Roger Conroy rolled up in his Volvo. Laura was on the swing beneath the dead tree reading a paperback Amish romance where women’s ears were compared to orchids, and people with names like Jebediah and Rebecca snuck away from church just to hold hands.
She looked up at him, squinting in the sun. He asked her to go for a drive, and she left her book behind on the scorched lawn. The car smelled of almost sour milk. The leather seat burnt her thighs, which looked bigger than last summer when they flattened against the seat like that.
He tongued at his new lip piercing, all red and swollen, and bobbed his head to the lack of music. The silence of the radio like a phantom limb.
They went to the construction site at the edge of the neighborhood. He parked in a vacant lot by the row of lumber and concrete skeletons. Roger took off his seatbelt and shifted around so his head was on the window and his knee rested up against the steering wheel.
“But so I did actually bring you here for a reason, and it’s going to sound kind of weird, but I think it’s important, so I need you to just not say anything until I finish saying what I need to say here, and it’s like this. So I write this music. It’s kind of post-punk soundscape, and I don’t usually show anybody, but you see there’s been a few times where things I’ve said in my music have actually happened. I’m not saying I’m psychic or anything, but like, take Blake’s car accident a few months back. I said something like ‘Blake check your brakes’ just before it happened. I swear it. I can play it for you. I don’t have it here, but I swear. And I know we’re not super close or anything, that’s not lost on me. It’s just-”
He took a CD out of the center console. He held it with his finger pointed through the center and got kind of close to her with his quiet Mountain Dew breath. “It’s just that your name came up in this session from last night.”
He put the disk in the CD player which whirred around until it clicked into the sound of Roger’s silent bedroom. A cough. A chord rang out from a keyboard. Then, a low and sleepy voice mumbled along to an indiscernible melody. She couldn’t understand it all. There was something like “capitalism is a yeast infection” and “microwave dinner babies.”
Then, somewhere in the mumbling was her name. It was something something “teeth” something something “God is gonna come for Laura down the street.” He paused the player there.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said.
He shrugged. “I’m just the channel.”
She began to laugh and for some reason was unable to stop.
Roger put on his seatbelt.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said between suppressed giggles. “I’m sorry.”
He pulled away and drove her home so quick he almost hit little Nathan Barnett on his tricycle.
When he dropped her off, she saw that worms had eaten through her book. They’d chewed holes from the beginning to the end and continued to squelch and pull around each other. She looked back at the Volvo as it disappeared around the corner.
Laura stared at the dusty popcorn ceiling, listening to her parents talking in the next room over. Usually, their muffled voices lulled her to sleep, but tonight she was wired by the image of the worms. One word echoed in her mind: plague. Followed by: Paranoid? Neurotic? Hormonal?
By 3 AM, she had relived every moment in which she could have offended the divine three times over. The alarm clock glowed a red 03:17 when she circled around to “What if he’s right?” She hated herself just for thinking it.
She took her blanket to the living room, turned the lights on, and watched Nick at Nite. Laugh tracks drowned out her existential concern.
Sometime just before sunrise, a utility truck pulled up to the power lines across the road. She focused out the window at the man in the hardhat with a clipboard who climbed into the metal box. With the push of a button, he was lifted into the sky with the morning sun onto the cross of the power line tower. She wasn’t sure at that point but she had a passing thought that the man was God or the son of God or perhaps a nephew or distant cousin. Her sleep-deprived mind gave this idea more weight than it may have deserved.
She ran out the door and across the yard. The power line man’s sunburnt, freckly arms moved around the connections at the tower. She imagined his buttons and contraptions as a control panel branching in wires to the corners of the earth. Maybe this man right before her eyes was a puppet master shaking earthquakes in Asia and burning away the memories of grandparents.
Laura sat on her swing which crackled, as it always did, at the base of the decaying branch. Up in his box, the man turned around. She couldn’t see his face under the shade of the hat, but she knew he was looking right at her. She put her head down and dug her toes into the bare patch of dirt beneath her. When she looked up again, he had turned away.
Down the line, a squirrel hopped from a pine onto the wires. The landing shook the line, and the creature held on until it had stilled, then moved across the sky in quick leaps, pausing to listen and look around every few seconds.
Laura wondered if the squirrel thought the power lines to be another kind of tree. Just as she smiled at that thought, it fell to the ground. She wasn’t sure what had happened until she crossed the road to where it lied stiff and frazzled with its eyes wide, jaw slacked. The man above worked away, oblivious.
She took the squirrel and crossed back to the tree by the mailbox where she kneeled down and tore through the grass. When she reached wet soil, she placed the squirrel in the ground. She kept whispering “I’m sorry.” Not in a “sorry you died” way but more like “sorry I provoked God and you were collateral damage.”
She went inside and washed her hands until they were red and raw. Then, she assembled the best peanut butter and banana sandwich she could make and put it in a ziplock.
She went back across the street to the utility truck.
“Hello?” she shouted up at him. He leaned over the ledge of his box.
She held up the sandwich in response. A mechanical sound brought him down in a slow descent as the steel bars folded in on themselves. She reached on her toes to hand him the sandwich. His face was still difficult to see with the brightness of the day.
