Tanner coughed and pulled his hat from his head, tossing it into the passenger seat. Convinced that it was contributing to his balding, he removed it whenever he felt he could do without the cover. He rubbed his bagged eyes and then opened the car door, which made a whining creak. All day in the cold and his clunker’s heater had just begun to raise the temperature—two degrees so far.
He needed kibble for Hank and carrots for a simple stew Jess planned to make for his mother tomorrow.
Walking across the parking lot of Mick’s General Store and Feedbag, he slipped on a patch of black ice. He regained his footing but four unaccompanied children had seen his clumsiness and chuckled in their winter coats that were no doubt much warmer than his windbreaker. Tanner mocked them with vicious words hidden under his visible breath.
The heat inside Mick’s automatic doors eased Tanner. He pulled a cart from the line; its front left wheel did pirouettes from the doors to aisle seven: Pet Care. Kibble was on sale—he hauled it into his cart. To aisle one: Produce. And carrots were on sale, too—he grabbed a bushel of them and twist tied them into a green plastic bag.
In the produce aisle, he did a session of quick math and figured that he and Jess had a two-dollar surplus for the week. His thoughts went to Granny Smith apples, likely because they were on display just to his right. But also, he hadn’t eaten apples in at least six months, and neither had Jess, as far as he knew. He used to eat more fruit.
The apples, too, were on sale. Unspooling another plastic bag from the metal holder, he caught a dent on one of the bright green skins. And another, and another. All of them had dents—pocks of varying sizes. He took one of the fruits in his hand and ran his fingers over its skin. Not hand or machine made, he thought. He drifted it away from his head like one of those magic eye illusions. As he did, two dents in the center formed a nose, three a set of lips below, four a pair of eyes. The rest made up other unique features and bone structure. He knew the face well: his boss, making the same needled expression as he had when Tanner left work.
A clerk walked by, burnt orange apron over his shoulder and visor in hand. He had his head down and kept his eyes away from customers.
“Hey man,” said Tanner. “Are these apples okay?”
The clerk stopped and scratched at the side of his neck with his free hand. He picked one just as dented as Tanner’s from the display, looked it over, and then bit a chunk out of its forehead. He chewed, a drop of almost clear juice hanging off his bottom lip, and swallowed. He held his bitten apple up to Tanner’s face. The inside was fresh—crisp, not rotted or brown.
“Fine,” he said with a smack of his lips.
Tanner recognized the eyes of a fellow drudger ready to go home, come back tomorrow, and repeat.
“Yeah,” Tanner said. “Thanks.” The clerk walked off, apple in hand.
The rest of the apples bore faces too, some unfamiliar like the one the clerk took, but a number of them resembled people from town—people from his life. Family, friends, local celebrities, civil servants and politicians. He put his boss in the bag. He spotted his mother at the bottom of the display. What a trip that’ll be to show her, he thought, dropping it in with a rustle beside his superior. The meteorologist from Channel 8, Tanner’s barber, and the principal from where Jess used to teach. Then he saw himself, and then Jess three apples down from him. He took them, too, and tied up the bag.
A half asleep older woman worked the register. She finished with a customer purchasing two tins of Crisco fat and nothing else. Tanner stepped up. She scanned the kibble in the cart, weighed the carrots, and then the apples. Tanner opened his wallet of maxed out credit cards and hoagie shop punch tickets. He removed a twenty dollar bill, two ones, and four quarters from it. He handed the sloppy bunch to the woman.
“Quarter short,” she said, wheezing. “But I’ve got you, hun.” A quarter emerged from her apron pocket, held in her wrinkled fingers. Opening the register, she bared her much-too-white dentures at Tanner.
Jess lay on the kitchenette floor when Tanner arrived at their one-bedroom, sixth-floor walkup. A broken jar of marinara sauce had splattered in red shards around her. Hank was cleaning the tomato linoleum with his tongue, avoiding the glass with Dachshund aplomb.
On coming through the door, Tanner had a small panic attack. He then let the fifteen pound bag of kibble fall to the doorway floor from over his shoulder. The carrots and apples followed.
“I’m fine,” Jess said, remaining calm. Tanner helped her into a kitchen chair; he gave her the dish towel to wipe her face and blonde hair free of the sauce. “Relax.”
“What happened? Are you nicked anywhere?” Tanner said, picking a wriggling Hank up and shutting him in the bedroom.
“I’m fine, Tan,” Jess said. “Just not one hundred percent yet.”
“Was it the meds? The doctor said—”
“Don’t pull ‘the doctor said’ line on me,” Jess cut in. “I know what the doctor said.”
