TUESDAY OCTOBER 27th
The girl, for that was how he thought of her on first sight, arrived late for the apple pressing. And if he was honest with himself Steve Wilde should have sent her away. He already had all the help he needed with the seasonal workers from Jamaica who came every year to his farm in New Hampshire, most from the same families. They had been coming for generations to pick and prepare the cider.
The girl was different. Not pretty in any conventional sense, but as soon as Steve looked at her he felt something shift inside him. She was short and skinny, her body made up of angles. Her eyes were too big, vibrant green, almost too green as though she wore tinted contacts, but too alive to be that. Her mouth was small, and she had the most amazing hair Steve had ever seen. It fell to the small of her back and was red-gold, a cascade of perfect waves shimmering down its length.
She walked up the long dirt track to the old farmhouse. Steve was standing in the wide entrance to the barn. Dark skinned men and women, five of them, carried wooden boxes of apples from the trailer, stacking them eight high inside the barn. Later they would transfer them to the presses and squeeze the golden juice out.
The girl saw him and changed direction.
"Help you?" he asked. He was not a big man, less than six feet and weighing 160 pounds, his body hard from all the work and long hours. He still had all his hair, wearing it long for a farmer in these parts.
"I heard you were looking for pickers," she said. Her accent was pure New Hampshire, but underlying it was a lilt, as though far back her parents or grandparents had come over from Ireland.
"I'm pretty much staffed up right now," he said.
"Ah shit," she said. "They told me in town you were still hiring."
"Finished hiring a while back," he said. "Harvest's all in, we're pressing now. What do you do, anyway?"
"Do?" she said, looking confused. "Press apples, I guess."
"Anything else?" Steve had no idea why he wasn't just sending her on her way. The twelve Jamaicans were all he ever needed. He knew them, they were good workers, and fun to have around, always laughing and joking.
"Should I make another trip, Steve?" Delane stopped next to them, the three of them forming a loose triangle in the dusty barn entrance.
He looked up at the sky, glanced at his watch. Three-thirty. Sunset a little before six.
"Can you get a load in before dark?" Steve asked.
"Sure, Steve, no problem man."
"OK then. Let's get another one in."
Delane glanced at the girl and nodded, being friendly. She looked at the tall black man and then back at Steve. Delane shrugged and climbed into the tractor. When they heard the motor turn over the four others came out and clambered in the trailer and Delane swung around onto the track leading to the orchards.
The rattle of the diesel engine faded and silence returned. Wind caught in the treetops of the old apple trees surrounding the house. They were no longer productive, but Steve refused to cut them down. They were all old varieties that may even have come over with the Pilgrim Fathers, the kind of apples you didn't see any more, names redolent of England: Joanneting, Lord Lamborn, Tom Putt, Hembling, Old Blake, Wendling Mill... Steve knew them all like friends. The trunks and branches were twisted and gnarled, and he knew some found them spooky, surrounding the house like sentinels. In truth, the trees had been there first. When Steve's father had bought this land he had cleared a space in the center or the original orchard and built his farmhouse there.
"I can cook," the girl said and Steve drew himself back, remembering he had asked her a question. "And I can clean, I'll work hard if you need a picker. I'm a lot stronger than I look." She gave a small grin. She would have to be, Steve thought, because she looked like a brisk wind would blow her right back to town. "And I know brewing," she said.
Steve looked down at her. "Brewing?"
"Yeah. My folks own a brewery in Portland. Beer, mostly, but I guess it's cider here. I could help with that too."
"So what are you doing looking for work over here?"
She glanced away, looking at the trees around the house, her eyes taking them in as though they were important to her.
"I don't quite get on with my folks these days," she said.
Trouble, Steve thought, but still he didn't send her away. He knew why. Because he thought she was beautiful, and her voice had a lilt way back, and he liked that. But he wasn't kidding himself. In a week's time on October 31st he would be fifty. The big five-oh. They said fifty was the new forty, but even at forty a girl like this would not have looked at him. What was she, eighteen, nineteen? Yeah, trouble.
Still, he surprised himself when he said, "I could give you a trial, I guess. A week? See how you get on? You got nothing against Jamaicans, I take it?"
"They were Jamaicans?" she asked.
