We were at the bar for Connor’s twenty-second birthday when the world first began to fall apart. It started with an absurdly small detail; I ordered two Blue Moons for us like always, but he picked the orange slice off the rim of his glass with a frown. I looked down at the one on my glass and asked, “Something wrong?”
His frown momentarily changed to a look of disgust. “I hate oranges.”
That was odd, since it had been our ritual since his twenty-first birthday to always get that brand together when we were out at the bar because fruit’s good for you! Therefore, this beer is healthy! But it was his birthday and he could do what he wanted, so I didn’t ask about it. Rebecca, however, had already had a few. She cut past the group conversation to proclaim, “But isn’t the orange the healthiest part?”
Connor shook his head. “No way. Oranges are gross.”
Across the table, Dan said, “Oranges are great, man. They’re nature’s candy!”
Rebecca’s older sister Shannon was with us that night; she countered, “No, beets are nature’s candy.” When we stared at her blankly, she asked, “Doug? You know, the Nickelodeon show Doug? With the dog, Porkchop? Best friend Skeeter? Everyone in that world loved beets?” When we only vaguely recalled the show she was talking about, she threw her hands out in defeat.
Near us, an older regular was watching a television above the bar. He sneered. “Man, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this country. It’s them.” He pointed at the screen. “I hate ’em.” Around him, fellow regulars cheered, and he grinned with pride. He held his hands up high and said, “Round of shots for the whole bar! On me!”
And that was all I really remembered of the first night things began to unravel. After that, my memories got blurry, and I woke up under a villainous beam of sunlight with overwhelming nausea and a killer headache. My first mighty act of willpower was to close the blinds and hide us from the monstrous Sun; Dan was on the floor of my room under my computer table, and Rebecca was in the hallway swaddled in every single blanket the house had to offer.
With relief, I saw that Connor was propped up on his bed by an array of pillows that kept him on his side. A trashcan below him was filled halfway up with vomit, and Shannon sat in the corner on her phone. Upon seeing me, she said, “Oh, does your head hurt? Good. He’s all yours now. I’m going home and going to sleep.”
I was left to take care of the birthday boy, which admittedly was much easier now that he was half-awake. The one thing I did ask him during his stupor was: “Do you really hate oranges?”
“Always have, man,” he groaned.
And I was left feeling as if our roommate ritual for the entire last year had been some weird sort of lie that he’d grown tired of carrying on. I stewed on that feeling for the rest of the day. What if he didn’t really consider me a friend? What if he was just humoring me because we were roommates? It felt as if my entire position in the group was in jeopardy, as if the way I thought of myself was under threat. It was a gnawing, lonely, and terrible feeling that kept me up all Sunday night.
On Monday, I downed coffee and sat morosely at my computer. This was my first job after graduation, and I was finding it unfulfilling. Did we even do any real work? While my coworkers spent most of the day huddled around a meeting room television watching the news, I could only think about the orange issue. By the end of the work day, I’d decided to cave.
I was the first one at the bar that evening, and Dan sat next to me about twenty minutes later. He looked at my stout and said, “No Blue Moon today?”
“I, uh, hate oranges,” I lied with a grimace.
To my surprise, he said, “Me too.”
That was weird. “Didn’t you say they’re nature’s candy?”
“Not even close.” He looked to be rather offended. “Oranges are the highest carrier of disease among all fruits and vegetables.”
Mortified, I asked, “Seriously?”
He folded his arms. “Yup. Absolutely disgusting fruit.”
That was a bold enough claim that I put down my stout and picked up my phone. After a few searches, I began to grow very confused. “Citrus greening, citrus canker, citrus black spot, gross. Sweet orange scab. How have I never heard of these diseases before?” The pictures were horrifying. “Oh, but wait, these only affect oranges and are not dangerous to humans.”
Dan just shrugged. “Science says a lot of things are safe, then suddenly they find out they’re not. I’m not eating anythingthat looks like that.”
I didn’t agree with him, but the images had still unsettled me. Maybe there was a reason to avoid oranges after all. The rest of the gang showed up soon after, but the disturbing images never truly left my awareness.
