Elliot braced himself as the bus slowed, its tires plopping through several large pot holes in the worn street before coming to an abrupt stop. He moved through the thin aisle of seats making his way to the open doors in the front of the city-transit vehicle. Throwing up a quick peace sign to the driver as he exited, Elliot hopped down the steps and out of the bus. Once on the sidewalk he glanced down the long, narrow street. Palm trees poked out from nearly every yard and their shadows provided a welcome relief from the sun. Throwing the strap from his guitar case over his shoulder, Elliot began walking to the south. Mr. Ortiz’s house was five down, on the left.
The man’s tiny blue house sat closely nestled between a yellow garage-like shack, and a long six-foot-tall chain link fence. The fence had long been abandoned and it now hung in bent, awkward sections that swayed to and fro in the wind. Nothing existed behind the fence besides dirt, trash, and overgrown weeds.
Mr. Ortiz sat on his crooked porch in a wooden chair eagerly awaiting Elliot’s arrival. His guitar sat in his lap and Elliot could see his wide toothless grin even from this distance. Elliot wasn’t sure why, but he’d grown very fond of his new-found student in relatively few lessons. An unlikely couple, the shy red-headed teen and the old Cuban widower had proven to be quite the pair. Mr. Ortiz was an eager learner and Elliot enjoyed the distraction from his mundane life.
Sighing, Elliot wiped his forehead as he plodded down the street. Looking up as he approached the house, Elliot smiled. Mr. Ortiz wore a bright yellow floral-print shirt that contrasted deeply with his dark brown skin. His scraggly beard and mustache were completely white, and his large ears poked out from the sides of his nearly-bald scalp. A straw cowboy hat topped the man’s head. Elliot chuckled to himself at the sight – it warmed his soul.
The elderly man raised a hand in greeting and it shook involuntarily from side-to-side. His grin was genuine and the wrinkles surrounding his eyes exuded kindness and compassion. Elliot smiled in response and called out to his pupil, “Hello, Mr. Ortiz. How are you today?”
Scoffing as if offended, the man responded quickly, “I told you to call me Marcos. None of this Mr. Ortiz business, do you hear?”
Bobbing his head up and down, Elliot confirmed his student’s wishes. Walking up the crumbling cement steps he opened the wooden gate at the front of the porch. Stepping under the overhang of the porch he let the gate swing closed behind him. An empty folding chair sat beside Marcos and Elliot gladly sunk into it. The men shared thirty seconds of silence as Elliot took in his surroundings. Although the neighborhood looked rather desolate at first glance, he’d learned that this area was actually quite peaceful. It was a welcome reprieve from his suburban normalcy.
Taking his guitar from its bag Elliot slung the strap over his shoulder and began to tune the instrument. Marcos watched silently. Elliot’s fingers flew across the strings as he warmed up his hands with songs he knew by heart. Marcos wore a wide smile that lit up his entire face and this was more than enough encouragement for Elliot to continue playing.
Closing his eyes he played from his soul, letting all of his pent up emotions flow out in the form of music. He played and played, until at last he felt self-conscious. Bringing his fingers to a halt he opened his eyes, finding Marcos staring intently back at him. The corners of Elliot’s lips upturned in a friendly smile but this time Marcos didn’t return the gesture.
Instead, his brow furrowed into a sea of wrinkles. Marcos reached a hand out and Elliot couldn’t stop himself from staring at the ancient appendage. The man’s knuckles were swollen to twice the normal size because of advanced arthritis, and his fingers seemed permanently bent into a claw-like position. Yet he played the guitar beautifully. The tips of his wrinkled fingers grazed across Elliot’s inner arm and instantly he knew what the old man had seen.
Grabbing for the cuff of his sleeve Elliot folded his shirt back down over the large bruise. Clearing his throat he tried to gather his thoughts before speaking.
“Okay. Are you ready to get started on our lesson today?”
Marcos didn’t move.
“Did you do much practicing this week?”
The man’s head tilted to the side and his almond shaped eyes squinted as he replied, “No. I’m not ready for my lesson. We need to talk about those bruises that I’ve been seeing.”
Elliot felt the blood rush to his cheeks as they flushed in embarrassment. He tried to act nonchalant. “I told you before, I’m a clumsy kid.” He attempted a laugh, but it came out sounding as fake as it felt. The air between them felt thick and awkward.
