I’m still in the field when Andy’s plane comes roaring overhead. I’ve almost finished the last application of insecticide; two more rows to go. I don’t hurry back. The job needs finishing.
Max is lying on the porch when I pull up on the tractor. Tail wagging, he sits up and glances first toward me, then at the heli-jet, its blades making a lazy turn in the breeze. I pat my thigh, and he ambles stiff-legged down the steps.
My rifle is slung casually across my shoulder. It’s not loaded, but Andy doesn’t need to know that. I never thought I’d have to carry a rifle with me out in the fields, that marksmanship would be a necessary skill in agriculture. But people come up our road sometimes, thinking “farm” equals “food.” The sheriff is stretched pretty thin, and he’s short-handed as far as deputies go. If we have a real emergency, he says he can’t guarantee getting someone out here in time.
I haven’t had to figure out whether I could actually pull the trigger. Aiming at a black silhouette on a piece of paper is one thing. Some things about myself I’d rather not find out.
I haven’t seen Andy in maybe a year. The last call was four or five months ago, audio only, a storm in the Gulf messing with the reception. Didn’t keep us from arguing, of course. Shouting down the line at each other. Ma says we were like that even when we were kids, but she doesn’t have to tell me. I remember.
“Hey, sis,” he says now, not raising his sunglasses.
“Hey, golden boy.” I lean the rifle by the door. There’s a basket of cloths for cleaning our shoes before we go inside. I grab one and sit down in the glider to wipe off my boots. I do my best to focus on getting the dust out of the cracks.
“So did you tell Ma or Dad that you were coming to visit?” I ask.
“Actually, I came to talk to you.”
I put down the cloth and look up. He leans against the porch railing, arms crossed. His hair is short, neat; it looks dark now because he’s paler. The uniform’s a little snug across his chest, but he probably wears it like that on purpose. Good for the cameras. He smiles a little; it makes him look smug.
“You could have just called.”
He shakes his head. “They wanted me to deliver this personally.” He takes a cylinder from the zippered chest pocket of his flight suit and holds it out to me.
I stare at it. “What is it?”
“They want you in.”
“They want you to be part of Exodus.”
“The Exodus team. Your team.”
I stand up and take off my sunglasses. Andy leaves his on. He’s a few inches taller than I am, but in my boots I almost make up the difference. He uncrosses his arms and braces himself against the porch railing, as if maybe I’ll throw a punch or something. I’m tempted to flick the sunglasses off his face. Instead, I cross my arms.
“Really. You need a farmer.”
He holds his hands out. “People gotta eat.”
“If they want to eat, maybe they should think about staying on this planet and working on the mess we’ve got here.”
“Don’t ‘sis’ me. You gave up on…”
The sentence dangles between us, unfinished. Less than five minutes, and we’re back at the same old argument.
“Just go.” I pick up the cylinder and press it into his hand. He tries not to take it, so I tuck it back into his pocket and pull up the zipper. “Tell them to save the gas next time.”
“You’re not even going to read the offer?”
“I don’t need to.”
He sighs. “Beck, when are you going to let this go?”
I clench my fists, fingernails digging into my palm so hard that the sting clears my vision. Always, it’s always like this. I don’t give in to the urge to scream, but instead I put my hands to his chest and shove. He stumbles down the last step but doesn’t fall on his ass. Too bad.
“I’m letting it go right now.” I point over his head, toward the thing he flew here in. Red dirt has worked into the creases of my knuckles; I can’t ever seem to get it all out, no matter how much I scrub. “Go.”
He lifts his sunglasses. “Beck—”
I open the screen door and wait for Max to go in first. The door snaps shut behind me. I don’t come back outside until I’ve poured myself a glass of water and heard the heli-jet roar off.
Andy’s left the message cylinder on the arm of the glider. I pick it up and fling it across the yard. It lands underneath the oak. I hold out for all of thirty seconds before I retrieve it.
I’m sitting in the living room halfway through the message when Dad comes in. He stands in the middle of the projection, the speaker’s face spread out across his back.
“Andy’s boss, yeah.” I hit pause. “Do you mind? I’m trying to read my mail.”
