“On Clearwater Lake Road” by Jenny Burman
Mondays Are Murder features brand-new noir fiction modeled after our award-winning Noir Series. Each story is an original one, and each takes place in a distinct location. Our web model for the series has one more restraint: a 750-word limit. Sound like murder? It is. But so are Mondays.
This week, Jenny Burman makes a wrong turn.
On Clearwater Lake Road
by Jenny Burman
On Clearwater Lake Road, there’s a fork. To get to Gerson’s U-Pick-It, you turn right. But I got turned around in my head and drove left, and we rolled along for miles, my niece and I. Her name was Liberty Johnson, nineteen, and even though she was my niece, she was a new acquaintance.
We drove the dry hills, two lanes that went nowhere in either direction. It was a lonely road. Except for a new Mercedes S500 that pulled into a driveway to let us pass, we had it to ourselves. Joshua trees did their ecstatic frozen dance till we left the Mojave and farmland began. I tried pumping Libby for information. How was the new pharmacy? Did her dad run this one?
Did she get it, what I wanted to know? Which was to whom she belonged. Her father? Or her mother, my twin sister? They were still married, which was why I needed to know her allegiance.
I was looking for Gerson’s—where we’d gone as kids—but when I saw the sign for a different pick-your-own, Indian Hills Peaches, I pulled over.
We seemed to be out of luck. A hand-painted Closed placard hung on a chain across the dirt driveway. Behind some fencing was an orchard of fruit-heavy trees; you could smell peaches.
One thing I won’t forget: nearby, but out of view, a flock of wild parrots screeched loud enough they could be heard over the engine. They were green, like the ones we had in Los Angeles, and they flitted around the treetops, their thick beaks slashing the fruit. The more profligate of them would tear a bite or two of flesh from one peach and then move on.
The place looked so untended, I expected a recording, but a young-sounding man answered the phone.
He seemed confused by my request, then gathered himself and said they were closed.
“Could we pick a couple of baskets?”
I could hear the parrots squawking on his end of the phone.
“We’re right here at the gate. All you have to do is take our money.”
“I’d let you in, but we’re not doing the open farm. The frost was so bad, we didn’t get fruit.”
“I can see peaches.”
“You be sure to check next year.”
I turned to Liberty. “Technically they’re closed,” I said. “But the owner said we could have a few minutes. One thing I am not doing is returning to your mom and dad empty-handed.” I had told them I’d make pie.
So we climbed the fence—one of those three-slat, white-painted deals—which dumped us into the weed-clotted orchard.
The birds scattered at first, but they returned. We had our bags almost full when Liberty called out—a fishhook hanging from one of the trees. An old trick of pot growers, who used the remote public land in mountains nearby. And sure enough, I looked around and saw the individuals—a plant here, another there, living statues between the trees, and another and another. Enemies. I was doing the math—they might have had a half a million dollars of plants—when I looked up and saw a youngish man, my age perhaps, standing about fifteen feet away. He had nice skin and steady eyes. And I knew him! Which was not a good thing. He had gone to Hollywood High.
“We just wanted some fruit,” I said, heart pounding, holding up my Nordstrom bag. “I’ll pay you. It’s all we want.”
He recognized me.
“Carla?” my niece asked.
“It’s okay, we’re leaving.” I turned to Libby. “We need to go.”
She was arguing! Did she not see?
I was trying to talk to him, inching closer, to show I was on his side, but Liberty kept interrupting, and then she was moving in. Look, I was saying, it’s just a bag of peaches, we’re going to make pie. You can put that down, we’re leaving. And the next thing—the parrots are shrieking, their wings flapping like a thousand newspapers. Now, how could you plan a thing like that?
“What happened?” he kept saying.
Anyone could have told you. I was running out of time and feeling cold. I knew he wouldn’t call an ambulance. Poor boy—out of his depth. A first. And a big mistake.
Liberty was a beautiful girl. She favored her mother—the way she looks, that is.
JENNY BURMAN’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, Black Clock, LAObserved.com, and other publications.
Would you like to submit a story to the Mondays Are Murder series? Here are the guidelines:
—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should be set in a distinct location of any neighborhood in any city, anywhere in the world, but it should be a story that could only be set in the neighborhood you chose.
—Include the neighborhood, city, state, and country next to your byline.
—Your story should be Noir. What is Noir? We’ll know it when we see it.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—Accepted submissions are typically published 6–8 months after their notification date and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to [email protected]. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.
Posted: May 2, 2016
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