"Nothing at all," she said. "What do you want me to do?"
We start pressing tomorrow. There's still apples to get in, but we can start the pressing in the morning. Let's see how much you know about making cider."
"Thanks," she said, and a smile lit her face. "I got nowhere to stay though. Is there somewhere I can bunk down around here?"
Steve looked across at the cluster of trailers where the Jamaicans stayed. There was no free space there, all four trailers had either families or the single men in them, and Steve didn't think he could put this girl in with them.
"I guess you could stay at the house," he said. "There's a spare room in back, but you'd have to share the bathroom and kitchen with me."
"I can cook," she said. "I can do that as well."
"OK then. I guess you're hired. For a week to start with. What's your name?"
"Saorla," she said.
"Saorla," she repeated, stressing the syllables. "S-A-O-R-L-A. If you just say Sara and drop the a and add a little la at the end it's close enough."
"Sarla?" he said.
"Good enough," she said, and her lilt was strong all of a sudden. She grinned and he found himself smiling back.
"Welcome to Avalon Farm, Saorla. I'm Steve Wilde."
"I know," she said, and when he frowned she added, "They told me in town. Hi."
She stuck her hand out and he placed his callused palm around her slim fingers and they shook.
He had to make himself let go, turned and said, "Come into the barn, I'll show you how the presses work."
It was full dark before Steve pulled the barn doors shut and walked across to the house. Saorla had gone there over an hour earlier, saying she was going to make a meal. Delane and the others were in the trailers, the small cluster looking homely with light spilling from their windows and the sound of voices drifting through the night.
Steve climbed the porch steps and toed his boots off before going inside.
Good smells hit him at once and he padded into the kitchen. Saorla was standing at the sink washing dishes. The hob glowed, three pans simmering, something showing in the oven. She didn't know he was there yet and Steve stopped in the doorway studying her. With her topcoat off he saw how thin she was. Her plain dress held to the back of her knees, hardly disturbed by hips. Still, there was a shape there, he sensed it in the small creases and presses of her dress.
Her hair fell long to her waist, rippled like water in a fast stream.
He looked down at her legs, slim and strong. Her feet were bare and he saw long toes and tendons ridging their surface.
When he looked up he saw her eyes watching him in the dark window. She had known all along he was there. Steve felt himself blush, the first time in thirty years and he was ashamed to be caught acting like a dirty old man.
He turned without a word and went to wash up. When he came back Saorla was putting food on the plates. There was chicken pie, roast pumpkin, potatoes, carrots and beans. A dark gravy oozed from inside the thick pie slice that sat on his plate.
"Don't let it get cold," Saorla said.
"Would you like some cider to go with it?" Steve said.
"My own," he said, and went to the larder and brought back a bottle. It hissed faintly when he popped the top, but his cider was always pretty flat, the way he liked it. And enough other people too. Enough to pay the taxes and the Jamaicans. Hopefully enough to pay Saorla.
He poured two glasses and they clinked glasses.
The food was good.
"Where did all this stuff come from?" he said around a mouthful.
"Chicken was in the freezer. The rest is from your garden."
"Oh," he said. Delane was always the first to arrive in spring, before the others. Steve had forgotten he enjoyed growing vegetables in the plot out back. He hoped Del didn't mind this girl stealing his food.
Afterwards he dried and stacked as she finished washing up, then he showed her to her room. It was small, in back of the house at the end of a narrow hallway.
"There's only one bathroom, I'm afraid," Steve said. "It's at the top of the hall opposite my room. There's a restroom next to the front door though."
"This is going to be fine," Saorla said. She had brought her small bag and dropped it on the single bed. "More than fine. Thank you Mr. Wilde."
"Steve. Everyone calls me Steve."
"OK. Thank you, Steve. Would it be alright if I took a bath?"
"Sure. Help yourself. There's a shower too if you prefer that."
He left her to unpack and clean up and lit a fire in the big living room. The October air was growing chill earlier now, and the fire, although not throwing out much heat, always made the room feel warmer.
He picked up his book and opened it to where he'd left a mark, an old ticket stub from the last gig he had gone to in town.
Saorla came in after a half hour. She had dressed in a pair of old pajamas that looked as though they could have been her grandfather's. Her hair was still damp and clung to her shoulders.
