The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Eleven: Sugarville Orchard
Sasha Markham's apple pies were world class, and each year she'd make a bunch for the Halloween Festival. Fortunately for her pie-devouring family, these pies were not exclusive to the festival. She made them throughout the fall season, to the sheer delight of everyone on the property, including the Dark Lord Mr. Heard.
But Sasha's pies were not only popular at home; they had become famous beyond the borders of Wildwood Farm. Sasha herself was a bit of a pie celebrity, and the hordes of people at the Halloween Festival demanded samples of her ultra delicious Swedish apple pie. So much so, that if by chance there was not an ample supply, there would be riots in the streets. Well maybe not riots, but you get the picture.
So what made Sasha's apple pie so amazing? For starters, the recipe came from her grandmother, so there were plenty of years to perfect it. As the recipe passed from one generation to the next, little tweaks were made here and there, and the world was better for it.
Now it's important to note that a Swedish apple pie is not your traditional pastry pie. There's no flaky crust or anything like that. You basically pile a bunch of sliced apples into a pie dish and top 'em with sugar and cinnamon and any other pie spice that suits your fancy. Then you mix up this batter-like crust and slather it all over the apples, and then you bake it. And then you eat it. And then you go back for seconds.
But if you're anything like me (and if you are, my sincerest condolences), you're probably saying to yourself: Wait a second! There's no bottom crust? You call this a pie??? Who makes an apple pie without a bottom crust???
Right on, amigo. The bottom crust is the best part, especially when it's thick and doughy. I mean, who doesn't like dough, right? You know you do. You know that if you had a package of cookie dough in the fridge right now, you'd put this book down and go eat some.
It's okay. I totally get it. I used to think that way too. But people change, and tastes change, and trust me when I tell you, Sasha Markham's Swedish apple pie would convert a flaky crust guy in a heartbeat.
Anyway, that's enough about apple pies. Let's talk about apple orchards. Specifically, Sugarville Orchard. Actually, before we get to that, let's chat about bicycle baskets. Why bicycle baskets, you ask? Well, they were a necessity for this jaunt. You see, Sugarville Orchard resided three miles from Wildwood Farm, and while that may have been a lifelong pilgrimage for an ant, it was a drop in the bucket for road racers like the Wildwood Gang, especially a group accustomed to burning rubber along their homemade motocross track. Suffice it to say, Sugarville Orchard was bike accessible.
But a bag full of apples was heavy, and the kids needed a way to transport those scrumptious fruits safely home. And that's where the bicycle basket comes into play.
Now when you think bicycle basket, especially for a kid's bike, you might visualize one of those white nylon woven baskets with pretty pink flowers on it. Definitely something you'd find on a girl's bike, but most likely not a boy's. But if a boy wanted a flowery basket, that's fine too.
However, in the case of rough and tumbles like Drew and Jeff, those pretty pink flowers wouldn't cut the mustard, so Jeff's dad constructed these metal baskets (aka manly cages) from an old rabbit hutch. They fit nicely on the front of the kids' bikes, were totally bully-proof, and did a fine job of transporting the apples home from the orchard.
Okay. Technical exposition complete.
Back to our story.
Sasha's apple pies…
Wait, fast forward…
Apple pies… no bottom crust… riots in the streets… bicycle baskets…
Sugarville was not a regular apple orchard, and by regular I mean it was not a tranquil little spot where maybe a dozen or so rows of apple trees lined a short hill at the back of Mr. Getoffmylawn's farm. Not even close.
Sugarville was the theme park of apple orchards, and like most major theme parks, practiced the fine art of price gouging, where they siphon all your cash in exchange for making wonderful family memories. And since family memories are priceless, parents generally spare no expense. And if that meant dipping into the life savings, then so be it.
Sugarville was acres upon acres of sensory overload. Aside from being the largest apple orchard I had ever seen, they also had peaches, pears, blueberries, and strawberries. Their pumpkin patch showcased hundreds of hearty pumpkins just waiting to be carved into mighty jack-o-lanterns, while their popular farm store offered all sorts of delectable eats and treats, including the tastiest cider donuts this side of the Atlantic.
They had two hedge mazes: an easily navigable one for the kiddies, and a rather difficult one for people who have to be rescued at dark.
