How to Peel an Orange

By Stephanie Wheeler

Featured Art: Peeled II by Samantha Slone

The dryer was making a monstrous sound. The repairman stood with his hand resting flat on top.

“I feel the vibration,” he said. He was a fat man with a three-day stubble sprouting in uneven patches on his face. His uniform shirt was belted into his trousers around the front and haphazardly untucked in the back. Hazel could see his milky eyes shifting rapidly through smudged glasses. She hated him a little.

Hazel nodded. “And you can hear it, too.”

He squinted his eyes, then squeezed them tight, concentrating.

Hazel decided that she hated him a lot.

“The grinding sound,” Hazel said, straining to make her voice heard above the din. “It’s quite obvious, really.”

“Ah, yes. The grinding. I hear it.”

Hazel’s cell phone chimed then, and she looked at the screen. The name Walt appeared in white letters, glowing.

“Excuse me,” she told the repairman, “I need to take this.”

He waved her away. “Go ahead. I’ll keep at it, love,” he said.

She looked at him, glared, and considered saying something. Something clever about how he shouldn’t call her love. Who was he to call her love? They’d only just met and he was charging a $100 service fee simply to walk in the door and provide diagnostics on the dryer. The $100 was charged before and apart from the repairs. She didn’t feel any love. But her phone was insistent. Hazel left the laundry room, glanced over her shoulder, and pulled the door tight behind her. She went into the kitchen.

“Walt,” she said into the phone.

“Hello, Two,” Walt said. He cleared his throat. “You know I’m not one for small talk. So, I’m just going to say it.”

Walt was quiet then and Hazel waited. She waited a breath. She waited a beat. And then another. She thought he was going to ask for money. It had happened a few times before when work was slow. She was ready for that, willing to send him a few hundred bucks so her nephew could have new basketball sneakers or whatever it was that he needed.

“Say what, Walt?”

“Mom’s dead.”

“Mom’s dead,” Hazel repeated. This was not what she’d expected. Money was one thing, but telling her their mother was dead was another. Hazel leaned against the refrigerator.

“That’s right. And you’re the executor, apparently. So, you need to get to the house. And quickly.”

“This is no way to tell me, Walt,” Hazel said. “What happened?” Her breath was coming fast and she felt fire in her face. She pressed her back against the stainless-steel door, bent her knees and slid down until her bottom found the ground.

“Ah, well. Barry called me last night after he found her. She went in her sleep. He said he didn’t want to burden you.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Hazel heard the dryer rumble to a stop and then metal rattling.

“It was late. I don’t think he wanted to call in the evening. Probably because of the kids.”

“Zoe is sixteen,” Hazel said.

“Ah, well,” Walt said. “Maybe he was thinking of the others.”

“I haven’t got any other children.”

“You and Dale, I meant.”

“I thought she was doing so well,” Hazel said.

“How quickly can you get down here?”

“Wasn’t she in remission?” Hazel tilted her head back and stared at the ceiling. It was a popcorn ceiling, white and pocked, that she and Dale had planned to have smoothed out when they bought the house. But that was ten years ago.

“Apparently not. Barry wasn’t clear on the details. Can you be here this afternoon?”

“No. I have to get Zoe after school. But I can go later this week. Maybe tomorrow, even. I’ll need to arrange a ride for Zoe.”

“It can’t wait. With you being named on the paperwork, Barry doesn’t feel he can proceed.”

“Proceed with what?”

“Plans, arrangements. I don’t know. Between you and me, he’s a bit put out that you were named instead of him. He believed his name was on the documentation. I guess he drove her to the lawyer a year ago. Imagine his surprise when he pulled the papers last night and saw your name instead.”

Hazel tried to remember the last time she had seen their mother. She tried to remember what excuse she had used to avoid driving down over Thanksgiving. She closed her eyes and rested her head in the palm of her hand.

“I’ve got the dryer repairman here. I’ve waited two weeks for this appointment.”

“I’ll meet you at the house. Serve as your buffer. What is it? A two-, a three-hour drive?”

