The skies had been gray for three weeks, but no rain had come, just a wind that swept through the valley, scattering dust and flattening the stalks of emotions. The earth was beginning to shrivel and crack. Cold filled the air. The animals had all gone. The only movement came from a house in the center of the valley.
It had settled into the ground long ago, built by immigrants fleeing a collapsing universe. Most had since left to conquer other worlds, but the house remained. A column of smoke came from the chimney. Behind its drawn curtains moved the shadows of a woman serving dinner. A middle-aged man with a cigarette stood on the porch. His brown eyes stared at the crops. They were the type of eyes that took in every detail, carefully analyzing, organizing, and remembering them. The type that had seen too many details. He wore jeans, a black t-shirt, a belt, and no shoes. Stubble crossed his face. The ring finger on his right hand was missing. His name was Mathew.
The door opened and a black-haired woman stepped out. She was wearing a dark red dress, with the sleeves rolled up. Like Mathew, she was barefoot. Her hair was tied back into a bun. Butter, spices, and steak sauce encrusted her hands. Her name was Edith.
Mathew nodded. “I'll be right in.” She closed the door. He took another drag on his cigarette, and stabbed it out against the porch railing.
Inside, Edith was stirring a pot of mashed potatoes. The kitchen was blue and cramped. A roast sat on the table. The paint on the walls was beginning to flake, peeling off in long slices that piled up on the floor. Appliances, boxes, and cookware fought for space along the edges, and the sink was overflowing with dishes. Two paintings hung on the wall: one of a winding country road, the other of a green spaceship hurtling through the galaxy.
A young boy and a girl, both blonde with blue eyes, toddled about. The boy, whose name was Jules, wandered under the table. Startled at finding himself in this new, dark place, he ran out screaming, tripping over his feet. Edith placed the pot on the table and picked him up. “It's just a scratch,” she said, “no need to cry about it.” She rocked him back and forth. He tried to squirm away, but couldn't, and began to whimper.
The girl, Abby, stood at the counter and reached for a bowl of peas. Even on tiptoes, she couldn't quite grab it. Edith slapped it away. Abby frowned, but made no noise. Taking the peas in one hand, Edith slid Jules onto a chair with the other. He stood and began to beat his hands against the table in a crude rhythm. “Peacekeepers!” he said. “I'm hungry! Want peasants!” He made a leap for the bowl, but Edith swatted him back.
“Sit down and you'll get your peas. Sit!” He did. She picked up Abby and dropped her in another chair. “You too.” She spooned peas and mashed potatoes onto their plates, then turned to the steak. Jules snatched a gob of mashed potatoes from Abby's plate and shoved them into his mouth. Abby scowled at him, then served herself some more.
A door slammed open. Mathew walked in. He crossed over to Edith and kissed her on the cheek. “Hey,” he said. Turning to the kids, “Have you all been good?”
“Yes,” said Jules.
“Good.” He sat and folded his hands on the table. “What have you been doing then?”
“Nofing,” said Jules. He looked down, suddenly interested in his fingernails. “Stuff.”
“And has it been good stuff?” asked Mathew.
Jules kept picking at his fingernails. “Yes.”
Mathew looked at Edith.“He threw a spider at his sister.” She said. “I've already talked to him about it.”
“No reason he can't be talked to twice. Jules, why would you do something like that?”
“She Stowe my toy.”
“And so you threw a spider at her.”
“She Stowe it.”
“Jules, in this house we don't throw spiders at people. Did you apologize?”
Jules was silent.
“He did,” said Edith. “Reluctantly.”
“Well, reluctantly is better than nothing.” He patted Abby's head. “And how was your day?”
She picked at her food without responding.
Mathew sighed. “You can't stay silent forever.”
Abby stared at the floor. Edith placed a platter of steak on the table and gave one slice each to Abby and Jules. Mathew took three. He sliced into one and shoved the chunk of meat into his mouth. They ate in silence, until Edith said, “The man from the company came around again.”
Mathew stopped eating. “Did he.”
Edith nodded. “While you were out cutting the crops.”
“Dammit, I thought I made it clear that we weren't interested,” Mathew said.
“He thinks you can be persuaded with enough money.”
