That afternoon Rei called and asked if he wanted to go pick berries the next day. A group of farms maintained a bus for hauling workers that they could catch on Burnside, and it would take them out to Gresham, about a half-hour ride east. His dad would pick him up at five.
“Yeah, so are you up for it? It’s a small farm. My mom’s sister knows the owners, and I went today. Some of the big farms take Burnside winos, but the Hayatsus don’t do that. It’s not too bad. You can’t screw around, though.”
“I’ll ask my dad.” He didn’t want Rei to think he was a wuss, and if they worked together, it might be okay. Besides, it couldn’t last more than three days and then he’d be on the trip.
His dad thought it was a great idea; his mom was less enthusiastic. “I don’t like you riding those busses. I understand they pick up alcoholics.”
Steve’s dad said, “This isn’t the thirties, Gale. Sheesh. You’ve read too much Steinbeck. I picked berries around here as a kid, and I never saw any bums in the fields. It’s tough work.”
“Rei said they don’t take bums.”
His mom frowned.
“Anyway,” his dad continued, as if he hadn’t heard, “the migrants will show you what real hard-workers look like. You’ll have to bust your butt to keep up with them.” He chuckled, then got serious. “You do too much daydreaming, and they’ll kick you out. Better set your alarm and get to bed early.”
That night, Steve made himself a lunch of peanut-butter sandwiches for the next day. When he raised his arm, even a little, it sprang up, trained to the weight of the missing cast. Even maneuvering the knife over bread took concentration. He’d had a big dinner and wasn’t inspired to put food together, but he figured he couldn’t get too hungry only working half the day. He got in bed by nine, but stayed up another two hours reading a fantasy novel.
When the buzzer went off, he felt like he’d just fallen asleep. He forced himself out of bed, tugging his own body up like a heavy puppet, and went to the window. His senses registered their impressions slowly. The sky was light, Mount Hood was limned in a golden glow, but the Willamette Valley still rested in shadow. The house was dead quiet after the alarm clock; birds had started to chirp just outside; distant traffic rumbled and screeched like some inane television program left on all night. Painfully tired, Steve went and got himself dressed in jeans, sneakers, and an old long-sleeved cotton madras shirt over a thin T-shirt, then dragged upstairs.
He’d just started eating cereal, when he heard gravel crunch in the driveway, followed by an engine idling. A scant spoonful later Rei knocked on the door. Steve hurried out through the cold, and felt grateful for the warmth of the Buick.
He half-dozed on the short trip to town.
Burnside shuffled by gray in the predawn chill. Ragged men and surly teenage boys in loose flannel workshirts loitered on the sidewalks. Every other person seemed to be smoking. Rei’s dad let them out, and they both watched him go. Steve caught Rei’s dull and hopeless expression and sought comfort elsewhere. The most animated men were the Mexicans, who chattered in Spanish and glanced disdainfully at Steve. He shut his eyes and leaned against a light pole, clutching himself against the cold and trying to doze again. He was seriously underdressed. He needed a hat at least.
A minute later, a bus came and went; then another pulled up. Rei punched him hard on the shoulder. “C’mon,” he said, “this is it.”
They took a seat up near the front, and Steve tried to sleep against the window. Just behind him, some hoarse old guy was talking loudly about riding the rails as a kid, going from job to job. Steve tuned in for a moment. Why would an old guy still be doing field work? Steve opened his eyes, and watched Rei staring impassively ahead. In the seat across the aisle a pair of Mexicans stared out with the same dull fixity, whites of their eyes practically glowing in their dark faces. He tried to draw some inspiration from the scene. What would the work day of glow-grub harvesters or sowbug haulers be like in Barathrum? He couldn’t think about it; he was too tired.
The bus took Interstate 84 along the Columbia River to the Wood Village exit, wound up the steep hill from Troutdale into Gresham, through sleepy suburbs of big fir trees amid apartment buildings and ramblers. When they reached Southeast Burnside, Steve watched the grocery stores and strip-mall shops plod by. A few pedestrians slouched down the sidewalk. One well-made-up young woman in high heels and wearing an overcoat hurried briskly along. Her calves and knees showed bare with every stride. The old man behind him said to his silent compatriot, “Wonder what club she’s coming back from. Bet she’s a working girl.” Steve woke up a bit at that. A real prostitute? Well, maybe a stripper. He’d never seen one, but it wasn’t what he expected, like from the TV show Starsky & Hutch. She didn’t have a jaded, confident appearance, more like fretful and ordinary.
