The apple sat on the table, shining in the sunlight, round and red and delectable.

“There,” a woman’s voice said, “eat it.”

A pair of hands sat, flat, on either side of the apple, thin, bony, man’s hands with dark hair and chipped fingernails. Leaf shadows flickered over his hands as the tree above them moved in a breeze. He hedged. “I don’t really understand how this is going to help me to escape guilt.”

“It’s a practical application of what we’ve been talking about!” The woman’s voice grew rich with a smile. She interlaced her hands on the table opposite from the man’s. Her hands were manicured, nails painted a matching apple-red. “The only way to prevent it from being rotten is to eat it.”

The man pulled his hands back from the table and raised his eyebrows. His face was thin and stretched with skin that looked like parchment and his hair hung in limp strands down his back.

She laughed at his expression. “I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. You think its being rotten is wrong, that there’s something substandard about it. If you ate a rotten apple—a ‘bad’ apple—then it would make you sick.” She was leaning forward now, auburn hair falling down around her shoulders, a smile on her face. “But think for a moment; is it unnatural for an apple to rot?”

He frowned at the apple, and ran a hand through his hair. “I guess not.”

“So then can you say that it’s wrong for the apple to rot, if that’s a perfectly natural thing to happen to an apple?”

“Well I wasn’t—”

She reached forward and laid her hands over his, giving them a squeeze. “Just keep going with me for a minute. We’ve agreed that it’s natural for it to rot, correct?

He nodded.

“If it’s natural, then it’s correct. So who’s in the wrong about the apple?”

“Me, I guess. My ideas.” He was looking at her, rather than the apple, his eyes traveling from her long hair to her smiling face, to her low-cut blouse.

“So if you eat the apple and believe that the apple is everything it ought to be, then you will have made a step towards understanding the universe. And understanding yourself. There’s no need to label things ‘bad’ and ‘good,’ and no need to live with guilt about any of your life choices. We’re going to root that old thinking out of you.”

In the distance, the wheels of a cart creaked and grass began to whisper as someone walked through it, but neither man nor woman looked away from each other and the apple shining in between them.

A shadow fell over the apple and the man jerked his head up to look at the intruder. A farmer stood there, face lined with exposure to the weather, a smile in his grey eyes.

The farmer tipped his hat. “’Lo, ma’am, sir. Sorry to interrupt, but I saw you had one of my Romes, and I’m afraid that lot rotted unaccountably fast. I can pretty much guarantee that one’s completely wormy at the middle. I’m very sorry for the trouble, but I can give you a couple new ones if you want. Best ones of the season—was just about to take them off to the farmer’s market in town, but you can have one for free to make up for that rotter, there. It’s on me.”

He grinned affably at both of them and held out an apple to them. Greg stared at it, mouth slack, eyes round, and then darted a glance back at the woman. She wrinkled up her nose into a smile.

“I think we’re okay with this one.”

The farmer tilted his hat back and sucked in a breath. “Weellll, I’m afraid it’s not a maybe situation, see, my en-tire crop of Romes got worms. I can guarantee you that that beauty there is the wormiest apple I hope you’ve ever seen, ma’am. You get a bite into that thing, and unless you have a fondness for worms wriggling through your teeth, you’re going to be puking your guts out.”

The woman turned to Greg. “See what I mean, Greg? That’s the problem with the world. People don’t have enough faith. Think of how much this man has been wasting because he’s too small-minded to see the beauty and wholeness of this apple. Go ahead, take a bite.”

The farmer snorted like a horse and dropped his cart handle. “Beauty and wholeness? Do you not understand me? This. Thing. Is. Rotten!”

In one smooth motion his arm flashed out with a glitter of a knife in his hand, and chopped through the apple. The two apple pieces stuck for a moment, and then dropped open, rocking softly on the picnic table, revealing a mushy brown sludge protected by a thin sliver of healthy apple just underneath the skin. The mush stirred briefly as something dove deeper into its remaining apple slice. Greg swallowed, coughed, and his eyes slid involuntarily to the apple in the farmer’s hands.

