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  • Writer's pictureNick Janicki

Hoppy Endings: Double Blazed Orange

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

Inspired by Hop Butcher For The World's DIPA.

The THC-infused mint Jay had mistakenly consumed before dinner was only now beginning its dance through his bloodstream. It was light for now, a sort of swaying. At its peak, it’d be the middle of a mosh pit at an EDM concert. He was as buckled in for the show as he could be, but the external situation he was in made most everything unpredictable.

Despite having been with his girlfriend, Jessica, for close to four years, this was only his third time meeting her parents. The first had been over dinner when they’d come to visit their daughter in Cedar Rapids (where Jay lived, as well). The second, an extended family reunion in Indiana, which included at least two dozen relatives. Both occasions had been low-stress, optimal for relying on small talk and a few previously prepared jokes crafted for a parental audience. This meeting, the one Jay found himself in now, was a weekend-long affair, a time for him to really get to know Mr. and Mrs. Harrington (and, unfortunately, for them to do the same to him).

“Are you finished, dear?” Mrs. Harrington asked with a hand resting on Jay’s shoulder.

He was finished eating, although give it a couple of minutes and his stomach would most likely start to tingle the way it tended to whenever he was stoned, begging for attention until half his pantry was cleaned out. Keep it together, he thought. Nod your head and smile. That’s easy enough to do. He did this, turning his attention from his plate to Mrs. Harrington (he was at the age where he could refer to the woman by her first name, Deborah, but just the thought of that seemed bizarre; he didn’t bother to say it aloud). They locked eyes for a moment that lasted an eternity. It was like she was staring past his eyes and into his brain, trying to read his thoughts. Jay told himself this was the edible talking (he was still in a right enough mind to separate suspicious thoughts from reality).

Based on their few encounters, Mrs. Harrington didn’t seem to have a problem with Jay. They had a mutual respect for each other, nothing more, nothing less. He was sure some guys might seek out something more, targeting a mother-son type of relationship, but not Jay. Why would he want that? That’d make Jessica his sister, and that was wrong. Yes, mutual respect was just fine.

Mr. Harrington — Dr. William Harrington — was the one who made Jay uneasy. In their other two encounters, Jessica’s father had come off as reserved, withdrawn toward Jay, addressing anyone and everyone but him during conversation. This behavior was holding up tonight, too. Even while Jay was speaking in this intimate gathering of the four of them, Mr. Harrington found something else to look at. Hell, even while addressing the man directly, Jay found him surveying his wine glass or fiddling with his fork. Anything besides Jay.

While his brain was machine-gunning a million concerns his way, Mrs. Harrington had ventured off to the kitchen, leaving Jay, Jessica and her father at the dining room table. Jessica and Mr. Harrington passed the time chatting about her desire to pursue a Masters in Philosophy. At least Jay thought that was what they were talking about. He couldn’t really understand them, and he could only stay focused for a few seconds at a time. His stomach was calling to him (yes, already), and there was a faint ringing in his ears. Both were equally distracting.

He tried to focus on his thoughts, finding them marginally easier to wrangle into a straight line than the conversation unfolding before him. Still somewhat cognizant of social cues, he was also making a conscious effort to nod every so often, attempting to at least appear half-engaged at the table. Internally, now, while wrangling those wild thoughts, he was trying to recall the amount of THC in the mint dissolving in his stomach. If he could do that, he figured he’d be able to prep himself for the inevitable disaster to come. Although, this was like buying an umbrella in anticipation of a hurricane.

I had put it in that pack of Altoids before going through T.S.A. on our way here. Before that, it’d been in its own container . . . that orange one. Or maybe it was green. And it had the THC amount listed on the label. I can picture it, the label on the green container. Yeah, it was totally green, like the color of the leprechaun’s clothes on the Lucky Charms box, to be exact. Just like that color. Are those even still around? I know I’ve seen Captain Crunch and Cocoa Puffs in the store recently, but I can’t remember seeing a single box of Lucky Charms.

Jay reached down to grab his phone from his pocket. Google had all the answers, and it’d tell him within a fraction of a second if he could still find Lucky Charms in the cereal aisle of any given local grocery store. He stopped himself, hand gripping the phone through the outside of his pants pocket. He still very much wanted to get an answer to his question; what had frozen his hand was the recollection that he had no service out here in central Michigan, where the Harringtons had moved some five years back for quasi-retirement. Just as worse as being in the middle of nowhere without any cell reception was the couple’s distaste for the internet (and technology as a whole, really). Mr. Harrington had once referred to it as “putting the keys to your life in the middle of Times Square for anyone to pick up and use as they please.” A bit dramatic, but Jay had nodded and smiled at this, as he did after anything the man said.

