When the Apple Girl steps out of the shower, she notices that the red paint on her toenails is chipped and spotty. She dresses, grabs a bottle of milk, takes the stairs to the first floor, and walks to the downtown farmer’s market, where Emilio is cutting a chunk of honey crisp with a pocket knife and offering it to a teenage girl. He doesn’t acknowledge the Apple Girl until the customer is gone, not having purchased anything. Loose change jangles in his fanny pack as he turns from the crates to greet her.
“You’re here,” he says, as if anything else were possible.
She smiles, moves to the crates on the far end of the stall, and buries her arms to the elbows in the ball-pit of red Cortlands. Culling is on her mind.
The market is quiet when it opens. As the sun arcs from the east and the voices become indistinguishable, the Apple Girl fastens her change purse to her belt, tells Emilio she’ll be back in a bit, and follows the sounds of a pennywhistle to a tent in the square. A trio of musicians is just finishing out the final strokes of “The Boatman’s Dance,” the fiddler shredding harder than she needs to for a crowd of twenty at a farmer’s market, as though she’s siphoning off some kind of stress no one can see. The whistler, in flannel and a trucker hat, stands next to a stool with a cup of beet juice sweating onto the wood.
The Apple Girl applauds when it’s done. Barely anyone else does. The trio’s frontwoman is a guitarist with charcoal curls piled atop her head. She points and nods at the Apple Girl, the last one clapping.
The Apple Girl stands in the city square on a weekday, chewing on an Arthur Turner and thinking that she’ll probably lose her taste for apples eventually. The statue in the center of the square, erected when the city was cobbled together in the 1820s, brings her solace on boring days like this when the market is off and she has no tutoring to do. The stone woman on the pedestal arcs her back toward the heavens, blowing on a horn that morphs into a cluster of feathers at the top. Her left foot rests on the gangplank of an invisible ship, one that the Apple Girl often builds from scratch in her imagination: it’s a three-masted schooner, and in these daydreams the Apple Girl, with bare feet and hands, ascends the ratlines to the mizzen royal, sits in the rigging, and watches the city shrink to an unrecognizable fuzz behind her. Her hair is tied back and the sun warms her neck. The statue woman is onboard too, hanging in the bowsprit netting and grinning into the salt spray, the two hundred years it’s taken her to walk up the gangplank well worth the wait.
Once Antonia’s lessons are over, she runs to the television. The Apple Girl goes over Antonia’s math and spelling, lassoing errors in red pen. She sips milk from a glass bottle. Thunder rumbles outside. The Apple Girl likes to see how storms begin, so she sets the stack of papers down and finishes her milk on the stoop.
She takes a long swig with her eyes closed. The sky begins to really crackle. When she opens them, she sees something between the clouds. A cavalcade of hunters rides with purpose, in pursuit of something: bows are drawn; horses’ chiseled heads pull their riders along; hooves pound the mountainous heaps of gray; warriors whirl falchions and great ox-tongued spears before them; silver hounds rush between the solid legs of the horses. A woman in padded leather armor waves a banner. She’s leading some sort of song that the Apple Girl cannot make out.
The Apple Girl rubs her eyes. No more hunters. She polishes off the milk and goes inside. Antonia is in the living room, watching a Spanish-language children’s show called Avocado Abogado. When Emilio returns and pays her for babysitting, the Apple Girl goes home, tears a sheet of yellow paper from the pad on her nightstand, and sets her concertina on her lap. At the top of the torn paper, she scrawls a song title.
Two days after the rain begins, the gutters are brimming. The roads will soon flood. A man sits in a cafe’s window seat, waiting on an iced blackberry tea. He is the whistler from the band who played last weekend’s farmer’s market, and he worries about whether the band will be asked to return for another set – he is not yet at the point of wondering whether the rain will ever stop, whether the market will ever be held again, but he’ll get there.
He works on a charcoal sketch of fantasy creatures. Out the large-paned window, he recognizes the Apple Girl trudging up the sidewalk, carrying a bag with the local hardware store’s logo on it, not bothering to step over the puddles. Under her arm is an empty milk bottle. He remembers last weekend’s set – had she made eye contact with him? – and the pathetic few dollars in nickels scattered around the waterstained lining of Emerald’s guitar case.
She passes the window, and he has to crane his neck to see her. Her parka and jeans look soaked through. He thinks about how she’s always got a bottle of milk on the table when he buys his galas from her. He starts to imagine what she looks like without jeans on. Then his tea comes.
