The Other Side
Alexandra Hemrick is a former Visual Arts Instructor from Atlanta, GA who temporarily resides in Tel Aviv, Israel with her husband and daughter. Her work has appeared in Fanzine and her fiction in Comb Magazine. Find more from Hemrick on her blog: https://originaltitle.wordpress.com/
The answer to our question, repeated every fifteen minutes or so over the past five hours, came in the form of a sweaty and lumpier-than-usual version of our friend Dev. I never, before this night, had the opportunity to say that a door busted open, but in this case, it did. Hinges jangled on loose screws in the door’s wake. There he was: face blotched from heavy drinking combined with physical exertion, doubled over, and heaving breaths asthmatically in the door frame like a terribly indiscreet killer come to hack us into bits- right after he caught his breath. The interior light of the double-wide illuminated the tall, hulking figure we’d been anxiously awaiting against the night sky and a sound came out of his mouth, slowly increasing in volume as the level of oxygen within his lungs reached homeostasis. It took us a few minutes to discern what it was exactly. “Guys… guys… guys… GUYS!” He couldn’t finish the sentence, but he had our attention.
Before we could fully comprehend his actions, he took out his pocket knife, one which we were very familiar with at this point because he made an effort to use it for just about everything he could think of short of brushing his teeth (although, he did use it as a toothpick and not because he needed one, just to make the point that he could employ his brand new and trusty knife in this way) and dragged it across his lumpy abdomen in a manner that looked much like the cut a samurai would make to disembowel himself during seppuku. We were speechless. Then the glowing orbs thudded to the ground, first a few at a time and then all at once, rolling and bouncing along the linoleum. He subsequently shook loose a few more which had been stowed in each pant leg.
It was clear he’d just come from doing the exact thing we’d been warned against doing all week, and I couldn’t blame him. Those orange globes, like dappled sunshine scattered amongst leafy groves, had taunted us all week. Every ride in the car down desolate stretches of Florida asphalt, lined only by lush green trees with drooping branches suspending perfect spheres, was a reminder of their nectarous flesh and impenetrable location within the fortress of some pretty serious fencing. So plentiful were they that they grew in bunches like enormous grapes on a vine. And sure, we could have gone to the store to buy some, but you know how they are there, wasting away under fake thundershowers, groped by every sticky-handed child and persnickety shopper.
“Tell us that you bought those in the grocery store and just happened to stuff them inside your clothes for fun.”
“How did you even…?”
“Where did you get them?”
“Should we close the curtains? What if someone saw you…?” and so on. We asked such questions and more in an effort to understand the actions over the past four hours that had brought us this delightful treat and how Dev escaped unscathed. But the truth was we were pissed. Not because he had likely just committed some count of felony, but because he had left us with ourselves trying to make children’s board games, several rounds of insinuative charades (in which our dirty laundry with one another was not-so-subtly aired), and two semi-full handles of vodka and rum into a fun evening. But despite our bitter jealousy, we went about reviving him so we could get the full story.
Rose got the tallest glass she could find out of one of the dingy cupboards, filled it high with cubes from the ice tray and poured him his drink (and we all knew what it was because we subconsciously drank whatever he was drinking whether we really wanted to or not, which was three-fourths glass of rum, one-fourth Coke, and a wedge of lime). Talia opened a fresh bag of Xtra Cheese Spiral Nachoritos we had bought in bulk the day before because it was on clearance and wafted it under his nose as if it were smelling salts before placing it in his hands. And I gave him my seat because I couldn’t think of anything else he needed.
The guys pretended they were doing something useful, but really they were just waiting for us to ask the right questions so we could figure out how he managed the caper. Ted and Leo inspected the oranges like managers on a new palette of produce, and Ned peeked out the window from behind the curtain (completely unnecessarily, and mostly for show because the insufficient swath of fabric barely covered half the glass), because he half-expected to see a trail of cop cars kicking up dust behind Dev’s shoeprints leading straight to our door.
“Guys, that was….I just….What a fucking rush!” Dev said. He chewed between thoughts, chips always halfway to his mouth, drink in hand, to our baited breath.
“When did you even leave? We were all talking about what we were going to do tonight and you were just gone,” Talia said. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in braided pigtails, still wearing her bathing suit from earlier, she could have been mistaken for a petulant teenager whining of boredom on a twelve hour car ride.
