The orchard’s trees stretched toward the cloudless sky. The first hints of fall crackled in the air, but sweat glued my t-shirt to my back. So many apples had already plunged from the branches and littered the grass. Rolling. Bruising. I tipped my chin back and gazed at the criss-crossed matrix of branches the fruit had plummeted from. The highest leaves were dipped in gold and crimson. A fire in the sky.
“Just pick some.” Tessa offered a battered wooden basket. “You can make an official decision later.”
My stomach lurched. The skin, red and shiny like wax lips. The mealy, throat-coating flesh.
I had to do it. I would do it.
We’d left Tessa’s office (painted green, the shade of the sickly halo a cheap ring once tattooed around my finger) for some “exposure therapy.” A therapy fieldtrip. The good doctor had brought her notebook for behavioral observations.
My color-coded dietary restrictions had landed me in several therapists’ suites, and finally to Tessa and her ring around the bathroom drain office. The hospital was the next stop on this crazy train, if I couldn’t expand my diet beyond the following:
Lightly toasted white bread.
Chicken. Not beef.
Foods the color of sand, of sun, of smooth, solid wooden beams.
And miraculously, of Butterscotch Krimpets.
Tessa would coach, coax and cajole me to change ‘couldn’t’ to ‘wouldn’t,’ or to say, ‘I’m uncomfortable eating hued foods.’
A stray leaf drifted into my hair. I combed it free with shaking fingertips. I shoved them in my pockets but not fast enough.
“Remember alt-control-delete,” Tessa said. An anxiety coping strategy.
“Can we go?” I gestured at a gang of rosy-cheeked preschoolers, scrambling off a tractor, shedding bits of straw brittle and yellow as old paper. “I mean, that in no way makes this feel pathetic.”
“You’re avoiding,” Tessa scolded and scribbled. A flock of red birds swooped across her notebook’s cover. “There’s nothing pathetic about confronting the source of your anxiety.”
An overall clad boy tossed a Macintosh at a pig-tailed girl. The fruit bounced harmlessly off her shoulder, but she wailed anyway. The tang of the tractor’s exhaust pinched my nose.
“I wish food didn’t exist,” I said.
Tessa only nodded. I’d said it before. She pointed to a far-off field, where at first the trees seemed dotted with rotten, shriveled specimens. Then I read the sign. Plums, their skin a deep purple. “What about those? They’re delicious. And small.”
“Okay,” I said. I tried to mean it. The corners of my mouth twitched into a sort-of smile. The plums’ ripe purple-black was a bruise or storm clouds or the lips of a drowned person. And the other ten million terrible things that could happen if I ate it.
At school my only friend Kacie shielded me behind her popularity’s steely embrace. I wore her invisible confidence Snuggie in the halls, the locker room, the cafeteria. The daughters of decades-long friends, we’d always shared Halloween, summers, weekend sleepovers, trips to the shore. Kacie stood a few inches taller than me, with rusty red hair rippling down her back. She did gymnastics and horseback riding. I did psychopharmacology.
Kacie started the rumors that my boniness was from anorexia, not OCD. Anorexia made me a member of the club chaired by Kate Moss, instead of the host of Double Dare.
We had our first four classes together, then lunch.
The lunch line stretched to the cafeteria’s double doors. Kacie and I leaned against the cinderblock wall. When we reached the front, the oldest lunch lady reached with her pink, wrinkled hands and passed me a small dish of plain noodles. Steam wafted from the slippery tangle.
Tessa thought this was progress. I used to brown paper bag it in the nurse’s office.
“Put your food down.” Kacie balanced her tray. An apple wobbled beside her slick pizza slice and a garlic-flecked breadstick. “We need to find a calculator.”
We left our meals at our usual table. Kacie wove through the crowd and snagged a copy of the Algebra II worksheet and a TI-83. She studied the paper and wrinkled her nose.
“Can you help me?” Kacie said, flashing me the paper.
She never outright asked me to, but helping Kacie meant I did the work and Kacie pretended to watch.
My stomach whined, mourning the plain Cheerios I’d last eaten.
