Billy wipes the sweat from his brow as he checks on the green avocadoes growing in the short trees. He can still remember the intense heat of San Joaquin Valley summer air a month ago. About the size of a baseball, the avocadoes hang from the branch by thin stem, just waiting to be picked.
These avocadoes are smaller than the ones in the store.
He walks along the dirt, flanked by rows of avocado trees that had been growing for years. The basket of avocadoes weighs in his arms. He passes the last of the avocado trees and reaches the center of the farm. The sight has been familiar to him for the past four months- a central farmhouse with a porch, a barn, a stable, and tents for the refugees that settled on this farm located next to Highway 180 near Kerman, California.
Billy sometimes thinks of home as the house in Fresno where he grew up, with bedrooms, a living room with a wide screen television and a Nintendo Wii, and most importantly, a constant supply of food in the cupboards and refrigerator.
He places a basket full of avocadoes inside a truck along with other baskets full of avocadoes. One of the boss's inner crew checks one of the avocadoes, and frowns a bit.
Billy walks towards a blue tent. Some of the people are trying to shoot a basketball into a portable basketball basket.
"Working hard, Billy?" asks Jimmy Choo, a refugee who had moved all the way here from Newark, a city along the shore of the San Francisco Bay.
"Yeah, Jimmy," replies Billy. "We have been busy. The avocadoes are just ripening right now." Billy remembers the not-so-busy times, when he would just walk among the groves and the gardens looking for weeds, or stand watch armed with a Beretta M92R semiautomatic pistol.
He enters one of the tents. The tent has over three dozen cots for people to sleep in. It provides valuable shade, something Billy was thankful for during the hot summer months, when temperatures often went above one hundred degrees. He looks down on his white shirt that has dirt sticking to it.
If only a shower were available.
"Hi, Billy," says a seven-year-old girl wearing overalls.
"Hi, Patti," replies Billy. "Keeping up with your chores."
"Yeah," replies his sister. "I got to pick some tomatoes."
Here I am, living on a farm and taking care of my seven-year-old sister. And I'm only thirteen.
The oldest people on the farm are fourteen years old. Billy looks at the children inside the tent, some just out of toddler hood. Some of them play board games that were scavenged from stores.
Billy briefly reflects on this year. At the beginning of the year, he was a typical seventh grader, going to school, coming home where his mom served him dinner, hanging out with friends.
About two weeks after the end of the school year, he saw the news. Millions of people around the world were suddenly dropping dead. Fearing that this could be a pandemic, the United States government declared martial law, closing airports, seaports, and highways.
The next few days he saw news reports of more and more people dropping dead around the world, even seeing a television reporter suddenly drop dead while delivering a news report. Millions dead became billions dead.
And then the cable television went silent.
As the food was running out at home, Billy knew he had to get himself and Patti out to the farms. He packed as much canned and boxed food as he could into his mom's Nissan Sentra, and then drove along Highway 180 towards the farms. Many of the survivors had gotten the same idea, and Billy joined one of the farms, agreeing to work in exchange for food.
It was around that time that he realized that none of the survivors were over fourteen years old. Whatever happened spared the young. Some speculated that it had something to do with hormones, but there was little time to find out, as survival became the primary goal.
And so the past few months involved various chores, from planting and weeding and harvesting to keeping watch to going on expeditions to scavenge food, supplies, and equipment.
Billy is grateful that he never had to bury his mom, unlike many of the children on the farm.
And he was lucky to have gotten out to a farm early. They had to turn away refugees, sometimes at the barrel of a rifle.
And there had been firefights.
Not for the first time, Billy wishes that this were a nightmare that he would wake up in a classroom, with a teacher scolding him for falling asleep.
A bell rings, and it is time for supper. These days, supper is served late in the afternoon. Billy and Patti walk into a huge tent that had been set up months before where the refugees all get daily rations.
They wait in line as usual, as a fourteen-year-old boy- one of the bossman's inner crew- stands guard. After a few minutes, he approaches a table where children appearing to be no older than ten serve the food ration. Billy gets his food ration, a saltine cracker from a box that had been scavenged from a Wal-Mart in Fresno, a slice of avocado, and a slice of tomato.
He and his sister eat their meal over a period of thirty minutes, taking small bites.
I miss meat, thinks Billy. He also remembers that meals used to be much bigger than a cracker and slices of fruit. He puts a hand to his waist, squeezing a fold of flesh. At the beginning of the year, he was quite chubby. Now, not so much.
The fruit slices are getting thinner like I am. At least it's fresh fruit; I've heard that some of the farm's refugees are salting down fruit slices to preserve them for later.