“Walt, I’ve been hanging my clean clothes on a line in our side yard. I use a hair dryer on my and Zoe’s underthings because I’m afraid the neighbor is a pedophile and I don’t want to give him any ideas.”

“Ah, well. Might be time for a new neighbor. But I think you need to get down here, Two.”

“Can you please not call me that?”

“Barry won’t do anything until you get here.”

“I don’t understand the urgency. What’s the harm in waiting a few days?”

Hazel opened her eyes and saw the repairman standing, suddenly, in the kitchen across from her.

“I think the belt needs to be replaced, love,” he said, his words a whisper. He extended his arm and showed Hazel a flat, black coil of rubber that twisted like fly paper. “It’s frayed.”

“Call me when you’re half an hour away, Two,” Walt said into the phone, and then he hung up.

Hazel stared at the repairman. Her thoughts rippled from him, standing in front of her, to Walt who had just spoken to her, to Barry who should have called her last night, to her mother whom she’d never speak to again.

Hazel stuttered over that thought. She would never speak to her mother again.

“Love?” the repairman said. “Miss? Can I help you up?”

He leaned toward her slightly, offering her his arm, but not his hand. Rather stupidly, he extended his elbow instead. Hazel thought that his squinted eyes and awkward posture revealed genuine concern. Perhaps she had been too quick to judge him.

“Right, the belt, sorry,” Hazel said. She stood up by herself. “Can you do it now? Really fast?”

“I wish I could, love. But I don’t have the part. I’ll put it on order. Should be seven to ten business days.” He pulled a notepad out of his shirt pocket and plucked a pencil stub from behind his ear. “I’ll make a note to have somebody call you as soon as it comes in,” he said.

Hazel decided she’d been right about hating him in the first place.

***

She didn’t even consider calling Dale to ask if he could pick up Zoe from school. There was no way she was making this drive without Zoe. She used her phone to email the school’s front office. She began typing My mother passed away, then switched to Zoe’s grandmother died but settled on There’s been an unexpected death in the family. It didn’t really matter. She just wanted Zoe to be ready and out front when she got there.

Hazel laid her hand on the refrigerator door handle. It was nine o’clock in the morning but she needed a drink. She knew there was an open bottle of Chardonnay that Dale had poured from the night before. He’d had one glass. It always felt a bit like a slap in the face. His nonchalance at finishing, or even worse, not finishing his one glass of wine. Hazel reached into the refrigerator and filled a tall glass, right up to the top. She sensed Dale wasn’t watching her as closely as before. He might not notice this one glass missing from the bottle, despite how much she filled it. If he did notice, if he asked, she would remind him that her mother was dead. Her hands trembled, and she gulped it down fast. Hazel’s tongue tingled and she tasted hints of peach and almond. She felt her muscles soften. Her breath grew deep and even almost immediately. It was a good bottle, she knew. She didn’t remember Dale buying such quality wine when she was still drinking. She looked at what was left, doubtful it was even a full glass. Hazel brought the bottle to her lips, cool and smooth, and drank it slowly. Each sip melted against her throat like butter. When it was empty, she sighed and slid the bottle under all the other bottles and cans in the recycling bin.

She hoped that Dale wouldn’t remember it had existed.

***

When Hazel pulled up to the school Zoe was standing out front in the rain, her full-arm cast bent in front of her body like a poorly drawn, blue letter L.

Zoe stood still, nonchalant, and waited for Hazel to shift the car into park before even stepping off the curb towards the car.

“Good thing we sprung for the waterproof cast,” Hazel said when she got in.

Zoe shrugged and brushed the rain off her shoulders, twisted out her long hair. Water beaded up on the leather armrest.

“Why are you here?” Zoe asked.

“Didn’t they tell you?”

“Death in the family? You expect me to believe that?”

“Yes, in fact, I do. Because you are sixteen and I don’t think I’ve done anything to earn your skepticism.”

Zoe laughed at her mother. She stared at her phone, touched the screen. “You have got to be kidding me,” she said.

“And, in fact, your grandmother died,” Hazel said.

“Seriously?” Zoe turned to Hazel.