“I don’t know,” Dev said, but we had a feeling he did know. He knew, but didn’t want to say and inwardly we played back the stupidity of our back and forth over the evening plans and how even then we’d known for the fifth night in a row we were just going to give up, drink in the trailer, our self-imposed cage, and say things we would later regret. “We were all thinking about it, and I just wanted to take one. To see if I could.” Talia, Rose, and I looked at the dots of orange lining the floor like so many pieces of scattered popcorn spilled from the bag in a moment of excitement with eyebrows raised as if to say, “One?”
“So, how did you get there? It’s miles to even get to an actual paved road,” I said.
“Sure, first I was just smoking a cigarette outside and then I started walking around and just kept walking. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of a fence wondering how to get on the other side.”
“It had to be at least five miles, maybe more,” Ned said. This was the most exciting thing that had happened in a week, and we were in denial about how depressing that was.
“Yeah, it was a lot, but it didn’t feel like a lot once I got there,” Dev said, annoyed that we were hurrying along his moment of triumph and its telling which he clearly intended to stretch out as long as possible. “Okay, so I’m standing outside this fence when I hear this scratching a couple yards away.”
“What do you mean scratching?” Rose asks.
“Like an animal digging dirt. So I’m thinking, alright, this sucker is doing all the work for me. I think it was a possum or some shit. No, no, what’s that one with the shell and the skinny tail?”
“…an armadillo?” Leo said over a pile of oranges arranged in a line by size.
“That’s the one. Well, obviously it wasn’t going to dig a hole large enough for me to climb under the fence, but it dug up enough that I could snip it up from the bottom with the clipper in my pocket knife and pull both sides wide enough to squeeze through.”
“You cut the fence? Dev, that’s probably the most illegal thing you did,” Ted said.
“Possibly. So, I get in and first I just walk around. How many chances do you get to just walk around a forest of oranges? Probably not many, and this was mine. I can’t lie. It was nice. Just me and the oranges. Then I realized, shite! I don’t have any bags and of course I needed more than one because at this point just taking a single orange seemed stupid since I was surrounded by them and we had all been wanting them,” Dev said, and we considered his generosity, but mostly we were still jealous because he had such a nice time alone with those oranges, and we had been arguing about which stupid board game to play.
To be fair, it wasn’t just the boredom; it was the fact that when more than two couples are stuck together for large chunks of time, dysfunction emerges. Without anything having been explicitly stated on any of the following matters, it became clear during the week that Ted wanted Talia to do some sexual shit she didn’t want to do because they were on vacation and in his mind this was license to ask for new and exciting things from her; Leo and Rose were still sore over their “Lists of Acceptable Slips,” of which the names on each had surprised the other because they had forgotten to say it could only be comprised of celebrities, as is typical, and instead they listed people they actually knew; Ned and I were on the outs. Everyone knew this but us. We didn’t realize it then, but it had been a month since we’d had sex, and we were on vacation. We slept in the same bed and everything, but—and again, we didn’t really think about it at the time—we didn’t even say a word to each other before we fell asleep. So even though the others had their problems, we were the most messed up and yet we thought, because none of our problems were obvious to us, that we were the most functional couple in the group.
Anyway, this was why we needed Dev desperately. He was supposed to have brought a date, but she cancelled at the last minute and we were glad because we wanted him here the way we knew him: unattached and fun. As the one-man island on this trip, he was our vacation from the vacation. In a way, we all flirted with him, even the guys, because he was free and that freedom was something we all craved. There were times when we went to the bowling alley just to do something, and under the false light show of a projection screen during “cosmic” hour, we’d all coerce him to talk to this local girl or that. We’d give him tips and bite our nails like a mother watching her son leave for prom as he used whatever line we’d given him waiting to see if it’d work. Or times when our significant other would go to sleep and we’d stay up with Dev and ask him why he was still single and give him advice, talking about our own relationship as if it were some kind of bar to be reached, yet what we really wanted was to live vicariously through him, to use his singledom for him for things we all wanted for ourselves in our secret minds.