A few blocks later, they passed the last gas islands and a few seedy free-standing bars just as Burnside turned into Highway 26, the road that led, eventually, to Mt. Hood. The bus gained speed and rolling hills plumed with fir copses spun lazily off on the right. Everything seemed quiet and still in the gray dawn. Steve’s mind was a blank. He thought he’d take another try at napping, when he noticed the first stretch of berry fields, acrawl with busy workers. They all seemed alert and determined, like orc slaves in fear of the whip. Steve’s guts clenched.
The bus turned off and wound up between wooded hills for a mile, then made a stop. A few passengers stirred behind him, and Steve started to rise. “No,” Rei said, “the next one.” A group of forty-some men and boys filed off, all except the Mexicans across the aisle. As they went, they shuffled quietly, all business. “They don’t look too happy,” Steve said.
“You don’t have much to say.”
“It’s five-thirty in the damn morning.”
Steve laid his head against the window, determined to be calm, and bumped it when the bus started up again. He was just getting settled and almost comfortable, when the bus stopped with another lurch. The Mexicans sprang up and left. Rei dragged up and followed them. “Come on,” he said as he went through the door, not bothering to look back.
Last off, Steve thanked the bus driver, a large middle-aged woman in a red windbreaker, and emerged on a drive lined with horse chestnuts. The avenue led to a small blue clapboard rambler with a large old barn to the left. Through the line of trunks, he could see acres of well-groomed strawberry bushes marching uphill past the barn. A stand of tall fir trees glowered beyond them. Sun lit their tops.
Rei was waiting for him near the barn. A trestle table was set up with a scale at one end and at the other a big metal coffee dispenser and a plastic yellow sports jug with “water” inked in black. The Mexicans were signing a sheet of paper; Rei stood next in line. Behind the table, an elderly Japanese man, presumably Mr. Hayatsu, looked on. The Mexicans finished, and walked toward another line at the barn, where a white middle-aged woman handed out plastic yellow berry crates. As Steve joined him, Rei picked up the pen. Mr. Hayatsu took a step closer across the table, hovering. With his attention still on the paper, Rei muttered, “This is my friend, Steve. He’s come to work.”
“Hi, Steve.” The man had a Japanese accent. He kept his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. “You a good worker?” He didn’t wait for the answer. “No fooling around, okay? We have problems before with city boys goofing off throwing berries. We kick your butt out.” He smiled.
“Here,” Rei said, ignoring Mr. Hayatsu and looking surly, and handed Steve the pen. “Write down your name, and when you bring up each crate, they’ll weigh it and put down your total. They pay a dollar a crate when the day’s over.”
Steve signed in at the bottom of about thirty names and followed Rei over to the barn, where the crate woman had just helped the Mexicans. “This is Steve, Mrs. Hayatsu,” Rei said. Her black hair was white-streaked, and she had a stern, lean face. Steve had taken her for white, but he could see now that she was half Asian.
“Have you picked before, Steve?” Unlike her husband, she didn’t have an accent.
“A little,” he lied.
She handed him a crate and a wire caddy that had a wheel at one end and nodded into the field where a fat lady carrying a bucket waded across the lush rows, which stood a couple feet high. The lady bent over now and then to stir the broad trefoil leaves behind one of the workers and occasionally pulled a strawberry. “Tell Liz over there you’re new. She’ll give you a row and explain how we want it picked. The berries are good here, nice and fat.”
In the field, Liz gave Steve and Rei their row assignments, right next to each other. She warned Steve to keep the end of the caddy up when he moved along so they didn’t get mud on the crate, and told him not to “cream” the row.
“Right,” he said, “don’t crush the bushes.”
“Huh?” The woman looked alarmed. “You’d better keep the crate off the bushes. What idiot would wreck the bushes?”
“ ‘Cream the row’ means going fast and missing berries,” said Rei.
