“What’s with the oranges?” I'd asked.
“He’s on the spectrum,” Cindy whispered, running her fingers through my chest hair. We were snuggled in bed. “Who knows why the oranges? They keep him calm is all I know. He used to get quite violent.”
Her 8 year old autistic son, Benny, was no bigger around than a twig, and as for muscles, he had none. Picturing a violent Benny was almost impossible to do. He never spoke, didn’t like to be touched and seemed to avoid direct eye contact.
And then there was the knapsack of oranges he carried with him wherever he went.
She said. “I just love that he's calm these days.”
“And he's happy, Sid,” she said, fingertips running down my leg beneath the sheets. “Like me.”
Wish I felt the same, I thought, offering Cindy a seductive smile. She moved in, smothering me with full kisses of slobber. Christ!
I had met Cindy on one of those online dating sites. She was not a great looking gal judging by her pics…, too tall, too gangly, glasses too large on her acne pitted face; instantly, I’d predicted she had low self- esteem. I could use that. I’d eyed the bracelets adorning her wrists too. Definitely had cash.
Three weeks later and we were practically living together. I moved fast.
And Cindy just got herself one cool babysitter in the bargain, I must say.
“You’re between jobs, right Sid? So, Benny hates daycare, and this would really help me out,” she'd said last week. “I'll pay you of course.”
What could I say? This would tie Cindy tighter to my heart so I could keep mooching off her. Go me!
So, while she slaved days at an upscale clothing boutique, Benny and I would go to the park for hours, maybe enjoy a picnic lunch or perhaps we'd dine in a nice restaurant at mealtime; we'd often squeeze in a matinee, always a kid’s movie. Some days I’d take him to a McDonald's play place where he enjoyed the slide for hours or we’d go swimming at the Y. He’d laugh and actually hug me.
None of this was true, of course. It’s just what I told Cindy.
My afternoons were primarily spent at the Woodbine Raceway betting on the ponies. Naturally, I used the money Cindy left for Benny and I.
Not like Benny would ever say anything about all the stuff he wasn’t doing, right?
Once in the building I directed Benny to a chair in the crowded room. I needed to get to a window and place a couple bets.
Benny continued twirling an orange he'd pulled out in the car. He then started to peel it. He was quite adept at splitting the skin I'd often noticed marveling at how fast he was.
He tossed three pieces of peel on the floor.
This was new. When we were at other tracks, or anywhere really, he usually stuffed his peelings in a special pouch in his knapsack.
Over the loudspeaker came the words: Charlotte’s Choice, # 3, comes in a winner!!
I saw those three peels at my feet and I looked at Benny who just sat there, same vacant expression on his face, but head turned to the screens over the betting booths.
# 3 wins and three orange peels.
Benny’s fingers worked the orange in his palm, moving it deftly, counter clockwise.
Then he started breaking off parts of the peel again.
He dropped six pieces.
I looked at the television screen showing the next race up.
#6, Lemon Yellow. The odds called this horse a long shot for any type of win.
I’d put a little money on it. Why not? See what happened. I went up and placed several bets and instead of going out to enjoy the stadium seating, to watch the race live, I sat beside Benny and watched it on the tele.
Lemon Yellow won by a nose.
A strange coincidence? Of course, had to be.
Then Benny flipped two more pieces to the ground.
Wendy's Whisper was #2 in the lineup in a few minutes.
Quickly, I dropped a hundred on it.
Doubled my money just like that!
I watched again and again as before each race Benny predicted the winner.
Maybe the kid was a savant or something.
No matter what he was, he was mine every time Cindy worked.
Not gonna bore you with the details but I won lots that day. So much so that I bought Cindy this heart shaped pendent I knew she’d like and we all three even enjoyed a fancy dinner out at the Greek Island.
I told Cindy I’d gotten a commission check for some consulting work I’d done before I met her. She was easy to lie to.
The next day, the track again.
And the day after.
Benny picked them and I bought the kid ice cream and more oranges.
On the way home later that week, I left Benny in a parked car outside a massage parlour. I told the kid to stay put. He unzipped his knapsack and pulled another orange out.
Fastest peeler in the world.
“Don’t ever tell your mom about this,” I joked as I slid from the vehicle. I leaned through the driver's door. ”Stay put. Understand?”
I was out in half an hour give or take.
Benny was devouring an orange, as I again, slipped behind the wheel. Big surprise. Juice dripped down his chin.
Cindy worked late Friday evening so when I arrived at the track there were only two races left to run that day.
Gonna let it all ride today, I thought as we took our seats and I waited on Benny.
I unzipped his knapsack and drew out a wad of bills then handed him an orange.
Benny peeled it right away – so fast! - and tossed several small peelings on the floor.
The last race of the day would net me maybe twelve grand, I calculated.
“You and I got a good thing,” I told Ben. I didn’t tell him that I thought I might stick around longer with his ma, but get a little something on the side. Could you blame me? I had money and frankly, Cindy was really beneath what I considered attractive.
I laid the bet and looked at my watch. First this, then maybe another massage and then home.
When the race began, I was already in line to collect my winnings, anxious to get going, when the announcer came on declaring the winner as Sandy's Special.
My blood felt as though it had become infused with ice chips.
No. This wasn’t right.
I swallowed hard. What the f**k!?!
Blinking madly, I looked down at the stub crumpled in my fist.
It was not the horse I had picked to win.
Wendy's Whisper was supposed to win!! I didn’t understand. Had I screwed up?
I turned to Benny.
His eyes bore into mine and his lip lifted just enough to look like –
Then Benny looked away. Same vacant stare.
I saw red.
Benny had played me!!
Within seconds. I grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the car. I didn’t buckle him up either as I fishtailed out of the parking lot; on the straightaway I rammed the accelerator down.
It didn’t take long to make it to a secluded spot nearest the lake.
I slammed on the brakes.
The kid cracked his head against the dash.
I got out, long strides taken around the hood and yanked the kid out onto the grass. Benny sat on the ground, staring straight ahead.
“Okay Kid, watch this. You wanna play with me, do you?”
I yanked his knapsack from his tight grip and using my best pitching arm I sent those damn oranges into the lake. I heard the splash and then it was gone.
I turned back in time to witness Benny’s face change; it was all scrunched up as though he might actually bawl. Maybe he was gonna show his violent self. Bring it on!
“How does it feel to lose something? Huh?” I got in close to his face, teeth gritted. “You gonna tell your mom ‘bout this, Benny? Huh?”
He reached up quick –
And he thrust twice into my neck!
Intense pain shocked my body. I pulled away from him hearing a sucking sound as the object in my skin yanked free.
I wobbled on my feet, hand instantly cupping my neck. Arterial blood pulsed fast between my fingers even as I applied pressure.
Benny had stabbed me.
How? I didn’t understand.
I took a shaky step back.
Even with my eyesight going blurry, I saw what I had missed for weeks.
Why hadn’t I seen it? I had marvelled at how fast Benny peeled those oranges. But I hadn’t even noticed his long thumbnail...
Filed to a very sharp point.
Like a knife!
As I stumbled, I could almost hear Cindy's words about the oranges.
(… they keep him calm…quite violent….)
As my vision faded, and I dropped to my knees, I watched Benny remove an orange from a jacket pocket. He punched his bloody thumbnail through the tough skin like it was tissue paper.
He made sure I saw it too.
His eyes again met mine.
Then I met darkness.
It smelled like rotten oranges.