Et Sequitur Magazine, Issue 5
Issue 5 (January 2023)
By Andy Contari
Malachai could smell death. It wasn’t the stench of a rotting carcass, but rather like an autumn orchard when half the harvest falls and ferments. His parents never understood, all those years ago, when Malachai asked why their parakeet smelled like the mushy brown apples in their yard. His mother had shrugged and told Malachai the smell would go away eventually—nothing lasts forever, except God and apple trees, she’d always say. They thought, perhaps, Fergus had gotten into the trash, or perhaps Malachai had taken him outside to play where fallen apples gathered beneath their ancient tree with its limbs clawing the sky.
Malachai had wondered what Fergus saw when the bird squawked and flapped his wings that night, what lurked in the dark as Fergus flew against his cage.
The next morning, Malachai found the apple smell gone along with the bird. His parents said Fergus had flown to visit some friends and would be away for a while, but Malachai still left the cage open in case he came back. His father tried to sell the rusted tin, but Malachai clung to it and his mother intervened. She spoke to Mark in the kitchen and convinced him to keep it for a few more days, “Just in case Fergus does come home,” she said loudly enough for Malachai to overhear.
Fergus never did return, though, and Malachai didn’t encounter the apple smell again until he turned twelve and visited his grandmother’s hospital room. At first, he searched for Fergus. He asked his parents about the bird he hadn’t seen in years, and they told him what he had begun to suspect, even as a tear trickled down his mother’s cheek, her fingers toying with a slim golden cross around her neck—her mother’s cross, and her mother’s mother before her. It caught the cold fluorescent light, a momentary sparkle in the shadows as the apple smell strengthened and Malachai hooked his mother’s arm, searching the darkness, still wondering what exactly he smelled.
A few days later, heart complications took their toll. His grandmother passed quietly in her sleep, and the apple smell slipped away, soon replaced by the floral sweetness of the funeral home.
When Malachai turned seventeen, the smell came to the kitchen table while his mother washed dishes. He waited a moment, holding his breath before sniffing again. “Hey Ma, you feel okay?”
“Just the usual aches. Why?” Maurie laughed. “Come help with these dishes.”
He dried each plastic plate carefully, some with cracks around the edges—but they were cheaper than china. He took short, shallow breaths. Here, near the sink, the smell of dollar store soap overpowered everything. “Are you sure you feel okay?”
“Sure, hon. Why?”
He tried to see if her eyes looked more tired than usual, if her smile didn’t reach as high as it used to. She flicked on the food disposal that worked half the time and rolled up the sleeves of her thrift-store flannel, pushing some debris into the drain. Malachai almost grabbed her hand as a thousand possible misfortunes played out in his mind—car accident, fire, hand caught in the sink and sucked down to the elbow. The grinder gnashed and sputtered, chewing bits of chicken bones, as the din of fighting children floated down from the second floor.
“Your brothers are at it again,” his mother said, slapping the disposal switch.
“They’re twins. Fighting is practically a requirement. Probably over the one video game they have to share.”
Malachai bit his lip as his mother looked down and wrung a towel in her hands. “Maybe for Christmas I’ll convince your father to get them a new one,” she said.
“Ma, I didn’t mean it like that.” Something crashed against the wall upstairs. “I’ll go check on them,” Malachai said, but his mother stopped him.
“I’ll go. Just get these dishes done, please.”
She trailed away through their cramped duplex, beneath ancient light fixtures that might fall, gliding up tread-worn steps polished sparingly with rationed Pledge, and the smell followed. Malachai studied the shadows she passed, trying to penetrate their depths, to scare away whatever waited in the darkness.
When the smell lingered for a week, Malachai asked his mother at dinner, “You aren’t planning anything dangerous, right?”
“Dangerous? Does that sound like me?” She carved a meatloaf with a serrated knife, slicing closer and closer to her fingers. “Mark, will you say grace?”
Mark cleared his throat, rearranging some peas on his plate. “Lord, we thank you for the bounties you’ve given us. The food we’ve managed to afford this week. The jobs that pay some of our bills. Another day of life on your green earth.”