“All right,” Tanner huffed. “Forget it.’ He collected the jar pieces and put them in the trash. The groceries still propped open the front door. He retrieved only the bag of apples first and tossed them to the kitchenette table. “Here, take a look at these. Everything we needed was on sale, so—”
“Granny Smith,” Jess said, rustling around in the bag. “High-end stuff.” She burst into a chuckle. “It’s Linda!” She pulled out the rest. “You, me, Principal Grier, Mackenzie Storm, Phil, Mr. Noonan. What are these, custom made?”
Tanner closed the front door. He shrugged. “There’s a ton of them at Mick’s. People were buying them—eating them.” He took the only other seat in the room. “Don’t eat Mom first. I want to show her tomorrow.”
Jess reached from her chair to the silverware drawer, less than two feet away, and pulled out a steak knife. She cut into Mackenzie Storm’s bubbly smile, praised on the sides of local buses for Bringing sunlight to every Storm.
“How did I know you’d go for her first?” Tanner said, scratching his scruff and letting out a wide yawn. The air smelled like marinara, a reminder that he still needed to clean up the floor.
“Are you calling an ill woman shallow?” Jess said, smirking. Her pale face relaxed. “She’s so fake—watching her over four months from a bed you can’t leave would do the same to you.”
Tanner nodded. He picked up Mr. Noonan and looked him over again. Tanner was going to eat him tonight, so he had no room to speak. Noonan wasn’t a bad superior—just that figurehead who had to give word of the pay cuts, the layoffs and scaling back of benefits from his office on the second-floor platform. A straw man set up by corporate. Tanner didn’t even know the faces of his boss’s bosses, so Mr. Noonan would have to do.
He had a rather edible looking face anyway.
Tanner took a bite from the apple; he consumed Mr. Noonan’s entire face within a minute. The juices covered Tanner’s lips and surrounding beard. He let out a satisfied sigh. Jess devoured Mackenzie Storm slower—she liked cutting bite-size pieces from her fruit. She was methodic in her approach. Surgical.
Neither of them had the stomach to eat any more than the face of the apple, leaving two halves on the table, browning.
“Not bad,” Tanner said. The taste and smell of his youth—of climbing the apple trees in his yard—lingered in his mouth and nose for a few seconds more before the smell of marinara cut through. He collected the two half-eaten apples and sealed them in plastic sandwich bags, although he couldn’t see himself eating the leftovers over a new face. He grabbed the carrots and the rest of the apples too, placing them all in the humming refrigerator. Nothing but baking soda and a small, defrosting chicken for company.
“Yeah,” Jess said, picking at some dried marinara on her legs. She stood up, steadying herself on the table, then on the cabinets and couch to get from the kitchenette to the living space to the bathroom. She turned on the shower. The cold pipes knocked to life in the walls. She disrobed and stepped in, careful with her footing. She had to use a plastic seat for the time being. Like a senior citizen. She didn’t want to end up as one of those pruned, nude corpses found in a tub after smashing their face against a faucet, so she used it. Tanner used the seat too. He fell asleep in the shower more than once a week.
Tanner squeezed a line of dish soap onto the floor, and then pulled their dusty sponge mop from the crevice between the cabinets and fridge. He poured a cup of water down, mopped, drained the sponge in the sink, and repeated until the linoleum returned to its off-yellow color.
He waited outside the bathroom for his turn. They watched TV until bed.
In the short term, Jess’s accident proved to be the best thing for her and Tanner’s relationship. There was a certain diminishing on both sides until an ancient sedan hopped a curb and rammed squarely into Jess. It near obliterated her spleen, shattered a number of her ribs and fractured her right arm. Tanner rushed from work to be with her. They had drama before the doctors removed the remains of her spleen.
“The guy died,” Tanner said, later in the week. “He hit the wall and his head after he hit you.”
“You almost sound happy about that,” Jess said, her voice parched.
Recovery. More surgery.
“We can’t afford this,” Jess said, later in the month.
“I know,” Tanner said. His next words should have been a comforting lie, but he just hung his head.
More recovery. More surgery.
“Our own Mackenzie Storm is missing,” Dennis Dines of Channel 8 said.
Tanner was just coming to bed, where Jess already lay reading, the glow of the television set resting on her body. Both of them stopped, stared at the screen, then at each other, then at Hank, and then back to the screen.
Dennis continued, “She was last seen—well—here, getting ready for this very broadcast. Then, without a word, she took her car and left toward the I-40. Still here are her phone, her purse—everything.”
