Curse Of The Marquis
The Green Apple Man
There are few sounds more satisfying in this big round world than the snap of that first bite into a crisp green apple. It‘s a sound you can smell, a sound you can taste. All the more unfortunate that such a joyful noise would come to strike terror in the heart of Trevor Sandoval.
It all began, as stories so often do, on a Wednesday. Trevor sat locked in mortal combat across a chessboard from Latisha Harris in room 104 of Emerson Middle School, where a dozen or so ―CGs met weekly, after school. The roomful of Chess Geeks was silent, deep in concentration. You could practically hear the sweat accumulate on many an eleven and twelve year old brow. Trevor assessed his meager troops: two bishops, two castles, assorted pawns and one very frightened king. It had been a bruising, bloody game, and was fast nearing conclusion.
“Your move” Latisha prompted. As if he needed a reminder. Trevor didn‘t acknowledge the remark. The mind game was half the battle.
He leaned forward, fingers drumming, a skinny kid with brown hair that flowed straight down as if from a spigot in his scalp, and a spray of freckles along the bridge of his nose. When concentrating his lips scrunched up to the left, and the freckles moved left with them. (He always hated those freckles, which looked to Trevor like someone spit them across his face.) Latisha exhaled her impatience. The freckles moved left, the fingers drummed. Trevor considered his options.
There weren‘t many. He could peel off his bishops, and send them on the offensive. He could inch his pawns across, in hopes of earning back his queen. Or, he supposed, he could castle, and try to blitz her king, getting both rooks into the fight as well.
Hm. Castle. It was a dangerous idea, reckless even, going against everything his dad had taught him about the game. (An extremely cautious player, “Can‘t be too careful” was his father‘s favorite expression. And really, who could argue with that?) But desperate times call for desperate measures. With a deep breath, Trevor do-si-doed his king and castle. His heart beat a little faster. Latisha eased into a smile that seemed to say “Sure you want to do that?
It should be noted that words such as “dangerous” and “reckless” rarely cropped up in the life of Trevor Sandoval. He was, in truth, the safest, most cautious boy you could ever hope to meet. While other kids were dangling from treetops or flying skateboards down ramps, Trevor‘s feet were always planted firmly on the ground. Sky diving, mountain climbing, heli-skiing, these were activities you could cross off Trevor‘s list. Not that he wasn‘t of decent size and strength. He just avoided risk. Especially when it involved putting air between himself and planet earth.
When he‘d first read about acrophobia (abnormal fear of heights) he was sure this was his affliction. A climb up a ladder was out of the question. A ride on a Ferris Wheel was his picture of a cruel and sadistic hell. A teacher even sent him to the school shrink once, concerned about his overly cautious temperament. But alas, his pysch scores, like his IQ (and most everything about Trevor Sandoval) though high, was “within normal.” Nonetheless, having his bedroom on the second story was as near the clouds as he ever hoped to get.
Maybe the castling was a brilliant idea. Maybe it was so bone-headed that it elicited overconfidence in Latisha. Whatever the reason, the gamble paid off. Six moves later, Trevor had her in checkmate. Mindful not to gloat, he reached a hand across the board.
The school was nearly deserted when chess club let out and Trevor pulled on his backpack and headed towards his bike, in the cool autumn breeze. A few bigger kids were playing kickball in the walkway, and when the ball shot past Trevor, one turned around.
“Yo chess geek, get the ball,” he snapped.
“Sure” Trevor mumbled - as if he had a choice in the matter - and scurried off to fetch it. Such was the fate of a CG in Middle School. Bottom of the food chain. A field mouse on the Serengeti.
He turned the corner behind the science building and spotted it by the tool shed. There was no one around back here, and it was quiet, but for soft echoes bouncing off the walls. He crossed over, leaned down and grabbed the plump pink ball, when he heard it: A crisp, juicy crunch, slow and deliberate. The smell wafted into his nostrils, unmistakably green apple. Trevor turned and saw him, not fifteen feet away. Just standing there, a thick man with a thick mustache, impeccably dressed, wearing a long black greatcoat of cashmere. So black it seemed like a hole in the fabric of the world. He wore a stiff round hat, also black, with a stiff brim, of the style known as “bowler.” A kind of hat you don‘t see much, except in black and white movies of people from a long time ago. His face was pale, almost ashen, and there was something about his eyes. They stared right at Trevor, unblinking, a dull, slate gray. There was menace in those eyes. It sent a chill to Trevor‘s bone. In no hurry, the man brought a bright green apple to his mouth, and took another bite.
