The girl’s brother died sometime in the night. The old man dragged the boy’s body into the stalks before she awoke. They were hours into their walk the next day before it occurred to the man she hadn’t asked about him.
As they walked, the man raised his head toward the eternal blue sky and wondered again when was the last time he’d seen the contrail of a passing airplane. Months? More likely, he knew, it was years. Johnny had been the one keeping track of time for them both. But he’d been killed long ago.
As was their custom, when the day got too hot or the girl too tired, they rested. There was no shade, for trees had long ago succumbed, so the two simply lay down in the tall stalks. While giving the girl a sip of water, the man wondered if it might be the last water on Earth.
Lord knows, they hadn’t seen a river or a stream in months. Ponds and lakes too were but a distant memory. They’d been the first to go. No, he thought, in the world of Q2, you took your water wherever and however you could find it.
He closed his eyes, but sleep would not come. Instead, the faces of those who had fallen along the way flashed before his eyes: the minister who had taken his own life rather than slow them down; the young couple lost to marauders; the bickering husband and wife who had taken their battle into the stalks one day and never returned; And Johnny, his own son. But the man wasn’t yet ready to think about what had happened to Johnny.
It occurred to him then that though he’d lost his own son, he’d probably miss the boy the most. There had been something engaging about the kid, some spark that seemed to have all but vanished from the world. What he’d miss most, he knew, was the kid’s sense of humor. God love him, the boy had kept that all the way to the end.
Ah, hell, he thought. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters anymore except getting to the city. That had been their destination all along. It somehow made sense things would be better in the city.
They’d all heard the rumors that someone at Harvard or MIT had figured out a way to kill the stuff. That’s what Johnny believed anyway, and that slim hope was good enough for him. Further, the man knew they were getting close. He’d been catching glimpses of it on and off in the distance the past few days.
After an hour or so, he woke the girl and they continued their journey. Things were better for him. His head was higher than all but the tallest stalks. But for the girl, it was like walking through a jungle.
Something about Q2 had morphed over the years. Evolved. The stalks grew taller with each passing generation. The grains harder, sharper. The man did his best to blaze the trail, holding back the hellish stalks from whipping back and slapping the girl in the face. But both their faces were now tic-tac-toed with red welts and long scrapes, the evolving face of humanity in a world filled with Q2.
Late in the afternoon, the man stepped in some muck and heard something snap. He held up his arm to warn the girl before timidly, remembering the minister’s broken leg, putting some weight on it. He breathed a sigh of relief that nothing was broken, but still. Something was wrong. It took another moment to realize what it was. There should be no muck in a world where it no longer rained.
He glanced down and saw his foot was embedded a few inches deep in a wet hump of earth that was bordered by streamers of tattered blue flannel. To the left and right were more humps, dozens of them, along with what he now recognized as scattered clothing and shoes. Protruding from within them all were the yellowing remains of those who’d once worn them.
Looking closer, the man saw that from their almost fleshless skulls, sightless eyes hosted tall, healthy stalks. Wheat grew from the holes where noses used to be. The tallest stalks grew from the once moist wetness of their mouths. Further inspection revealed that their upper skulls had been blown away by something large caliber. The man noted absently that the wheat apparently found brain matter an especially good fertilizer.
Letting go of the stalks, he pulled his foot from the goo and turned to the girl. Take my belt, he said. Follow me. The girl nodded and reached out. Don’t look down, he added before the two wandered into the killing field.
Once through the worst of it, the man glanced up and saw the city was closer now. Another day’s walk at most. He allowed his mind to wander, to stop and consider how far they’d come in the years since Q2 had entered their world.
Johnny had seen it first, pulling up what he thought were weeds in the garden. The next day they were back, taller than before. The man first noticed it while pulling into his driveway, twelve-inch stalks growing from cracks in the asphalt that hadn’t been there when he’d left that morning.
After that, they saw it everywhere: in the yards, the playgrounds, and the baseball and football fields of their small town in northern Maine. Days after seeing it for the first time, the man saw it sprouting from his roof.
He and Johnny stayed in the crumbling home as long as they dared, keeping up with an outside world that was falling down around them. Before it fell, the government ferreted out what happened, if not how. Q2 was a strain of genetically modified wheat designed to grow pretty much anywhere. The agribusiness conglomerate that developed it believed they’d created something that would solve world hunger forever. How it escaped the lab, whether through terrorism or sheer stupidity, stopped mattering after a while.
Lost in thought, the man realized the sun was nearly down. The two had been walking uphill for a while. It was time to stop. Turning, he motioned the girl to rest and watched her collapse where she stood, quickly falling into unconsciousness. He waited for her breathing to settle before walking further on up the hill, from where he knew he’d be able to see the whole of the city.
Reaching the top, he pushed aside the stalks and glanced down to see the wheat stretched unbroken, into the city and beyond. The wide river that had once separated Cambridge from Boston was gone, consumed by the voracious wheat.
Across the wheat river, in the heart of the city, skyscrapers too hosted the plant. The iconic blue of the Hancock Tower was gone, replaced by the sallow yellow of the wheat growing up all fifty stories. To its right, the Prudential Tower looked for all the world like a single unearthly stalk of the substance.
Smaller surrounding buildings too were swathed in the stuff, those that still stood, that is. Many had collapsed from what the man guessed was the sheer weight of the stuff. These looked like perverse, gigantic haystacks from another world.
Turning to the east, he allowed his gaze to linger at the place where a great harbor once lay, and where beyond was once open ocean. Now, stretching toward what had once been harbor islands and beyond, was more wheat. The man had lived long enough with Q2 to be almost immune to its ubiquity and destructive power. But he shuddered to see confirmed with his own eyes something he had wondered about: it was indeed taking the oceans.
He stayed atop the hill a while before letting go of the wheat and turning back to where the girl slept. They’d come this far, he thought, and lost too many along the way not to go just one more day. Who knows. Maybe there would be civilized people down there, not just the marauders and scavengers and murderers he and his companions had mostly avoided along the way. Mostly.
If not, the man still had his pistol, though he vowed he wasn’t going to use that unless he could no longer care for the girl. She was the only thing he had left. Anyhow, Johnny had always believed things would be better in the city. And as the man lay down and closed his eyes he remembered that once, a very long time ago, that been good enough for him.