Tanner pulled his cell phone from his pocket and scrolled to Mr. Noonan.
Mr. Dines said, “If anyone has any information about Mackenzie’s whereabouts, please call us directly at the number below.” The anchor put his hand up to his left ear. “I am receiving word that, yes, she has deleted her social media accounts. We now go to Roger Jimenez, who has just arrived at Mackenzie’s home. Roger?”
“No sign of her, Dennis,” Roger said, standing on the lawn of a ritzy suburb home. “But, if you look closely into this window, you’ll see Dick Mather, Mackenzie’s husband, watching football.”
“Roger, did no one tell Dick?” Dines asked before Jess shut the TV off. She watched Tanner hit send on his phone and bring it up to his ear. His breathing turned quick and sharp; his eyes widened.
“Mr. Noonan,” he said. “Are you feeling okay, Mr. Noonan?”
“Hey, Tanner,” Mr. Noonan said. “Listen, no work tomorrow. Tell the guys, yeah?”
“We have deliveries coming,” Tanner sighed. “There has to be work tomorrow. What are you doing right now?”
A pause. “Driving, Tan. Just driving,” Noonan said. The sound of rushing wind and passing cars played in the background. “Ten years ago, I saw myself as my boss by now. Not this. Not some middle management puppet.”
Tanner looked at Jess, who knelt on the bed now, and Jess back at him. She could hear Mr. Noonan well enough.
“We all,” Tanner said, “have regrets, Noonan. None of us are where we thought we’d be by now. That doesn’t mean you should abandon your responsibilities.”
“I would have thought the same yesterday, Tan—earlier today, even.” He started weeping a little. He was getting choked up, at least. “I know it’s selfish—I do, but we deserve to be selfish, don’t we? I’m going to be dead in twenty, thirty years. I won’t waste another day in that life.”
The next sound, Tanner gathered, was Mr. Noonan’s phone hitting highway asphalt. Tanner sat on the edge of the bed and leaned back onto Jess’ lap. She put her arms on his chest.
“What do we do?”
“What did we do?”
They decided to sleep on it.
Jess and Tanner needed nothing from the store, but Tanner made a stop at Mick’s anyway after work. The warehouse had been abuzz with Mackenzie Storm’s ongoing disappearance. Not much was said about Mr. Noonan’s. Tanner took over his daily tasks—corporate would be coming by in two days to discuss making it a simple, permanent transition. He would be getting a slight raise, but not to Mr. Noonan’s salary, just a negligible uptick and three times the responsibility.
Tanner didn’t lag in his car after he parked. He grabbed all the change from his cup holder and hustled inside, going straight to the Granny Smith display. The tired worker from yesterday was replenishing the display with new, faceless apples from a wooden crate. The man wasn’t focusing on his work, however. He stole glances across the produce section of a fellow employee tending to Mick’s selection of seafood: two elderly lobsters in a tank. A low static played over the broken loudspeakers.
Not many apples had been bought between yesterday and now, which gave Tanner pause, because why wouldn’t people take that little revenge or, at the very least, show off the odd find? The faces had taken on a sallow color. He counted the change in his hand—enough for one. He looked over the eyes staring back at him for someone he had missed, now that he knew, and caught Hank’s face, loyal and always bright.
“Where do you guys get your apples?” Tanner asked the clerk.
“I don’t know,” the clerk said. “Farms all over, I guess,” He gave his attention to Tanner. His face brightened like they knew each other. “Oh, hey.”
Tanner nodded and took Hank’s apple face into his hands.
The worker—Francis, per his nametag—tapped Tanner in the chest, like they were old friends. “Think I have a chance?” He gestured towards Seafood, where a fellow employee tended to Mick’s selection of seafood: two elderly lobsters in a sprawling tank. Francis smiled, “His boyfriend left last night. Woke up, wrote a shit song, ran off to New York just like that.”
“Just like that,” Tanner said. Hank’s apple weighed heavier in his hands. Tanner lifted it closer to Francis’s face, asking what the man could see.
“Mick’s Special,” Francis said without hesitation. “A dented day-old. You want a fresh one?”
Tanner spoke, downcast, “I see a face.”
“Like Jesus’s or the Buddha?” He turned wary of Tanner. “People just force their eyes to see stuff like that, apple guy.”
“Maybe,” Tanner said. He put the hot change in his hand on the side of the display. About to leave, his mind circled back to the main topic. “So, you’re going to try with this guy?
Francis pulled his face back in confusion at Tanner’s question. “Absolutely—door’s wide open. Look at him.”
