Johnny Appleseed Day
Jared shifted his small pack from one shoulder to another as the group of men approached.
He dressed in plain clothes, never carried anything of value — always hoping to blend into the scenery. It was a practice he’d begun back in high school, to avoid attracting attention from hallway bullies and teasers.
Wouldn’t it be nice, he’d always told himself, to be an adult, and not have to worry about such things any longer. Well, he was 29 now, and the end of the world was a hell of a lot worse than high school.
“Show me whatcha got there, short stuff.” The man who stepped forward was actually the shortest among his group, and not much taller than Jared. No matter: he had thick legs and arms, a thick neck, tattoo markings on his face and bald head, and a confident swagger that made him the worst kind of leader. The three men behind him didn’t smile and nod and say Yeah, yeah, short stuff, but they might as well have. They stood behind their boss — bodyguards he didn’t really need.
In books and TV shows, the poor picked-on kid would sometimes point out the odds, how 4 against 1 wasn’t fair. The phrase “pick on somebody your own size” might sway the muscular foe from making his attack. Or, the kid might suddenly swell with righteous rage, summon forth some hidden boxing or kung-fu skill, turn a common stick or book or bottle into a sky-flying weapon, and suddenly the bully’s on the ground, and his reinforcements scatter in fear. Hey, look out — that kid’s crazy, don’t mess with him.
Yeah, right. Any appeal to reason got him stuffed into a locker. Any feeble resistance guaranteed him a solid beating. The only chance was to stay under the radar, never get noticed to begin with.
Which was hard to do in the confines of a school. Or in the limited number of unobstructed streets in a post-apocalyptic city.
“Not much.” Jared removed his pack, preparing to open it for inspection. “Nothing that would make a difference to you guys. For me, though, it might mean I won’t starve.” He zipped open the main compartment, which had three tin cans, two without labels; a single Quest granola bar; and a bruised, misshapen apple.
The leader spread the opening of the pack, peering inside. “No difference to me if you starve.” His hand reached in while Jared held the back strap, the pack shaking as the man shifted things around. The sour smell of sweat and grime reached Jared’s nostrils, and he imagined the bully’s fingers probing at a bruised spot on the apple, poking through the spoiled skin.
“We’re in this together,” Jared said. “We shouldn’t hurt each other.” A weak, hopeless appeal to reason. He should know better. But maybe they’d just take his food, and not beat him up afterwards.
“Why not?” the leader said. “What’s in it for me?”
And Jared saw an unexpected glimmer of intelligence in the man’s face. Not the taunt of a bully, but a sincerely posed question. Maybe reason had a slight chance. They were all looking for answers in this changed world. Comfort.
“I have something better.” Jared tugged slightly on the pack, slipping the man’s greedy hand from its interior. He unzipped a smaller compartment in the side, pulling out a small plastic bag. Jared raised it up, so the contents would be visible to the leader and to his small gang of supporters. “Seeds,” he told them. “I can give you some of these. Teach you how to plant them, water them so they’ll grow.”
The man stepped back, a hint of understanding washing over his tattooed face.
“It will take a while, but you’ll be so grateful later. Not the quick fix, but an investment for the future.” He was speaking to the whole gang now, getting through — an actual TV-movie moment of success. “Your own trees, a supply of fruit for all of you.”
The leader took the bag of seeds, examined it. “No thanks, short stuff.” He wrenched the pack out of Jared’s grip, then threw the seed bag to the ground. “We’ll go with ready-to-eat.”
Now, in a true TV moment, the three bodyguards nodded and laughed. “Ready to eat,” one of them said.
They continued on their way, each of them purposely bumping into Jared’s shoulder as they passed.
Jared bent down to retrieve the small bag of seeds. He caressed them through the clear plastic. His only possessions in the world, now. His noble speech — maybe he hadn’t convinced those bullies, but he still believed it himself. Didn’t he?
The seeds felt mushy instead of hard. They looked more like mouse droppings than healthy apple seeds.
He would plant them anyway, pray for the best, trickle cloudy and discolored water over them, and hope he’d live to appreciate whatever strange growths emerged.