“Seriously.”

“Okay. Fine. But, so what? You don’t even like her? Why’d you come get me?”

“I liked her. And she named me executor. So, I have to drive down to look at the will. Dad is busy, so you have to come with me.”

“Can’t you drop me off at home?” Zoe tapped her phone.

“I thought you’d want to come along. For the ride.”

“I’m not a dog,” Zoe said.

“You haven’t seen your uncles in a long time.”

Zoe stared at Hazel. She frowned, then leaned forward and stuck her nose in front of her mother’s mouth, sniffing fast.

“What are you doing?” Hazel said, pulling away.

“Are you drunk? Have you been drinking?” Zoe asked.

Hazel swerved as she turned to look at Zoe. “My God, Zoe. No.”

Zoe lunged to grab her mother’s bag and stirred her hand around.

“Fuck,” she said. “What are these?” She held up three small vodka bottles. “Those are old.”

Hazel shook her head. “I’ve had those for a long time.” “Not in your purse, you haven’t,” Zoe said.

“I just lost my mother, Zoe. Give me a break.”

“I go in your purse all of the time.”

“It isn’t what you think,” Hazel said. “I forgot to throw them out.”

“You’re lying,” Zoe said. “What did you have? 62 days? And back to day zero. Dad will be so pissed.” Zoe shook her head.

“Dad doesn’t have to know.” Hazel realized now that grabbing the vodkas from the garage had been a mistake. She should have known Zoe would find them.

“He’ll know when I tell him,” Zoe said.

“That’s not necessary, but it is your choice. I will never ask you to lie for me.” This was something Hazel’s counselor had told her was important. And as impractical as it sometimes was, Hazel, in theory, agreed.

“He should leave you.” Zoe’s eyes were creased, and flecks of moisture flew out of her mouth with her words.

“Marriage is a complicated thing, Zoe,” Hazel said.

“I’d leave you if I could,” Zoe said.

Hazel gazed at her daughter out of the corner of her eye. Teenagers could be

so cruel. She remembered being that way herself. And impulsive with both their words and their actions. Although Hazel wasn’t sure this was something that necessarily improved with age. She herself wished she had been satisfied with that one glass of wine. And why had she taken those bottles with her?

“You know, omitting information is not the same as lying. You might consider that,” Hazel said.

Zoe turned away from Hazel, toward the window. “I’d leave you right now if I could.”

“I understand how you might think that’s true. But you are my daughter, you will never leave me.”

“Isn’t that the fucking truth,” Zoe said.

***

Zoe pressed a button and the passenger window squeaked open. She turned and contorted her body to lay her good arm out, palm open in the rain, floating in the draft of air conjured by the moving car. She looked like she was trying to escape. Hazel considered if this was a possibility and decided it was not, but she pushed a button on her door to raise that window anyway. Zoe didn’t need the other arm broken. She pulled herself back in, glaring at her mother.

Hazel kept her eyes on the road, but she felt Zoe studying her. Then she sensed Zoe’s attention shift. Zoe examined the bottles on her lap and pinched one between her fingers. She twisted one of the little bottle caps off and tipped the bottle to her mouth, fast.

“What are you doing?” Hazel asked.

Zoe opened a second bottle. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Stop,” Hazel said, reaching for Zoe. “Stop it!” Hazel swatted at her daughter, but it was too late. She had finished the second little bottle. “You can’t do that. You’re only sixteen years old.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? You’re driving around wasted. I’m taking one for the team. Better me than you.”

Hazel didn’t know when Zoe had become so belligerent. Certainly, the broken wrist had been a disappointment. Had it started then? Or had it just taken something that obvious to make Hazel aware, to make her pay attention. Hazel blinked away the idea that Zoe’s anger stemmed from the broken wrist, that it had anything to do with her.

“Don’t tell Dad,” Hazel said.

“Fuck,” Zoe said. “You don’t tell Dad.”

