Hunger Page 2

Sam Temple was one of the two oldest people in the FAYZ. He was fifteen.

“Hey. That looks like lettuce,” E.Z. said, wrapping his earbuds carefully around his iPod.

“If only,” Sam said gloomily. “So far we have avocados, that’s fine, and cantaloupes, which is excellent news. But we are finding way too much broccoli and artichokes. Lots of artichokes. Now cabbage.”

“We may get the oranges back eventually,” Edilio said. “The trees looked okay. It was just the fruit was ripe and didn’t get picked, so they rotted.”

“Astrid says things are ripening at weird times,” Sam said. “Not normal.”

“As Quinn likes to say, ‘We’re a long way from normal,’” Edilio said.

“Who’s going to pick all these?” Sam wondered aloud. It was what Astrid would have called a rhetorical question.

Albert started to say something, then stopped himself when E.Z. said, “Hey, I’ll go grab one of these cabbages right now. I’m starving.” He unwound the earbuds and stuck them back in.

The cabbages were a foot or so apart within their rows, and each row was two feet from the next. The soil in between was crumbled and dry. The cabbages looked more like thick-leafed houseplants than like something you might actually eat.

It didn’t look much different from a dozen other fields Sam had seen during this farm tour.

No, Sam corrected himself, there is something different. He couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but there was something different here. Sam frowned and tried to work through the feeling he was having, tried to decide why he felt something was . . . off.

It was quieter, maybe.

Sam took a swig from a water bottle. He heard Albert counting under his breath, shading his eyes with his hand and multiplying. “Totally just a ballpark guess, figuring each cabbage weighs maybe a pound and a half, right? I’m thinking we have ourselves maybe thirty thousand pounds of cabbage.”

“I don’t even want to think about how many farts this all translates to,” E.Z. yelled over his shoulder as he marched purposefully into the field.

E.Z. was a sixth grader but seemed older. He was tall for his age, a little chubby. Thin, dishwater-blond hair hung down to his shoulders. He was wearing a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt from Cancún. E.Z. was a good name for him: he was easy to get along with, would banter easily, laugh easily, and usually find whatever fun there was to be found. He stopped about two dozen rows into the field and said, “This looks like the cabbage for me.”

“How can you tell?” Edilio called back.

E.Z. pulled one earbud out and Edilio repeated the question.

“I’m tired of walking. This must be the right cabbage. How do I pick it?”

Edilio shrugged. “Man, I think you may need a knife.”

“Nah.” E.Z. replaced the earbud, bent over, and yanked at the plant. He got a handful of leaves for his effort.

“You see what I’m saying,” Edilio commented.

“Where are the birds?” Sam asked, finally figuring out what was bothering him.

“What birds?” Edilio said. Then he nodded. “You’re right, man, there’ve been seagulls all over the other fields. Especially in the morning.”

Perdido Beach had quite a population of seagulls. In the old days they had lived off bits of bait left by fishermen and food scraps dropped near trash cans. There were no more food scraps in the FAYZ. Not anymore. So the enterprising gulls had gone into the fields to compete with crows and pigeons. One of the reasons so much of the food they’d found was spoiled.

“They must not like cabbage,” Albert commented. He sighed. “I don’t honestly know anyone who does.”

E.Z. squatted down before the cabbage, rubbed his hands in preparation, worked them down beneath the leaves, down to cradle the cabbage. Then he fell back on his rear end. “Ow!” he yelled.

“Not so easy, is it?” Edilio teased.

“Ah! Ah!” E.Z. jumped to his feet. He was holding his right hand with his left and staring hard at his hand. “No, no, no.”

Sam had been only half listening. His mind was elsewhere, scanning for the missing birds, but the terror in E.Z.’s voice snapped his head around. “What’s the matter?”

“Something bit me!” E.Z. cried. “Oh, oh, it hurts. It hurts. It—” E.Z. let loose a scream of agony. The scream started low and went higher, higher into hysteria.

Sam saw what looked like a black question mark on E.Z.’s pant leg.

“Snake!” Sam said to Edilio.

E.Z.’s arm went into a spasm. It shook violently. It was as if some invisible giant had hold of it and were yanking his arm as hard and as fast as it could.

E.Z. screamed and screamed and began a lunatic dance. “They’re in my feet!” he cried. “They’re in my feet!”

Sam stood paralyzed for a few seconds, just a few seconds—but later in memory it would seem so long. Too long.

He leaped forward, rushing toward E.Z. He was brought down hard by a flying tackle from Edilio.

“What are you doing?” Sam demanded, and struggled to free himself.

“Man, look. Look!” Edilio whispered.

Sam’s face was mere feet from the first row of cabbages. The soil was alive. Worms. Worms as big as garter snakes were seething up from beneath the dirt. Dozens. Maybe hundreds. All heading toward E.Z., who screamed again and again in agony mixed with confusion.

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