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January 2014

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Prairie Farming

Written by , Posted in Short Stories

Two young boys raced down hill along the side of a large field, their arms flailing around them as they fought off the imaginary beasts of Zydon, the closest occupied planet to Earth. Spring weeds and wildflowers were in full bloom around them as frogs jumped and small rodents scurried from their path.
The boys joked and pushed each other as roaring tractors towing noisy planting equipment passed by uncaring. Periodically the tractor drivers would wave as they turned back towards the far end of the large field.
Although the two boys bounced with the vigour of youth, their steps slowed as they approached a towering chain link fence.
The first boy, Jamie, lifted a grimy hand to wipe the sweat beading on his forehead. He threw a furtive glance towards the closest tractor before he said, “It’s there, I’m tellin you.”
“I ain’t callin you a liar, Jamie,” the other boy said. He shrugged, glancing at his dirt encrusted glasses before tucking them into the breast pocket of his coveralls. “All I wanted to know is why you missed class today for it.”
Jaimie’s brows furrowed as he stared at his friend. “What are you talkin about Mark? I was there all day today and yesterday.”
Mark stared at his friend for several seconds, his fists planted on his hips like his mother did when she was about to scold him. God, I hate this part, he thought. It was always like this when he confronted his friend about the time Jamie spent away from school; absolute denial. Taking a deep breath, he said, “Ok fine, just show me the thing. I gotta get home soon. Mom gets angry when I’m here late.”
“I ain’t allowed back here,” Jamie said as he searched the fence. Finally finding his quarry, he pulled hard to reveal a rent in the fence large enough for both boys to pass unhindered.
“So, do you know what’s here?” Mark asked as he crawled through the fence. Being called to see The Coolest Thing Ever, was intriguing, but so close to the giant fence now, he felt his arms go limp and wanted nothing more than to rush back home.
Now within the bounds of the fence, which looked more tattered than towering from his new vantage, Mark looked around the landscape. Small tufts of grass broke through the cracked sandstone on the outer rim of the area, but no plant survived the sparse hardpan ground ten feet in from the fenceline. It was a desolate wasteland no more welcoming than the yard of the school the two boys attended and so steep that Mark was sure he’d never seen a hill like it.
A great hole, nearly twenty paces wide, opened the ground at the centre of the fenced area. It was a terrible wound, marring the earth’s surface at the centre of the gentle fields which sloped upwards away from them every direction outside of the fence. No wonder they fenced it off. Cattle and equipment alike looked like they would tumble down the hills and into the hole. Mark half wondered why they hadn’t just bulldosed the hole over and be done with it.
Jamie shrugged as he stood up and brushed his legs clean. “Dunno what it used to be.”
Mark had to admit that it was interesting. His parents own a thousand acres of dead flat ground. The hole was likely the lower point in the county. I bet it’s even lower than sea level, he thought, remembering the lesson in his geography class from that morning. He bent forward to whisper.“My brother Charles said there used to be a military base out here somewhere, but one day it vanished.” He hoped his voice concealed the disappointment he felt at not finding the base itself. That would be the greatest find ever made. It would be newsworthy, he thought, wondering if his brother Martin who worked at the Calgary Herald would come home to report on it.
“Cooooool,” Jamie said. His eyes danced merrily as he led his friend down the slight hill. Pointing back to the fence, he said, “We own all around the place.”
“You know,” Mark said, “if it’s an army base then it was pretty small. You can see the fence on all sides.”
“Ya, Dad was joking the other night. Said it was small enough that we should just tear down the fence,” Jamie said.
“So why don’t you?” Mark asked as he rolled his eyes. He caught himself on Jamie’s shoulder as he slipped towards the ground.
“Granddad got pretty pissy. He said he’d kick my dad’s … well you know … if he tried. Then he said it would be too much work takin down the fence.”
“Ya right, like there’s a lot of fence. But you know, it does kinda look like it’s farther from this side than from the other. That’s weird eh?” Mark said. A cloud of dust wafted through the air blurring his vision. He was half tempted to pull out his glasses until the dust sent him into a sneezing fit and he realized he’d like lose them and Jamie would probably step on them. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Nodding his head, Jamie said, “Ya. Granddad doesn’t know, but a couple years ago Dad and Billy had to refence that side. We took out like ten times the length of wire than it should have been. Dad was cursing the guys who built the fence cause he had to pay the county to truck away the wire.”
