by Gord Sellar
The land slept hard, after months blanketed beneath deep snow. Seeds nestled in the soil, frozen on the cusp of sprouting, and the earth was riddled with slumbering creatures strewn cold in their tunnels, the husks of the dead and of those yet to reawaken. A vast whiteness covered everything, blazing intense even in the darkness of prairie night. The snow stirred only when occasional windstorms struck it, or by the coming of the sun in frigid new year’s mornings.
Across these frozen plains cut long, snaking ribbons of highway stretching out to the east, to the west, and the south, with a few running northward. Visible from far above as long, grey slashes cleaving the barren whiteness, these highways were the main evidence of intelligence in this snow-desert, more readily noticed than the tiny dots of the towns, more constant than the steamy exhaust of the furnaces in those tiny, defiantly warm farmhouses that clung to the earth. The creatures that had built these roads were thinkers, planners. They could plant and prepare for spring, and dream of the crops that would come after the year’s snow had come and gone again.
The seeds of the next fall’s crop, MSWW-536, did not dream as they slumbered, waiting, in the earth. They did not plot or scheme, though they held secrets. When the warmth of spring came, it would unlock the strange clockwork mechanisms buried in their hearts and unleash their wondrous otherness upon the plains. Though it was not the first of its kind, and far from the last, this year’s crop was different in a way from all those that had preceded it.
People had begun to sense it, by then, even if the earth itself had lain as open as ever to the seeds. Not everyone, just a few, those who lived on the land, and worked it. A very few sensed some deepening enigma beneath the snow, in the way the land lay there, accepting that strange, unnatural seed, yet turning within itself, bracing for what was certain to come. They thought of the seeds as they looked out across the vastness of the snow, imagining the blizzards that it just might spawn, covering up the roads and leaving confusion in the place of everything that had stood clear under the wide, gentle sky. They thought of the seeds and the change they might bring, and waited for the coming spring.
* * *
Jimmy’s ice skates were just a smidge too small, because they were his cousin’s hand-me-downs, but that never slowed him down in the thick of a game. He managed to get a couple of shots past Mike Yip and between the two black plastic posts that marked the width of the net, one off a pass from Terry Horchinski. Two goals was really something, and the victory tune that the flashing, shivering puck played as it soared between the tracking posts was still ringing in his ears when the game was over. Mike was a tenth grader and built like an ox, after all, and Jimmy was only twelve—and Terry always bragged about how he’d been playing hockey since he’d been in diapers.
Jimmy knew that was bullshit, but Mike was the best goalie in all of Biggar, and in all the years of coming out and playing on the frozen slough at the Wishnowski place, Jimmy had never scored on him twice in one game before. And they’d streamed it live, Jimmy thought, happily glancing up to the drone they’d set loose to capture it all. He looked forward to showing his dad those shots: the old man might not be much interested in hockey, but he’d cheer Jimmy on, all the same.
After the game, Mrs. Wishnowski invited the boys in for hot chocolate and to warm up in her kitchen. Everyone but Mike took her up on the offer, because he had to go pick up his old man in town in twenty minutes anyway. He offered the other boys a ride, but they all turned him down.
They stayed out of gratitude to Mrs. Wishnowski. She didn’t have a boy of her own around anymore—her own son, Randy, had moved to Saskatoon to study at the University. She talked about him all the time, and said she was sure he’d never move back to Biggar, not ever, not even for the summers, except maybe at harvest-time. Which was kind of sad, but that was how it always was with young people, and it wasn’t so bad, really. It wasn’t like Randy had died or anything. Saskatoon was only an hour away: she could always visit him sometime. Even if he did like everyone else, and moved to Calgary, or down East, or to one of those famous new economic development zones in India that all the smart kids seemed to be going to for a year or two, just long enough to make a fortune. She just seemed a little lonely, a little sad at how nobody her boy’s age ever stayed around for long anymore.
“Well, boys, you sure played hard out there,” she smiled and sipped her own mug of hot chocolate. “How’s your father, Jimmy?” She always asked after him. They’d taken classes together in high school.
“He’s just fine,” Jimmy said, feeling a little protective of his dad. “Still working on that wheat strain of his, I think.”
“Well, he always was a clever one,” she said, ruffling Jimmy’s blond hair. “We were always so sure he was gonna do something big, someday,” she added, and then she went silent. Jimmy didn’t know what to say. He’d heard from Terry that Mrs. Wishnowski had dated his dad for a while in high school. Knowing that felt a little weird, made it always feel awkward whenever she asked about how his old man was doing.
One by one the boys finished their hot chocolates, put down their empty mugs, and wiped their mouths with their shirtsleeves. They all sat there for a while, saying nothing, and the TV nattered away in the background, too low to make out much except that it was a talk show on one of the craptertainment American feeds Mrs. W ran off one of Randy’s old rebuilt Playstations in the living room. Jimmy had come over the summer before and ended up watching a bunch of cartoons off the net on the same machine, when the Wishnowskis had hosted a party and kids of different ages had been around. Randy had been there, but he’d spent half the time in the basement with that girl who’d come down from Maidstone.
“You boys feeling any warmer now?”
Jimmy understood that cue: it was time to head home.
“Yes, Mrs. Wishnowski,” they all said together, and Chris added, “Thank you.” Jimmy and Terry immediately thanked her too, Jimmy blushing a little at being slow to say it. His father usually teased him about blushing like that, said it showed he’d picked up some real manners somewhere.
