I saw the square property lines of fields in the near distance. Through some grass fields and over a few poorly-maintained roads, I came upon a field of corn stalks all green and swaying in the evening air. It would have been a great find except that it was June, not August. The corn stalks only came to my waist and there was no way any of them would have corn on them.
I should have been scared or disappointed, but I wasn’t; I was angry. Angry at the unfairness of it all. Angry at God for going out of his way to pick on some kid who had just lost his mom. It was disgusting is what it was.
I kicked one of the stalks. I pulled it out of the ground and threw it into the field, where it disappeared beneath the other stalks. I was angry that I hadn’t considered that it wasn’t harvest season for anything that probably grew around here. Which means finding food would be a lot harder than I had anticipated.
There was no reason to go back to my house, so I continued towards town. The houses got closer to each other. There were cars on the road once in a while, meaning that I couldn’t walk along the road anymore.
I went deeper into a field, where I could drop beneath the crops when cars came, and continued. In the center of the field was an old crater left over from where a rogue ultra-hero had bombed the area, probably. Further away I could see the decaying husk of a giant missile that hadn’t gone off. They were decades old, though. Nothing but accidental monuments to a history that should never have happened.
I climbed over a chain fence into a junkyard. Or I guess it was more of a scrap yard. The whole place smelled like grease, oil, and gasoline. Machines.
Mom always smelled like that. She and my dad did their best to keep the house clean, but there were always black smudges from the shop. It was the smell of happiness, of fulfillment. Maybe that’s why I lingered in that scrapyard long enough for the owner to notice and come out of his barn.
“Hey, kid,” he said, wiping his hands on a handkerchief he took out of his overalls. “You need something?”
I had blown my chance to run away. I stood there, silent. My eyes teared up. I wiped them away with my hand.
The guy was old: the tall, thin farmer-type, accustomed to black coffee in the morning and working hard in a shop until the sun goes down. He was also missing a hand. He didn’t look like one of Sato’s goons.
“You okay?” he asked, once he had gotten a better look at me.
I wanted to say “yes,” but the knot in my throat wouldn’t let me. Instead, my face twisted up and my eyes filled with tears again.
The man’s face changed instantly. “Hey, hey,” he said. “What’s wrong? You lost?”
The answers were too complicated, so I just shook my head.
“Want me to call your parents?”
I shook my head.
He bit his lip and glanced nervously at the little yellow farmhouse behind the shop.
“Wait there,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He ran off towards the house.
I know I shouldn’t have, but I waited. Maybe part of me just wanted it all to end. Maybe part of me wanted to get captured and killed so I could finally get some rest.
After a minute, he came back out of the house and hurried towards me. There was no gun, so that was good.
“You want to come in for dinner?” he asked, looking worried. “Glenda’s made cornbread.”
My stomach growled before I could decline. The man smiled and motioned towards me. “Come on, it’s alright. Ain’t no one in his right mind would say ‘no’ to Glenda’s cornbread.”
He wasn’t great at conversation, but it was more than I had had for a long time, and I hadn’t realized how much I craved it.
So I followed him across the yard, past the barn that smelled like grease and gasoline, to the little yellow house with the porch light on.
We stopped in the entryway and he washed his hand, arms and face in the little sink by the door and encouraged me to do the same. It took some real scrubbing to get all the grime off my hands, arms, and face. Once it was all gone down the drain and I dried my face on the towel, I felt more alive than I had in weeks. I hadn’t washed since mom was alive.
In the kitchen, a stout older woman with a fake leg poking out the bottom of her light blue jeans was setting a steaming casserole dish on the table. She looked up at me and smiled. She told me to go ahead and grab a seat, so I did.
Dinner was quiet, but I didn’t mind. I was too busy stuffing my face. I hadn’t eaten anything but peanut butter for weeks and before that, I hadn’t had anything but TV dinners since…I don’t know, since before Sato had taken over. This soup had the rich taste of something made in a time of peace. And the cornbread was worthy of the old man’s praise.
“So…” the man said as Glenda got up to take the cobbler out of the oven. “Do you have a place to stay tonight?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
I don’t know whether he believed me or not. It didn’t really matter. “You got food wherever you’re staying?”
I hesitated and he took it as an answer. “You go to school?”
I didn’t answer.
He sighed and scooped cornbread crumbs into his hand and dumped them into his empty bowl.
“That won’t do,” he muttered. Then he looked up at me again. “Any interest in machines?”
“Lots,” I said. “They’re cool.”
There was a pause. From me, from him, from Glenda. Finally, he stood up.
“I need to talk to Glenda for a moment,” he explained as he led his wife into the other room.
I could hear them talking, but they spoke so quietly I couldn’t make out any of the words. Glenda spoke a lot, which was surprising since she had hardly said anything during dinner.
They came back in, hand in hand. Glenda was smiling as she went over to the cupboard to get bowls out for dessert.
“I have a proposition,” the man said as he sat back down. “I don’t like that you’re not going to school, but I also can understand that things sometimes get in the way. I also don’t like that you don’t eat regularly. So here’s what I’m offering: you help me in the shop and around the farm, and we’ll take care of your meals. Also, Glenda wants to homeschool you until you can go back to regular school. She was a teacher before she retired, so she’ll give you a good education.”
I stared at him, trying to detect the deception in his offer but I couldn’t find it. I fidgeted with the fraying strings on the hem of my sweatshirt. This had to be too good to be true. I couldn’t risk playing games.
“Why?” I demanded, making the no-nonsense face my mom used to make when she was dealing with notorious con artists and cheaters, or when she knew I was lying to her about whatever stupid thing I thought was worth covering up.
The man just smiled. “Because I know a survivor of the ultra-hero wars when I see one.”
A/N: Who would bomb corn fields? An ultra-hero named Janus, that’s who. When she was on the wagon, she believed in progress and development. When she went rogue, she started destroying areas she didn’t think were progressing fast enough. Not the soundest of logic, but then again, ultra-heroes who go rogue aren’t known for their reasoning capabilities.