By Catherine Grow
Gerry never did have a lick of sense. Mother thought she might be “slow” or, perhaps, uncommonly shy. Maybe she was just plain mean. I really couldn’t say. Gerry had always been a shadowy figure in my brother’s and my lives, an older girl we’d seen staring at us from corners or met in passing without so much as a nod or word of conversation. She lived in her world and we lived in ours until the day Leila, the woman who looked after us, entrusted J.J. and me to her daughter’s care while she made a quick trip to the market.
It was a crisp, late autumn afternoon in mid-1950s northern California: sweater weather. The sun skittered though substantial banks of clouds. I’d just walked back to Leila’s home—a modest, one-story, post-war bungalow—from my kindergarten, several blocks away. J.J. was still too young for school. My thick wool cardigan—cardinal red, stored in a chest throughout the summer—smelled strongly of cedar and felt scratchy against my arms as Gerry, an ungainly, but not unattractive, twelve-year-old, guided my brother and me out of her house, into her yard, and into unfamiliar territory.
We paused at the garage next to a woodpile stacked long and high with seasoned logs. As I stood there, inhaling the aroma of split oak and pine, my thoughts wandered back to a sunny morning that previous summer when J.J. had grabbed the tail of a rattler and pulled it out of our woodpile. It’d begun to coil when our father, planting a peach tree in the yard, came running. In one fluid motion, he separated my brother from the snake and whacked it with a shovel.
I was brought back to the present by Gerry prodding my brother and me to continue walking. “Wait,” I said.
“For what?” she snapped. She stopped so suddenly that her skirt twirled around her legs and almost tripped her.
I didn’t answer but bent over to pull up my knee socks, which had, by this time, slid past my calves to settle on the tops of my saddle shoes.
Gerry rolled her eyes and popped her chewing gum several times; the scent of Juicy Fruit perfumed the air surrounding her as she tapped one foot then the other impatiently.
“Are you ready, now?” she snarled when she saw me straighten up. I brushed several wood chips from my jumper and checked to make sure J.J.’s jacket was zipped shut—actions that threatened to make Gerry apoplectic.
“Now?” she menaced and took several steps toward to me, grinding her gum ferociously.
“O.K.,” I said and resumed walking.
We pushed past the woodpile and kept going until we arrived at the edge of an orchard. By now, the sun had yielded to billows of pewter-colored storm clouds; the light that struggled to shine through looked sickly, and the air felt heavy with the promise of moisture.
At our approach, a quartet of crows cawed a cacophonous alarm from their perches in the half-barren treetops. A pair swooped down to rifle through a mass of dry leaves. Grass and other foliage were sparse, their colors subdued to shades of olive drab against the dun-colored earth. Halloween, with its frightening lore and nightmarish apparitions, was scarcely a week away. I shivered, in spite of myself.
“Look,” Gerry said, pointing to a wild-haired figure among the trees. The man had a bushy gray beard and was dressed in patched overalls and a ragged flannel shirt. A shapeless hat of indiscriminate color completed his attire. He was tall and bony and walked half bent-over, like the witches we’d seen in storybooks, searching for something under the apple trees. He carried a wooden staff and dragged a huge burlap bag, partially filled and noticeably bumpy, behind him. “See that gunnysack he’s carrying?” Gerry pointed again. “It’s full of little children, just like you.”
My stomach muscles knotted; immediately, I reached for J.J.’s hand. He looked up at me. “Is it really?” he whimpered.
I stared at the older girl beside me. Her hands were shoved into the pockets of her older brother’s slouchy athletic sweater, and she was rocking back and forth. Wisps of her ebony hair fluttered feather-like against her face. She shook her head “yes” so emphatically that her long, thick braid whipped through the air and beat against the middle of her back. Her eyebrows were arched, and her eyes looked larger and darker than I’d ever seen them.
