I slouched in the passenger seat of Barney’s truck, running my fingertips along the creases in my jeans. The flannel overshirt I’d borrowed from him rustled with each stroke, hiding a tee shirt as pristine as the boots laced to my feet. My skin, however, itched under the leather, denim, and cotton, the textures so different then the lab coats and flats, the business skirts and protective gloves I’d been used to donning each morning, but never in all those years, this early.
I thought I’d left behind these dawn awakenings when I’d first packed my bags, but as the sun woke, the truck thumped in and out of a pothole and tossed me against passenger window, proving the truth of the situation. I braced my hand on the flaking dashboard while Barney chuckled.
“Want to turn back?”
I slipped my fingers around the door’s handle, determined not to unplug its lock or open it wide and dive to safety. Even if I had, we were miles away from town and the thought of trudging down the maze of muddied roads winding between the orchards made my feet ache.
I nodded, forced my hand to relax and laid my intertwined fingers in my lap. Channeling my last round of explanations before the board, I exuded an outward calm I desperately wanted to imbibe.
“You might like it you know,” said Barney. “The fresh air.”
Barney smacked the truck’s signal and turned us down an unmarked right hand lane. I winced when we crossed a canyon-sized rut and the whole truck bounced. The seatbelt cinched across my torso and I rubbed the crown of my head after it smacked against the ceiling. A glance at my fingertips proved nothing more than a bruise would remain but the smooth palm and tapered fingers facing me seemed wounded nonetheless.
“What am I doing?”
“This was your idea, Paige.”
“But is it a good one?”
“You won’t know until you try,” said Barney.
I rolled my eyes at his optimistic rejoinder and stared at the passing trees. Lush clumps of leaves clung to the branches, shading the damp ground and the plump apples ripening in their midst. The crooked limbs seemed to yearn for a climber and echoes of my own laughter when running between the trunks and scampering like a squirrel into the canopy called out from the past. I remembered the scrapes and cuts treated with iodine and the frosty showers with the garden hose when I’d stumbled home too muddy to be let inside.
Regardless of what fresh layers of dirt, blisters, or muscle strain today brought, I knew one thing was certain: At the end of the week I’d have my first paycheck in months.
Taking some solace in the logical course I’d begun, I straightened and watched the ruddy planks of the warehouse near.
Two trucks were parked outside: a pale blue one dotted with rust and a backseat I recalled smelling like hay, and a newer green pickup with muddied flaps. My heart thudded when I noted Carl and Maddie standing between them. In their worn jeans and plaid shirts faded by days in and out of the surrounding fields, they seemed a part of the scenery, a painting crafted for my reminiscence. Unlike streaks of watercolor or oily globs, the two of them chatted amicably between chomps on powdered donuts and sips on covered coffee cups. Carl’s shaggy mop of hair swayed with a headshake and Maddie’s wrinkles, too numerous for her age, deepened with her smile. The vicious thump of my heart sped, however, as they turned to watch us approach.
“Did you tell them?”
“Why would I do that?”
Barney veered into a parking spot, hiding me for the moment behind the cabin of Maddie’s green truck.
“We need an extra hand and I’m bringing an extra hand.” Killing the ignition, he adjusted the ball cap perched on his globular head. “We’re here to work, not dredge up old times.”
Shading his tanned face with the cap’s brim, Barney stepped out of the truck and slammed the door shut behind him.
“I hope you’re right.”
With a sigh, I tightened my ponytail and wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. Exiting the truck, I raised my hand, blocking a gust swirling jagged grains into my face. The smell of the night’s rain and the damp earth the autumnal weather had left behind nearly obscured the sweeter undercurrent from the fruit and the musk of machinery. When the winds died, I could almost hear the swelling flesh amid the soft hush of leaves and Maddie’s chastisement.
“…not like you to be running late.”
“I had to run an errand,” said Barney.
Sensing the opportunity to make my entrance, I rounded the bed of both pickups but stopped at the brake lights. My feet refused to move any further, like Carl’s square jaw around his mouthful and Maddie’s arm as she took her next sip.
Barney pivoted, his face a mask of innocence. “You two remember Paige?”
Maddie lowered her hand, taking the cup from her pursed lips. “I seem to recall the name.”
Turning her back to me, she fetched the last cardboard cup from the tray resting on her pickup’s hood and handed it to Barney.
“We better get started.”
“Lead the way.”
Barney motioned toward the warehouse and Maddie marched on. Her dirty-blonde ponytail jolted from side to side in time with her walk and twitched like a hooked fish when she shoved open the warehouse’s door, revealing a shadowed interior. She and Barney disappeared inside, and I jumped when Carl appeared beside me, his presence as quiet as an oak.
