Peaches

August’s theme was Forgotten in time.

Synopsis

After a freak tsunami devastates the East Coast, Bryce and his two closest friends must stick together to survive. A fantastical farmer’s market strengthens the trio’s bond.

Peaches

by Jessica Wren

 

2048, Georgia

I have asked every man in the Eatonton Camp about Peaches. No one remembers it. One fall afternoon Colyn and Tim, my two best friends who were also workers at Eatonton, found the ramshackle building that had once been home to a farmer’s market.

I got the impression that the building had not been affected much by the hurricanes, or even that freak Tsunami in 2018 that had swallowed every house, park, shopping center, school, library, hospital. Washington was not spared, and neither was New York, Boston, Charleston, Savannah, or Miami. The government has determined that the cost of repair would be too high, and therefore moved its center of government out west to Dallas, where they remain to this day. Some cleanup and restoration has been done to the East Coast, but nothing is the same. Those trapped in the areas east of the Mississippi after the tsunami were left to their own devices.

My friends and I consider ourselves lucky to have this job at Eatonton. We spent many years cleaning the area that had been Georgia in our youth. After about thirty years we have made some progress, but the East still has a long way to go.

The tsunami caught us all completely unaware. When you think of tsunamis, you think of them hitting Japan or India, but not our coast. I can’t explain how it happened. You can look it up if you want to know. It was something about an island in the Caribbean collapsing and creating large pockets of displaced water. That seems like a load of bull to me, but I’m not the scientist here.

The day started off uneventfully. It was Friday, and since nothing of importance takes place in school on Fridays, Tim and I decided to skip school and go hang out on our place at the top of a hill. Colyn was a little more hesitant. He was a bit of a dork, always worried about getting in trouble and making bad grades. He finally agreed when I showed him we had a case of beer.

So we spent the morning on top of the hill, drinking beer, lying about how much ass we were getting, and just screwing around. We were all pretty wasted when I got the text from my mom.

Where the hell R U?

At school, Mom. Where else would I be?

At school, my ass. I just tried to check you out. Mr. Henry said u were not in class. Where R U? I need to come and get u. It’s an emergency.

What’s happening?

TSUNAMI WARNING! Wherever U R, get ur ass to the school this instant and wait for me.

Tsunami? Mom, come on!

But I never read my mom’s reply. In less than a second, we heard an extremely loud roar. A tsunami sounds a little like what it would be if ten large turbines were running in a football stadium. Except it was about ten times louder.

Colyn said something, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. The turbine sound got louder, until I saw Colyn motioning for us to run. I knew then that my mom had been serious. I think even Colyn knew we wouldn’t be able to outrun a tsunami, but what choice did we have? When faced with the unknown, we humans become pure instinct. If you’ve never experienced this type of situation, you wouldn’t understand how all rational thought goes out the window and you expend every bit of energy you have trying to find a way to survive. There is no feeling like it in the world. Fear is replaced with a strange euphoria.

So we took off in no particular direction, running zigzag to dodge trees and each other. I think we looked like the Three Stooges trying to get away from hot lava. With the giant wave looming, we did our best to take shelter behind the largest tree we could find. The approaching wave gave me no choice but to grab on to a large tree branch and hope for the best.

Fortunately, the crest of the wave hit the side of the hill, sparing us the worst of it. If it hadn’t, we would have been washed out to sea for sure. We still got a very strong spray and  I grabbed onto a branch and braced myself for about ten seconds, awaiting my impending doom. My left eardrum burst, whether from the extreme noise or the force of the water hitting the hillside, I don’t know. Being caught in the 2018 tsunami was surprisingly anticlimactic. There was just forceful splash of water and then it was over.

The water receded quickly, and I was thinking there was no way my friends survived, but somehow they did. They appeared cautiously out of their own hiding places But it didn’t change the fact that we were still on a hilltop with water surrounding us on all sides.

“That’s it, guys,” I said. “We completely, utterly, one-hundred percent, without a doubt fucked six ways from Sunday.” We exchanged hopeless glances.

“Maybe we should have stayed at school today,” Tim said dryly.

