by Tarah Scalzo, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE by Halimah Marcus
“Relationships sometimes have themes,” Tarah Scalzo writes in “Orange.” “The theme to this one has always been driving.” It’s true — for most of the story, an unnamed couple in their mid-twenties drives around Southern California, at first looking for a new place to live. In a quaint town called Orange they stroll down Main Street, imagining coaching little league and baking lemon bars. Like a religious revelation, they desire at once to live there. But a move is unlikely: the trappings of love and a happy home are still lives to be imagined, not possessed. They are still playing at love, playing house.
So instead, they decide to get lost. They’re looking for an adventure, they say, but there’s something more they’re seeking: the unlikely comfort of two small bodies lost in an oversize world. The endless possibility, the freedom. In Southern California, however, it’s not so simple: “There are signs everywhere. Signs telling them where they are, even in this unlucky desert country.” And thus, constantly reminded of their location, they pretend in another game: playing lost.
And then the signs stop.
Everything out the window is suddenly strange — but is the strangeness new, or are they just now paying attention? “But the point of going out and getting lost is, of course, to go out and get lost,” the narration reminds, and so they push on, despite their better instincts.
And that’s when they happen upon the emotion of hyper-reality: fear. Once afraid, there is no more pretending, no more playing house and no more playing lost. As readers, we too have been lulled in the passenger seat, trusting Scalzo’s sense of direction, but really, having no idea where she is taking us. I won’t spoil the ride, but I will offer this disclaimer: the destination is a place where everything is in high-focus, grotesque and magnificent, and horribly, painfully real.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
IT’S BEDTIME IN THEIR APARTMENT BY THE OCEAN. She’s lying next to him. He’s reading the newspaper and they’re eating oranges in bed. As he pulls his orange apart, little pieces of it fall down onto his chest.
“Things are falling from my orange,” he says.
“What did you say?” she says.
He doesn’t answer though, just continues to read. He likes to read.
“These are good oranges,” she says. She is in a saucy mood tonight and so does not care if he’s preoccupied. She bought the oranges and she is peeling them and eating their fertile guts. “They’re juicy. It is also much cheaper to buy them from the farmer’s market than from the grocery store.”
“What?” he says.
“Nothing. I was just talking about the oranges.”
He looks right at her and does away with the newspaper and the orange. They are giggle-pusses on the bed now. He digs his fingers into the pockets above her hips. They roll around and roll around until it turns into something else and their clothes are off and he’s inside of her and it’s time to be animals again.
They don’t have much for money, but they seem to be starting a life together. She’s never been pregnant. They are young and attractive. They come from good families. They have strong values, and their love is immortal.
Now, it is the next day. They’re having an argument, driving around the big city streets of Orange County. They have to find a new place to live because the lease is about up on their little apartment by the ocean and they can’t afford to renew. Living near the ocean is expensive, understand. It’s not an easy thing to sustain.
“But we can’t do anything right this minute,” she tells him. “The lease isn’t up till June.” She’s drinking coffee from a paper cup. He’s in the driver’s seat, as usual.
“Well, we have to do something. It’s the simple act of doing,” he says.
“Men always have to be doing. Doing, doing, doing.”
He scrunches his lips and doesn’t look at her. “We’re getting an idea of what things cost,” he says. “We’re doing something.”
Out the window, she sees palm trees fly by. Groomed, clipped, desert: reimagined, like something from a Hollywood film set. She doesn’t say anything else on the matter.
“Hey, you,” he says to her finally. “Look. We’re just driving around here. We’re doing something. It’s an adventure.” Then he shows her his teeth. It’s a petition for peace in this car, and anyway, they both like adventures.
“I guess,” she said. “We haven’t done that in a long time. Had an adventure.”
“We used to have them a lot more.”
“Yes. Yes, oh my god.”
Just then, there is the world’s most gigantic bird of prey, gliding down over the highway, landing in an adjacent field. There is only tumbleweed, bougainvilleas, and it. It has glorious tail feathers and is the color of wheat. It’s got something in its talons, something dead.
“It must be four feet tall!” she says, but he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t care. He’s still staring at the bird while driving sixty on the highway.
“Do you know what kind of bird that is?” she says.
“No,” he says.
“But I thought you knew a lot about birds.”
“I usually do.”
