A young boy meets a stranger in an empty world
It’d taken the boy all day to walk down to the house that he’d seen from the top of the hill, and the sun was now blurring with the horizon. Next to the house, a man was working in the fields, but he was wearing a scarf that wrapped around his entire head so the boy could only see his eyes. Hefting up his sack and reaching up to touch the locket around his neck, the boy approached. “Hi there!”
The man glanced up. “Stop!” The boy froze. The man reached up to secure his scarf. “What do you think you’re doin’?”
“I was just walkin’. That’s some mighty tall grass you got there.”
The man looked at the boy. “That ain’t grass, kid. It’s corn. And what are you doing out here alone? Girl as small as you-”
“I ain’t a girl. I’m a boy.” The man squinted at him. The boy continued, “That’s what Charlie always called me anyway. It was always ‘Boy, do this. Boy, do that.’ He always said he never liked me but I think he did in secret. Why else would he let me stick around all the time?”
The man looked around. “And where is Charlie?”
“Well, he died, of course.” The man’s gaze snapped back to the boy. The boy went on, “That’s what he said people do sometimes.”
The man seemed to struggle for words, but then, “How long you been walkin’ around here?”
The boy shrugged. “Long time. Didn’t really count, but I saw your house from the top of the hill this morning and thought I’d come by. I’ve never seen a house before, and I don’t remember Charlie and me runnin’ into anybody else, though Charlie said there used to be a lot of people all around.”
“No one else with you?”
“It’s just me now.” The boy smiled at the man.
The man looked at the boy for a long time. Then he sighed and looked up at the sky. He nodded. “You better come in then.”
The boy laid down to sleep, sandwiched between two blankets on the ground across from the man’s bed. “Thanks, old man. This is way more than Charlie and me ever had. We shared one blanket, you know, but I didn’t mind. He gave me the whole thing usually. Said he ran hot.”
The man grunted from the bed.
“You keepin’ that scarf on to sleep?”
“Alright.” The boy smiled and reached under his shirt to pull out the locket he wore around his neck. “My momma gave me this when she left. Isn’t it nice?”
The man grunted again.
“Yeah, I think so, too. It used to be shinier, but I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. I’ve never seen anything shaped like it. Do you know what shape this is?”
The man opened one eye. “A heart.”
“A heart. But Charlie told me that’s what pumps all the blood inside you.”
“It’s a shape, too. Now go to sleep.” The man turned his back to the boy.
“Okay.” The boy opened the locket and smiled at the picture of the woman inside. He closed the locket and tucked it back under his shirt. Before he drifted off to sleep, he thought he heard the man coughing.
“This here’s my momma. I keep her with me all the time. Isn’t she pretty?”
They were in the cornfield by the house. The man had woken the boy up real early, scarf still on--the boy guessed the man just wore it all the time. He’d said that they needed to water the fields before it got too hot. By now, they’d been at it for a while, and the boy had never been good at staying quiet for a long time. So, he’d taken out his locket to show the man. The man grunted in agreement.
“You didn’t even look!”
The man sighed and turned to squint at the picture in the locket. “Pretty.”
“Yeah. I love my momma,” the boy said, “She was a real warm lady.” The man scoffed, which turned into a bout of coughing.
“You okay, old man?”
“Alright.” The boy smiled at the photo and closed the locket. “You know, I asked Charlie if he was my dad one time. He just laughed. I don’t know why. He said there was no way in the world he was my daddy and that even if he was, he wouldn’t wanna be.”
The man paused for a second. “That happens sometimes.”
“Can I tell you a secret?”
The man nodded wearily.
“Sometimes, I still called Charlie ‘Dad’ in my head.”
The man’s coughing was getting worse. That morning, the boy had been awoken by the sounds of it, so he’d brought the man some water and helped him sit up. Now, the boy sat at the foot of the bed, unsure of what to do. All morning, the man had been telling him about how to grow corn and take care of the land, breaking into bouts of retching coughs ever so often.
“Do you want me to take off your scarf? That might help you breathe a bit better.” The boy offered, but the man batted the boy’s hands away.
“The scarf’s the only reason I’m alive at this point, boy. Don’t you know this? Why do you think you and Charlie never ran into anybody?”
“I thought that was normal. Charlie never said we had to wear head coverings.”
The man side-eyed the boy. “Well, there’s bad stuff in the air now.”
“What kind of bad stuff?”
“Toxins, metals, fungi… I don’t know.”
“How’d they get in the air?”
The man glared at the boy. “Wars. People wantin’ to kill each other.”
“Then how come we’re alive?”
The man sighed. “A few people just did. Others like me got the hell out.”
The boy looked at the man. “But then, why are you dying now?”
“No more questions. Now about the corn-”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Someone’s gotta teach ignoramus runts like you to survive.”