They even had farm animals on display, featuring goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, and rabbits. As an added bonus, hand-crank vending machines were strategically placed outside the pens, and for fifty cents, you could experience the ten-second thrill of feeding the animals as they vacuum-sucked those tiny pellets right out of your hand.
I suppose you could say that Sugarville had everything, except for resort hotels with sand-bottomed swimming pools. But that's not a bad thing, especially if you're the type that likes to stick to a budget. Trust me.
Oh! And Sugarville offered hayrides too, not only for joyriding, but also for transporting weary feet from one side of the orchard to the other. This place was so big it required five parking lots! And three entrances! North, south, east, and… yeah, that's three.
It was so big that rowdy little children who liked to run away from mom and dad would oftentimes get lost in this labyrinthine forest of apple trees. In fact, Sugarville Orchard had the unfortunate reputation of losing children the way a dryer loses socks. The difference being, the children were always found.
Yes, Sugarville Orchard was the place to be if you craved high prices, crowds, and listening to high-strung moms trying to corral their cherubs for their annual apple picking family photo.
But the apples were amazing! They were so incredibly sweet and crunchy, and that's why Sasha Markham preferred orchard apples for her pies rather than store-bought apples that had been shipped from somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. And that's why Sasha sent Jeff and the rest of the Wildwood Gang to Sugarville on this fine autumn day to procure these apples.
Jeff and his friends entered the orchard by way of an unofficial bike path through the grassy field used for the hedge maze lot. Then they cut across the main access road and biked up a short hill past the animal pens and the pumpkin patch to the farm store residing atop a plateau.
The magisterial aroma of the cider donuts emanating from the store overwhelmed them, and their taste buds electrified with the thought of that melt-in-your-mouth goodness caressing their tongues. But when they spied the enormous lines of people sprouting from beneath the wooden awning above the store's exterior service windows like hairs on Rip Van Winkle's beard, they thought otherwise.
"Like moths to the flame," Ethan groaned with discontent.
"That must be a forty-five minute wait," Jeff said.
"That's crazy," Ben said. "All that just for a few donuts?"
"You've never had their donuts," Sofie grinned, nudging him in the side.
"Well I didn't bring any money anyway," Drew said, "so it doesn't really matter."
"And I just have money for the apples," Jeff said. "What about you, Ethan?"
Ethan shook his head. "I spent my allowance on comics."
"And I spent mine on my costume accessories," Sofie said. She turned to Ben and he shrugged.
"Don't look at me," he said. "I'm broke."
"Well I guess we're just a bunch of poor, pathetic souls," Drew said.
"You mean poor, pathetic, donut-less souls," Ethan corrected him.
Dejected at the thought of no cider donuts, the kids ventured onward and chained their bikes to the bike stand conveniently located behind the farm store. The owners of the orchard were big advocates of bike safety, so they cordoned off a special area with jersey barriers, providing cyclists with a refuge from a severely congested parking lot.
Once the bikes were secure, the kids walked across the lot to the rustic wooden kiosk and purchased their bags from the attendant in the red staff shirt.
"Forty bucks for two bags of apples?" Ben said to the others as they collected the bags and entered the apple orchard on the opposite side of a row of cars.
"And those are just the medium-sized bags," Sofie noted. "The large bags are thirty dollars."
Ben shook his head in disbelief. "Isn't it cheaper to go to the grocery store?"
"You're paying for the experience," Sofie told him. "Pick your own. It's a thing."
"But if I pick my own apples," Ethan said, "shouldn't they be cheaper? I mean, I'm doing their job for them. That has to count for something, right?"
Sofie laughed. "I don't think it works that way, Ethan."
Drew and Jeff bolted ahead as Sofie, Ben, and Ethan trailed them. They followed the footpath around the bend and up the steep hill to higher ground. With some distance between the others, Jeff probed Drew for information.
"So what's up with your dad? Is everything okay?"
Drew shot him a sideways glance. "What do you mean?"
"He's a no-show again," Jeff whispered. "What's up with that?"
"Don't worry about it," Drew said, brushing him off.
"Well, it's kind of hard not to. He's your dad."
"That's right," Drew said. "He's my Dad, not yours. And if I tell you not to worry, then don't. He'll figure it out. He usually does."
