Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a story set in Portland, Oregon in the near future. You can read the first installment here. Also, for those who already read last week’s installment, note the alteration in title. I had a creative change of heart.
It didn’t take long for Linsey to fall into the rhythm of the work, stepping carefully through the tangled squash vines, hunting down their fruit—sometimes visible, sometimes hidden in the tumble of foliage—and cutting their thick stems from the vines. She pushed the plants away from the fruit after each cut, making sure she could see it for its later move out of the field. Taking her time, enjoying the meditation of it, she worked steady through the crop. The variety of the harvest cheered her: Butternut, Delicata, Spaghetti, Carnivale, Sweet Meat, Kabocha, Acorn, and so many more, including experimental varieties. She always struggled to settle on a reasonable number of varieties deep in the winter, when she found herself sorting through the special order seed catalogs from the small companies proliferating throughout the Northwest.
The public’s increasing, almost pathological demand for variety and heirloom revivals didn’t help her. As home gardens and small farms continued to boom, and more municipalities pursued urban farming policies to secure local food supplies, small seed companies focused on regional varieties and those tailored to a wide array of micro-climates began multiplying at a dizzying rate, spread by the technological failures and devastating public backlash against the corporate seed companies. Linsey had found it a blessing and a curse. On one hand, too many new ventures kept coming to market with weak seed that sometimes didn’t breed true, their owners hampered by lack of experience and knowledge. Yet a number of new breeders were pushing deep into genetic localization and increased resiliency to the wild swings in weather becoming more common as the global climate continued to spiral deeper into chaos and unpredictability. As a farmer and someone who, at a basic level, simply loved plants, she found the diversity exciting and always looked forward to long winter afternoons spent combing through seed catalogs and participating in the ritual discovery of new varieties. However, the small nagging always remained in the back of her head: this breakneck search for the next great seed was as much frantic safeguarding against the knife’s edge of too little to eat. Too many massive crop failures had unfolded over the proceeding years. Too many food riots haunted countries across the globe, including America. The last few years, she had been waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Of course, she had learned long ago that ignoring the tasks at hand while waiting for the next dark turn in America’s stumble down the world pecking order was a fool’s game. Too much good work needed to be done and, as she walked through the squash now—clipping and turning, admiring the fruit—the satisfaction of that work settled deep into her, providing some of the limited control over her life she still felt she had these days. Pride settled in, as well—her usual reaction to a good harvest. There was little more satisfying than seeing such an impressive spread of food and sustenance she knew came in large part from her own labor and skill. It made her feel powerful.
Katherine arrived as Linsey moved through the final row of squash, her rusted bike bouncing hard and fast along the pathway, coming in from the south the same as Linsey had earlier. She came to a quick stop, gravel scattering from beneath the bike’s tires. “Hey,” she said, breath heavy as she dismounted the bicycle and let it drop to the ground. Her first day on the job, Linsey had made clear to Katherine she was not to treat any of her tools or other equipment in a similar fashion, or she would risk her wrath and a quick bounce from the Sixth. Katherine told her not to worry, no problem, and she stayed true to that assurance from the first day. Numerous times Linsey had seen Katherine abuse her own belongings, but she always treated others’ with the utmost care. It made little sense to Linsey—her disregard for her own belongings—but sometimes that’s all the sense she could hope to make of Katherine. She loved her to death just the same.
As Linsey quickly clipped her way down the final row, Katherine swapped out her top shirt with her usual farm flannel, ragged and familiar, permanently stained with dirt and plant matter. “So it’s ready,” Katherine said, looking over the sea of squash vines, many of them now ragged and broken thanks to Linsey’s efforts.
“It’s ready,” Linsey said, clipping a final squash and straightening up at the end of the row, turning to appraise her work. “At least, I hope. I’ve got it all clipped.”
Turning back, she saw Katherine stretching and smiling, but with dark eyes that belied her expression. “So now we haul.”
“Now we haul,” Linsey agreed. “Let’s line them up along the edge here,” she said, motioning down at the three foot strip of grass between the squash beds and the gravel path. “Then we can go get the cart from Garrett and start getting them to storage.”
Katherine clapped, short and sharp, her usual enthusiastic start to work. But it felt empty to Linsey, a show of expected behavior rather than genuine enthusiasm.
“Let’s go,” Katherine said.
— ∞ —
Back and forth they walked, up and down the rows, filling their arms with squash large and small and bringing them to a gentle deposit on the grass by the side of the field. They worked quietly at first and nothing was odd about that. Katherine always worked quietly at first after an initial burst of enthusiasm upon arrival, moving fast and steady as though she wanted to accomplish a good chunk of the task at hand before daring to break the silence with conversation. Linsey never had figured out if it was a matter of ethic, a desire to come across as a good and hard worker, or just a natural internal rhythm of hers that demanded a bout of hard work before words could flow. It was her usual approach, though, so the silence didn’t feel out of the ordinary at first.
Linsey couldn’t help but watch her, though, as she gathered and moved the squash, stepping fast and graceful through the vines, showing an impressive ability to balance multiple large and misshapen fruit in her arms as she moved. Despite her fast work, something felt off with her—an unnecessary rigidness and intensity of focus. Normally, her quiet would not extend to lack of acknowledgment; she would still make the occasional non-leading comment or smile at inadvertent eye contact. But today she worked inside herself, it seemed, eyes often on the ground and not even the most passing of comment uttered.