Later that night as we all spilled out of an Uber in front of my place, we were laughing and joking again as normal, and I was starting to feel a little better. I’d overblown the whole issue, really. There was nothing to worry about. These people didn’t secretly hate me, and I did belong.
Across the street, one guy began yelling angrily at another. The Uber pulled away, removing the barrier between our group and the guys; we saw them push at each other, scream back and forth, and then begin trading punches. This was a nice college-age neighborhood where nothing of the sort had ever happened before. What were they thinking? We stared until they noticed us. Abruptly, they stalked off and returned to their separate houses—next to each other. They were neighbors.
“How ridiculous,” Connor said with a laugh before leading us inside. “We’ll have to make sure not to invite them over next time we have a party.”
He didn’t seem to be in any sort of deceptive or bad mood, so, once we were all sitting around the kitchen table drinking water, I took the opportunity to ask him about what had been bothering me.
“Yeah, I do hate oranges,” he told me. “You’ll never catch me eating the damn things. They’re like, the biggest carrier of disease among all fruits and vegetables.”
“Never?” I joked. “What about the last year of us getting Blue Moons?”
He tilted his head at that. “I never get that beer. It comes with an orange slice, and I hate oranges.”
That was when it finally occurred to me that something was seriously wrong—either with my memory, or with the world. No longer smiling, I said, “We’ve been getting that beer every time we go out since your birthday last year when that hot girl that night thought your joke about it being healthy was hilarious.”
His expression darkened. “That never happened. I don’t drink Blue Moon.”
“That’s how I remember it,” I insisted flatly.
“Then your memory’s messed up,” he retorted, growing strangely angry. He balled up a fist between us. “I never drink that shit. I never have. You stop saying that shit now. Oranges are disgusting.”
Rebecca and Dan watched us in awkward silence. I figured I had one more back and forth within the bounds of politeness; I decided to make it count. “Dan, you remember us getting the orange slices with our beer, don’t you?”
Dan stiffened in his chair. “Oh don’t bring me into this. I hate oranges too, always have. I wouldn’t hang out with people who didn’t.”
I stared at him. “What? What the hell does that mean? Since when is this such a big deal?” I turned to Rebecca. “You remember, don’t you? That whole exchange with your sister about oranges versus beets on Saturday night?”
She kept her eyes on her water and did not reply.
Connor stood and approached me with menace. “Look man, you’ve been a good friend for a long time, but you’re gonna have to cut this shit out if you wanna keep hanging with us.”
Was he serious? How could he possibly be serious? I looked to Rebecca and Dan, but neither one met my confused gaze. “I was just joking,” I finally told Connor. “You know, messing with you guys.”
His face immediately lit up. “Oh, damn, you got me good!”
“Ahh, yeah,” I laughed with him, secretly terrified.
Rebecca and Dan finally looked up, relieved, and the mood immediately went back to happy and carefree. I hung out and pretended to be normal until everyone finally went to bed—Rebecca in her room downstairs, and Dan and Connor in the hallway next to my room—before I finally had a chance to investigate. For the first time in months, I closed and locked my door. The wonderful atmosphere that our house full of friends had started with was now one of fear and suspicion. I sat in the dark in front of my computer and began to scour the Internet in search of answers.
I’d seen enough science fiction to hazard a few guesses. Was I in the wrong reality somehow? Was my timeline changing for some reason? I didn’t know enough particulars about history to see if anything was different on Wikipedia. No. This was my room. My credit card worked, and my social security number was correct. If reality or time had changed in even the slightest way, those randomly-generated numbers would have been different. This was my world—just changing for some reason.
And because of that small and utterly inconsequential change, my home life and friends group were on the line. Was I going crazy? The only conclusion left was that I was the problem. Something was wrong with my memory or belief that had left me at odds with those I cared about.
Just then, as I sat in the dark, I heard my door knob turn—and fail to open, since I’d locked it.
Someone had just tried to come into my room.
And something told me it wasn’t for cuddling. It had been a subtle and stealthy attempt. On a horrified hunch, I quickly and quietly opened my window and slid out into the night. Five houses down, I saw a roof ablaze—someone’s house was on fire! What the hell was happening?—but I couldn’t worry about that at that particular moment. Peering in another window, I saw a silhouette of darker darkness move near a gleam of metal.