Once a couple years back, they were having Chinese food at a restaurant in Santa Monica. The restaurant had a great red Buddha waterfall, and there she told him all about her insecurities. “I talk too much,” she said. “I am always blabbing on and on.”
He called it diarrhea of the mouth, but he also said, “It’s funny. It’s cute that you notice it and think about it,” and kissed her on the chin. On their way out of the restaurant, they both rubbed the Buddha’s big toe and then drove back to his father’s house where it was the night before Thanksgiving.
She is a fan of football and the Green Bay Packers, and he is a fan of baseball and the San Francisco Giants. The first year they fell in love, the Packers won the Super Bowl and the Giants won the World Series, and a sign like that, she thinks, from God, colors everything. There are all of these expectations now. Maybe it’s too good to be true. She likes sports, mostly because male camaraderie intrigues her. He’s good at sports. She likes men who are fast and good with their hands and comes from a rural upbringing in Wisconsin where these kinds of men are quite typical. She wants men with muscles that come naturally from doing a job, like playing sports or laying concrete or baling hay or swinging a sledge hammer. With any other kind of man, she’s learned, she feels unnatural.
Still though, she asks herself why he loves her. How can he? As if it is a choice, or as if it is just the sum of her physical and mental attributes, like it is a tally that adds up to love, and she wonders why there aren’t more negatives and why he is not so bothered by her, because sometimes, she feels very bothersome.
“Love is a box,” she says now, “only inside of it, there are more boxes. It is a mystery, you know?” She’s been going on a while.
“I wasn’t listening to you,” he says. “Sorry, what?”
They’ve passed out of one town and into another. Or, it seems they have entered something in between. Neither is exactly sure where they are, but suddenly the pavement of the street seems black and brand new, and the sky looks expensive, and on either side of them are hills and foliage licked over with color, like the desert has been washed away with money money money, and now they are in some other universe. High up in the hills, they see the great spires of post-colonial mansions, white castles of happiness with ebullient red doors. They can see just enough of them to know that they exist, just enough to feel uneasy with the hairs standing up on their arms and the backs of their necks.
“I was talking about love like it is a box,” she says.
“A love box?” He raises his heavy, straight eyebrows, and she knows what he’s thinking: to pull over and have sex with her right here and now in this paradise world. Instead, they drive on a little while longer. He turns unusually quiet.
“Do you know where we are?” she says.
“I’m trying to figure that out,” he says.
“You’re always so good at directions.”
“That’s why this is annoying me.”
“It’s beautiful here. Look how beautiful. Are we lost?”
“Who lives here?”
“Old money lives here.”
“Old money?” she says. “What does that mean?”
“You know what it means. It’s families that have had money so long it’s not even money anymore. It just is. That’s old money.”
He doesn’t glance at her as he talks. It’s frustrating, because she doesn’t understand old money. Where she is from, nobody has that kind of money. She was the richest of all her friends growing up, and even her family used hand-me-downs and shopped at the discount stores for Christmas decorations. This concept of money — who had it or who had more of it, even if somebody was dirt-fucking-poor — didn’t register at all.
His family has money. She’s gleaned as much. His family lives in Los Angeles where his dad owns the construction company he and all his brothers work for. It’s a very successful company. But like the houses they build, this money seems to have four walls and a roof, and it’s not mysterious at all. Either way, in California, the world just spins opposite of anything she’s used to. People are prettier and have more money, but she wonders if they’re happy. Happiness means something else here, she’s learning. It’s scary.
“This is another planet,” she says. “Can we leave now?”
“Sure,” he says, and keeps driving.
Then he has some news.
“I’ve decided not to go back to work for my father,” he says.
“What?” she says.
“We’re not moving back to L.A., at least not any time soon.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This has been a big decision for me,” he says and tightens his grip on the steering wheel. “I think it’s right. We’ll stay here and we’ll be okay.”
He continues not looking at her, saying it all like he’s been holding back for quite some time, like it’s taken him a while to come clean. At first, she is not sure what to say. She sits quietly in the passenger seat with her hand on the handle of the car door, ready to pull it and jump out and roll around like a meat sack on the highway. Of course, she would never do this, and it’s only an impression. But she thinks about it anyway. She is not a daring person and is, in fact, often afraid, though always on the move, because sometimes it’s the staying in one place that can get you.