Emerald, the guitarist, is writing a manuscript about dystopia. She doesn’t know whether the piece should be performed on the stage, on a screen, or with a bunch of people in a little stadium theater in front of microphones, but it doesn’t matter right now. The roads are closed to cars, and the restaurants are shut down until the flooding stops. She needs a protagonist.
Out the window of her fourth-floor apartment, she thinks she sees someone in a small wooden boat, floating down the river that was once the street. The single mast is a fireman’s pole, and the sail is a blue tarp. A woman is manipulating the rudder, maneuvering the ship down the flooded street and on to who-knows-where.
Of course, the flooding will eventually stop. The sun will come out. The pavement and obliterated basements will be replaced, and someone will once again complain about the heat while waiting in line at the apple stall.
Emerald watches the Apple Girl’s boat disappear over the rapids. She puts pen to paper. By the time Emerald has children, they’ll ask who the statue woman in the square is, what she’s doing with that thing she’s holding above her head. When they’re older, they’ll read her manuscript: an apocalyptic adventure about a woman leading a ragtag group of townspeople from a dying world to a new one. She will build the vessel herself, and when the world is reborn, music will echo in every corner of every city. Signed, Emerald.
But what will she tell them about the statue woman? That she’s drinking something. Milk, maybe.
Brittany, the fiddler, is named after the cultural region in France (where her parents, as far as she knows, have never traveled), and happens to be writing a paper about the Carnac Stones. During the flood, she had to postpone her degree, but now the streets have been drained, the damaged dorm buildings re-carpeted and painted, businesses reopened, people allowed to resume their lives, though the cell towers were clobbered by the wind and can’t provide service yet. To Brittany, going back to normal feels like ignoring history.
Her boyfriend slides onto the love seat next to her and pokes her side fat, a gesture she hates. She’s comfortable in her body, but the constant prodding makes her feel as though he’s trying to point something out.
There’s still one piece that needs to be put back in place for this city to feel like the old one again: the band. Her fiddle will never collect dust, but her fingers ache to touch the fingerboard alongside Andy’s whistle and Emerald’s guitar. The girls who ran the beet juice stand at the market still haven’t returned.
She tells her boyfriend all of this. He doesn’t remember the band because he didn’t meet Brittany until after reconstruction, after everyone left town and came back.
He tells her, “You should get with them and jam again.”
She says, “I didn’t know them that well. I don’t know where they live now.”
She allows this feeling of never again to consume her for a few seconds and then lets another thought in: an address she saw posted on a telephone pole, on a slip of computer paper that read simply Let’s unite everybody in deep blue ink.
They have sex. He goes home. Brittany turns back to her paper about the Stones, then turns away. She removes some stationery from a desk drawer. She starts writing something else.
The Apple Girl receives another pile of letters just as a camera crew appears at the door of her apartment building.
“Greetings,” says a man with black-rimmed glasses and gelled hair. He looks like he runs a tabloid. “We are working on a television series about the supernatural. Would you care to answer a few questions?”
She says she has letters to read. He mentions that people often see bizarre phenomena before a tragedy strikes, and he wonders whether she’s seen anything.
She tells him no.
“Those very same people,” he says, “often deny their sightings, because they’re afraid of not being believed.” He shoves a microphone in her face. The cameraman behind him is rolling.
Antonia is in the other room, watching her show. Avocado Abogado kept airing after the flood because they make it in a place far away, where most seasons are drought seasons. In a way, Antonia is the only one who didn’t have to stop what she was doing for a year and then pick up where she left off, although she’s going to outgrow this show anytime now.
The Apple Girl feels a daub of sweat on her temple. She tells the TV host she’s fine with not being believed. She’s afraid of the things that happen after people see crazy things.
“Such as a flood?”
She tells him that if he keeps asking about the sightings, people will suddenly begin seeing things, and does he understand what she’s getting at.
He senses some kind of power in her, like something asleep in her rib cage.
Soon, she’s done talking. She thinks about culling apples. There’s no way she can concentrate on letters now.
Garth can feel his camera crew’s exhaustion. With him, with this show, with this city, a place that feels held together like toothpicks and cheap glue.