“Sure,” I said.
Madison and Elaine had joined us at the table. Odds were high the pair would pass me their math, too.
Tessa would not approve. I hadn’t told her.
Creamed spinach, a steaming spoonful, had been plopped on top of my plain pasta. Green and limp. Algae. Tentacles.
Boys behind us nudged each other, grins glistening.
“Did you see who did this?” Kacie asked Madison and Elaine. She turned from the spinach to the boys and back again. “It better not have been Ben.”
“It was there when I sat down,” Elaine replied hurriedly, crunching on a carrot stick. She shrugged. “I thought she was eating it. It’s a vegetable.”
My stomach churned. The boys had called me Steak Sauce (estimating my bra size was A1) since middle school, but now that Kacie was dating Ben Brenner, they left me alone. Until now.
Kacie waved her apple dismissively. Her teeth had ripped jagged craters in its skin. “Just eat some. They want you to freak out, and if you don’t, they’ll get bored. I’ll tell Ben to quit it.”
I swallowed. “I can’t.”
“How many calories could it have?” Madison asked. “You’re so skinny anyway.”
Kacie grabbed my fork and stabbed some of the dripping leaves. She shoved them in her
mouth, chewed quickly and swallowed exaggeratedly. “Mmmm!”
“I can’t. Something really bad will happen!” I blurted. Alt-control-delete. The spinach, the pasta, the cafeteria. Clicking on each one. End task. End task. Poof. A smoky cloud. A blank screen.
Madison raised her eyebrows. “You’re weirder than I thought.” She nudged Kacie. “Attack of the killer spinach!”
“Don’t be a baby, Sam,” Kacie snapped. Already bored, she glanced back to the boys. Ben usually wolfed down some pizza or a sandwich and then sidled up to her.
I yanked back the fork and crammed the spinach in my mouth. The limp leaves clotted into a thick ball. A tumor. I swallowed hard. My eyes watered. Alt-control-delete.
“It’s probably terrible,” Elaine commiserated. “Caf food.”
“Now you can tell your therapist,” Madison said, and Kacie and Elaine chuckled.
“Do you want me to throw it away?” Kacie asked, more sympathetically.
I nodded, wiping my eyes. I left my fork protruding from the mound of spaghetti, like a flag.
The next day New York City exploded.
School let out after the towers collapsed.
The bus huffed past people pulling into their driveways, cell phones pressed to their ears, mouths agape. I slouched alone with my forehead against the cool window, my feet tucked under me.
The kids shrieked and swapped seats. A juice box flew over my head, arcing over the seat in front of me. Red drops spattered and streamed down the leather, as if the seat had been wounded.
The brakes squealed and bus belched exhaust as it slumped next to my neighbor’s mail box. I let myself into the house.
My stomach growled.
Two cabinets were dedicated to my food. Saltines. The Snackwell cookies I liked with the vanilla filling. Three sets of Butterscotch Krimpets were tucked inside, I knew, safe in their vacuum-sealed wrapping.
The five plums Tessa eventually badgered me into taking home were lurking at the back of the crisper.
I opened the cabinet, stared, closed it and turned on the television.
New York City sprang up on the screen. Spirals of black smoke and orange flames shot out of two columns, like deadly birthday candles.
Yellow birthday cake, with white icing only, is usually safe.
I took out my math homework, but an hour later I’d only done two problems.
The skyscraper swallowed the plane whole, in slow motion this time. That morning, The Today Show hosts had anxiously hypothesized that maybe it was all an accident. But I knew right away. Accidents don’t exist.
My mom came home at noon. She wrapped me in a hug and smoothed my hair.
“Did you see when it happened?” She sniffled. Ashy mascara smudged the delicate skin under her eyes. She wore Pepto-bismol pink nursing scrubs, her long black hair wound into a bun. We were the same height. “Did you watch it at school?”
We sat on the couch together. Mom shook her head. “Only a couple hours away.”
People flung themselves out of the towers. The men’s ties punctuated the air.
“Would you jump?” I asked my mom without looking away. A minute of wind and cold. The flames licking at your back.