But his therapist radiated angry heat. She sat up straight. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I’m trying to help this man. And maybe you don’t care about freeing strangers from destructive thought patterns, but I do care!” Her voice broke, suddenly. “I really do! And—and you just come along and put your stupid apple above another person’s life! I know it may look stupid to you, but this is a really important step!” She flipped back around, avoiding Greg’s eyes, flushed red. “I’m sorry, excuse me, I’ll—” She got up and walked away, pulling out a handkerchief as she went and blowing her nose.

The farmer rested an elbow on the picnic table and watched her go, chewing on the inside of his lip meditatively. He pointed the tip of his knife at her retreating back and asked Greg, “You fond of that woman?”

But Greg’s face was white and his eyes glowed with nervous excitement. He barely even looked at the farmer as he got up off the picnic bench. “Dana! Dana, wait!”

He ran after her, caught up to her, took her hands in his. The farmer slid himself onto the picnic bench, pushed the rotten apple further away from him, and began carefully paring himself one of his healthy apples.

In a few moments, Greg escorted Dana back, his arm around her waist, bent towards her as she dabbed at her eyes with her tissue. She shot one angry glance at the farmer and sat down at the table. Greg went around to the opposite side, but reached for her hand and held it. She sniffed and would not look at the farmer, who offered a neat slice of crisp white and pink apple to Greg. Greg looked at his hands.

Dana said, “This is a private counseling session.”

“This private counseling session is smack dab in the middle of my cow field. I b’lieve I’ll attend.”

She wavered, stopped, and rapped out, “I’ll ask you not to make any comments during the session.”

The farmer tipped his chin in agreement. Then he casually rolled the apple he still held in his hand across the table. It bumped a foot or so and rocked to a stop next to the halves of the rotten apple.

“What’s that for?” Greg asked.

The farmer shrugged and leaned back against the tree again. “I don’t want to impose any morality on your apple, there, but should you maybe want to not blow chunks all over your lady friend, you eat my apple. If you want to spend the evening at the pot, eat her apple.”

Dana’s gaze was steely and she raised an eyebrow at Greg. He smiled and squeezed her hand again.

“I know. Don’t worry. I know.”

With that, he reached out and picked up the first half of the rotten apple. The skin squished in as he picked it up. He looked in Dana’s eyes, and, his voice steady, said, “I believe in the rightness of nature.” He took a bite. The apple glooped, wetly. He kept his eyes on her and said, “My ideas about right and wrong are wrong.” Something inside the apple crunched as he took another bite and a sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead.

Dana leaned forward. “Don’t lose focus, Greg.”

His smile was shaky. “Focus. Okay.” He shoved the entire half an apple in his mouth. Brown mush spilled out the sides of his mouth. He gagged, his eyes bulging, and then gulped it down. Tears shone in Dana’s eyes and she beamed at him. “Oh my gosh, you did it! You did it!”

The farmer got up. He picked up his own apple, nodded cordially to Dana, then to Greg, who appeared to also be fighting back tears—or something else. As the farmer left, he heard a rush of movement and the sound of someone puking up rotten apple under the tree. He shook his head and kept on walking.

Greg knelt under the tree for several minutes, wiping the vomit from his mouth. Dana walked over to stand behind him; he saw the tip of her candy red pumps out of the corner of his eye. But there was no happy comradeship in her voice anymore. She was distant and professional.

“We’ll that is disappointing, but we’ll just keep trying until you’re strong enough to eat a whole one.”

He kept his head down, not meeting her eyes, swabbing at his own vomit and trying not to let her see him gag again and again, spitting out the leftover bile. Furtively, he slid his eyes sideways. Out over the rolling grass, blurred by heatwaves and dust, the farmer was pulling his cart of fresh, sweet apples.





My mother never turned the mattresses. That could have been just an odd housekeeping peccadillo if she weren’t the sole proprietor of a bed and breakfast.