Maurie added, “And we thank you for our family.” She slid a slice of meatloaf on Malachai’s plate. “For our faith.” She added a slice to Milo and Jax’s plates as they flicked peas at one another. “Your mercy.” Mark made room on his own plate. “And your promise of salvation to come.”
“Boys,” Mark growled. “Eat your food, don’t play with it. That’s wasteful.”
“It’s only a few peas.” Maurie rubbed his shoulders. “Let them have their fun.”
Mark chewed, eyeing the twins who decided, then, with mischievous grins, to turn their attention on Malachai.
“Really?” Malachai shielded himself with a piece of bread. Maurie joined in, ducking behind Malachai, scooping the peas that had fallen and flicking them back at Jax and Milo who shrieked and dove beneath the table.
Malachai started to laugh, chasing the twins with his mother at his side until the apple smelled wormed its way through the instant-mix mashed potatoes, the meatloaf stuck with its carving knife, the apple pie baking unattended in the kitchen. His smile flickered, and he failed to dodge a pea that struck his forehead. A fit of giggling erupted from the twins even as Maurie took cover behind a chair and launched her own volley.
Malachai snatched a handful of peas from the bowl, knocking it over, pelting Jax and Milo so hard they screamed.
“Malachai!” Mark barked.
Malachai almost told them about the smell, but his mother might think some demon possessed him, schedule an exorcism at the church she went to every Sunday. The church Malachai used to attend with her, until Mark stopped going, and Malachai grew past the age of blind belief, when faith turned into fantasy.
And his father… Mark would never believe him anyway, just chock it up to another story from the boy who chased goblins around the house before his brothers were born, who woke his parents in the middle of the night to show them the gnome under his bed, or the angel watching from the top of the oak tree, its wings silhouetted by the moon. That all stopped, though, when the twins came and Mark started working a second job, bills piling on the counter. No one had time for fantasy or fairy tales anymore.
Maurie knelt to sweep up the peas, but Mark said, “Stop. Let Malachai do it.”
“I don’t mind,” she tried to say, but Mark shook his head.
“Jax and Milo need to help too. They started it,” Malachai argued.
“They will.” Mark looked at the boys and pointed to the floor. “Get to it.”
They crawled under the table, occasionally giggling when they ate a pea that didn’t look too dirty, as Maurie got the broom.
Malachai skipped dessert, though his mother offered him pie. In his room, he Googled fermenting apples on a lagging laptop, a birthday present his mother had given him years ago, but only found articles on beer and cider, on the synthesis of ethanol from glucose by yeast. He asked Siri on his refurbished phone if the characters in Final Destination could have been saved. He typed out, how to stop Death, his finger hovering over the Enter key. But then he swallowed, deleted it and instead searched, common medical issues + sudden death.
He read a Harvard article about cardiac arrest and its warning signs, the accumulation of cholesterol, the damage of high blood pressure, and the danger of inherited conditions. He remembered his grandmother, and slammed his computer closed.
“Get in the car,” Malachai said the next day. “I’m taking you to the doctor.”
“Mack, even if I did feel sick, I can’t go today. I’ve got work, and they’re already down one server.” She grabbed his arm. “Mack! If you don’t stop pacing, you’re going to wear a hole in the floor.”
“Why do you always have to work on weekends?” He spit out a piece of torn fingernail. “We never do anything fun together anymore.”
Maurie rubbed her elbow. “You can always come to church with me and the twins. Remember when you used to? You’d get so excited and always read along with your picture Bible.”
Malachai went back to pacing. “When did you last change the brakes on your car?”
“I don’t know. What’s gotten into you?”
“You always drive the speed limit, right? Don’t forget to wait a bit even after the lights turn green, a drunk driver might be coming down the other street.”
“Is this what you’re learning in driver’s ed?” she laughed.
“Just promise me you’ll drive carefully.”
“You know I always do. Keep an eye on the twin tyrants while I’m gone. Don’t let them break anything. Your father should be home by eight, he has a late meeting at the store.” She leaned closer, and Malachai held his breath, wondering if the smell came from inside her. “He didn’t want me to tell anyone, but he thinks they’re going to make him a manager soon. So, if he says something, just act surprised.” She kissed his cheek. “I love you.”