“You boys want a ride home?” she offered, looking out the window at the sky.
“No thanks,” the boys all said together. They’d taken a ride with her once before, and she’d driven slow as molasses, so slow it’d taken them an hour to get home. It was better to go down the highway on foot, so they could curse and swear and talk about whatever they wanted, and besides, they’d almost get home sooner walking. Anyway, it wasn’t so cold out, that day, only fifteen below, and none of them had so far to walk, either.
“The forecast is nice,” Terry chirped quickly, looking up from his iPwn. “It’s supposed to stay nice, too.”
“As long as two of you have phones,” she began, “And you have reception out here.”
“Sure, I got one,” Jimmy said with a nod, holding his up for her to see. Terry did the same. Nobody bothered to explain that Terry’s iPwn was online 100 percent of the time, even so far out of town. She was old, and network coverage had still been pretty bad in the area when she’d started using a cell phone a couple of decades back.
“All right then. You boys be careful,” she said as they pulled on their parkas and slung their ice skates over their shoulders, one skate in the front and the other in the back, and left her standing there in the kitchen, washing the mugs and smiling quietly.
The three of them clomped down the highway into Biggar, pilgrims returning home from the local hockey shrine, with blessed hockey sticks clunking down against the road with every second or third step. They didn’t talk at first: it was good enough just to walk together, single file down the shoulder of the highway, Chris whistling into the cold air as one of those huge, driverless twenty-eight-wheelers roared down the highway past them, an autopilot juggernaut. The boys stared up at the truck reproachfully. They were new enough the boys still looked at them distrustfully. You had to be careful not to run out in front of one of those machines, out on the highway. No iPods, no DMSs, no VR headsets, nothing distracting like that. The trucks were supposed to stop if it happened, but the people on the news said sometimes they didn’t.
When the boys got to the train tracks, the barriers were already down and the red warning lights were flashing, and the train was visible way down the track. It was coming in from out west, from over in Alberta. Jimmy stared up at the train cars as they whizzed past, tried to read the logos on the side of each car as they all blurred past him. The wheat went the same way, on trains like this one. Jimmy wondered really hard about where they were going, and what it was like out there, down East.
* * *
Jimmy closed his eyes and scratched harder at the lacquer on the arm of the pew, fighting to hide his boredom and wishing he was anywhere besides the Colonial Park Mennonite Brethren Church, just as Mrs. Wishnowski’s big, tractor-bellied husband Ed stood up from a cheap metal folding chair that was older than Jimmy himself.
“Sure,” Ed said, “But what I’m worried about is yield. I got two kids in University, one in Toronto and one in Saskatoon, and I got ten, fifteen more years of work in me, at best. I need whatever gives me the most bang for my buck, and the Grower’s Alliance fella told me that these here chiral whatsy-doozit seeds knock off pests ten times better than Roundup—they can’t digest the wheat at all, he said.” He cleared his throat roughly, shrugged his shoulders, and took of his mesh cap, the one with the ancient Saskatchewan Wheat Pool logo on the front that he wore all year round. As he ran his fingers over the stubble that dotted his scalp, he added, “The pests just starve to death, and eat up all the weeds while they’re doing it!”
“Well, I understand your dilemma,” said the professor, lifting a glass of water to his lips and taking a small sip. Fella from the city, some agritech expert from the University of Saskatchewan. In his cotton shirt and blue jeans, he didn’t look much like professors did on TV, but then, Jimmy had never seen a professor of agriculture on any TV show before. Still, he had this weird feeling somehow that the professor didn’t dress that way back in the big city, when he was teaching practical and applied genetics to university students.
When the prof put down his glass, he said, “But the thing you need to understand is that the bugs can’t digest the stuff because nothing can. Lemme put it this way: they’ve gone in and messed with how the starches stack together, twisted them all around the opposite direction to usual. Nothing on earth has the right enzymes in its guts to break those carbs down into sugars—not you, not me, not the bugs, nothing,” he said, pausing briefly as if hesitating to wade too deep into the science. Then he continued: “If it doesn’t go through the industrial processing they use on it in the mills, well: you take this wheat and grind it into flour in your kitchen, and then bake yourself some bread, and I’m telling you that you can literally starve to death on a full stomach of that bread every day. It’s not just pests: anyone can starve off it, like rabbit meat. They made it that way, so we’re dependent on them for processing and distribution and everything. Now, what that means is that growing this wheat may give you a better yield, but it also locks you farmers into working with specific buyers, into a specific distribution model. And then you gotta deal with the ecological collapse that comes when all the vermin dies out, and if the genes they’ve spliced in transfer to other plants, or if it mutates . . . Well, it’s just not so simple as they’re saying it is, that’s all.”
Jimmy noticed his dad nodding, but he seemed to be the only one who was. All the other farmers were mumbling among themselves, and honestly, Jimmy didn’t really get what the big deal was either. That textbook—the one with the company logo on the cover, that his dad had called to complain to the school about—explained how these seeds were approved by WTO/UN committees and had stabilized world food distribution and the entire global market. Global food security, that phrase had stuck with Jimmy. He couldn’t see what was so bad about that.
“And when you’re locked into that system, then, just like in India and China, like most of Africa . . . well, here, let me show you again,” and he pulled out his iPhone—a real one, not one of those homemade iPwns—and flicked it at the sheet of white vinyl he’d stretched onto the wall. The screen came alive with pie charts. The professor waved his iPhone around, explaining again, slow and careful, to a roomful of farmers. Not that they were stupid—if they were still running family farms in 2023, they had to at least be clever and thoughtful, and good at planning—but they were businesspeople, concerned with yield and profit first and foremost; the theoretical, biotechnical side of it ran a distant second. To a lot of them it had to, if they were going to stay in business at all.