"Sorry," Jeff said. "I wasn't trying to butt in."
"Yes you were. Just stay out of it. It's under control."
The Wildwood Gang ascended higher and higher until they had reached the peak of the first hill, observing row after row of apple trees. Cardboard signs were posted on long wooden stakes indicating the different varieties of apples available at each spot.
"Which kind are we getting?" Sofie asked, halting Drew in his tracks before he started picking at random.
"Macintosh," Jeff replied. "Mom likes to use macs in her pies."
"Are two bags gonna be enough for all those pies?" Ethan inquired.
"She already made most of them," Jeff said. "They're in the freezer. She just needs a few more."
"Wouldn't it make more sense to get one big bag, and then we could use the leftover money for cider donuts?" Ethan suggested.
"The big bags don't fit in the bike baskets," Jeff said. "Besides, they're too heavy."
"I could carry it," Ethan said.
Drew laughed. "Yeah right. Maybe if it was empty." Then he walked down a row of trees ready to pick.
"Don't pick the ones with the orange ribbons," Sofie called out to him. "Those are Spartans."
"Yeah, I can read, thanks," he shouted with his back to her. He walked past a few trees that were already populated with people until he found a lonely one about halfway down the row. He looked up high and saw that it was fully stocked with the most luscious Macintosh apples (not that he could tell the difference other than the lack of an orange ribbon) and decided this one would do just fine.
The tree was tall and healthy, standing roughly fourteen feet high, and sporting its own personal apple-picking ladder. Not every tree had one of these narrow, wooden ladders designed to wedge snuggly between tree limbs. On busy days like today, these ladders were at a premium, and if you wanted one you had to be quick, otherwise it might get snatched out from under you by the competition.
But Drew didn't really care about ladders. He preferred to climb, and no ladder was the perfect excuse to do just that. He ducked under the low hanging limbs and found his way to the trunk, and then he pulled himself up into the tree amidst a mass of twisting branches. Up, up, up he went, like a monkey in a rainforest, all the way to the tippity-top. And when he poked his head through the opening in the leaves, he gazed out at the massive orchard as if he had just discovered another world.
To his left, an army of fruit trees in tight little columns marched across the landscape as far as the eye could see. To his right, the treetops of smaller varieties sloped downward, barely disguising the large hedge maze in the distance. Directly ahead of him lay a valley full of cars resting comfortably on two grassy clearings in the woods. The cars were densely packed like a jar of hot chilies, and mini-vans full of families navigated the aisles seeking available spaces.
Adjacent to the parking lot stood the red and white ticket barn, where guests could purchase pick-your-own bags and hayride passes. To the right of that was the pond, the resting place for hundreds of half-eaten apples, and every once in a blue moon, a pumpkin. And between the ticket barn and the pond was the hayride's main drop-off, and just beyond that, the main pick-up depot.
Drew could see the hayride's tractor slowly chugging along the parking lot's central artery, a dirt and gravel path that sliced the lot in half. The tractor banked left once it entered the second lot, crept past the porta-potties and the line of young children squeezing their legs together to keep the pee from flowing, and snaked along the far side of the pond.
It was peaceful at Drew's perch on top of the tree, and for a few moments he had forgotten most of his troubles. But from the corner of his eye he sensed movement to his left, and when he turned in that direction, he spotted Ben emerging from another treetop two trees down. Ben waved to him from his location, but Drew could only grit his teeth and furrow his brow, and he silently prayed for a lightning bolt to explode from the sky and strike Ben, cooking his flesh like a slab of charcoaled bacon.
But since there were no thunderstorms in the forecast, Drew could only hope that a staff member would come by and yell at Ben for climbing the tree, because truth be told, climbing orchard trees was against the rules. No joke. There were signs posted all over the place stating that fact. But that didn't stop people from climbing. Everybody did it, probably because the staff never enforced that rule. At least they never enforced it with the Wildwood Gang.
"Okay," Drew thought to himself. "It's on." And by it he meant the challenge of picking the best apples for Mrs. Markham's apple pies. Drew versus Ben. Veteran climber versus newbie. Wildwood Ganger versus outsider.