Mrs. Harrington returned from the kitchen carrying an apple pie in one hand and three small plates in the other. Jay was in awe over this. To him, it was a balancing act, a woman on a tightrope above a pool of fire at the circus. She ended the act with a careful dismount, the plates resting in the middle of the table, the pie alongside it.

She took a seat and distributed the clean plates. “I have some vanilla ice cream in the freezer, as well, should that suit anyone’s fancy.”

“Beautiful,” Jay whispered, eyes on the still-steaming prize. It wasn’t until Jessica gave him a good kick to the shin under the table that he realized his internal admiration for the dessert forced its way aloud. He chuckled and put on a smile, eyes moving from his girlfriend to her father to her mother. He figured it best to double-down on his comment. “That layer of crust on top is just beautiful. Almost like a beautiful piece of art, you know?”

His eyed latched onto Mr. Harrington for the first time he could recall. It was impossible to break away, a deer transfixed by headlights. Daddy Dearest ended the staring contest by narrowing his eyes at Jay, then it was back to twirling his empty wine glass.

“Jayson, are you a fan of art?” Mr. Harrington asked, glancing up but once only to meet his daughter’s gaze rather than Jay’s. “Perhaps a part of Greenberg resurrected in you?”

Of Mr. Harrington’s words, Jay understood his name, and recalled something about art. And it was a question — he was sure of that much. This was bad news. It meant the dance going on inside his body was intensifying, moving to a faster beat. This meant Jay could latch onto a fleeting second of conversation rather than a few moments, which rendered his conversation ability pretty much useless.

It’s the mint, he mused. It’s hitting harder. It’s hitting me like some dude doing the salsa. No more swaying. This was his reasonable mind’s final distress signal, a flare shot out to the front of a scrambled-egg brain. He needed to get out of there.

My name. Art. A question. What does it all mean?

Jay found himself studying the glass Mr. Harrington was twirling around, the one the man was focused on, too. He was trying to dissect the question, then put it back together. Like an equation of words. When he pulled back up the pieces he had retained, he found some had vanished. Now, all he had to guide him was a single word: art.

Time was up; a reply was needed. “Art . . .” Jay started. He put a hand to his chin and turned his attention to the chandelier above them. “It’s a rather curious concept, isn’t it?” He let his eggy mind wander a little. “I’ve never bothered to explore it much myself. I’d consider myself more of a . . . cocktail connoisseur.”

Yeah, that was it. This was good. He sounded coherent, which was as much as he could ask for given his current condition. He wasn’t certain where ‘cocktail connoisseur’ had come from, although he had a hunch: the empty wine glass spinning in Mr. Harrington’s hand. Regardless, Jay was proud of himself. He’d said something real — actual words — so found it complementary to follow up with an action. He grabbed his own wine glass, picked it up, studied it, and swished the few remaining drops of merlot around like a scientist with a beaker.

“This is news to me,” Jessica said. She, too, was fiddling with her glass, although Jay determined it was likely out of discomfort rather than anti-social or prideful behavior (Mr. Harrington and Jay’s reasons, respectfully). She donned an innocent smile and looked to Jay. “But I have to say, I’m a little curious myself about seeing what you can whip up, babe.” Her tone, like her smile, was innocent, playful, as likely were her intentions. But she was unaware of Jay’s exponentially increasing high.

“That would be a treat,” Mrs. Harrington added while cutting up the thing Jay had called beautiful, a work of art. It was this dessert that’d brought the conversation to where it stood now.

Mr. Harrington pounded both fists on the table just once. “Yes! Here, I’ll make it easy for you, sport. I will take a Tom Collins. You’ve got yourself a full bar in the kitchen. Anything you can’t find on the bar cart will be in the fridge.”