Someone had just tried to come into my room—with a knife.
The silhouette disappeared into deeper shadow, leaving me with no identity beyond the fact that it had to have been one of my roommates. How in the ever-blazing Hell had a like or dislike of oranges come to such a point? This was not normal. This was not natural.
Crouched out there in the chilly night, illuminated only by the house-fire five lots distant, I was forced to face the only conclusion left: something supernatural was going on. As soon as I truly entertained that notion, the fire-lit darkness felt suddenly far less solitary. Were eyes upon me? Was something watching me even then? I found it hard to believe that hating oranges was the primary goal of whatever was happening—rather, just the side effect of a slowly creeping insanity or possession of some sort.
There was nothing to do about it at that particular moment. I didn’t feel safe outside, but I didn’t feel safe back in my room, either. I barricaded the door and windows and found only the least satisfying half-awake form of sleep. In that odd mix of dreaming and waking, images of diseased fruit tortured my awareness.
I didn’t get a chance to catch Rebecca alone until Wednesday. She was the first to show up to the bar that evening, like Dan had been on Monday, but she seemed uncomfortable and apprehensive. After she looked over her shoulder for the third time at the entrance to the bar, I asked quietly, “Are you afraid, too?”
Her gaze spoke volumes; she bit her lip, looked at the door again, then told me, “Just stop screwing around with the oranges thing, alright?”
“What is the oranges thing?” I demanded in a whisper. “What is going on?”
Half-panicked at my questions, she insisted, “Just tell them you hate oranges, alright? Just freaking tell them you hate oranges! Stop asking about it, stop poking at it! I like my life! I like you guys! I like my house! Stop disrupting everything!”
I grabbed her hand as it lay on the table between us. “I just want to understand. Where did this hatred for oranges even come from? What is going on that is making our roommates act like this?”
She finally looked me in the eyes, and I saw bloodshot exhaustion there.
“Wait,” I whispered. “Have you been sleeping poorly, too? Bad dreams?”
Her eyes opened a little wider; she went to speak, but she saw someone come in the back door of the bar and quickly pulled her hand away from mine. Connor fell upon me rather forcefully from behind, but only to wrap his arm around my shoulder and neck. “Ooh, what are you two lovebirds up to?”
He knew we weren’t a thing anymore. What was his problem? Following the cue from Rebecca’s masked terror, I said, “Just talking about how much we hate oranges, bro!”
Connor jerked his neck toward her. “Is that so, Rebecca?”
She didn’t speak. She just forced a smile and nodded weakly.
“Awesome, awesome,” he said with genuine relief. He let go of me and sat between us. “I knew you two would come around.”
Dan arrived soon after, complaining of a vendor selling oranges he’d seen on the way over. “Grossest pile of disease you’ve ever seen.” He shuddered.
I looked to Rebecca, but she silently warned me to just go with it.
And I did. For the next hour, I carefully observed Dan and Connor, trying to figure out what was going on with them. It wasn’t until I went up the bar to get Rebecca and myself more drinks that I saw something that chilled my soul. A girl took a picture of three of her friends to my left; the angle was such that my table was in the background. While waiting for the drinks, I happened to glance at her phone.
My table was indeed in the background. There was Rebecca, there was Dan, there was Connor—
And someone else.
I only saw her phone for an instant before she turned away, but I was certain enough to surreptitiously turn around and pretend I was texting while I angled my camera up at my friends.
There, among the crowded patrons of the bar—and shown only in choppy frame-by-frame rendering—was the shadow of a person bent down near Connor’s ear.
As I stared at my phone in paralyzed terror, that shadowy head tilted up, as if it was looking at me with concern. Rather than react and give myself away, I shouted to my friends, “Picture time!”
The silhouette turned a half-step and vanished as if a gust of wind had dissipated it in one fell swoop. My friends smiled and made faces; the flash irritated a few surrounding patrons, but I’d gotten away with it.
And there was something among us. Holy Christ, a literal shadow whispering in Connor’s ear—murmuring insidious words of hatred, no doubt.
