Monica Louzon (she/her) is a queer writer, translator, and editor from Maryland. Her words have appeared in Apex Magazine, After the Storm, Haven Speculative Magazine, Paranoid Tree, Shoreline of Infinity, and others. She is Acquiring Editor for The Dread Machine. Follow Monica on Instagram or Twitter @molo_writes, or visit her at www.monicalouzon.com.
“Take it,” the stranger says, stretching the clementine wedge toward me. I smell the promise of sweet citrus and a hint of myrrh. My mouth waters, but I resist. I hear Nina’s voice echoing in my mind: Did she wash the skin before she peeled it? Are her hands clean?
“Are you sure?” She thrusts the wedge at me, cocking her head. Her pack and trekking poles lean against the low stone wall like tired, old friends.
“Sorry!” I turn away, continuing along the mountain ridge on exhausted legs. I rose early today, needing a distraction from Nina’s looming departure. I left a note for her, saying I’d be back in time for dinner with her friends.
It still unsettles me that Nina didn’t even consult me before she accepted the new job yesterday. She’ll be in Laos for two years, her tickets booked, and she wants me to drop everything and follow her there—next week.
I’m supposed to be the one talked out of bad plans, not Nina—she didn’t even give me the chance! I don’t understand the why she kept this whole job so secret.
A breeze rustles through the forest, shaking withered leaves and carrying with it the citrus-myrrh aroma from earlier. I shiver. What if there’s more to that clementine than I thought?
I pull my phone out to check the clock. Damn. No time to turn back and find out—Nina will kill me if I’m late to dinner. I’ve got to shower before we leave, too. Nina was determined to schedule this double-date with her coworkers. Now I know why. She wants me to see how happy they are after spending three years together roughing it in Bolivia.
I’d rather spend the night at home.
A while later, I cross the train bridge back into Harper’s Ferry and head uphill to the parking lot. I glance at the ice cream place across the street—Nina always insists on stopping there, even in the dead of winter—but I need to have a healthy appetite tonight.
A group of men in their fifties and hiking gear crowd around a pickup truck next to my faithful Civic.
“I’ve been trying to find her again for years!” one says as I approach.
“Years? Try decades!”
Not them, too.
“Man, your wife was easier to find than this lady!”
A round of raucous laughter.
“Tell you what, pal. If I’d taken that piece of fruit back in the day, I woulda been enlightened enough to marry someone else!”
More good-natured laughter.
What if she really did have a clementine of enlightenment?
I clench my jaw. I should have accepted. Then I wouldn’t having this stupid fear of missing out on something big.
The men chortle again at some comment I didn’t catch.
I press the button on my key fob to pop the trunk. They shift at the sound, letting me by. Their conversation buzzes in my brain as I take off my backpack.
Let’s assume that lady’s little orange can magically grant me enlightenment. If I eat a slice, will I understand what’s going in Nina’s head? These guys haven’t even been up the mountain, but they’re talking like she usually stays there all day.
My phone buzzes. Nina.
You on the road yet?
My thumbs hover over the phone screen, ready to type “just got done, heading home now”, but I hesitate. The men descend from the parking lot, heading toward the towpath—toward the Clementine of Enlightenment.
I check the time, consider my options. I’ve got a headlamp in my bag if I need it.
Hey, sorry, Nina. I can’t make it tonight. Running late.
I wait for the text to send, then turn off my phone and shove it in my pocket. She’ll be furious, but I can deal with her later.
I put my backpack on again, lock my car, and take off.
I don’t pause to admire the river this time, my feet beating a quick tempo as I traverse the towpath. When I reach the fork in the trail, I keep right—no more merciless artillery ramps for me today. I’m moving at a pretty good clip despite my sore legs. I wave as I pass the guys from the parking lot.
The sun’s hanging low, barely over the tree-fringed horizon when I find the lady again. She’s still perched on the wall, waiting. Clementine peels litter the ground around her.
“Take it,” she says without preamble, thrusting the clementine slice toward me for a second time, so I do.
Sweet orange citrus and myrrh burst in my mouth. I close my eyes in pleasure. I swallow, and a sweeping calm shivers through me.
When I open my eyes, the old woman’s gone.
I fish out my phone and power it up. The reception’s not great, but I dial Nina’s number anyway.
“Where are you?!”
“Don’t ‘Hi, Nina’ me! We’ve got to leave for dinner in half an hour!”
“I’m not going to make it.” I take a deep breath. “I’m not coming with you to Laos.”
“What? Why not? If this is about how long the flight is—”
“It’s not. It’s about us.” Who knew enlightenment would hurt so much? “I’m sorry, Nina, but I think it’s time to break up. We haven’t been happy together in ages. This whole Laos thing underscores how far apart we’ve grown. I want you to be happy, and—”
My phone beeps. She hung up on me.
I sink onto the wall, staring at the clementine skins by my feet as the light fades, not sure what I’m feeling. The logistical headache I’ve just triggered should fill me with dread, but instead I feel… hopeful? Excited?
The evening chill sets in. Headlamp time.
I don’t know what will happen next, but that calm certainty from the clementine still lingers in my soul, and my boots know which path to take.