If she hadn’t noticed the strange smell, Rosemary would’ve stepped right on the rotting carcass. She bent down to examine the body, a dead bat. It lay prostrate on the brown doormat. Most of its stomach and skin had been liquefied by a trail of ants and flies were already circling around it. Instead of getting her mother, she immediately went across the street to LeighAnne’s house. Huddled over the dead animal, the two laid out their theories. LeighAnne thought some cat probably left it as a gift, but that wasn’t good enough for Rosemary.
They were startled to hear a voice calling Rosemary Louise Lee from above their downcast faces. Rosemary’s mother stood in the doorway still in her tattered pink nightgown. She told the girls to go and squawk somewhere else as she went back inside to get a garbage bag. It was ok; the girls had seen enough to fuel a conversation. While Rosemary’s mother destroyed the evidence, the two girls worked at solving the mystery of the bat.
Deep down they both knew it was nothing more than one of those fruit bats that always hung around the neighborhood at night, but it was fun to pretend like they did when they were little kids. Back then the neighborhood was theirs. Those stories the younger kids were sharing amongst themselves were originally theirs. In their fervent tongue, the girls made the mundane monumental. According to them the gray house down the street was actually haunted; the old crone who lived behind Rosemary was a real child-eating witch; at night the super ordinary Mister Mealer was none other than a shape-shifting werewolf. But even the girls, with their imaginary tales, could not have conjured up the mystery surrounding the orchard behind LeighAnne’s house.
It had always been there since the beginning. No one knew why, but amongst the brick houses of the suburbs there stood an orchard surrounded on all sides by wooden fences. Because it was the type of thing adults never talked about in front of kids, amongst the children of the neighborhood rumors spread. Cole, LeighAnne’s big brother, had actually ventured inside the orchard. He and his friends had found a secret way inside, a small path created where two fence planks had rotted in place. Seeing as how they were only ten at the time, he couldn’t tell them everything about his adventure, but what he did tell them was enough. Neither LeighAnne nor Rosemary had seen it up close. Sometimes they stood tippy-toed on top of the plastic playhouse in LeighAnne’s backyard to get a better look, but all they could see was the tops of those orange trees, stretching out to the horizon.
Out on the sidewalk curb, the two chattered on for hours until their mouths went dry. LeighAnne gazed at the empty road, and Rosemary made a pathetic sigh. The silence was painful. Then the sound of the ice cream truck chimed in. A quick check and then they were off in line, feeling their pockets for the treasure of quarters and lint. When the truck left, they returned to the curb with their prizes. But after awhile, it was all silence again. Bugs Bunny pops and Rocky Road had only distracted them from the heat. In the stifling autumn haze, the two had nothing else to do. The mutilated bat had only partially satiated their boredom.
A group of boys approached the girls. It was Matt and his friends. They were all smiles and heys to them. The girls didn’t notice their popsicles melting, as they talked to them. There was cause for celebration; a new boy had moved into the gray house down the street. Matt called him Travis. He didn’t look like the rest of the boys in the neighborhood. Travis had shaggy blonde curls and tan skin and a funny accent. He called the girls gals and he called LeighAnne miss LeighAnne. Rosemary found the whole thing absurd. She went back to her melted Bugs Bunny while LeighAnne talked to the guys.
Matt and his friends always tried to provoke the girls with taunts and name-calling. It was always like that from the start. There were guys and there were girls, and that’s the way they played. The only time they made an exception was when there weren’t enough boys to form a team. Then LeighAnne would play forward and Rosemary got plain-old defense. Last week Matt dared them to climb up the roof of his house. When Rosemary refused, he called her chicken and made bwacking noises till she blew up and called him a four-letter word her grandfather taught her. The boys always managed to rile Rosemary up. Not LeighAnne though. She climbed up to Matt’s roof without hesitation.
But today the boys promised the girls something fun.
Ever since the girls had turned twelve, they found it harder to stay entertained. There was no more magic left in dolls and dress-up. They had run out of romantic scenarios to play out amongst themselves in the backyard. Even their new ideas seemed dull. Everything now had a weak taste to it; it was all just leftovers from their childhood. They knew that sadly there was more. The gut wrenching feeling wouldn’t go away, like when you keep something from your parents and it just sits inside you and eats away at what you’ve eaten, and it all lasts for days. Required to carry their burden on petite shoulders—that could barely carry the weight of a pale white bra strap, let alone all of adulthood—they could only share such feelings with each other, and in that exclusivity laid the excitement of secrecy.
Overhead, the sun began to set, painting the sky a blood orange. It was close to dinnertime. Despite the group’s laughter, crows cawed as they rode by. A harsh wind picked up all the dirt and dust on the road. Small bits and pieces violently blew into Rosemary’s hair. The sudden rush of cold air made her tremble. She tried to stand tall on the pegs of Matt’s bike, but she couldn’t help herself; she clenched his shoulder. He felt bony and hard in her hand. Do all guys feel this way?
The boys had driven them down to the end of Main Street, turning left into a small cul-de-sac. This was the first time the girls had ever been down this way. The boys stopped in front of a house with no fence, and Matt told Rosemary to get off in the same annoying voice he had used last week when he deemed her no more than a chicken. They lay their bikes down on the curb. Rosemary looked up at the house with no fence and felt someone looking back at her. She warned Matt not to do anything stupid, but he said there was no one who lived here anyway and to stop worrying. Well, if it’s ok then. She wanted to stand next to LeighAnne, but Travis was already there saying Miss LeighAnne and all that, so she stayed with Matt.