Mark glanced over Jamie’s shoulder, realizing the far side of the fence showed the same haphazard construction his friend had just described like it was folded back upon itself over and over.
Pulling away to start climbing back up the hill, Jamie said, “Well, anyways, Granddad said the place wasn’t ours and we should respect the dead.”
The dead? Mark thought. He shivered as something clattered behind them, but when he looked back, squinting so the sun wasn’t too bright, he found nothing. Before he could turn back however, he felt something land on his shoulder.
Mark froze as a jolt of what felt like lightning coursed through his body. Visions of corpses dragging themselves from the depths of the dark hole at the centre of the fenced area sent him crashing to the ground screaming. He felt his friend fall to the ground and join him in screaming. Jamie immediately joined him there as he felt the firm grasp on his own shoulder.
After a few seconds, they both stopped. Mark forced one eye open as his nostrils flared from his heavy breathing. Please don’t be a ghost or a goblin. No, don’t let it be a zombie either.
Instead of finding a grotesque rotting corpse or half corporeal ghost reaching spindly arms towards them, however, Mark saw a boy, a few years older, rolling on the round laughing. Jamie’s brother Billy chortled for almost a minute before he gulped enough air down to say, “Oh … the look … on your faces.”
Calluses marked his hands and a dark tan line ran across his arms just below the sleeves of his shirt. Although he wore sunglasses, Mark could see crow’s feet along the boy’s eyes from many hours of squinting in bright sunlight. Billy, the quitter. He thought. The only person to skip more school then Jamie was his older brother.
Jamie pushed himself off the ground, his face going several shades redder. “What are you doing, Billy?”
“I’d like to ask you the same thing,” Billy said as stood and he stared down his nose at the two younger boys. He was old enough to have face stubble.
Jamie glanced at the ground like he’d been caught stealing a bun from the basket before dinner. He started to speak twice, but fell silent each time until he managed to say, “I don’t have to do any chores tonight so I thought I’d bring Mark down to the cave.”
“You know dad’s gonna kill you if you get caught right? After the fight he and grandpa had last night.”
Jamie looked up, his brows flashing as he yelled, “You weren’t even there and it was like two nights ago.” He stood with his fists balled like he’d bested his brother at a brawl and wanted to prove it by standing over him triumphantly; the victor.
Billy looked away from his younger brother for a second before saying, “Two days? Well, so what if I was working back here. I do work you know. It comes with turning sixteen.” The older boy said before reaching out and pushing the younger boy back to the ground. It was so fast that Mark barely saw him move. He imagined him strong enough to pull the fence down by hand. I should probably get going.
Mark cocked his head to the side to stare at Billy. Hey wait, did you just say sixteen? Clearing his throat, the boy said, “Uh, I thought you were my brother’s age.”
“What? Ya, Charlie’s like a couple months older than I am,” Billy replied casually as he turned to leave.
Is this a joke? Mark thought. Before Billy had stopped going to school he’d been known as the class clown. Mark’s older brother Charlie used to say Billy would be a cowmedian some day. Mark took a deep breath and mumbled, “Um, Charlie just turned seventeen.”
“That’s a load of crap. I was at his sixteenth birthday a month ago,” Billy argued over his shoulder as he walked away.
Noticing his friend sputtering, Jamie stepped forward to ask, “What are you doing here anyway Billy?”
“Got some rocks I picked from the field. I figured I’d drop ‘em in the hole,” the older boy said as he ducked through the hole in the fence. He moved like he was dancing, his steps faster than they should be as he gracefully jumped up to the tractor.
Mark paused as he stared at the old tractor which was missing its smokestack and should have been heard a mile away. Whoa that’s weird. Aloud he said, “I didn’t even hear him come close.”
“Neither did I.” Jamie shrugged before saying, “I’ll go open the gate for him.”
