The Scent of Hay and Oranges

 

by Holly Schofield

Warren crunches his pink and green cereal and tries to ignore his parents’ argument.

His dad is the loudest, yanking the knot in his tie. “I don’t think your son needs seventeen Spiderman washcloths! Seventeen! And don’t tell me they were on sale or that you ‘forgot’ to pay. I don’t want to hear it.”

“Not in front of the boy.” His mom gives a pointed glance Warren’s way, then she looks at her lap and gives a small, almost triumphant smile. “Besides, the department store won’t even notice they’re gone. No RFID tags.” She is very calm today, not like yesterday morning when she yelled at Warren about his muddy boots.

Warren drinks down the remaining sludge in his bowl. For the first time, he wonders if Dad knows about the boxes of Q-tips his mom buried under the ice cream in the downstairs freezer, and the tins of cat food she stashed in the attic. He wishes they had a cat and that his parents would talk about things, like parents on TV shows do. Warren stands up, grabs his backpack, and that’s when the elephant appears.

It ghosts across the kitchen, one huge foot after the other in slow deliberate fashion, head rasping against the ceiling. Its colors are faint, washed out, like watercolor paints with too much water added. Its trunk arches down to a saucepan in the sink. It drinks silently, thoughtfully, as it gazes out the window.

Warren’s parents don’t seem to notice. He points a finger. “Hey, look at–”

Dad slams his orange juice glass into the sink and strides right through the elephant, down the hall to his home office.

The elephant grows more solid, like heavy fog.

Warren’s mom fingers the tablecloth, humming to herself.

Warren wants to giggle. “Mom, there’s–”

“It’s fine, son. Everything’s fine.” She walks over to him, one hand trailing through the elephant’s gently swinging tail, and kisses his hair. The air smells of sour oranges.

 

#

 

The elephant inhabits the kitchen after that, appearing as soon as Warren enters. He becomes used to the slight hay-scented breeze the elephant makes when it flaps an ear. He learns he can push his way through the massive body with a slight effort, like swimming upstream, but mostly he prefers to edge along the kitchen counter or the wall behind the table.

His dad eats breakfasts in silence now–laptop crowding the table–then hides in his office, disappearing to the gym every evening.

His mom starts piling items–clothing, food, a complete set of screwdrivers–from her shopping trips in the main hallway. No one comments.

Warren begins to spend a lot of time in his room, only going into the kitchen to grab snacks or when his mom insists the family should have a sit-down meal. He looks through books in the school library and figures out, from the large ears and high forehead, that the elephant is an adult African. He has few friends at school. He starts a diary but deletes it after three entries. He figures out he’s gay.

#

 

By the time Warren is in high school, he hangs out with the same four boys, mostly because they let him. The cutest one, Johnny Chao, has serial dated the other three boys, but not, of course, Warren.

Once, after a sweaty one-on-one basketball game in the schoolyard, Warren daringly invites Johnny over for a cold drink. He rehearses in his head how to ask Johnny out. On his dresser are two tickets to a performance of a popular local band.

Neither of Warren’s parents are home and the kitchen is empty. At the back door, he darts ahead to the fridge. Last week, his mom had stacked thirty ballpoint pens, still packaged, neatly in the crisper.

The fridge holds only leftovers, beverages, and condiments. He looks up, a six-pack of Pepsi dangling from his hand. Johnny still stands in the doorway, mouth open. Warren realizes that, from habit, he has avoided the empty space in the middle of the floor and hugged the wall in his dash to reach the fridge.

Warren thinks about what to say.

Johnny smirks. “You are one weird dude. The guys were right.”

An elephant manifests next to Johnny. It’s a younger one, its head level with Johnny’s chest. An Indian elephant, the kind with smaller ears and smoother skin. It steps through a kitchen chair, heads for the flower vase on the table. The tang of hay fills the room. Warren keeps his eyes on the elephant, backing out of the room.

“What the fuck, dude! Where’re you going?”

Even with his bed pillow around his ears, Warren can hear Johnny slam the kitchen door a few moments later.

#

 

Warren deliberately chooses an out-of-state university. The first week, he patrols the dorm’s communal kitchen several times a night. The scuffed green linoleum is always empty. He cuts back to one patrol per night.

He avoids going home for holidays and communicates with his parents by once-a-week emails, sticking to a routine script.

Soon he grows attracted to a dorm mate–Gerry, a smart Kansas boy who can cook. They hang out together and join the same study group, but Warren does not reveal his interest.

By Warren’s sophomore year, he considers himself friends with Gerry. They share a dorm suite. Warren helps Gerry with his calculus, and Gerry cooks for them both. Warren avoids the kitchen, eating in his room, and, after much joking from Gerry, cleans the bathroom every weekend in exchange for Gerry washing dishes.

On this particular day, Gerry calls down the hall that breakfast is ready. Warren enters the kitchen just far enough to snatch the plate from the end of the chipped counter however Gerry is standing over by the stove, a thumb holding Warren’s plate hostage.

“Sit here with me for once? Mine’s almost ready.” He does not slide the plate down to Warren.

Warren grips the door frame. “I’m late for–”

“No, you’re not. Are you?”

Warren comes farther into the kitchen and takes the plate of eggs, bacon, and avocado. He shuffles to the rickety Ikea table, mumbles his thanks, and picks up his fork.

Gerry brings him a glass of orange juice and returns to the stove.

Warren finishes one egg and most of the bacon before he dares look up. The gray-brown bulk of an Indian elephant is squeezed between the table and the stove. This elephant is large, bright-eyed, and very distinct. Warren freezes.

“Warren? What is it, buddy?” Gerry, behind the gray haze of the elephant, waves a spatula.

The elephant solidifies, becoming pewter and iron. Its long lashes close in a wink. Warren can count the bristly black hairs between its ears.

He stands, bumping the table. His orange juice spills. In two strides, he pushes through the elephant and reaches the stove. He grabs the spatula from Gerry’s hand. The sound it makes as it strikes the elephant is solid and meaty.

The elephant grunts in surprise.

Warren faces Gerry. His breath tangles, caught between courage and despair. “Gerry, we…we need to talk. No, we need to go to the movies. I need to buy you popcorn. You know?”

Words spill around Gerry’s broad grin. “Yeah, I do. Didn’t want to ruin our friendship until you gave me a sign.” He touches Warren’s hand.

Warren thinks of his parents and what their lives have become. “I don’t want us to ever stop talking, okay? Even if we think we know what the other guy is thinking, let’s make sure. Let’s be sure. Am I making any sense?”

Gerry turns off the stove, leaving his eggs in the pan. “Yes,” he says.

Words spurt from Warren in a jumble of relief and laughter as sugary drops of orange juice continue to plink to the floor. When he finally takes a step back, there is nothing in the space behind him.

Holly Schofield’s stories have appeared in many publications including Lightspeed, Crossed Genres, and Tesseracts. For more of her work, see http://hollyschofield.wordpress.com/

Photo credit: PleDog media, via Flickr, all creative commons

One thought on “The Scent of Hay and Oranges

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s