As for Jimmy, he’d finally had enough. There were no other kids in the room, and he couldn’t sit still anymore, so he took off toward the bathroom. When he got close, he heard a sound echoing up the stairs from the church basement: a wonderful sound, a sound so joyful it set his heart thumping right away. There was yelling, and cheering, and organ playing, and a constant stream of commentary by a nasal voice.
It was the opening music for Hockey Night in Canada.
He rushed down the stairs and found a couple of other boys down there, on the couch, in front of the big screen TV in the middle of the room: Terry Horchinski, who was about his age, and Todd Moroz, who was a few years older than him, and one of the biggest boys he’d ever met. Wayne, he turned and looked at Jimmy—the big pitchfork scar on his cheek was suddenly visible, and the story of how he got it playfighting with his brother in the barn one summer flashed through Jimmy’s head—and Wayne said, “What took you so long, Oleksyn? I thought maybe you died up there.”
“You know my dad. He’s crazy about that stuff. Said he wanted me to ‘learn something.’” Jimmy shrugged, and sat down on the couch.
Toronto had control of the puck, he noticed, and he scanned the corner of the screen to get caught up. Calgary was whipping ass, as usual, with four goals to Toronto’s measly one. “How’s Lorne Geisbrecht doing tonight?”
“Pretty damned . . .” Number 14 Nick Phaneuf passed the puck to Number 23 Lorne Geisbrecht, and he slapped it high and hard, straight past Toronto’s goalie and into the net. In an instant, the crowd was on its feet and going wild, and the three boys in the basement cheered right along with them. Lorne Geisbrecht swerved away from the goal, and while his back was turned, Toronto’s Number 54 Perry Redbird body-checked him from behind. Redbird was built like a goddamned brick shithouse, so Lorne Geisbrecht went down flat on the ice.
“Shit!” the boys all yelled in unison, and then they all winced, realizing they’d cussed in a church full of grownups.
As the inevitable fight exploded across the screen, with all the blood bouncing off the ice and hockey sticks smashed against helmets, Wayne lifted the remote and pointed it to zoom in on the patch of red in a cutaway window to replay the bounce off the TV’s cache. The boys stared, rapt, at both the rebounding blood and the battle unfolding all over the rest of the screen. Jimmy smiled, remembering what his father usually said when fights broke out during hockey games: “Some things in this world are never gonna goddamned change, I tell ya.”
“God bless Lorne Geisbrecht,” said Terry Horchinski with a deeply pious tone, as he clenched the gold cross on the chain hanging around his neck. “And God bless the Calgary Flames . . .”
* * *
Jimmy drifted up from sleep to find himself bouncing in the passenger seat of his dad’s truck. They must’ve hit the badly re-paved section of the highway out of Biggar, the part everyone complained about all the time.
“Dad, what time is it?”
“Go back to sleep, kid, it’s late.” Dad didn’t sound very happy. He was staring at a dim pair of taillights out ahead of them in the darkness, barely visible through what look like a wall of wind-blown snow. If guilt were stronger than fear, Jimmy would have begun to worry.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep. . . .” He tried to sit up, to wake himself.
“Nah, nah, it’s not you. It’s just . . .” He looked over. What Jimmy saw on his dad’s face wasn’t something that could be described with a single word like sad or upset or scared. It was something bigger than that, and he just looked at the boy for a few seconds before he said, “Oh, Jimmy, we’re just living in an important time. All those folks in that church back there? They’re just thinking about next month, next year; they don’t get it, just like their parents never got it, and their parents before them. It’s not that they can’t read the writing on the wall, or understand what’s at stake here, you know . . . it’s that they’re too busy to look up and see it. Well, and I want you to see it, to look up and read it and understand, y’know? But you’re just a kid, I know. I forget sometimes. You mom would’ve reminded me of that. I’m sorry, buddy . . .”
Jimmy smiled at that, but his father was watching the road and couldn’t see it, so he said, “It’s okay, Dad.” Then, without thinking to ask why his dad wanted that so much, he looked out the windshield again. The snow was coming in heavy and thick, fat flakes tumbling across the glass.
“Another blizzard, hey?” Jimmy only saw snow for a moment, before he realized his father couldn’t see more than a few meters ahead of the truck. He tapped the dead nav screen his dad had mounted to the dashboard. “And this is still broken?”
“Yeah, but that’s okay, we don’t need it,” his father said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “That’s Ed up there, and his is working. As long as we don’t lose his taillights, we’ll be okay. We’ll be home soon, buddy.” He smiled. “Don’t worry. Hand me my coffee, would you, son?” he said, and gestured at his ancient brown driving mug—the Tim Horton’s label had long ago worn off—that sat in a brown cup-holder that had been stuck onto the dashboard for as long as Jimmy could remember.
The boy slid the plastic cup out of the holder, rotated the valve on the lid, and handed it to his old man. “Who won the game?” he asked his father.
“Calgary, of course,” his father replied, and took a sip from the cup, and then handed it back to Jimmy. His dad probably could have put it in the cup holder himself, but Jimmy liked doing it for him. “I ever tell you about the time old Pab and I went ice-fishing up at Duck Lake back in ninety-seven?” he asked.