A thousand wrinkles appeared on Mr. Harrington’s cheeks, chin, and forehead as he revealed a wide grin. Unlike Jessica’s, Jay could tell it was malicious, born from a desire to watch Jay fail at a task he had (more or less) bragged about. He looks and sounds like Scrooge after having seen the three ghosts, Jay considered. Only Christmas was half a year away, and Mr. Harrington hadn’t had a visit from any spirits. Jay was the only guest in this house, the only person able to prompt such a reaction. Despite still having the sense of mind to know this wasn’t heartwarming joy ripped from the belly of a Disney VHS tape, Jay decided to take this as an opportunity. The man was challenging him, enthralled by the idea of his only daughter’s boyfriend screwing up. This was Jay’s chance to prove him wrong.

“Sure thing,” Jay laughed. He stood up (legs immediately feeling like Jell-O), giving a solid butt-bump to his chair as he did. He pushed the chair back in, clasped his hands in front of him, bowed, and said, “One Tommy Colls coming right up, my liege.”

Jessica rolled her eyes, that sincere smile having been reduced to one born out of discomfort. Jay was pretty positive she knew what was going on now. Maybe still aloof to the ill-intended request by her father, but certainly spotting something off about Jay based on his behavior. He could feel it by the way her hazel eyes pierced through him the same way Mrs. Harrington’s had. Seeing through him. Or again, maybe all this was the mint talking.

“Tommy Colls?” William asked. His mouth flat now, wrinkles gone.

Jay sent a wink his way before departing for the kitchen. “It’s how us mixologists like to talk.”

The walk to the kitchen—just a room away—was an hour-long quest. With each step, Jay was trudging through a foot and a half of snow. He had to count the seconds in his head to tie his sense of time back to reality. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . He was standing over the kitchen island by six. This was bad. The salsa had evolved into a breakdance, every part of his body tingling more than before.

The kitchen counter was cluttered with dishes, ingredients, utensils. The typical aftermath of any given dinner party. Surveying it all, Jay’s mind was already moving on to matters other the cocktail he’d promised Mr. Harrington. Mainly, it was in a visual hunt for anything edible. There was a tray of cookies, but no . . . those were untouched. Far too risky to disturb that. And there was a bowl with some kind of flour-based, gooey mixture inside. Jay had enough control to keep away from this, too, fearing some sort of food-borne illness. That’d be a horrific finale: puke all over that ‘beautiful’ pie in the other room.

It was the hours-old charcuterie board they’d snacked on prior to dinner that was deemed an acceptable sacrifice. The slices of cured meats were hard (not quite crunchy, but give them another hour and they might be). The cheese was sweating, some pieces having melted into a Frankenstein clump of Swiss, goat cheese, aged cheddar, and Brie. Jay wasn’t bothered by any of this. He was starved, trying to satisfy a stomach that was, in actuality, rather full.

What are you doing? he found himself asking after a downing a couple pieces of meat. He was mid-bite (a piece of the Frankenstein cheese) when he asked himself the question again, louder: What are you doing?

He spun around, the meat-cheese pair in his hand falling to the floor as he realized this question wasn’t coming from himself. Someone else had asked it, someone in the kitchen with him. Only the room was empty, just an audience of used cookware staring back at him.

“We said, what are you doing?

Jay was hearing the words now. They were around him, filling up the room rather than his head, but still, no one in sight. He could hear muffled conversation from the other room, at least three distinct voices. Yes, he assured himself, they’re still over there. No one in here except me. But if I’m the only one here, where did those voices come fr—

“Well I’ll be damned, Orwell, I’d say he’s ignoring us.” This was definitely not the voice of anyone in the dining room, nor was it him unknowingly talking aloud again. There was a sort of southern drawl buried within these words.

A second voice jumped in: “Hey, you fool, what are we, chopped apple?”

Jay had been prepared for this one. It took all the concentration he could muster (there wasn’t much left in the tank to begin with) as he worked to pinpoint the source of the sound. His ears guided him to the very end of the counter, the one just past the stove. Resting on it was a tiered, metal fruit bowl, empty other than two oranges resting in the second tier’s bowl.

“Ah, so you’re not deaf, then,” the second voice continued. “You’re right, Orson, this slime-ball was about to go and carry on like we didn’t exist.” ‘On’ came out as ‘awn.’

Jay was high. He was getting higher yet, but never in his career as a part-time stoner had he experienced this. He approached the bowl, the bottom of his mouth hanging off his face. He stopped a few feet away, squinting while extending his neck forward for a better (but still distanced) view. The two oranges weren’t the orbs of—well, orange—he was familiar with. They had crescent carvings on them revealing a pulpy inside. They also had two smaller crescents above the larger one, perfectly parallel to one another with an inch or so in between.

