Patricia McAlexander, "Falling"

          They walked between the rows of fruit trees, the sweet smell of rotten pears rising from those that had fallen to the ground. When they came to the brook, he held out his hand and she placed hers in it. She savored its protective warmth as they stepped from rock to rock, he guiding her on. She didn’t tell him she had crossed this brook alone many times before.

          On the other side, it seemed natural when he kept hold of her hand. They walked on, the silence so comfortable.  She looked sideways at him, his tight brown curls cropped close to his head, reminding her of a statue in her high school Latin book. His skin was smooth and olive-toned, and when he looked back at her, his brown eyes glowed, like her pet wolf dog’s.

          They walked for a time, then re-crossed the brook and were nearing the house. She wanted to delay.

           “Have you tried the pears?” She stepped away from him and picked a good one up from the ground. “It has just rained—the spray will be washed off. They are so sweet, so delicious.” She held it up to his lips. He steadied her hand as he bit into the pear. The juice dribbled down his chin. They laughed, and she found a tissue in her pocket and patted him dry with her free hand. “Yes, delicious,” he said.

          Now, now he would kiss her. It was there between them—the potential kiss, stronger than any she’d ever actually received.

          At the house a door slammed—her father. The spell was broken. They jumped apart. He threw the pear into the woods with a kind of vehemence. “I have to go.”

          “Do you have to?”

          He did not meet her eyes. “I just remembered some place I have to be.”

          He turned abruptly and went away toward his truck, parked in their driveway, emptied of the load of mulch he had delivered.  He did not look back.

****

           “Shit,” said her father that night, throwing his ledgers down on the desk in his office.

          Cara looked in. “What’s the matter?”

          “Rodrigo has quit.”

          Her father’s helper, his right-hand man, able to speak Spanish to the Mexican workers. And it was at the height of the fall pear harvest, with apple picking season coming up. A good yield, arriving at market on time, was particularly important this year, since the last two seasons had been disasters. She didn’t know the details, but the budget was tight, loans were due, and her father had been in an even worse temper than usual.

          “What will you do?”

          “What do you think? I’ll have to hire someone else. That damn Rodrigo leaving me without warning like this. I should have turned him into ICE.”

          “Why did he leave?”

          “He’s heading back to Mexico. His mother is sick or something like that.”

          “Can I get you something, Daddy? Some tea?”

          “Lace it with bourbon.” Cara made his tea, poured two shots of bourbon into the cup, and carried it to his office. He was on his phone, barking something into it. She left the cup on his desk and went to her room. She had homework to do for the courses she was taking at the community college. And she did not want to be around him.

****

          Dominic. That was his name. She had been surprised to see him when he drove the mulch truck into their driveway. He was in her English class at the college. They had spoken a few times, mostly about the weather or the story they’d been assigned. One time she’d shown him a photo she’d taken of a mouse that had run across her bedroom floor that morning and paused, tiny whiskers quivering. She’d snatched up her phone, enlarged the screen for a closeup, and taken its picture.

          “Look what woke me up this morning,” she’d said to Dominic that morning, and held out her phone.

          He examined the screen. “A magnificent beast.” She laughed and so did he. “So you didn’t scream?” He had a slight accent. She liked it. She liked the way he said her name when she told it to him: “Cara.”

          She’d gotten used to seeing him there on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. He sat in the row adjacent to hers, their desks across from each other. When they wrote their in-class essay tests, she was aware of him from the corner of her eye, typing intently on his laptop. She would watch him sometimes, pausing in her own work—and look quickly away when he turned his eyes to her.

          They walked out of class together the day they had their first test. “I think we aced that,” he said.

          “It was easy, wasn’t it?” she’d responded.

          Yes, he was not only handsome, but smart and witty as well. And mysterious. Another time, she’d mentioned the story they’d just read in class, about a little black girl who lost her innocence when she saw the body of a lynched man hanging from a tree. “I loved that story. It was almost like a poem,” she said.

          “Yes,” he said, “but it’s not like real life. In real life I think innocence is eroded slowly—. And some murders, unlike lynchings, can be committed slowly, over time.”

          He had not explained; she had not had time to ask.  They always parted ways quickly right after class.