She had originally moved out to Los Angeles under the pretense of broadening her worldview after college — to see Hollywood, meet a movie star, maybe fall in love with somebody rich. She worked for a caterer there, and when the owner retired, was offered a job bartending at a restaurant in Santa Monica. That’s where she met him under the soft glow of paper lanterns, drinking bubbly wine on a busy Friday night, and very soon after, they fell in love. After a few months, they had become serious and decided to move south to Orange County — temporarily, as he had found a two-year gig working on a new subdivision in Irvine, and she, presently unconcerned with roots, thought it might be nice to live near the ocean for a while.
But because of his father’s money and influence, comforts she had not experienced before, the two of them had always planned to move back to L.A. He would become a contractor like his older brother, work for his father, and they would get married and live fine canyon lives. That was the plan. There had never been any question about this before, and she hadn’t given it much thought because at the time, as long as she was with him, where they settled didn’t seem to matter.
But now, in the car, it matters. Suddenly, she becomes upset.
“I want us to have our own life,” he says. “Here.”
“Why not L.A.?”
“Because. I have to do this on my own.”
“Do what?” she says. “I don’t understand.”
“Yes you do,” he says. That’s when he looks at her, to make it count.
“Yes, because we’re doing fine.”
“I know,” she says, “but your job.”
“I will find another job. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“No. I’m not going to fuck it up. Don’t you see?”
She is drawn to the deep, trustworthy sound of his voice and how familiar it is. She reaches over the console to hold his hand. He gives it easily, but it is hard and a little dry. “I see,” she says.
Relationships sometimes have themes. The theme to this one has always been driving. Especially in the beginning, when they first moved to the coast, they loved to take driving adventures — it’s one of the things that bonded them. Together, they are very fond of getting lost while driving in he car. Only it’s always been difficult for them — getting lost. He is canny with directions, and Southern California is simply too populated. Because back in Wisconsin, she knows, it is easy to get lost. All you have to do is get out of the city and into the county. Out in the county, roads disappear. They’re there and then they’re gone. But just like with everything else, California is different. On the coast of California, they are always stumbling back upon the five or the fifty-five, and even the longest, most tangled of roads seem to culminate in the form of great, big corporate strawberry farms or great, big corporate parks with shiny buildings that look like they’re made totally of glass. You go out thinking it’ll be a rush and an ocean breeze, but it is impossible.
They continue to drive. There are still all of the mansions and the hills and the expensive clouds, but now something has changed and the road seems to be older here. Tall, green weeds grow straight out of the concrete. They have these leaves that look like little hands and they’re waving all up and down the double-yellow line. Every once in a while, a car passes them going in the opposite direction, but no one seems to be driving in front or back of them.
“So, where are we?” she says.
“This seems to be going on longer than I thought,” he says.
“Maybe we should pull over.”
“A-ha,” he says finally. They find an intersection. They turn, and they are now in a city called Orange. They park.
Orange is the type of place they recognize. Its downtown is good-natured, doors open, doesn’t judge. There are old people holding hands, and there are children with faces like cherubic peach pies. There is a church on nearly every corner. The cars all stop at the crosswalks and wave pedestrians across. Nobody is in a hurry, but nobody is lazing about either. There aren’t any palm trees. There are maple trees and sycamores. There are valley oaks, blue oaks and black oaks, cottonwoods, aspen trees. She is so sick of palm trees, she thinks, that she could puke. She is so sick of parking lots and freeways and outdoor malls. She is so sick of the dry, flat expanse and how palm trees are just these stupid pillars, holding up the blanched, hot, stupid sky.
“I love it here. It makes me want to bake lemon bars,” she says as they walk down the sidewalk.
“It makes me want to coach Little League,” he says.
“I’ll bring the lemon bars to Little League.”
They find a nice Lutheran church. The doors are open, and inside the pews are empty and the entire place is empty. Everything is happy about this church, familiar even. The stained glass windows color the room with a kind of yellow warmth that can only mean God, and there are flowers everywhere, and up at the front there is this podium carved from wood and banners all filled with Bible verses she doesn’t remember but likes anyway.
They hold hands in the church, good and strong. She wonders what it would be like to have sex right now, in this church. The moment passes. It’s time to leave.
They stop in a real estate office on their way back to the car. It turns out that everything is in their price range, but nothing is available. They meet a young man named Brian who gives them his card. He likes the look of them and says he’ll keep an eye out for openings they can afford.
