Seventy years later, Horace remembered that damp summer night with the clarity that only comes from reliving an event in one’s mind over and over for decade after decade.
He had been seventeen at the time and he and his father were walking home from helping Horace’s widowed aunt put down her sick cockatiel. There had been rain for most of the day, but the clouds had finally dispersed just as the sun was setting, red and swollen. As they passed the school, Horace saw a small cluster of men and children gathered in the schoolyard to watch Mr. Liscomb pull a giant stump out of the ground with his tractor. As Horace and his father walked up, Mr. Liscomb was just checking to make sure the chain was securely affixed to the back of the tractor and the stump. He had bad joints, so he climbed with some difficulty up into the seat of his tractor and started the engine with a grinding roar. The children cheered and held their hands over their ears. Mr. Liscomb eased the tractor forward, looking over his shoulder to see how much slack was left in the chain, and as he did, Junie Vance, a little girl no more than four years old, separated from the spectators and, chasing something only she could see, ran in front of the tractor. There hadn’t even been time to shout, but even if there had been, Mr. Liscomb wouldn’t have heard. Horace was the closest person to Junie, but he wouldn’t have been able to reach her in time to push her out of the way. All he had time to do was lunge for the tractor and press his hand against its hot, metal side, surely an impotent gesture. But when his palm touched the tractor, the tractor was instantly transformed into an orange liquid that hung tractor-shaped in the air for a moment, and then fell to the ground along with Mr. Liscomb, soaking Horace and Junie and splashing the rest of the awestruck onlookers.
No one spoke. Mr. Liscomb lay groaning in the middle of a dark puddle on the grass as the liquid that had been his tractor slowly soaked into the earth. The loose end of the chain lay in the puddle a few feet from Mr. Liscomb’s head.
Horace had then realized that everyone was looking at him. He didn’t know what to say. He was as amazed as they were.
“Orange juice,” said Junie. Horace looked at her. She was dripping wet, her hair stuck to her face, her clothes sodden. She was licking her forearm. “Orange juice,” she said again, smiling at Horace.
He hesitated, then licked the back of his hand. It was orange juice.
But now Horace was eighty-seven and everyone who had seen him turn the tractor into orange juice was either dead or had moved away from Multioak long ago. There were still a few people around who had grown up with Horace and had certainly been aware of the story when it happened, as everyone in town had been, but none of them had witnessed the event with their own eyes and over time their belief had turned to doubt and their doubt had turned to disbelief. Horace had learned not to bring the story up anymore. Not only did it sound impossible, it sounded like outright lunacy. The last time he’d told the story had been four years ago at a neighbor’s daughter’s birthday party. A group of people who he knew only by acquaintance had been standing in the kitchen talking about a local lifeguard who’d saved a visiting multi-millionaire’s daughter from drowning at the public pool.
“I saved a girl’s life once,” said Horace. “When I was about that boy’s age, actually.”
Everyone had turned to look at him, curious, attentive. Horace hadn’t been able to resist. When he finished the story there had been a silence much like the silence in the immediate aftermath of the event itself. Then a pale lady in a pink visor had said, “Orange juice? Why orange juice?”
“I don’t know,” said Horace. “I’ve asked myself the same question many, many times.”
“Do you really like orange juice?” asked the woman.
“It’s not my favorite,” said Horace.
And then everyone had chuckled uncomfortably and changed the subject back to speculating about how much money the young lifeguard may have received as a reward for his heroic deed. Horace left the party and walked home.
He had never gotten anything for his heroic deed. A strange story in the newspaper that omitted several of the event’s key details, a thank-you pie from Junie’s parents, and a great deal of local renown driven by muddled exaggerations, rumors, and attempts at rational explanations for what Horace had done. Even people who had seen it with their own eyes began to waver, their memories polluted and confused. It wasn’t long before people stopped talking about it entirely. All in all, the story was too off-putting for most people and they seemed to prefer living in a world where they didn’t have to think about the implications of what Horace had done.
Horace still sometimes tried to turn things into orange juice. He’d be sitting on the couch in his living room reading the Interpreter Tribune when he’d suddenly sit forward and reach for the coffee table, pressing his hand flat against its cool, varnished surface. It never turned into orange juice.
Sometimes he went to farm supply auctions just to touch the tractors. He even found the exact make and model that Mr. Liscomb’s tractor had been, but it didn’t turn into orange juice when he touched it.
Once, while picking up a new mattress from a friend in Dalcette, Horace had gotten the distinct feeling that if he touched the water tower, it would turn to orange juice. But when he parked his car, walked up to the base of the water tower, and pressed his hand against one of its iron support beams, it hadn’t turned into orange juice. Only later did he realize how much trouble there would have been if he had turned the water tower to orange juice, although he still wished it had worked.