Marcos set his guitar gently to the side and sat forward on the edge of his seat. Elliot’s heart hammered with nervousness. The old man looked deep into his eyes and as much as he wanted to, Elliot didn’t look away.
Marcos spoke softly. “Tell me what’s really going on. Who is it that’s hurting you?”
Looking to the ground Elliot stumbled for words. At a loss for an answer, he spoke honestly. “It’s just some stupid jocks at school. They won’t leave me alone. I’m an easy target, I guess…”
He couldn’t bring himself to look his student in the face. His eyes remained downcast as he sighed heavily. Shrugging his shoulders Elliot said, “It’s really not that big of a deal.”
Marcos sat back in his chair and crossed his hands in his lap. Having no intention of playing his guitar any time soon, the elderly man stared out above the tree tops into the vast blue sky. Elliot’s stomach jittered as he tried to decide what to do next. Marcos spoke first, breaking the silence. “How long have they been pestering you?”
A snide chuckle escaped the teen’s lips. “For my entire high school existence.” Acknowledging the fact out loud made Elliot feel even smaller inside.
A fly buzzed in front of his face and the youth made several attempts at swatting it away. Marcos continued to stare out at the sky, lost in thought. After a moment the man swiveled his head and looked at Elliot, who sat fidgeting with his guitar in his lap.
“Have you tried standing up for yourself – fighting back?”
Elliot felt his eyebrows draw together in a frown as he shook his head from side to side. “No, that wouldn’t do any good. They’re way stronger than I am. And cooler than I am. And richer than I am. And more popular…you get my drift, right? There’s no way that I could ever stand up to Michael Kirkpatrick. My life would be over.”
Marcos tilted his head to the side. “Michael Kirkpatrick. Is he the ring-leader?”
“I see.” He looked back out into the cloudless sky once again.
Elliot strummed on his guitar, hoping to bring the focus of the conversation back to their scheduled lesson. Marcos cleared his throat and right as he began to speak Elliot could hear a difference in his tone of voice.
“I want to tell you a story. A story about something that happened a long time ago.”
Anticipating a lengthy tale Elliot removed the guitar strap from his neck and sat the instrument to the side.
“Many, many years ago – when I was a young boy about the same age as you, I worked every day at an orange grove. I quit school when I was twelve and from that time on I worked in the groves. But as you can see, I’m a small man in stature. All of the other workers were taller, stronger, and faster than I was.”
Elliot nodded his head, following the story so far.
“There was a group of older boys who tormented me constantly. It went on for years, until eventually I’d become accustomed to it. Being the smallest worker, there wasn’t much option for me. There was one boy in particular who led the others in harassing me. His name was Carlos, and he was a beast. He was several years older than I was – and he was built like an ox.” Marcos’s wrinkles shook as he shuddered, remembering the frightening bully.
Watching the man’s face Elliot could tell that the story was genuine. He listened intently, curious as to what would happen next.
“One morning, at the end of our shift, we stood in line to turn in our baskets of oranges. Being one of the smallest workers, my basket was one of the emptiest, so I stood patiently in the back of the line. Inching forward I waited my turn until my morning number could be counted. The larger workers had already done their count and they walked back in my direction. Noticing that my shoe was untied I set my basket down and bent over to tie the laces. Carlos walked by and kicked my basket, sending my oranges flying in every direction. All of the other workers laughed as tears of frustration streamed down my face. Carlos never even looked back my way.”
Marcos took a deep breath and it was evident to Elliot that the memory was painful. The elderly man continued. “It was like all of the years of taunting had finally pushed me over the edge. I reached out and grabbed a hold of one of the oranges and threw it as hard as I could, right at the back of his head. For once in my life my aim was true and the orange smacked him at the base of his skull.”
“Ohhhhhh shit”, Elliot commented under his breath as he listened to the story. He couldn’t believe that Marcos had actually done that. A tiny smile upturned the corner of his lips. “And what did you do next?”
He chuckled. “I ran – faster than I ever had in my life.”
Both men shared a laugh at young Marcos’s expense.
“But then I had to go home and tell my parent’s what I’d done. And to make it even worse, I had to go back to work at the orange grove the very next day. I was terrified to see Carlos. I snuck around for my entire shift and I hid in every shadow that I found. But by the end of the day as the sun began to set he came lurking, hunting me down. He cornered me in the back of the field and there was nowhere for me to run. The swamps surrounded the fields on both sides.”
