Deserter

There was a gun in his waistband. He probably shouldn’t have brought it, let alone held onto it for this long. If he had any other option, he wouldn’t be here in the first place.

The bus had dropped him a few miles from the orchard where he then lingered long enough for the next one to come and go. When he finally made his way down the road, he cut into the first row of apple trees and spent about an hour oscillating between turning back or advancing onto the house. If there was any doubt he was in the right place, this orchard dispelled it; the one memory of permanence that remained of his father was how he’d talked about growing apples one day. Northern Spy. He’d mentioned those a lot.

Finding Kellum Hayes had been surprisingly easy. Thanks to the long-shot inquiry he’d made over enlistment records, he had an address after only a month of being back in the States. Still, the rational whisper of his residual sanity had bid him wait. And he had. For a full year. Because a year ago he’d been a mad dog, fresh off the fields and still warm, still bloody; the little-boy anger he’d touted well into his twenties had mingled with the very real and seemingly permanent insanity that comes from sleeping with a Garand every night or seeing your friends get blown to bits. It may have kept him alive in France, but it was no good here; this wandering stretch of time when the nightmare had ended but he’d yet to wake up.

He may have brought the gun, but at least he’s shown up half sane.

Sane enough to second guess. He was done dancing between staying or going, and the evening chill was starting to sway his decision. There would be another bus—out of habit, he lifts the left arm which is no longer there, curses, then lifts his right to check his watch—in fifteen minutes.

“Who are you?”

Yet another good reason for waiting a year: the startle response that used to accompany the smallest of reactions had been tempered some. Even with the colt in his belt, he managed to keep from combusting; there was a boy, maybe ten, who’d snuck up behind him.

“Are you picking apples too?” The boy stared up at him with an ingenuous face, the kind that delighted in making new friends out of strangers in apple orchards, who probably hadn’t been too far outside this town. Certainly not to France.

He’d gone too long without a reply. “Yes.” His voice felt rusted, misused. Talking felt strange. “I’m…picking apples.” He was? A moment ago he was going to catch the bus…

“Ok, but make sure you don’t pull them. You’re supposed to twist it or else you’ll break the branch.” The boy plopped a wicker basket between them which already held a scattering of apples. “You get the higher ones I can’t reach. I’m really good at getting the low ones. I always get those for my mom because bending hurts her back too much.”

“I see.”

The boy dove beneath a bough, tucked his small body close to the trunk, and produced an apple, holding it aloft blindly. “Here, take this one,” and then, “What’s your name?”

He obeyed, placing the fruit into the basket with care before replying, “Gideon.”

The boy reemerged, dark hair mussed and face ruddy. “That’s a cool name. I’ve never heard that name before.”

Gideon couldn’t help but smile at the boy’s rapid-fire enthusiasm. The expression felt odd on his face, and he dropped it quickly.

“Most people call me Gid.”

The boy cocked his head, shifting his stance in youthful pondering. “I think I like Gideon better.”

“I think I do too.”

Despite the small voice in his head telling him to quit picking apples with this boy and get his ass back to the bus stop, Gideon couldn’t bring himself to leave. The kid was a natural conversationalist, though a little artless: “How did you lose your arm?” might have gone over poorly if asked by anyone else, but the boy was so guileless, so genuinely curious.

“War. I lost it in the war.”

The boy nodded again. “My dad was in the war. I think most dads were.”

This got a laugh—an actual laugh—out of Gideon. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

The boy grinned and seemed to be renewed with apple-picking vigor, diving beneath another tree. Gideon was reminded of the kids he saw in Paris, the ones that ducked and emerged behind alleys and buildings like dirty-faced rats. Some were younger than this boy. None as gleeful.

The kid was talking again. Gideon picked up the words midway. “…my favorite, but I like these too.”

“Come again?”

“I said, Jonathan apples are my favorite, but I like these too. I didn’t use to when I was a baby because they’re really tard, but I like them now.”

“They’re really tart?”

“Yeah, they’re really tart.” The boy giggled and repeated the word a few more times. “What’s your favorite apple?”

Gideon looked at the one he held in his hand. The skin was bright carmine, shiny enough he could almost make out his face. “Are these Northern Spy?”

The boy turned and looked at him as if he’d just asked if the sky were blue. “Yeah, they are. They’re probably my second favorite. No, my third favorite.”

Needless to say, this was not how Gideon thought the day would go. He wondered briefly over the boy’s parents—where they were and just how sound their parenting was given the lack of wariness displayed in their kid. Still, there was something about the boy that reminded Gideon of himself, back when he was curious and trusting and had dreams and hope and both arms and seemingly all the time in the world. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Kellum,” he replied from beneath another bough.

Ah, of course he was. Kellum reappeared with arms full of Northern Spy—familiar green eyes peering up beneath a beetled-brow—and Gideon wondered how he hadn’t put it together yet. The boy’s hair was a deeper brown, his skin darker, but those eyes…

“People call me Kel,” the boy added, expression shifting slightly upon seeing Gideon’s. Not so guileless. “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing. Just realized I need to jet.” He schooled his features, recalling that smile from before. It felt just as strange now.