He wondered if it only worked when someone’s life was at stake, if he had only been able to turn the tractor into orange juice because Junie Vance would have died if he hadn’t. He tried to put himself into situations where people would need to be rescued, but it was harder than he thought. People just didn’t seem to be in much peril, or if they were, it was the kind of peril where turning something into orange juice wouldn’t save them. Once, in the Diamond Foods parking lot Horace had seen a station wagon back into a woman who fell down and broke her wrist, her groceries scattering across the blacktop. It had happened just ten feet in front of him, but he hadn’t noticed the car backing up until it had already struck the woman, and even if he had, the car had been out of arm’s reach. As the driver jumped out of the car and rushed to attend to the woman he’d hit, Horace walked up to the car and placed one hand on its roof. He envisioned orange juice with all his might, great foaming waves of orange juice sloshing everywhere, a flood of orange juice crashing through Multioak and wiping it off the map, leaving nothing but sticky, pulp-covered rubble in its wake. The car did not turn to orange juice.
Horace couldn’t sleep for three days after that, agonizing over how close he’d been. If he’d just been a few steps nearer, just a bit less lost in his own thoughts. He didn’t know if he’d ever get another opportunity as good as that one.
That had been years ago too.
He’d never had a wife, he’d worked for Runker Boat Company for forty-five years before retiring, and now he lived alone in the house in which he’d grown up. He’d done untold amounts of work on the house over the years, repairing, installing, modernizing, remodeling, and if he could have turned the whole thing into orange juice with the touch of his hand, he wouldn’t have hesitated for an instant.
One day, after getting out of bed at 6 a.m., Horace went out to his yard with the intention of looking for signs of moles. But he couldn’t focus and several times he realized he’d been standing in one place looking down at the same patch of grass for he didn’t know how long. When he went back into the house, Horace saw that what should have been a twenty minute job had taken him two and a half hours. He was alarmed.
He changed out of his work boots into a pair of tennis shoes, got his check book out of the desk in the kitchen, and got into his car. The day was mild. The clouds in the sky were misshapen and ponderous. Horace drove over to the Haven of Order Trailer Court and parked his car on the street in front of a black and silver double-wide. There was a stunted pine tree in the yard still decorated with Christmas lights. Horace climbed the four rusted metal steps to the front door and knocked. A moment later, the door opened and Horace was greeted with the smiling face of Dewey Forrester, a short, forty-something man in a gold bathrobe with a video game controller in his hand.
Horace had briefly been Dewey’s supervisor at Runker Boat Company, and though he’d eventually had to fire Dewey for open disregard of safety regulations, Dewey had never held it against him.
Dewey invited Horace into his trailer. The curtains were drawn in the living room and it smelled like macaroni and cheese. On the TV screen, Dewey’s video game was paused just as the game’s hero was about to be killed by what appeared to be a horse in a turban walking on its hind legs and wielding a crossbow in each hoof.
“Dewey,” said Horace. “You’re unscrupulous, right?”
“Probably,” said Dewey, flopping down onto his black leather couch and twisting the cap off of a two liter of generic grape soda, the outside of the bottle dripping with condensation. “Remind me what that means.”
“I mean, you’re not a man of principles,” said Horace. “There’s not much you wouldn’t do if the price was right.”
“That’s true,” said Dewey, swigging his grape soda. “What do you need?”
“Will you run me over with a tractor for 10,000 dollars?”
“I dunno,” said Dewey. “Sounds like I could get in some trouble for that.”
“I’m hoping to escape,” said Horace. “I just need to know that you’ll keep driving towards me no matter what. It’s important that there be no doubt in my mind that you’re going to crush me unless I escape. But I’ll sign a waiver absolving you of responsibility in case I don’t escape and you run me over. And, obviously, I’ll pay you up front.”
“All right,” said Dewey. “Sounds like a good deal. As it happens, I could use around 10,000 dollars right now.”
“Great,” said Horace. He pulled his check book out of his jeans pocket, filled out a check, and handed it to Dewey. “I’ll be in touch about the details once I get them figured out.”
“Sounds good,” said Dewey. He squinted at the check, nodded, and set it on his coffee table next to a teetering stack of DVDs from the library. As Horace left the trailer, Dewey unpaused his video game and the turbaned horse whinnied as its crossbows twanged and the game’s hero cried out in mortal despair.