          She always wondered what he did, where he disappeared to—until today when he drove that truck into their driveway. Then she knew: he worked for the local company her father had begun to use, Greenwood Landscapes. She’d lingered as he maneuvered the truck to the location her father pointed out, engaged the mechanism and dumped the mulch out in a pile. Her father’s phone beeped and he’d gone away, to the house, into his office.

          Dominic had gotten out of the truck. He looked over at her with a surprise that almost seemed shock. “So this is where you live. This is your orchard.”

          “My father’s.”

          His tone was strange. “I have heard a lot about this place.”

          “Do you have time? I’ll give you a tour.” He hesitated. “Please come. I’d like to show you my favorite spot.”

           “Maybe I can take a few minutes.”

          She’d led him down an aisle of trees, away from the house, toward the brook. It was late. The workers had gone, carried away in the transport truck to the ancient doublewides her father provided for them, their wives, and children during the harvest seasons. The orchard was now theirs alone, as though they were in a magic bubble. Dominic came up beside her. His shoulders were broad, his neck strong. The deep V of his shirt had revealed a glimpse of his chest…

          She shook her head to clear it of these images and opened her textbook. She must stop re-living that walk with him. So strange, the sudden way he left. She had not said goodbye. She’d been so surprised that she said nothing.

****

          The next morning before class she was sitting in the break room of the college building with a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a book when he came up carrying his own cup of coffee and sat down at her table. “Sorry I left like that yesterday,” he said. “I had to get back to work.”

          “I hope you didn’t get in trouble.”

          “No.” He looked down into his cup, rotated it thoughtfully in his hands. “I’d like to see you again—besides in class.”

          She waited for a suggestion. None came. “I take my dog along the road by our property after dinner every night,” she said. “Come walk with us.”

          “What time is that?”

          “Six-thirty.” It would still be light. Wolf would be happy for a new companion.

          A long moment passed, and then he said, “All right, I’ll see you tonight.”

****

          She made dinner, ate with her father, and washed the dishes, as she had every evening since her mother had left them. She clicked Wolf’s leash on at six-fifteen. Her father was stretched out on the couch watching television. “I’m taking Wolf out for his walk,” she said.

          He just grunted. He didn’t care. She was used to that. Cara opened the front door, pulled by the taut lead as Wolf bounded out. The sun was low in the west. She walked past the mulch pile still there, and down the drive to where it met the two-lane highway. Wolf did his duty; she gathered it up in the plastic bag and left it by the mailbox to retrieve later. Then, turning to the right, the two of them set off down the road, walking on the shoulder. A few cars passed them, swerving outward around her, the drivers with lowered sunshields as they headed west. She looked up each time—would he be in his own car? A company truck?

          It was the latter: an old Greenwood Landscapes pickup passed her and pulled over to the shoulder. She and Wolf ran up to it. He leaned over and opened the passenger side door. “Get in,” he said. “I’ll take you to see a sunset.”

          Wolf growled, a low rumble in his throat. “It’s okay, Wolf,” said Cara, patting his head. “Come on.” She climbed in. Wolf looked up, then leapt in beside her.

          “Now that is a magnificent beast,” said Dominic. He reached over to the shaggy dog. Wolf reared his head back, but submitted as Dominic scratched around his ears. Then, pressing on the accelerator, he swerved the truck back on to the highway. “Do you know the Dahlia Cliffs?” he asked.

          “Yes, but I’ve never been there.” Her father had warned her to stay away. People had fallen there, been killed.

“That’s the place to watch a sunset.”

          She looked at his competent hands on the wheel, remembered how his hand had felt when it held hers. The sun was blinding, and he lowered the sunshade further. A few minutes later he turned on to a narrow dirt road that climbed up a steep hill. At the top was a clear area of tangled grasses. He parked there and turned off the ignition. “Let’s get out. The sun is about to set.” As she reached for the door handle, he touched her arm. “We’d better leave Wolf in the truck. He might get away. It would be dangerous for him up here.”

          “All right.” She stroked his thick fur. “Stay, boy.” She carefully got out of the truck, not allowing him to follow. Wolf whimpered and stuck his nose out of the partially closed window. “I’ll be back soon,” she told him.