Jamie jumped down the hill and sauntered around the hole towards the gate, his steps deliberate like he was walking on the moon. He pulled the pin from the latch and pushed on the gate, his heels digging into the dirt. Must be pretty heavy. Wonder if he needs help. After a second Jamie shook his head and pulled on it, gently pulling it back to let his brother through. Nope, you’re just dumb.
When Jamie returned, he was out of breath. The dirt on his face was streaked with sweat. He smiled and said, “It’s kinda weird. Billy told me about this place after dad and granddad got into it the first time. Said it was haunted or something.”
Nodding towards the tractor as it roared into the yard, Mark said, “Maybe that’s what your granddad meant about the respect thing.”
“Maybe,” Jamie concluded as he motioned the other boy to follow him.
“That’s a junker isn’t it?” Mark laughed as he watched Billy move forward.
“Ya well, the good loader kept dying when it got close. Granddad said something about the electrical surges in the area, but you know how crazy he is.” Jamie finished his statement by tapping his forehead with his grimy finger.
“Why? How old is it?” Mark peered closer at the archaic machine. Along with the missing smokestack half of the shields were rusted through and pieces hung from it like it was about to fall to pieces sending Billy rolling to the ground in a heap of junk.
“Older than me. I think Granddad bought it,” Jamie said with a shrug. “Anyways, it won’t start if you stall it close to the hole. Billy says you have to get the other tractor and tow it if it conks out. Dad doesn’t like it when he drops the rocks here, but its the best place for ’em”
Taking a deep breath, Mark asked, “Hey Jamie, has your brother been losing his memory long?”
“What do you mean?” Jamie asked as they both inched closer to the hole for one last look before they left.
Beyond the hill, Billy drove his tractor to the edge of a great hole in the ground. Lifting the bucket high into the air, the young man gently guided it forward and then tipped the bucket over far enough for the rocks to tumble out.
Almost silently, the rocks jostled their way from the bucket and careened down the hole disappearing into the darkness.
“Whoa,” Mark said suddenly as they watched the spectacle. Normally rocks would hit the edge and then crash into each other, but these fell towards the centre and then sped out of eyesight as though thrown.
Standing to look further down, Jamie said, “I know. It’s cool. That’s what I wanted to show you. I came the other day and was like, whoa that’s friggin cool. I gotta show Mark.”
“Maybe,” Mark said. He shook his head and closed his eyes. His stomach churned like it had the first time he’d put on his glasses..
“Come on, let’s get closer,” Jamie challenged as he slid down the hill. The slope was getting sharper as they approached the hole.
Mark glanced back towards the fence before stepping closer to the hole. I really should get going. He couldn’t look like a wuss in front of his friend however so he inched closer until he joined his friend. “Does your brother work in the fields a lot?”
Staring at his friend for a second, Jamie replied, “A bit. Works down here a lot, but with ten thousand acres, who wouldn’t?”
“Ya, but he misses half of school. I once heard he even went to school dressed for church one day.” Mark began to laugh as he remembered his brother telling the story. Billy had been so embarrassed, but just pretended all day like it was Sunday school and kept asking questions about Jesus and God.
“Oh ya, he was sick or something that day,” Jamie replied quietly as he looked to the ground. “Sometimes like I said he stays out late. I don’t even see him come in.”
“That’s weird isn’t it? I mean he isn’t that old … even if he’s seventeen instead of sixteen,” Mark offered as he pulled himself closer to glance over the edge of the hole. Unable to see the bottom he leaned away.
“HEY,” Billy’s voice seemed muted as he yelled. “You two get out of there. That pit’s over a hundred feet deep. Dad’d kill me if you fell in.”
Pulling back from the edge, Mark felt his heart skip as he said, “Ya, maybe he’s right.”
“Chicken,” Jamie said through his taunting laughter. “Fine. Let’s … wow, that’s weird.”
“What?” Mark asked as they backed away slowly. He quickly realized something was amiss as his boots felt like they were mired in the clay muck, not gliding along the hardpan hill.
With the last laboured step that brought them high enough to peer through the fence, Mark asked, “Hey, where’d Billy go?”