She continued, her voice rising, “See how skinny he is? He’s starving and always on the lookout for little boys and girls to grab when no one is looking. He takes them home then cuts them up and eats them.” She stopped rocking, withdrew her hands from her pockets, and spit out her gum. “Run! Run!” she shouted. “Before he gets you!”
I believed every word she said. Holding tightly to J.J.’s hand, I nearly pulled him off his feet as we ran for our lives, Gerry leading the way. We fled across the yard then stumbled up the front porch steps and into the house, where the older girl shuttled us down a dark hallway and into a small bathroom. She slammed the door behind us, locking it with a loud click.
“If he finds us, will he kill us?” I whispered, my voice quavering as I tried not to cry. Crying wouldn’t solve anything; even at my young age I knew that. Besides, I didn’t want to alarm J.J.
“Not me,” Gerry replied calmly. “I’m too old.” She paused to remove her sweater before declaring dramatically, “But you and J.J. are just right.” She put a finger to her lips. “Shhhhhhh! Do you hear him? I think he’s coming.”
I stood next to the door and listened intently, but I heard nothing. “Noooooooo….” I said.
“Listen again,” Gerry commanded. “I think I hear footsteps.” I put my ear directly against the wood and heard what might have been someone drawing near.
“He’s coming!” she repeated with greater urgency. “I know he’s coming!” She turned to me—her eyes wide with fear—and hissed, “I’ll guard the door; you’d better hide!”
I searched the bathroom for the place farthest from the entrance. There it was; I wasted no time in scooting my brother ahead of me into a dank corner between the toilet and the wall. He squirmed his way in. I followed, folding my long-legged frame into the cramped space beside him. “Don’t worry. I won’t let him get you.” I promised. And I truly meant this; I was honor-bound to protect my little brother and knew my parents would hate me forever if anything horrible happened to him.
“Shhhhh!” Gerry whispered. “I think he’s almost here!” I hugged J.J. close to me, squeezing him gently for reassurance.
She had her ear against the door and nodded her head in confirmation of what she had led us to believe were her worst fears. “Yes, he’s just about here!” she said. “And you’d better hope he doesn’t stop outside the door. It’s so flimsy, he could easily break through. I wouldn’t be able to do a thing to stop him.”
“But aren’t you supposed to protect us?” I thought but was too rattled to say out loud.
As if anticipating my question, Gerry exclaimed, “I’m certainly not going to get in his way. I might get hurt, even killed.”
Maybe she couldn’t—or wouldn’t—protect J.J. and me, but I vowed, right then and there, that neither my brother nor I would be taken without a fight. And before that fiend got his hands on J.J., he’d have to kill me first. My teeth began to chatter; I was too scared to wet my pants.
After what seemed to be hours—a dreadful stretch of time made even more alarming by Gerry’s proclamations, at regular intervals, that she heard heavy breathing outside the bathroom door—she said, “Let’s see if he’s still out there.”
“I don’t really think we should….” my voice croaked. By now, I was completely used up from anxiety. J.J., who’d managed to wedge his pliable body into the tiniest space directly beneath the toilet tank, was frightened out of his wits: too terrified to talk or cry or do much of anything. “I won’t let him hurt you,” I affirmed with as much bravado as I could muster.
I braced myself for the possibility of a raging maniac bursting through the door. “I’ll die trying,” I kept repeating to myself until I felt the calm that oftentimes comes when one is resigned to having to face some horrendous inevitable.
Gerry unlocked then opened the door, which emitted a prolonged, ghastly squeak. I held my breath. She didn’t say a word but just stood there. Then she disappeared.
Several minutes went by—agonizing, interminable minutes—and still there was no sign of our protector. I huddled close to J.J. and prepared for the worst.
Additional time elapsed, but Gerry did not return. “Maybe the old man has grabbed and killed her before he gets to us!” I thought. But I’d heard no screams to indicate that was what had happened. Then my mind took a wicked turn: “Is she making some sort of deal, so he won’t hurt her if she turns us over to him?”