"Billy," says Jimmy. "A couple of us are gonna play basketball."
"Sure," replies Billy. Sports were not exactly his hobby, but there was not much else to do for fun these days. He looks and sees his sister play jump rope with some other girls around her age.
Billy and some other boys play basketball on the farmhouse's asphalt driveway for about half an hour. Billy wishes that he had been the more athletic type; few people wanted him on his team. Even with the exercise that he has gotten these past few months, he still runs out of breath before most of the other boys do.
At least no one will keep track of the score after the game's over.
The game is over as the sun starts to set, turning the sky from bright blue to a deep orange. The boys are pretty exhausted; some of them obtain water from a well and then drink it from a tin cup or just from their cupped hands.
"You know," says Jimmy, "I miss showers, as well as playing World of Warcraft."
"Yeah," says Billy, noticing his body order, which he had gotten used to it these past few months. "Maybe there's grown up survivors in some bomb shelter somewhere who live much better than we do, having showers and toilets, electric lights, playing World of Warcraft."
"The bossman has an announcement to make," says a girl from the bossman's inner circle.
Billy sees a crowd at the farmhouse's front porch already gathering children and teenagers like a magnet gathering iron filings. The bossman appears from the front door. He is a tall, athletic boy of about fifteen years of age, with close-cropped black hair. He dresses in bib overalls and looks a little bit well fed. Billy had a met the bossman a couple of times since he started working here for food. He had done these kinds of speeches before, such as when a crop was planted or the farm had repelled an attack from starving masses that had plagued the area in the first few weeks after they set up shop here.
The bossman had been actively involved in farm operations, sometimes doing some of the farm chores himself. Billy had heard that the bossmen on some other farms simply lay around inside a farmhouse or trailer.
Many of the children figure out that the speech would be about the harvesting of the avocadoes, growing from trees that had been planted here years ago.
"Good afternoon," says the bossman. "I want to thank you all for working hard for our harvest. I have been speaking with my advisors. We will not have enough food to last until the next harvest."
The crowd starts to murmur. They all had been working hard to avoid starving to death ever since they arrived here, they had turned away starving refugees, even going so far as to shoot them, and now they hear that there will not be enough food.
"Quiet," says one of the bossman's aides. "Let him speak."
"If we want to have enough food to eat, we are going to have to take food from another farm. We have some weapons down in the cellar. Everyone be prepared."
The bossman walks inside the farmhouse. Some of the kids express surprise, and some of the kids express fear. Some wonder what could go wrong with the bossman's idea.
"Are we gonna go fight?" asks Patti, running towards her brother. "Are you gonna fight?"
"I don't know," answers Billy. I know this is gonna bite us in the ass.
Patti's question is answered a few hours later when Billy's crew supervisor, a fourteen-year-old boy named Hal, summons him and the others in his crew.
"We're all coming to back us up in the coming fight," says Hal. "Come down to the cellar to get your weapons."
And so Billy walks down a flight of stairs into the cellar of the farmhouse. The cellar is mostly dark, musty, and dusty, with flashlights illuminating the wooden crossbeams that hold up the ceiling. Over two dozen boys are already down in the cellar, adding body odor to the smells.
Billy can see the shadowy outlines of racks loaded with firearms. He remembers that the firearms were recovered from a sheriff's armory. A twelve-year-old boy hands him a Remington M1100 shotgun, and another boy hands him some shotgun shells.
He walks up the cellar and he is directed towards a Ford F-150 pickup truck, its headlights on and engine running. Hopping into the back, he recalls that it had been weeks since he rode in a motor vehicle. The truck drives along the road leading out of the farm.
The residue of daytime had disappeared, and the sky above reveals a pattern of stars, unobscured by any cloud.
"This is gonna be like playing CounterStrike," says a twelve-year-old boy riding in the back, wearing jeans and a T-shirt and armed with a submachine gun.
Except there is no reset button, Billy thinks to himself as the truck rumbles over the pavement of the road, followed by other trucks and vans.
A few minutes later, the Ford F-150 stops at the side of the road. All of the boys get out of the truck.
"We're going to sneak in through these groves of trees," says the boy who had driven the pickup truck, who had been assigned as the squad leader. If we distract the fighters, the rest can come in and take all of the food. Everyone lock and load."
"All right," says Jimmy.
Billy stands on the side of the road as one of the boys use a pair of wire cutters to cut the barbed wire surrounding the farm. They all then go into the farm, walking through a grove, with fruit trees on either side.
"Looks like there's been a harvest," says Billy. "No fruit on the trees."