Glancing around, Jamie pointed towards the farmstead. “Oh, he’s right there.”
“No, he isn’t,” Mark said while shaking his head. “Wait, there he is.”
Narrowing his eyes, Jamie leaned forward to stare at the now retreating tractor far in the distance. “How’d he get there that fast?”
Mark shivered as he shifted from one foot to the other. It felt like his feet were still glued to the ground as he managed to take another step away from the hole.
Their steps came faster as they retraced their path up the hill. When they finally reached the fence, both boys glanced back to the hole panting as though they’d run for miles. Sighing as he raised the fence for his friend to sneak out, Jamie whistled as pointed towards a truck coming in their direction.
He chewed the corner of his lip for a second before asking, “Hey, what time did you have to be home?”
“Five,” Mark replied as his steps lengthened.
Glancing towards the sun, Jamie said, “You’re gonna be late.”
“What do you mean?” Mark asked as he followed his friend’s gaze. Realizing the sky had darkened, he asked, “It’s not supposed to storm tonight is it? No, the sun’s just lower than …”
Jamie shrugged as the truck rolled up, dust billowing around it like a whirlwind. “I guess we took longer than we thought.”
As Jamie opened the truck door, a middle-aged woman with greying hair asked, “Where have you two been?”
“Um,” Jamie said before looking away. “I just wanted to show Mark the hole … and see it again myself kinda.”
“Again? Both of you get in the truck right now,” the woman ordered as the pair joined her within the cab.
“Hey Mom, what are you doing here?” Jamie asked curiously as he looked at the woman. She had grey hair and her smile lines were longer like she was far older than Mark’s mother.
“Your father ran out of seed in the back thirty acres. He swears he put in enough for thirty-two though. I guess it’s like the fish that keeps growing eh boys? At least the ground is getting flatter. The hills we used to have were way too much for this old girl to drive up.” The woman smiled as she shifted the truck into gear.
Mark reached up to his breast pocket to pull his glasses out, but found nothing. I put them there didn’t I? He thought before patting down his other pockets. “Wait, my glasses. I must’ve dropped them.”
Jamie’s mother sighed and stopped the vehicle. She glanced back to the fence before saying, “Fine. Both of you go get them and for God’s sake be careful. After your father pulled through that power line there’s been stray voltage along the whole back end of the property. And Jamie, don’t you go telling your grandfather about that. I don’t think he could handle the stress.”
Scrambling out of the truck, Jamie said, “I told you my Granddad was a little weird about this place.”
The two boys raced to the tear in the fence, Jamie holding it back so Mark could squeeze through. He waited there tapping his foot until Mark returned.
Where did we go earlier? Mark wondered as he stood, shivering as he glanced towards the hole. The last thing he needed was to have them at the bottom of the pit. His parents screamed for a month the last time he broke them and wouldn’t likely replace them until planting was done.
The sun was creeping closer to the horizon as Mark peered at the ground, finally finding his glasses where Billy had laid him flat. With deliberate steps so he didn’t fall down the hill he reached the glasses and grabbed them. As he pulled back he noticed a flash of silver several paces to his left, away from the hole.
Keeping his attention on the flash, he retraced his steps towards the fence. As he reached his friend, Mark took two bounds away from the fence to retrieve a silver plate from the ground. He returned to his friend just as the boy was about to drop the fence. They both clambered back into the truck, throwing one last forlorn glance to the great hole before Jamie’s mother drove off.
As she drove, the woman glanced momentarily to her side asking, “What did you grab back there Mark?”
“Oh,” the boy said as he held open his palm to reveal the hammered piece of steal. “It’s a sign I think.”
Flipping the torn steel sheet over, the young man rubbed the dirt off on his pant leg before pulling it back to eye level.
Reading aloud, the boy said, “Ensure all power couplings to magnetic shielding are in place at all times before quantum acceleration or unchecked single … single-larity growth may occur. What’s a singularity?” He said proudly. Most of the kids couldn’t read as well as he did.
Shrugging, Jamie’s mother said, “I don’t know Mark. Let’s get you home.”
Pushing the accelerator down, the woman set off away from the great maw at the centre of their property.