Trevor just stood there, frozen, his brown eyes wide. He swallowed once. Then without a word, ran off, back to the others. He could see Mr. Grigsby, the custodian, locking up the cafeteria across the yard. It crossed his mind to run over and seek help, but something about yelling “Call the police! There‘s a man eating an apple!” didn‘t sound right. He tossed the ball back into play, hopped on his bike and raced home at top speed. There was really nothing to be so upset about. “So, some guy‘s eating an apple,” he told himself, “what‘s the big deal?”
But Trevor had a bad feeling, a feeling this wasn‘t over.
“Rock-opolis. Isn‘t that a rock climbing place?” asked Trevor‘s dad, looking harried as he pushed the glasses up his nose.
“I don‘t know, I guess,” shrugged Trevor, pretending he hadn‘t given it much thought. It was dinnertime in the Sandoval home, and Trevor sat at the kitchen table with his step-sibs Frances and Max, as Dan Sandoval dished out the mac and cheese. He was perusing the Field Trip form Trevor had brought home from school and laid on the table.
“Sure, it‘s that place on Whittaker, with the indoor rock wall,” Dad continued, his mouth curling into a familiar look of concern.
“Yeah, I think we‘re supposed to go over there for P.E. next week,” offered Trevor.
“I don‘t know, Trev. I heard of a kid who fell and broke his arm at one of those places.”
“Pretty dangerous stuff. How are you going to play chess with a broken arm?”
“Hadn‘t thought of that,” said Trevor, digging in to the mac. His dad grabbed a felt tipped pen and decisively marked an x in the box labeled “my child will NOT attend this field trip,” then turned his focus to stopping little Max from stuffing macaroni up his nose.
Trevor caught plenty of grief at school for having such an overprotective dad, but truth be told, he didn‘t mind. It wasn‘t a bad arrangement. Trevor could always pretend he wished his life was more thrilling and dangerous, knowing Dad would prevent any actual thrills or danger from occurring. A cautious personality was just something they had in common.
He‘d overheard various grown-ups and teacher types whispering that it was because Trevor‘s mom died when he was little, an event that supposedly traumatized father and son alike. “Trevor lost his mom” was the way his dad would explain it, draping a protective arm over his son‘s shoulder. (That always struck Trevor as such a weird expression, like he‘d left her in his locker or something.) Trevor certainly didn‘t feel traumatized by his mom dying of cancer, his entire remembrance of her consisted of one visit to a hospital room when he was two, and even that dim memory was mostly the smell of the place. It had been just him and Dad for almost his entire life – and a perfectly fine life at that - ‗til a couple years ago when Dad got re-married. Hence the step-sibs at the table.
Frances slurped some milk and turned a page. She always brought a book to dinner, which was fine by Trevor. Being nine, and being a girl, they didn‘t have much in common, but understood each other well enough. Now, for example, as Trevor caught her slipping green beans under the table to Mr. E (their sleepy basset hound, who Trevor‘s dad named “Mr. Excitement”) Trevor didn‘t have to say a word. His eyes simply shot Frances a silent “I totally saw that, I‘m not going to tell, but you totally owe me,” and her eyes shot back “fine, whatever.”
They heard the car pull up and the back door open, as Trevor‘s step-mom, Kate, came home from work. Her high heels clicked into the kitchen, she kissed her precious Frances and Max, and flashed Trevor the Electrosmile. (A blinding display of teeth, with eyebrows so high they looked duct taped to her forehead. Pretty much the only expression his step-mom ever pointed Trevor‘s way.) Soon she and Dad drifted into conversation about Max‘s upcoming fourth birthday party, the azaleas - Trevor‘s dad took a good deal of pride in their front lawn – her day selling houses, and his day at the office. (Dan Sandoval worked for a toothbrush company, a career he happily described as “the most boring job in the world.”) Kate noticed the field trip form on the table, and Dad reiterated the dangers of indoor rock climbing.
“Can‘t be too careful.”
And who could argue with that?
It wasn‘t a bad life the five of them shared, tucked in their modest two story house on a row of similar, cookie cutter houses in the newly developed suburb of Cleveland called Maplewood. The green lawns, the azaleas, the conversations about birthday parties, it was all very calm, and reassuring, and safe. And “safe” was one of Trevor‘s favorite words.