The memory summoned up a smile; a crow’s foot spread out beside his old man’s eye, on the side of his face that Jimmy could see.
“Nope,” Jimmy shook his head, though he’d heard the story a dozen times at least. He lied because he liked hearing those old stories, and he could sense that telling them was important to his dad somehow. Smiling, he tried to look up out of the window, into the sky, but there were no stars above, no northern lights, nothing but darkness. He pulled his legs up onto the seat, under his jacket, and closed his eyes to listen.
“Ah, boy, that was a real good one, that day,” his dad said. “Pab McCooley had a buddy up there who was a real hunter, a Cree fella, or maybe Dené or something, who must have been almost seven feet tall, solid muscle. This guy had a cabin and a trapline he worked out there. Well, we decided we were gonna go out there and catch ourselves some fish, so we drove up. Took hours and hours, and all we did was sing along with the radio and suck back coffee all the way. That was before any of us had cell phones or navs in our trucks, and there weren’t any wireless grids around yet, either. We were out of touch with everyone and everything, out there in the bush, and you know how it felt . . . ?”
Right about then, Jimmy drifted back off to sleep with a smile on his face.
* * *
Jimmy was scratching his head as he worked his way through word problems with heredity charts for different simplified allele interactions. Would Farmer Jelinski be statistically more or less likely to have a higher yield than Farmer Fuller?
Jimmy was pretty sure it was a stupid question. He’d heard farmers around town talk about yield, about how a dry year or a bad batch of pests could kill all the benefits that these or those seeds or herbicides were supposed to deliver.
He tried to peek over at the computer on the desk beside his, but Devin, a boy with red hair and freckles who wore glasses, jumped to a blank desktop display with a quick punch of a shortcut key. “Don’t copy,” he hiss-whined.
“Come on, Dev. I really need help with this.” He made sure to whine a little, too. “You’re so smart. Look, I don’t want the answers, I just want you to help me figure them out,” he lied. And, of course, Devin was smart at this stuff and Jimmy wasn’t, but Jimmy didn’t really want to be. Who cared about genetics? He’d liked working the harvest, he’d liked the seeding, being out in the sun, but genes and math just gave him headaches. Give him a stalk of wheat, he could understand that. That made sense, he thought, staring up at the classroom’s ceiling tiles and their endlessly repeating patterns.
Then the door opened, and Jimmy quickly leaned forward so that he was sitting up straight behind his mini-notebook.
Mr. Anton came in and held the door open behind him. “Today we have a new student in our class,” he announced with the kind of cheerfulness that only a teacher can muster at nine twenty-seven in the morning. All the students closed their computers, grateful for a brief reprieve from their classwork and the review to follow.
“Everyone, please welcome Bonnie Dumont,” said Mr. Anton, and everyone in the class stared silently as the new girl walked in. Her face was a little dark, her eyes nervous. Jimmy had noticed her on the bus that morning, a new girl, but had figured from her height that she was older than him, maybe a grade up. She stood nervously in front of the class. She was dressed up really nice, and her black hair had been carefully brushed and braided. Her cheeks were red, and she didn’t seem to like all the attention so much.
“Bonnie’s just moved here from Duck Lake, and she’s fourteen years old, same as most of you. And here’s a neat piece of trivia her mother told me last week: her great-great-great-uncle was Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel’s right-hand man! Isn’t that remarkable? Everyone please welcome her to our class. I’m sure you’re gonna do just fine here, Bonnie.”
The look on her face suggested that she wasn’t so sure of that. It was easy to understand, though: Jimmy had been to a family reunion once, and when his dad had introduced him to all these cousins and uncles and aunts he’d never even heard about before, he’d hated the feeling of all their eyes on him, everyone listening while his dad told them a handful of facts that were supposed to tell them who he was. He’d hated that kind of attention, so he could sympathize, and he smiled at her, as if to reassure her a little.
Just then Bonnie looked at him, just for a moment. Her eyes lingered on his face—maybe she recognized him from the school bus that morning?—but there were a lot of faces in the room, and she didn’t look too long, that first time. Still, something weird happened inside Jimmy’s guts when her eyes met his. He squirmed and looked away.
She bit her lip and sat down a few seats up and one row over from Jimmy, in the only empty desk in the room. He looked at her again—he couldn’t help but glance her way once more, even while he couldn’t have said quite why.
“Now, let’s check back on last night’s homework,” Mr. Anton said. Kids groaned as they opened their PCs again, and launched their homework managers. “Number one . . . James Oleksyn? What did you get?”
Damn, Jimmy thought. Of course he had to ask me.
“Uh, I’m sorry, sir. I couldn’t figure it out . . .” Don’t blush, don’t blush, don’t blush, dammit, he thought to himself.
“That’s fine, Jimmy, at least you tried. Now show us how far you got into the problem, and we’ll work through the rest of it as a class,” he said, and called up the wireless link to Jimmy’s PC, called the desktop onto the enormous flatscreen that hung at the front of the class beside the disused whiteboard.
Jimmy paused before calling up the file. Mr. Anton would grimace, and give him that lecture again about getting help, trying harder, about how important STEM skills were going to be once Jimmy graduated. Giving him remedial homework, calling his dad.
There was no way around it. Jimmy called up the empty homework file, and said, “This stuff doesn’t make sense to me, okay?”