Gerry finally reappeared in the doorway. “He’s gone,” she chirped. “You can come out now.”
I didn’t believe her.
“No, I mean it,” she said, with a sly grin on her face. “You can come out now.”
I shook my head “no.”
“Honest to God,” she said. “He’s really gone.”
I wasn’t about to move from the only place in the house from which I had at least a ghost of a chance to defend my brother and myself against unspeakable horrors.
“Hope to die, if I tell a lie,” Gerry chanted, crossing her heart to seal her vow.
I took a chance and began to ease my way out from behind the toilet, trying, at the same time, to coax J.J. to follow. His eyes, the color of a cloudless summer sky, dominated his pale, round face. He wasn’t about to budge. Cautious as a cat, I crawled into the middle of the bathroom and stopped.
There, my emotions spilled open. With my bare legs flat against the cold tile floor, I sobbed so loud and long I thought I might never be able to quit.
J.J. disentangled himself from his hiding place then toddled over to where I sat. He wiggled in beside me, patting my shoulder and saying in his sweet little-boy voice, “Don’t cry, Kiki. Don’t cry.”
“Come on,” Gerry whined. J.J. and I took our time getting to our feet. Still cramped and wobbly-legged in the aftermath of such terror, we inched toward the door. Directly, Gerry marched us out of the bathroom, down the hallway, and into the living room. There, she abandoned us. J.J. and I made our way to a sofa where we sat, shoulders hunched in the eerie silence, until we heard the crunch of gravel signaling that Leila’s big-finned, black and white Buick had pulled into the driveway.
We raced outside and began talking excitedly. “Slow down! Slow down!” Leila admonished. She listened attentively as we blurted out what had happened. After hearing the whole of our story, Leila chuckled. “Gerry was just teasing you,” she explained.
“No,” I protested. “There really was someone here! He was trying to get us!” J.J. nodded his head in confirmation.
Leila looked at us closely. “I think I’d better have a talk with Gerry about all this,” she said with an edge to her voice.
The very next week she took J.J. and me to visit the man she’d hired to clean up the orchard that horrifying autumn afternoon.
The man who greeted us at his door had silvery hair, carefully combed back, and a well-groomed beard to match. He was dressed in gray slacks, a faded plaid shirt, and navy blue cardigan. He spoke softly and served us hot chocolate and Graham Crackers on china patterned with delicate pink roses. He was kind—not at all like the child-snatching ogre Gerry had made him out to be.
He showed us photos of his children and grandchildren and talked fondly about each of them. Then he explained that he was a friend of the family who came by every year, after the last apples had dropped, to tidy-up the orchard. He showed us the old clothes we’d seen him wearing and let us try-out his walking stick. Finally, he brought out the gunnysack, which still had some stray sticks and shriveled apples stuck in the bottom. I looked at everything the old man showed us and listened to everything he said, nodding as if I understood.
Nevertheless, for years after that, I’d awaken in the darkest hours of the nights with screams swelling inside my throat. Again, I’d feel the terror of that afternoon and envision that gunnysack, believing—with body, mind, and soul—that it was crammed full of little children like my brother and me. “It’s just a dream,” I’d say to myself while crying silently into my pillow so I wouldn’t disturb J.J., sleeping soundly in the twin bed across from mine so close that I could hear his slow and steady breathing.
And although autumn is truly the most glorious of all the seasons, I have never been able to claim it as my favorite nor can I shake the sense of impending doom that accompanies falling leaves and cooling temperatures.
No one could ever convince me that the raggedy man in the orchard was only picking up apples.
Catherine Grow is a writer living with her historian husband and rambunctious golden retriever in a tiny two-hundred-year-old house in very rural northeastern Connecticut, about six miles from where her husband’s earliest ancestors lived, died, and are buried.
Her work has appeared in a variety of online and print journals, news magazines, anthologies, and college-level texts, including Common Ties, Reed Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and others. Currently, she is working on a collection of interconnected stories set in the Missouri Ozark Mountains.