          Dominic came around the truck to her side. They walked together to the edge of the cliff. Before them pink clouds glowed, luminescent above the sinking sun. He moved close to her. When she turned, he put a finger under her chin and tilted her face up to his. The kiss was soft at first, tender. Then a little deeper. She felt sparks under her eyelids, and not from the sun.

          He drew back. “Look.” He gestured toward the horizon. The sun, no longer blinding, was now a half disk, now a quarter disk, and then it slipped behind the hills. The pink clouds faded to gray. Night time crickets began chirping.

          “That was beautiful,” said Cara. They were quiet a moment. “I’d better get back.”

          “Not yet.” He kissed her again. This was the passionate kiss she’d wanted, like the descriptions in novels. Nothing else existed. She was floating in time and space, guided by him as if they were dancing.

          Suddenly, the turf gave way under her feet. She’d stepped back over the edge of the cliff. He had fallen onto his stomach on solid ground, but she was dangling out over the abyss like a rag doll, held only by his hands gripping hers. And they were slipping. Her vision turned black with terror. Disturbed pebbles rattled past her, falling as she would fall. Then she realized his grip was somehow tightening, and he began to pull her slowly, slowly upward. They fell back on the grass together.  She lay there, limp and trembling. He sat next to her, breathing heavily, his head bent over his knees. She reached over and touched his arm. “Oh, God,” she said. “I went over.”

          He raised his head and looked at her. “I didn’t let you go.” When he spoke again, his voice sounded different, threatening. “I could have, you know.”

          Wolf in the truck let out a whimper and she heard him scratching at the window. The night air had turned cold. She felt suddenly afraid.

           “I want to go home.” Cara stood up, feeling weak in her knees, and ran to the truck.  She opened the passenger side door and pushed Wolf back as he leapt upon her. “Down, boy.”

          Dominic followed and got in on the driver’s side. He turned the key in the ignition, backed up with a roar of the engine, and turned the truck down the hill. Not until they were on the highway, the road a blur spiraling backward below the headlights, did he speak again. His voice was low; she almost could not hear it. “Some of the men would think I should have done it.”

          “What men? Done what?””

           “The ones who work for your father. They’d say I should have let you fall. He doesn’t care about them. Their families suffer. When their children are sick, they can’t get them to the doctor.  My little cousin, she died of pneumonia last year in that cold doublewide. My uncle and the other men said then he should pay in kind.”

          Cara stared at him. Now she understood, and her fear took clear form. Dominic was somehow linked to the men who worked for her father.  He’d gotten a new life, one different from those men, yet he still thought and felt as they did. It was no accident she’d slipped off the cliff. Maybe at the last minute he’d had second thoughts and pulled her back, but now at the wheel of the truck, he might have further thoughts. He might try to hurt her in some other way. She quietly unlatched her seat belt as her other hand crept toward the door handle. She and Wolf could jump out.

          The truck swerved, tires squealing as Dominic grabbed her arm. “Don’t do that! That would be as dangerous as falling off the cliff.” He maneuvered the truck back into the lane and slowed down. “Don’t be afraid. I’m taking you home.  Fasten your seat belt.”

          She did. He stopped the truck along the road a little distance from her driveway. “Better that your father thinks you’re just coming back from a walk.”

          She heard the tears in her voice. “I thought there was something between us. I thought you were my friend.”

          “There was something between us,” he said. “That was why I didn’t let you fall.”

           She took a deep breath. “I want you to know something, Dominic. I don’t like my father.”

           His brown eyes that once were so warm turned black and hard. “That won’t help my cousin, will it?”

          She unbuckled her seat belt and opened the door. Wolf at her heels, she walked toward the house. She thought she heard him call her name, but did not let herself look back. 

 

THE END

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Patricia McAlexander has a bachelor’s degree from the University of New York at Albany, a master’s from Columbia University, and a doctorate from The University of Wisconsin, Madison, all in English. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her Southerner husband, whom she met as a graduate student in Wisconsin. Now retired from the University of Georgia, she has renewed her interests in photography, travel, and history—and in writing fiction. She has published two thriller-romances with The Wild Rose Press—Stranger in the Storm and Shadows of Doubt. A third, The Student in Classroom 6, will soon be released.