Apple Cider Dreams
Keith thumped the heavy crate down onto the rickety table in the main barn, kicking up dust that glittered in the early morning fall light spilling in from the open barn doors. The table itself creaked as it always did with the added weight, but his grandfather had built it, so Keith knew it would hold together. It was a weathered table, marked with the passage of time with worn edges, nicks, and gouges, stains from apple juice and sticky hands. He thought it beautiful, as he thought most old things were.
He stretched his arms over his head, taking a quick mental inventory to see if there would be enough apples for the tour group today. There should be. It was toward the end of the season, and he thought he saw only one school group. Usually, a crate was enough for a group, combined with what the kids picked. Maybe one more to have to the side in case? That decided, he turned to go and fetch it, only to see his aunt.
She was dressed similar to him, jeans and worn flannel shirt, only she wore one in tones of green, while his was red. He smiled at her, tossing his bangs out of his eyes. “Aunt Lee,” he greeted her.
“Keith,” she replied, smiling warmly at her nephew. “I have a favor to ask you.”
“Anything you want,” he offered, spreading his hands.
“I need you to lead the tour today. Shiro has to run into town to pick up some things from Menards.”
Keith blanched. Lead a tour? He never led tours. He happily worked behind the scenes at his family’s apple farm. He was shy and awkward, socially anxious, and the thought of standing in front of a group made him break out into a cold sweat.
He felt a hand on his arm. His aunt had moved closer to him and touched him gently, as if afraid to spook a wild horse. “I know it’s out of your comfort zone, but I literally have no one else,” she said, her eyes pleading. “You know three of our staff are out with the flu and your uncle and I have to watch over the last harvest.”
Keith knew. It was just that Shiro, his cousin, usually led the tours. He was a naturally engaging and friendly man with the ability to charm adults and talk to children. Good-looking, with an open and honest smile, Shiro simply oozed charm. His sweet little grin, self-deprecating sense of humor, and patience with children made him perfect to guide groups through the activities and grounds of the large farm.
Keith? Keith was brooding, backward, non-talkative, impatient, and didn’t handle meeting strangers well. The complete opposite of everything which made Shiro perfect.
“You want this school to come back in the future, don’t you?” he asked in a tone that was half-joking, half-serious.
His aunt laughed, squeezing his arm slightly. “You’ll do fine. You know the script by heart. You needn’t worry about it at all. Just do what Shiro does.”
“I can’t do what Shiro does,” he muttered, his heart already starting to flutter in panic.
“It’ll be alright, love,” she assured him. “I have faith in you.”
It was misplaced faith, he believed, but didn’t say. He couldn’t not do this for his aunt. It was, technically, part of his job description. Shiro was the better choice. With the knowledge that Keith would probably hate it as well, his aunt and uncle never asked it of him. Only now, they were, and he couldn’t think of a good reason not to do it. They did enough for him as it was.
“Thanks,” he said dryly.
She patted him on the arm once again. “The group should be here around ten. It’s second-graders from Zilwaukee. Their folder is on the kitchen table. Call me on the radio if you need anything.”
With that, she strode out of the barn, leaving him in the dusty, open room. He heaved a sigh, lifting his arms to run his fingers through his hair. He could do this. It was a couple of hours with a bunch of…how old were second-graders? Christ, he didn’t know. Resigned, now, he headed back to the truck to get one more crate of apples for the kids.
Keith caught sight of a gleaming yellow bus bouncing along the uneven driveway that wound through the apple orchard. The flashes of color, brighter than the riot of leaf colors in the background, somewhat spoiled the effect of autumn in the country.
Nothing made him happier than the fall. He knew it was the time of year when things started dying or getting ready for the quiet calm of winter. To him, it was an invigorating season. The air was crisp, the angle of the sun made the air quality surreal – adding a golden color and glow to everything. Spices and pleasant odors hovered in the air – wood smoke, cinnamon, apple cider, and pumpkin all combined into a fragrant fog that drifted continuously over the farm. The leaves…God, the leaves in this area were incredible. Oaks and maples competed with each other to show off their beauty, waiting until the fall to drape themselves with their most elegant hues, like debutantes at a ball trying to outdo each other for attention.