None of them have flashlights, as that would give away their position. They all walk as quietly as they can, crouching down like cats. The boys are not entirely ignorant of infantry squad tactics, although most of them know that video games are just a poor imitation of the real thing.
"Down everyone," says the squad leader. Through the groves of fruit trees they can all see a shadowy outline of a child.
Billy hears a few muffled thumps and sees the child go down.
"What did you do that for?" he hisses.
"He could have given away our position," says the squad leader.
Billy once again questions in his mind whether or not this is a good idea. To kill children just to take their food is disgusting.
I promised the bossman to work and fight for him in exchange for food. And the bossman did say that we'd all starve to death if we did not find more food. And that dead kid means fewer eaters.
Billy clutches the shotgun. He and the others soon reach the edge of a clearing in the middle of the farm. He can see the outline of a barn and what appears to be a stable, plus the shadowy outlines of several vehicles, including trailers and buses.
"I could see some people standing watch," says the squad leader. "We'll take a few of them down, and then draw the others into the orchards here."
The squad leader fires his submachine gun towards the trailers and buses in the middle of the farm, interrupting the relative quiet of the night. Billy and the others in the squad fire with their weapons.
"Get back!" yells the squad leader.
Billy retreats deep within the orchard. He keeps his head down to reduce his profile.
Lights. Light beams from flashlights illuminate portions of the orchard. Billy fires at the direction of the lights with the shotgun, feeling the recoil from the shotgun blasts. He runs even as he hears gunfire being returned. The thirteen-year-old boy reloads his shotgun, and then fires at the direction of the flashlights. He notices a few of the flashlights had fallen into the ground. His heart races rapidly and he breathes faster than he can ever remember. He trips over someone.
He sees the leader of the squad. His eyes reveal his lifeless state.
"Come on!" yells Jimmy.
Billy runs for a few yards. He knows that the bossman and the main force are supposed to storm into the farm and take the food while the farm's defenders are being distracted by him and his squad, or at least that is how it was supposed to happen.
If everything happened the way it was supposed to, we wouldn't be here.
He can hear more footsteps. Billy and Jimmy open fire at the shadowy figures approaching them and firing at them.
"Shit!" yells Jimmy. "Out of ammo!"
They retreat towards the edge of the farm even as bullets fly towards them. The two boys reach the edge of the barbed wire.
They can hear distant gunfire, even the rat-tat-tat-tat of a machine gun; Billy believes that is the bossman and the main fighting force trying to take the farm's food supply.
"They stopped shooting at us," says Jimmy. "I guess the distraction worked. What should we do?"
Billy looks around. He and Jimmy are the only ones from his squad still left. He can not even contact the bossman- the squad leader had the radio and they had lost track of the newly-dead boy in their retreat from the farm's defenders.
"You have no ammo, and I'm almost out," he says. "We head back to base."
They reach the barbed wire fence that surrounds the farm. They can not find the place where they had cut the barbed wire earlier.
Billy looks and estimates that he could crawl under the lowest wire. He quickly does so, not even feeling his shirt rip.
"I think I cut myself," says Jimmy as he crawls out from under the barbed wire. "Look." Jimmy points towards the south.
Billy can see a plume of smoke rising from the direction of his farm. "No," he whispers.
The Ford F-150 is not anywhere in sight. Billy starts running, running in the direction of the smoke plume. He somehow finds the energy to do so, even as he starts to feel wet under his clothes and a salty taste in his mouth. He keeps running and running, with Jimmy barely able to catch up to him.
As he is running, he sees a pair of headlights approaching him. Billy and Jimmy move to the side of the road. The vehicle passes them quickly. It had looked like a Humvee or some other military vehicle. The two boys continue running. Along the way, they see street signs at an intersection, the only obvious landmarks in this part of the world aside from the huge water storage towers that once stored water for irrigation.
Billy runs towards the smoke plume, not think of anything else, putting all of his mental effort into the muscles of his legs.
After for what seemed to be an age, he stops about three hundred feet from the smoke plume. He is on a driveway leading to the center of the farm.
The source of the smoke plume is a burning building. Billy recognizes the outline as the house for his farm.
He looks around, and sees someone lying on the ground. On closer inspection, he sees that it is a girl of less than ten years of age, dressed in overalls stained red.
That was one of Patti's friends- Megan, I think.
"Patti!" he yells.
Nobody answers him.
"My God," says Jimmy. "Someone hit us when we were away."
Billy kneels on the ground, illuminated by the burning farmhouse, wondering where his sister is. He notices a red spot on his shirt. He touches the spot and it feels very wet.
No! It can't end like this!
Billy falls, his face touching the soft soil.