A week later, Horace sat in one of his kitchen chairs at the back of the Diamond Foods parking lot. The lot was only about two thirds full so there was plenty of open space at the back. Horace’s ankles were duct taped to the legs of the chair and his left arm was tied to his side with rope that wrapped around the back of the chair and under his right armpit leaving his right hand free to move and extend and touch. A hundred feet away, Dewey sat on the idling tractor and struggled to tie a bandana over his eyes. Horace had decided that a blindfold would reduce the chances of Dewey losing his nerve at the last second. The last second was the most important part. The last second was when Horace would touch the tractor and everything would be decided. The tractor would either turn to orange juice and Horace would be saved or it would stay a tractor and Horace would be run over and crushed.
A small crowd of Diamond Foods shoppers had gathered to see what was going on, just as Horace had hoped they would. They were standing behind a rope barrier that he and Dewey had erected without Diamond Foods’ permission. Horace wanted there to be as many witnesses as possible, believers who had seen it with their own eyes, respectable citizens who would remember this moment as a miracle or a display of strange and wonderful power or an amazing illusion, or anything, so long as they remembered it.
Horace waved at the crowd with his free hand and smiled, wanting to appear relaxed in case any of them were thinking about interfering. Several of the people had phones or cameras in their hands, sensing that this event would be worth recording.
“What’re you doing?” someone shouted.
“Stand back,” said Horace. “Stand back and you’ll see! Everyone just stay where you are and get ready to see something amazing!”
“You ready?” called Dewey from the tractor, the blindfold finally in place over his eyes. All he had to do was shift the tractor into gear and drive in a straight line, but Horace wasn’t as confident in Dewey as he should have been for 10,000 dollars. Especially since that 10,000 dollars was already spent on a used fishing boat.
“Ready!” shouted Horace.
Dewey shifted into gear and the tractor lurched forward.
Horace looked over at the group of spectators. There were around twenty of them and their eyes moved back and forth from Horace to the tractor, watching the space between them shrink slowly. At the end of the group furthest from Horace, he saw two teenage girls who he took to be sisters. The older girl looked to be about sixteen while the younger girl was closer to thirteen. They both had plastic grocery bags in each hand. The older girl was smiling in anticipation, but the younger girl’s eyes were filled with fright and concern. The younger girl turned and said something to her sister who gave her a reassuring smile and pointed at Horace, apparently explaining that everything would be fine. The younger girl was not convinced, shaking her head from side to side. Horace could read her lips as she said, “No he won’t, no he won’t.”
The tractor rumbled closer and Horace mentally kicked himself for having Dewey start so far away. He flexed his right hand, wiggling the fingers, then shaking it loose. He looked back at the girls and saw that the younger one was crying now. She had set her grocery bags on the blacktop next to her feet and her hands were clasped under her chin.
Horace realized then how selfish this whole stunt was and he knew that he had to turn the tractor into orange juice, not just to spare his own life, which had to be close to finished anyway, but more importantly, to spare this girl and everyone else the sight of his grisly death. He held his hand out in front of him and saw that his fingers were trembling.
The tractor was only twenty feet away, its rumbling and rattling drowning out every other sound except, distantly, a shrill voice yelling “No, stop!”
Horace looked toward the crowd and saw the young girl running towards him. She was approaching from behind the tractor at an angle, pumping her arms in a dead sprint.
“Get back!” Horace shouted. “It’s dangerous, get back!” There was no way she could reach him in time to push him out of the way or whatever she intended to do, but she would certainly reach the tractor and Horace knew that Dewey would neither see nor hear her. It was one thing to fail and die as a result, but if the girl tried to stop the tractor before he could turn it to orange juice, Horace realized that his final image of life on Earth could very well be that of an innocent girl being hurt or worse by an event that he had orchestrated. And then how would be remembered?
Horace leaned forward in his chair, stretching his hand as far as he could towards the tractor. He shifted his weight back and forth, trying to scoot closer, the chair legs scraping on the asphalt. The girl, her face wet with tears, was almost to the tractor. Horace threw his weight forward, straining toward the tractor with his free hand, but the girl reached it first, crying “Stop!” and striking its side with both fists, and then Horace was falling face down onto the asphalt, his free hand flailing at the air, as a warm wave of orange liquid engulfed him.
Still taped to the chair, the best Horace could do was to roll onto his right side, his free right arm pinned under his body. He was soaked to the skin and the left side of his face was a scraped agony. Horace heard Dewey moaning about his tailbone. The girl, also soaked, was on her knees wiping juice out of her eyes and beyond her the crowd was as stunned as they had been seventy years before, their mouths hanging open in the same way, begging each other to confirm what they’d just seen in the same way, wanting to know what and how and why in the same way.
Horace licked the juice off of his lips and found that it, at least, was not the same. Whereas seventy years before, his orange juice had tasted sweet, today, this girl’s orange juice was nothing but bitter.