The orchard was quite beautiful. Scott had never really noticed before. He’d always thought it was just predictable, boring, a bit too perfect. Perfect was boring. Or maybe perfect was beautiful. He saw it now, staring at the rows of apple trees. He saw the beauty in the perfection. No wonder everyone wanted it. No wonder they all wanted it from him.
There was beauty in perfection.
Talk about having an epiphany while high.
A rustling caught his attention and he looked over his shoulder to see Eliza walking his way. Somewhere deep down, underneath the high, a part of him was telling him to hide, lie, do what needed to be done to convince Sergeant Major Eliza not to kick him out. A bigger part of him just didn’t care. He was a screw up. Everyone knew it. Why the hell was he trying so hard to hide it anyway?
“Yo.” He said, taking a long drag from the joint.
How did he still have so much left? He felt like he’d been smoking the thing for hours now. How long had it been? He had to think. He’d got here late afternoon, now it was twilight…Or did he get here at twilight? Was this his first one or second or third?
Oh what did he care. The stuff was strong, good too. It had done just what he’d wanted, it’d made him forget just how much of a loser he was.
Wait, now he’d just reminded himself. Damn.
Well, this only meant another drag was in order.
What a funny word, ‘drag’.
“How’d you find me?” He asked Eliza.
“I followed the smell happiness.” She replied, a defeated edge to her voice. Then she sighed and sat down beside him, extending her hand for the joint. “Give me some of that.”
“Not a good idea. It’s strong.” He replied.
“I’ve just spent the day coddling four year olds. I need strong.”
“For a good time call Eliza.” He said, acknowledging the girl coming out to play right now. He extended the joint for her and she took it from his hand, brought it to her lips and inhaled, long, slow, savouring every second of it as it travelled down her lungs, some the tension easing from her shoulders.
“I needed that.” She said taking another hit. “I hate four year olds. If I ever say I want another kid run me over with a car.”
“Jenny’s not bad. I can’t imagine Bryce was.”
“No, it’s just all their little friends. Have you met Chad?” Eliza asked. “What a fuckwit.”
Scott laughed. Fuckwit. Another funny word. Even funnier coming from stoic Eliza. More rustling caught Scott’s attention and this time when he looked over his shoulder he saw Natalie. Okay, this stuff was working way too well now. He was hallucinating. Natalie wouldn’t be here. Eliza sure, but why would Natalie be here?
“Natalie.” Eliza yelled, laughing as she approached. “You followed the smell too. The smell of happiness, of irresponsibility, where you can sit in the woods and get high and not worry about putting your kids to bed. Oh crap, my kids.”
Eliza’s self reflection didn’t last two seconds before she burst into a fit of laughter, giggling like a little school girl talking to her crush for the first time.
“Is she high?” Natalie asked.
“Care to make it a party?” Scott replied, extending the joint to her.
“Probably not a good idea.” She said.
She paused a moment, contemplating the joint in his hand. Then she reached for it, brought it to her lips and inhaled just like Eliza had. The smoke caught in her throat and she pulled the cigarette away as she broke into a round of coughs, her body rejecting the substance where Scott’s and Eliza’s had welcomed it.
“Here.” He said getting to his feet. He took the joint from her hand and inhaled, long, slow. He held it in his throat, savouring the taste for a moment. Then he stepped to Natalie, bending his head to hers.
Her eyes locked with his, doubt visible for a second before she tilted her head back and allowed his approach. Her lips parted, waiting, and he brought his mouth to hers, easing the smoke from his lungs into hers. She inhaled and her lips brushed against his. They were so soft, so close, and he stood there, inhaling the beautiful smell of vanilla and apples before stepping away.
Eliza’s laughs grew louder, close to that of a cackling witch. She rolled onto the grass, the fallen leaves from the apple tree crunching under the weight of her body.
“You guys almost kissed.” She laughed, hiccuping between giggles. “Oh that’s funny. Everything’s funny. Laughing is tiring.”
She said this right before launching into another round of giggles. She tried to hold her breath, mute them with leaves, but they just kept coming, sometimes louder, sometimes quieter, but they always came.
Scott wished he had that reaction. How easy it would be to just laugh and laugh and laugh. Instead he became introspective and quiet, he contemplated the meaning of life and revelled in the beauty of the fucking orchard.
“Okay, again.” Natalie said, taking the joint from him and trying again. This time, with the edge taken off, the smoke billowed easily down her throat. She smiled, proud at her success, and handed the joint back to Scott.
He stared at it, no longer craving its effects. The joint suddenly felt wrong where it rested between his fingers, the girls around him weird and alien. The only thing that felt real were his lips, still tingling from the light brush of Natalie’s. Getting high no longer held an appeal. He just wanted to feel those lips again, soak them in, let them heal him.
