Mackintosh loved apples. Granny Smith apples, Fuji apples, Honey Crisp apples, Peasgood's Nonsuch, Prairie Spy...he even liked the Ingrid Marie apple, in spite of the fact that it shared the same surname as his third grade teacher and faintly reminded him of her in appearance: "plump, russet-skinned, fleshy and bland."
He loved apples so much in fact, that he had eaten apples in one form or another each day of the week for the past 14 years–apple pie, applesauce, apple strudel, apple jellies, apple juice, apple crisp, apple sausage, apple waffles...
"I love apples more than anything in the world!" Mackintosh replied in defiance when his mother once lectured him about not teasing his little brother and asked him to apologize.
In a valley not far from their home was an orchard. Mackintosh delighted in meandering through it on his way home from school. One cloudy afternoon on his 16th birthday, he strolled through the succulent grove and saw a small mirror pinned to a tree.
"What's this?" He walked up to the mirror and saw his reflection. He rubbed his cheek and noticed that it had turned a light shade of rose. He thought nothing of it and continued on his way.
A few minutes later, he felt an itch above his left ear. He flicked it, but it wouldn't go away, so he tugged and tugged until he pulled what appeared to be a little green leaf.
The leaf was a dull green and oblong, with tiny fissures running along its sides. The veins were barely perceptible - nothing like the poison oak he'd put in Karin's shoes during gym class last spring. Boy, that was funny, slapping at her feet with every step as she ran down the hall. You'd think that she'd been attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes.
The thought of mosquitoes reminded him of that time when he mixed in a couple of dead ones, wings and all, in his best friend's turkey stuffing at the school cafeteria and told him they were cranberries. The look on his face when he realized what he just ate. What a riot that was!
And so it went, Mackintosh, ever the prankster, strolling through the orchard, tickled by the many uproarious moments stemming from his clever ideas.
The sunlight was beginning to fade and the crisp damp air was a foretaste of rain. It was getting late and Mackintosh knew that if he didn't make it home on time, he'd be sent to his room without dinner. So, he picked up his pace.
Flanked on either side with row upon row of blossoming apple trees, Mackintosh was tempted to reach out to their extended arms to have a taste, but he resisted. Determined not to spoil his appetite, he skipped past them. Had it not been for the intense cramp shooting up his left thigh, all would have been fine. But, the sharp pain caused him to hop a few steps and then come to halt. He grabbed his leg with one hand and rubbed it vigorously with the other. Although his leg was in pain, he proceeded to walk-hop his way forward, taking longer strides to cover more ground.
The combination of hops and steps was working. He was progressing quite nicely until a snake slithered up, cutting off the path, stopping Mackintosh in mid-stride. His eyes were fixed on the reptile's long, scaly body, and his dreaded fear of snakes bumped up his heart rate. The rush of adrenaline made him light-headed and he had difficulty breathing. It was as if a balloon was pressing against his skull from the inside. Growing bigger and bigger. The pressure became so great that Mackintosh's cropped brown hair bloomed wildly with bushy red locks. Tiny knots sprouted on his skin along his arms and legs and when he raised his arms for a closer look they petrified in mid-air. He could see his house on the distant hill, beneath the now, dark gray skies. Mackintosh started to run, but more effort was required with every step. It was as if he was running in slow motion. He was only able to advance a few feet before stiffening completely.
The curious snake slunk toward him and stopped at his feet. Mackintosh's eyes could only follow him to a point, as he was unable to move his head, which at this point looked more like a large bird's nest. Apparently, someone else thought so too, as a large black crow landed on Mackintosh's leafy head. Mackintosh couldn't see what it was, but he did see a hawk circling the sky above him. He also felt a squirrel scurry up his leg and onto his shoulder. Just as Mackintosh went to scream, his lips puckered, clipping the sound short.
"Well, what do we have here?" said Crow, plucking a leaf and holding it up to the sunlight. "This one's not like the others."
"No, he isn't," said Snake.
Hawk could see from above, beautiful emerald beads, perfectly aligned, with alternating bands of amber green grass. Except for this one randomly placed red knob poking out like a pimple. Clearly, this one didn't belong.
