A SOLI Original Document.
You won't find it anywhere else.


(c) Copyright 1975 Robert J. Hustwit
Tom Bartlett was happy. He was so happy, that he wasn't even going to have a drink. He knew that he had been drinking heavily these past few years, but he couldn't help it. His job as caretaker of the orange groves had been a very trying one. Over the last five years it had become a nightmare. Tom remembered when he started here seven years ago; how much he liked it, with the little white house nestled in the middle of the groves. In the spring the smell of orange blossoms was so thick, it was as if Mother Nature had personally sprayed her cloak of perfume over the whole area. From his little house he couldn't see anything but orange trees; he liked that. Tom Bartlett never had been one to make friends, most people instinctively disliked him, and he reciprocated wholeheartedly. But here--he was alone, just him and the groves. In the beginning, life was peaceful and fairly productive for Tom, mostly he had to see that the groves were properly watered, and every once in a while chase off the kids (and even adults) who would invariably begin pilfering from his groves as soon as the first fruit began to take on anything but a Kelly green tint. Yes, his groves. He really felt like he owned them instead of the co-op. After all, he did all the work. And when his work day was over, he could sit in his little house, in the middle of his little grove and drink beer, watch television and relax. It was nice. Then the Lucas boy began coming around. Tom would chase him off, but he'd keep coming back. One day, exasperated, Tom had tried talking to the boy. He had found him sitting against one of the orange trees, eating an orange. "All right, godammit, I've got you now," he had said, grabbing the boy by the shoulder, "we're going to have a little talk." When Tom had grabbed the boy's shoulder, a funny feeling, kind of a cold chill, ran all through him. It didn't feel good. He had dragged the surprised but unresisting ten-year- old back to the porch of his house, and had tried to explain about private property, the economics of raising oranges and even the difficult job of caretaker. The Lucas boy had quietly listened, and then spoken. "Mr. Bartlett," somehow when he talked, Tom felt warm and good all over, "I'm not hurting anything; the trees are my friends. I talk to them--tell them stories and they tell me stories. I never take oranges from the trees, I wait until they give them to me. Mr. Bartlett, please let me stay. Please don't make me go." Tom had been moved out of all proportion to the boy's words. He came so close to giving in, he scared himself. But then he thought of the other kids, seeing young Lucas sitting in the groves eating oranges--they wouldn't wait for the oranges to fall, that's for sure. "I'm sorry, boy, but I can't do it. Now, I don't want to see you here agin, understand?" "But Mr. Bartlett--" "No buts, boy, now get out of here!" Slowly the boy had left, touching the trees, almost caressing them, as he walked by. That was the last happy day Tom had had in the groves, until today. Somehow, nothing had gone right after he had kicked the boy out for good. Tools would be missing for days, and when Tom finally found them, they would be up in the tops of the orange trees. Irrigation pipes would break for no reason, and even his little house, somehow or other, wasn't the same. Tom started adding the hard stuff to his beer, drinking every night, and he found himself waking up in the morning sitting in the same chair he had passed out on the night before more and more often. It was increasingly difficult for him to relax in the groves, they seemed to have become unfriendly; almost forbidding. So he began drinking during the daytime as well. Two or three times he thought he saw tho Lucas boy in the groves, but when he ran after him, the boy just seemed to disappear. That's when Tom decided to stop drinking--the first time. That first night he sat at home without even a beer, he almost went crazy. He was terrified the whole night--he didn't sleep a wink. It was dark, no moon; a slight wind rustled ominously through the trees. The wind caused the trees next to the house to scratch at the window. Tom knew that it had to be the wind...still, they seemed to be trying to get him. For five days, Tom stayed away from the liquor. During those days he got practically no sleep, and his nerves just went to hell. Finally, looking at the prospect of another terrifying night alone, he had opened the whiskey bottle and drunk himself into a stupor. After a few months, though, even the liquor wasn't enough to keep the terror away, and Tom found a partial solution to his problem at Speaker's Bar, in town. He could stay there until closing, and then stumble home and into bed, and not know anything until morning. The walk through trees at 1:30 in the morning wasn't pleasant, but it was better than staying home all night. Things went on like this for a while, Tom getting worse and worse, the orange groves being more and more neglected, until some people from the co-op had stopped in and told him in no uncertain terms to either shape up or ship out. That really shook him; he got busy again, trying to stay away from the bottle and Speaker's Bar. This time he made it for four days. Two of the local townspeople were walking past Tom's groves the morning of the fifth day, and they saw Tom sprawled out on his back about twenty feet from the road. They ran to help him--to see what was wrong--but when they got there, it was obvious that the only thing wrong with Tom was an overdose of Eighty Proof. "Juiced again," the older one said; and, shaking their heads, they went on their way, leaving him to a drunken sleep in the groves. Splat! Tom's first sensation was of wetness, then of something covering his nose and mouth. He didn't know where he was, but he couldn't move--couldn't breathe. And then with all his strength, he was sitting up, feeling just a little foolish. He must have been laying on his back asleep, and an orange--a big one--had hit him right in the face and stayed there. "Jesus, it was just an orange." He was relieved. Tom turned at a sound coming from the direction of the road, and saw what looked like the figure of the Lucas boy moving through the groves. He was up in an instant, somewhat unsteady and very much hung over, going after the fleeting shape, but it disappeared, as usual. Tom was furious. He was certain that it was the boy who had put the orange on his face, but he was gone--too late. Things had been going on this way for almost five years when the Lucas boy died. He had been a sickly child to begin with, and had slowly weakened over the last four-and-a-half years. The doctors could do nothing for him, he just stopped living. Tom felt as if he had killed the boy himself--maybe he had. He knew, though, that now he had to leave. After seven years of steady work, it shouldn't be too difficult to get another job, and then he could get out of this place forever. And a good thing, too. Ever since the boy died, the grove had seemed even more threatening. He had been hit by falling oranges several times in the past few days, and a dead branch had hit him in the face just yesterday, as it fell from a tree. It was as if the groves knew that he was responsible for the boy's death, and were trying to get him. That's why Tom was so happy today. This morning he was up with the sun, feeling good all over--it was his day to leave. He walked through the groves toward the road for the last time and found himself talking out loud to the trees, as if they could understand. The fear and frustrations of almost five years came out as Tom stopped within sight of the road, still in the grove. "I win!" He grinned and laughed at the trees, "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I killed the boy--well, I didn't; and even if I did, there's nothing you can do about it now, I'm leaving! I'm never going to see you again!" Tom didn't see the branch on the tree behind him, laden with oranges, begin to move back, stretching--stretching, putting on more and more tension. Nor did he see the tension suddenly release. All he heard was the sound of a whip slicing through the air and something hit him in the back of the head, knocking him to the ground. Even as he fell, he knew he had been hit by oranges. "Damn kids! Wait'll I--" Tom Bartlett never finished. Around him in the grove, the heavily laden branches moved back, whipped forward-moved back, whipped forward in a terrible cadence of death. The oranges pelted him, knocked him unconscious, and, as he lay on the ground, they suffocated the breath of life from him. Two of the local townspeople were walking past Tom's groves later that morning, and, as so many times before, they saw Tom sprawled out on his back about twenty feet from the road. They didn't run to help, didn't run to see what was wrong; the older one just clucked his tongue, "Juiced again," he said, and they kept on walking. THE END