***

Zoe was asleep when Hazel pulled up to her mother’s house. Her neck was bent, head leaning against the door. She snored—shallow, raspy breaths. Hazel took this as a good sign, reasoning that if Zoe was a frequent drinker, two nips wouldn’t knock her out. Hazel hoped this was her first time drinking. She vaguely recalled reading an article about how it was safer for teenagers to have their first experience drinking alcohol with a parent.

There was that, at least.

Hazel left her and walked up to the house alone. It was no longer raining, but the air was heavy with moisture and cold. Hazel took a deep breath when she reached the front door. She turned the knob and felt it shift, the metal rattled in its casing. “Hello,” she called out, stepping inside.

Hazel heard a voice answer, “You’re here.” She knew it was Barry, immediately.

Hazel walked into the house, and stepped onto a plank of wood set down in the entry, where a rug should be. She saw Barry slouching in a tweed recliner across from the television and Walt, farther into the house, reaching for something in a kitchen cabinet.

“Goody, Goody Two Shoes,” Barry said, his eyes trained on the television.

She walked over and kissed him on the head. “I’m sorry about Mom,” she said.

“It sucks,” he said.

Hazel watched him, waited for him to turn his eyes away from the glowing program to greet her. But his gaze was fixed on the screen.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” Barry said, reaching for his beer.

“Yes, you were,” Walt said. He closed the cabinet door and looked at Hazel. “I’m making eggs, Two. Would you like some?”

Hazel heard the front door swing open and she turned. There was Zoe, taller than she was herself, with that ridiculous blue cast that encased her from her shoulder to her thumb, her hoodie pulled over her one good arm. She understood why the cast made Zoe angry.

“Zoe,” they both said at the same time.

“I wasn’t expecting Zoe,” Barry said.

Barry and Walt looked at Hazel.

“Careful in the entry,” Barry said, shifting in his seat. Hazel thought for a moment he might stand up, but then he settled back in again. “We’ve got some wood rot,” he said.

Zoe bounced a little on the plank before moving into the room. She flopped down heavily on the sofa and leaned back, laid her casted arm like a shield across her body.

“Holy shit,” Walt said. “What happened to you?”

“Broken wrist,” Zoe said, raising her arm a few inches off her body.

“Were you in a car accident? That’s a serious cast,” Walt said.

“It’s called a full arm spica,” Hazel said.

“How’d you break it?” Barry asked.

Zoe smiled. “Mom can explain.”

“She broke her scaphoid,” Hazel said. “In her wrist.”

“You sure she just broke her wrist?” Walt asked, looking at Hazel.

“Just my tiny little scaphoid, in my tiny little wrist,” Zoe said.

“You look all messed up,” Barry said.

“It’s been 63 long days, right Mom?”

Zoe’s words were laced, fringed with contempt, but Hazel was the only one who seemed to notice.

“Scaphoid breaks are the most common wrist break,” Hazel said.

“But how the hell did you do that?” Walt asked.

“I’ve never seen anybody in a getup like that,” Barry said.

“You haven’t even properly looked at her,” said Hazel.

“Maybe she needs a second opinion, Two,” Walt said.

“We went to University Children’s Hospital,” Hazel said. “And stop calling me that.”

“She looks disabled,” Barry said.

“Maybe you should turn the television off,” Hazel said.

“Mom thinks UCH is the best for pediatric orthopedics,” Zoe said.

“Ah well, I’m not so sure about that,” Walt said. “Judging from the look of you.” “You look all messed up,” Barry said, looking directly at Zoe.

“But how the hell did you do that to yourself?” Walt asked.

Zoe smiled and turned to Hazel.

“Mom can explain,” Zoe said, for the second time, her voice lilting like a leaf skimming the breeze.

***

Hazel considered explaining. She was thinking of how to begin. She was thinking about honesty, and what was best for Zoe. She had an urge to protect her daughter, even, she thought, at her own expense. Then she noticed the three stockings hanging in front of the fireplace.

“Mom hung our stockings,” Hazel said, pointing. The sight of them twisted at her insides. “That must have been hard for her.”

“I got them down from the attic,” Barry said.

“Still,” Hazel said.

Zoe tilted her chin in the direction of the stockings. “There’s something in the bottom,” she said.