If the front of the house had only been superficially taken care of then it might not have seemed so pitiful. With all of its boarded up windows and the giant hole in the roof, the house with no fence looked like a child’s old shoe casually abandoned on a suburban sidewalk. Though all the neighboring homes had fine cut grass and potted plants, the weeds had grown so long that they reached up to people’s knees. It’s always the tall grass that’s the most dangerous. Shaded in the curtain of leaves rattlesnakes like to wait for their prey to scurry by, and—whack. Then they like to draw the curtains back, returning to the shadows for a respite after a hard day.
They walked through the tall grass—Rosemary keeping her eyes peeled for any sudden movements—until they came to where the backyard fence was supposed to be. Behind the overgrown jungle of weeds and grass, there was a tall fence separating this yard from the property behind them. Amongst the long and straight planks, Rosemary saw two planks hunched over, almost bending forward, and then there was the oh no way that escaped from her. Matt went over and shushed her. It was clear now; Matt and them had discovered the same entryway that only LeighAnne’s brother and all his older friends knew about. Here in the dilapidated remains of some family’s backyard lay the gate unto the only real mystery of the neighborhood, the orchard.
As they got closer to the fence, the sound of flies buzzing nearby grew, and Rosemary looked over at LeighAnne, who was using Travis’ shoulder for support. Though they couldn’t see any of them, the small insects began to flap their wings at such high speeds that the sound echoed throughout the empty backyard. The noise rang all around them, drowning out Rosemary’s beating heart. Afraid to disturb the natural chorus, none of them dared speak a word. Soon their shared silence was palpable.
Rosemary turned her attention to the disappearing sun. A sliver of yellow blotted the orange sky. A muggy heat set in. Cool beads of sweat rushed down her back and in between her thighs. Her whole body was moist from perspiration. She looked over at Matt. A cool sheen of sweat marked his bare upper brow. The humidity forced him to start panting like her dog. Her cheeks flushed bright red. The combination of it all was too much. She felt everything was pushing her forward toward those two loose planks. There was a second of hesitation before Rosemary brushed the rotting planks aside, and stepped into the orchard.
Pushing past thick branches, pulling leaves back, Rosemary fell into the dirt groove. Orange trees towered over on all sides of her. The prodigious amount of produce dragged the arms of the trees down around their sides, covering the thin trunk like a skirt made of leaves. Occasionally an exposed ankle of bark was visible under the hem. Flies lingered over the fallen fruit lying at the feet of the trees and picked at the exposed network of juicy veins. A piquant smell saturated the air.
It was decided they’d all split up and explore in pairs. Rosemary looked to LeighAnne, but of course, she was already partnered with Travis. Then Matt came along and tried to calm her down with it’s better this way, come with me. But who did he think he was and where did he get the right to make such comments? Really, she was just too tired to argue at all, and Matt was already grabbing her hand and pulling her forward. So she went along with it, even though the whole thing was going in the wrong direction.
Matt was still trying to soothe her ruffled feathers as they walked on, but the crunching sound of their footsteps on the dry dirt path sounded too much like potato chips and she was hungry. The sun had long vanished. Now the trees were silhouettes against the dark orange sky. It was already past dinner time. She looked down at her white tennis shoes. They were caked in dirt. She could hear the familiar Rosemary Louise Lee already.
He still had her hand in his, only now it didn’t feel as unnatural as before; almost like this was something normal for them. But she knew it was different. And that everything that had happened before between them—the teasing, the name-calling, the swearing—was gone, condensed into their handholding. There would be the things before the handholding and the things that came after. With each step forward her childhood was receding. If she turned to look back she could catch a final glimpse of it, but then she’d have to say goodbye and she wasn’t ready for that.
She could tell he was intently looking over at her, and she couldn’t help but be all bright red and teary eyed in the moment. He stopped talking, stopped walking, and stared down at her. A shadow of darkness came over his facial features. They stood in the blackness of the orchard, the only light coming from the whites of their eyes. The audible sound of flies buzzing nearby grew louder, resonating in her ears. Then silence, as he leaned in and kissed her. It was too fast, too sudden. She lost her balance and fell backward with a loud thump into an orange tree. Immediately he apologized and apologized over and over again, helping her back onto her feet. With her hand, she felt the newly formed bump on the back of her head. She was going to say something but stopped when she saw the blood smeared on her hands. Everything felt fine, though, so she looked down at where she fell. There was a body.
Buried behind the orange trees, someone had left the poor thing to rot with the rest of the discarded fruit. Matt screamed, but Rosemary gazed on, unfazed, at the dead young woman. Her abdomen was perforated with stab wounds, but her skin was still supple like the bulbous orange fruit crowning her face. Her hair was the same as Rosemary’s, dark and brown, but longer. She squatted over the woman. If there weren’t any of those stab wounds, then she would’ve looked like someone who died peacefully. It was as if someone had picked up this sleeping woman from her bedroom, and carried her over here. Except she wasn’t asleep, she was dead. Rosemary realized this was something permanent.
On the drive back to Rosemary’s, Matt remained silent, and Rosemary once again stood tall on the pegs of his bike. Even as the wind cut through her, she didn’t shiver. She gazed at her blood stained hand. She knew now that it didn’t matter where the bat had come from, only that it had been on her doorstep. Right now it was probably decomposing in a black trash bag with the rest of their garbage.
Now the neighborhood felt even smaller than before. Today, beyond the tall grass she had discovered the something more that had been eating away at her. Today would stand out in her mind. From now on everything, just like her first kiss, would be stained in the sweet smell of ripe oranges and death.