He flops down on the sofa next to me. I hit play. Dad hasn’t bothered to wipe off his boots, a fact I notice when he props them up on the coffee table. That’ll make Ma happy.
“I thought you were downtown,” I say.
“Got done early. What are we looking at?”
“Well, we are looking at my personal correspondence; that’s what we’re looking at.”
He leans forward and starts unlacing his boots. “If it’s that personal, why are you reading it in the middle of my living room?”
“Like I said, I thought you were downtown.”
I wave my hand, and the man in the video resumes speaking. He’s grim-looking, a little jowly, his iron-gray hair contrasting with dark brown skin. He looks like a professor. “Miss Sinclair, after you’ve taken the time to look through the enclosed documents, I hope you’ll give my request serious consideration. The mission will be long and dangerous, with a questionable chance of success. But it’s important to ensure that it does succeed. We believe that nothing less than the long-term viability of the species is at stake. I realize this may sound like hyperbole at the moment, but once you’ve examined the data, I think you’ll come to agree.”
Dad tugs off one of his boots. Dust clouds up from the laces. “What’s he talking about?”
“They want me to join Exodus.”
Dad pauses a moment, then sets the boot down on the floor and starts in on the second one. “Is that so.”
The man leans forward and stares more intently at the camera. “I don’t know how much the folks at DOA have told you, but please pay careful attention to the first enclosure. It’s based on their own projections, and it’s not a typo when it says ‘ten-year outlook.’ We think your skills would be put to better use helping us establish a foothold somewhere else.” He leans back in his chair, just outside the circle of light from his desk lamp. The shadows under his eyebrows age him ten years. “I’ll follow up in a few days, but feel free to contact me first. I look forward to speaking with you.”
His face fades out, replaced by his calling card—Jeremy Wright, Executive Director, Exodus Project, along with his number and email address. I wave the card aside, and the first enclosure pops up. It’s a U.S. map, and there’s a green arrow in the center, pointing to the right. I jab at the arrow, and the map goes into motion. It looks at first as if parts of the map are shrinking, but eventually I realize that it’s rising water, the Gulf and the Atlantic rapidly swelling over Florida until what’s left of the state vanishes, along with Delaware and Maryland’s eastern shore. Baja shrinks to a sliver. Houston turns blue.
Meanwhile, the thin ribbon of the Mississippi River valley narrows until it turns brown from Memphis down to where New Orleans used to be. In the last few seconds of the time-lapse, the river dries up all the way to Moline. Way north of St. Louis.
Dad peers at the projection, frowning. I want to tell him to put on his glasses, but he probably doesn’t know where they are. “Does that say ten years?” he asks.
As much as I try to keep my voice level, it cracks anyway. I lean forward and zoom in on the confluence, the notch just above St. Louis where the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi. It’s dried up too.
Dad rubs his chin. It’s a tell—what he does when he’s really worried but doesn’t want to give it away. I’ve been able to read the signs since high school, around the time when Andy said he didn’t want to be a farmer and I—well, no one knew what to make of me and my stunning lack of decisiveness. Dad rubbed his chin a lot in the summer of Andy’s junior year.
“Looks like we’ve got a problem,” he says.
“Yeah.” I close the attachment. “You could say that.”
The rest of the attachments paint a similar picture. Coastlines around the world shift and shrink. Deserts expand. The sea slides over Vietnam. The world becomes bluer and browner at the same time. Numbers crawl across the display, showing arable land lost, in acres as well as percentages; how many millions of people will cross over the line into food insecurity; how many will die from flooding and diseases.
“It’s like ’75 all over again,” Dad says. “Only worse.”
We flip through the rest of the information, but the numbers and charts and diagrams blur together. I wave my hand, and it all flies off the display.
In the kitchen, I fill a water glass and stare out the window. From here I can see almost everything our family has built: the orchard, the corn, the river plain beyond. Wavy lines of heat dance over the soybeans. It all looks so small. It could vanish so quickly.
Things work out, Dad says, but not always in the way you expect. Or want, is Ma’s usual response. Now I wonder what it is she sees when she stands here in the morning and looks out over the property, which has been in the family ever since one of our relatives decided to get out of the automotive business and go into farming. That was a hundred and fifty years ago. Maybe he should have stuck with cars.