Malachai studied his mother’s face at breakfast next Sunday, after she and the twins came back from church. A lingering nightmare from the night before still crawled beneath his skin, memories of his grandmother’s hospital room, the cemetery, ghosts who rose from graves and the hooded figure lurking behind them with a scythe outstretched.
“I’m taking you to the doctor today,” he said. “You’re overdue for your physical.”
Mark looked at him over the rim of his coffee mug, flipping through a newspaper.
Maurie piled pancakes on Jax and Milo’s plates, skirting around a puddle of spilled milk on the floor. “I really don’t know what’s gotten into you. You won’t give up on this?”
“No. I won’t.”
“Fine,” she sighed, tossing the pan in the sink. “I might actually have heartburn or something anyway.”
Mark said, “I’ve got work at twelve. Will you be back by then to watch the twins?”
“Should be. Any word on…you know, from work?”
He gave a quiet, quick shake of his head.
“Oh, well. Soon enough.”
In the waiting room, patients slumped in chairs, staring at cell phones with eyes hollow and glazed. Malachai tapped his foot, flicked through Facebook, not really reading, catching snippets of ambient conversation.
A nurse finally came with a clipboard, her hair in a tight bun. “Maurie Swanson?”
She stood, massaging her chest. Malachai started to follow, but his mother cocked her head. “Malachai, wait here.”
He almost took another step. But inertia restrained him, and he sank back into the mahogany chair near a pile of old magazines that were supposed to entertain him.
When his mother finally emerged, he jumped up. “What did they say?”
She smiled at the receptionist through the glass as she signed a paper, and snaked her arm through Malachai’s.
“Well?” he insisted, trying to convince himself that the apple smell had weakened.
“We’ll talk in the car.”
A bead of sweat trickled down his back as they left, and he slammed the car door so hard the window rattled.
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
She squeezed his hand. “Mack, you know I love you, right?”
“I’m taking you to the hospital.”
“They can’t fix it there.”
“The doctor said, based on my symptoms, that I’ve probably got…” She turned away, as though trying to hide a smile.
“You’re really laughing right now?”
“It’s constipation, Mack. They gave me a laxative prescription, so if you could swing by the drug store on the way home that would be great.” She fished her checkbook from her purse and tilted it away from Malachai. But he still caught the red ink, the minus signs, his mother tugging on her earlobe, fingering the golden cross she refused to sell, even though it could fetch a few hundred at the pawn shop.
Malachai’s hands shook, his brain buzzing. He breathed in fermenting apples, but told himself it was just a remnant of the smell from before. If he willed it away, maybe, if he believed strongly enough, perhaps, it really would go away.
“Malachai, what’s wrong?”
He put the car in drive and turned the radio on.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have joked.”
“Are you mad at me?” She put the checkbook away.
“You know if anything happened to you, I could never live with my father, right?”
“You two get along fine. He’s starting to come to terms with…you know.”
Malachai raised an eyebrow. “He’s never looked at me the same way since I came out.”
“He’s starting to. The other night he asked me if you were seeing anyone.”
“Yeah, probably to criticize it. Or convince me to try sleeping with a girl like he did that first day.” Malachai choked the steering wheel. “What did you tell him?”
“That you were talking with a few guys, but nothing serious. And I think he was actually interested.”
“Just promise me you’re not going to leave me alone with him anytime soon.”
“Oh stop,” she laughed. “I’ll be fine. And if it’s my time, it’s my time, right? We can’t do anything to change that. Our lives are in God’s hands.”
Her words taunted Malachai, although the fermenting apple smell seemed to lighten. Maybe it was just constipation. Maybe the constipation would have turned into something worse if he hadn’t taken her to the doctor. She could still cheat death, maybe she had already and Death was just angry, sticking around seething.
But then his mother started to cough, and a fever warmed her forehead. The smell of fermenting apples returned, flooding the house, and Maurie stayed in bed, shivering despite the thermostat set to 70. She missed work, and the twins peeked in through her doorway. They tried to run in and jump on the bed, but Malachai shouted, “Go back to your room. Let Ma rest, she’s not feeling well.” He put a bowl of soup on the nightstand, leaning against the wall to hide the tremor in his legs. “Did you get your flu shot this year?”