“Yeah?” Mathew skewered a bit of steak and brought it to his mouth. “What's he offering now, ten thousand?”
He stopped chewing. “What?”
“He said he would give us sixty thousand for the farm and land.”
“Damn.” Mathew rubbed his temples. “This shi- this place isn't worth five thousand. What the hell is he thinking?”
Edith picked at her food. She had barely touched it. “I don't know.”
“Damn,” Mathew stood up. “I need to go think about this.”
“You're not going to take the deal, are you?” she asked.
“No. No, I just need to think about this.” He walked out. The door banged behind him.
“Damn!” said Jules.
“Eat your food,” said Edith.
He sat on the porch for an hour, smoking and drinking glasses of rumination and staring at the emotion crops his family had raised for seven generations. There used to be hundreds of other farms here. When he was a boy, there had been a community. You could go up to the other side of the valley and find people waiting with open arms, willing to give any help and any advice. Back then there was community. But one by one they left for more profitable worlds. His family refused to leave. This was their home, and you don't leave your home for money. The others left, but his family stayed, until they were alone on an empty planet. Sometimes, relatives would for a visit, or he would take the family to another planet for vacation, but not often. He enjoyed the solitude. But now the crops had been dying all year, and the man from the Distell Corporation kept coming around for “chats”, with silver-tongued offers and dealings. Sixty thousand. The farm wasn't worth sixty thousand. The whole thing didn't make a bit of sense.
There was a flash of lightning on the horizon. He took a last swig of drink, tossed the can into the garbage, crushed the cigarette, and went inside.
During hard times, they could have water imported. For 500 an hour, a wormhole could be opened. One side would open on a planet where heavy rain was falling, and the other above the drought-ridden crops. Mathew had finally given in and called for the process. He was standing with the man overseeing it, watching rain falling from the gaping hole in the sky. The machinery that controlled it, almost the size of a house, rumbled next to them. The overseer was jotting notes on a clipboard. He looked ten years too young to be doing this job, chubby with a round face, thin blond hair, and large blue eyes that skittered about. His grey overalls were splattered with grease and dirt. Interface tattoos ran across his left arm, displaying communications feed, business information, and technological data. “Nice planet,” he said.
Mathew nodded. “It's been good for us”
The overseer motioned out to the crops. “You guys raise stuff other than emotions here or what?”
“Just emotions,” said Mathew.
He nodded. “Nice, nice. My cousin tried to ranch fears for a little bit. Didn't work out. They would keep getting out of their pens and scaring the kids.”
“They're nasty things. Don't want any part of them.”
“I know what you mean. I went over once, and couldn't get any sleep. They stayed up all night screaming and trying to get into my room.” He shivered. “They kept talking about my family and shit. God, it was awful. I don't know why anyone would want to try to raise those.”
Mathew took a pouch of tobacco and some papers from his pocket. He began to roll up two cigarettes, his fingers dancing around the paper like a sewing machine. “Rich folks like 'em. They can bring a good sum of money, if you're willing to put up with raising them. Most people aren't.”
He put the cigarette in his mouth, lit it, and offered the tobacco to the overseer, who took it and began rolling a sloppy cigarette. They smoked in silence. After a few minutes, Mathew gestured to the rain. “How long you been doing this?”
“Since I was a kid. It's my father's business.”
“You planning to keep running it after he passes?”
“Yeah, I guess. I'm not sure what else I would do.”
Mathew nodded. “Good man.” He finished his cigarette. “It's getting late. Edith's probably cooking up dinner. Want some?”
“That would be nice. I'll need to keep an eye on the rain though.”
“I'll bring it out to you. You like chicken?”
“Let's get you fixed up then.”
After the man had eaten, finished bringing rain, and left, Mathew walked through the fields. The ground was still damp, with a thin layer of dew dripping from the emotion's leaves. The water was already beginning to dry up. He moved through the rows of bulbous joys. A year ago, they had been the pick of the crop. They were plump and juicy, glowing oranges and reds and greens, with thick vines that roped around each other like lovers. Back then, they had sold to all parts of the galaxy. Now they were withered. They no longer glowed, they pulsed weakly. The vines had shriveled to become bits of twine. None was larger than his head. He took a knife and sliced into one, and what came out was not the normal green syrup but a foul smelling brown juice. Only one in ten were salable.