"You don't mind, do you?" she asked, holding her arms out.
Steve shook his head. Why would he mind? From the way the faded cotton clung and moved she was almost certainly naked underneath. The room suddenly felt warmer, and Steve wondered if he might have made a mistake asking her into his house.
Saorla moved to the sofa opposite his chair, both set side on to the fire. Instead of sitting she folded her legs and sat on the floor, leaning back against the arm. She ran her fingers through her hair, holding it out towards the fire to help it dry.
"What are you reading?" she asked.
He closed the book around his finger and showed her the cover. "Steven King. Salem's Lot."
"That's an old one," she said. "Good though. I remember being too scared to sleep after reading that."
Steve laughed. "Yeah. Me too the first time." He thought back. He had been younger then, before he married Jane.
"Is there anything I can read, Steve?"
"Sure. Help yourself. There's a shelf over there," he nodded to the back of the room. "If there's nothing there, I've got more in my room."
Saorla unfolded in one lithe movement and walked into the shadows.
"There's a lamp on the side," Steve said, and she found it and turned it on.
"That's better," she said. She stood with one hip pushed out, running her fingers over the titles. There were four long shelves, probably over three hundred books on them. Most were old, but a few were recent. There was a mix: horror, science fiction from when that was all he read, more recently biography and history, and thrillers, Connelly, Harris, Crais, Pellecanos, Lee Burke and Parker. There were even a few British and Scandinavian writers.
"Wow," Saorla said, "You've got a lot of books. Have you read all of these?"
"More than once, most of them," Steve said. "I've got even more in the bedroom."
Saorla looked around. "No TV," she said.
"I hope that's OK," Steve said.
"Yeah. Never watch it," she said. She pulled a book out, read the back, put it back. Her finger continued tracking, a long finger, the longest fingers he thought he had ever seen. He glanced at her bare feet, her toes were the same, stretched out on the oak floor.
She pulled another book down, flipped it, brought it back to the sofa and folded down in the same position. She tucked her heel up against her thigh, pulled the other over on top.
"God, I wish I could do that," Steve said, laughing.
"What, sit on the floor? Sure you can."
"Be that flexible," he said.
She smiled. "You look pretty fit," she said.
"For an old guy."
"You're not old, Steve."
He laughed again. "Thanks, but there's no need."
"No, I mean it," she said. "What are you, forty-five? Your hair's still dark, and you're not losing it. You haven't gone fat and soft like a lot of men your age. Lookin' good," she said, and grinned.
"Fifty next Saturday," he said.
"Halloween child," she said, looking delighted.
He nodded. "Maybe I ought to warn you, I could turn into a vampire on the stroke of midnight."
"Hence the Steven King," she said.
They both laughed.
"So how old are you, Saorla? Nineteen, twenty?"
"And a bit," she said. "Twenty-six."
"Honestly. Good genes, I guess, like you."
"Enough with the false flattery," he said, but he was smiling. "You've got the job, there's no need."
She looked across at him, saying nothing, a curve on her pretty lips.
She opened her book and started to read. Steve saw it was even older than his, a Dennis Wheatley occult thriller. God, he used to love those books, but the language and manners seemed so archaic now. Not to mention the racism and misogyny.
The fire crackled, scenting the air with apple. Steve was still burning prunings from last year. They would last another month at least, and then he would be cutting back this year's growth.
He went back to his book, feeling a sudden contentment at the company of another person in the house, never mind one that tugged at him in all kinds of places he had almost forgotten about.
It was coming up to four years since he had lost Jane to cancer, and even now it was the emptiness in the house that hit him hardest. The silence when he rose in the morning. The space on the other side of the bed when he slept at night. His choice though. He smiled to himself at a conversation he had had with Delane more than once in the intervening years.
Delane had given him a year, then the second season after Jane was gone he said, "You know, Steve, if you ever need some company, Ella told me to say she likes you plenty."
Steve had stared at him, not sure if he was being serious, or if he was not reading him right.
"Me na jestin', man. And she also said, no worries. She feel sorry for you, Steve man, feels your pain and wants to ease it for you."
"Thanks, Del, but tell her I'm fine." Steve knew many people in town had trouble with the Jamaican's accent, but he liked the musical sound they made when they spoke.
