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Cardinal Orchard

Cardinal Orchard was a nice orchard. It was about twenty minutes out from campus, at the top of a hill, at the end a long winding road. It had a large storefront at the base of hill where it sold apple pies and apple tarts and apple anything all year, but Mia worked for the Pick Your Own orchards at the end of the road. The hours were more flexible, and she actually liked getting up early to move posts and sell kettle corn. Her coworkers were laid back and friendly, and the fruit smelled amazing.

There was just one weird thing about it.

"Good morning!" said the woman standing at the base of the hill when Mia came in her first morning. She had long brown hair, a plain red sundress, and a red t-shirt with the orchard's logo on it: a big, smiling apple. "It's a nice day, isn't it?"

"Yeah, good morning," said Mia.

"Good morning!" said the woman standing out by the tent with the scale and cash register. She had long brown hair, a plain red sundress, and a red t-shirt with the orchard's logo on it. "It's a nice day, isn't it?"

"Morning, yeah," said Mia, not really think about it.

"Good morning!" said the woman standing out by the pick your own pumpkins. She had long brown hair, a plain red sundress, and a red t-shirt with the orchard's logo on it. "It's a nice day, isn't it?"

"Uh," said Mia.

"Oh, don't worry about them," said the orchard supervisor when Mia checked in with her about it. "Those are just the Macs. They like to say hi to new employees. It's kind of weird at first, but they're super friendly."

"The… Macs?" asked Mia.

"You know," said Mia's supervisor. "McIntosh Red. They're one of the favorites. The trees are just a little out past the haystacks. They're not ready for guests today but they will be pretty soon."

Mia turned this over in her head a bit. She liked this job and didn't want to ask stupid questions. "They look a lot like people," she said, finally.

"Well, yeah. That's dryads for you," said her supervisor, with a laugh. "Heart of the tree, and all that. They like to wander, but their real bodies are all planted out back, so they don't go far. Don't worry, they're hard to mix up with staff."

On her lunch break, Mia walked out past the haystacks. She found the apple trees, labeled with a laminated sign. She also found a large group of women walking through the rows. They all had long brown hair, plain red sundresses, and red t-shirts with the orchard logo on them.

"Good afternoon!" said the woman nearest to her. "It's a nice day isn't it?"

"They all look the same," said Mia to Taylor, her coworker, while popping kettle corn. For a second, she wondered if maybe this made her some kind of fruit tree racist, but her coworker only shrugged.

"They should," said Taylor, "These cultivars are all cloned from each other. How else do you make sure you get the same apple?"

"Oh," said Mia.

"Yeah, I know it's really weird," said Taylor, "But it's okay, they're super nice. The Goldens can be a little standoffish, though."

"The Goldens?"

"They're out past the Macs," said Taylor. Then a large school group came up to the register and they were occupied for the better part of the next hour.

On one of her breaks, Mia walked out past the Macs.

"Hi," said one of the Macs. "It's Mia, isn't it?"

"Hi," said Mia.

The Golden Delicious trees were labeled with another laminated sign. Past the sign was a row of sprawling trees. In between those trees, a group of women wandered in and out. They all had blonde-green hair, orange tans, green sundresses, and bright red shirts with the orchard's logo on them. They strutted around with their heads high and didn't really notice Mia at all.

Mia turned and walked back the way she came.

"Hi," said one of the Macs, "It's Mia, isn't it?"

"Yeah," said Mia. "I'm new. Nice to meet you?"

Over the next few days, the Pick Your Own orchards opened for guests. Mia discovered the orchard had a lot more trees, and those trees had their own particular personality. Golden Delicious were a bit distant, Red Delicious were kind of bland, Macouns were sharp, Gala a little flirty, etc. They all looked exactly like others of their cultivar. The clothes, Mia learned, were at the insistence of upper management.

"Hard for the parents to explain to the kids," said Mia's supervisor.

All of them mostly stayed in their designated row. On her breaks, Mia went out to watch them. They followed visitors around, sometimes picking up kids to get the apples on their higher branches. If the visitors thought it was kind of weird, they didn't say anything. The kids ran around and laughed and screamed as much as kids normally did. Adults seemed to like the extra help.

"Does it bother you when the kids try to climb you?" Mia asked the Mac that liked to stand by the register.

"Not at all," said the Mac, smiling. "They're here to lighten my load, right?"

The Macs were by far the most hands-on, their base personality being the most sociable. After a few days, Mia began to tell the subtle difference between them. The Mac that stood out by the employee parking had a splash of freckles on her cheek. The Mac that liked to stand by the register had a dimple in her chin.

"Hi Mia," said Freckles, when she came in.

"Hi," said Mia, holding her bag of donuts, "Want anything?"