“What’s an ignoramus?”
“Don’t you worry about it.”
“Okay, but I was survivin’ just fine before I met you, wasn’t I?”
“Just fine?” The old man let out a laugh before dissolving into hacking convulsions. The boy patted the man on the back. “Boy, you were starving and not even realizing it. Don’t know how you managed so long on your own.”
“I had to. See, I’d promised Charlie I’d be fine. He was worried about me, too-”
“I ain’t worried about nothing.”
“Okay, but anyways, Charlie made me promise just before he went away that I’d be okay. That’s how I know for sure he actually did like having me around. That and he said sorry to me a bunch of times, though I don’t know for what. So I’m okay, and my momma gives me real good luck, too, you know.”
The man looked at the boy. “Well, good. Now tell me how you’re gonna harvest all that corn tomorrow.”
The boy dutifully recited everything the man had told him.
The man never got out of bed anymore, so the boy took care of the fields during the day. Every night, the boy spread his blanket down by the bed, so he’d be closer in case the man needed anything during the night. Laying on his blanket, the boy took out the locket from under his shirt and opened it. The familiar picture of the woman smiled at him. The boy smiled back and ran his thumb over the woman’s face. “Can I tell you something?”
The man coughed but didn’t turn around. The boy took that as a sign to continue.
“This ain’t actually my momma. I don’t know who my momma is.”
The man went very still.
“Oh, good, you’re alive. I was just checkin’.”
The man huffed and with great effort, rolled over to look at the boy. The boy kept looking at the picture. “This locket ain’t mine either. It was Charlie’s. He never wore it, but he’s had it for as long as I can remember. Sometimes, when he thought I was asleep, he’d take it outta his bag and look at it. He never said anything. Just looked at it.” The boy thumbed over the woman’s face again.“Do you think this is Charlie’s momma?”
“Whoever she is, Charlie loved her. I know I love her, too.”
The man scoffed. “How do you know what is or isn’t love?”
The boy was quiet. The man rolled back over, but the boy broke the silence again,“What was your momma like?”
The man didn’t say anything for a long time. The boy thought that he must have fallen asleep. To the darkness, the boy said, “I don’t know my momma, but I love her anyways.”
The boy sat by the doorway, shucking corn. The man was lying on the bed. “Kid, come here.”
“What about the corn?”
“Leave the corn, and come here. I don’t got long now. I can feel it.”
The boy put the corn down and walked over to the bed.“Feel what?”
“Death, boy. I can feel death.”
“Oh. Well, can I get you anything?”
“No. Shut up, and sit down.”
The boy sat down next to the man. The man’s breathing was slow and shaky, like he was trying to keep from coughing for as long as he could. He kept blinking up at the ceiling. The boy looked up, but it was the same old wood as always. The boy looked back down at the man. “Are you scared?”
The man looked at him.
“You don’t have to be. Charlie said it happens to everyone.”
The man sighed. “Help me with this,” he said, gesturing to his scarf.
“But isn’t that what keeps you alive?”
“It don’t matter anymore. Just help me with it.”
Together, they unravelled the scarf. The man’s face underneath was wrinkled. He really was very old, with white hair and a bushy, white beard. The boy had never seen hair so white before. He thought it looked funny, and he told the man so. The man snorted.
“Old man,” the boy started, “Why’d you let me into your house?” The man looked at him. “You said you got the hell out, so I must have brought something bad with me in. Why’d you let me kill you?”
“Don’t be an idiot. The only thing that’s killing me is the air. Do you control the air?”
“Then shut up.”
“Okay.” Neither of them spoke. Then the boy piped up, “What should I do after you stop breathin’?”
The old man huffed out what the boy thought was a laugh. “Whatever you want, son. Whatever you want. But here, you’ll have food. Water. A place to sleep.”
The boy thought about it for a second and smiled. “I’ll stay here.”
“Good,” the old man said, “When I’m gone, bury me in the fields. It’ll be good for the corn.”
The boy nodded.
The boy sat with the old man for a long time, listening to rattling breath after breath. As the sun set, the old man reached out a hand. “I’m sorry I said that you didn’t know what love is.”
The boy took the old man’s hand. “That’s okay. I know that I know what it is. I’m sorry I asked about your momma.”
“No, it’s fine. She was… wonderful.” The old man gripped the boy’s hand tight and with a sudden urgency, he said, “Live. Live for as long as you can. You hear me?"
The boy smiled. “I promise.”
“You’re not alone. You’re not alone." The old man sighed and lay back. He closed his eyes.
“Of course not,” the boy said, reaching for his locket. “I got my momma with me, don’t I?”
The boy held the old man’s hand until he couldn’t hear the rattling breaths anymore.