Kellum’s shoulders flattened in an obvious—though genuine—display of disappointment. “Where do you have to go?”

Wasn’t that the question of the hour. Where could he go? Back to the shelter? He was getting out of there soon anyway, so long as his new job at the post held up and he could save enough for an apartment. But the thought of returning to his bunk in a crowded hostel after such a failure was a depressing one. Then again, hard to call the day a failure when he hadn’t had an outcome planned in the first place.

Kellum was talking again…he wasn’t speaking to Gideon. “…Look how many apples we have already! Gideon gets the higher ones and I get the ones down low.” He spoke with an alacrity that sounded as if he were trying to convince someone. “He was just gonna leave, actually. But maybe he can stay and have dinner!” The last part came out as half suggestion, half question.

A woman stepped into the narrow lane and fixed Gideon with a look that wasn’t hostile but was far from the eager welcome he’d received from Kellum. Gideon was fully assured this woman could send an entire platoon packing with just a stare. She had the same dark hair and brown skin as Kellum and was of indeterminable age—she could have been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty. She spoke to Kellum in clipped Spanish, her eyes never leaving Gideon. Kellum took off like a shot through the orchard.

Silence stretched, Gideon calling upon old training to avoid shying beneath the woman’s intense gaze. Finally, something dawned upon the woman’s face as if she’d recognized him. Her voice was gentle, almost wistful as she said, “I was wondering if I’d meet you someday.” 

“Ma’am.” The moniker sounded somewhere between acknowledgment and question.

“You look just like him, you know. Just like him.”

The pistol was heavy and cold against his back. Suddenly, he was Kellum’s age. Just a boy in an orchard with only one arm and a broken heart. “He live here?”

The woman smiled. It was a pleasant smile. The same as Kellum’s. “Yes, of course. I’ve sent Kel to fetch him for you.”

Gideon wanted to protest, to flee. The bus would have been long gone now.

“I’m Maria, by the way.”

“Gideon.”

Maria smiled again and nodded. “I know, mijo.” Her expression faltered, growing thoughtful, almost concerned. “Does he know you’re here?”

Gideon shook his head. The concern deepened on Maria’s face. It had been a long time since he’d seen such a maternal look. “Got nowhere else to go,” he added, regretting it for how pathetic it made him sound.

Two pairs of feet sounded through the trees. Gideon’s palm was sweating, so he stuck it in his pocket, then he decided against that and let it hang oddly by his side. Kellum Jr. appeared first, wind-battered, loping like a dog. Following closely behind was his father—Gideon’s father. His gaze went to his wife first, then to their son, before finally landing on Gideon. Maria muttered something in Spanish and ushered her son from the orchard.

Kellum Hayes looked everywhere but Gideon, taking in the trees, the half-filled basket of apples. He seemed to be searching for words. Gideon let him. Finally, and with some effort, he lifted his green eyes to his son. “Did you come to kill me?”

Despite himself, Gideon chuckled, the sound not quite so foreign now. “No. But I brought your gun.”

“My…” Kellum blinked, then understood, then flared his brows in mild bewilderment. “The colt. Forgot I left that for you.”

“I thought you’d forgotten it.”

Kellum looked at his boots and shook his head. His voice was hoarse. “No, I didn’t forget it.” When he looked at Gideon again his eyes were damp. “You must be very angry.”

Not as angry as he’d been a year ago. “I’m tired.”

Kellum dragged his thumb across his full brow and nodded, a pained chuckle escaping him. “Yeah, I hear you on that.”

“I’m going to take out the gun,” Gideon announced out of habit, turning to the side so the other man could see the process. Kellum seemed entirely unperturbed—Gideon probably could have waved it in his face and he wouldn’t have reacted. Probably would have expected it.

“It’s yours, Gid.”

“Don’t want it.” There was no malice in the reply, but the nickname sent a pang through his chest.

Kellum took the pistol. “You served, then.” He nodded at the missing limb. Direct, just like his son. Like Gideon’s brother.

“I did. So did you, sounds like.”

Another strained laugh. “I did.”

They shared another, drawn-out look—two soldiers who didn’t need to speak of the unspeakable to understand each other.

Kellum spoke first. “Your mother?”

“Don’t know. Kept drinking after you left. I moved out a few years before enlisting.”

Kellum turned the colt about in his hands, brushing his thumbs along the barrel. “Whatever you need…”

The first hint of anger flared in Gideon. He didn’t want charity. He wanted answers. Why did you leave? Why did you leave me? Does your son know about me? He needed closure. “I don’t want anything from you.” He managed to keep the sentence neutral, void of anger, employing the frank honesty he’d witnessed in his half-brother. “Just wanted to see you. Give you that.” He jerked his chin at the colt.

Kellum Hayes blinked up at his son with misty green eyes. When he spoke his voice was strong. “You wanna come in for some apple pie?”

Gideon nodded. “I’d like that.”


ORIGINALLY POSTED ON THE REEDSY BLOG USING THE PROMPT “WRITE ABOUT TWO CHARACTERS GOING APPLE PICKING.”

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