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The Scent of Lemons

Second place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2012.   

The Scent of Lemons
by Cooper Gallegos

During the summer we were turned out like livestock where we wandered for three months, coming in only for meals and sleep. Our quarter acre was a conglomeration of old car parts, ducks, chickens, a goat, power tools, cars on cinder block and tunnels through bamboo. Fruit trees scattered in gnarled abandon, unkempt, untrimmed and unpicked. It was survival of the fittest. I’d spend days in the crook of the plum tree sucking the purple fruit or wading beneath the apricot trees barefoot, the orange fruit between my toes, the flavor of summer rising from my skin. We used avocados for target practice and the lemon tree with its spikes and heavy white flowers swarmed with bees and ants that climbed the sticky limbs.

I’d collect lemons and sit in front of our brick wall with a sign: Make Your Own Lemonade! At the end of the day I’d suck the sockets out of the peel and wash down the sourness with the end of the hose.

The four of us lived in a world separate from the world of adults, apart from their heaviness and their comings and goings. Their worry and disappointment failed to penetrate the green of our jungle. We had wars, wounds and words to sort things out. We filled ditches with water and created moats to separate us from the enemy. We dug a series of underground caves and tunnels that stretched two yards over. And early some mornings we’d descend like miners with nothing but a hand full of kumquats and the thin thread of light from our single candle. Deep into the damp hard packed earth we’d gulp what little air there was, crawl on hands and knees digging a little more each day. We’d emerge late in the day covered in red, sweat and mud and squinty eyed we’d hose down and stumble our way through the back door of the house where dramas we’d never understand were taking place. Where the arch of my mother’s eyebrows and the shuffle of our stepfather through the rubble of their lives told us how much of our own lives we could share. Usually nothing more than one-syllable grunts tossed over our shoulders as we crept to our rooms.

Our lives a long stretch of known things. Laid out simply: water from the hose, secrets deep in the earth, a mouthful of summer fruit with juice exploding down our bare chests. There wasn’t anything more complicated than that. At least that’s what we all pretended. I knew we each had an inkling that life was much darker than the days we’d painted with summer light. But we were young and we could afford to side-step a lot. The luxury of our youth allowed us to claim nothing but what we could easily carry.