“There has to be a way out. We’re just not thinking about it,” Colyn said. See, that’s the thing about Colyn. He could be in a lion’s cage, wearing steaks, with thirty half-ton anvils hanging above his head by shoestrings, and standing on cardboard that was covering a vat of sulfuric acid, and he would still believe there was some way to avoid imminent demise. His faith is reassuring, and after thirty years, he hasn’t changed a bit.

“Sure. We could jump in and swim until we find another hilltop,” I said. “It’s a long shot, but I don’t think we have the luxury of options.” I was serious, too. My friends looked at me as if I’d grown horns. “We have at least a small chance.”

“You’re one hundred percent stupid if you think I’m swimming in that,” Tim said.

“Suit yourself. I’d rather drown than stay here and starve.” But as I got closer to the edge of the water, I started to have second thoughts. I could see the tops of pine trees peeking out from under the water. Debris was floating by rapidly like parts on an assembly line. Unless our guardian angels flew in and carried us away, we were screwed either way.

“Which way are we going, then?” Tim asked.

“What the hell difference does it make?” Colyn asked, defeated. Before we could get any further, a family of stranded bobcats came out from behind the trees. The cat that was the leader of the pack stepped forward threateningly, clearly thinking of which one of my arms he was going to eat first. Our decision to take our chances in the flood water was cemented; none of us were particularly interested in becoming a gourmet dinner for these wild, frightened animals. They could hunt mice like the rest of us.

I waded until I was chest-deep in the water. My impatience, exacerbated by hunger, rose as I watched my friends dip their toes in, real nice and dainty.

“Yes, you are probably going to ruin your nails. Maybe even smear your make-up. Now let’s go unless you’d rather join those guys for dinner.” The bobcats, I guess deciding we weren’t worth the effort, retreated slowly.

“Shut up, Bryce,” Colyn said. He and Tim timidly waded toward me.

“You two can hold hands doing this if you want, but we got to move,” I said, pointing towards what I guess was the west. “Let’s go over to that hilltop.”

“Brilliant,” Tim said, “because we’ll be much better off stuck on that hill instead of this one. By swimming we’ll just exhaust ourselves.”

“You got a better idea?” Colyn said. “I think what Bryce is trying to say is that we should swim hill to hill until we are safely out of the flood zone. Right, Bryce?”

“Yeah,” I said. Tim, resigned, waded in, and we swam off.

                                                           **************

I don’t have much memory of what happened after that. It seems we found a ripe blackberry bush on one of the hills and gorged ourselves, but I can’t say for sure. After leaving our hill, the first thing I remember was the sensation of being pulled upward. I was in a heap of something godawful.

“What the–,” I gasped as I became aware of my newest reality. Looking out, to my horror, I realized I was in the net of a boat, along with dead animals, garbage, and God only knows what else. It was like a moment off The Simpsons or Family Guy; it’s comical unless it’s happening to you. And even thirty years later, I have never been unable to un-smell that. Let’s just say if you mix cat crap with sauerkraut, that could have been used as potpourri for the stink I was in. I puked, even though there was nothing in my stomach. The only bright spot about that moment was that my head was above that pile of shit.

I barely had time to assess my situation when the worst thing in my life happened. It hadn’t yet sank in that my parents and little brother were likely all dead. To this day, I haven’t heard anything from them, and they have never been found. This event literally changed my life in a second.

I looked up and saw my friends on the deck of the boat, along with two boatmen. “Tim!” I called out. “Col–” a ripple of the vile water splashed into my mouth. I reflexively swallowed it.

Now, you may be wondering out of everything that happened to you, that was the worst thing ever? I’ll get to that in a bit, but for now, it’s enough to know that I accidentally swallowed a mouthful contaminated water.

A fisherman reeled me in slowly, and two boatmen, wearing heavy gloves and coats, helped me out of the garbage. Tim and Colyn were standing by, wrapped in blankets. There was about sixty second of complete and utter silence.

It was Colyn that broke it, “Damn, son.” he said, waving his hand in front of his face to fend off the odor.

“Fuck you, Colyn, it’s not like you smell like petunias.” Of course, this only made everyone laugh harder, but I was too exhausted to care what Colyn or anyone thought. And I admit that if the situation were reversed, I’d be laughing my ass off. However, the moment of levity was over as quickly as it began; I started to feel woozy and nauseated, and my friends put concerned hands on my shoulders. I pushed them out of the way so I wouldn’t vomit on them. Trust me, that nasty ass water tasted even worst on the way up.