“Were you worried you would get caught?” asked Talia, sticking her hand out tentatively for a handful of spiraled, cheesy Nachoritos. Ted rolled his eyes because this particular flavor of Nachorito led to after-breath that definitely did not set the mood for an evening in which they would engage in the sorts of things he had proposed, but who was he kidding? He would have taken whatever he could get.
“I guess I should have been, but it was like eighth grade with Ellen Gardner,” he said and though none of us had known Dev in eighth grade or any of high school for that matter, we all knew about Ellen Gardner. Few things were actually “like with Ellen Gardner” because the story really wasn’t applicable to that many situations in life. He used it profusely anyway.
In the years we’d known him, Dev had never had a girlfriend. Regardless, he was very fond of retelling the story of Ellen Gardner who’d he’d asked out in sixth grade via a folded strip of notebook paper complete with boxes in which she could select her response. She’d rejected him. He spent the next two and a half years oogling the plump, fleshy contents of her C-cups (which were the primary reason he’d asked her out in the first place; she was an early bloomer) and studying her every move. By the last semester of eighth grade, he had finally hit a groove puberty-wise (for the moment at least) and was suddenly the most attractive male in all of his classes (but that’s not what made him interesting to the ladies. He says it was the fact that he’d stopped looking at the girls in his class as plates holding the spongy mounds he so wanted to touch for the first time and started getting to know them as people).
At a party a few weeks later, Ellen had flashed him during seven minutes in heaven without him even having to coerce her, and when he grabbed onto that softest of skin and lightly pinched her tiny pink nipples, he (or so he claims) suddenly had the epiphany that if she had said yes initially, the experience he was having at that moment wouldn’t have been as extraordinary because he had gotten to know her over those two and a half years and realized she was so much more than those two pieces of flesh in his hands. Anyway, Ellen’s dad had come down right at the moment when his hands were figuratively in the upstairs cookie jar of his darling daughter, and he’d boxed Dev’s ears so hard he couldn’t hear for two days. Ellen was moved to another school after that and all communication was lost, but he said he’d have done it again in a heartbeat because he felt as if he and Ellen finally understood each other in that closet, and the risk was worth the reward.
“But what about the bags? Clearly you found some,” Rose said. Leo, who’d now organized the fruit not only by size, but also by shade of orange, glared at her because Dev had been first on her list, and he preferred if she just didn’t talk to him at all for the rest of the week.
“I left, walked to the corner store, bought a few sodas and snacks and then went back in.”
“Seriously?” Leo asked.
“Sure, why not? No one had seen me yet. So I ate my snacks, drank my drinks, gathered up my oranges, stuffed them in my shirt and down my pants and walked back. Here I am.”
We let the crickets talk for a moment. Giant dragonflies danced around the lightbulbs where other insects congregated, waiting to pounce on their light-seeking prey. Leo had abandoned his categorization of oranges in order to use them instead to build the Great Pyramids of the Fourth Double-wide within four miles. I considered why we were here, in the middle of Nowhere, Florida far from the sandy beaches we had envisioned for this trip. Mainly, we were all broke, but mostly it was because Ned was supposed to arrange the trip and as usual, he had procrastinated until the last minute (fully knowing that all I had wanted to do for the past year was go to the beach) when any reasonable beachfront condos or hotel rooms were unavailable or selling-organs-expensive. We had not, any of us, been willing to part with any organs.
Abandoning the trip altogether would have been the better option, but Dev mentioned that he had a friend who was going to the beach that week and said we could stay at his house if we just wanted to go somewhere and do something. Though his trailer defied our stereotypical notion of what a mobile home actually looked like within and his land was beautiful, though swarmed with enormous mosquitos, it was no beach. The town, consisting of one bowling alley, one dilapidated bar, one McDonalds, and one Piggly Wiggly was a fifteen to twenty minute drive away and the beach an hour away. Each day, by the time we had all given our orders for massive amounts of hamburgers to recover from our hangovers, had eaten and then had recovered, it was already mid-day. When we’d all finally gotten ready for the beach, it was after noon, and no one wanted to drive an hour only to get to the beach after the peak of sun was over so we just said fuck it and sunned on the lawn outside the trailer instead, disappointed in ourselves for not getting our shit together again. Then we’d drink just to entertain ourselves and repeat the process.
“What are we going to do with them?” I asked Dev and then immediately everyone except Dev started to voice their opinions.