And right on cue, Mr. Anton frowned. “You’re sucking on slough water, kid!” he quipped, the reprimand he always gave anyone who’d failed to at least make an effort at something. The rest of the class laughed, and Jimmy looked down, not wanting to see the other kids laughing at him. Except, once more, he couldn’t help but look Bonnie’s way.
She was just looking at him, no sneer, just this little smile. Not like she was laughing at him, so much as if she was thinking the same thing he had thought: “Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon.”
He met her gaze just as Mr. Anton started in on his lecture. But then Jimmy just rolled his eyes.
* * *
As the school bus trundled off down the highway and into the blinding white glare of the snowy prairie, Jimmy once again found himself wishing he lived near the end of the bus route home, instead of near the beginning. He sighed out a cloud of steam into the cold.
As he trudged down the long path to the house, the snow crunched beneath his feet with each step, sending shudders up his spine. He kicked hunks of hardened snow aside as he went along, fishing his housekey out of his jeans pocket. His nerves made him bite into his scarf and chew on it, so that the front was crunchy with his frozen spit by the time he got up to the front porch.
The door opened before he could touch it.
“Jimmy,” his father said, swinging the door open wide.
“Dad,” he answered, thinking, Shit. I hate you, Mr. Anton.
“I got a call . . .” Jimmy’s dad said.
“Mr. Anton’s . . .”
The look on his father’s face was suddenly puzzled. “What about him?”
“Never mind,” Jimmy said quickly, wishing he hadn’t said anything.
“You having trouble at school, Jim?” his father asked.
“Not really . . .” he said, but he didn’t have the heart to lie more than that. “It’s just . . . I don’t see . . .”
“I know, Jim,” his father said. “But that doesn’t mean you get to skip your homework. Especially science class.”
“He did call,” Jimmy said.
“No, he hasn’t, though now I expect he will. It was Ed that called. The Wishnowskis . . . they’re moving on. Giving up the farm.” And Jimmy and his father stood there, as if they were the last two people left on the land outside Biggar; as if everyone else had left them there, alone, with nothing to say. Jimmy wasn’t surprised, and his father wasn’t either: they’d both been expecting it for a year or so, since Ed had started complaining about his yield and stopped coming by for coffee.
So Jimmy and his father just stood there for a moment in the front room, Jimmy still in his snowy boots, and neither of them could find anything to say. Jimmy wondered if the Wishnowskis’ leaving had something to do with how his dad had convinced Mr. Wishnowski not to grow that new kind of seed that the Growers Alliance was pushing everyone to adopt. His father sure looked upset enough. It got so awkward that Jimmy finally asked, “Where they goin’?”
His father shrugged and said, “Dunno. They got something for the land, at least. Not much, but something. Probably sit fallow till the company buys up enough of the land around here, I guess. The Wishnowskis’ll probably end up in Saskatoon or Regina or somewhere like that, I guess. Maybe Ed can get work in a shop somewhere, when he feels a little better . . .” His eyes stared out into the distance past Jimmy’s shoulder, out toward the Wishnowski property, and Jimmy could see something awful in his eyes.
“Come on, Dad. Let’s go for a drive,” Jimmy said. But drives were what cheered Jimmy up, not his old man, and his dad shook his head.
“Nah, I got work to do, and I bet you have some homework to catch up on. After dinner, I’ll help you with it, okay?”
Jimmy sighed, but he didn’t have the heart to complain. Instead, he slipped his boots off and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. Out the kitchen window, he saw the sun low in the sky.
The netphone beside his father’s console rang, and Jim’s father picked it up. “Hello?” After a pause, he said into the phone, “One second.” Then he turned to Jim and said, “Jimmy, I gotta take this call. It’s a Skype from St. Petersburg. Dinner in two hours, okay buddy?” Nothing was cooking, so that meant they’d be ordering Chinese from Chao’s Kitchen, in town.
“Okay,” Jim replied, and he gulped down some water from his water bottle. Then he went off to his room to read up on the latest hockey news and check Whatsapp and look up the “Métis Uprising” on Wikipedia.
* * *
Softness had seeped into the earth, following the melt, and when spring came, it struck suddenly. Sunlight summoned shoots from the soil, sung out to the trees that they must bud once more, and suddenly the world exploded with verdant life.
As spring arrived, gleaming machines eagerly took to the land, spraying fertilizer and irrigating gently, constantly. They swept along on careful treads, taking to long spidery legs when the hills got too steep, or the crops too thick. Not quite silent, their hum seemed somehow to melt into the natural sounds of the land soon after their arrival, harmonious with the songs of the birds and the bugs and the occasional growl of a truck or tractor.
There was no such machine on the Oleksyn farm, however, or at his friend Terry’s place. The Horchinskis and the Oleksyns couldn’t afford autonomous ’bots. So early one Saturday morning, Jimmy and Terry went all the way to the Linsley place. “Wait!” their motopeds yelped. “Cycling in the middle of the highway is unsafe! Please move to the shoulder!” Terry and Jimmy just laughed, and checked the live mapper apps on their phones, which were affixed to their handlebars, till they arrived.
They hid their bikes in a ditch and crept slowly toward the edge of the field. Moments later, a red point of light slid across the ground as Jimmy raised his pellet gun up. Beside him, Terry crouched with his own gun ready, watching as Jimmy slid the laser sight onto the ovoid, blue-chrome body of the spider-legged ’bot. After a few moments, he inhaled and he felt Terry go tense beside him. Then he squeezed the trigger and the gun let off a quick bang, followed by a slight hiss.