What could he say? The fall made Keith poetic, and while fall was a busy season for their farm, he loved every second of it.
The bus pulled into the large parking lot and came to a stop near the main barn. Keith stood in front of the open barn doors, waiting nervously. Twenty-one kids, four chaperones, and a teacher, according to the file. Hadn’t Shiro handled much larger groups? Keith could do this.
He was still mentally pumping himself up as the bus doors slid open and the most gorgeous creature jumped down from the steps onto the ground. A quick flash of a smile at Keith – a smile reminiscent of the summer season that finished almost a month ago – before calling up into the bus that everyone needed to be off and make sure you had your field trip buddy!
Keith was grateful for the brief interval between unloading the bus and when he had to speak to the gorgeous guy. He stood in the bright fall sunlight sweating under his flannel, cursing that he didn’t think to go and freshen up his look at least a little.
The gorgeous creature counted heads as the kids all stepped off and formed a loose circle around him and the chaperones, tired-looking parents – two men and two women all holding styrofoam cups of coffee. One man had his phone out, capturing the whole moment on video, while one woman fussed over a little girl to get the child’s hair to look perfect. The other two parents looked like they didn’t want to be there.
The ray of sunshine must be the teacher, as he carried a stack of papers in his hand. “Everyone’s here! Excellent! Let’s say hello to the nice man who’s going to give us a tour! Remember to stick with your field trip buddy, and stay close to us! Michael? Since we’re not an even number, you’ll be my buddy today!”
To Keith’s surprise, the kids were well behaved, listening to their teacher and settling down from their initial rambunctiousness. The young man turned and approached Keith, jostling the papers in both hands to his own left in order to hold out his right to shake. “Good morning! I’m Mr. McClain from Zilwaukee.”
“Keith,” he replied shortly, returning the firm handshake with a slight smile. He was proud he was able to keep his voice calm, in spite of the warmth of the palm in his and the pressure from the teacher’s finger points against his skin.
“We’re very excited,” Mr. McClain said, still shaking Keith’s hand. The teacher dropped Keith’s hand, then extended his left. “Here are our permission slips,” he said.
Keith took them, unsure what to do with them. He didn’t remember Shiro ever taking slips. He’d leave them somewhere along the way, he decided. “Cool. Thanks.”
Mr. McClain waved one of the children over and Keith immediately saw the kid looked like an outsider. Probably didn’t have anyone to be a buddy with, he thought with a slight frown, which he quickly wiped from his face. The child sidled over to his teacher, who gave him a warm smile, then turned back to Keith.
“Um. Hi, everyone,” he said, waving a sort of welcome gesture with the pile of permission slips. “Welcome to Galra Farms.” Keith cleared his throat, unused to speaking this loud. “My name is Keith and I’ve worked here pretty much all my life.”
“Do you live here?” a high-pitched voice called out.
“Please remember to raise your hands if you’d like to ask questions,” Mr. McClain interjected.
A little hand popped up over the small sea of heads. “Sorry, Mr. Lance,” the girl said. “Do you live here, Mr. Keith.”
Taken aback at the title, Keith nodded. “Yes. My aunt and uncle own it, though it was started by my great-grandparents.”
“Interesting!” Mr. McClain...Lance...said. “How fun it must be to live on a farm like this!”
“It’s nice,” Keith said. “But, a lot of work.”
“So what do you have planned for us, Mr. Keith?” Lance asked, his eyes dancing now with amusement.
“Um, first a little tour with the hayride. We can pick some apples and bring them back and you can make your own cider. Then we’ll have cider and donuts. Afterwards, there’s a picnic and play area near the petting zoo.”
“Sounds like a fun day!” Keith was impressed at how excited Lance sounded, though he figured it was more to get the children into the spirit.
“It’s a fun place,” Keith said, trying to imitate the enthusiasm, and not quite achieving it. “Come on, the tractor is this way. I’ll take you out to the orchard.”