Rose wanted to make orange-infused vodka and rum. We all pointed out that we didn’t have any sort of container to do this in and she pointed to her screw-top water bottle and said, “It’s like a jar right?” We explained that the acidity of the citrus would react with the plastic and probably give us some kind of cancer, and she relented. Ned, ever the party pooper, begged Dev to return them so we could leave this place without warrants. We rolled our eyes. Ted unenthusiastically suggested we just eat them and though this seemed the obvious choice, it was too anti-climactic an ending for these jewels skillfully pilfered from the oases beside the highway. Having been the unofficial chefs for the week, Talia and I looked online to find some recipes to cook it into every meal (citrus glazed steaks, orange marmalade, orange flavored pound cake) but that, too, felt lackluster, and we didn’t have the money for such gourmet fare. In the end, we went with Leo’s advice which was, “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything at all.” No one noticed that Dev had walked outside half an hour ago. It was about three-thirty in the morning so everyone decided to go to sleep. We made a plan to finally make it to the beach the next day which would ultimately fail like all of our other plans.
I hadn’t been able to fall asleep. Something was troubling me, and I couldn’t quite figure it out exactly. I kept imagining myself at the fence, but instead of an armadillo helping me, there was an alligator chomping his jaws. It didn’t move any closer though, just sat there, lazy, seemingly unthreatening, chomping away as if to say, I dare you to try. I couldn’t see what was on the other side, but I wanted it.
At four there was a knock at the door, polite, yet firm: rap, rappity, rap. Ned was in a coma so I got up, threw some pants on and walked into the living room. Slumped in the recliner, the same spot I had given him earlier, eyes red, face still blotchy, was Dev. He had his flask in one hand and an orange impaled on his pocket knife in the other. He hadn’t even remotely made an attempt to move towards the door.
“Who do you think it is?” I whispered as I ducked under the window to get to his seat.
“You know who it is. They found me,” he said. The sparkle, the rush, the excitement that had effervesced out of him earlier in his triumph was gone and had been replaced by an unfamiliar face, and in that face I recognized something.
“No, you said there’s no way. No one saw you.” I tried to be reassuring. I had doubted Dev even actually stole the oranges and thought it might have just been a prank, that he’d bought them all, or he’d somehow found them while walking around, but I went along with it anyway.
“They must have. Who the hell else would be out here knocking on this door at this time of night?”
“A serial killer?” I said and instantly regretted it because now I was terrified at that possibility, but I shoved it to the back of my mind and reasoned, “No, even if they’d seen you, they would have had to follow you, and they would have been here two hours ago.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“Let’s hide the oranges just in case,” I said. We went about stowing them in cupboards as silently as possible on our hands and knees where we couldn’t be seen through the tiny window on the door. We knew if the others woke up it would become a frantic, discombobulated effort in which they would argue over what to do and nothing productive would actually get done. Out of everyone, Dev and I had been friends the longest and there was something nice about it just being the two of us again without those ninnies offering their this’s and that’s.
“Leave one on the counter for show. It will be more suspicious if there’s a complete lack of oranges. Having one out makes it seem casual, like we have nothing to hide,” Dev said and I had to disagree, but at this point the knocking was threatening to wake up the others so I took the murdered orange off of his knife and placed it on the counter, juice slowly oozing onto the laminate countertop.
Before I opened the door, I looked from a side window to make sure there wasn’t a masked face on the other side holding a scythe and instead saw a silver fox wearing a button down, holding a clipboard. The fact that he wasn’t obviously a serial killer didn’t calm my fears because after all, white men are usually the culprits and he could just as likely be a serial killer, but in the dark behind him were several muscular men with legs shoulder-width apart and hands clasped in front of them wearing all black. They seemed to be waiting for orders from the head honcho as to what actions to take next. Serial killers usually don’t work with an entourage and they didn’t appear to be the police, so that was promising at least.
“Um, hello? It’s four in the morning, you know that right?” I opened the door rubbing my eyes as if I had just woken up.
“Sorry to wake you ma’am. I’m looking for Devon Ray Porter.”
“I have no idea who that is. Who are you?” We had agreed Dev should hide.
“Mr. DeLand. I’m here to collect my stolen property as stipulated by law that I can as a farmer in this state.”