Walt stood in the kitchen, nudging eggs in a frying pan with a wooden spoon. He looked over his shoulder. “Has anybody decided about having eggs?” he asked.

***

Hazel walked over to the stockings. They were stretchy and sagged with the weight of something heavy in the toe. She reached inside hers and felt a firm, papery ball. She clasped her fingers around it and pulled it out.

“It’s an onion,” she said, holding it up.

“Mom was always doing that orange thing,” Walt said from the kitchen. “Remember?”

“But it’s an onion,” Hazel repeated.

“She was worried she wouldn’t feel well enough to fill the stockings. She started early this year,” Barry said.

Walt brought Zoe a plate of eggs.

“No thanks,” Zoe said.

“You should eat them. You look thin.”

“She can eat Hazel’s orange, if she’s hungry,” Barry said.

“I think it was a tradition from Mom’s childhood,” Walt said.

“I don’t have an orange,” Hazel said. “I have an onion.”

“Why would Mom give Two an onion?” Walt asked.

“You can do a lot with an onion,” Zoe said.

“She was out of oranges,” Barry said.

“You knew about this,” Hazel said. “This is your fault.”

“Not exactly. I’m only guessing.”

“I could eat an orange,” Zoe said.

“You can have mine, Zoe. Take a look in my stocking,” Walt said.

Zoe walked to the mantel and reached in Walt’s stocking. She pulled her arm out and held up a large, bright orange.

“Thanks, Uncle Walt,” Zoe said. She sniffed the orange and took it into the kitchen. She looked like a toddler, Hazel thought, wandering off with an incomprehensible prize.

***

Walt sat down on the sofa. He propped the plate of eggs on his lap and forked a bite into his mouth.

“So, Two here is Mom’s executor,” he said.

“Executrix,” Barry said.

“You’ll need to review the will, all the paperwork,” Walt said. “And make the arrangements.” He cleared his throat. “Barry, where is all the paperwork?”

“I have to say, I thought I was the executor,” said Barry. “Living here with Mom all these years.”

“It doesn’t matter much,” said Hazel. “Mom showed me the will a few years back. It all goes three ways. House, investments, all of it. Simple.”

Barry stared at the television. Walt looked at Barry.

“Barry, is there anything you’d like to add?” Walt said.

“Paperwork is in Mom’s bedroom. I left it on her desk when I saw you were named. I didn’t want to overstep.”

“That’s good information,” Walt said. He nodded and took a bite of egg. “Is there anything else, Barry?”

Barry reached for the television remote and pressed a button. Hazel saw the television flash and the program change.

Walt cleared his throat and ate again. “Too runny,” he said, setting the plate on the coffee table.

“What’s going on here?” Hazel asked.

Walt ran his fingers through his hair. “Two, there are a couple of things. First, you’ll need to make the arrangements. Barry wants no part.”

“Fine,” Hazel said.

“You need to get started,” Barry said. “Quickly.”

“She’s hardly been gone for a day,” Hazel said. “I’ll take care of it.”

“That’s good.” Walt nodded. “And it seems that Mom’s investment accounts have listed beneficiaries. They’re not a part of her estate,” he said.

“Why would Mom do that?” Hazel asked.

“I don’t know. But it appears she only named Barry and myself.”

“And me?” Hazel asked, looking at Walt.

Walt pursed his lips and shook his head.

He did this,” she said, turning to Barry, who sat sipping from his amber bottle.

“I didn’t do anything I wasn’t instructed to do,” Barry said.

“Instructed?” Hazel said.

“Barry says Mom told him to help her make the changes last year,” Walt said.

“Mom didn’t know what she was doing last year.”

“Sure she did,” Barry said.

Hazel held up the onion. “She put an onion in my stocking.”

Walt nodded. “I have to agree with Two. The onion is unusual.”

“The onion was this year,” Barry said.

“Still, last year could have produced an onion,” Walt said. “I’d say she was already in an onion-like state of mind last year.”

“I’m not sure the onion wasn’t a deliberate choice,” Barry said. “Fully intentional. Clear-minded.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Hazel asked.