Keith continued to be impressed at the way Mr. McClain...Lance...handled the children. The chaperones hindered more than helped, two of them hovering over the children for photos. A glance at one of the father’s phones proved him to be playing a game. Keith knew this wasn’t the most exciting thing to do as an adult, but when your own children were involved, wouldn’t you want to pay more attention?
Lance, however, was a master with children. Keith could tell all the kids loved him, even the kids he pegged as difficult. They vied for his attention, called to him to show him things on their tour, and shared their discoveries with him. Lance seemed to have endless patience. He enthusiastically listened to each child, expressing pleasure at their excitement in a way that left Keith breathless. He knew he himself would never have the sort of patience Lance possessed naturally.
Though Keith feared the kids would be bored, they all seemed to have a good time. They ran around the orchard like maniacs, after listening to Keith explain briefly about the apple trees and the types of apples they grew. He kept it short, afraid of losing his audience, but the kids asked questions and he found himself bombarded constantly with new and usually funny inquiries.
“You’re pretty good with kids,” a voice said next to him.
He startled and turned his head to see Lance smiling at him as he leaned against the crooked wooden fence surrounding the orchard. “Uh, thanks. I didn’t think I was. Not like you anyway, Mr. McClain.”
Lance shrugged, curling his beautiful lips into a smile which made Keith’s mouth water. “It’s Lance,” he said. “I’m used to kids. I have a feeling you’re not?”
Gah. First name basis. “Not exactly. This is actually my first tour. My cousin usually does them.”
“Really?” Perfectly shaped eyebrows raised into a delicate arch. “I’d never have guessed.”
Keith reached up to rub at the back of his neck. “Thanks.”
“So, Mr. Keith,” Lance said, his smile turning sly. “You don’t have any children of your own?”
“What?” Keith choked out. “No. No, no, I, uh. I don’t. I-I mean, I’m only twenty-six.”
Lance laughed at Keith’s confusion. “My brother had his first kid at twenty-one.”
“Why did my brother have a kid so early?”
“No! No, I mean.” Ugh, he was repeating himself already. “Why do you want to know?”
“Just making conversation to pass the time.”
“Do you?” Keith wasn’t a great conversationalist and tended to be blunt when out of his comfort zone.
“These are my kids,” Lance said extravagantly, gesturing with open arms at the kids going crazy among the trees playing tag. He watched the kids for a few moments before speaking again, his eyes not meeting Keith’s. “Is there a Mrs. Keith? Or…”
What? He nearly choked on his own spit at the pointed question. Was Lance flirting with him? “Uh. Uh. No. There’s no one.”
Flustered, and to hide his red cheeks, Keith bent down to pick up the crate of apples the kids gathered. He hefted it in his arms and sputtered out. “W-well, if you call your kids over, I-I can show them how we make cider.”
Chuckling, Lance called for the kids, who came running, their faces flushed from their play. The chaperones - Keith never bothered learning their names – and the class followed Keith back to the tractor for the hayride back to the cider barn. Keith thumped the crate of apples the kids picked onto the old wooden bed and the kids clambered on, scrambling for seats among the hay. Lance waited until they were all on before seating himself at the front, closest to the tractor seat.
It took a couple of tries for Keith to get the old John Deere started, but his patience won out and soon he was able to put it in gear and navigate his way through the trees. He was starting to see why Shiro liked this. Driving the old tractor around the farm, kids laughing and chattering behind him, answering their silly questions (“Do you sleep in the apple trees, Mr. Keith?”), catching the eye of a gorgeous teacher...wait. Shiro wouldn’t do that. Ugh, he needed to stop.
It wasn’t easy, however, because as he drove in a roundabout path, prolonging the ride, he constantly glanced over his shoulder to make sure he hadn’t lost any of the kids, but each time he only had eyes for the bright-eyed Lance seated on a hay bale directly behind him. The noise from the tractor was loud enough to impede conversation, but it wasn’t difficult to hold a whole one with looks and expressions. That bright, sunshine smile was there every time he turned around.
He killed the power to Betsy after stopping in front of the barn. The sudden silence startled the kids, who stopped their shrieking and laughing for a few seconds before the babble started up again. Smiling, Keith climbed down from the tractor, fetched the crate, and went to stand by the doors and wait for the group to gather by him.