“Ok, well I don’t know who this guy is and we don’t have your property,” I said, careful not to mention oranges as he had not yet stated the exact type of property stolen.
He walked onto the threshold, but didn’t cross it. I got the feeling that though he might have the legal authority to reclaim his property, he didn’t have the right to enter mine which gave me a momentary sense of safety for Dev and our oranges. Regardless, he was at once in my personal space looking down on me. “Listen, ma’am, my security team caught him on camera cutting my fence, trespassing and stealing around 30 to 40 oranges.” He flips the clipboard in my face and shows me the camera stills with the times. Dev had clearly managed to trespass the property of the most fanatical farmer in Florida.
“You came all the way out here over 40 oranges? What is that like $12.00? What kind of farmer even has a security team?” I was adamant in my persistence not to acknowledge I knew Dev or to be threatened by his patronizing approach. The afterglow of the boozing during the evening probably didn’t hurt to boost my confidence either.
“Ma’am, I’m doing your friend a service here, by not getting the cops involved, okay? First of all, citrus crops are seriously in danger due to a disease we call greening, and every day some kid thinks they can steal my new trees or a bunch of oranges to show off, so any crop is valuable to me. Second of all, this could be a felony charge.” He pauses to let the words “felony charge,” sink in and they do. “You should also know this isn’t the first time he’s been onto my property and taken a few oranges, we’ve since found in looking back through the tapes,” he said all of this in a lowered voice as if the wall had suddenly become transparent and he could see Dev listening to everything he was saying. Then, putting his face to my ear, he whispered in it, “I don’t know if you know this either, but he already has a few warrants out for his arrest in Florida.” He flipped to a page showing Dev’s outstanding warrant status.
I forgot my ruse, shocked by this new information. For some reason I thought of the darkest possibilities, though he’s never given any of us any reason to think he was a criminal, before tonight of course, and even that was more for fun than anything. Maybe I should have been more skeptical of this overly protective farmer. Maybe I should have asked for ID or opened a law book to check his facts, but something told me that this guy wouldn’t come all the way out here with a bunch of beefed up security guys wearing all black waiting at the ready to do some commando recovery mission just for kicks in the middle of the night.
I whispered back, standing on my tiptoes to reach his ear, “What’re they for?”
“I don’t know. I was only able to find out his warrant status. We’ll let your friend go. He didn’t steal any actual trees so we don’t have time to get involved in his legal troubles over a few oranges, but we’ve got to set a precedent that we don’t tolerate stealing on our property. Just give us the oranges. You’ll be doing your friend a favor,” he said in a normal voice and then conspiratorially again, “Unless you have reason to believe he’s dangerous and want us to turn him into the police.”
For a moment I was unsure what to do. Ned would surely say to turn him in. He doesn’t believe in honor among thieves. “Just give me a second, alright.”
“One minute. Any more and we’re calling the cops.”
“Fine,” I pushed him out of the threshold and closed the door. There was no doubt in my mind that there’d be a completely Dev-like explanation for all of this and that maybe it was just an elaborate prank on his part. I pocketed two oranges on the sly and bagged the rest up. Dev peeked out from behind the door as I was about to open the door and nodded his head silently, defeated, giving me the okay.
I passed off the oranges, the ones I knew about, at least, in plastic bags with hands up as if this was some sort of hostage exchange and went back inside. I waited for the headlights of their black SUV to pull out of the long dirt drive and then dragged Dev outside.
“What the fuck, Dev?”
He looked relieved. “What? We’re cool. Easy peasy. I took the oranges and now the oranges have gone back home.”
“No, you know what I’m talking about. This isn’t the first time. And you’re wanted? For what? Explain yourself. I feel like I’m harboring a fugitive or something.”
“Oh. The warrants. It’s nothing bad.”
“Nothing bad? Right now I’m imagining you’re a murderer on the loose or something, so what is it?”
“Really?” He seemed genuinely hurt even though I was hardly serious. “Fine. Don’t laugh, alright?” I waited, hypothesizing what sort of antics he’d committed that could potentially cause me to laugh. Minor drunken disorderly? Public indecency by mooning cars on the highway? “It has to do with Ellen Gardner.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I was shocked and not because this was his answer, but because a part of me was jealous; a part of me hated every time he told that story.