“We’re part of a search and rescue team searching for tsunami survivors,” one of the boatmen said. “We’ll be taking you boys to a shelter Birmingham.” The three of us nodded compliantly. “You’ll get meals and a place to sleep, and volunteers will assist you in finding your families. In the meantime, though, how about some dinner?”

We were given a bowl of what I guess was chili. Ten minutes before I would have wolfed it down in one good bite, but unfortunately, it only remind me of the garbage stew I was in. Even now I can’t stand to look at soup or anything else that consists of chunks of stuff floating in liquid. I forced myself to eat a few spoonfuls to avoid appearing ungrateful, but after that I couldn’t fight off the waves of nausea that were becoming increasingly intense. Tim and Colyn propped me up on either side and took me to a mat to sleep.

I was still extremely tired when Tim shook me awake. I felt horrible; I had an extraordinary headache, pain behind my eyes, and my whole body felt like it had lead in it.

“Just letting you know, Bryce, that they’re taking you to the hospital.” He put his hand on my forehead while Colyn looked on. “You have a fever, dude. You’re burning up.” Neither of them looked especially well.

It turned out I had a parasite from drinking the contaminated water. If I hadn’t found Peaches, I’d be dead now. It was Peaches that helped me to somewhat regain my strength.

I was taken to a Birmingham area, where I stayed for several months, fighting hard to avoid succumbing to dehydration. I won’t recap the tests and stuff, because it’s too boring and not relevant to this story. I will say that the hospital was woefully understaffed, since a lot of the surviving medical personnel were sent to assist in tsunami-related emergencies. Colyn and Tim took turns forcing me to drink Gatorade and eat yogurt. I owe them my life, but don’t tell them that. Tim can get mushy and crap. The three of us have stuck together since that fateful day that I was caught in the net.

Day by day, I slowly recovered, but I was never the same. I weighed about one hundred fifty pounds at the time. Now I struggle to stay above one-twenty. My friends made me take daily walks down the hall, which if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t even have that.

One day, Colyn said was going with a group who were looking for work at the various clean-up sites along the east coast. The idea of trying to work made me dizzy, but I also knew I couldn’t stay at the hospital forever.  Fortunately, it was October, and not one of insufferable summers in Georgia. When Colyn returned and announced that we had jobs reserved at the clean-up site in Eatonton, I had accepted that I would be working hard for the foreseeable future, and actually welcomed it. Our future was bleak, and productive work brings with it a sense of security. Additionally, Colyn found a watermelon from somewhere. We split it up and ate the whole thing. The sweet, juicy fruit was like an elixir; months of feeling dehydrated and malnourished lifted in about thirty minutes.

Three days later, we boarded a bus to go to work. It was the first time I’d been outside in months, and the fresh, crisp air and October sunshine was delicious. My spirits instantly improved as I took a seat next to Tim on the converted school bus.

The work director explained to us that the work site was a camp. My friends and I would share a small cabin, which had electricity and running water. We would work ten hours a day except Sunday and would be paid twenty dollars an hour. Fighting, stealing, and creating a disturbance in any way would not be tolerated. And we would get three meals a day at the camp’s expense. And he went on and on, but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention. At the time, since I know things could have been much worse, I was just eager to be doing something after all this time of lying around.

We got to Eatonton about five hours later, and by that time it was late afternoon. The director told us to go to the inprocessing unit for a meal and our units.

“This feels more like prison,” Tim said.

“It’s really not,” Colyn said. “We’ll be free to come and go as we please when our shift is over.” He got this goofy looking grin that he got when he was about to say something that would make me want to punch him in the face. “The only thing prison-like here is the food.”

He wasn’t kidding. Our food consisted of a brown paper bag with a sandwich, a pickle, and a juice box. By ‘sandwich’ I mean fake cheese, a piece of ham that human teeth are not designed to chew, topped off by a humongous glob of mayonnaise between two slices of stale bread. Even if I was hungry enough to eat that–which I wasn’t–it wouldn’t have been enough for dinner. I felt almost as queasy as I did on the boat.

“Who do these jokers think we are, sixth graders?” Tim said.