He snorted at the thoughts in his own subconscious. He was still totally high. He laughed at the absurdity of it all, still not convinced he wasn’t hallucinating all of this.
“You know who annoys me?” Natalie asked. “Pete. And my mother. And Ryan.”
“Oh boy.” Eliza groaned. “Here we go.”
“They all think they can tell me what to do.” Natalie continued. “Stay away from Scott Natalie, Scott ruins your life Natalie, marry me Natalie, we’ve been together three years you’re not allowed to say no.”
This was the reaction she always had. When Natalie got high she suddenly stopped caring about what other people thought. All that mattered were her feelings, her emotions, and finally free of the burden, she spilled them all, getting them out before the high faded and she was forced to keep them in.
“I’m 28. I can make my own decisions.” She continued. “They all expect me to be this angel. I’m supposed to be this good girl who always does the right thing. I have to be polite and calm. Good girl Natalie who just sits at home saying ‘yes ma’am’. God forbid I have an opinion, or want something different to what they want.”
“Why did you give her the weed?” Eliza asked, still giggling.
“They all treat me like this precious china doll. They all coddle me, and try to protect me because they think if I do one thing wrong I’m gonna break. I’m not going to break. I can make mistakes and get hurt every once in a while and I’ll be fine. I’m not some pathetic, fragile little girl. And they treat me like one. And I can’t get angry, or upset or feel anything but happy all the time because then it’s all, ‘Natalie, you’re not acting like yourself,’ ‘Natalie what’s wrong,’ ‘Natalie this isn’t you.’”
Scott cocked a small smile, enjoying himself as he watched Natalie rant and spill out every thought she’d ever had or should have kept to herself. Weed was like a truth serum for her, given the right amount she’d spill everything. She just rattled on and on, while Scott and Eliza listened, Eliza’s giggles coming and going in waves while Scott discretely snubbed out the joint. He didn’t need it anymore. He’d used it to feel less burdened, lighter, like the weight of his insecurities weren’t crushing him.
With Natalie he didn’t need it. He just had to listen to her rant. Her words were all over the place, she was a total mess, and she kept jumping between different thoughts. But she was beautiful. She wasn’t worried about who was watching her, what everyone would think, what they’d say. She was letting herself be free. Free to want what she wanted, free to say what she thought, free to look like a selfish, dramatic idiot if that’s what she wanted.
Then there was Eliza. Her blazer dirty with mud, her hair half out of her bun, barely able to go five seconds without laughing. Also a total mess. But there was a light to her eyes that Scott hadn’t seen since he’d come back. She was letting herself relax, and she was savouring every second of it because she knew that when the high was over her performance would have to continue.
Both girls had their issues. Neither one was close to perfect. Yet they were more beautiful now than they were when they were trying to be.
Screw the orchard. It might look pretty, but it wasn’t real. This was. And it was so much better than perfect ever would be.
Natalie hadn’t been this comfortable in years. Her head rested on a pillow, soft yet solid, firm, and she was wrapped in a warm blanket, encasing her in a safe cocoon. She was warm, and she felt at peace, wanting nothing more than to drift back to sleep.
“Time to wake up.” Came a strong voice Natalie recognised as Eliza’s. That wasn’t right, why would Eliza be in her bedroom?
The blanket tightened itself around her, pulling her closer to the pillow, so strong, so steady, so solid.
“Hmmm.” The pillow murmured, vibrating against her cheek, the sound comforting, familiar.
That was when she knew. She wasn’t in bed. Her pillow hadn’t magically become more comfortable and her blanket hadn’t wrapped itself around her perfectly. She was still at the orchard, lying on top of Scott, his arms steadying her in place. She knew this, and she still didn’t want to get up. She wanted to stay there, wrapped safely in his arms, where she just fit.
“I brought coffee.” It was Eliza again. “You really do have to get up, the workers will be here soon.”
It was like an ice bucket had been poured over her. What was she doing? What was she thinking? How had she let this happen? She didn’t want to, but it was time to face reality.
Reluctantly she eased herself out of Scott’s arms. He protested slightly, tightening his hold, but slowly he too became aware of where they were, what they were, and he released her. She was instantly cold without his arms around her, and at the same time warm, remembering their touch.
She met his eyes, and he smiled awkwardly before shifting further away. This was weird territory for them. They’d woken up like this a million times before. Back then they’d kiss, maybe make love again, take their time soaking the other in. Now they were forced to part. They weren’t together. She had Ryan. She should be waking up like this with Ryan. She should want to. Instead she wanted to reach for Scott.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Damn.
“So this is awkward.” Scott said, breaking the silence and reaching for his coffee.