“No, really this time. She goes to Stetson. I’ve been parking outside her dorm one weekend a month, sneaking in after someone swipes their card and leaving oranges by her door.”
“So, what? You’re wanted for stalking?”
“No, no, I wish,” he said. I gave him a look. “Ok, that sounds weird, I get that. No, if it were for stalking, that would mean she acknowledged me in some way and knew my name to tell the cops, but I walked past her a bunch of times and there wasn’t even a glimmer of recognition. I finally went up to her in a coffee shop and introduced myself and it was just this blank stare. Nothing. I could see she was weirded out. I was gonna do one last delivery of oranges just as a goodbye. The warrants are for outstanding parking tickets.”
“Dev, this is not normal behavior. You gotta let go of this chick. It was seven minutes in middle school. We’re practically real adults now.”
“You would say that.”
“What do you mean by that?” I said. I worried that perhaps he could see that tiny seed of inexplicable jealousy within me like a speck of dirt on the shiny red ruby of my heart.
“I just knew you wouldn’t understand.” Inwardly I fumed at this. I hated when people assumed things about me. His eyes pleaded to me. “It wasn’t really about Ellen Gardner, okay? I just wanted to feel something again and I didn’t know where else to look. I’m sick of this mediocrity. And you guys, especially you—you’re all just happy wasting away in it.” I couldn’t place his anger towards me. Dev and I had never been on bad terms, but the statement, so out of the blue made me feel like he had been thinking about it for quite some time. “You used to want things.” I didn’t like this version of Dev, and it was selfish of me. I wanted the Dev that was fun, that drew me out of the mediocrity he decried.
“I still want things.”
“Do you?” Our eyes locked into a standoff. The familiar silence of night stood between us, somehow made new by the fact that we were awake when we should have been asleep. We had snuck into this hour’s private peace. I didn’t want to spoil it with my defensiveness.
“Shut up. Get in the car.”
“Where are we going?”
“Just get in and don’t talk to me for at least ten minutes because I’m still mad at you.”
I started the car and drove. What was the mediocrity? Was it our pettiness? Was it the fact that we had abandoned our ideals, switching majors from labors of love to practical endeavors for the promise of steady jobs and salaries? No, it was all of that, but it was more than that; it was the fence, one that stretched over so many years, topped with barbed wire, admonishing us every time we looked at it, daring to want what was out of our reach with its twisted, steely retort and I wondered, then, how to get to the other side of it.
I knew the general direction we needed to go was East, so I just kept following highways until we hit sand and parked. We got out, both of us breathing in the sulfury smell of the water, observing our small slice of paradise with hands on our hips. No one but scuttering crabs and seagulls graced the sand. I thought about Ned. If he were here, he’d just be here—waiting for me to illuminate the scene with some sort of meaning for him and once I had, it would have been above his head or somehow unsatisfactory.
This moment wasn’t for Ned, though. This moment was for me. I didn’t have to explain my actions to Dev. He had no claim on me so I ran down to the water leaving a trail of clothes. All week, I blamed them; no one had forced me to stay.
Dev got in after me. I floated on my back letting the waves lift me up and down.
“I’m sorry,” Dev said after a while.
“It’s fine. You were right. Here I am feeling guilty that I’m having fun without him. That I always have more fun without him.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I realized what I had seen in his face earlier: fear, defeat, and acceptance all rolled into one mute expression. “Why are you scared?”
“I don’t know.” He floated next to me. In the dark, the fence blended into the sky and though we could feel it, we were free from its gaze. I reached out my hand and he grabbed it with his huge, knobby hand. It was mostly so we didn’t lose each other in the ocean, the only thing keeping us from drifting into nothingness. Soon the clasp holding us together was tucked between the salty curves that formed our silhouettes and we lay, looking up at what few stars weren’t masked by city lights, shoulder to shoulder.
We got out when the sun peeked its head out from under the comforter of night, no longer having the pretense to remain joined. When we got back, we would have to explain our absence and the loss of the oranges; truthfully or not, we hadn’t yet decided. There would be things I needed to say to Ned, but what things exactly, I didn’t know.
I handed Dev one of the oranges and started to eat the other. He took out his knife and peeled away the skin, revealing the flesh beneath, all smiles.