"Blech!" said Squirrel, after biting into one of the many apples that adorned Mackintosh's head. "So sour!" He spat out the sour bits and quickly wiped his paws on his hips.
All four continued to examine Mackintosh, carefully inspecting his crown and probing his limbs. Crow noticed how knotty and wiry he was. "What are you?" he said.
Mackintosh was unable to answer. He tried replying with his eyes, but even those were barely visible through the many-layered wrinkles that protruded from what once was his face.
"Where'd you come from?" said Squirrel.
Still, no answer.
"Why are you here?" said Snake.
Try as he might, Mackintosh failed to respond to their inquisition, causing them to lose their patience.
"I think it's rotten," said Squirrel coiling around the trunk and popping his head around the bend, before settling on a branch high above the ground.
Crow picked at the bark in one of the branch folds with his beak. "Should we tear it down?"
The animals deliberated over what to do and how best to handle the situation. It was determined that the best course of action would be to peck at it, snap its limbs, and pluck its foliage, until there was nothing left. Nature would take care of the rest.
Of course, Mackintosh could hear everything and the fact that there was absolutely nothing he could do about it, whisked him into a panic. He felt hot and his muscles tightened. The tension built up so much that a handful of apples fell off. One bopped Crow on the head, another nearly knocked Squirrel off a branch and a third thumped Snake on the ground.
"Hey!" Snake said leering at Squirrel.
Squirrel stood up. "Wasn't me. It was him." Squirrel pointed his tail directly at Crow, who was rubbing his head.
Crow took offense at the accusation and reminded everyone that if anyone was to blame for throwing apples at someone, it was the delinquent Squirrel. He was the biggest weasel of them all.
Dissension broke out and a quarrel ensued between the three of them. High above the trees, Hawk continued his leisurely rounds and watched them bicker. Unaffected by the squabble, he laughed and laughed at their absurdity. His laughter drifted down below, abruptly stopping the argument. Snake, Squirrel, and Crow looked straight up at Hawk and implicated him with the undesirable act. Hawk didn't appreciate the accusation and this led to another dispute with all four of them now talking over one another.
All this commotion was making Mackintosh increasingly nervous. He simply stood there, perfectly still when a raindrop landed on his knotty nose. Stormy skies were approaching and the animals, too, noticed, as one drop after another, the rain began to fall. All at once, they retreated to their homes, still fussing as they parted ways. Their voices trailed off in different directions as they left Mackintosh behind.
A chorus of thunder rumbled in the distance. The storm was coming down hard now, loosening the soil. A gust of wind blasted through, picking off some of Mackintosh's leaves. The entire orchard was veiled in black under the heavy clouds, punctuated by the flickering lights of lightning zigzagging across the sky. Even if he had seen it coming, there was nothing Mackintosh could do to prevent the bolt of lightning from striking him right where he stood.
"Bailey, go wash up. Dinner's almost ready."
"Okay," replied Bailey, his breath fogging up the glass. On rainy days, Bailey loved to stand on the sofa with his face pressed against the living room window. He could spend hours trying to predict the trails of raindrops as they scooted across the windowpane. He never understood why the outside world looked inverted when seen through a raindrop. "Whoa!" Bailey watched with elation as a lightning bolt struck the orchard below.
In the background, he could hear the clinking of silverware. His mother was setting the table. "Where in the world is your brother? That boy will never learn, will he?"
Bailey jerked back as the front door flew open and Mackintosh rushed through the door. He was drenched from head to toe and covered in mud. He let out a breath and promptly shut the door.
"What in the world? Young man, go clean up, dinner's going to get cold."
Mackintosh ambled down the hallway.
"And pick those leaves out of your hair. You look ridiculous," his mother said.
While Mackintosh washed up, Bailey used his knife and spoon to keep time with the rain tapping on the roof.
Mackintosh turned the corner and entered the kitchen. "What's for dinner mom?"
"Your favorite, honey, Pork and Apple Stew!"
"Yum!" said Bailey.
"Um, thanks mom," he said, scratching behind his ear. "But...can I have pizza tonight?" •