“You might want to eat this if it doesn’t work out,” Tanner said, holding Francis’s apple out to him. “Trust me.”
Francis accepted the fruit. Likely to get Tanner away from him faster. “Sure.”
The automatic doors stuck in their tracks when Tanner approached them; he had to slip through a thin vertical opening to leave, Hank’s apple in his jacket pocket.
Francis pitched the day-old apple into a nearby trash bin and headed over to Seafood.
Tanner’s mother Linda rose to greet him when he walked through the apartment door. The smell of chicken stew hung humid in the air.
“Tanner,” Linda said. “I was just saying to Jess how great it would be to see a little rugrat running through this place. One other than your dog.” Her typical opening remarks to either Jess or Tanner.
“Hi, mom,” Tanner said, giving her a hug. “Let’s cool it with that this week, huh?”
Her wrinkled face fell. “I understand—the accident, but there’s always adoption. Look, I’m not telling you to get married like some traditional elder, but neither of you are getting any younger.”
Jess ladled a savory stew into three bowls and placed two of them at the table, where she and Linda would sit during these visits. Tanner always leaned against the counter or sat at a tiny tray table. The former made him feel less like he was sitting in the kid’s section, so he opted for that whenever he could. Like tonight.
Jess sat down and said, “We just don’t have the money for it right now, Linda. Everything we have is going straight to rent, food, and medical.”
Linda spooned stew into her mouth, nodding like it was tasty. “I could help.”
Tanner shook his head, swallowing a smooth piece of carrot. “You barely get by, Mom. Honestly, if you were to get sick now, there is nothing I could do for you.” He regretted saying it but it needed saying.
“Tanner,” Jess said, “that’s harsh.”
“No,” Linda said, “That’s just his father coming out of him.”
“Now that’s harsh,” Tanner said with a dry chuckle. “Look, Mom, I’m drowning right now. You need to get the idea of a grandchild out of your head. Every time I talk to you—”
Linda frowned; her eyes welled and reddened. “I can’t, Tan.” Shaking her head, she said, “I sit in a damn room—in a building of people waiting to die all day.”
Dinner continued in silence. Hank crunched kibble in his bowl by the bathroom. Jess cleared the table when she and Linda had finished. She took Tanner’s bowl from his firm hand and started rinsing it in the sink. Hank came up to her legs. She placed her bowl down for him to lick clean.
“I’m going,” Linda said, grabbing her coat from the couch. “I’ll take the bus.”
“Tanner will take you home,” Jess said.
Tanner opened the fridge and picked his mother from the assortment of apples under the flickering light. He stayed bent in the dry, cold box. He held the fruit up to his mouth, his breath fogging the skin. It would be a kindness to her, he told himself. To give her the clarity Mr. Noonan had.
It would be a kindness to himself. He deserved to be selfish, didn’t he? He deserved to be free from one burden in his life. Taking one large bite, and then another, he ate his mother’s face faster than he had ever eaten anything. Jess pulled him out of the fridge and knocked the apple from his sticky hand. Sweet foam clung to Tanner’s mouth.
“I can’t believe you just did that!” Jess said in a hushed voice.
“What did he do?” Linda asked, looking tired.
“Like you weren’t thinking the same thing,” Tanner said. He whispered, “This’ll be better for all of us.”
Jess scowled. “You don’t know that.”
“Tanner,” Linda said, leaning against the wall by the front door. “I’m thinking of heading back to the farmhouse.” She looked tired.
“The farmhouse is gone, Mom,” Tanner said, coming to her side.
“You think men—like your father—are the only ones concerned with legacy, Tanner. But everyone is, by my age.” She stood upright and opened the front door. “You should see the faces of the others when their grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, come around. They’re giddy, yes, but there’s also satisfaction in their eyes. They know they’re leaving a piece of themselves behind. Something down the line they helped mold.”
“Mom,” said Tanner. “This isn’t what—”
Linda went on, “I wasn’t going to say this tonight. It’s one of those things you think about on the way over and then push aside until the way back.” She breathed in, and then out it came: “I don’t want to see you, Tan. I don’t get much from this anymore. I’d rather sit at the home and live vicariously through my neighbors’ smiles when their grandchildren walk through the room.” She turned away, walking towards the elevator.
From their apartment window, Jess and Tanner watched Linda step up into the Route 12 bus. The transport wore the pristine face of Mackenzie Storm on its side. Still no word on her. Street light warped and rode the bus’s metal top as it pulled away.
Tanner and Jess made careful, rusty love later. The first time since the accident.