Instantly, the ’bot reacted like a turtle, pulling in all its arms and pressing itself into the ground. It kept its legs in, but Jimmy knew it was scanning its environment for movement, to see whether it was safe to move again. Jimmy and Terry crouched in the field, among the green shoots, waiting for what felt like almost forever, until suddenly, the ’bot hopped back up onto its legs and returned to its work.
The laser-light blinked purple on the ’bot’s shiny body again, and Jimmy quickly let off another shot. As the ’bot scurried off, Jimmy and Terry howled with laughter—at least, until they heard someone shouting in the distance.
“Let’s get the hell outta here!” Terry yelped, and he and Jimmy ran for their motopeds, which were parked by the fence around the Linsley property. For the first few klicks, they rode hard on the whining little engines attached to their bikes, and then they took over the work, pedaling like madmen but enjoying every moment. As they passed the Wishnowski place, Jimmy only glanced at the fields, fallow and thick with weeds, and the company sign, big as a billboard, that stood by the highway by the land, promising “revitalization” soon. Slapshots and frantic scrambles over pucks passed through his mind, and faded only slowly.
When they got closer to Terry’s family’s place, Terry said, “Let’s use these guns for what they’re really for.” It was a way of making a little cash, because the government was paying almost a dollar for every gopher that was captured, so that they could be moved up north, where the climate still suited them. The sedative pellets were free—you just ordered them on the internet—and each boy had a pocketful of them ready for the hunt.
“Come on, let’s take a jump in the creek first,” Jimmy said. “I’m sweaty and hot.”
Terry nodded. “Okay, but if my mom asks . . .”
“I know, I know.” Jimmy was used to lying to Terry’s mom about the dips they took in the creek. Terry didn’t know why she was so against swimming in it, but he’d long become used to pretending he followed the rule.
As they stripped down to their boxers, and picked their way down to the creek, Jimmy noticed Terry looking at him with this look on his face, this sad, empty look. Jimmy smiled at him and said, “Come on, Terry, jump in. Or are you the chickenshit your mom raised you to be?”
Terry shook his head for a moment, and it gave Jimmy the weirdest, sad feeling. Then, serious-faced, Terry lobbed himself into the water with an incredible splash. Jimmy followed him, laughing loudly, but that strange feeling he had picked up from Terry stayed with him. He didn’t know what it was, but he felt it clear as the sunlight on his skin. It felt like he’d lost something, or something was slipping away from him. Like this was his last real summer, like next summer wouldn’t be so free, so fun; that no summer would ever be like this one again.
Jimmy smiled, laughed, and splashed water onto Terry just how they always did, but the feeling never really left him as long as he was there on the Horchinski land. Not when they bagged five gophers; not when they had lunch at the house—potato-and-bacon perogies and cabbage rolls from the freezer; not when Jimmy’s dad let him stay the night and they spent hours playing MMO wargames and surfing the net for dirty pictures through a VPN Terry had found that wasn’t blocked by his folks’ nannyware. Not even as Jimmy pedaled home late the next morning, his eyes a little bleary and his gut full of a Horchinski-style breakfast, did he escape that feeling.
He wondered what it meant.
* * *
Jim brought his old man a coffee. It was from the ancient, stained drip percolator, which his father thought made coffee foolproof, as long as you spooned in the right amounts.
“Dad, are you sure you wanna drink this stuff?” he said, because he didn’t have to ask whether his father had been up all night, working. He could see it on his old man’s face, his red eyes, the discarded plates and the stained coffee cup on his desk beside his computer. “I saw a show on TV about coffee, and they say it’s really bad for your . . .”
“Jimmy, everything is bad for you,” his dad wheezed. He had another one of those spring colds he caught every year. “If it’s not naturally bad for you, they add something poisonous to it. You wanna know what’s really bad for you?” He raised one eyebrow, and with a wink he whispered, “TV. It’ll kill ya, brain first.”
As his dad chuckled at his own joke, Jimmy shrugged. If Jimmy had read about the dangers of coffee online, his father would’ve told him the Net was bad for you, too. Jimmy only wished: at least with that, he could have a comeback, given how much time his father spent online. But his father never watched TV. Or relaxed, from what Jimmy could see.
“Fine, Dad. Whatever.” He sat down on the couch near his dad’s workstation. “But what are you doing here?” he asked, trying hard to sound at least a little interested.
“I’m working on a new pollen strain that has some genes to override this goddamned chiral starch reversal hack. I figured out last night that I’d missed a new trick they’d built into it. A couple of interacting epigenetic markers that seem to work as interference traps. They’ve been thinking ahead, the scumbags. So the pollen samples I already worked up aren’t gonna do the trick.” Jimmy shook his head. His father had been working up the profile for that pollen all winter. “Not that it matters much—they’re gonna have a new formula next year, and another new one the year after that, even though they don’t need it anymore. Half of the bugs that used to feed on wheat are close to being endangered now anyway. It doesn’t even matter that one-shot seeds are probably going to be illegal soon: all they need to do is perfect their pollen payware lock. It’s insane: you can save seeds now, but last year’s pollen won’t work on it: they’ve coded the genetics so that every damned growing season you need a new batch of proprietary pollen, and everything’s backward-incompatible. Damn pollen! You know, wheat . . .”
“ . . . used to be self-pollinating,” Jimmy said in unison with his father, still dizzy from the torrent of incomprehensible science-babble. This was what had, in the last few years, replaced the stories he’d told on long drives: chiral starch hacks, epigenetic snares, payware locks, and the horrors of working with homebrew pollen. “You’ve told me a million times, Dad.”