Elliot sat forward on his seat.
“I panicked and bolted into the swamp, seeing no other option. Darting under hanging moss and through muddy holes I worked deep enough into the bog that the water was waist-high. I tried hard not to think about what might be lurking in the murky depths. All I cared about was getting away from Carlos. Finally I came to a tiny mound of dirt protruding from the water and I climbed up on top of it. Crouching down into a kneeling position I surveyed my surroundings. The sun was setting and the light was fading fast. I could hear Carlos tromping through the water behind me.”
Heart beating in anticipation, Elliot’s eyes widened as he listened to the story.
“Carlos found my spot quickly and there was nowhere for me to hide. The look of anger in his eyes was far worse than I’d ever seen before. My body shook with fear. There was nothing that I could do but wait, wide-eyed, as I watched him approach. When he was less than a foot away he stopped and stared at me, furious.”
Marcos stopped then, looking away from the sky back down to the floorboards of his crooked porch. He shook his head sorrowfully. “I didn’t ever want him to get hurt… but fate works in mysterious ways.”
Looking back up, Marcos connected eyes with Elliot.
“A huge alligator leaped out of the water and chomped its jaws around Carlos’s waist. The large man crumpled under the reptile’s weight and in less than one second he’d disappeared underneath of the swamp’s surface. I screamed in horror, leaping onto a nearby sapling tree. It bent underneath my weight but the slender trunk kept me further away from the water than the dirt mound had. The swamp below me bubbled and churned, turning thick and red in color. My adrenaline kept me clinging to the branch until the swamps became calm and still once again.”
Elliot’s lip snarled in disgust as he pictured the sight within his mind. He was still in disbelief that Marcos had actually experienced this. “Wow. How did you get out of there?”
“With all of the luck in the world… My muscles screamed in agony but I stayed put in that tree all night, terrified to get close to the water in the darkness. At first light I took my chances. I don’t know if I’ve ever made my way through the swamp so fast in my life, before or after that day.”
“Did you get in trouble? Did they blame you for Carlos’s death?”
“No. I never told anyone besides my parents what really happened that night. Several of the other workers had seen us running into the swamp that evening, but I swore to them all that I’d lost Carlos in the maze of dense trees, and I’d escaped without him pursuing me. A search team of workers were sent out to look for him, and later the police became involved as well, but there was never a single trace of Carlos found in those murky waters.”
Elliot shook his head. “That’s crazy.”
He continued to think for a second, letting the story sink in. “So what you’re telling me is that I need to find a way to lead Michael Kirkpatrick deep into the swamps, so I can make him disappear forever, right?” Elliot’s voice was playful as he asked the question, knowing this truly wasn’t the point of the story.
Marcos chortled. “No mijo, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m telling you is that sometimes you have to find the courage within yourself to just throw an orange, and then trust that fate will work the rest out for you.”
The timer on Elliot’s phone began to beep and the teen reached into his pocket, stopping the alarm. He couldn’t believe that they’d spent the entire lesson talking. Feeling ashamed he informed Marcos, “I can catch a later bus today if you actually want to get some playing done.”
The elderly man waved his hand in the air, dismissing the idea. “No. You go ahead and catch your bus. I’ll practice extra this week and then you can teach me something new next week. Sound like a plan?”
Elliot nodded as he placed the guitar back in its case. “Alright, but next week you better be prepared to play extra-hard.”
Marcos smiled at the challenge.
Exiting the porch, Elliot jumped down the steps and out of Marcos’s yard. He slung the strap of the guitar case over his shoulder and waved good-bye to his student. Marcos waved back in response.
The teen kicked a small rock as he walked toward the bus stop, and he couldn’t keep from grinning as he considered the many ways a person could “throw an orange.”
Danyelle (aka D.M. Slate) resides in Colorado, where she’s lived for most of her life. She attended college at the University of Northern Colorado completing a business degree, and now works as a financial analyst.
D.M. Slate’s first sci-fi horror novella was released in 2009, followed by dark fiction novels in 2010 and 2012. In 2013 Slateproduced her first audio-story. The following year her second audio-story won the Wicked Woman Writer’s Challenge hosted by HorrorAddicts.net, earning her the title of 2014’s Most Wicked Woman Writer.
Additional information can be found at www.dm-slate.com.