Their bodies twisted and spun, their arms spread, like they were embracing the sky.
“Maybe we shouldn’t watch,” she says, but neither of us turned it off.
Mom and I ate dinner in front of the TV. She had Hamburger Helper on a fluffy roll. Globs of meat fell and splattered onto her plate. She dabbed her fingers and mouth with a paper towel stained the color of rust. I had white toast and half of a Krimpett. I encased its twin in tight Saran Wrap layers.
New Yorkers were papering a wall with photos of the missing. In the pictures, everyone smiled.
An interview from that morning played. I’d seen it three times. A man coated in a fine ash gestured and pointed. The powder outlined the creases in his lips and palms, dusted the bushy brows above his shining eyes. The camera zoomed out to include the twisted and crumpled metal, the American flag curling in the man’s back pocket.
Mom squeezed my knee. “Let’s get it over with.”
She washed one of the plums from my session with Tessa in the sink and passed it to me. My stomach roiled at its squishy weight, like water balloon or a human heart. I’d seen on TV how surgeons could take their patients’ hearts all the way out of their bodies, trade them for better models.
The plum was the purple of a black eye.
“I don’t want to,” I said.
“They’re so good. I had one at lunch.”
Maybe that was what had done it. Alt-control-delete. No chance. Accidents didn’t exist. “Tonight’s not a good night.”
Mom sighed. “Will there ever be a good night?”
We both stared at it.
“Just a bite,” Mom tried. “Tessa will be so happy. I’ll be so happy.”
I shook my head. “Please don’t make me. Maybe tomorrow.”
She took the plum and plunked it back in the refrigerator. “Do you want to go to church? The candles will be nice.”
With the plum hidden away, my heart slowed. “I’ll stay here.”
“Well, I’m going,” she declared, as if to spite me. “I have to do something.”
I couldn’t eat anything powdery or crumbly anymore either.
A doctor’s note allowed me to snack in class, but I rarely did. I’d skipped lunch entirely, though, since the Twin Towers collapsed. By the seventh period study hall on the fourth day my head hurt and my stomach groaned and I tore the plastic from a duo of Saltine crackers.
The wrapper crackled. A pile of eraser shavings and blank loose leaf proved that I’d been trying to write an essay. What does it mean to be a patriot?
Pale white crumbs dusted the desk. Some flakes were darker, burnt. A few clung to the plastic envelope.
My stomach dropped like an elevator with a snapped cable. I swept the crumbs into my palm, and then hurriedly tossed both the crackers into the trash.
“Are you alright?” Mrs. Bern peered at me above her round glasses.
“I’m fine,” I called. And I sounded like I was.
Back in Tessa’s office, the walls were even more nauseating. Like mold dotting a slice of bread. “I didn’t eat the plum,” I told Tessa.
“You didn’t,” Tessa said. Neutral. “Why is that?”
“I just couldn’t do it. Are you going to make me go back to the orchard?”
Tessa shook her head. “But we’re not going to forget about that plum. The next step is to bring you and your mom into the office and have you eat it here.”
“Sounds like a party.”
“Sam, do you want to get better?”
“Yes.” The right answer. But what would be the consequence?
“We need to get you thinking outside of your school and your family and your world of rituals,” Tessa said, scribbling furiously. Tessa looked up from her bird-emblazoned notebook. “Have you ever heard of an inspiration board?”
I shook my head. Tessa beamed. “You’ll like this. This week, I want you to go through magazines or get on the internet, and find some pictures that inspire you. Think about the kind of life you want to live. The person you want to be. Make a collage and hang it on your wall. The visuals will help you, I think.”
My room’s walls were an eggshell oasis. My palms sweat as I pictured them stabbed with tacks, fine white drywall dust coating the pale blue carpet.
“Can you commit to starting the vision board and taking a single bite of a plum before next week?”
I nodded. I felt a pang of sympathy for Tessa. She was younger than my mom. In some ways, she was my best friend.
Tessa leaned closer. “You spend so much energy on what you won’t eat. What are you hungry for, Sam?”