“There’s no need to be vulgar, Barry,” Walt said.

“I’m not sure vulgar is the right word,” Hazel said.

“See,” said Barry. “This is always how she is.”

“I’m going to be honest, Barry,” Walt said. “I think Two will sue us.”

“Sue you?” Hazel asked.

“Why would Two sue us?” Barry asked.

“Can you please not call me that?” Hazel asked.

Walt stood up and put his hands on his hips. “Ah, well, she’s a lawyer for one thing. But mainly, I’d say it’s the money. Mainly for the money.”

***

Zoe appeared in front of the television.

“Blood!” she said, her voice splitting with electricity. She held her casted arm away from her body, the thumb tilted downward. Heavy, red drops splattered in steady intervals from the blue thumb space like water from a spout.

Walt stared at her.

Hazel stood up. “Zoe,” she said, loudly. She covered her mouth with both hands and stopped, frozen, watching her daughter bleed.

“I hate to interrupt, but I cut my fucking thumb,” Zoe said.

“Zoe, why is there blood dripping out of your cast?” Walt asked.

“I just said, I cut my fucking thumb.”

“There’s so much blood,” Hazel said. “You’re getting blood all over the carpet. Hold it up.” Hazel moved her arm, demonstrating what she wanted Zoe to do.

Barry waved his hand. “Doesn’t matter now,” he said. “Two needs to sell this place anyway. A little blood on the carpet won’t make a difference.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Walt said.

“Did you cut it off, Zoe?” Hazel asked. “Is your thumb still attached?” She was standing beside her daughter now, peering inside the tunnel that held Zoe’s thumb.

“How is blood coming from inside the cast?” Walt asked.

“I pushed my thumb out to grip the orange while I was cutting it. The knife slipped.”

“Where are the Band-Aids?” Hazel asked.

“But did you cut it off?” Walt asked.

“No,” Zoe said. “Just sliced it.”

“We don’t have Band-Aids,” Barry said. “We have more beer, though.” He grunted and stood up.

“It stings,” Zoe said.

“We need to stop the bleeding,” Hazel said.

“I’ve got my work van,” Walt said. He touched Zoe’s good arm. “Come with me. I have a first aid kit.”

Zoe walked outside with Walt, blood dotting a path alongside her. Hazel saw that she wasn’t even trying to keep it from splattering on the carpet.

Hazel followed Barry into the kitchen. “You can’t steal Mom’s money from me Barry. It’s not right.”

“I didn’t steal anything, Two,” he said, reaching into the refrigerator. He pulled out two bottles of beer and handed one to Hazel.

Hazel reached out and clasped the bottle in her hand. It was a reflex, accepting a beer from her brother, from anybody, really. It was cold and damp and her body flushed at the thought of drinking it. Zoe was outside with Walt. She would never know.

“That’s . . . that’s . . .” Hazel searched for the correct word. She wanted to say that’s mean, but she knew that Barry wouldn’t care. “That’s embezzlement,” she finally said. “That’s illegal.”

“You’re not even a real lawyer,” Barry said. He opened his beer with a metal opener, then offered it to Hazel.

“I went to law school.” Hazel put her hand on the opener, but rather than taking it she knocked it from his grip. It spiraled through the air and landed silently, on the rug beneath the sink.

“I just did what Mom told me to do,” Barry said.

Hazel set the bottle on the kitchen table and held her onion out, displayed it for Barry.

“Mom would not have wanted me to have this onion, Barry.”

Barry shrugged his shoulders and went back to the recliner. He fixed his eyes on the television.

“Paperwork is in the bedroom,” he said.

***

Hazel opened the door to her mother’s bedroom. She immediately noticed a smell—rancid and biting. The odor of old age, illness, and death, she thought. She felt a pinch in her chest at the realization that her mother took her final breath in that room, that the essence of her mother might still be lingering in that space.

The blinds were drawn and it was difficult to see. Dust particles floated in the stripes of afternoon light. Hazel went to the desk and saw a manila envelope on top with her mother’s cursive script, Important Documents. She picked it up and turned when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw that there was something in the bed. The bed was not empty. The sheet was drawn up over what appeared to be a body.