The larger crescent began to move as the first voice asked, “What’re you starin’ at? Someone’s gotta teach you some manners.” ‘Manners was ‘mayners.’

All right, maybe Jay was higher than he let on to himself. He rubbed his eyes, shook his head, and studied the oranges again. Still there, crescents and all. Terrified but equally curious, Jay took another step forward. He was right in front of the bowl now, staring at a pair of oranges that looked more like carved pumpkins.

“Did . . . did you just say something, orange?” he asked.

The bigger crescent, a mouth carved into a piece of fruit, started moving again. “You on some kinda drug there? I’ll give you a pass if so, but from now on you refer t’me as Orwell, and my buddy here as Orson. Orson and I go way back — grew up on the same branch down in Florida, matter of fact.” Again, ‘on’ was ‘awn.’

“N-nice to meet you, Orwell,” Jay said. He gave them a wave. “Are you . . . you know, real?” He knew the question was silly. Still, this felt as real as any conversation he’d ever had. One sense deceiving him was one thing. Two of them, hearing and seeing? Yeah, right. Impossible.

“One’a them non-believers, are ya?” the orange ball calling itself Orwell asked. “We get that a lot where we’re from. Don’t mean we’ll sit here and take it, that’s for sure. Yes, we’re real, just like that awful beard on your mug.” It turned—actually rotating itself—toward the other orange. “Looks like someone went and put fertilizer on half his face!” It burst into laughter, strands of pulp brushing against each other from deep within its mouth. (I mean, it has to be its mouth, Jay concluded.)

The mouth of the one called Orson went thin, almost looking like a normal orange before it started moving again. “Enough with the jokes, now.” It spun from Orwell to Jay. “What are you doin’ in here, anyway, standing ‘round pickin’ at questionable cheese?”

Jay was sensing sincere interest in its tone, so tried his best to remember. Why am I here? he wondered. Not to eat off the charcuterie board. Why’s it even called that? It’s not like the meat is charred, and it’s not like anything on that board could be considered cute. That’s false advertising.

He was losing it again, drifting off into an infinite blaze.

“I’m, uh . . .”

“Spitit out then, son!” Orson demanded.

“I’m here about . . .” Again, squeezing his brain for anything useful. There was a name on his mind, sitting there with a blur. ‘Collin,’ he could just make it out. “Something about a guy named Collin.”

One of Orwell’s eyes winced, the piece of fruit almost looking inquisitive. “Collin. You came to the kitchen to find someone named Collin? That don’t seem right. We’re old-timers here on account of neither the mister nor missus being too fond of oranges most days. We might not get outta this here room, but we’re darn sure there’s never been a Collin so much as strolling through it.”

Orson sucked in some pulp, then sent the small glob flying out of his mouth. It landed on the counter. “He’s right, them two don’t have guests. You’re the first one we’ve seen, ‘sides their daughter, that is.”

Jay was scratching at the spotty stubble on his chin, partly out of contemplation, but mostly because he was still lingering on the zing an orange had landed on him. He broke his concentration from the oranges for the first time since spotting them, gazing around the room for anything that, paired with the name ‘Collin’ in his back pocket, would give him something more to work with. His stomach began to speak again as he did this, begging for just a little more food. The charcuterie board called to him, as did a can of whipped cream, lid off and some delicious white foam dripping from the sprayer.

No, focus. He slapped himself in the face. When that did little to calm his stomach, he decided to retire his attention to somewhere that didn’t have any food near it: a bar cart pushed up against the wall. Booze didn’t particularly sound appealing while high, at least to Jay. That was a good thing. That meant he could think with his head instead of his stomach. A temporary solution, but one that worked for the moment.

“In your condition, I’d keep my eyes off the funny juice,” Orwell said. “My cousin, Clem, rest her soul, lost herself in a glass a bourbon. Eventually she came outta it, but she was never the same. That stuff was flowing through her insides until she found herself in a trashcan. Damn shame.”

“Wasn’t it ‘cause she was all cut up first?” Orson asked.

“Whatever!” Orwell snapped back. “In any case, she ain’t around no more.”

“Alcohol . . .” Jay whispered, eyes transfixed on the dozens of bottles on the cart. “The Collin I was talking about had something to do with booze.” He closed his eyes (this didn’t help; it just made the room spin a little). He opened them and turned to the oranges again. “Jessica’s dad asked for a cocktail. He asked me to make it for him, the Collin one. What’s a Collin cocktail?”