But why oranges?
That Wednesday night, at 8:42 PM EST, a runaway car crashed into the front of the bar, smashing all the windows and killing a woman. I know the exact time because the police forced us all to give statements before we could go. We’d been across the entire bar and had only seen the aftermath, really, but I was still pretty unhelpful. All I could think about was the shadow lurking among us.
As the Uber pulled onto our street that night, I absently studied the blackened shell of the house that had caught on fire five lots down. It was still smoldering, and it looked like nobody had come to put it out. In fact, it looked like nobody lived there at all. Looking left and right, I noticed that half of the houses on our street had no cars in their driveways. We weren’t so fancy as to have garages.
Was the lurking shadow driving people away? Why hadn’t anyone said anything? Were they even conscious of the shift in tone of our community? It had been the best time of my life until suddenly neighbors were getting in fistfights in broad daylight, my roommates had developed a random weird hatred, and houses were burning down without anyone calling the fire department.
We sat in silence around the kitchen table for at least ten minutes. Shaken by the car crash that had killed someone across the bar, Rebecca finally spoke. She murmured, “I hate oranges, too.”
Dan and Connor moved to her and hugged her tight. “It’s alright. You’re one of us. We’ll always be here for you.” As they held her, they glanced at me a few times, and I joined the huddle to avoid starting another fight.
I wondered if the shadow was there with us, embracing us the way we were embracing Rebecca. I could even feel the issue clouding in my mind. Did I hate oranges, too? I mean, everyone else did. And those pictures of diseased oranges weredisgusting. Had I really liked orange slices with my beer this whole last year? If I had, I might have just been horribly mistaken. Misled, even, by beer advertisements. Those ads never said anything about the diseases oranges could catch. That was odd, wasn’t it? It was like they didn’t want me to know. It would hurt their sales for me to know.
These thoughts plagued me that night and all the next day. At work on Thursday, while my coworkers randomly cried in their cubicles or had hushed discussions that broke up as soon as a manager neared, I sat on my computer and researched paranormal possessions and hauntings.
One of the things I learned was that demonic beings—that is, entities from a religious sphere of ideas—hated signs of God and good, and tried to get those they were trying to possess to destroy crosses and pour out holy water and the like.
That made sense.
But if the being haunting my friends, my house, and my street was not from the religious sphere, but perhaps a different space—what if oranges were a representation of the things that made it vulnerable? If this was some sort of anti-nature spirit, maybe it was pouring hatred of oranges into my community because oranges could drive it away.
But that was crazy. I actually laughed out loud in my cubicle as I internalized the idea, and one of my crying coworkers looked at me like I was a monster. “Oh, sorry!” I told her, grimacing awkwardly. “I was just thinking about something else.” She glared and rotated away in her chair.
Thursday night wasn’t one of our usual bar nights, so I was at home when Rebecca’s older sister Shannon stopped by. It was for something trivial, but on the way out, I caught her on the porch. I needed reassurance. “Hey, Shannon, you remember that whole conversation about oranges versus beets last Saturday?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah. What about it?”
I gulped. “So that did happen?”
“And Connor and I have been joking about orange slices for the last year?”
Narrowing her eyes, she said, “Yes. Why?”
“I don’t know,” I told her truthfully. “I’m just starting to doubt my own reality. I had to be sure.”
She scrolled through Facebook on her phone, then showed me a picture. “Look, it’s the two of you on his twenty-first birthday last year, when I was designated driver as usual.”
In the picture, we were both holding our beers forward, orange slices on full display. The hot girl who had sparked the entire tradition was sitting next to Connor, exactly like I remembered. “It’s real.” I looked up at her. “How do you feel about oranges?”
She grimaced, but not out of disgust. “What? Why? They taste alright I guess.”
“Seriously. What’s your opinion on oranges, beyond just whether you personally like their taste?”
“Neutral?” she replied. “I literally don’t care. Why would anyone have an opinion on oranges unless they’re like, a botanist or a farmer or something?”
That was an incredible point, actually. “I wish I knew.”