I’ve never understood the expression “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” As if footwear falls from the sky. Sure, rain does, though never often enough; snow does too, not that I’ve ever seen it. Lightning would make more sense, waiting for it to strike the same place twice.
After the letter from Jeremy Wright, though, it’s like one shoe after another.
First the sheriff drops by to tell us about Memphis: it’s burning to the ground. Someone shot the mayor, bombed the capitol, and blew up the fuel depot on the river. Anyone who survived is fleeing north, heading in our direction. A lot of desperate, hungry mouths to feed, and it won’t be hard for whoever was responsible to blend into the crowd. They don’t know who’s responsible, of course. No one’s made a claim: not the end-timers, not the anti-upload fundamentalists. Memphis wasn’t an upload hub in any case—not that logic ever meant much to those people.
Then there’s Ma, the third shoe. That one drops a day later, when I come in for lunch. I’ve spent the morning laying drip tape in the northwest plot. We don’t trust the auto-pickers to lay the tape, not since one of them got tangled in the line and ended up costing us a whole spool of tape, three days’ delay, and a repair bill for the picker. Since then, we’ve laid the tape ourselves, with the tractor or by hand. I can let the auto-pickers finish the Bt treatment on the tomatoes in the afternoon, but they can’t tell the difference between dandelions and chives, so after laying the tape I spent the rest of the morning pulling weeds. By the time I get back to the house, I’m tired, sore, and hungry.
Dad’s already sitting at the kitchen table. Ma sets a loaf of homemade bread and the cutting board on the table, next to a plate of sliced tomatoes and lettuce and a bowl of chicken salad. A jar of pickled carrots and cucumber sits open, and there are some plums from the orchard. She hands Dad a knife, and he starts slicing the loaf.
“Sit down, Beck,” Ma says. “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah. Where’s Molly?” She’s the one hired person we can afford, and that’s only because we pay her in room and board.
“Went to Grainger to see if they had parts for the auto-picker,” Ma says. Her voice is harshly bright, like staring at the sun for too long. I pull out my chair. Ma sits down and begins assembling a plate for me: bread, chicken salad, lettuce, with tomatoes arranged just so on top.
“I thought you should know,” she says, talking to my plate as she spoons pickles onto it, “I went to the doctor a couple weeks ago for some tests.”
Dad stops slicing. “Antonia, now?”
“Yes, Nathan. Now.”
“I changed my mind.” Turning to me, she says, “It turns out I have cancer. It’s fairly advanced, and they want to begin treatment right away, but they’ve told me that the prognosis is not good. So…”
She holds out the plate. The air feels as if a concussion has gone off just before I walked into the room. It’s muffled and still, as if I’ve suddenly gone deaf. I stare at the plate for a moment, but then her hand starts trembling, and I take the plate before she drops it.
“What kind of—”
“Pancreatic,” she says, with an air of business. She slides the pickles toward Dad and then arranges a plate for herself. “Take some pickles, dear.”
“What’s the treatment?” I ask.
“Chemotherapy, radiation, the usual.” Her tone makes it sound as if she’s talking about what to make for dinner tomorrow. “Apparently surgery isn’t what they’d recommend right now; they want to shrink the tumor as much as possible and then see if surgery’s an option later.”
Dad’s jaw silently grinds. He snatches his napkin from his lap and shoves back from the table. “God damn it, Antonia.”
His footsteps thud across the kitchen and into the foyer, followed by the slap of the screen door slamming shut.
“He didn’t want you to tell me?” I ask, though it’s not really a question.
“Not after you got that letter.” Ma puts the lid back on the pickles. “But you deserve to know. So you can be prepared.”
Prepared for what? is the question I don’t have to ask. She gets up and puts the jar back in the refrigerator. After she shuts the door, she stands there looking lost. I’m about to get up when she sits again and picks up her sandwich. She takes a bite, then lets it slip out of her hand. The top slice of bread slides off when it lands. My own stomach has gone sour, from the heat and the news and—everything. Her chewing slows, and when she swallows, it looks as if it hurts. Maybe it does. Every thing she does from now on out will seem odd, I know. I’ll keep thinking, Maybe it’s the cancer.