He moved to the contemplatives. They were in better shape than the joys. The stalks which once grew almost fifteen feet tall were now barely higher than him, and the meaty fruit now hung limply, but they were at least salable. And yet, every day, more of them died. He walked through the ruined stalks, gathering the dead ones, which crumbled in his hands.
A rustling of leaves made him turn. Peeking out from behind a clump of plants was Abby. She backed away from him when he caught her eye. Mathew took a step forward. “What are you doing all the way out here?” he said.
She darted away. He lunged after her but she was too fast, slipping under his arm and sprinting towards the angers, feet slapping against the soil as she scrambled forward. Mathew wheeled around. She was already out of sight. “Abby!” he called. “Abby, come back!” He didn't expect a reply, and none came. With a sigh, he began to run after her.
The stalks of contemplatives gave way to trees of anger. He scanned the area, finding nothing. There wasn't much point of this. When she decided to hide there was no way to find her. She would decide to come back in a few hours. Until then there wouldn't be sight or sound of her. Still, he had to try. “Abby, you better come back right now!” he yelled. “This isn't fucking funny!” Silence. “Goddammit.” He kicked at the dirt. Edith was going to be worried sick. When the girl came back, he would have to have a long talk about personal responsibility. Not that she would listen this time.
He walked back to the contemplatives. Not good to stay in anger long. Shouldn't have gone in the first place. Best to wait for her in a place like this. He sat and waited.
She came back an hour and a half later. Half an hour and a long talk later, they returned to the house, where Edith and Jules were sitting on the porch. Jules was amusing himself trying to see how many rocks he could straight up before Edith told him to stop. She was sitting on the steps, eyes locked on the fields. When Mathew emerged, holding Abby in her arms, she rushed towards them.
“Is she alright?” Her gaze flicked between Mathew and Abby.
“She's fine.” He handed Abby to her. Abby pressed against her. “She followed me out, I think. Hid out in the worries. I already talked to her.”
Edith walked back to the house. “What were you thinking? What if something had happened to you?”
Abby ignored her.
He woke up like any other day, showered, shaved, dressed, and ate. Edith was already downstairs, reading a book. She ignored him. The sky was dark, even though it was 10 in the morning. A cold breeze lingered in the air. The rain hadn't helped. If anything, the plants had gotten worse in the past two weeks.
The mail was waiting on the table. There was no physical delivery- every day, the mail would simply appear on the porch, courtesy of the Intergalactic Postal Service. He flicked through it. Bill. Ad. Get well card from Aunt Jessie (Late. Jules had made a full recovery six months ago). Free sample of mind soap. And a red, unmarked envelope.
He opened it. A folded piece of paper fell out. Neat black handwriting filled it.
Dear Mr. Gable,
I realize by now that you must be tired of my constant attempts to contact you, but I feel this is important. Two weeks, four days ago, your wife and I discussed the possibility of you selling your property for the sum of 60,000. That offer still stands, and though you may not think you're interested, as gentlemen I feel it would be best if we could meet in person to discuss the matter. If you agree, please write down a time on the backside of this paper and return it to me. The envelope already has my address coded into it. If you do not agree, let me be the first to wish you the best of luck in your endeavors and hope you'll be able to bring your farm back to its former success.
Patrick L. Estallon
He read the letter again. Then a third time. I should burn it, he thought. I should forget it ever arrived. I should write back telling him every way he can go fuck himself.
But he didn't. Instead he wrote a time, and sent it back.
A ship arrived four days later. He hugged his children, kissed Edith. “Don't worry,” he said. “I just want to look him in the eye when I tell him to go to hell.”
The inside of the ship was all comfy red leather and sleek black carpeting. A mournful electronic tune hummed. There was mini-bar (stocked with everything from wine to fermented stars), a mini-fridge (filled with twenty-four kinds of roast pork, among other things), a mini-cards table. Patrick L Estallon sat at this, playing a hand of Kilter against, as best Mathew could see, nobody, and drinking a black liquid from the bottle.