Driving away, she thinks about how much she would like to have children. She feels pregnant with Jesus, that’s how much she wants children. She likes being in her mid-twenties. She is old enough to feel this way, but she is not so old that she must rush or worry. And she likes Orange.
Even still, as she smoothes her hands down the front of her blouse, she feels the strangest sensation that something is waiting for her, something very bad, and she is worried.
About a year ago, they went to the wedding of a couple they’d known for quite some time. The ceremony was being held at the San Diego Zoo on a rainy day. So before getting dressed in their wedding clothes, they decided to go for a walk around the zoo, get soaked, and let their shoes squish in the puddles. It was a Friday. There were school fieldtrips everywhere, and the children and their teachers, unprepared, huddled beneath awnings and large golf umbrellas at the picnic tables, trying to watch the animals from afar. But there was something strange going on in the cages that day. The animals weren’t hiding from the rain like maybe they normally would and instead, seemed to be fueled by it, or driven mad. They yowled and scratched and paced. They roared. The children would point. “I didn’t think cats liked the rain,” she heard one little girl say to her teacher who just looked in disbelief.
The snow leopard in the zoo was especially memorable. She stood alone on her precipice, crying into the rain from inside the glass cages, making an unholy sound of sorrow. This great, magnificent creature cried the whole time they were there. With her fangs long and her blue eyes open, she stopped only once to flicker her pink tongue at the raindrops, and then she took a big breath and started again.
He told her that he’d read recently about a snow leopard that had died at this particular zoo. “A male,” he said. She didn’t say anything. He was always reading. A plaque said that this female snow leopard’s name was Alexa. Alexa and her mate, but her mate was dead, and his name was off the plaque. How did the mate go, she thought, and what was his name? Perhaps he died of sadness. Boxed in, tied down. Maybe he killed himself. Or maybe it was just disease. In any case, he was dead, and Alexa was alone. She watched Alexa the snow leopard cry until she could not take it anymore, thinking about how, in documentaries, she’d learned that snow leopards in the wild are solitary cats. The females hunt and live and raise their young alone, and they are strong and wise, and it is admirable, but in captivity, they are monogamous. They find love. She wondered briefly if maybe the behavior in the zoo that day had something to do with Alexa’s pain. Everybody knows that a snow leopard is magical. Maybe her tears had a special power that transmitted itself into the sky and turned into rain like in some kind of myth.
The zoo wedding was lovely, despite the weather. While the bride and groom got married beneath a great, big cartoonish umbrella, the guests sat in black-and-white-striped folding chairs with red tulle puffs tied to the backs, and there was a great vista in the distance, and through an archway of trees, you could see four or five giraffes loitering with their long necks pointed up into the air and fat, black tongues flapping at the raindrops. The animals that day were so spectacular they made the national news. A lot of scientists talked about it. “Twitterpation,” one of them said. The full moon, said another. But everyone forgot after a while, and then there was a new phenomenon, a new thing to read about in the morning paper. Either way, these things happened. They are real. This is what he told her the night of the wedding, as they were lying naked in the hotel bed post-sex, and she was combing her fingers through his chest hair and asking him to explain to her wild animals running around in their cages, acting like humans.
Now, as they drive away from Orange, he says, “I don’t want to leave this place. I’m worried that we’ll come back one day and it’ll all be gone.”
“Me, too,” she says. She thinks living in Orange would be just as fine as living near the ocean, or in the desert, or anywhere else for that matter. Just as fine.
They drive a little while longer. The radio is off and the car is quiet.
“I want to get lost,” he says. He takes a turn onto a road she does not recognize. “Let’s go on an adventure. What do we have to do today?”
“Nothing,” she says. She reaches across the console and puts her hand on his knee. She tests the waters. They are okay. The waters are good.
Where they’re driving, it’s beautiful, a major highway down the throat of two canyons. It’s late afternoon and so the sun is getting weaker in the sky. She sees signs everywhere. There are lots of cars around. She sees signs that tell them they’re going south, headed toward San Diego. She sees signs for the Marine Corps base. She knows there is a nuclear power plant, too, further down this way with two great, spherical containments that look like boobs. She hates to have it nearby. The base frightens her, too. Sometimes, helicopters come and land so close to the freeway that there’s a standstill due to dust. But for now, it’s just grass fields and canyons, more hills, power lines. It looks empty and endless, feral in its immensity, and she’s certain there must be army men rooting around in the greenery, playing war games.