“It doesn’t have to be.” Eliza replied. “Let’s just agree that what happened last night stays between us.”
“Hmm.” Scott groaned. “So no-nonsense Eliza is back.”
“She is. And her family can’t be finding out about her giggling. And I don’t think you guys want them finding out about your flirting. Or about Natalie’s sexual attraction to men with pronstaches.”
Eliza smiled to let them both know she was joking, that their partner in crime from last was still there.
“I can’t believe I told you guys that.” Natalie said, cringing.
“You told us that and much, much more.” Eliza replied.
“Like that sex dream you had about me.” Scott said with a smirk, making her cringe all over again as she remembered snippets from her ranting tirade, all over the place and jumbled she couldn’t remember what she’s said out loud or kept to herself. Although by the sounds of it, she hadn’t kept much of it to herself.
“What is with me and weed?” She asked more to herself than either of them. “And did we sleep out here?”
“You two did.” Eliza said. “I was smart enough to go find a real bed.”
“Well thanks for leaving us out in the cold.” Natalie said.
“You two didn’t look very cold.” She replied smoothly, shooting Natalie and Scott a look that said, don’t mess with me. “Anyway, you have 20 minutes before people start showing up for work. I’m gonna go inside and make breakfast.”
“You cook?” Scott asked.
“Okay, I have to go inside and supervise the cook.” Eliza corrected, shooting them both a smile as she turned and made her way through the orchard and back to the house, leaving Natalie and Scott alone.
She briefly met his gaze, offering a quick awkward smile before looking away again. She couldn’t look at him, they’d just, well…okay technically they hadn’t done anything wrong. They’d fallen asleep, and they’d fallen asleep apart. Yet somewhere during the night she’d ended up on top of him, his arms protectively wrapped around her as he held her close to his chest. Her cheeks burned at the memory, the way his body had felt when she’d woken up this morning.
It had felt right. Like this was the place she belonged, wrapped up in this man’s arms. All they’d done was cuddle a little, but it felt like so much more. She felt like they’d done more, like they’d spent the night screwing each other and laughing at Ryan’s expense because he’d been stupid enough to believe her every time she’d said there was no longer anything between herself and Scott.
Of course there was still something between her and Scott, there’d always been something between them. The question was, what was still between them? Was it just a collection of memories and the knowledge of how good they’d once been together? Or was it more than that? Was he more than the epic ex-boyfriend? Was he still the love of her life?
“I should go.” She said, getting to her feet.
“I’ll walk with you.” He replied.
That wasn’t a good idea. In fact it was a terrible idea. She needed space from this guy. She needed to clear her head and think things through without the intoxicating smell of sandalwood clogging up her sinuses.
In her head she knew it was a bad idea. The rest of her just didn’t agree, or it just didn’t care. Whatever the reason, she didn’t protest in the slightest as he fell into step beside her, their footsteps in perfect synchrony as they walked side by side, so close their arms brushed every so often, sending a wave of electricity racing through her body.
Oh god, why had she done drugs? She knew weed acted like a truth serum for her, yet she’d done it anyway, spilling everything and anything to Scott and Eliza.
“Yep.” She said.
“Orange is the New Black.” She replied sheepishly.
“Pornstache?” He asked, bringing his finger over his lip to symbolise a moustache, just like the characters in the show did every time they spoke about their sadistic correctional officer.
“He does it for me.” She admitted. “I don’t know if it’s the actor or something else but yeah, he can pat me down any day.”
He only laughed, that low rumbling laugh she loved to hear. There was once a time when she lived for those laughs, would have done anything to make him smile. It occurred to her that might still be true. She just wanted him to be happy, she wanted him to have whatever would make him happy.
“I saw you talking to Coach yesterday.” She said.
“Oh yeah.” He replied with a smile. “I forgot about that. He asked me to stop by the high school sometime. Show the kids a thing or two.”
He laughed again, only this time it wasn’t real. It was that fake laugh he did, whenever other people found something funny and he thought it best to play along. Natalie didn’t know why he thought this was supposed to be funny. It was a good thing that Coach had asked for help, why was he acting as if it was a practical joke.
“Why is that funny?” She asked.
“Can you imagine me coaching?” He replied. “The washed up former football star who wiped out less than a year into the game.”
“I think it’s a good idea.” She said. “You could do some good with the team.”
“Or I could screw them up.”
“Or you could lead the school to another state championship.”
He always did that. He always put himself down, belittled his accomplishments, chose to downplay his abilities. She knew why, everyone who mattered to him had always found a way to make his achievements smaller. He threw the winning toss? Well his teammate scored the winning touchdown. He found a way to increase profits on the orchard by 30 percent? Well why couldn’t he raise profits by 50 percent? He had the highest GPA of the football team? Well why didn’t he have the highest GPA of his grade? So on and so forth. Every time he did anything great he was always put down, never celebrated. He’d learnt a long time ago that his achievements didn’t mean anything, that his skills and talents weren’t appreciated. He’d stopped expecting anyone to praise him, and he’d stopped praising himself.