Hazel froze, but her heart thumped. It couldn’t be. Even Barry wouldn’t do that.

She laid her hand on her chest to calm herself and inhaled. An even deeper stench made her gag. Hazel’s eyes traveled the length of the bed, deciphered the shape, and she was certain. Feet splayed open, legs, torso, face, and a tuft of white hair curling out from the top of the sheet. Hazel wanted to look at her mother—her mother’s body which had been her first home—one last time. She wanted to touch her and say goodbye. She took a step towards the bed. She could see where her mother’s nose crested under the sheet. But that smell. The rancid and biting odor sent her reeling backwards. Hazel swallowed the thickness building in her throat. She moved away but in the dim light didn’t see that there was something on the ground. She stepped and stumbled slightly. She regained her footing and saw a brown paper bag, the top crumpled closed. Hazel reached for the bag, hesitated, and then unfolded it. She leaned forward slightly and pulled the bag open wide.

Hazel saw onions. About a half dozen lying in the bottom. And scattered amongst them, mint chewing gum. Hazel reached in the bag and pulled out a pack. She peeled off the cellophane wrapper, slid a stick from the pack, and placed it on her tongue. Hazel approached her mother’s body. She ran her hand along the sheet that covered her mother’s hand, wrist, arm. And when she reached the top of the sheet, when she was about to pull it back, she hesitated. She let her fingers linger, combing through her mother’s frizz of white hair. And Hazel began chewing. Because gum was supposed to stop the tears when you were chopping an onion, and Hazel hoped it might work at other times as well.

***

Hazel found Zoe and Walt sitting on the front steps. She noticed it immediately, from behind, before Zoe even turned around.

“Zoe, where’s your cast?” she asked. Her voice was shrill, and both Walt and Zoe looked at her fast.

“Uncle Walt took it off,” Zoe said.

“What do you mean, took it off? How?”

“Two, it was a ridiculously large cast for a simple wrist fracture,” Walt said.

“He used his doll furniture saw,” said Zoe.

“That was not your decision to make, Walt,” Hazel said.

“Zzzzzzzzz,” Zoe mimicked, tracing her finger down the length of her arm.

“You are not a doctor, Walt,” Hazel said.

“The orange juice was seeping inside. She said it was burning her cut,” Walt said. He lifted his hands above his shoulders. “She was bleeding.”

“It was a waterproof cast, Walt. I paid an extra $100 for that. We could have rinsed it out.”

Walt stared at Hazel for a moment then turned to Zoe. “That would have been useful information to share with me, Zoe,” he said.

Zoe shrugged.

Even with Zoe’s sweatshirt pulled over her arm, Hazel noticed that it was atrophied, thinner, weaker than the other side. At sixteen, she was already hunched. She had been in that cast for too many weeks. The break had affected everything about her.

“Get in the car Zoe,” Hazel said.

Zoe stood up. “Thanks for freeing me, Uncle Walt.”

“Any time,” Walt said.

Zoe sulked all the way to the car, kicking the grass as she walked.

“She’s a nice kid,” Walt said.

“Sometimes,” Hazel said. “But not usually. I love her anyway, though.”

Walt nodded. Hazel stared at him.

“Don’t be mad,” Walt said.

“You should have told me Mom was still in there,” Hazel said.

Walt looked at his feet. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come,” he said.

“I certainly wouldn’t have brought Zoe.”

“Are you sure about that?” Walt asked, lifting his eyes to meet hers.

“Anybody can call about a body, Walt. It doesn’t have to be me,” Hazel said. “It’s not an official executor duty.”

“Ah well, I thought as much. Barry was insistent, though. You know how he can be.”

“I do.” Hazel nodded. “But I’m leaving now. I need to take Zoe home. You and Barry will need to figure this out.”

“We’ll make this right. I promise.” He reached out, touched Hazel on her shoulder, then turned to go back inside.

***

Hazel got into the car. She turned on the heat and rubbed her hands together. “We have to go to the hospital. You know that, right? We have to get you re-casted.”