"I'm good," said Freckles, "It's been really sunny this morning."

"Hi Mia," said Dimple, as Mia opened up the register.

"Hi," said Mia, "Thirsty?"

"I'm good," said Dimple, "It rained a lot last night."

Mia got so used to seeing the Macs in the morning that she noticed the day she came in and they weren't there. The skies were overcast. It had rained a lot the night before. Mia's supervisor met her at the register.

"Pick Your Own apples are closed today," she said, clutching a hot cider a bit too tight. "Pumpkins and the corn maze are open. Don't go to the orchard on your lunch break."

"Is something wrong?" asked Mia.

"Too much rain," said her supervisor. "There's a mold running around in the McIntosh stock. We've called in an arborist. They're taking down some of the infected trees before it spreads. It's going to be fine, but it's better if we keep everyone out of the way."

"They're doing what?" asked Mia. Dimple wasn't standing next to the tent. "But how, what about—"

"It's okay," said her supervisor. "This just happens sometimes. Don't think too hard about it."

The arborist came in around 9:30 am, along with an army of orchard hands with equipment and tractors. Cardinal opened at 10 am. Mia sold kettle corn and cider. Mia directed families to the pumpkin patch and the corn maze. She heard the sound of chainsaws going all day. On her lunch break, she tried to go down to the McIntosh row, but they'd parked the tractors in the way. Mia could make out the sheets they'd thrown over the row, workers moving behind them, the sound of equipment drowned out anything else.

"Oof," said Taylor, who worked the scales in the afternoon. "Bad one this year."

"They seemed fine yesterday," said Mia. "Does mold really spread that fast?"

"When they're all grown from the same clippings they've all got the same immunities," said Taylor. "Something that gets one of them can take them all out."

Later in the afternoon, the orchard hands came by with a line of large wheelbarrows. They were covered in sheets.

"What's—" Mia started to ask.

"Don't think about it," said Taylor. "It'll be fine."

Dimple re-appeared later that afternoon, a little red-eyed and flushed.

"Hi, Mia," she said. "Sorry I'm late."

"Mac," cried Mia. All of the Macs answered to it. "Are you okay?"

"A little sick," admitted Dimple, "But the doctor says now that the bad stuff's gone. They think I should be fine."

That was when Mia noticed that Dimple' right arm was gone. The short sleeve of her orchard t-shirt hung empty.

"Oh," said Mia, trying to remember how to breathe, "Are you, um, sure about that?"

Mac looked down at her empty sleeve.

"Don't worry," said Mac brightly, "It's just a branch."

"Just a branch?"

"Yes," said Mac, smiling brighter. "The doctor said if it was worse, they'd have to take off more."

Mia remembered all those wheelbarrows and swallowed hard.

"Sorry, can you cover me?" she asked Taylor, "I'm feeling kind of sick."

The Pick Your Own orchards were still closed the next day. Freckles still wasn't by the entrance. There was a dumpster by the employee parking lot, covered in tarp. A dirty Cardinal Orchard t-shirt lay at the foot of the dumpster, along with a moldy apple and three severed fingers.

Up at the tent, Dimple said good morning.

"Hello, Mia," she said. "The doctor says I'll be okay."

She held up both of her arms. She had two again. Mia looked between one and the other to check.

"Wow," said Mia with a distinct sense of relief. Maybe she'd made the whole thing up. "That's great."

"Yes. They grafted a new branch onto me," said Dimple. "See?"

Dimple's right hand was now half an inch longer than her left, the skin now a charming shade of orange.

"Oh," said Mia. Her eyes traveled up Dimple's arm to her shoulder, which was covered by her shirt sleeve. "I… should get back to work."

"Have fun," said Dimple.

Mia sold kettle corn and apple cider and thought about nothing but blank skies. Mid-morning her supervisor came by to let her know the arborist was done. The orchard would reopen in the afternoon.

"We were lucky," said her supervisor. "We only lost a few trees. The rest just needed some pruning. The debris should be cleared out by this afternoon. See? I told you everything would be fine."

Mia skipped lunch. She made it through the day. She clocked out. The dumpster left a muddy impression next to the parking lot. Mia didn't look at it. The drive took twenty minutes. It was really a good commute. When she got home, she was horribly thirsty. She poured herself some of the cider she'd bought from the main store. Cardinal offered great employee discounts. Her fridge was full of it. She stopped and looked at the glass.

"Don't think about it," she said.

She drank the whole glass. It tasted pretty good.

About the Author
Alex T. Singer is the author of the webcomic Sfeer Theory and the graphic novella Small Town Witch. She's written a number of short stories for both print and online zines. For more of her work, please visit her at littlefoolery.com or on Twitter @sfeertheorist.