When I was thirteen, a guest mentioned it on the way out, “Hey, you could let your mother know those mattresses could stand to be turned or replaced or something. That thing had a ditch so deep I might as well have been sleeping in a coffin!” He laughed loudly and shut the door behind him, but his death-related simile made me nervous. I went to my mother and told her what he’d said, but to my surprise, she just pursed her lips and said, “It is not good to disturb them.”

That was all. No explanation. She was like that. English was hard for her, so she stored it up, keeping it in reserve for an upset guest or a customer who wanted a discount they didn’t deserve. Though the rest of the house remained the charming, Victorian farmhouse it had always been, the mattresses slowly dipped, settling into firm body prints. And as the mattresses aged, our customers left us. First my mother let the groundskeeper go (“I can mow the lawn,” I said) and then the cleaning help (“We’ll split the rooms and do them ourselves,” we decided).

But by the time I turned sixteen, we both spent our entire lives keeping the place up and we had only one guest reserve a room for the entire month of June. My mother sent me upstairs to clean the room he’d reserved while she fretted and poured over our growing pile of bills.

Upstairs was silent, but for the creak of the polished wood floorboards under my feet and the tick-tick of the hallway clock downstairs. I opened the door to the Iris Room; a corner bedroom with a window seat, dark purple curtains and a tall, four poster bed. That bed. I threw open one of the curtains, letting in a streak of white sunlight and turned to glare at the mattress, the dips so obvious that I could see them even under the elaborate quilted comforter draped over the top and the several layers of blankets underneath. I peeked out the door; my mother was on the other side of the house. She wouldn’t hear anything.

As quickly as possible I stripped the bed and hauled the mattress off the frame, struggling to prop it up in the air. For a split second it stood there, upright and wobbling, almost like it was alive—then it dropped back onto the frame with a thump and a cloud of dust.

I gagged. Growing up cleaning used bedrooms gives a girl a very informed imagination about what kinds of residue gets left behind to turn into mattress dust. I imagined all the bits of people’s skin and excretions and dirt and dead mites being sucked into my lungs at every breath and I ran out of the room, retching. After a trip to the bathroom to wipe off my arms and face, I went back.

The dust motes were still thick in the air when I pushed the door open, and I was coughing and waving my arms, when I saw a figure standing in the shadows, the light from the window falling between us so I couldn’t see the face. My arms dropped to my sides. “Hello?” I said.

The figure moved forward, the edge of the light barely illuminating its face. It was a boy, my age, good looking, with high cheekbones and clear skin. He waved, half-abashed, and said, “Hey um, is this the Iris Room?”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice unnaturally high. “What are you doing in here?”

“I rented this room. But….” He laughed, “It’s kind of, well, girly. I hate to be one of those guests, but, do you think I could pick a different room? It’s okay if you can’t…”

I thought he was our guest. Maybe he’d arrived early. Maybe he’d rung the doorbell and then come on up when we didn’t hear him. Maybe he’d left his luggage in the car.

“Sure! I think maybe the Pine Room would be a little manlier.”

He walked through the beam of sunlight and if I had any superstitions about boys who appear in dust clouds and shadow, they vanished. Other than being more attractive than anybody had any right to be, he looked like a normal teenager. His haircut was funny—kind of a bowl shape. It made him look a little outdated, and a lot more approachable. Because this was no garden variety boy, no, this boy had a broad smile and deep brown eyes and if he hadn’t been humanized by a dorky haircut I would have been embarrassed about wearing my rattiest shorts and a t-shirt two sizes too big for me.

I threw open the door at the other end of the hallway and he peered in and grinned at me, “Much better. Thanks. That bed’s still pretty worn out, though.”

I sighed. The mattress was as visible and lumpy as a skeleton under a silk sheet. “My mom refuses to ‘disturb’ them.”

He looked at me and then at the bed, a mischievous glimmer in his eyes. “What if we turned them? Does she really come up here that often? Do you think she’d figure it out?”

