When I was a kid, my mom would take me to see my grandparents every summer. They own a peach farm out in Georgia, and if you don’t know, summer-time is peak harvest season. The trees would be overflowing, their branches weighed down by pounds of plump peaches. These peaches . . . man, they were something else, otherworldly. Let’s just put it this way: I’ve never been able to eat the ones from the grocery store–they don’t even compare.
I asked them what their secret was once. They said, “You just need to know who to ask for help,” and left it at that. I was seven at the time, so I just accepted that answer.
Some of my best memories are on that farm. Getting too much candy from my grandma, shooting my BB gun at targets in the yard, and playing in the woods at the edge of their property. My grandpa always went with me when I’d explore the woods; he was very strict about that, said it was dangerous to go wandering around in there alone.
There was one . . . odd memory, though, and I remember it very distinctly. I had gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, but on my way back to bed I heard the kitchen door open. I went to investigate and found my grandma on the back porch, looking out at the woods. She hadn’t noticed me yet, so being the mischievous brat that I was, I snuck up behind her and shouted, “Boo!”
Grandma almost struck me across the face before realizing it was me. Her usually cheerful demeanor was missing, and I saw something in her eyes that immediately made me regret being out there.
“What are you doing?” she hissed. “You can’t be out here this late!”
I tried asking why she was outside in the middle of the night, but she shushed me and ushered me inside. I managed a quick look over my shoulder before she closed the kitchen door and saw a plate of food on the porch.
Grandma locked the door behind her and wagged a serious finger in my face. “Don’t you ever do that again, do you understand?”
The next morning my grandparents pulled me aside and made me promise I would never go outside of the house when it was dark. When my mom picked me up a few days later, I told her what had happened. She assured me they were just being overprotective, and that it was probably because bears were known to roam the area. I nodded, but didn’t quite believe her.
As I got older I visited my grandparents less and less, until I finally stopped going altogether. It wasn’t until my grandma passed away that I flew back with mom. The funeral was the first time I’ve ever seen my grandpa cry, and now he was all alone at the farm. I chose to stay with him again that summer.
It wasn’t at all like when I would go as a kid.
Grandpa hung out in front of the TV most of the day, and there wasn’t much for me to do there either. I wasn’t a child anymore, so the joy of going into a sugar coma, and then playing in the woods just didn’t hold the same allure as it used to.
During my last night there, I stayed up late looking at old photos of my grandparents and eating peaches–they were as delicious as I remembered. I heard my grandpa shuffle past my bedroom door, and a quick look at my phone told me it was 1am. Curious as to why he was up so late, I followed him into the kitchen. I found the fridge open and caught a glimpse of my grandpa’s bathrobe going out the kitchen door.
Grandpa turned to me as I stepped onto the porch, his milky eyes mildly surprised. I noticed a plate of food at his feet. He anticipated my question and said, “It’s nothing for you to worry about, kiddo. Come on, we need to get back in the house.”
I should have made the connection between what I saw there and what I had seen grandma doing all those years ago. I left the next morning, ready to get back to my life.
Yesterday I got a call from my mom. Grandpa fell while shopping in town and hit his head. I took the first flight out to Georgia. When I got there, I found my mom sitting at his bedside, her eyes puffy and red.
“He’s in a coma. The doctors aren’t sure he’s going to wake up,” she said, and then started crying again.
It hurt to see mom like that, and I wanted to help make her feel better. I told her to come with me to my grandparents’ farm. We could look at old photos and remember the good times while eating some peaches. It was mid-July, which meant they were in season. Mom agreed–she said she just needed to get out of the hospital for a bit.
I couldn’t believe what I saw when we got to the farm. The peach trees were bare, all of them. All the fruit were rotting lumps in the dirt, and the whole place smelled sickly sweet. I didn’t understand what was happening, but mom didn’t seem to notice in her grief.
She led the way into the house, though I was reluctant to follow. The place didn’t feel right. She went off to find the photo albums and left me alone in the living room. I wandered into the kitchen and saw the door leading into the backyard open. Out there on the porch was an empty plate of bones that had been picked clean. I realized this must’ve been the last plate of food grandpa left out before being taken to the hospital.
I can’t explain what compelled me to do what I did next. I discarded the chicken bones and took the plate into the kitchen, loaded it up with a pack of hot dogs I found in the fridge, then went back out.
The plate barely touched the porch when I saw the trees in the woods bend and sway; a moment later, a blast of air hit me in the chest and knocked me to the floor. I shook my head, dazed, and realized the hot dogs were gone.
A voice rasped in my ear and my blood ran cold: “The deal was broken. I have gone without food, and now the scale must be balanced.”
Air rushed past me again and I heard the kitchen door slam open; I flipped onto my stomach and saw a shape swoop into the house. My mom screamed briefly and then things fell silent again.
I sprinted inside, calling for my mom. I checked all the rooms and saw no sign of her. I ran to the front door, praying that maybe she had gone out to the car, but I froze in the doorway. I blinked hard to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.
The trees were full again, filled with those magically ripe peaches; I staggered to the nearest tree and picked one of the fruit, biting into it. Perfectly sweet, and only then I realized, unnaturally so.