Drew reached out and picked an apple from a branch and polished it up with his hands. Then he sampled a bite and chewed it thoroughly, and deemed it juicy and delicious. He was content with the fruit provided by his tree, and he scanned the ground below for any sign of his friends. He identified Jeff and Ethan through the branches, which meant Sofie must have been with Ben.
Drew reached out again and picked another apple. "Heads up!" he called to Jeff, and let the apple slip from his hand. Jeff caught it with both hands and then added it to the bag, for which he had already collected two apples from the low hanging branches.
Drew snatched another perfectly ripe apple from a nearby branch and tossed it down to Ethan. But the poor boy wasn't paying attention and the apple conked him right on top of the noggin.
"Ow!" he yelled. "What the heck?"
"Gotta pay attention," Drew chuckled from above.
"A little warning would be nice," Ethan growled, rubbing the top of his head until the pain subsided. Drew laughed a little harder, then proceeded to seek out the best-looking apples he could find.
With five eager apple pickers on the job, the kids filled the two bags in no time. And when Jeff informed Drew that they had reached maximum capacity, Drew climbed down through the branches and landed safely on the ground. He collected another apple to munch on and followed Jeff and Ethan into the clearing.
The trio turned to the right and saw Ben and Sofie approaching. Drew noticed their bag was overflowing with apples just as red and plump as their own, and he frowned when Sofie held up the bag to show them.
"You should see Ben climb!" Sofie beamed. "He was like Tarzan up there!"
Ben blushed. "I guess that makes you Jane."
"Or maybe the chimp," Drew muttered under his breath.
"What was that?" Sofie said with a pointed expression. Drew denied he had said anything and continued to chomp on his apple. The five of them looked aimlessly at one another, and with nothing more to say, and with no money for cider donuts, they decided to walk back to their bikes and head for home.
Jeff and Ethan led the way, with Drew pulling up the rear, and as they sauntered through the orchard toward the exit, Ben took the opportunity to offer Drew the proverbial olive branch.
"You're a really good climber," Ben told him. "You shot to the top of that tree like nothing I'd ever seen before."
Drew didn't give him the courtesy of a response. He took another bite of his apple and chewed as loudly as possible. Ben backed off a moment and regrouped, then tried a different approach.
"Look, I'm really sorry about the treasure," he said to Drew. "I know you had your heart set on finding it."
Drew stopped suddenly, nearly choking on his apple. "What are you talking about?"
Ben hesitated. "About last night."
"And who told you about that?" Drew said with steam shooting out of his ears.
"I did!" Sofie said, inserting herself between them. "Is there a problem with that?"
"That's Wildwood business!" Drew lectured. "How many times do I have to tell you, we don't share our business with outsiders!"
"You are not my father!" Sofie said, getting up in his face. "Besides, what happened last night is past tense. It's over and done with, and I saw no harm in telling my friend."
"Yeah, he's your friend," Drew spat. "Not mine!" Then he ran ahead of them and scurried down the hill.
Sofie was so upset that tears welled in her eyes, but Ben assured her it was no big deal. He took the bag of apples from her and held her hand, and within seconds her worries were swept away.
Jeff and Ethan watched them, and suddenly felt as if they were intruding on matters that didn't concern them. They looked at each other with awkward expressions and then continued on to the farm store, and Ben and Sofie followed.
When they arrived at the bike rack they found Drew leaning against it with his arms folded and a sour expression on his face. For a moment Jeff thought his friend might've had a change of heart.
"Thanks for waiting," Jeff said, hoping to diffuse any lingering tension.
"Didn't have a choice," Drew grumbled. "It's your bike lock. I don't know the combination."
Jeff quickly remembered that he had used his bike lock to chain three of the bikes together, and any lingering hope he had that Drew was in a better mood was snuffed out. Jeff offered Drew an apologetic smile, then handed Ethan the bag of apples and reached in to unlock the bikes. But before he could enter the combination, the foulest of voices called out to them from the corner of the store.
"Well lookee what we have here!" the voice shrieked. Its demonic tone was piercing, and sent shivers down Jeff's spine. But despite its ambush on Jeff's central nervous system, the voice was not wholly unfamiliar to him. Turning to face this unwelcome entity was merely a formality, as a visual lock on the bogey was not necessary.
It was the Wildwood Gang's arch nemesis…
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.