"Dad, why do you always core your apples like that?" The small voice asks.

I plunge the knife into the flesh of the apple again. "What do you mean?"

Nathan, my youngest, sits propped up by his elbows on the kitchen counter. He's just a few days older than five, and full of questions. His brother, just a year older, sits next to him. I finish with the apple, and toss the core into the trash. He picks up the rest of the apple, and looks through the perfect hole in the center.

"You know, when you cut the core out of your apple. Why don't you just eat the apple off the core? Why do you cut it out like that?"

I think for a minute, and put the knife down. "Well, I used to know a girl who cut her apples like that."

He sets down the apple and looks at me thoughtfully. "Was it Mom?"


He begins to list off all the women he knows. Aunt Carol? No. Grandma? No. Mrs. Pratt? No. The neighbor lady? No.

"Eat your apple," I finally say, and push the cored apple into his hands.

He's munching his apple and staring into space, and I think he's forgotten about it. He's only five. His mind wanders. Mine does too, because I'm surprised when he asks me another question.

"Does Mom know her?"

That slows me down. I hesitate. He's young, but he can sense it. "No. Mom never met her." Jason walks into the kitchen with a smug look. He's almost eight, and he's sometimes a little hard on his little brother.

"It was before Mom and Dad were married," he says matter-of-factly, and Nathan looks confused, like he can't imagine a time like that. I guess he can't.

"How long ago was that?"

"A long time," I say, "I was just a kid like you and your brother." He looks shocked. Amazed.

"That's a long time ago," he finally says. His voice is grave, and I'm always amazed that he's so serious. So unlike me at that age.

I nod, and without another word I send the boys off to play.

It's a few days later when the apples come up again. It's Jason this time, and he looks smug about it. Nathan is playing in the other room, just about out of earshot. I'm reading the paper and eating an apple, cored as always. One a day keeps the doctor away, I hear.

"There's that apple again," he says when he walks past. He opens the refrigerator door. I don't say anything, just turn the newspaper page. He closes the door, and holds out an apple to me. I take it from him, open a drawer, and core it for him. He might be a little older than Nathan, but he's still too young to use a knife.

"You two never noticed before," I tell him between bites, "Or you didn't say anything."

"No one else at school cores their apples."

"Well, I guess I just kinda like it." I fold my newspaper and look at him. He looks more like his mother than he does me. I'm hoping that that's the end of it, that he won't ask any more questions, but he does.

"Who was she?" He's a smart kid, even at seven. Maybe the smartest kid in his small first grade class.

"Well, she was my friend when I was little."

"A girlfriend?" He's old enough to know about girlfriends.

"Maybe. I was just a kid. But I guess she was."

"So why do you core your apples like that?"

"Well," I say, "She used to core her apples like that, and I guess I miss her."

"Why?" He's interested.

"I remember the first time I met her. I wasn't looking for a new friend, and definitely not a girl. I was just a kid, and it wasn't cool to have girlfriends then. But she came up here from down south, and she was different. The girls up here didn't look like her. They didn't have pretty eyes like she did, and the girls up here didn't laugh like she did either."

Nathan has been listening, and he sits next to his brother.

"But what was so special?" he asks.

"We were going to see the world someday, we decided. We were going to go to High School together, and College, and after that we were going to go to Hawaii and Europe and Italy and all those places kids want to see. We even had this map, and we put little X's over every place we would visit. You know, kid stuff.:

"Did you ever go?"

"No, things didn't work out like we thought they would." I tell them.

"But you still want to remember her? Why?" Jason asks me.

"She saved my life once."

"What happened?"

"We were walking home from school one day. I was tall, even for my age. You and your brother will be too. When I was a kid, my feet were too big for the rest of my body, and I would trip over them all the time. She would laugh, and I would dust myself off, and we would laugh together. Then I'd fall down again, and she would laugh again. She had a great laugh.

There was a river we used to walk by, and in the winter it would freeze over. There'd be six inches of ice over the water, and you could walk down the river if you wanted. We did sometimes. I tripped, and I fell."

He's hanging on my words.

"And I'm laying there on the ice, and she's not laughing this time. The next thing I know, there's this horrible sound and the ice around me is cracking. The chunk I fell on is starting to sink a little, and there's about a half inch of water there. Suddenly I'm under water. I don't know how, and I don't know why, but it's over my head and there's a current. I don't remember much, but I remember grabbing on to the ice with one hand and being pulled away from it. It was so cold. I can't describe it any better.

So I don't know how, but I'm screaming under the water, and barely holding on, and the water is getting colder and colder. And when I don't think I can bare it any more, I feel something grab my hand. It's her. She's pulling on my hand. And she's small, but so am I, and little by little I'm coming out of the water. Finally I'm out, and we're laying on the frozen shore, and I'm crying, and she's crying, and we just sat there for a little bit. Eventually a police car pulled up and saw two kids crying in the snow, and he gave us a ride home. I came home and my mom took me to the doctor, and I ended up in the hospital for a few days. She made it into the paper, and I ended up alright."

"What happened to her?" he asks.

"We were young," I say. "Just kids. Like you and your brother, remember?. And sometimes kids grow apart. She and her mother went away, and I never saw her again after that. I've never forgotten about her, though. It's been almost twenty years, and I still remember her eyes. I still remember her voice, and the way she would laugh when I fell down. I still remember the good times we had back then, and I still remember the way she cored her apples. And even though I can't see her eyes anymore, or here her voice or her laugh, I can still core an apple the way she did, and I can still keep the memories."

"But you could look her up," Jason says, "You could find her."

"Maybe I could," I say, "But I don't want to. I don't need to. I think she's in a better place now. Maybe I'll see her again sometime, and I'll be happy if I do. But I don't need to rush in to that. If it happens, it will happen when it does." We sit in silence for a few minutes. The wheels are turning in his head. "Go play with your brother," I finally tell him.

But I didn't tell them the whole story. I didn't tell them that there was no happy ending. They're still a little too young to know everything. I still haven't decided if I'll ever tell them the whole story.

In my bedroom closet, up on the top shelf and behind the safe there's a cigar box I've kept for almost twenty years. I don't know if my wife knows about it. She's never asked me. Maybe she's found it and gone through it and seen everything without me knowing, but I've never asked either. I don't know, and I don't really care to.

A pistachio. A few coins. A lock of hair. A folding map. The treasures of childhood. I hold each individually, feeling their textures, running my fingertips over each. I unravel the lock of hair, cracking and dried after almost twenty years. I open the map, and stare at the X's marked on Hawaii and Europe and Italy and all those places kids want to see. Underneath, a small stack of folded, yellow newspaper clippings. SEVENTH GRADE SCIENCE FAIR WINNERS, says one. GIRL SAVES FRIEND FROM ICY RIVER, says another. Finally I reach the last. DRUNK DRIVER KILLS LOCAL MOTORIST, DAUGHTER, the headline reads, but I don't read the rest. I gently place the clippings back in the box, and slide it tenderly back into the closet.

It's almost time to make the boys' lunch, and there are apples that need to be cored.

Uploaded 02/13/2014
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