The Ones Left Out
by Sara Knudson
The orchard looked dead year-round, except it still sprouted limbs through the year. Sometimes these were hacked off and left in bramble piles beside the road. Adults couldn't navigate through it, but my friends and I liked it best when the orchard overgrew. We kept low to the ground while sharp limbs poked at adults trying to keep an eye on us.
In the semi-darkness just at sunset, we played hide-and-seek in the tangled, knee-high grass. Kids came when they finished work or school, at odd hours, slipping in past bramble barriers. When one disappeared, we assumed they’d gone home, and when one appeared, we thought nothing of it. No matter if we didn’t know everyone’s name, or where they lived, or when.
There was a house that watched the orchard. Its paint flaked, showing its yellowed white undercoats. One window overlooked the orchard like a lonely eyeball, and sometimes, the silhouette of a little boy hovered in its frame, a dark pupil moving back and forth, following our movements.
Sometimes, I stayed there past dark. Some of us played best at night, under a harvest moon, heavy and yellowed, ready to burst in the sky. The air was cooler then, the light softer. But there were rules to follow here; I learned them as I went. We came and left individually. No one spoke about home. When one was found, they had to be a seeker or leave. And all agreed that nobody liked the house, even though we all caught ourselves looking toward it, feeling its window eyes watching. By night, the boy in the house was a shadow silhouetted by a yellow glow.
Sometimes, curiosity was enough to pull me out of the orchard. I'd leave the long game of hide and seek to stalk the house, peer over its ivy-shrouded fence-line, and look for ways in. Animals had made all kinds of burrows, and a hole in a lattice revealed a door. It was locked tight. Half the house’s bottom floor was buried in the slope of ground, like a basement only half-submerged. The rest rose three stories up, surrounded by ivy and bush and ancient trees riddled with rotted holes. I wanted to see the inside. I wanted to ask the boy to come outside.
No one else wanted to go with me. The house had a stance, towering above the orchard with a rigid squareness in its shape, and most of the kids didn't like how it looked at us. It was just as old as the orchard, but there's something less confining about gnarled fruit trees than the slats and nails and sliced limbs of wood made into four walls and a roof.
Even Jen, who suggested she was afraid of nothing, had a funny way of talking about it.
Sometimes she thought it wanted to fall down on her, she said one day, kicking a rock through the grass. But then she thought maybe that poor girl in the window would finally get out. She was convinced that the boy in the window was a girl, and we argued about it a lot.
If I was so sure, she reasoned, why not find out? She called me chicken.
I made a show of going up to the house then, shifty, jumping between hiding places as if I could sneak up on it. Maybe it only locked up when it saw me coming. There were ways to sneak through the brambles of the orchard, if you picked carefully through. I came close enough to see through basement windows, hear the patter of feet on floorboards, then up a staircase. Small feet, like a little boy.
When I reached the basement door, the handle turned easy, it opened, and the scent of moldy air wafted out. I stood at the door, not ready to climb the stairs down. I could see piles of crates with fruit painted on the side crumbling in a corner. A freezer hummed against a wall. A shovel leaned against it, damp with dirt, and a tree saw lay propped beside it.
I called a greeting softly. I waited through a stillness before trying again.
Someone yelled back from far above. It echoed against walls. It came from the stairs.
Behind me, the voices of the others had a different echo. They carried on the wind— they didn’t ricochet off of confined space. They called out names, seeking, finding, coming and going. I wasn't brave enough to venture fully inside yet, but at least Jen couldn't call me chicken anymore. But I didn't see her again until that night, when we all saw her run out of the house, so fast she was only a shadow shape squeezing out of a hole in the ivy-shrouded fence. We looked for her until someone shouted, “Found her, found her!” from across the orchard. By the time I got to the others, Jen had left for home before I could ask her what she found inside.
We sat down quiet after that to watch a pack of coyotes gathering at the edges of the creek. We watched their silent strategy, caught their movement in soundless rushes of air, shapes scraping through the grass until a rabbit’s scream pierced the night. Then we would see one pawing at the ground, a flash of yellow moonlight in their reflective eyes.
The boy in the window continued to watch and pace and shadow us through the glass the next day. Jen didn't come back to tell me what she'd seen, and I figured she was upset and embarrassed for getting caught and finding out she was wrong.