She wondered if the city’s angry energy was getting to Katherine, too, the same as it had cut her own sleep short that morning. She hoped not; Katherine’s enthusiasm consistently heartened and helped carry her on days she struggled and she hated the thought of her being brought down by the stupidity and destructive lashings out around them.
Shrugging it off—Katherine would talk if she wanted to—she let her mind wander elsewhere as she moved the squash, back and forth, the rhythm of the work again settling into her. It didn’t wander far, though, before finding the familiar rut of the day before, tracing the outpouring of anger and frustration across the city and her own foreboding sense that the life she had so carefully cultivated over the past two years might be dangling above some unexpected cliff, at the mercy of—
“Jesse was there yesterday,” Katherine said.
Bent over and about to pick up a large Sweet Meat squash, Linsey looked up at Katherine, standing a few feet away and holding two Delicatas and staring at her intense, all of her struggling. She looked close to tears; she looked ready to throw the squash; she looked ready to drill herself down into the earth and not emerge for a very long time. For a moment, Linsey felt dumb, her mind working over the words and trying to make sense of them.
Then she understood. “Up north. You mean at the shooting?”
“The fucking murder,” she said, her voice straining, her head nodding.
“He was there?”
“He’s in jail. They won’t release him yet.”
“Shit,” Linsey said. She stepped through the squash, broad leaves hooking and giving against her feet, the vines snapping with only the smallest resistance. “Come here.” She motioned over toward the already-moved squash, the stretch of clear grass. “Come on.” Katherine moved, her head down, still stepping so damn careful. It doesn’t fucking matter, Linsey wanted to say, the squash already done, not important anyway. But she was so careful with the things that weren’t hers. She could never bear to hurt what wasn’t hers to hurt.
She grabbed Katherine, held her tight. The girl—then, anyway; a girl then—slipped her arms around her but didn’t cry. Still held. “Is he okay?” Linsey asked.
“Banged up,” she said, voice still tight, her chin on Linsey’s right shoulder. “I talked to him. Didn’t see him. I don’t know what they’re doing—they’re not releasing him. I want him out. He didn’t . . . he was just there, that’s all.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did he see?”
“I don’t know.”
“Linsey.” She pulled back, looked at her. “I don’t know.”
Linsey put a hand against the side of her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking past Katherine at the trees beyond, the lightened autumn sky. Turning leaves and green of pine needles. The traced outline of the natural world, always continuing on while the rest of them fought and tumbled in the background. “I’m sorry.”
— ∞ —
Word of the shooting came in confused flashes. No, first it came in the sirens, screaming everywhere. Linsey had been working the Sixth the day before, Katherine taking her usual Wednesday off. She had been in the squash then, too, walking and inspecting it and thinking, with the expected chill that night, that it would finally be ready for harvest the next day. It took her a moment to recognize the sirens, to actually hear them, and then they seemed all around her. Off somewhere else but coming from every direction. A lot of them, at least two different pitches. Police and ambulance for sure.
She didn’t usually hear so many, but otherwise she let it be. Sirens came and went in the city and, besides, she had work to do. They didn’t get too close, and that was good enough for her. No one at Links was injured. Nothing untoward had happened on one of the other holes. She kept inspecting the squash, then began turning a bed in anticipation of planting garlic, the seed in for both the Sixth and their home garden. It was one of her favorite tasks, flipping the beds and turning the soil with her digging fork. She lost herself in it.
It wasn’t until checking in with Garrett at the end of the day that he told her about the rumors flying, the online reports still as yet unverified. A shooting had taken place in the northern section of the city, at least two people dead. Supposedly it was private security hired by Helton that had committed the murders, a forced eviction of squatters that had spiraled out of control. Supposedly protesters hard shown up, a crowd gathering and quickly devolving into shouts and intimidation, a surge against the hired guns. Supposedly they shot indiscriminately; supposedly they were only protecting themselves. The police had arrived to a scene of madness. No one gave them advance notice of the eviction. No one really knew anything, except that the city was beginning to devolve into chaos and protests were breaking out in every quadrant, reports of rioting spreading throughout the city.
Linsey biked home fast at that point, eager to check in with Brett, her eyes sharp for riots. She saw none, but heard chatter and watched other bikers pass her fast, looking intent. Maybe it meant nothing, maybe everything. When she arrived home, he wasn’t there and she called Jack. He knew nothing except that Brett had worked the morning and then left. Cursing his lack of a phone—on board normally, but just wanting to talk with him—she waited. He straggled in hours later, exhausted and amped, his jittery edge telling her all she needed to know even before he spoke. He’d been marching and the police broke it up. He fumed at the murder and told her what he knew, which was little. She didn’t even know if it was murder, though Helton’s behavior had been skirting the edge for months now, them taking more of the law into their own hands with each passing week and every new house and apartment building they bought up, increasing their grip on the city.
“They were arresting people, but I kept ahead,” he said.
She stared at him, thinking so much. “I wish you had been here when I got home,” she said.
He watched her. “I couldn’t stay here, Linsey.”
“You couldn’t stay here for me?”
“I had to go out there. It wasn’t about you.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I figure.”
His face told her he didn’t think she was being fair. She didn’t know if she was or not, and the conversation devolved from there into frustration, into fear, until finally she just lay down and closed her eyes and gave up trying to put it all together in a way that made sense—him piecing together a meal in the kitchen and her waiting for him to come to her and for them to try again.