“It’s for you. It’s peanut butter and banana.”
She ran back to her house and watched him from behind the curtains. He accepted her offering in four massive bites.
One day in October, Laura walked home from the bus stop to find that the dead tree, which had always been dead, bore fruit. Never having flowered or shown a single leaf, little green orbs cluttered the branches.
In November, they appeared to be oranges.
In January, her mother spent hours a day stirring the marmalade. Batch after Batch. The zest filled the house and stung their eyes so they all looked teary. Jars lined every windowsill of the house, catching the light like stained glass.
Laura’s mother told her to give Mrs. Briggs a jar at her husband’s funeral. The service was long in the dry and dusty chapel. At the reception, Laura held out the marmalade. Mrs. Briggs wrapped bony reptilian fingers over Laura’s holding the jar and kissed her on the cheek. “You’re a gem, missy.”
Then the calls came in. So-and-so had heard from so-and-so that the marmalade was heavenly, delectable, magnificent. The doorbell rang more than it ever had. Neighbors were waiting outside, asking for just a taste. Laura’s mother let the jars fly out the door and into every cupboard in the area where, as rumor had it, many downed it by the spoonful.
Others took it beyond mere taste. One night before Laura closed the curtains, she saw through her bedroom window into the kitchen of the next house over. Ms. Marjorie leaned against the counter with a handheld mirror and her marmalade jar. She dipped her fingers into it and carefully applied globs all across her face. She licked it off where it dripped down her hand. Her eyes rolled back. Laura snapped the curtains shut.
The boys at school said they used it for more intimate purposes, something about the tingly citric acid, but really, all they did was slather it over their acne scars. Teenagers and middle-aged women alike woke up to sticky sweet pillowcase stains and dewy airbrushed faces.
By the year’s end, the town was reborn. Around walked the Cabbage Patch Kid smiles who renewed themselves in the dark, soaked in marmalade.
Laura slept well through the night.
The hair on the shower walls had built up for a while, but nobody thought anything of it. And everyone blamed the pangs in their gums on too many holiday sweets.
The morning after Christmas, Laura woke up with a thick mucus coating in her throat. She coughed it up, and onto her sheets flew speckles of blood. She ran to the bathroom where she spat again and again into the sink and rinsed her mouth with water. When she returned to her bed, there on her pillow was one of her front teeth.
She took it to the kitchen where her dad was crouched over the sink with his mouth open, letting blood fall in ribbons from his lips. A tooth dangled from his mouth by a single bloody thread. A trail of dark hair marked his path on the kitchen tiles. Bare patches riddled Laura’s scalp in her reflection in the kitchen window.
Tooth by tooth, the town lost its articulation. They hunched over with scarves and bandanas on their heads, if they left their houses at all. Most hid behind closed doors with their shiny heads and gummy mouths like old infant hermits.
There were wait lists for dentures and wigs.
The calls came in once again. So-and-so said it was the marmalade that did it. That evil, demonic, malevolent marmalade.
Laura’s mother hung up in tears on several occasions. At some point, her dad insisted that they don’t answer, so they let the phones ring until they stopped ringing at all.
The oranges dangled on the tree, untouched. Through the winter, they dropped one by one and began to rot into the ground.
Mrs. Briggs arrived at the door one day in an auburn wig, but she had yet to source dentures. She sat in the living room with Laura’s mother. Laura listened from around the corner.
“You poor thing, thish ishn’t your doing. You know that. The othersh jusht need shomeone to blame. Don’t you let that little Nathan Barnett worry you.”
“Oh, you didn’t hear? Well, I don’t know if I should be the one to tell you, but really, you should know. Little Nathan, blesh his heart, choked on a molar in his sleep in early January. They had a lovely sheremony by the lake.”
Laura didn’t catch the rest of the conversation. She sat with her back against the wall in the hallway, running her tongue along the line where her teeth used to be.
Sometime after Mrs. Briggs left, Laura opened the front door. It was the first glimpse of sun since winter began. The smell of the rotting fruit first hit her in an assault and then called her like a siren. She went to the tree and inhaled the heavy stench like marmalade filling her lungs. She lay herself down on the decay where fermented juices soaked through her jeans. When she closed her eyes, she felt citric acid electrifying her veins. She thought about the squirrel that she had buried in this exact spot. About how the squirrel nourished the tree and the tree made the oranges and the oranges made the marmalade and her mother stirred the marmalade.
When she opened her eyes, she was certain that there across the road was the power line man tight roping on the wires, humming some song by The Carpenters.
Then, her back was on fire, burning her in creeping flames. She squirmed to sit up and look down at herself where for a sober moment she could see the fire ants all over her body. She ran inside calling for her mother, stripping down in the kitchen, and brushing the ants to the floor. Her mother came in and ordered, “Go to the shower. Lukewarm. Just get them all off you.”
Water only intensified the heated crawling pain. She spat out the red bugs, and they swirled down the drain.
Laura came back to the kitchen in her towel. She sat next to her mother at the dinner table, who had been diluting apple cider vinegar in a basin. She rested her head on the table. Her mother dabbed the solution on the bites on her back.
“I know it hurts,” she said.
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