Tricia was not having one of her best days. Neighbors had made enough noise to wake the dead last night and it had been difficult to fall asleep. And, once asleep, the old dream came back. It had been years since 'the incident' but the old nightmares rear their ugly heads from time to time and this one had been a monster: trying to stay awake so that you'll hear if he comes down the hall only works for so long and then you fall asleep. In the sleep of dreams, you hear all the things that should tell you that he's coming down the hall but none of them actually awaken you; you just become more and more afraid. The doorknob starts to turn, the bedroom door opens with a slow, loud screech which should wake the entire county but doesn't even wake you, the low, even breathing as he stands in the doorway, and finally, the soft footfalls as he walks toward you. Nothing wakes you until he's touching your bare shoulder and then, you are silently swinging at his head, moving towards him, past him, and running through the maze that was home before you went to bed.
The real incident was much, much less than the anger and grief it caused, the dreams being a key part of the latter. This morning had dawned with the feeling like a hangover pounding through her body but no aspirin could touch it. Then, to be treated like a worthless servant at work was the final straw. She had walked out 30 minutes before the end of her shift, fully intending to never set foot in that hellhole again, her anger lasting almost until she got to the car. There, walking briskly through the third floor of the parking lot, she had felt the tears coming. By the time she reached her beloved Honda, she was sobbing and had trouble getting the key into the lock. Finally within the relative safety of her car, she broke down completely, surrendering.
Some time later, she turned the ignition and started towards the exit. The radio, which is always on in Tricia's car, didn't come on. She looked at it puzzled, but before what was wrong dawned on her, she reached the exit. When the car before her handed the woman in the booth a ticket, she groaned aloud, remembering only then that her ticket was in her locker at work, waiting to be validated. There was no damned way she was going back, maybe not ever, certainly not today. Tricia opened her wallet, found the 'lost ticket' money she'd stashed just in case this happened, and handed it to the woman when it was her turn. Smiling as if she were actually listening to the cashier’s refund speech, she left the lot and turned into the late morning traffic.
Only when she was on the freeway did she glance again at the radio and notice the obvious: there was a cassette in it that had been given to her as a gift yesterday. After turning up the volume, she found the cassette's case and saw that the artist was a woman. Then she heard the music. It was beautiful! Saying all of the things her heart needed to hear, the song captivated her. She was almost three miles past her exit before Tricia knew she'd missed it and, by then, she didn't even care. The songs sang to her and she sang to them, driving south, smiling once again, and only looking down once to see that she had nearly a full tank of gas.
The miles floated by and still with no destination in mind, she turned off the freeway onto a two-lane road that looked like it went forever. On both sides, there were acres and acres of grape vines. Passing at least two wineries, she came to fields of dairy cows and horses. Fascinated by horses since a child, she couldn't resist stopping by a fence and getting out of the car to watch a while. As if he knew her, a large, high-spirited quarter horse pranced up to the fence and whinnied a hello. Tricia reached over the fence and he walked up to nuzzle her hand and enjoy a few pats on the snout. Tricia left as he left, feeling her spirits soaring.
Driving a couple miles beyond the pastureland, she came upon miles of orchards, most with trees full of bright red apples. Just looking at them started her mouth watering so, when she saw the sign advertising an upcoming fruit stand, she immediately slowed and turned into the gravel parking area.
She got out of the car and was met almost instantaneously by a tall, darkly tanned kid in his late teens. He greeted her and led her to the stand, talking almost poetically about the history of this orchard and its crop. Tricia took an immediate liking to him, and he to her, as she looked over the baskets of freshly picked apples. After a few minutes, he stopped her, frowned as if thinking about something, then suggested that, if she had an hour, she could go with him to find and pick even fresher apples directly from the trees. Delighted, she waited while he got another family member to watch the stand, then went with him into the trees.
He showed her how to tell if the fruit was almost ripe, ripe for the picking, and over-ripe. He also picked samples of each for her to taste before starting her own picking. Soon, they were deep into the orchard and talking about other kinds of fruit, picking season, life on an orchard, and many less than important things.
Before she knew it, it was getting dark. (She guessed that she had been in the trees for at least 3 hours, talking, laughing, and picking the occasional apple just to munch on.) He insisted on inviting her for dinner (which his kind and cheery mother cooked) and she couldn't bring herself to refuse. After dinner, the family sat around a small rug in the living room of the orchard's main house and told Tricia jokes, funny stories, and family history trivia. Tricia never had the urge to leave and, when it was late and the boy's parents went off to bed, he told her that she could stay the night with them, that she should stay the night with him. He promised to be a perfect gentleman and she surprised herself by agreeing to stay if he'd keep his promise.
After showering, she redressed and waited on the side of his bed for him to finish showering, too. (He, too, returned to the room fully dressed). Then he pulled back the blanket, lay on the top sheet, and turned his back. Tricia thought a minute, turned off the light, then lay down on the other side of the bed. He turned to her after a moment and she shook her head. He nodded in the semi-dark and fluffed his pillow for sleep. She did the same and they both smiled shyly. She put her hand in front of her in a warding off gesture, he nodded again, and she turned her back to him. They lay like that for almost an hour, until Tricia felt that she could trust him. Sliding backwards slowly, she moved to him and he wrapped around the contour of her body, lying together like spoons. When she felt his arousal, she moved slightly away, but never to far to prevent feeling him close.
Sometime in the night, after they had both slept for a while, she woke from no nightmares, turned to look at the quiet but awake boy, and slid out of bed long enough to remove most of her clothing and return to the bed, under the sheets this time. She looked at him and he did the same. And, very, very slowly, Tricia turned her back to him, slid close to him again, and, beside a stranger, a boy she didn't know, she slept the most peaceful night of her life. And, this time when she slept, she dreamed of skipping in an endless orchard and holding a boy's hand.