Today, I woke up and wanted to go to the store. I wanted to buy some apples, those big red juicy ones that look like they were polished with some sort of shoeshine. I wasn't planning on eating the apple, it was just meant to sit on my bedside table, and I would watch the midday sun rise until it would pierce a hole straight through the apple's core, and watch as the apple glowed a golden scarlet in the setting sun. In short, it was meant to be like any other day. A good day, because this was a fresh apple and its skin reflected the light like an oak in the autumn.
Around midmorning, I came home to my one-room apartment, and set the apple down on my bedside table, walking right over the soiled clothes and spilled lipstick bottles. I stared at the air conditioning unit for some time, but realized I was freezing, as usual, despite the summer solstice sun. I lay down on the edge of my bed, and glued my eyes to the apple's brilliant skin. This would be a good day.
I let my eyes focus, the apple becoming my whole world, my universe, until I was nothing but a speck on the edge of existence, alive solely for its beauty. There was a boy. I was the boy. His skin was dark olive and his eyes a sparkling green, like the sea on a summer day. He leaned against an apple tree, a straw of hay between his lips. His eyes squinted at the broad approaching figure, a speck of color in the endless fields of golden wheat. Everything was so still. Only the gentle whir of cicadas filled the air. The beating sun turned the apples into stars overhead, and gave the air a dazed sparkle. The dappled shadows beneath the apple tree were slightly cooler, a respite from the burning heat. A smile swelled from his heart and spread to a grin.
The boy approached, his straw cowboy hat dipped low on his brow, laughing brown eyes glimmering just beneath. He stepped into the shadow of the apple tree, curbing into an exaggerated bow, as was their custom. They both chuckled. He came closer, his stride slower now, and rested a hand on the tree above his head, eyes locked as the taller boy leaned down. Their eyes closed as their lips touched and melted into each other in familiar tenderness, "Hola Silvio", his hand rose to hold his chin, tipping it upward. Green eyes squinting up, Silvio replied in a soft voice, "Hola, Mateo".
Mateo took Silvio's smaller frame into his arms, squeezing before gently breaking away. "You had something to show me," said Mateo, his raspy voice finally breaking through his lips after his hours of solitary work in the fields. Silvio gave him a mischievous grin as he reached into the brown rucksack leant against the tree. "Are you ready to understand why we're not in the Garden of Eden? Why… Snow White ate the Queen's apple?" They chuckled, Mateo's eyes wide with mock excitement. Silvio's hand reached into the rucksack, grabbing hold of the plump, juicy apple.
I blinked. The hand holding the glowing red apple was the wrong shade of brown. I blinked again. It was my hand. Looking up, I saw Mateo's eyes wide with confusion and fear. He took a step back. "What the hell". I dropped the apple like it was poison, letting it bounce softly and roll in the dry grass. "Who are you," said Mateo. His voice was low, a hint of panic bubbling just below the surface.
"I don't know I was just watching you two, from my apple, like it was a portal, and then I reached out to turn it a little like I do every hour, and poof, I'm suddenly in Silvio's place," I said, stopping as my tongue caught in my mouth. Mateo's eyes were now squinting down at me suspiciously. "You know that doesn't explain anything right?" he said, crossing his arms, "how do you know Silvio's name?" I couldn't think of an answer he would believe, so I told him the truth.
"I know this sounds crazy, but listen. I was laying in my bed watching my new apple, as I've done every day for the past year. Usually, I don't end up vicariously living through the inhabitants of the apple but today I ended up sharing your and Silvio's kiss in third person okay? I didn't ask to end up god knows where." Mateo gave me a sharp look, then sighed and loosened his arms.
"You look like you just climbed out a city sewer. And you're in Bergamot, by the way." Mateo shook his head in disbelief, then excitedly said "if you and Silvio swapped places somehow, that must mean that Silvio is in your place." I nodded. This made sense, then all we'd have to do was find Silvio before he left my room and let Mateo bring him back. "Okay," I said, "so which way is New Rat City?" Wordlessly, Mateo nodded out towards the field and beckoned for me to follow him. I picked up the apple. It only felt right that I should have it with me.
We set off on our way, wading through the tall stalks of golden wheat, the red apple in my hand the only splotch of color. I realized how deathly pale my hands had become, the almost translucent skin letting show the blueness of my veins. A few paces ahead of me, Mateo's dark skin glistened with a sheen of sweat on the nape of his neck. His cowboy hat was in his hands, constantly swirled around in time with his worried step. After a period of undetermined time that had stretched out with no beginning or end, much like the wheat fields, I spied a red barn looming in the distance. As we came closer, I noticed the wheat field finally abruptly ended at the dirt road cutting in front of the barn and off into the distance on either end. Just next to the barn stood a small, ramshackle wooden hut with red roof tiles, which looked in poor shape compared to the stateliness of the barn.
Mateo walked into the barn through the large red doors, and I tentatively followed suit, my eyes adjusting to the dimness shot through by stray streaks of bright sunlight. "You stay here," Mateo said as he grabbed my shoulders and steered me behind a stack of rolled hay, "and don't fucking move. I'll be back." He strode off deep into the barn. I heard a door creak open and the whinnying of a horse. "Shh, Bella, it's okay, we're going for a ride." The clop of hooves sounded softly, muffled by the abundance of hay. "You can come out now," called Mateo. I walked around the haystack to the center of the barn to see Mateo standing next to a saddled horse.
