated the crow, hated the egg, hated those lives that went on while Jim’s—and hers—ended. She reached out with one hand, clinging to her perch with the other, and snatched up the egg. It was warm, and smooth, and harder than she’d expected to crush. She shifted her fingers and squeezed again, and felt the sharp shards of shell cut her hand, the warm liquid pour through her grip. She dropped it, and saw the tiny, unformed crow she had killed, and began to cry, even as she heard her father’s voice calling her name.
He didn’t sound right. He didn’t sound heartbroken. He sounded elated. Her head spun. “Claire! He’s coming home! He’s wounded, but he’s alive and he’s coming home!”
Uncomprehending, she stared at the bird she had killed, at the agitated crow now circling her head.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered to both, and began the long climb down.
©Rebecca M. Douglass