Patrick was the type of man who, in those who didn't know him very well, sparked an instant desire to befriend. He was tall, with slick white hair parted in the middle. His eyes, a grey-ish blue, invited any and all people towards him. When he smiled (which was often), his face lit up and you could barely stop yourself from spilling out all your problems to him. He was the type of person who owned a suit for every day of the year, more for holidays, and kept track of every hair on his head or stray speck of dust on his body, but never discriminated against those who didn't hold themselves to the same physical standards. No matter what type of person you were, he would be there if you needed someone to talk to. It was the most cunning disguise Mathew had ever seen.
He looked up when Mathew walked in and grinned. “Mr. Gable! Please, have a seat. Would you like a drink?”
Mathew sat across from him. “No thanks.”
Patrick sighed. “If you insist.” He punched a button to his side and said, “Take us up.” The ship jolted and began to rise. Patrick dealt out ten cards to himself. As he looked through them, he said, “So, have you come here just to refuse my offer, or are you willing to make a deal?”
“I came here to tell you how you won't get one square inch of my farm.” Mathew shuffled in his seat.
“That's really too bad,” said Patrick. He laid out three cards in front of him, two face-up, one face-down. “I had a crushing argument planned out.”
“Yes it is.” Mathew leaned forward.
Patrick placed a fourth card face-down in front of the three. “You're not even a little enticed by the sixty thousand?”
Mathew scratched the back of his neck. “No.”
“That's a shame. Sixty thousand is a lot of money. Do you know what kind of farm you could buy with sixty thousand?”
Mathew glanced out the window. “I have an inkling.”
Patrick laid down a fifth card, face-down. “The nicest farms on Darrius cost forty-five thousand. Can you imagine owning a farm on Darrius? And with the fifteen thousand left over, you'll be set.” He held out the deck. “You know how to play?”
“I don't gamble.”
“We're not gambling. Just playing a friendly game.”
Mathew hesitated before taking the deck. He shuffled, and drew out ten cards. Selecting five, he laid three face-down and two-face up. He passed the deck back. “If you have a point, make it.”
“Ah. Well.” Patrick flipped over one of the face-down cards. It matched suit with the three showing. “If you'll permit me a bit more round-about discussion, my point is this: do you know why our ancestors fled to this universe?”
“Everyone knows,” said Mathew. He turned over one his cards. Nothing so far but a pair.
“Just making sure. Now, are you happy that they fled here? Do you think they should have stayed in a collapsing universe because they had history there?” He turned over another card. Again, it matched.
Mathew shifted in his seat and turned over the fourth card. Nothing.
“No,” continued Patrick, “because that's idiotic. Why would you hang on to something when it's only harming you? Your planet is dying. Your farm is failing. You can't pay the bills on dead memories.” He turned over the final card. A straight. “And you sure as hell can't take care of your family. Is that what you want? Your son and daughter growing up in poverty, stranded on an empty planet because their father was too stubborn to let go of his sentiments?” He leaned back. “Think about it.”
Mathew sat, knuckles clamped together, staring at the floor. The ship continued its slow flight around the planet. Through the view port were the drying up oceans, the torched forests, the animal graveyards heaping with corpses, the melting poles, the abandoned cities. He remembered, when he was a child, going down to the sea and playing in the water. He remembered chasing the birds through the forests. He remembered gathering in the towns for the holiday festivals. This was not the planet he remembered.
“Okay,” he said. “You win.”
They landed and he told Edith and the children. Edith wasn't as angry as he expected, and Jules didn't even realize what was happening, but Abby through a fit, crying and stomping all through the house, screaming “I don't want to go!” They managed to calm her down by reading her favorite passage from The Fish That Wanted To Walk. The next month went on as normal. Mathew woke up and tended the crops, though not with the zeal he had before. Edith watched the children and wrote the family the news. One day, they got a letter telling them to be moved out in three weeks, along with instructions for getting the sixty-thousand. They stayed at Edith's sisters home in the Randon system while Mathew searched for a new house.
He found a 1000 acre farm on Darrius for thirty-five thousand. Five more went to setting it up to working condition, and the rest into savings. The farm flourished more than ever. Jules and Abby started school, with him becoming the most popular kid in the grade and Abby slowly opening up. Three years later, she was a completely different person. Edith got a job at the local bookstore.
And every night, Mathew would sit outside and look at the stars.