Mom went grocery shopping and returned with all my staples: white bread, plain yogurt, bananas. A box of Saltines, twin stacks of thin crackers.
“Do you want to come to confession tonight?” she asked.
“What do you think I have to confess?” I asked.
My stomach growled and gurgled.
Kacie and I looped among the cafeteria’s student swarms, Kacie cradling a plastic tub. Coins and wadded up bills buried the pretzel salt that still sprinkled the bottom. She led the way to Ben and his friends.
“Student council is collecting money for the Red Cross,” Kacie said, thrusting the barrel at Ben.
Colin laughed. “Aren’t all the people dead? What’s the Red Cross gonna do?”
“Do you live in a cave like bin Laden?” Kacie rolled her eyes. “They’re serving food to the firefighters. And giving them like, therapy.”
“Here.” Ben plunked two quarters into the container. “Kacie, stop talking or we’re all going to need therapy.”
“You need it anyway,” she smiled and rattled the jug. “That’s it? Fifty cents?”
“We’re going to bomb the shit out of those people,” Colin said gleefully.
“We should build the towers again. Only bigger,” Ben suggested.
“Why?” I asked. Ben blinked at me like he hadn’t realized I was there.
“To show the world that you don’t mess with America.” Colin and Ben high-fived over their French fries. Salt sprinkled the table, fine and sparkling like ground glass. Like ash. Ben swirled a fry in a pool of ketchup and popped it in his mouth.
Kacie turned toward me and bit her lip. “This needs to go up to Miss Ames. Can you take it?”
Miss Ames’ room was out of my way. I’d be late and I hadn’t slurped down my plain pasta yet.
“Sure,” I replied, hugging the molded plastic to my chest. I didn’t have any money to put in, so this would be my contribution. Like this little errand would even start to make up for it. Black spots hovered in front of me as I climbed the stairs, to the top floor.
My bedroom walls were cloud-white. I’d never hung a poster, never pierced the dry wall with a tack or ripped the paint with tape.
I’d wanted my mom to say no, but Tessa had already convinced her. She’d brought home a stack of magazines with the regular groceries. Seventeen. Teen Vogue. National Geographic.
The plums from the orchard had started to soften. Mom had replaced them with three fresh ones.
I’d ignored them, and retreated to my room with a left-over half Krimpett. I sat on the floor with a pair of scissors.
I knew what Kacie had on her walls. A picture of Apple Jacks, her horse. Brad Pitt and Britney Spears ripped from her own magazines, jagged paper wisps fringing the pages’ edges.
I flipped through the magazines and found a picture of a scarlet bird, its wings slicing through a cloudless sky. I hung it up with tiny bits of tape, and then went downstairs so I wouldn’t have to look at it.
Mom was making dinner with the television on. The sound traveled from the living room to the kitchen, where she hovered over the skillet.
“As a nation, what we have lost,” the anchor said purposefully, “is our sense of well-being. Of safety.”
Mom nodded. She was stir-frying chicken with broccoli and sliced peppers for herself; my plain chicken was on the cutting board, the knife beside it slick. “I got a forward at work saying no one should go to the mall on Halloween.” She glanced at me. “You know how dumb that is? Like the terrorists are gonna blow up the Rockford Mall? But people are scared.”
“It could happen anywhere.” I sat at the table. “The president said we’re supposed to be watchful.”
“There’s such a thing as being too watchful,” Mom said. She shook her head. “Gonna run the airlines right out of business.”
“People just don’t want it to happen to them,” I protested. “They don’t want to do the wrong thing.”
“I pray for it not to be me, or especially you. But you have to go on living.” She pointed at me. “And I think tonight you should eat one of those plums. Tessa said just one bite.”
“I worked on my vision wall thing,” I said.
Mom beamed. “Great. You’re on a roll.”
We ate in front of the news again. Afterward, Mom presented the plum, wrapped in a napkin like a gift.
“I really don’t want it.” I tapped my fork against my empty plate. “I’m full.”
Mom’s voice was even. “Would it help if I had one too?”
I balanced the plum in my palm. I didn’t want to eat; I wanted to throw it and see it explode. Then no one would eat it. “No. That’s worse.”