“I think she’s still pissed about Garret Adams.”
“Gar….” With my mouth gaping, I stared up at him. “That was junior high.”
Carl shrugged and peered beyond me, into the orchard. “Around here, some things stick around.”
I gulped down the insinuation I heard in his soft tenor, and felt thankful for the cool dawn keeping my cheeks from blazing.
“Some things don’t,” I whispered.
“Sometimes.” His smile rebound and he cocked his head. “And maybe you’re here to prove me right. What’s all this about you being back?”
Leaning against the rail of Maddie’s truck, I crossed my arms and stared into the warehouse where tools clanked.
“My grant expired.”
When I looked back, I found Carl’s brow furrowed.
“The money for my project ran out,” I said, “and they had to let go of our whole team.”
“And you came back here?”
Rubbing at my sleeves, I warded off second thoughts. “I wasn’t sure where else to go. Everyone’s in the same boat so jobs are hard to come by.”
“But weren’t you almost finished?”
I stilled my hands. “How did you know?”
“Just because I live out in the boonies doesn’t mean I don’t hear the news.”
“Of course,” I said, suddenly conscious of my cleaner attire, “I didn’t mean to sound so shocked.”
Hanging his head, Carl kicked a piece of gravel with the toe of his boot. “I…it’s your Mom really. She talks about you every chance she gets.”
“You’ve see her?”
“At Barney’s from time to time. Your Uncle’s been looking after her since….” He winced and his focus drifted back into the trees.
He shook his head. “Since you.”
I grimaced but couldn’t find the words to argue with his whisper. Anything I said would be a hollow excuse or an outright lie and Carl knew me too well to be fooled, or at least he had.
From the warehouse, the guttural rumble of a picker shook the loose pebbles around my feet. The rattle pulled me from my guilt and the decisions I’d made, and my hands suddenly yearned for something to do.
“What’s the plan?”
“We’re harvesting today.” Carl tipped his chin at the eastern rows where a hazy sun peeked over the treetops. “Seven through twenty-two.”
“That’s the idea.”
A second warehouse door opened, creating a silhouette of daylight around the first picker trundling toward the waiting rows. Putting my feet into gear, I stalked inside as Maddie and my Uncle made their exit. My eyes adjusted after a couple of blinks and the second hulking machine with its angled arm and tires curving above my shoulders came into focus. Gripping the handles by the steps, I hauled myself into the driver’s seat and eyed the controls.
“You remember how to ride this beast?”
I stroked my fingers along the steering wheel and the knob atop the clutch. “It’s coming back to me.”
Carl’s contagious grin brightened the warehouse’s gloom. “Then let’s see it, Doctor.”
“Strap yourself in.”
Carl perched on the frame behind me as I fired up the motor and floored the gas. At a pace I remembered once finding laborious, we lurched out of the doorway and along the path marked by the first picker’s tires.
“Hey,” said Carl.
I glanced behind me and found him pointing.
“Watch out for—”
His eyes widened as we tipped into a bottomless pothole hidden beneath a pool of murky water. Mud flung into my face and splatters coated the front of my tee shirt. I sputtered and the picker decelerated while I wiped my eyes clear and spat out hunks of brown saliva.
Beneath the engine’s rattle, I heard Carl stifling a laugh. He reached both arms around me and steadied the wheel as we continued our trundle along the rutted path.
I stared at the muddy pools in my palms, the water rippling from the droplets falling from my bangs.
Carl’s concern whittled through my stupor and I met his worried gaze. The picker, however, took advantage of our distracted stare.
I yelped when we thudded through another sequence of puddles and a crisp shower drenched my back. Drops trickled beneath my collar, traced my spine, and headed for my waist, and I shivered while Carl steered us back onto level ground.
“Do you want to turn back? Get cleaned up?”
“No,” I whispered.
He glanced my way and I palmed his face, smearing mud across his pristine cheeks and the skepticism in his eyes.
“Feeling better, Doc?”
“I am now,” I said, joining in his laughter.
Taking the wheel back from him, I floored the gas once more. We accelerated down the row, the wind playing with my soggy hair, the rising sun drying the splatters on my face, Carl’s presence a fire against my back. I didn’t bother wiping the rest of the dirt away with my flannel’s sleeve or the bandana I’d stuck in my back pocket. I’d end the day dirtier than I had been in years, but seated on the split cushion with its duct tape repairs and surrounded by the trees my great grandfather had first planted, I savored a sudden and unexpected sense of home.