He’s staying in a cramped motel thirty miles outside of town, sustaining himself and the crew on gas station food. At least there’s cell service and internet access here. He reviews the day’s footage on his laptop, doing a test edit of his show’s new episode. There are fifteen minutes of a gluten-free pastry vendor at the city’s farm market, and at least eight of those minutes involve her trying to get him to try her “Cowboy Dessert,” a glazed lump of baked dough showered with bacon bits. He thinks about the things cowboys represent. Then he drags the footage to the trash bin.
Then there’s the last resident he interviewed, the girl with the pile of envelopes on her table, the one whose address he traced from the Let’s unite everybody flyers.
“Gonna stare at her all day?” It’s Karen, the grip. Garth’s gazing at a freeze-frame of the girl’s face, a shot from the conversation they had: he had a feeling she was about to reveal something. People in towns that had seen tragedies like the recent flood get all sorts of ideas about why it happened: angry deities, karma, aliens. Usually, his episodes involve running through abandoned houses and pretending to be frightened, jumping at the sound of Karen or Larry tossing a stone at a window, jerky night-vision shots, the whole nine. But this place wasn’t like that. The people here weren’t afraid, weren’t even thinking about their tragedy anymore.
Karen sits on her twin bed, pajama shorts and no socks. She munches on French fries leftover from the five-dollar dinner she picked up at a local fast food shack. “Don’t blame you,” she says to Garth. “She’s cute.”
Garth loves to examine faces, to look at what people are made of. This girl’s cheeks are dusted with freckles, her hair a deep red, her skin like the tallow-colored walls of his childhood bedroom, but he’s looking beyond that. One of her brows is furrowed, and she’s trying to keep the other one from doing the same thing. There’s a notch in the skin alongside her lip. He wonders aloud about this – What’s her story? These people always have a story – and Karen replies that the girl probably just wants him to go away. Karen only works for him part-time.
Garth clicks play, then pauses the video after a single frame. He thinks he sees something in the girl’s eyes. Or maybe he sees that she’s seen something. War. Carnage. Heroism. She has the presence of someone who’s seen the rage of nature, who has pulled children aboard life rafts, but the mannerism of someone who doesn’t think it means anything. Maybe he could market the episode that way. Heroes Who Refuse to Be Sung About. He could splice the video of the anxious hero-girl with stock footage of storms, wailing children, even well-angled shots from his local amusement park’s Raging River ride if the budget won’t cover the stock footage.
But then Karen asks when they’re going home, and he turns to argue with her. By the time he thinks about this again, he’ll dismiss it all as one big cliché.
People have learned to write letters again. Emerald doesn’t mail hers; she tucks it into her jacket pocket and brings it to the first gathering of the LUE – everyone’s shorthand for Let’s unite everybody. The meeting takes place in the reconstructed version of the city’s old theater, where Emerald’s parents would take her to see local renditions of Wicked and The Pirates of Penzance when she was young. This new theater is too clean, she thinks. The water stain on the lobby ceiling is gone. The cushioned seats make you want to stay forever. When she repeats this thought to the red-haired apple vendor whom she later learns posted the LUE flyers, the girl asks why the seats in a theater shouldn’t make you want to stay forever. “Because,” Emerald says, “we’ve proven that this isn’t a place where people can stay forever.”
Later, Emerald remembers who the girl is: the one who built the boat, the one she watched sail over the flooded sidewalk on churning brown waves.
Antonia is about to turn eight. Her first job – redeeming the Apple Girl’s milk bottles for a discount on the refill – has been a raging success so far. As she sits on the theater’s comfy cushion, listening to the wordless chatter of strangers, all of whom seem to be waiting for some kind of magic spell to be cast, she wonders when she can get back to work, back to what’s important.
The Apple Girl stands in the front of the room: tall, ageless, her voice reverberating through the walls. She catches Antonia’s eye, waggles her fingers, winks. Some words pop into Antonia’s head, all at once: strongest, floating, mother, embarrassed, mine.
When the meeting ends, Brittany helps pick up the Styrofoam coffee cups and crumpled-up papers. She watches long-lost friends holding hands as they file out the door. Eventually, she is left with nobody but a dark-skinned child and the girl who gave the speech, who Brittany remembers from the old farmer’s market. She sold apples at Emilio’s stall, which hasn’t returned. In fact, barely anyone has: the entire market is just milk and pastries now. As if everyone is afraid it’s all going to wash away again.
Brittany says, “You’re a good speaker. Probably the best this place has had.”