"I tell her, Steve. But anytime you change your mind, you only got to say. Ella's a little sweet on you, I guess. An' she sure got a fine batty."
Six months later when they returned after the Winter the temptation grew too much and he spoke to Delane. That night Ella slipped into his room, slid into bed beside him. She was naked, her body hot, her breasts heavy against his side.
"I came to see you, Steve. OK?"
He turned and kissed her, letting her know it was more than OK.
He had been worried that he had gone too far, that Ella would have a hold over him now, but she carried on the same as always, maybe her big smile warmer than it had been. She made no demands. Placed no pressure on him. When he felt the need he would drop a hint, every few months, no more than that, and if not that night then the one after a dark shape would slip into his bed.
This year Ella had stayed in Jamaica. Steve was worried it was because of him, but Delane said, "No worries, man. She has found herself a fine man and got married at Christmas. But we've got a new girl with us now. I can talk to her if you like, Steve."
"No, Del, thanks but no. I'm fine."
Delane had shrugged and his look said, "Your loss." And when Steve met the new girl he knew what Del meant. She was fine indeed, but he stuck to his principles, this year... so far.
"Can I ask you something?" he said now to Saorla.
She looked up from her book, her eyes bright. "Sure." The lilt was there in the word, the u more of an extended o.
"What's a girl as... well, how come you're drifting like you are? What do your folks think?" He had almost said "as beautiful as you" but feared she would misinterpret him and think he was coming on to her.
"Me and my folks don't see eye to eye these days," she said. Steve didn't hear any pain in her voice, only resignation.
"Happens," he said. "But you could get work anywhere."
"Probably. If I wanted. But I'm... different." Steve thought she had been about to say something else.
"You are that," he said, and regretted it at once. Damn, why did he have to go and flirt with her? He really hadn't meant to.
She smiled. "Thank you, Steve. But I really am different. Maybe I'll tell you about it tomorrow. If you want to hear."
"I do," he said.
"I'm tired," she said. "I'm going to turn in." She stood, smoothly, and said, "Thanks for the book. Goodnight."
He heard her brush her teeth, tried not to listen to her pee but the walls in the old house were thin and not built for privacy. The bathroom door opened and closed. He heard her feet soft on the wooden floor. Her bedroom door opened and closed.
Steve let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. He could do with some of Del's ganja right then. Instead he opened another bottle of cider, dry and only slightly sparkling, fresh in his mouth as he drank.
WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 28th
They worked hard through the next day, tipping apples into the presses, pulling on the long wooden handles until the juice started to run and gathered in the vats underneath. Now and then Steve and Del dipped ladles into it, tasting its sharpness.
Saorla worked as hard as any of them. She chatted with the Jamaicans, laughed with them and made them laugh and Steve felt something warm in his belly when he looked at her, seeing how easy she seemed with everyone.
By dark they had pressed half the apples, drained the juice into the big oak vats ready for natural fermentation to start. Within a few weeks the vats would be releasing carbon dioxide as sugars in the juice turned into alcohol. Steve checked everything was safe for the night, circling the big space in the barn, turning off unused lamps.
He went to the furthest vat and placed his hand against it. Nothing yet. In a few weeks, when he repeated the gesture he would feel the life within, a faint buzzing as the fermentation turned apple juice into cider.
He loved his job. Loved tending the trees, watching the blossom come in Spring, turning into green apples, loved the harvest and pressing and fermentation and bottling, loved the care and nurture as they pruned the trees to produce more fruit next season. He loved the quiet time of year over the summer when there was less to do and he could sit outside and hear the sound of bees from his hives, bees he kept so they could pollinate the trees, but also gave him enough honey for himself and plenty over to sell.
He turned away, ready to go, then stopped as he heard a sound in back of the barn.
"Someone still back there?" he called out.
There was no reply, but again something moved. A scuffling, scrabbling sound and he cursed. Rats. There was always a battle to keep them away from the fruit at this time of year. He moved to the back of the barn, picking up a spade as he went, holding it out in front of him. The sound came again, from the left and he turned, searching for the dark shapes. Nothing. More noises, on his right now and he turned quickly, a chill crawling up his back. Rats would have run by now. Not rats then. But what?