Jake leaned back from the table with a sigh of contentment. He used the cloth napkin they had given him to make sure his beard was tidy. It was beginning to show some gray, now, though his hair remained dark.
“I cannot tell you, ma’am, when I’ve last eaten so well,” he said.
All four sets of eyes were fixed on him. Pride gleamed in the farmer’s wife’s eyes at his compliment. Her husband’s eyes were narrowed, and her children’s were wide.
“Don’t normally invite travelers into our home,” the farmer said.
“Jonathan!” his wife scolded. “This is Jake.”
“Says he’s Jake,” the farmer said. His wife’s cheeks flared bright red, and she glared at her husband.
“Jake is my name, sir,” Jake said.
“Aye, but are ye the Jake my wife seems to think you are? The one that battled two Dragonlords in the Forest of Garnacha?”
Jake paused. He didn’t often tell that story. It was one of the darker tales with a sad ending, and it usually left his listeners distressed.
“The Forest of Garnacha is a depressing place,” Jake said. “It’s an old forest, ancient, and full of spiders and death beetles and deadfall. You can’t see where you’re putting your feet, and sometimes you step on things that… squish.”
The children — a boy and a girl — both squealed.
Halfway through the story, the farmer leaned back and lit his pipe. He offered Jake a pinch of weed, and Jake gratefully accepted. He finished the story, which put tears in the farmwife’s eyes, and then told the story about tricking the Dragonlord Opus out of his entire treasure, which had them all laughing out loud.
As his wife took the children to put them to bed, and the farmer clapped Jake on the shoulder with a smile.
“I can’t say I believe a word you said, young man,” he said, “but that was the best storytelling I’ve heard. If you ain’t the Jake, you might as well be. You’re welcome in this house any time.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jake replied.
“Then I’ll bid you good night. You’ll be comfortable in the barn?”
“Yes, sir. Been on the road most of my life. I don’t think I’d be comfortable sleeping in a house. The barn will be a luxury.”
“Breakfast is sharp at sunrise. And maybe you can help me with the windmill, afore ye go out on the road again. It’s two more weeks until the harvest workers come through, and I need someone on the ground who can lift.”
“Be happy to help, sir.”
“Aye. Well, then, good night.”
After a hearty farm breakfast at dawn, Jake went out with the farmer to fix the windmill that pulled up water from the well for the animals.
When the farmer climbed down from the windmill tower, Jake pointed to a row of metal posts with solar panels on top.
“How come you don’t use those?” he asked.
The farmer glanced at the row of panels and snorted.
“Them things? I ain’t had time to pull ‘em down. They’re useless.”
“Among other things. Hailstorm a few years back broke three of ‘em. Ijits that built ‘em left no way to get up there to fix ‘em. Installed with a cherry-picker. Gasoline-powered. Ain’t seen one in years, now. Can’t afford the parts to fix ‘em, even if I built a big enough ladder to get up there. Plus, batteries is all fried. Lightning storm.”
“Who put them up?”
The farmer laughed. “Bunch o’ hippies, come out of the city. Set up some kind of homestead out here, hopin’ to ride out the end of the world. Have to admit, they had some nice ideas. Got more food out of an acre than I can get out of four, and they claimed it didn’t wear out the soil.”
Jake scratched his beard. “So what happened to them?”
The farmer spat, to ward off ill luck.
“City used to end about a mile from here. Supermarkets shut down one summer — some kind of gasoline crisis, they said — and word got out that the hippies had food. Thousands of people came out, raided the place, stripped it bare. Would’a taken the solar panels, if they could’a got to ‘em. Would’a raided my land, too, if it wasn’t off-season and the fields fallow. Don’t think any of them hippie kids got hurt, but they left and didn’t come back. I took over the land a couple years later.”
“Aren’t you worried they’ll do that again? To you?”
The farmer stared in the direction of the city for a while.
“Nah,” he said at last. “Things is different, now. Hippies were into some kind of ‘self-sufficiency’ deal. Raisin’ food and then keepin’ it for themselves so’s they could survive the troubles. I’m part of this community — I got no use for most of what I raise, and it goes to market every few days in harvest season. Just like all the other farmers around here. Ain’t no point in comin’ all the way out here to steal stuff I already sent into town. Plus, sheriff’s a lot more sensitive to our needs than he used to be. Town raids our farm, or our market wagons, lots of people go hungry. Sheriff won’t stand for that.”
Jake nodded slowly.
“No interest in stayin’ on as a farmhand?” the farmer asked. “Couldn’t offer you no pay, but you’d not go hungry a day in your life.”
Jake stared at the solar panels and thought of his old X-box Infinity. He thought about always having a full stomach, and a place to stay every night. He thought about maybe taking a wife, and raising children.
“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Your offer’s much appreciated, sir. But it’s not in my nature to stay put.”
“Well, you’re honest if nothing else, Jake. Makes me want to believe your wild stories.”
“I’ve seen these things with my own eyes, sir,” Jake said.
On a video game console, some part of his mind offered up. But those memories were fading, and the first-person tales he told had taken on the color of life. Sometimes, it was almost as if he had been there.
The farmer stared at him in silence.
“Well, good luck to you,” he said at last.
Jake nodded, then turned and walked away.