by Krista Jahnke
Apple trees stretch to the horizon in precise parallel lines, immuring us in greenery, when Mia swipes my phone and runs, her red hair streaking behind her. She loves to run and for me to worry about where she’s gone. During almost every outing, she scampers off, then hides and leaps at me from behind things. The truth is it scares me every time. I’m sure I’ll have to call her foster parents, sheepishly, to report her lost. Police will arrest me for child endangerment. The mentoring program will be shuttered.
I try to calm my breathing. The best reaction is no reaction. I pluck another apple from the tree and add it to our bushel, ignoring her antics. Laughter sprouts from the rows around me as families rummage for the ripest fruits for pies, jams, crumbles. The hefty bushel digs into my forearm. Humidity hangs in the air, drips from the branches. The moment’s gone on too long. I drop the basket to the dewy grass and look up, seeking her out.
“You can’t find me,” her voice is a singsong somewhere behind me.
“I’m not looking for you,” I lie. I yank an apple from the closest branch. “I’ll guess I have to go eat donuts alone.”
She shoots out from a few rows over, cradling apples in her shirt, which she holds out taut, exposing the lower edge of her belly, still childishly round.
“Look,” she says. She lets them fall into the basket. “They’re ruby gems.”
“Gentle, or they’ll bruise.”
“I won’t hurt them,” she rubs her hands over their shiny red skins. She hunches over the basket like a protective mother.
“Mia, my phone?”
She looks back to where she’d been. Guilt crosses her face. She needs only the mildest provocation to shed the typical carefree attitude of kids her age. She vacillates from silliness to fierce anger or impervious melancholy in a snap. She says nothing but races back to where she’d hidden. When I find her, she’s on her knees, examining the ground. She’s started to cry.
“I stuck it in this tree to hold while I got apples. In that hole there.”
It’s not in the hole. Fallen apples litter the ground alongside twigs and leaves — but no phone. A boy in a maroon hoodie watches us from the next row over. I somehow know he has it. He’s got that punkish attitude in the way he stands, his smirk. What’s he even doing in an orchard with no family or friends? Mia sees him now, and as we’re both looking, he pulls my phone from his hoodie pocket, flashes it at us then runs. He streaks down the row of trees, his long legs churning.
Mia and I watch him grow further away. When Mia lets herself go, she is also fast; she flies, unafraid to put distance between herself and whatever adult with her. She tells me stories of her past, and I understand. She whispers of a broken nose, of sleeping concealed under a backyard tree to circumvent a stepfather’s rage, of being left to tend to her brother when he was only eight weeks old. Mia carries too much; so, she runs, and sometimes she hides. But now, she stays by my side. We look at one another and both seem to think of our basket. She reaches in first, but I’m the first to throw. I heave the fruit into the air like Tom Brady. It pierces the ribboned sunlight farther above the canopy than I could have predicted. We chuck apple after apple after the boy, whom we can’t see, hidden he is by the thicket. We throw anyway, until the basket is empty and our arms throb. The families around us grow quiet and stop picking; some try to intervene. One busybody calls someone, reporting us or him, I can’t tell. If we hit the thief, he doesn’t stop. He’s gone, and so is my phone.
Mia sits and pulls her legs in to her chest, hugging her knees. I do the same; I fold myself up like a child.
“He got away,” she says. “I’m in big trouble.”
Maybe she should be. Her recklessness is partly why my phone is gone. But I think of her stories, the things she’s seen. I see her protecting the apples with that matriarchal intensity, though no one has done the same for her. I hear her call them gems, appreciating their innate beauty.
I can’t be stern with her. I vacillate, too.
“I’ll get a new phone somehow. Come on.”
We help each other up. We pass through the trees, apples weighing down the branches, many drooping so low they almost brush the earth. Some of the fruit is surely bruised. Rotten even. As we walk past, there’s no way to discern which is which. We each grab a piece and bite down hard, waiting to see what’s inside.
* * *
Krista Jahnke is a writer from Huntington Woods, Mich. Formerly a journalist, her writing has appeared in the Detroit Free Press, USA Today and other newspapers across the country. She works in the nonprofit sector, and you can find her on Twitter @KristaJahnke.