A loud noise brought me up from my bathtub nap. It sounded like a slamming door, then something getting slung down hard on the kitchen floor. I heard a whistle. Not the sound of a kettle boiling or a train coming down the track, but the whistle that replaces awe and exclamation when someone finds something beyond their expectations. Then the whistle turned into a happy sounding tune. I recognized it instantly. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Call me the breeze. It was at that point I realized someone else was in the house.I climbed from the tub and threw my legs over the high sides, snatching a towel from a shelf on the wall. I bumped the sink as I wrapped it around my waist. I heard a low voice whisper, “oh hell,” as I rushed out into the kitchen area. Standing between the dining room and the fireplace that separated it from the living room was a young woman. She had been looking at my luggage there on the couch and realizing she wasn’t alone. With my rush out of the bathroom she spun towards me. Surprise turned to shock, which quickly turned to embarrassment.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she apologized. She put her hand to her mouth, then corrected herself and covered her eyes instead. I looked down quickly to make sure nothing was showing and clutched the towel tighter to me. “I’m sorry,” she repeated and turned her back to me.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
She pushed a strand of long dark hair out of her eyes. “I just rented the place. I didn’t think anyone else was here. They didn’t say anything about other guests.”
“Well, I just rented it no more than half an hour ago. They must have a short memory.” I reached for the phone on the wall. The number of the fruit stand was posted beside it. I started dialing.
She turned to face me again. “What are you doing?”
“I’m calling them to find out what’s going on.” Then my towel fell off.
She threw her hand to her face and turned away. “Maybe you should dress first,” she suggested with a nervous giggle. I don’t know who was more red – she, I, or the apples out in the orchard.
As a child I had a recurring nightmare. It’s the first day of school and I’m walking the halls. It’s nice to be there and I’m happy to be reunited with my friends after the summer and maybe meet a nice girl to boot. I’m alone in the hall, lost in thought, when the bell rings. The classrooms dispel their students and they come rushing out in the hallway to go to their next class, their lockers, or quite possibly the smoking block. As everyone is scurrying around me, I suddenly realize I’m naked. And within seconds everyone else does, too. They laugh and point, and I’m so embarrassed I’m trying to find an empty classroom to escape to. That’s what it felt like with this stranger in Orchard House, and I, just like in the dream, ran for it. Dashing back into bathroom, I slammed the door behind me and hurriedly dressed. Getting my pants and shirt back on, I looked in the mirror. If I was trying to gain courage from my reflection, it wasn’t happening. I took a deep breath and stepped back out into the kitchen to confront the woman. I didn’t know what to say to her. I was never much good with the ladies, and especially not ones who just showed up in your house. It didn’t help matters that she was beautiful. She had long dark hair, framing a face that carried a slight trace of Native American heritage. She wasn’t dark skinned, but her high cheekbones and shape of her face gave it away. She had deep brown eyes, and light freckles painted her face, which bore no trace of makeup. She was wearing long jeans, brown at the knees, as if she spent most of her time on her knees in a garden, and a bright t-shirt that happily exclaimed “I love nerds” on the front. For a moment, I almost wished for a pocket protector and black framed glasses.
Finding my voice, I asked her, “So, what’s your name?”
She held out her hand. “I’m Summer.”
I took it and discovered her hand shake was pretty firm. “Matthew.” I sighed and picked the phone off the wall again. “Well, let’s get this thing straightened out, I suppose.” I dialed the number on the wall and it began to ring. I looked at the woman, who had now sat down at the kitchen table to wait the outcome. She was watching me with her dark eyes, brown like rich earth, and I had to look away because I wasn’t used to it. It’s not that I found her gaze intrusive; eye contact has always been an alien thing to me. When no one picked up the phone on the other end, I dared to look at her again. She sadly smiled.
“Hey look, you were here first,” she said. Her duffle bags had been sitting in the kitchen floor, and so she stood up and reached for them. Hefting one in each arm, she started for the door. “I’ll just go back to the store and ask for my money back.”
I hung up the phone, as she came around me and opened up the door. I didn’t know what to say.
“I’m sorry to have intruded, Mr. Matthew. I truly thought the place was empty.” She held out her hand and I took it. Her palm was now soft and warm and it made me realize her handshake earlier was the first time a woman had touched me since Ashley. Not a thing to be thinking at all, when this woman is walking out the door. But it was just a handshake after all. Business, not pleasure.
She stepped out on the back porch and went down the steps without looking back. She was proud. She wouldn’t show me a look of sympathy, nor regret. She wouldn’t look at me from beneath her dark locks, or stare at me from deep eyes to say she didn’t want to go. Instead, she disappeared around the corner of the house and I heard her fumble for her keys and open her car door. I stood there in the doorway, staring out at the orchard. I had come here to be alone, to find what was next for me if anything. I didn’t want company; I just wanted my sad world to stop spinning enough to gather my thoughts.
The closing of her car door brought me out of my thoughts of aloneness. “Damn,” I muttered, and pushed open the screen door. I ran down the steps and around the corner. She had put the car in reverse and was getting ready to back down the long drive. I threw up my hand. “Hey wait!” I came around to her window. She was looking at me curiously.
“Did I forget something?” she asked.
“No, it’s not that. Look, the house is huge. It has rooms upstairs and downstairs. It should be enough space for us both to live in without running over top each other. If you don’t mind sharing the house with a stranger, I guess I don’t mind either.”
She seemed to think about it, staring down into her own lap silently, before looking up at me. “I’ll tell you what. I have business here in the area. May take me three days to finish up. Once it’s done I’ll get out of your hair. I won’t be a bother in the meantime.”
I smiled. “Neither will I. and I promise not to flash you anymore.”
She laughed. “Okay. Deal.”
I stepped back and let her get out the car. “You want ground floor or upstairs?” I asked.
She reached into her back seat to grab her duffel bags. “I’m used to apartment living, I’ll take upstairs if you don’t mind.”
“That’s fine, here let me help you.” I reached for one of her bags but she wouldn’t let me take it. Miss independence. “Well, I’m going to go and finish settling in. just make yourself at home, Summer.”
I left her to carry her bags as she wished and returned to the house. Back in the kitchen I had to ask myself what I was doing, staying in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with a woman who had to be twenty years my junior. In the city, the neighbors would have been wagging their tongues for sure. I stepped into the bathroom and looked at the discarded towel in the floor. I had to laugh at my embarrassing moment upon meeting Summer. It was the stuff of sitcoms and comedy movies, not real life. it was also the kind of things you tell your kids when they grow up. Now where did that thought come from? Maybe once I had thought of children, but never more. One woman can kill everything for you.
I had taken my bath things out and set them on the sink before my bath. I looked down at a razor sitting on the edge. Picking it up, I stared at it, wondering if I would ever be so brave to show Ashley just what she had done. I ran some warm water and sprayed shaving cream into my hands. Rubbing the cream on my face, I took the razor more firmly and shaved the three days growth off my face. I watched myself in the mirror with red rimmed eyes, but I refused to cry.
TO BE CONTINUED
Orchard House. Paul D Aronson All Rights Reserved
Author's Note: Longtime readers of my novels will probably notice the name of the female lead here is the same as one in "Advocate For The Dead". However these are not the same person. I guess i liked the name so much I ended up using it again without realizing it. Hope it doesn't cause much confusion. Thanks for reading