The oranges turned to each other and began howling in amusement. Jay had to turn to the dining room doorway to ensure no one in the other room had heard this. All was well (or as well as it could be). This reminded him that, if they had heard anything, there really were two talking oranges in the kitchen. And that thought was far more terrifying than anything they could ever hear come out of Jay’s mouth.

“The drink you’re thinkin’ of is a Tom Collins,” Orson said. “Pretty common one from what I’ve seen in this house.”

Orwell rotated toward Orson and, from what Jay could tell, gave off a glare. Jay didn’t have the mental capacity to determine why, and was quick to forget about it entirely. He was trying to stay focused on the one subject that mattered.

“What do you mean?” Jay asked.

“Meanin’ the Boss Man has at least one a them a night.”

Jay punched the air. “Hell yeah! Now that’s the news I needed. Tom Collins, right, right. Now it’s coming back to me. Mister Harrington sent me in here to make him a Tom Collins.” He paused, putting a hand over his face before dragging it down. “The thing is, I don’t know how to make one. Maybe you guys can help me? Since you see him making it every night?”

“Partner, we’re oranges,” Orwell reminded. “We don’t even have hands. What makes you think we know how to make one a them cocktails?”

Jay hustled over to the bar cart, finding his legs to have a little more in them now as a result of this recollection, and the idea of two oranges actually helping him carry this out. Remembering his assignment reminded him that this was less of a casual request from Mr. Harrington and more of a challenge. Jay had claimed to be a master mixologist, when in reality the most complex drink he could make was a gin and tonic (and it had been awhile since he’d made a poor one of those, anyway).

One of the cart’s wheels made a skidding sound as Jay pushed it across the tile floor.

Mr. Harrington shouted from the other room: “Everything all right in there, sport?” Sport, Jay repeated. The word made his toes curl (at least he thought it did; he hadn’t been able to feel them for a few minutes now). It was the ‘Boss Man,’ as the oranges had dubbed him, heckling Jay from afar.

“All good!” he responded. “Just making sure this . . .” He looked wide-eyed at the oranges.

“Tom Collins,” Orwell whispered.

Jay continued, “Just making sure this Tom Collins comes out top-of-the-line.” He returned his attention to the oranges, giving them a wink.

“Now why would you go and promise the man a top-of-the-line cocktail?” Orwell asked.

“I told him I was a master mixologist.”

“Are you?”

Jay’s chin fell to his chest. “No.”

Orwell sighed and turned to his friend again. “What do you say, Orson?” His crescent mouth wasn’t moving much, and his tone was much more serious (again, high-as-a-kite Jay didn’t pick up on this). “Do we help the fella?”

Orson hesitated for a moment, then rotated himself up and down a little. It was the best he could do for a nod.

“Great,” Jay began. “What’d you see William use when he’s made these in the past? We’ve got a ton of stuff here.” He began picking up bottles one by one to read the labels. “Brandy. Cognac. Vodka. Bourbon. Vermouth. Gin. Rum.”

“Hold a sec,” Orson said. “What was that last one?”

Jay held up the bottle of dark rum.

“No, no, it ain’t that one.”

Jay returned the bottle. He reached into the fruit bowl and pulled out Orson, moving him closer to the bar cart while resting in his cupped palm.

“Lord almighty!” Orson screamed. “Who went and said you could go and pick a man up like that? I don’t do so well movin’ around like this.” The comments went unnoticed as Jay sent the orange on a ride from one bottle to the next. The orange was quick to pipe up at the soonest moment: “There! It’s that one.” Jay lifted the bottle and held it close to Orson. “Yep, gin. He definitely used that one. Besides, it’s practically half gone, meaning that bottle’s his go-to.”

“Nice work, Officer Orson,” Orwell said. “He’s right. The Boss Man’s used that plenty, and no doubt in them Tom Collins he likes to indulge in.”

It went this way for awhile, Jay’s hand acting as a rollercoaster car as he moved Orson around the bar cart. Eventually, Orson sent up a mess of pulp into Jay’s palm, so he returned him to the bowl and decided it was Orwell’s turn for a spin.