“You know, I’ve never driven a tractor before,” Lance mentioned to him as he stepped up to Keith with Michael beside him.
“Nope. We had a lawnmower, but no tractor like that. It’s quite the relic.”
“We’ve had it a long time.”
“I’d like to drive it sometime.”
Keith didn’t know how to respond to that. Something told him to be bold and go for it. “Any time you want,” he offered, but before Lance could reply, he called the kids to follow him. It was time to sort the apples and make cider.
The kids seemed to enjoy it. Keith showed them what to look for - how to tell bad apples from good. He showed them the old cider press his great-grandparents had used. While the farm itself operated modern equipment, the old-fashioned cider press was the pride of the farm and it was cool to see the kids get excited at the thought of making their own cider.
Keith enjoyed it as well. He never pictured himself surrounded by a group of children vying for his attention, babbling excitedly, shooting him questions. He thought it might annoy him, but it didn’t. The kids were funny. There was, of course, the occasional silly question, but for the most part he could tell the kids listened to him and paid attention.
Through it all he caught glimpses of Lance’s shining eyes on the other side of the room, watching with an amused intensity which made Keith’s stomach drop and his heart speed up. Especially the way those lips curled into a knowing smile each time they caught each other’s glances. No, this couldn’t be happening. He’d met the young teacher only a couple of hours ago, but Keith felt a pull toward him he couldn’t explain.
It wasn’t his looks alone. Okay, those were something, of course. Keith couldn’t remember seeing anyone so good-looking in his life. It was the kind of face he’d see at the local bar, want to hit on, but never do because he was too shy. Instead, he’d drink the night away, complaining to his cousin about his lack of guts.
It was the way he could see Lance had a big heart. It was evident in the way he cared for the kids in his class, but it went beyond that. Keith could see it in how Lance handled the little boy who didn’t have a field trip buddy.
Keith had been there. The loner kid in class with no friends. Too shy and broody looking. No one wanted to befriend him either. He was okay with it, for the most part, but there it was. It hurt occasionally; like when he had to tell his aunt there was no one to invite to a birthday party they wanted to throw him when he turned ten. He thought, though, if he’d had a teacher like Lance, things might have turned out different.
Michael, the little boy who stuck to Lance’s side most of the day, reminded Keith of himself. Shy. Perhaps not as broody looking. No, this boy had honey blonde hair and a wobbly smile. Lance, however, handled him so gently and kindly. Encouraging him with soft words and suggestions to participate. As the day progressed, Keith saw Michael come out of his shell a little. It wasn’t a complete one-eighty, but there were many smiles and Michael did play tag for a little bit.
At the mill, Keith took a cue from Lance and asked Michael to be his assistant. He had no idea if it’s what Shiro did, but he winged it. Lance encouraged Michael, who came to stand beside Keith as Keith explained what they were all supposed to do to work the press. He helped Michael demonstrate to everyone, guiding the little boy’s hands and motions patiently. He could tell Michael was self-conscious about it, but the boy explained the steps in a soft voice, stuttering over a few of the words with which Keith prompted him.
Suddenly Michael found himself the center of attention and, with Keith aiding him, Michael was the one who taught the other kids what to do. Keith, squatting next to the boy as he set up the press for the next kid, glanced up across the table at Lance, finding those shining bright blue eyes on him, only now with a soft smile.
“You were great with Michael,” Lance mentioned. He held a paper cup of hot cider in one hand and a cider donut in the other.
Keith, seated on a rickety picnic table at the edge of the play area, hadn’t seen him approach. “Oh,” he said in an uncertain tone. “Thanks.”
“Seriously.” Keith could tell he was. Lance sat himself down comfortably on the top of the table. “When he started this year, he would hardly say anything. The other kids? They don’t quite understand, so he’s ignored a lot. He’s got a stutter, so he doesn’t like talking. I mean, kids can be cruel, and I think he knows that.”
“Poor guy. He seems like a nice kid.”
“He is. I’m trying to help him. But what you did today? I’ve never seen him that happy.”
Keith blushed, insanely pleased with Lance’s praise. “Oh, I just saw what you were doing and tried to copy it.”