Linda passed in her sleep, peacefully and from natural causes. The home never called Tanner.
Jess ate Principal Grier later that night. This way, he wouldn’t be around when—if—she went back to work. He liked to hit on all the teachers and aides, which was slowly moving towards being more serious than a joke. She never had the guts to report him and cost a man with three kids a job. But with the apple, it was easy. He would leave and maybe find solace or even seek atonement.
For a midnight snack, Tanner devoured Phil , his barber. The man had become shoddy with clippers in his old age, and Tanner never had the heart to go to one of his younger, steadier employees. Petty, Tanner knew.
Hank ate his own apple by accident in the early morning. Tanner forgot about the dog’s face in his coat pocket after Linda left. Always hunting for food other than kibble, Hank pawed at the coat hanging by the front door. The apple tumbled down after twenty minutes of dachshund persistence, and he consumed it. In the morning, when Tanner opened the door to leave for work, Hank bolted from the apartment. His collar tags echoed down the grimy stairwell.
Tanner ran after him, going over the methods of exit from the building in his head. The front door is always unlocked, he thought, but also never open. The basement, maybe, if the super was having something fixed for once. Other tenants opened their doors to the 5 AM commotion as Tanner’s steps banged through the halls. When he reached the dim lobby, he couldn’t hear the tags anymore. The front door remained shut in its frame. The basement, still padlocked. But the back door, nothing but rotting wood and wire mesh, had been broken by dachshund force. Dumpster smell hit him as he barreled through the door and then out from the alley onto the solemn street. But Hank was gone. Tanner ran a block in all directions to make certain.
He pummeled a stop sign with his fists, shouting beneath a Channel 8 billboard.
Jess, in her pajamas, sat at the kitchenette table when a sweating Tanner walked back inside. She had the last two apples out. Tanner’s face in front of her and her face in front of the empty seat.
“Jess,” Tanner said, removing his coat. “Hank—”
“I gathered,” she said, her eyes wet in the dawn glow creeping in through the windows. “I think we should just do this now.”
“What?” Tanner asked, anger coloring his voice. “We need to get flyers together—find Hank.”
“Just sit down,” Jess said.
And he did, in front of the smooth apple curves of Jess’s face. Jess went on, “Hank had somewhere better to be, Tan. Linda, Mr. Noonan, Mackenzie Storm. I’m sure I have something better to do. You too.”
Tanner removed his hat, putting it on the floor. He ran his hand over his head, pulling several loose strands of hair out. “We don’t need to eat them.”
“Of course we do,” Jess said, smirking.
“Do you think we’re burdens on each other?”
Jess nodded. “We should have been apart months ago.”
Both took the other’s apple in hand. They took synchronized bites until the faces sat in their stomachs. They stared at each other with their mouths shaped into small grins—in the growing sunlight—waiting for some sort of clarity. And then, it came. A tiny glimpse. The grins left their face, and they leaned back in their chairs. Jess, in a sudden fit, threw her apple across the room. It burst against the cabinets.
“I was going to do that,” Tanner said, sullen.
“This is everything,” Jess said, looking around the room.
Dennis Dines echoed through the bedroom. “Mackenzie Storm has been found.”
Tanner undressed by his closet. Jess lay in bed, reading. On screen, Channel 8 cut to a woman wearing earthy colors and a natural glow. It took both of them a second to marry the image with the name shown on the bottom of the screen. Roger Jimenez had a microphone up to her. They stood outside of a hotel beside an ornate fountain.
“What made you leave, Mackenzie?” Roger asked, overeager.
Mackenzie Storm spoke in a less pointed and affected tone than in her broadcasts. “I reached a point where I had to ask myself what I was doing with a silly fake name and a dye job.” Her eyes narrowed, “I have something more out here. Not everyone can say that or get a chance like I have now. There are people who have nothing else—whose paths are set.” She tilted her head. “It’s a shame, Roger.”
“This is a pretty nice hotel, though,” Roger said.
Tanner shut the TV off and sat on the edge of the mattress. He put his head back on Jess’s legs, who put her right hand on his shoulder. In his left hand, he had two seeds.
Jess and Tanner needed a planter and some soil.
Tanner promised to pick them up tomorrow after work.
Nick Perilli is a writer and aspiring librarian living in Philadelphia with a dog, a cat and a fiancee who have yet to watch Gremlins 2 with him. Fiction of his can be found in Maudlin House, Five2One Magazine, Empyreome, and elsewhere. He is still not allowed to leave a family member’s house before eating a little something.