Together, the southern duo was able to round up five ingredients: gin, club soda, lemon juice, simple syrup, and ice (that last one Jay supposed he didn’t need the help of two pieces of fruit to know to include). But something was missing. It didn’t feel right, even for Jay, who was the furthest person from a mixologist. He studied the glass. It looked right. Drinkable, at the very least. Some estimations had been made as related to ounces of any given ingredient—but hey, this was the work of Master Mixologist Jayson. If anything tasted off, he could claim it was his own take on the classic Tim Connors.

“Wait, what’s this called again?” he asked. Without the oranges, probably he’d still be hovering over the charcuterie board. He was grateful to have them.

“Tom Collins,” Orwell said.

They were both back in the bowl now. As a personal thank you for their help, Jay had placed them on the top tier of the stand. A better view of the kitchen, and superior to any new fruits that might find themselves in the Harrington household. It was the least Jay could do, although he imagined he’d forgot all about this by the time he entered the kitchen for breakfast in the morning.

But first, what was it about this drink that was missing? The simple syrup and lime juice (from a bottle, but that was all right) gave it a foggy appearance—an actual cocktail appearance. Jay had even found a paper straw laying around that he’d added. Even with this extra touch, he was sure it wasn’t complete. It needed to be a hundred per cent, otherwise Mr. Harrington would go back to treating him like an empty chair for the rest of the visit (and maybe for the rest of his life).

“What you lookin’ at there, Jay?” Orson asked.

Jay’s attention remained on the glass. He was crouched in front of it, studying it from a level point of view. His nose was practically touching the glass. “It’s not right . . . there’s got to be an ingredient we’re missing. If not the liquor or other liquids, then it’s an appearance thing. It’s so . . . bland. All white, like a ghost.” He turned to the oranges. “Who was Tom Collins? Was he a real person, and if so, is he dead now? Maybe I’m just missing the story behind it, because the look of it could be intentional if that were the case. Like the drink represents a ghost, or something. But otherwise it seems wrong.”

“Don’t think that’s it,” Orwell said. The two oranges were silent. Jay, too, was silent, waiting for a reply. Eventually, Orwell continued, “You know what? It’s the cherry. Yep, I’ve seen the Boss Man put a couple’a cherries in there and it really takes the presentation up a few notches. Ain’t that right, Orson?”

“Well, I think . . .” Orson started.

Orwell rotated to his friend, hitting him with another glare that went unnoticed by Jay. “Orson . . .”

Orson perked up. “Oh, yep! Cherries, that’s it. That’s the last piece of the puzzle.”

Jay gave them a thumbs up, grabbed the jar of maraschino cherries off the cart, and scooped two into the cocktail. He gave it a good swirl, then returned to his scientist-like observation position. He’d told Mr. Harrington (he’d never think of him as ‘Boss Man’) he didn’t much care for art, but in this moment, he felt like a true art critic. Right now, his mind was clear, focused on the task at hand. Consumed by it, in fact. He knew if he could nail this, really knock it out of the park, anything idiotic he were to say or do over the course of the weekend would be forgiven. The Harringtons would remember this legendary cocktail he were to have created, both delicious and beautiful. The latter, he determined, was still a work in progress, even with the addition of the cherries just now.

“It’s still not right,” he told the oranges. “It’s getting there, but there’s still something missing. The cherries were a nice touch. They’re not the cherry on top, though. That’s got to be another ingredient.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Orson said. “Cherries are the cherry on top.”

Orwell this time: “Yeah, you didn’t even know what went into a Tom Collins before you came in here, and now you’re an expert? Trust us, partner.”

“That’s true,” Orson backed his friend up. “It looks all fine, and I’m sure it’ll taste just swell. All refreshing like, ya know?”

Jay began to raise himself from his crouched position. He only moved a bit, stopping once level with the top tier of the fruit bowl. His eyes went from Orson to Orwell, Orwell to Orson. There mouths were clenched tight together, both bending at either side to reveal a warm grin. Jay had gotten used to oranges with eyes and mouths in such a short time, but he was now noticing something new. Both fruits had beads of juice pushing out of their pores (he wasn’t sure that was the correct term, but didn’t much care, either). It smelled of citrus wonder, just as the inside of their mouths and eyes revealed those juicy, pulpy centers. Jay had seen similar fruit do this when under pressure: lemons, limes, and even oranges shot out a citrus zest as a result of nothing more than a squeeze. These oranges, these talking oranges, were under pressure, too. Only it wasn’t the physical kind.

“What am I missing, my friends?” Jay asked. His tone toward them had changed. It was interrogative. “You said you saw Mr. Harrington make countless Ted Carsons over the last week. What gives?”