I stared back at him and found an answering grin on my face. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?”

It was the most fun I’d had in years. He would flip a mattress up, I would catch the bottom, we’d flip, it would slam onto the bedframe and we’d scuttle out to escape the dust cloud, trying to stifle giggles in our hands. We went through every room. The entire upstairs was coated with dust, there were bedspreads lying on the floors of every room, the mattresses were mostly crooked with the bedsheets on upside down, but he pulled me down to sit against the wall in the hallway, our shoulders almost touching, cheeks flushed, gasping from exertion and suppressed laughter.

When we regained our breath, the upstairs seemed unusually silent, like we’d thrown a blanket down and muffled everything in waiting quiet.

He turned to me, still grinning. “Now we see what happens when they’re disturbed.” His eyes lingered on my face, drifting to my lips. He his hand went up to cup the back of my head and I leaned forward, my eyes shutting as I waited for him to kiss me.

Nothing. I felt nothing—no lips on mine, no hand on my head. My eyes snapped open, face flushed. He was staring at me with wide, horrified eyes and I shrank backwards. Not many boys ever tried to kiss me—I must have done something wrong.

He stared down at his hands and then back up at me, the shock replaced with a rage like I had never seen before. It came so quickly, transforming his face. “It didn’t change anything! I’m not changed!”

“What do you mean?” I said, my voice trembling. “I don’t understand.”

He rose up, looming over me, and I saw his face contort, shifting before my eyes, a swirl of particles making his eyes too big and his mouth too wide. “Because I’m dead, you idiot, and you didn’t make me better! You woke me when you flipped the mattress, but now I’m still dead, and it’s your fault!”

I scrambled away from him, struggling to get to my feet but then I saw the rest of the hallway. They were pouring out of the rooms, normal, solid people at first glance, but then I saw how their faces blurred like shifting sands, their skin rippled, just dust moved by the wind. Their eyeless faces were turned to me. Their shifting hands were reaching for me. The boy screamed in my face, “I’m still dead! You didn’t fix me!”

I couldn’t get away. My feet slipped on dusty floor and they crowded closer, human shapes blurring before my eyes into a luridly colored cloud of grit and suffocating dirt. The boy was still screaming but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. My ears were clogged up, my eyes stung even squeezed shut, and still the dust encompassed me, blocking my nose, strangling me. There was no way out. They were going to kill me.

Then something cold hit me hard, knocking me forward and I lay, gasping in a puddle of cold water, more water splattering down on me as I stayed there. I hacked and coughed and spat out dusty snot, but I could breathe. Finally, I rolled over to see my mother, face grim, standing at the top of the stairs using a garden hose to douse the entire upper floor.

As soon as everything had been soaked, she dropped the hose, knelt down in the puddle and wrapped me in her arms. I cried nasty, dirty tears down her shirt.

It wasn’t until she’d pulled me downstairs, sent me to take a shower, and made a cup of hot cocoa before she said anything. “They collect,” she said, “Pieces of people and their memories, left behind in the mattresses, always wanting to go on and see the rest of their lives and always stuck.”

“Why don’t you throw them out?” I asked, wrapping my still shaking fingers around my mug. “Why not replace the mattresses every few years? Why the heck would you keep mattresses like that, Mom? Not only did they destroy your business, they almost killed me!”

She looked down. “I am sorry. But they don’t seem like ghosts when you meet them, do they? I thought—I did not want to murder them. I felt responsible.”

I thought about the boy, and his grin and the fun time we’d had throwing mattresses around. He’d been freeing the rest of them the whole. But he had seemed real, not at all like a ghost. I could barely believe it even now.

That evening my mother called the garbage men and offered them extra money to remove the mattresses themselves. We stood on the porch and watched them leave, one bare, stained mattress after another. They went off into the purpling dusk and my mother crossed her arms a firm set to her mouth. “No more ghosts. Tomorrow, we start fresh.”