As she turned to leave, we began to hear a commotion at the end of the street closer to campus. We were only a few blocks away from campus, and still close enough that street vendors often passed this way. When I saw an older man pushing a cart of oranges being surrounded by a group of my peers shouting profanities, I knew exactly what was happening.
And I could see Dan and Connor among them.
Rebecca came out onto the porch at hearing the violent shouting, and the three of us stood staring as the mob began to push at the unfortunate cart owner. We started running toward the fray after Dan sent a wild punch—and the man fell. The mob was screaming with furious bloodlust and stomping en masse by the time we got there.
But the cart owner was fine, if shaken.
The mob was stomping his oranges.
It was some eerie otherworldly version of a group murder. Bits of orange peel flew this way and that with the force of the stomping below, and fruit juice splattered across clothes in every direction. The gore would have been vomit-inducing had it been human; as it was, I was still mortified by what was happening. These people, my friends and neighbors, had become rabid animals full of irrational hate.
Shannon looked at me in confused askance.
I shook my head. I had no idea.
But Rebecca, terrified as she was, chose to join in. Running forward, she started screaming profanities and stomping on the last of the oranges while the others began cheering. Soon, they would notice that we had not joined in.
“Shannon, you better go.”
She took my advice immediately and began walking away toward her car.
Covered in the juice-blood of his victims, Connor glared at me with the eyes of a devil. “Why aren’t you helping?”
“I got here too late,” I lied lamely.
Dan, his gaze red with anger, fixated on me as well. “There’s one left.” He held his arms out. “Everybody leave that one.” He pointed down. “Come on.”
I needed to buy time for Shannon to escape, but I also knew I had to live with—and sleep near—these people. The thought of that silhouette with the knife promised no good end for anyone that defied the group. It might have been the shadow itself that had picked up the knife—but it also might not have been.
The cart owner looked at me in terror from down on the sidewalk as I approached his last orange. “Please, no, why you do this? Why you do this? I just sell orange. Please no!”
I closed my eyes and stomped.
The orange splattered under my shoe, and arms grasped me from every angle as my neighbors jeered and cheered. I opened my eyes and shook with shame as the cart owner got up and ran off. Dan lit a match and set the wooden cart on fire while the others began dancing. I had no choice but to dance with them. They wouldn’t let go of me. They shook me and made me chant with them and tested me constantly to make sure I wasn’t faking. To get through it, I had to temporarily convince myself they were right and that oranges were an abomination. To get through it, I had to give up part of myself, and, after, I returned to my room, locked the door, and sat crying under my computer table.
But then, I got angry.
I got mad.
I was not going to let my community be consumed by this madness. The entity whispering in our ears would pay. I was a man, goddamnit, no longer a boy, and I didn’t have to grin and bear it. These people weren’t my parents.
I got in my car and drove the way the cart owner had gone. I found him five blocks down, forlorn and sitting at a city bus stop. He began to panic as he saw me, but I held up my hands peacefully and asked him a question that immediately changed his mood.
I didn’t make enough to save any money, but I had a credit card. I bought the entire rest of his inventory, and took it all home with me. When the crates didn’t fit, I just plain dumped the oranges in my trunk and back seat. My car would smell like fruit for months, I was sure, but it had to be done.
When Dan got home that night, I caught him behind the front door and held a knife to his throat. “Sit down,” I directed, tying him up on a chair in the kitchen.
He shouted when Connor got home, but it was too late. I put Connor in a chair, too, and tied him up. Then, I stuffed clean socks in their mouths so they wouldn’t warn Rebecca.
I didn’t grab her. I didn’t tie her up. I simply held the knife and said, “Sit.”
She nervously took the third chair.
I’d thrown the oranges from my car all about the kitchen. They were on the table, on the floor, and in the sink. I picked one at random, peeled the skin off, and held it in front of Connor. “Eat it.”
“Why don’t you make me?” he spat.
“I won’t.” I told him. “But I also won’t let you out of this chair until you take a bite of a goddamn orange.”
“We used to eat them all the time.”
“That didn’t happen!”
“It did.” I showed him the picture on my phone of his birthday the year before.
He frowned. “Is that photoshopped?”
“It happened!” I screamed in his face. “Eat the orange!”