His father nodded. “Bastards have us playing catch-up, is all.” He tapped a corner of the screen, and different genome charts showed up under his fingertip. The version names were about the only thing Jim could read: 2023: Version 3.0.71a. The image and the notes onscreen made no sense at all to Jimmy, but after all, he hadn’t really looked that closely at them.
The withered stalks of wheat standing dead in their rows, in the mini-greenhouse just outside the big office window, that was much clearer to him. He knew what that meant. Last spring’s pollen didn’t work right with this year’s wheat. It wasn’t just backward-incompatible, either: it had actually harmed the new wheat, created some kind of crippled mutant plant. Back to the drawing board, after months of work. Jimmy didn’t grasp much of the science, not like his dad did, but he understood how heartbreaking it must be for his father.
Jimmy wondered if there’d be anything to harvest that fall. “I’ve been thinking,” the boy said. “Maybe I can find a job, like, in town or something? Make some extra money, till harvest.”
“What about school? Will you be able to get your homework done if you’re working, Jimmy? I mean, universities these days . . .”
“Sure,” Jimmy said. It was obvious he really meant, Who cares?
His father rubbed his eyes and looked at him, and Jimmy could almost see the balance between his disappointment and his respect for his own son trying to do something responsible, bring in some cash and all. “I’m sorry, Jimmy. Jesus, I’m sorry,” he said, and sighed a little, and started to cough again. “It’d help,” he said. “But I think you should study instead.”
“We’ll see,” Jim said, embarrassed somehow by how small and worn-down his father seemed just then, sitting there in front of him.
* * *
A field of mutant alfalfa burst into view. Brilliant crayon-yellow, it waved shoulder-high, a great plateau towering up like a cliff-beached island in an ocean of wheat, all of it shadowed by vast cumulus clouds drifting through the blue above. Jimmy remembered when alfalfa had taken half the summer or longer to bloom like this, back when it never grew higher than a man’s waist.
His dad’s old Ford had been making a funny clanking sound for weeks now, and neither Jimmy nor his old man could figure out why, so he was taking it to Laliberte’s garage, in town. He was on a learner’s license, but he was only two months shy of sixteen, and anyway the truck had a little onboard AI installed, so nobody would care very much as long as he didn’t run over someone. The sun shone bright and hot, but he had the window rolled down and the radio on. No need for air conditioning when the breeze would do the job.
Jimmy spotted a figure up ahead, someone walking along the dusty shoulder of the road. As he got closer, he could see it was a girl, and he slowed down as he got closer to her.
Finally he slowed to a crawl and lowered the passenger-side window when he pulled up beside her. Pretty-looking girl, about his age. Black hair, tanned, with a flannel shirt tied around her waist. He was surprised not to know who she was. “Hey, miss. You going to Biggar?”
She turned and peered through the window into the cab of the truck. “Jimmy?” she asked.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“Sure you do,” she said with a smile, and then furrowed her brow and said, “I’m Bonnie . . . You don’t remember me?” She paused, as if to scold him with a grinning look.
“Bonnie! Woah! Sorry, it’s . . . It’s been, what, a couple years? Long time no see. You wanna lift?” he asked. “I know it’s not far, but . . .”
“Sure,” she said without letting him finish. She swung the door open and climbed in. She was wearing shorts that showed off her legs, and she smelled amazing, faintly like some kind of sweet fruit Jim didn’t know the name for. It was probably her shampoo, he thought to himself, as the passenger side seatbelt clicked loose and the truck asked her her name—for the black box, for insurance purposes—and reminded her to buckle up.
“Sure,” she said. “My name’s Bonnie Crowfoot.” She turned to Jimmy and said, “I know, it used to be Dumont. But it’s Crowfoot now.”
They chatted a little, Jimmy asking her where she’d moved and why she was back. She’d gone up to Spiritwood for a while, to stay with her uncle while her parents had gotten their divorce done up. That was when she’d taken her mom’s family name, Crowfoot. Now she was back in Biggar again, though she was finishing out the previous school year online and wouldn’t be registering till the fall. She’d gotten into town only a few days before. He told her about the local news she’d missed, gossip about combine accidents and pregnant classmates, things like that.
He dropped her off at Pederson’s IGA and carefully drove the truck over to Laliberte’s, a big, dingy garage just off the main road. As he went, he thought about his own disappointment at having to wait till the fall to see her at school, turning the feeling over in his mind like a little kid turns over a jawbreaker in his mouth.
When he arrived at Laliberte’s, Ed Wishnowski pulled his head up from under the hood of an official-looking company van that was parked inside the garage, and waved with an oil-stained hand. “Hey, Jimmy,” he said when Jimmy got out of the truck. Ed had been working there a few months now, and Jimmy had expected to see him. He always worked the weekends. “How’s it going?”
“Good,” Jimmy smiled, thinking of those brown legs that had been in the truck just before. He eyed the van, recognizing the logo on the side. It was a Germinatrix company van, he realized: he’d seen them before, trying to talk his dad into signing up with the Growers’ Alliance. “You?”
“Getting by,” Ed said, but his face told the truth, the hard nights, the drinking he’d started in on now that his wife had left him, the disappointment and the bitterness of a man who’d lost everything important and knew it all too well.
“Good,” Jimmy said, and shook Ed’s hand hard, avoiding his eyes. “My old man needs you to give her a look and tell me what’s wrong with her,” he said, gesturing to the truck.