But lying in bed that night, watching the shadows of tree limbs sway against his window, Trevor was struck by a troubling thought. What if all this safety and predictability was an illusion? What if this cozy life his dad worked so hard to provide was but a cocoon, an eggshell? What did he really know of the world outside? Sure, he learned plenty from school and books and computers, but the real world, the world beyond the borders of Maplewood, was a mystery. He knew there were amazing and astounding adventures to be had, but there were disturbing things out there as well. Like the Green Apple Man.
The image of those haunting eyes came back to him as he lay in the dark. Why was he there at school today, what did he want? It could‘ve been anything. But Trevor had a queasy feeling the Green Apple Man was there for him.
He could hear water running down in the kitchen, the faint murmur of Dad and Kate cleaning up. The sounds were soothing, but not soothing enough. He crossed the dark bedroom to his desk, cluttered with books and disassembled appliances and circuit boards, and from his bottom drawer, gently removed a picture. He got back under the covers and gazed at it, using the flashlight from under his bed.
It was a page ripped from a magazine, an ad for a jewelry store. It featured a photograph of a dark-haired woman in a midnight blue dress wearing a diamond and sapphire ring, with matching bracelet. Her face, beautiful and melancholy, was slightly out of focus, her brown eyes gazing off, and she held her hands up in front of her, crossed at the wrists, to better feature the jewelry. Trevor came upon the picture years ago, flipping through some boring old magazines in the library, and found himself inexplicably staring at those beautiful hands, unable to look away. He was so taken with the image that he quietly ripped out the ad, slipped it inside his homework, and with an odd feeling of shame, stole it from the library.
There was something so comforting in that picture. Her eyes seemed full of love, and pain, as if she was someone who had a haunting story to tell. She had the smallest tender scar above her lip. And her long fingers were as graceful as the branches of an Aspen tree. Looking at those pale hands, as he had so many nights before, Trevor fell asleep with the flashlight on, and when he woke in the morning, the batteries were dead.
It was Friday night when the Green Apple Man struck again. Trevor was in the middle of a stellar game of Futurazma on the computer when Frances approached, glancing over his shoulder.
“Nice” she said, working hard to not sound impressed. Quite the understatement, he‘d racked up 130,000 points. “You left the gate open again,” she yawned, moving on.
“I don‘t think so,” he replied.
“Yeah you did. And Mr. E got out.”
He didn‘t remember leaving it open – in fact, he remembered closing it - but he pushed his bike in and out of the backyard so often, it was certainly possible. And Dad and Kate had recently chastised him for letting Mr. E get out “one too many times,” meaning next time there would be “consequences.” Deciding he better go have a look, he ran up and grabbed his flashlight, then headed for the back door. He almost made it to the kitchen, when Kate crossed his path.
“Oh. Trevor. Your Dad called. He‘s on his way home.” She flashed the Electrosmile.
“He – um, there‘s something he needs to talk to you about. When he gets home.” The eyebrows stayed high on her forehead, but her eyes looked tense.
Again, “Right. Cool.” seemed the correct response.
She moved on, luckily not noticing his flashlight. Trevor quietly slipped out into the backyard.
Sure enough, the back gate was wide open, and Mr. E was gone. Trevor took a deep breath, knowing he‘d have to walk down to the creek to fetch him. The creek was a little outside Trevor‘s comfort zone. Especially at night. (He wasn‘t “scared,” he told himself, it was just “outside his comfort zone.”)
The community of Maplewood consisted of rows of tract houses with identical backyards, set on gently rolling hills. Past these backyards was a good deal of open, undeveloped space. Behind Trevor‘s gate was a field of tall wild grass, sloping down into a small ravine. As Trevor left the confines of his yard, he flicked the switch on his flashlight. Nothing. That‘s right, the batteries were dead. “Not a problem” he assured himself. There was a full moon, and the meadow was awash in moonlight.
But as he approached the creek at the bottom and stepped under the canopy of thickly wooded maples, darkness closed in around him. There was a wild breeze in the autumn sky, and the branches groaned as they swayed.
“Mr. E?... Mr. E!” he called. He was anxious to get back, this place gave him the creeps. He heard a quiet sound, and sure enough there was Mr. E, down on all fours, happily gnawing on a fallen branch.