“I kind of have to pee,” she says.
He turns off the highway and now they’re taking what seems to be a minor exit, but still, nothing in Southern California is ever small. Everything is big and giant and important.
“Do you know where this exit goes?” she says.
“No. That’s the point.”
“It’s impossible to get lost here,” she says. “Everything leads to something else. Nothing ever just ends and there is never just a mysterious fork in the road.”
“I know,” he says. “It’s a disappointment.”
They get off on the mystery exit, but even though she’s not sure where they are, everything still looks familiar, as she thought it would. Palm trees, canyons, wildflowers, all growing up and down everything like infectious diseases.
After a while, he tells her a joke he heard at work. It’s a dirty joke about a girl who has no arms or legs and gets abandoned on a beach towel next to the ocean.
“Oh my god,” she says. They have a good, long laugh from their bellies. “Seriously, pull over.”
They stop at this gas station without a name. The whole thing feels abandoned, but the glass door at the front is open and she can see a man at the counter, reading a magazine, smoking a cigarette. All around them, things do seem emptier than normal, but this usually just means they’ve gotten further away from the ocean.
They go to their different bathrooms. Alone, she looks at the brown door on the bathroom stall. The bathroom is dirty. There are black thumbprints on the walls, and there are pricker weeds growing up out of the floor, and she wonders what kind of place this is. She tries instead to think of their place, the apartment by the ocean where the orchid needs to be watered and the ceramic bowl of oranges refilled. She thinks of the glowing tennis courts outside, the pale curtains she sewed herself, and the ocean, too, and how she’s come so far, and now it is truly hers. She washes her hands in the bathroom sink. Then, in front of the mirror, she traces a finger across her collarbone and thinks of the church in Orange, how it was pretty there.
Outside of the gas station then, she has a strange interaction with a drunk person. This man is old enough that she feels sorry: sorry for his sorry state. He’s not too old, however, to be good-looking. He’s like a burnt up old cowboy. He’s wearing faded jeans and cowboy boots and his tee shirt is a discolored white with big, yellow pits. He’s wearing a cowboy hat, too. It’s all very authentic. He’s drinking from a paper bag and leaning against the building right next to the open glass door.
“Hello,” says the cowboy.
What worries her is that he wasn’t there before. Wherever he came from, it had to be inside the gas station, but he did not look like the man who had been smoking and reading the paper inside. He looked like a different man.
“I didn’t see you here before,” she says.
“I was out back, tying up my horse.”
She thinks this is wrong. She looks around and doesn’t see or hear any horse.
“Looking for your husband?” he says.
“Excuse me?” she says.
“Your husband. He went inside.”
She doesn’t give an answer. She just stares at him. His face is very brown underneath the brim of that hat.
“Rough terrain around here,” he says. “You don’t want to be going it alone.” Then he winks his papery eyelid at her. “Don’t fret,” says the old, drunk cowboy. “Don’t be worried, little lady. He’s coming right out.”
“I’m not worried,” she says. She goes to sit in the car and wait.
When he finally comes out and gets into the car, she says, “Don’t leave me alone like that again.”
“What do you mean?” he starts the car and then opens the bottle of iced tea he bought at the gas station. He also bought two oranges. They’re in her lap in a plastic bag.
“That man is strange.”
He looks over to the old drunk cowboy who is still leaning, looking off at something else.
“Huh. I didn’t see him before. He looks like a rancher.”
“A rancher? Oh, god. Let’s just go.”
“Did something happen?”
“Nothing happened. Just — strange men. That’s all.”
They drive away and she folds her arms together across her stomach. She sits like that for a while.
“What’s wrong?” he says finally.
“Where are we going?”
“Jesus Christ. When did this happen?”
“Do you know where we are?”
“Yes. Take it easy.”
There are signs everywhere. Signs telling them where they are, even in this unlucky desert country. There are signs for Carlsbad, San Diego. Even for like Palm Springs and certainly Los Angeles, there are signs. Everything is a controlled, perfect thing. She wonders where the sign is that tells her how to get all the way back to Wisconsin: wisconsin 2000 mi. She would not be surprised.
“This is stupid,” she says. “This whole drive is stupid. Let’s just go home.”