“Sure,” Ed said. “How is your old man?”
“Oh, you know,” Jimmy said. “Fiddling with his wheat project.”
“That’s him, all right. Some people never change, huh?” As he said it, old Ed got this look in his eye. He looked over at the Germinatrix guy, who’d paused from his work to look over at them talking, as if he’d heard one of them say something interesting.
“But it’ll be a while. Fella here from Regina, his van needs looking at first,” he added, and looked over to the side. Jim followed his gaze from the company van to the man in a suit and some kind of hi-tech sunglasses, typing on thin air.
“Fella’s been working like that since he got here,” Ed whispered, and turned, meeting Jim’s eyes with a mischievous glance. “Nice gear. Online out here . . . Meanwhile, our wifi hasn’t even worked since last Thursday.” Ed was smiling too much, too amused at this man who, after all, worked for the people who he always said had stolen away his livelihood. “But I can give ’er a look once Art gets back from lunch,” Ed added, giving the guy in the suit another look, one less amused and more menacing, before he turned back to Jimmy.
It took a moment for Ed’s look to soften, or so it seemed, but then he was smiling again, and he said, “Why don’t you go get something to eat, and I’ll call you when I get ’er looked at?”
“Sure,” Jimmy said, wondering whether he’d run into Bonnie again. He was glad to have some extra money, just in case. Maybe he could buy her lunch. If he could work up the nerve.
No such luck, though, even though he walked past the IGA twice, pretending to have changed his mind about where to eat. He ended up alone at the local greasy spoon, and halfway through his burger, Ed called him on his iPwn.
“Jim?” Ed said. It sounded good to be called that, not Jimmy, which was a kid’s name.
“Uh huh?” Jim said.
“Bad news. It’s gonna take a few days, and I don’t recommend you, uh, driving it around till it’s fixed. Might really damage the engine block.”
“What is it?” Jimmy asked.
“Listen,” Ed said, his voice impatient. “I’ve already called your father and explained. I promised him I’d give you a ride home. You done eating?”
“When you finish, come on by and I’ll drive you out there. I get off work in a half an hour anyways.”
“Okay,” Jimmy said, looked out the window into the street, wondering whether a figure he could barely see down the street would turn out to be Bonnie.
But it didn’t.
Jimmy bit his lip, and looked her up online. Why sit and wait, when he could do something? That much, he knew, his dad was right about.
* * *
When Jimmy got to the garage, the Growers’ Alliance guy was on his feet and talking to Ed’s boss, so Jimmy got a better look at him. The guy was still in the same black suit, and looked totally out of place—not just in the garage, but in the town altogether. He still had his heads-up glasses on, angry eyes visible through the now half-shaded lenses.
“You’re telling me you can’t just print me a temp part?”
“My printer’s kinda old. I couldn’t really print up anything that’d get you all the way to Regina,” Laliberte said calmly. “It’s best we get a real part for you. I’ll order one from Saskatoon, and they’ll drone it out tonight. We’ll have it first thing tomorrow morning, early, and I’ll install it myself, so you can be on your way first thing. Or you could always rent a car, and have this drive down to you on its own when it’s ready to go? Or there’s a bus passes through town too, could get you to Regina sometime tonight, if you’re in a hurry.”
“I can work online,” the man said petulantly. “But where am I supposed to stay tonight? You don’t even have a hotel in this town, do you?” the man said, accusingly. The way he said “town” it was clear he meant “shithole.” Even Jim felt like punching him in the face, just for that, and he slagged off Biggar all the time. When he glanced over at Ed, who was shoving his stuff into a locker, he was surprised by the look of anger on the older man’s face. He’d never seen Ed so pissed off before.
But he settled for pointing out the city guy didn’t know what he was talking about. “Sure we do,” he told the Growers’ Alliance man. “There’s a motel out on the road, they’ve got great connectivity. Just a few minutes from here. Not even a long walk, mister.”
“I’ll drive you over,” Laliberte added quickly.
The guy in the suit sighed dramatically, and said, “All right, can we go now?”
“No problem,” Laliberte said. “Ed, can you stay a few minutes more? Just till I . . .”
“Yeah,” Ed grumbled, trying hide his disgust. “Go ahead.”
But when Laliberte and the company man were gone, Ed started laughing angrily, and grumbling curses as he washed the dark oil off his hands in a dingy, grubby sink off to the side of the garage. Jimmy watched him, but didn’t say a word for a few minutes. Ed wasn’t drunk, but he seemed off, a little. He wobbled and laughed as he slipped his worksuit off, revealing the old, dingy Aerosmith T-shirt and jeans he wore underneath.
When Laliberte pulled up, Ed said, “Let’s go,” and he and Jimmy got into the truck.
“Ed,” Laliberte called out to him.
“Fella forgot this in the backseat,” he said, holding up a small luggage bag. “Can you drop it off with him, since you’re headed out that way?”
“Sure . . . which room?” Ed asked, reaching out for the bag. He wasn’t smiling.
“Nine,” Laliberte said as he handed it over.
“Sure thing, boss,” Ed said, and Laliberte thumped the hood of Ed’s truck. Ed was smiling now, this manic, crazy smile that made Jim feel anxious.
“I’ll drop this off later,” Ed said, his voice low, handing the bag over to Jim to hold it, and he reversed out onto the street. Growling the engine at the first red light, like he couldn’t wait for it to be his turn to go.
Copyright © 2019. Winter Wheat by Gord Sellar