“How did you know where I was?” Scott asked, breaking the comfortable silence that had formed around them. “Last night. Eliza I get, she lives there, but what were doing there?”
“I saw you.” She explained. “At the carnival.”
“When you were on the ground, curled into the foetal position, your head buried in you hands.”
“I watched you.” She admitted. “Saw you buy the drugs. And well, I know why you use. I remember from back when we were together. I knew you weren’t okay, and I knew where you were going, so I showed up.”
“And you joined the party.” He said it like a joke, but the edge to his voice he was trying to hide was still there. He’d never liked talking about it. He’d only ever explained it to her the once. It was right after they’d moved away, his first game as part of a college team, his first win. He should have been ecstatic, over the moon, celebrating with all his new teammates. Instead he’d walked through that night’s festivities like a zombie, behaving exactly like he should have, shouting, screaming, drinking, partying, but his eyes had been dead, never truly enjoying a moment of it.
Then he and Natalie had gone home. He hadn’t said a word the whole way, he’d become silent, withdrawn. It wasn’t the first time he’d been like this, but each time Natalie never knew what to say. She’d just take his hand and wait, ready if he ever needed her.
That night he’d cracked a bit, let her in, broken down in her arms, clinging onto her as if he were afraid she’d leave if he didn’t. He’d forced himself to regain control, but she hadn’t let him. She didn’t need him to pretend to be okay for her, so she’d told him to just feel however he wanted to feel.
That’s when he explained it to her, or tried to, because he didn’t really understand it himself. He was fine, he was happy, he loved her and he loved everything about their life. But there was this part of him, the part that had been rejected over and over again before she’d come into his life. That part was broken. Most of the time he didn’t notice it, but every once in a while it came home. Like nights like that one, the biggest game of his life so far and the only person who’d been sitting there for him had been Natalie. His mom wasn’t there, his dad wasn’t there, and Pete wasn’t there. He didn’t understand what he’d done to turn his family against him, he didn’t understand why he wasn’t good enough for them, but it broke his heart nonetheless to know they hadn’t cared enough to show up.
It had broken Natalie’s heart hearing this, listening to the man she loved with every fibre of her being talk about himself as if he wasn’t enough. He’d never said those things before, but she’d always understood that was how he saw himself, she sometimes saw the pain in his eyes. She’d hated his family then, hated how they’d made him feel like this. She hated that he didn’t see just how perfect he was.
Those moments of his happened less and less frequently, but every once in a while they emerged, the pain crippling him every time. He’d always tried to hide it, not wanting Natalie to see any weakness in him, but she never let him. She was always there, holding him whenever he needed her to.
That was why she’d come last night, because he’d needed her, and maybe also because she’d needed him.
“Scott.” She said softly, the seriousness in her voice catching his attention. “I just wanted to be there for you. I mean there’s obviously better ways to deal with things than drugs, but last night you didn’t need a lecture, or someone to get onto some self-righteous pedestal. You just needed support.”
She could feel her eyes welling with tears and she fought so hard to keep them at bay. Scott didn’t need her to cry right now. That was the last thing he needed.
He reached for her, and instead of shrugging away like she was supposed to she stood still, waiting for him. His large hands cupped her face, always so gentle when they touched her. She never understood how someone so solid could be so gentle. How he could make her feel so safe in his arms.
She blinked, and those traitorous tears fell from her eyes, gliding smoothly down her cheeks. His thumbs moved, catching the tears as they fell and lightly brushing them away.
“How do you do that?” He asked, so softly the words stroked her just as lovingly as his hands were.
“Do what?” She asked.
“Say exactly what I need you to say.” The words were spoken more to himself than to her and as if in a trance he softly pressed his lips to her forehead. “I’ll see you around.” He whispered.
Then he pulled away, shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and walked back into the orchard, leaving her standing there on the corner of Tuppence Avenue, just a few minutes walk from her house.
She stood there for the longest time, her forehead still tingling from the brush of Scott’s lips. She didn’t want to go home, she didn’t want to go to Ryan, at least not yet. For now she just wanted to stand here, remembering how wonderful she felt every time Scott touched her, how content she always felt when he was beside her, how happy she felt every time he smiled. She had to go home though. She had to face reality. Scott hadn’t wanted her. He’d let her walk away. For eight years he hadn’t cared enough to come back. Ryan was real. He wanted her. He wanted to marry her. He was the one she was meant to be with.
So why didn’t it feel like that?