“Tom Collins,” Orson again clarified.

Orwell gave the other orange a rough roll to the side as if to shut him up. He kept his crescent eyes focused on Jay. “Listen, pal, we gave you what you wanted. We’re oranges, for Christ’s sake. And without us, you’d be staring at an empty glass. ‘Sides, the ice gon’ start melting if you don’t get it to the Boss Man soon.”

Jay nodded. He was thinking they were right; he was confident ninety per cent of the ingredients were right. He felt this in his gut (the one that was still begging for food, although not so much right now), and even had a flash or two of a few Tom Collins he’d seen ordered at bars he’d visited in the past.

He turned around, starting down the lengthy counter toward the charcuterie board. One of the oranges sighed, he wasn’t sure which one, and this made Jay smile from ear to ear without their knowing. When he reached the charcuterie board, he first motioned for a piece of cheese (still sweating, much like the oranges in their cozy little bowl). He moved his hand in intentional slo-motion, going from the board to the knife block behind it. He ran his fingers over each knife before returning to one of the ones at the top of the block. Out came a chef’s knife looking practically unused. Sharp. Shining. Serious.

Jay turned to face the oranges, allowing them to view the near-psychotic grin taking up half his face. He walked with the knife held up straight in front of him, and soon opted for marching, lifting his knees past his stomach with each step. He could see the oranges’ mouths from here, open wide into perfect circles. With another step closer, he saw the beads of sweat on them had doubled, maybe tripled, since he’d last seen them.

Standing in front of them now, Jay spoke with authority, his smiling having vanished. “What’s the last ingredient, you two? There’s something else, I just know it.”

“You’re crazy!” Orson cried. Citrus was squeezing out of its eyeholes. Tears of juicy, acidic sweetness.

Jay shook his head, knife pointed at the bowl. “I’m high. I’m hungry. I’m confused. I’m many things. But I’m not crazy.”

Orson tried rolling backward. He tried again, and again. Every leaking part of him sent beads gathering and dripping onto the lower parts of the fruit stand. His attempts at escape were useless. After every effort, he found himself in the same position, right alongside Orwell. In their little prison, Jay considered.

Knife still in one hand, Jay used the other to grab ahold of the fearful fruit. He lifted Orson up high, then slammed him onto the granite countertop, sending juice spatter flying in every which direction. Again, he lifted Orson up and smashed him into the counter.

“You’re killing him!” Orwell screamed. “Stop it, stop it!”

“The ingredient, Orwell, what is it,” Jay’s voice was no longer calm, a growl coming through every word. He was running out of time. Even his nearly fully-baked mind still managed to realize that much.

Without a peep from Orwell in response, Jay raised the knife and sent it flying down to the counter, sending two halves of Orson sliding away from each other. A faint, final breath could be heard from the now-gone orange, and for whatever reason, this made Jay’s rage double. He collected the two halves and went to town on slicing them, paying no mind to the countertop below nor his fingers mixed in with the slices of orange. Jay could hear Orwell screaming, crying citrusy, pulpy murder. He ignored this, consumed by the orange massacred in front of him, its pieces exponentially increasing with each new chop. It wasn’t until half the mess was on the floor that he ran out of juice himself, dropping the knife on the counter. By the end, he was looking at a diced orange.

The orange once called Orson was nothing more, reduced to a pile that was half on the counter, half on the floor. Jay would have to get rid of the evidence before any of the Harringtons were to find it and wonder what the hell had happened in here.

There’s still time, he assured himself as he scooped up the remnants of Orson and disposed of them in the trash. Not much, but enough to get that final ingredient in there.

Upon returning to the fruit bowl, Jay found a quivering Orwell, somehow covered in strands of pulp — strands of his friend — that’d made their way up there from the countertop massacre. He was in shock. He’d just lost his friend, but there was still a chance for him to carry on with his orangey life, or whatever remained of it. All he had to do was cooperate.

“The ingredient,” Jay started. He was out of breath, exhausted. “What is it, Orwell? Tell me and no one else has to get hurt.”

“All right, hear me out.” Orwell’s words quivered as he spoke. “If I tell you, I need your word nothin’ happens to me. Full immunity, if ya catch my drift there.” (‘My’ was ‘mah.’)