The Apple Girl looks up from the papers she’s folding into her satchel. “I’m technically the only one.” The girl keeps packing for a moment, then asks for Brittany’s name.
“Brittany. How about you?”
The Apple Girl tells her. The child runs over and throws her arms around the girl’s leg.
Brittany asks if the apple stand is ever coming back.
“I don’t know,” the Apple Girl says, trying to segue into a goodbye. “But there are some great trees we could check out.”
She laughs. Later, Brittany will wonder whether this was an invitation.
Emerald has been writing her little story for years. She only put pen to paper just before the storm, but she’s got something now. The fancy printing place on her block is still boarded up, so she’s handwritten the book on loose-leaf and bound it with hemp twine.
She runs her fingers over the blank cover. She thinks about how good it was to see Brittany and Andy again, and how much sense the speaker made about keeping the city’s arms open to those who experience “such a tragedy” – the flood – next. No weather forecast has mentioned the flood striking anywhere else. Not many people seemed to be listening, but to Emerald, it somehow all made sense.
She sets the book down and reaches for the neck of her guitar. After messing around a little, she walks outside, lights a flavored cigarette, and stares at the sky. Not a cloud.
Brittany finds herself at Emerald’s apartment, where they brew wildberry tea and talk about Emerald’s book. They read pages aloud to each other. Two-thirds of the way through, Brittany brews another pot and remembers a charcoal drawing she once saw Andy do.
“He could do your cover.”
“I don’t want dragons and sexy witches, though.”
Well, it isn’t a no.
The Apple Girl uncaps a bottle of peach nail polish.
Emerald writes the title of her novel.
Garth watches the rough cut of the new episode and considers how it will work as a narrative. Voiceover work will need to be done, and that’s coming out of his pocket unless he does it himself.
“No one wants to listen to you,” Karen says. “Checkout’s at ten. You want to pack that stuff up?” She and Larry have already loaded the camera equipment. There’s nothing left for them here; they all know it.
Karen slips her feet into sandals and opens the door. Light cuts in, turning the room into tinfoil. Before she slams the door and heads to the office, Garth studies her: wild hair, olive complexion, loose clothing. Deeper: no jewelry, a scent like cat dander, Band-Aids on her heels. He recalls that she never says goodbye. He feels a spatter of something like guilt. He tries to erase the word voyeur from his mind.
In a moment, she’s gone.
Now he’s got it. An actor with a baritone will narrate the episode, highlighting the dystopic nature of this place: disconnected from technology, recovering from near-destruction, refusing to be objectified and pitied on film. A city of isolationists. Ghostlier than any made-up specter. It makes the mind work in fascinating ways.
He takes a bite of his Cowboy Dessert. Maybe I’ll throw in a standoff, he thinks.
No. Too tacky.
He tucks his laptop away and follows Karen out the door. He’ll never come this way again.
The five of them sit around the wooden table in Emerald’s tiny living room. A wet ring forms around the base of the Apple Girl’s milk bottle. She’s in the center of the couch, thigh-to-thigh with Antonia, who reads from a book of stories for young adults and occasionally pokes the Apple Girl to ask what certain words mean. Brittany, Emerald, and Andy all prepared what they wanted to say to the Apple Girl about her speech – yes, they agreed, this must be a city with open arms, but we also feel what you felt when you decided to scribble out the flyers, and none of us can explain that feeling.
But it only took five minutes for them to unload what they had to say. It’s silent now. Brittany already used her line about the apple stand, so there’s not much else. They don’t know her.
The Apple Girl knocks her knees together and gazes at the ring on the table, then down at her flip-flopped feet. Toenails freshly painted, solid color.
They were all drawn to this place, hunting.
When the Apple Girl moves to cross her legs, Andy looks up from a sketch he’s doing and tells her to stay like that. Emerald picks at her guitar and watches the sketch come to life. Antonia flips a page. Brittany reaches behind the couch, pulls her fiddle out of its case, and sets her fingers on the fingerboard.
The Apple Girl sits forward, shifting the table, knocking Andy’s charcoal in the wrong direction. Emerald misfires a cord.
Before Brittany begins to bow, the Apple Girl puts out her hand.
“Teach me,” she says.
Sound fills the room.
Richard Hartshorn is a genderqueer fiction writer living on the Rensselaer Plateau. His work has appeared in Hypertext, Gambling the Aisle, The Occulum, and other publications. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.