“You don’t understand, Mr. Keith,” Lance said, a slightly amused tone battling with his serious one. “Michael never does that. Speaking to the other kids. His first-grade teacher told me he probably said ten words the entire year. He hasn’t said much more since this year started.” Lance gestured with his donut toward the barn where Keith demonstrated the cider making. “What happened in there was akin to a miracle.”
Keith blinked a few times. He had no idea. If he knew Michael was afraid of speaking, he wouldn’t have done it. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? Sorry for what? Helping him?” Lance smiled, so bright in the afternoon sun that it dazzled Keith. “I don’t know how you did it, but you did.” He took a bite of the neglected donut. “Mm. These are so good!” he gushed through the mouthful. When he’d swallowed, he continued. “How come you’re not a teacher?”
“What? Me?” Keith choked out through a laugh.
“Sure. Why not? You’re good with kids.”
Keith shrugged, feeling self-conscious. He ran a hand through his hair, forgetting he’d tied it back and his fingers got caught. “Um,” he said, feeling ridiculous under Lance’s gaze. “I guess. I don’t know. I’m not comfortable with talking or anything. Like having attention. And that’s pretty much what a teacher does, eh?”
Lance chuckled. “Yeah, I suppose. Still, I think you’d be good at it. Think about it. Unless, of course, you like it here.”
“I do,” Keith said, his tone turning soft. Lance chewed on his donut, watching with a curious tilt to his head. “Especially right now. Fall. It’s my favorite time.”
“I understand,” Lance said. “This place is beautiful.”
“Yeah,” Keith said. “Beautiful.”
Lance glanced at him, but Keith had breathed the word while staring not at the landscape, but at Lance. He gave Keith a knowing smile before sipping his cider. Keith blushed, turning away and cursing himself for saying something so bold. Lance merely chuckled as silence fell between them, a silence full of the playing laughter of children.
As anyone who went on a ride at Disney knew, the tour ended up in the gift shop. Keith, who initially dreaded this whole ordeal, found himself not wanting it to end. Lance would take off with his class never to be seen again. Unless, of course, he decided to bring them back the following year. A year without seeing those eyes and that smile. The thought shot a pang through Keith’s heart. If only he had the guts to ask for Lance’s number, but his Aunt would kill him if he hit on one of their paying guests.
He wanted to, though. The continual exchanges of smiles that were more than smiles, the little talks they snatched while the kids were playing, catching each other’s eyes – all these things encouraged Keith to think maybe the teacher liked him. Keith, however, was awkward and unsure. Combined with the fear of disappointing his aunt and likely rejection, he agonized over what to do.
He stood near the register, his eyes darting back and forth while the class, the chaperones, and Lance browsed. Okay, he’ll be honest, he was mostly watching Lance. A Lance who now approached him with a smile.
“So, you guys make hard cider here?” Lance asked. He held a brochure about the event, which he must have snagged from the counter while the kids browsed the baked goods and candy section.
“Uh, yeah,” Keith said, pulling off his work gloves. “It was my cousin’s idea. He thought we could open a cider-tasting thing. You know, like a wine tasting, only with our cider.”
“I love hard ciders,” Lance said, glancing at the brochure again. “Are they good?”
Keith smiled at his cheeky question, asked with a sidelong, sly grin. “I think so.”
“Looks like you have one on Friday night this week?”
“Will you be there?”
“Yeah. I’ll be working.”
“Then it will definitely be worth coming. Save me a seat at the bar?”
This was definitely flirting. The smile gave it away. The twinkle in Lance’s eyes did too. He was too cute not to pursue, though he could hear his aunt in his ear reprimanding him. “I can do that,” he answered.
“You promised me a ride on the tractor some time,” Lance reminded him.
Keith grinned. “You can come early. I’ll even let you drive the tractor.”
Lance’s whole face lit up, brighter than Keith had yet seen it. Lance reached out and captured Keith’s hand to give his fingers a little squeeze. Keith practically melted into the floor right there. “Really?” Lance breathed. “You’ve got yourself a date!”
Keith squeezed back, agreeing. “It’s a date.”