I said I have time, Jay considered, but not enough time to bargain with this nuisance. He’d gone through enough to get to this point, and a powerless little piece of citrus wasn’t going to stop him now. It was Orwell who was picked up this time, his friend long gone, and Jay’s creative mind (maybe the weed did have some benefits this evening, after all) knew where he needed to go to get answers.

He took a single shuffle over to the stove, just next to the counter. Orwell was shouting something, but Jay tuned it out. He had enough to focus on. He turned on one of the front burners on high. The flames grew and rose past the burner’s grate. The mix of blue and orange and yellow was quite the sight for Jay, and he so wished he could spend just a few more moments appreciating this light show. Time was dwindling, though, so he turned his hand around so that Orwell was facing the flame. Lower Orwell went. He screamed. He begged. Jay ignored him, even as the ear-piercing screams reached a new height once the orange made contact with the flame. Jay left the fruit to burn for awhile, making sure it knew he wasn’t screwing around. When he determined it’d suffered enough to want to cooperate, he pulled it out of the flame and tossed it onto the counter.

“Had enough?” Jay asked. “Or you want more?”

His ears were open to Orwell now, causing him to wince a bit in response to his lingering cries of pain. When his groans and moans settled some, Jay leaned over the orange. He was saying something through his breath. He put his head closer still, turning his ear toward him to try and catch the faint message, one spoken through less than a whisper.

Orwell’s voice was weak, failing. “You’ll . . . have . . . to . . . live . . . with . . . this . . . forever.” He let out a long, heavy breath, then all went silent. These were Orwell’s final words. He’d rather die and see Jay suffer than share whatever secrets he’d been hiding.

Jay fell backward, stumbling into the island behind him. He fell to his knees, and felt his heart do the same. (Or maybe that was his stomach, but he liked to imagine it was his heart). Finally past his violent fit of rage, he reflected on what had transpired. His problem hadn’t been resolved, but his mind had been a little cleared. From the ground, he stared up at the sweating cocktail that, from this point of view, really was rather beautiful. A work of art, if he could be so bold. And was he the artist behind its glory? No, not really. Two oranges had created this masterpiece. An unfinished work, but satisfactory nonetheless.

“Hey, Jay!” Deborah shouted from the other room. “I forgot to tell you, the oranges aren’t on the bar cart. They’re on the far end of the counter in the fruit bowl.”

“Yeah, in case you got lost in there,” Jessica laughed.

Jay finished up making the Tom Collins (finally, he remembered its name) with the help of the late Orwell. Their hesitation now made sense. They were the final ingredient, and their secrecy wasn’t an attempt to have Jay fail. It was them trying to save their own lives. He thought about this throughout his careful slicing of Orwell. Once finished with the cocktail (admittedly, the orange slices really did take it to the next level), Jay returned to the trash can, scooped out a few pieces of Orson, wrapped those in a paper towel, and placed him in the trash can with care.

Jay returned to the dining room holding his creation — Orson and Orwell’s creation — with both hands. He placed it in front of Mr. Harrington, then returned to his own seat. His adventure, his quest, was over. He’d gone into the kitchen and let nothing stand in his way until he’d completed his assignment. This was the finale, the moment of truth to see if all the orange blood, sweat, and tears had been worthwhile.

Mr. Harrington lifted the glass, studied it for a moment—a mix of white, red, and now orange—then took a generous sip. Jay saw a few bits of orange go down the hatch, and that felt like a chef’s knife stabbing into him, a stove’s burner cooking up his rear end.

The man — ‘Boss Man’ to Orson and Orwell — smacked his lips. He turned to Jay, looking at him eye-to-eye. Finally. “There’s something different about this, sport.” He took another sip, and a few more pieces of pulp left the glass. “It’s something about the orange in here. What’d you do to it?”

Jay was holding back tears to success, but he found himself having to sniffle before responding. “I put it over the stove. You know, burnt it a little.”

“Well . . .” William paused. He was staring at the glass again, shaking his head. He returned his attention to Jay as his face lit up with a glowing grin. “It’s delicious. Say, what do you call this, Mister Mixologist?”

Jay thought about it. He thought about everything. About how high he was (he felt it’d peaked already, thank God); about his conversations with Orwell and Orson; about the oranges’ sacrifice. Everything.

“Double Blazed Orange Tom Collins,” Jay said.

When everyone’s attention returned to the glass, he let a single tear slide down his cheek.

That next morning, he ate the remaining slices of Orwell for breakfast. He thought not once of his sacrifice.

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