Ma touches her napkin to her lips and then lays it over her sandwich. “God, this chicken salad is awful, isn’t it?”
She takes my plate before I’ve even had a bite. “That chicken was old and stringy. Don’t eat it. I’ll make something else.”
I grab the plate. “It’s fine, Ma. We can’t afford to waste it.”
She relents. “I suppose not.”
I haven’t taken a bite of my sandwich yet, but I pick it up just to occupy my hands. “Ma, have you thought about…”
Standing again, she unties her apron and sets it over the back of her chair. “Would you mind clearing for me? I’m going to go upstairs and lie down.”
Maybe it’s the cancer. “Sure.”
“Thank you, dear.” Ma pats my shoulder as she passes by. I sit a moment and listen to her steps, slower and softer than Dad’s, as she mounts the stairs.
Have you thought about uploading? was the question I wanted to ask her. I’ll have to bring it up later, if I can muster the gumption.
The fourth shoe drops that evening, when I get back from treating the tomatoes. I have no idea which field Dad spent the afternoon in, but he’s sweaty and dusty when he calls me into the office. He’s got two files open: one is their bank account, where the numbers never seem to be big enough. The other looks like a contract.
Even though it’s almost evening, it’s still bright in the room. Through the sheer curtains, light from sunset filters across the desktop, catching bits of dust drifting through the air and making it hard to read the small print. I reach out and enlarge the image. Although it’s still cooler here than it is outside, this room gets too hot to work in late in the afternoon. I’m starting to sweat again as I lean forward.
Dad nudges me. “Would you mind not dripping all over me, Beck?”
“Sorry.” I gesture toward the feeble projection. “This is why Ma wants us to”—I catch myself before I say upload —“upgrade.”
“Too expensive. Did you get the tomatoes done?”
“Good. Might rain tomorrow night.”
“As if. What is this, anyway?”
“It’s a lump sum payment for the next thirty years of your brother’s service, compounded at an annual rate of five percent.” Dad flips to the last page. “It pays out in six months, when his mission leaves.”
Despite the heat, I shiver. “It’s a death benefit.”
“In a way. It’s also in consideration of the fact that he won’t need money where he’s going. And it’s a one-way trip.”
“So why are you sharing this with me now?”
He closes the two files and brings up another. “To put this in context.”
This type of form I recognize. It’s a mortgage, and it’s on the farm. The farm we’ve owned outright for over a hundred years, that I legally own half of now.
“This is why you’ve been going down to the bank so often, isn’t it? You didn’t want me to know about this.”
He shakes his head. I’m standing just behind him, so he doesn’t have to look me in the eye. “No. I just wanted to make sure this could be arranged before I brought it to you. So you wouldn’t have to worry about the future.”
Worrying about the future is all I ever do, so it takes an effort not to laugh. Maybe Dad takes my silence for resistance, because he says, “Your mother’s treatment is likely to be very long and expensive. We can’t afford to wait six months to start it either. We need this.”
“You need me to sign this.”
He shifts. He’s not used to asking for things, certainly not from his twenty-six-year-old second-born. I drag the document to the desktop and hold out my hand. Dad places a stylus in my palm, and I sign on the line.
“One of these days,” I say, not looking up, “it would be nice if you two actually started treating me like an adult.”
“When you have kids of your own, you’ll realize it’s not always easy.”
I do laugh then. I have no romantic prospects, and my work takes up all my time. The only times I meet anyone are when people come to pick up CSA shares or when we sell our produce at the monthly market. And most of our customers there, who can afford what we charge them—well, they’re out of my league.
Ma calls us to dinner. She’s made linguini with marinara from some of last year’s sungolds, the few that made it. This year’s crop looks more promising. Salad, homemade rolls. Almost everything grown by us, all fresh. As if we have something worth celebrating.
“When do you start treatment, Ma?” I ask midway through dinner.
Ma pauses, sets down her fork. I’m torn between competing urges to scream at her or cry, neither of which seems fair. Being cold doesn’t either, but it’s keeping me together.