“Well, if it helps,” Colyn said, sensing our aggravation, “there’s a fruit stand about a mile from here. The watermelon there looks divine.”

“We don’t have money, jackass,” I pointed out. “And who uses the word ‘divine?”

“Well, excuse the hell out of me for having an expansive vocabulary. You want to check it out or not?”

The only thing to do besides hang out around the campsite was to take the walk, which after sitting on a bus all day, didn’t sound like a bad idea. Colyn lead us to a white cinderblock building. What was strange was that the building didn’t look like it was just built. We had passed a residential are on the way, and every one of the houses were torn to splinters. This building appeared to be structurally sound, although in dire need of a pressure-washing. I wasn’t sure how it was able to survive the tsunami intact, let alone carry edible produce. The word “Peaches” was printed in giant red letters on the side.

We looked around for signs of a person running the place, but no one was around. Like Colyn said, though, there were rows of the freshest-looking produce: peaches, watermelons, tomatoes, blueberries. There was a shelf with jars of honey and homemade jam. For the first time in six months, I felt like eating.

We looked at each other, unsure of what to do. Finally, my appetite won. I picked up a peach and bit into it. It was the most delicious thing I remember eating. “When we get paid, I’ll come back and pay for this,” I said.

We dug in and had our fill of the offerings. For the first time since the tsunami, I felt optimistic about the future. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad. We can rebuild the town and life will go back to the way it was before. I may even find my parents. I felt renewed, and secretly grateful to Colyn for bringing us here. I could tell my friends felt the same.

We new arrivals got an advance on our pay, I guess so we wouldn’t be completely broke, although I’m not sure what value money had when there were no grocery stores or anywhere to spend it. My friends and I took our cash and headed to Peaches with the intent on paying for the food we ate the night before. But again, no one was manning the store. Even more curious, there was no sign of the remains of our previous nights’ feast. It was as if the place had been recovered overnight and prepared for business.

Although my friends and I got there well after normal business hours, we still found it strange that there was not a soul in sight. And if the place was closed, why was the store not locked? We went inside, where I looked around for an envelope to put the money I owed Peaches in. I couldn’t find one, so I just put a twenty next to the register. I’d have left a note if I had an ink pen, but around the counter there was no pens, no paper for writing notes, no wastebasket. Basically no sign at all that the counter was manned by a person. But the store was impeccably clean and the shelves were well-stocked. Someone was running this place. I decided that on Sunday, I would come and meet the owner of Peaches.

I turned to Colyn and Tim, and we looked at each other with the question hanging over our heads.

“Let’s do it,” Tim said. We took about five produce bags and filled them with various treats. I picked up a jar of honey, thinking it might make morning breakfast of some oatmeal-like substance taste better. A few ripe tomatoes would make the lunch sandwiches more palatable, and we’d have fruit to keep in our cabin as snacks. We took a bagful of peanuts, along with some of the jam and peanut butter from the shelves. By the time we filled all those bags, we agreed to estimate the total price and divide it among us. We left some more cash by the register and departed. Once we got to the cabin, we decided to call it a night; our first ten-hour shift of physical labor, plus the walk to and from Peaches had worn us out.

The next day we woke refreshed and hungry (albeit a little sore) and excitedly grabbed our fruit and honey for the first morning meal. We met at the mess hall where other workers were gathered. It seemed selfish to not share our bounty with the others, so we passed around the jar of honey. Everyone took a spoonful for his breakfast, and afterwards, several people asked where we got the goods.

“Peaches,” I said. Some of the others looked at each other, confused. “The farmer’s market about a mile from here.”

“There is no farmer’s market anywhere in the area,” one man–I think his name was Jeb or Jed or something like that–said. “All buildings in the twenty mile radius were flooded out by the tsunami, and the government has declared that there is still too much contamination to allow people to return.”

                                                           ***************

I couldn’t believe it. I went, with some of the others workers in tow, back to Peaches after my shift ended.

There was nothing where Peaches stood but a ruined wood frame building. The roof had been ripped off, the sides had streaks of green running down, and the word ‘Peaches’ was faded but still discernible. When I stepped in to inspect, some rats scattered. There were no items for sale, but there were broken jars all over the floor. The remnants of rotten produce, consumed by pests and mold, stank up the place so bad that I couldn’t breath.