He pulled his head away. “They’re the highest carriers of disease among all—”
“Yes, yes I know the sound bite,” I yelled. “It’s wrong! Those diseases aren’t dangerous to humans, and this orange isn’t diseased! Eat the orange!”
“But we hate oranges,” Connor insisted, indignant. “Right guys?”
Dan bit down on the sock in his mouth. “Mm-hmm.”
Connor looked to Rebecca.
About to cry, she hid her face and did not respond.
Connor seemed more shaken after that. After gulping down hesitation, he warily took a bite from the orange. He blinked. “Oh. It’s… fine.”
Dan seemed surprised, and Rebecca just cried harder.
I pulled the sock out of Dan’s mouth and held the other side of the orange. “Try it. If you hate it, that’s fine, I’ll let you go either way. Just try it.”
Seeing Connor break, Dan hesitantly tried a bite, and then pushed back in his chair. “That doesn’t taste like I remember. I swear it used to have a horrible antiseptic taste.”
“No,” I told him. “Our heads are being messed with! We just attacked a street vendor and stomped on his oranges because we’ve been worked up in a frenzy of hate. Does that make any sense to you objectively?”
Blinking as if waking up from a dream, Dan began to look horrified. “Oh my God, we did do that, didn’t we? What were we thinking?”
Connor looked up at me with the same guilt. “Oh man, I—” He cut off as his eyes jumped to something behind me.
That warning gave me just enough time to shift to the side. The knife went into my left shoulder, and I slipped on rolling oranges and fell to the floor on top of a splatter of my own blood. Above me, I could see a knife dripping with red—and the shadow of a man beyond it. Its hollow eyes were red.
Dan and Connor began screaming and fighting their bonds as the shadow stepped near, but I’d tied them in too well. The shadow’s red eyes moved from me to their squirming bodies, as if it was deciding which of us to kill first.
“What do you want?” I screamed at it. “What the fuck do you want?”
Those red eyes swung to me and seemed to bore into my soul. A sinister chill raked across my senses as it whispered, “Buy lemons.”
I stared. “Buy lemons?” I hesitated. “Why would you even care about that?”
“I don’t,” it rasped, bringing the knife nearer. “It is simply what my master wishes.”
It couldn’t be so absurd as that, could it? Had some lemon-farming company hired a demon-worshipper and summoned an entity from beyond our world just for profit? Had they brought the incarnation of Hate among us just to make money?
But it was that simple. It had always been that simple. Why else would anyone do anything?
It moved to stab me—but Rebecca leapt against it, and a piece of the shadow tore out where she passed. It screamed in pain, dropped the bloody knife, and grasped at the hole she’d made. Darkness sifted out of its wounds like black sand falling from a sideways hourglass; it flared its red eyes, hissed venom, and vanished.
It had gone.
The demon that had been among us and whispering in our ears all week had gone.
We all remained frozen in shock for thirty seconds before Dan snapped out of it and said loudly, “Would someone pleaseuntie me already?!”
We did, and then we patched up my arm.
As a group, we didn’t know what else to do, so we went and sat at our regular table at the bar. It was early on a Thursday, so few other people were there. We didn’t get Blue Moons, but not because we hated oranges—no, our house was full of hundreds of the fruit, and would smell forever.
“I can’t believe it almost got us to go from loving oranges to hating them in less than a week,” Connor murmured sadly, crouched over his drink.
I shook my head. “I even doubted myself there for a minute. Did things I’m not proud of.”
Dan looked up at us. “What even hurt it? Why did a being made of Hate get wounded by Rebecca just moving through it?”
She looked at me; I looked at her. We both looked back down at our beers. She’d hadn’t just moved through it. She’d jumped at it because of me. We both knew the answer, but that was private.
Near us, an older regular was watching a television above the bar. He sneered. “Man, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this country. I hate—”
The four of us shouted in unison. He jumped in his chair and looked over at us.
“Don’t,” I told him calmly and sadly. “Please. Just don’t.”
He watched us for a moment, then, subtly embarrassed, he gave a slow haunted nod and turned back to his drink.
CREDIT: Matt Dymerski
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