“What happened? Is this about L.A.?”
“No,” she says. “Let’s just go home.”
He shrugs his shoulders in this way that he does when she’s defied him, and he’s shutting her out because he doesn’t like it. They sit for a long time, driving, and sun is lower and lower and the day has almost washed out of the sky completely.
“Maybe we can go back to Orange,” she says, “and find a bar.” It feels wrong to her, trying to get lost when there are signs everywhere. “Let’s go to the zoo,” she says.
He turns the knob for the radio, but then turns it back. “God, no,” he says. “That place gives me the creeps.”
Soon, it is twilight. The sky is changing in funny, purple ways. They don’t go back to Orange and they don’t go home and they don’t go to the zoo. They drive for a while down a road off the mystery exit.
“Hey,” he says, trying to get her attention. “What’s going on?”
She doesn’t answer. She’s looking out the window. The signs, she notices, have stopped. “What happened to all the signs?” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s just a bunch of empty roads, canyons everywhere and yellow flowers. There are no signs anywhere to tell us where we’re going. There are always signs. There’s nothing but goddam signs forever, and now there are no signs?”
“We’ve been driving a while,” he says. “We’ll find some signs.” He reaches over and squeezes her knee. It tickles, but she doesn’t move.
“The road is bumpy, too,” she says.
“Yeah, I noticed that.”
“It’s real bumpy out here, and no signs.”
“Just relax,” he says.
She grabs his hand and brings it to her mouth. She kisses the knuckles. She is thinking about the cowboy at the gas station. She’s known people with farms in the Midwest, and she’s met ranchers from Northern California and even Texas. She’s read Westerns, too, about true cowboys. They all had Colt Forty-Fours and, every once in a while, a touch of jaundice or thorns in their ankles. Growing up, she often dreamed of being rescued by a cowboy and then excising the thorn from his ankle.
But this cowboy, at the gas station, he was different. He said something she didn’t like. Something about rough terrain.
“Are you sure nothing happened with the rancher at the gas station?” He takes his hand away from her knee and puts it back on the wheel.
“I’m sure. Why?”
“You just seem weird.”
“It’s weird around here.”
So they start talking about maybe turning around.
“We haven’t seen any other cars in a while,” she says. “Plus, the canyons are changing. It’s getting flatter, with grass.”
“Maybe the grass is a good thing,” he says. Then he looks at the clock.
“It’s late,” she says.
But the point of going out and getting lost is, of course, to go out and get lost.
“I guess we’re lost,” she says.
“I guess we are.”
They look at each other, because they’re not sure what to do next. It’s getting darker now, and the darkness for her makes everything seem unpredictable.
After a while, he flips on the brights. “There’s something up there,” he says, squinting at the windshield. “About a mile up. Another gas station, maybe. We’ll check it out.” They keep driving. The landscape keeps changing: first grass, then fields of white flowers that look chilly with the moon.
“You saw a gas station?” she says.
“It looked like some sort of light, or a structure. I thought I saw a building. You didn’t see it?”
“There’s nothing here,” she says. “It’s just backcountry.”
A little while later, driving on the same narrow road far away from the highway, they come upon a great field of tulips. It is on the right side of the road. On the left, there are the grass fields and some canyons, but the white flowers have faded away. The tulip field is huge and magnificent. The petals are visible in the moonlight. They’re all kinds of luscious colors.
“That’s amazing,” she says.
“I think I’ve read about this,” he says. “But maybe not. I can’t remember.”
“How the tulips bloom here in spring. Although I feel like we’re too far from the ocean for that.”
“This is huge,” she says. “This must be some kind of tourist attraction.”
He pulls over to the side of the road then and puts the car in park.
“What are we doing?
“We’re going in.”
She is hesitant at first, but then it seems okay. “Should I bring these?” She holds up the bag of oranges.
“Sure,” he says. “Why not?”
They walk. There is no one around but them. There is a flat, grass lawn between the road and the tulips. On the sides of them: lawn, behind them: emptiness, before them: tulips. They’re holding hands.
She clears her throat when they get too close. There is a tall, barbed wire fence. The tulips are just on the other side. She can see them rustling in the breeze. It is gentle and the night is cool. The tulips, right here, way out there, so many of them, tulips moving and breathing like a single, spectacular organism in the world. They look hungry.