My companions looked at me expectantly. I had no explanation to offer.

“Peaches? Really, Bryce?” Someone said. “Boy, you’re new here. Not a good time to jerk us around. Where did you get the honey, for real?”

I suddenly started feeling sick, not unlike how I felt on the boat after being fished in. The unnatural vertigo nearly knocked me to my feet, but somehow I managed to walk back to the camp, where Colyn and Tim had decided to stay after the shift ended. If they wondered why I had returned from Peaches empty-handed, they were intuitive enough not to ask. I crawled into my bed and immediately crashed.

I woke up the next morning with every muscle in my body on fire. My throat was burning and although I was thirsty, I couldn’t tolerate the sight of water.

“Are you going to stay here?” Colyn said.

“Nah, dude, he’s going to hitchhike to New York!”  Tim said.

Colyn ignored him, whereas before he would have made a smartass comment right back. I truly believe he left his childhood behind in Birmingham. Tim’s hunted him down. He’s almost fifty years old and he’s still full of crap.

“I’ll tell the foreman you’re sick. Don’t worry about anything. I’ll be by later to check on you.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I said.

I woke up at what I guessed was noon to Tim standing over me. He had a watermelon under his arm and a bag of cherries in his hand. My mouth watered at the sight.

“Where did you get those?” I asked.

“Oh, I traveled to the distant kingdom of Watermelonia and battled the evil Lord Cherryon for them,” Tim said. “I went to Peaches during lunch! Where the hell did you think I got them? I’m going to be late back to work because of this, so you best shut up and eat.” As Tim turned to leave, I wondered if I could possibly muster up the energy to go to Watermelonia. Certainly he didn’t get them from what we thought was Peaches. I started to think the parasite I caught drinking floodwater had been growing in my brain. I may have had some delicious fruit in front of me, but I felt as if I was going bananas.

I ate the fruit Tim had battled Lord Cherryon for, and instantly felt much better. So much better that I could have worked the remaining hours of my shift. I decided instead to walk down to the area where I thought Peaches was.

And it was exactly as I remembered it: in pristine condition with fully stocked shelves. The money we left was still sitting on the counter, but the inventory we took had been replenished. What the hell? How is this even possible?

What difference does it make? Some inner voice inside me said. Clearly the universe and whatever force is controlling it want you and Colyn and Tim to have this. Don’t question it. Just enjoy your bounty and make sure to share it. I took that last part as a warning. If I ever became selfish or greedy, Peaches would be taken from me. I filled some plastic produce bags with what I wanted and walked back to the camp.

And so this went on for nearly thirty years. We never left the Eatonton camp, partly because we had nowhere else to go and partly because we took pride in helping to rebuild Georgia. We could retire with a full pension from the state, but what else would I be doing? Lord knows Tim needs to work to stay out of trouble. Colyn has been promoted to a management position in the camp.

We took our nightly walks to Peaches, brought the offerings, and distributed them to the other workers. We stopped leaving money, since whoever our provider was didn’t appear to be interested in compensation. I have long since given up trying to explain how I had access to ripe, delicious fruit. I guess they decided, like me, to just enjoy it and not question it.  No one had ever heard of Peaches, not even from before the tsunami. That could be explained by the fact that many of the workers are younger and not from the region, but that doesn’t quite cover it. I had never heard of it either prior to the tsunami. The ruins I saw the night I walked there with other workers is clear evidence that the place once existed. Inexplicably, the ruins of the building were never cleared away. I think the universe was warning the camp not to. On nights we couldn’t go, because of heavy rain or whatever, I felt completely horrible, and Peaches was the only cure. I think the parasite would have killed me if not for Peaches.

This went on for almost thirty years. But one day, we went in and the shelves were not restocked. The day after, it was the same thing. We still went until it was time to take the last peach. The next day, I went alone, and Peaches was nothing more than an abandoned, run-down building.

I was sad, but felt a powerful sense of peace. Peaches was more than a farmer’s market to me, Colyn, and Tim. It symbolized survival, health, and rebuilding. Peaches helped me to get my life back together after the tsunami and my near-fatal infection. Peaches helped me to do my part to restore our east coast. Peaches was the ultimate comfort when life felt unbearable. I can only hope that someday, somewhere, Peaches will provide the someone else with the same thing.