I felt bad for the kid having to watch all the fun we had. Some parents are strict with their kids. They don’t let them go anywhere. My mom used to say that kids used to get outside and play, or work, like picking fruit from the orchard. Now they’re all locked up inside for fear of what might happen on the outside. The boy in the house clearly wanted out, and there were too many girls around anyway. I felt outnumbered.
The others didn’t want me to talk about what was in the basement when I returned. It interrupted the game, which required little thought, and I had begun thinking, which could slow you down. Everyone knew that.
I thought of going home instead. My mother’s voice, cleanly outlining the hours I could play, reminded me to come home by eight-thirty. The sun had only just set, and there were hours left to the game. I considered my one-story home of sun-baked brick, my dad snoring in the front room before waking and going to bed, the chime of a cat clock ticking time with big eyes and curled tail, its pupils dancing back and forth hypnotically.
Then someone darted past me, a gust of wind with a tap on the shoulder. “You’re it!” they called and disappeared into the evening.
My mom taught me better than to break into people’s houses. But there was only one way to deal with this house. It required a round-about approach to avoid the windows’ gaze. The second time, I broke in through the kitchen window, which had been left unlocked.
Kitchens usually smell like food, but this one smelled like Mr. Lieman: lemon-scented antibacterial soap and bleach. I smelled it on his hands when he gave away popsicles to kids in the street.
I crept through the house like I crept through grass, watched footing, stepped on the joints of floorboards, where wood was least likely to creak. I learned lessons from the coyotes and treaded lightly. The house had old furniture, a lemon scent covering mold, walls flaking in the corners where spiders sat waiting in their feathery nests. There were no pictures on the walls or in the stairwell, and I remembered that Mr. Lieman had no family. Another step, I remembered the taste of a popsicle on a hot summer’s day. Another, and I knew what it looked like to view the orchard from the second story window even though I hadn’t arrived there yet.
There were several doors upstairs, but I knew the window that overlooked the orchard was behind a gray door. There was a closet with no windows in it. I knew what it was like to look down out of the glass and wish I was back outside in the sun. Where I had the ability to dodge and run, hide and escape. I’d been here before.
I heard the boy so sudden and violent on the other side of the closet door that I felt the splitting of wood all through my spine. His fists and knuckles hit and scratched. He screamed. His scream worse than a rabbit screams. He cried the way things cry when they want to escape, the way a rabbit shrieks in a coyote’s jaws, like the sound will travel somewhere else where the rest of it can follow later.
He screamed with a wail behind it, so pitiful it made me grab at the door, like I could or would open it. I wanted to, badly. I could feel every sound scraping into my bones like a saw. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t the door, it was the way the knob turned, the way I know a door is made for a reason: to hold something back. I wouldn’t open a door to a stranger. But he didn't sound like a stranger, screaming on the other side. He sounded like a boy who had walked into a stranger's home, thinking this was a place to hide.
Somehow, I opened it wide.
I felt like a branch split in two. The sound of a stick snapping in the night, the way it seems to also snap in the spine just as much, because someone is near to finding me. It is the sense in the stomach, somewhere underneath a laugh, that tightens just before I run. Did the orchard rabbits laugh, thinking the coyotes would only tag them back and run away, and keep to the rules of fairness? At some point, the laugh and the scream split apart, fled or swallowed.
Inside the closet, he lay on the floor. Me. Him. Split and bloody. I slammed the door shut.
I don’t know how I left the house, but by the time I made it out, the sky was dark and empty. Misshapen branches closed the edges of the field to the rest of the world. I ran away but also into and toward, gnarled limbs snagging. I stumbled on a hole in the ground, maybe a rabbit’s hole, I thought. By moonlight I found the carefully gathered bones of a body, nothing body-shaped about them, limb joints folded at wrong angles, sawed.
Nearby, grass rustled, first on one side, then another, sideways-approaching, and a voice called out and echoed from one to the next, like coyotes yipping in the night.
“We found him. He’s over here.”
“He’s over here!"
Sara Knudson is a speculative fiction writer, enthusiast, and graduate writing student at Sarah Lawrence College. Originally from California where she used to live in a haunted house and train horses, she now resides in the 6th dimension of New York. She enjoys traveling, collecting encouraging rejection letters, and working on her science fiction novel.