“I should have.” She sipped the broth, her voice barely a whisper. “I kept forgetting.”
Malachai nearly gagged on the smell in her room, wondering if he should tell anyone. He racked his brain, thinking of anything he could do, anything he could change. “Please, let me take you to the hospital.”
“Insurance barely covered the doctor.”
“But you could die from this. I’ll pay for anything. I’ll get a job at the diner with you like you always want me to. I’ll work every day after school and on weekends, just please, let’s go.” He wiped his tear, especially while Jax and Milo still watched from the hallway. “I’ll go to church with you on Sundays.”
She smiled and muttered, “Just the flu,” her eyes closing. “A few days, I’ll be back on my feet.” She rubbed her thumb against her cross, shadows growing beneath her eyes. “The Lord has his plan, and clearly the flu is in it. Probably got it at the doctor. I should’ve just stayed home.” She poked his chest and her grin widened. “I’ve got you to thank for this.”
He ran from the house where his mother lay and his brothers played, sucked in cool autumn air, concentrating on the heat spreading through his legs, the pounding of feet on pavement. The pump of his arms. The drops of rain striking his head, soaking his hair.
He ran until the streets blurred, until he circled back to his house with its old apple tree in the backyard. Water droplets stained the floor as he ran upstairs and sat at his computer. Still dripping, he researched home remedies for viral infections, experimental drugs that might help his mother recover.
When the apple smell drifted into his room, he screamed into the shadows, “What do you want from us?” Kneeling on the floor he begged, “Take me instead.” He clasped his hands, fingers fumbling as he interlaced them. “Lord, God, Allah, Christ, whoever you are, I’ve never asked you for anything. But please, if you hear any prayer, hear this one. Take me instead.”
For a moment, two eyes seemed to stare from the darkness, a glint of metal, a hooded figure taking shape in the shadows. But Death, or God, remained silent as Malachai blinked, becoming once more the hoodie hanging on the bedroom door, the silver hinges, the red zeroes of the digital clock, and the apple smell left the room without striking a bargain.
The next day, Malachai sat by his mother’s bedside while his father worked an extra shift, bills starting to scream in red letters. He rubbed his face, yawning, and noticed, suddenly, that the apple smell had vanished. He took another quick breath, breathing in the steam from the soup still untouched on the bedside table. His heart fluttered, and he took his mother’s hand. For a moment, he thought his mother’s lips turned up in a smile, almost felt a pulse as he held her. But her eyes didn’t lie, and through them, Malachai saw the truth.
After the funeral where his father sat silently and his brothers asked about Ma, Malachai wandered the house. His father asked him about his mother’s golden cross—it had gone missing after she passed—but Malachai just shrugged, drifting to the backyard where he had picked apples with his mother, once upon a time. Still in his suit, he collapsed at the gnarled roots of their old tree, where apples littered the ground in the late autumn season. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs until he thought they might erupt. Something sharp poked his chest, and he rolled to see a sapling sprouting from the earth. The smell of damp soil commingled with soft apples, and he squeezed a brown fruit, the skin bursting, once-crisp flesh oozing through his fingers. In the center of the mass, after death sloughed away, a handful of small black seeds remained.
Something between a sob and a laugh bubbled from his chest as he remembered his mother’s favorite saying. “Nothing lasts forever, except God and apple trees,” he whispered. “But you’re not gone. Not really.”
He dug a small hole in the soil, burying the seeds along with his mother’s golden cross. Standing, he gathered the last few apples of the season and decided to bake a pie, his mother’s apple pie—the one she always made for the parish bake sale—with just a touch of nutmeg and a heaping spoonful of cinnamon. And maybe, he’d even bring that pie to church with the twins, sit where his mother sat each Sunday, hear what she heard, believe what she believed. He’d remember the days when he watched his mother bake; he’d breathe in the sweet apple smell until the pie cooled and the steam dissipated, vapors curling into the air, invisible, transformed perhaps, but never really gone as their smell lingered.
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Andy Contari grew up on an apple farm and could eat an entire sleeve of apple cider donuts, if given the opportunity.
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