“This weekend,” she says. “I’ll be tired after that, but it’s nothing you need to worry about. Although you may have to suffer through your father’s or Molly’s cooking.”
As if that’s her biggest worry. “Have you thought about uploading?”
“Beck,” Dad starts, but Ma cuts him off.
“It’s a reasonable question, Nathan.” She forces a smile in my direction. “But I’m not quite dead yet, Beck.”
“What if it comes to that, though?”
I expect another admonishment from Dad, but he remains silent. He’s put down his fork too. I wonder if he knows the answer to this question already.
“I’m not sure how I feel about it, to be honest.”
I’ve never known anyone who’s uploaded. People my age usually have their whole lives in front of them, and it’s only been in the last ten years or so that it’s really taken off. I’ve heard about rooms that are nothing but a bunch of holographic emitters linked up to a central hub. You can sit in those rooms and visit again with the people who’ve uploaded. I wonder what that’s like. Is it just like this, sitting across the table from two people who I’d swear are not the people I thought they were?
Ma picks up her fork again. “One thing I do know is that I’m not going to make up my mind tonight, or any time soon, I hope.”
“Would you at least consider it?”
Ma levels a piercing gaze at me. “For whose benefit? Mine? Or yours?”
I’ve got no answer, and I think she prefers it that way. Dinner proceeds mostly in silence after that. I manage to choke down half of my pasta before I give up. To stave off a disappointed look from Ma, I put the leftovers in the fridge before going outside.
I stand on the front porch for a while and watch the lightning in the distance. The promising smell of rain has vanished, and the electrical show is just heat lightning miles away. Threats without payoff. Even if it did rain now, it would be someone else’s good luck.
For my benefit, Ma. Mine. Is that such an awful thing?
When people ask me what Harvest is about, I tell them it’s like Places in the Heart meets The Road, but with more hope. The longer I’ve worked on it, though, the harder it has been to maintain that sense of hope.
Rebecca Sinclair is a twenty-six-year-old farmer in the mid-22nd century, when climate change has made everything about agriculture a challenge. Stubborn and determined, she is helping her aging parents, Nathan and Antonia, do the impossible and make the family’s farm prosperous.
That’s before her estranged brother Andy, an astronaut, visits with chilling news: their home, at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, will dry up in ten years. He wants her to join him on Earth’s first colony mission to another planet, but she wants no part of abandoning the land.
Another blow, however, sends Rebecca reeling: her mother has terminal cancer. Antonia and Nathan plan to take out another mortgage to pay for a transfer to the Upload, a virtual existence where consciousness never dies. As for Rebecca, she’ll have to start all over again.
When Andy’s boss, Jeremy, invites Rebecca to Houston to see what they’re doing, she agrees, only to find out that Andy’s second-in-command is Rob Gutierrez, the boy she dated in high school—and who left her when she went to college. As Rebecca starts to wonder if she could actually go, disaster strikes: St. Louis is hit by the civil unrest that’s been swelling in the smaller Midwestern cities as food shortages and a doomsday mindset take hold. Now Rebecca can think of nothing but getting back to her parents and keeping them—and the farm—safe.
While writing this novel, I volunteered at an organic farm to get a slight taste of how difficult farming is. (In a word: very.) I also spoke with botanists, horticulturists, and climate scientists about climate change. One in particular, a scientist at an agribusiness giant, painted a dark picture. “We’re already too late,” he said. “Climate change is irreversible.” That was in 2013, and reports have since come to light that our fate was sealed much earlier than that.
As I’ve worked on revising the manuscript, I’ve struggled to retain a sense of optimism. Although the novel does have a hopeful conclusion—in the end, Rebecca seeks a better life with her brother and reconciles with Rob—the future for the Earth remains bleak, both on the page and in real life. Author Charlie Jane Anders says that science-fiction writers should be writing about climate change now more than ever; science fiction has always helped us to imagine what could be coming, and the warnings of catastrophic changes are now impossible to ignore. We need to imagine this new world in order to survive it, she argues—and for me, in the middle of all the horror, there has to be hope.
Jeffrey Ricker lives in St. Louis, Missouri. His work has been published most recently by the Saturday Evening Post, Aesthetica, and Phoebe Journal. He holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019