“Come on boy,” he said, trying to sound nice and calm. Mr. E wagged his tail, but was perfectly content to stay put. Then the dog glanced at something else, something behind Trevor. The hound‘s eyes brought Trevor to look over his shoulder.
In the darkness, he could only make out the silhouette. The broad shoulders, long coat, the bowler hat. A black shadow against a black background. The wind swirled a cluster of leaves from the ground. The Man brought a green apple to his mouth and took a bite.
It struck Trevor in a flash – it was he who must‘ve opened the gate. He let out Mr. E, to lure Trevor down here.
His heart leapt into his throat. He turned to run, but the ground was sloshy where he stood and he was suddenly on his knees in the mud. The Green Apple Man walked closer, slowly, in no hurry to reach his prey.
Trevor tried to get up, but was somehow unable to move. His legs felt like jelly, he was paralyzed with fear. The Green Apple Man stepped closer. Mr. E cocked his head, curious at the sight.
Closer. And closer still. Trevor tried to order his body to stand, to run, but his body wouldn‘t obey. The man stood before him, leaned down and with one hand slowly turned Trevor‘s head to face him. Those soulless eyes assessed Trevor‘s, like he was sizing up a horse at auction. He said “The Master will be pleased.” He had a sharp English accent.
Trevor tried to scream, but heard only a small “ahh!” come out. In a flush of adrenaline his strength returned, he boosted himself to his feet and ran at top speed, out of the Maple stand, into the moonlight, across the field, and back into his backyard, slamming the gate behind him.
Amazingly, Mr. E kept pace at his heels the whole way. They kept on running until they were back in the kitchen.
“There you are. Your dad should be here soon.”
Kate was loading the dishwasher. Trevor nodded, trying to slow his pounding heart. He wished his dad were home, he wanted to tell him about the Green Apple Man. He needed to tell someone, but his step-mom didn‘t feel like the right choice.
As she turned away he blurted it out.
“Kate. There‘s a man. Some kind of weird man, down at the creek.”
“I think we should, I don‘t know…”
“What were you doing at the creek?”
“I think maybe we should call the police. I don‘t know what he‘s doing down there, I don‘t know what he wants from me, but if I didn‘t get up and run…”
“Did you leave the gate open again?”
“Trevor, what happened? Did this man - do something to you?”
“Did he try to hurt you?”
“It was just… scary.
Trevor heard his Dad‘s car pull up in the driveway. Kate finally took notice of Trevor‘s muddied knees, and Mr. E‘s muddy paws. Her eyes grew stern.
“I still don‘t understand what you were doing down there at this time of night. You left the gate open, didn‘t you?”
Trevor could feel the conversation drift into choppy waters.
“It‘s public property down there, we can‘t arrest someone just for being at the creek.” His Dad came in from outside. He misread the tension between his wife and his son.
“Did you tell him?”
“No, I was waiting for you.”
They shared a nervous look. This was getting confusing.
“Tell me what?” Trevor asked.
His father heaved a sigh, pushed the glasses up his nose, and with a look of grave concern said “How about some warm milk and honey?”
Not a good sign. Dad always offered warm milk and honey when there was bad news. Apparently Trevor‘s grandmother had comforted him with this concoction when he was little. It never seemed to register that as magical as warm milk and honey may have been to the young Dan Sandoval, to Trevor it was vile.
“No thanks.” said Trevor. There was a weird silence. His Dad shot a plaintive look at Kate. She returned it with a kind of glare: “I‘m not going to tell him, you tell him.”
“Trevor,” his Dad began, “tomorrow morning, some people are going to come to talk to you. Just a casual conversation, here at the house.”
“Well, they‘re from the State of Ohio.”
“Yeah, so am I…”
Kate tried to help her husband out. “They work for the state. For the Bureau of Family Services.” And then, “the Office of Adoption Oversight.”
Trevor stared blankly. “I don‘t get it. Why do they want to talk to me? I‘m not adopted.”
There was that silence again. Like someone pressed the mute button for the room. Kate swallowed. A sheen of tears stood in his dad‘s eyes, as he pushed the glasses up his nose. Trevor felt a big lead ball slowly drop, and settle at the bottom of his stomach.
“I‘ll make some warm milk and honey” said his dad, softly.
Rob Fresco is a writer living in California.