Mom sat back and crossed her arm. “You’ll sit here until you eat it.”
I wanted to get better. I did.
I took a deep breath and bit, my teeth tearing the purple flesh. Juice ran down my arm and filled sticky pools between my fingers. I chewed and chewed, the mush coating my tongue.
I gagged and ran for the bathroom.
The toilet lid clanked against the tank.
I gagged and spat into the toilet. My eyes watered and blurred the white seat, the yellow towels. Yellow mucus. Yellow bile. I heaved.
My stomach contracted in rubbery waves, my mouth soured, but the plum stayed down.
I flushed the toilet, but stayed hunched on the floor.
After a few minutes, Mom sat beside me. She rubbed my back and sighed. “You don’t need the terrorists. You terrorize yourself.”
“Please don’t go to work tomorrow,” I choked, wiping my nose.
She threw the plum away.
A white sand beach anchored with palm trees stretched across two National Geographic pages. I ripped out each and taped them up so the edge met the bird photo.
Now I could tell Tessa I had two pictures and taken a bite of the plum. I wouldn’t tell her that I couldn’t look at my wall for more than two seconds.
I closed my eyes instead and tried to rewind the television tapes. The ashy flakes were sucked back up through the sky, like God was slurping them through a straw. The men in their suits jumped up from the pavement and were swept back into the towers. The black smoke whooshed back through the windows. The planes flew backwards and the towers spat them into the sky. Inside the stewardesses scurried backwards, too, smiling as they yanked sodas and too bright pulpy orange juice and plates of spongy yellow eggs and smeary raspberry jam out of the passenger’s hands. They fastened their trays back into the seats in front of them. They filed backwards off of the plane, through the airport, finally back into their beds.
Everything back on the other side of the equation.
The spinach back, back, back, on the lunch lady’s ladle.
I sat at the usual table, but without the usual tray. Kacie and Madison were still in line, but Elaine was eating.
“Um, no food at all now?” she asked, her eyebrows straining toward her bangs. She nibbled on a strawberry the size and shape of an animal’s heart.
I didn’t get to answer before the fire alarm blared. Elaine startled. Her strawberry jumped from her hands and rolled under the table. Strobes flashed from the room’s corners.
Kacie threw down her tray. She yelled breathlessly over the alarm. “Ben said it’s an evacuation, not a fire drill. We’re supposed to evacuate to the tennis court.” She grabbed my arm. “They’re saying there’s a bomb in here.”
They were wrong, but that’s what the note I’d slipped between two damp trays said. I’d taped it together with letters cut from Seventeen and National Geographic.
I’d expected some commotion. A panicked bottleneck at the glass doors. Tears. Instead kids were milling around the cafeteria, buying iced tea before sitting in cross-legged circles on the tennis court. Kacie seemed more excited than frightened. I let her tug me out of the caf and onto the quad. We found a corner behind the court fence. Ben spotted us, coming up behind Kacie and handing her a Dixie cup of red wiggling Jello cubes.
And they were still chewing, swallowing, crumbs flying from their mouths. PB & J with the crust sliced off, tearing the bread with their teeth, spurting globs of jelly. Neon orange Cheeto dust, poured into their gaping mouths from crinkling packages. Elaine popped another strawberry into her mouth.
Some of them were even still in line, hands pressed over their ears.
I screamed inside.
“This’ll be on the news,” Ben said, pointing at a helicopter circling overhead.
“Was it terrorists?” Elaine asked.
Ben and Kacie laughed. Kacie replied, “Um, no. It’s someone with a test fifth period.”
I craned my neck back to see the helicopter, hovering above the red-tipped trees. My head floated into the air like a lost balloon. The branches stretched toward the propellers, like the chopper had been captured. Kacie and Ben and Elaine were stories below me. Spots flitted in front of my eyes like dust.
My knees melted. I embraced the air.
Jennifer Fenn lives and writes in Downingtown, Pennsylvania and is completing the MFA program at Rosemont College. She is an avid runner whose fiction has appeared online at “The Writing Disorder” and “Fiddleblack.”