Mateo motioned for me to get on the horse, and as my wasted muscles refused to pull me up, he sighed and muttered something about city people under his breath, and helped me clamber onto the horse. He slid gracefully into the front of the saddle, his large body not ungainly as mine had been. "So here's how it's gonna go," he said, taking the reins in his hands and setting the horse into a gentle trot, "you're gonna keep your head low until we get out of this town. If anyone asks questions you pretend you don't understand Spanish-"
"I don't," I interrupted. He gave me a glare, and continued "if anyone asks, you don't understand Spanish, and I say you're just a dumb foreigner who got lost around here somehow, and I'm bringing you to the nearest petrol station." I nodded and wrapped my arms around his waist, clutching the apple in my hand as the old weariness sunk me down again. I realized I hadn't spoken as many words as I had this morning in nearly a year.
I heard the snap of Mateo's reins, and the horse took off into a gallop. For the first time, I noticed the horse's majestic body, black fur glittering with sweat in the sun. The beating of the hooves on the dirt road filled my ears, the supple strength of each gallop jarring me into my body. I learned back, tilting my head up towards the sky and closing my eyes. My greasy hair flew in the wind, which seemed to rip the dirt from my skin. I was warm, I was alive. I opened my eyes and all I could see were apples filling my vision. I saw the first apple I'd ever bought, then the next, the next, slowly at first, then speeding up until they seemed to blend into a single apple of changing color. Finally, the colors blended together until there was only a yellow apple that shot into the sky and became the blinding sun.
The sky was blue again, the apples disappeared from my vision. Strangely, my hand was in pain with a burning sensation on my skin. "Oh shit," cried Mateo, pulling in the reins. The horse abruptly stopped, sending us reeling forward. He struck my forearm with a strong downward stroke. The apple I'd been holding was alight with flames, and now flying onto the road. Mateo grabbed my arm and beat the flames that had caught on the edge of my navy blue hoodie. He pulled it over my head in one smooth motion, and jumped onto the road to smother the burning apple in my precious hoodie.
"No!" I cried. The horse whinnied in discontent as I began to scream. It had been my cocoon of safety to protect my body as I lost myself in the world of the apples each day. My eyes needed the apples to squeeze the demons into the periphery of my vision, and my body needed this cotton envelope to protect my skin from their sharp claws.
I felt a firm touch on my arm as Mateo carried me down from the horse and set me in the tall grass by the road, and my scream caught in my throat. I fell silent. "I don't know what the hell is wrong with you, but you need to keep it together until I find Silvio," he said, squatting next to me. I shook my head, I couldn't go back. I realized with a start that I hadn't been staring at the apple on the walk to the barn, and the demons hadn't come for me. Maybe this apple had been my escape. Maybe I was finally free. "I can't go back. Please don't make me go back," I pleaded.
"You can't stay here," he said sternly, standing up to tower over me, "you know too much already. You run your mouth and it's blown for us." I didn't understand what he meant, "what's blown for you?" I asked. "You said you saw me and Silvio. Kiss, I mean. We were saving to go start our own farm somewhere, but if the cops over here find out I'm not planning on staying here and marrying this rich girl to pay off my father's debt, we're screwed."
I stood for a moment, blinking stupidly up at this significantly larger man. He thought I was going to out him? Little did he know, all I wanted was for the demons to stop watching me, to stop waiting for a weak moment to engulf me and make me their slave. But he'd never understand that. "I just want to start anew here. I swear with my life that I won't ever speak a word of what I saw to anyone," I said slowly, staring into his eyes in an attempt to let him see the desperation within. "Please let me stay and I'll help you escape."
Mateo narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "How are you going to help then?"
"Sell my apartment. I have no use for it anymore."
His nod of agreement as he wordlessy shook my hand sent my heart into a swirl of pure joy. I was free. My days would no longer be filled with frantic attempts to keep the blood red demons in the periphery of my vision, the threat of slavery forever in the back of my mind as I forced apples into the forefront. This was freedom.
As Mateo climbed the night colored horse, I watched him gallop off purposefully, and admired the love driving every step. Once he'd disappeared in the hills of tall grass, I made my way back to the barn, a skip in my step, turning my head in every direction to admire my newfound demon-less freedom.
As I pushed a hand against the barn door, I found that it was barricaded from the inside. A horse within neighed, and I dismissed the distress in its tone. I pushed harder against the door, and something behind thudded heavily into the hay that carpeted the floor. I stumbled into the barn.
A scrawny figure stood in the center of the barn, hidden in shadows that wreathed him. He lurched forward towards me, into a sliver of light. Silvio's green eyes were unseeing as they stared at something in between him and me. His mouth was open in a silent scream. In his hand was a red apple, rotting around the bite. It disintegrated before my eyes, gray mold racing from the bite to eat more of the flesh, the red skin turning black.
The apple shriveled into its core and dropped out of Silvio's hand into the hay. His eyes glazed in horror. His body jerked back, and he fell into the hay, legs kicking aimlessly into the air. The ghost of his scream hung in the air as his body dissipated into a blood red smoke.