“I know,” Zoe said.

“Your doctors are going to report me.”

“Report you to who?”

“I don’t know. The bad mothers’ association? Child Protective Services maybe. The whole thing was suspect from the start.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll tell them I did it. Just like before.” Zoe sighed.

“I’m sorry, Zoe. About all of this. You know that, right?”

Zoe nodded. She held out her phone. “I got the account numbers.”

“What?”

“For those investment accounts. All the account numbers and passwords were taped onto her computer. In the kitchen.”

“Why’d you do that?” Hazel asked.

“You can just initiate a transfer. Take whatever’s yours.”

“That’s illegal, Zoe.”

Zoe shrugged her shoulders. “It’s only illegal if you get caught, right?”

Hazel shook her head. “No, that’s not right.” Hazel turned on the headlights. Dusk was settling in. “Maybe,” she said, glancing at Zoe. “Thanks for going with me today.”

Zoe stared out her window.

“Do you think Dad needs to know about this?” Hazel asked.

“About what?”

“I don’t know. The cast, I guess. If we take you to get it re-casted right now, do you think you’ll need to tell him that Uncle Walt sawed you open?”

Zoe shrugged. “I was thinking about getting a different color this time. Black maybe. You know, since we’re in mourning.”

Hazel nodded. “That’s your choice.” It would be much easier if she would just re-cast it in blue, but Hazel knew she shouldn’t force her.

“Does it hurt, Zoe?”

Zoe tried to straighten her arm, but it wouldn’t move beyond her lower stomach. “It feels strange,” she said. “Not normal at all.”

“Do you remember what that feels like?” Hazel asked. “Normal, I mean.”

“No. But I’m pretty sure it’s not this,” Zoe said.

Hazel’s mind was clear and she wanted to tell Zoe something. She wanted to make her daughter smile. She wanted to not be thinking about, to not be wanting, that last little bottle of vodka in her bag. She wanted it not to be there, to tell Zoe to toss it out the window. But she also didn’t want to talk about it, or mention it ever again.

“Did you know I got rid of the skateboard?” Hazel asked. “It was a stupid idea from the start.”

“It wasn’t really the skateboard’s fault. I kind of liked the skateboard,” Zoe said. “I think the problem had more to do with you and the car.”

Hazel nodded. “That’s right. It was my fault. Not the skateboard at all. So, I can get you another skateboard, if you want.”

Zoe shook her head. “I really want an orange. I never got to eat my orange.”

Hazel considered what she could offer Zoe. She thought about the vodka. That little bottle of vodka that was pestering her. It wouldn’t seem to leave her alone. That and her onion. Neither was appropriate, neither was useful, neither was what her daughter wanted or needed.

Then Hazel realized that she wanted an orange too. But her mother had given her an onion. A stupid, smelly, crying-eyed onion.

Why had her mother given her an onion when she wanted an orange?

There was also the packet of gum she had tucked into her pocket. Hazel blinked and her eyes grew damp. It was moments like this when she wanted a drink, and moments like this when she knew most of all she wasn’t supposed to have one. She turned to look at Zoe, who held high in her right, broken-wristed hand, weak and baby soft, a glowing orange.

“Don’t cry, Mom,” Zoe said, laughter bubbling up from deep inside her. “I took Barry’s.” Hazel smiled and shook her head. She flicked her blinker on and pulled over to the side of the road. She reached across the space between her daughter and herself and grasped the bumpy skin of the enormous orange orb that didn’t belong to either of them and took it into her lap. She unwrapped a second piece of gum, popped it into her mouth, and began chewing because, again, she didn’t want to cry. Hazel dug her thumb into the thick skin and peeled a layer back, juice dripping onto her jeans, so that Zoe could eat this orange without injuring herself again, without putting a strain on her tiny broken scaphoid, that Hazel hoped was healing inside her tiny broken wrist.


Stephanie Wheeler’s short fiction has appeared in The Masters Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Timber Journal, and elsewhere. She holds a B.A. from Bucknell University and an MFA from Arizona State University. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.

Originally appeared in NOR 29

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