“What the hell?” he says. “You can’t see this fence from the road.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Let’s walk along it for a while. Maybe there will be an opening, or a gate.”
He squeezes her hand tighter as they start to walk along the fence, away from the car. She has the bag of oranges in her other hand. She’s worried by the fence, worried they’ll get caught trespassing, or murdered by alert dogs, but she follows him anyway.
When they finally find an opening in the fence they can’t see the car anymore. The opening is just a cut in the fence about five feet tall. Part of it’s been peeled back, and the metal curls and rusts. There’s just enough room for a human body to squeeze through. It looks like it’s been a long time since the cut was made, and like it was made from the other side.
“Just for a little while,” he says, looking at her, reassuring, and she sees that he can sense her concern. It’s so dark now, they’re lit only by the moon, which, on the tulips, casts a romantic glow. “We’ll just go in, walk around for a quick minute, and then we’ll leave. Okay?”
He goes first. After getting through, he holds out his hand to guide her. She steps into the tulips. They grow in rows that come up to her knees. Each row is made of many colors, and there seems to be no pattern or conceit. There are red tulips, bright pink, baby pink, orange, white, a deep, deep purple, yellow, a kind of melon color, fuchsia. The breeze is enough so that she can hear them all rustling up against each other and moving back and forth. She cannot see to the end of it either. Tulips to the horizon: wet, fat tulips. It is both terrifying and the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.
They walk through the tulip grove until the fence is just a line in the distance. Little sprinklers go off all around them, and the water soaks through the bottoms of their pants, seeps into their shoes, and dampens their toes. There are thousands of stars in the sky.
The oranges dangle by her side, tapping her on her knees and calves. She stops being afraid then, hates that she was ever afraid, that she’s ever been angry or unhappy, or dissatisfied for even one moment in her life with him.
“Can we have the oranges now?” she says.
“Wait,” he says. He’s looking just ahead of them. There is fear in his voice. “Stop right now.”
She stops, holding the bag of oranges out in front. “What’s wrong?”
He shakes his head. He kneels down slowly, pushes his hands into the tulips, moving them aside. Down in the ground is something small, about the size of a grapefruit. It’s like some kind of alien, metal flower. It’s got little arms that reach out, all around. Really little arms, like cilia, but again, metal. She can see it barely in the moonlight but not enough. “What is that?” she gets down to be near to him. “A sprinkler?”
“No,” he says. “Get back.”
She stands up and doesn’t know what to do. “What is it?” she keeps saying. “What the fuck is that thing?”
He stands up slowly. He’s got his hands out in front of him like some sort of peace offering. She’s never seen him so scared in her life. “It’s a landmine,” he says.
“It is. I know it is.”
“How the hell — ”
“Stray mines. Or, maybe there’s a whole field of them here. Maybe the military base. I’m not sure.”
They stand for a minute in perfect silence.
Then he says, “Give me one of the oranges.”
She reaches into the back and hands him one of the two oranges. He stands up straight and looks way out into the distance of the tulip field. “Get down,” he says. He doesn’t yell it like in the movies. He merely says it, gently.
He pulls his arm back and then he throws the orange like a baseball, throws it as far as he possibly can, she can tell. He is good at sports. He is strong. They get down.
There’s a small boom. It makes her think of fireworks.
They’re crouching down in the tulips, him and her. The tulips brush her eyelashes and the tip of her nose, the live wet things. She shuts her eyes against them for only a moment. Alien, sick tulips! He holds her. There’s just a poof of smoke in the distance now and dust and dirt and petals in the air, pieces of the orange. It’s only a poof, and all at once the world is a very different place. He tucks her head down into his chest.
“Jesus Christ,” he says.
She doesn’t say anything.
He’s shaking his head. She can feel it. He’s working something out in his brain, about how he got them here, how he can get them out. He lets her go and stands up then, and she stands with him. Knee-high in the tulips, they look out, way out there to where the orange landed, maybe sixty yards away.
“Baby,” she says finally. “Where are we?”
He’s got her hand and holds it tight. Then he lets it go and puts his arms around her and holds her like that instead. “I don’t know,” he says as they look out at the tulips. “Just stand still.”
About the Author
Tarah Scalzo is a graduate of UC Irvine’s MFA program in fiction. Her stories can be found in the Santa Monica Review, Timber, and Roar Magazine. She is originally from Wisconsin.