“Here,” she said, “I’ll pick your first hallock, but watch. Dig in and move the bushes around. Some of the berries are a little deep toward the base. See, here’s one. This one’s not ripe enough. If there’s any green, let it go. Too many green berries, and we’ll thin your crate. Don’t short the hallocks; fill them just to the top and packed, but not so full that they smash when the crates are stacked. Each crate should be about fifteen pounds. Too light, and we’ll send you back.” She had surgical gloves on her hands stained with berry juice. She picked efficiently, queuing up half a dozen berries in her palms and then spilling them together into a “hallock,” one of the crate’s twelve compartments. “There you go. Rei can show you how to pick a nice, tidy crate.” She leaned close and whispered loudly, “But try to be faster. He’s lazy.”
When she had moved off, Rei muttered, not too softly. “I hate that bitch.” Steve looked up alarmed, but she was ambling away calmly and apparently hadn’t heard. The Mexicans, who were about fifteen yards along, heads into their work, grinned, but continued to move like they were in a contest with each other, picking almost at a walk.
“Did those guys start back here with us?” Steve asked him.
Rei nodded glumly.
* * *
Steve learned the reason for the row boss’s surgical gloves in a hurry. The leaves and the berries were soaked with dew, and cold air seemed to hug the rows. His hands were wet and numb within minutes, and he shivered. After half an hour, he’d filled only half his crate and was lagging behind Rei, who didn’t have gloves either but seemed okay with it. The Mexicans had just cleared off with their second crate. Rei had been unusually quiet the whole time, and Steve began to suspect that he’d invited him along just to share his misery.
Sun now lit the slopes behind them and steam curled from the bushes like smoke from a slow ground fire. Steve rose to stretch, and got a faceful of blazing orange heat. He shielded his eyes. Light had crept over the top of the Cascades, showing the glaciers on Hood and the hunched green back of Larch Mountain, much nearer, and slightly north. His lower spine ached, but the sun felt good. He looked behind, up the slope. The shady copse was like a derelict Viking meadhall, sword fern lush among the pillars of fir trunks. He wondered if anyone ever camped in there and came down to steal strawberries
Renewing his effort, Steve managed to catch Rei up and finish the last six hallocks in ten minutes. He pulled the crate free of the caddy, and then carried it to the main table, where Mrs. Hayatsu weighed the yield. A couple of rangy older boys hurried ahead of him and he had to wait, the edges of the crate biting into this numbed fingers. When he finally got there, he struggled to heft the crate, and Mrs. Hayatsu had to steady it on the scale.
She dug through a hallock, picked up a couple berries from the bottom, turned them over, and replaced them, apparently satisfied. “Looks good, but you should speed up. You won’t make much money.”
“My hands are freezing,” said Steve.
“You should bring gloves. For now, hold a cup of coffee. It’s getting warm, so you’ll be fine pretty soon.”
Steve got himself coffee just as Rei brought up his first crate. He downed it quickly, not wanting to fall behind.
Back in the row, he already felt better. The sun had warmed the leaves and dried them on top. He finished his next crate in half an hour. Meanwhile, as if heated out of torpor, Rei had become his usual twitchy, chatty self. “That thing with the dragon was cool, remaking the vampire and all that. I should be close to tenth rank now. Who are we gonna kill first, the giant or the hag? What’s the name of the giant again? Oh, right. So, we gonna play without Tess?”
Steve didn’t answer this last question, and pretended distraction from his clothing. The cuffs of his outer shirt had been soaked with dew and made his wrists itch. He took the shirt off and tied the sleeves around his waist. All he had underneath was a T-shirt, but it was enough. It wasn’t even eight yet. The day would be hot, and right now, that seemed just fine. His only real complaint was that he was already getting hungry. “Oh shit!”
“I forgot lunch,” Steve said.
“You’re gonna be hurting. You can eat a couple berries. I didn’t bring enough for both of us, but I’ve got a candy bar I’ll split. You can have my chips.”
“Thanks. That should be enough.”
It wasn’t. They broke at ten. He’d finished four more crates and was famished. The portion Rei handed over only made him hungrier. He drank extra water, but it didn’t help. He told Mrs. Hayatsu he’d forgotten lunch. She wasn’t sympathetic. “Sorry, but we don’t feed the workers. We can’t do it for everyone, and some of these migrants are hungry too. You can catch the early bus out at eleven and remember your lunch tomorrow.”
Rei didn’t mind an excuse to leave early. “Mom picks us up at one downtown, but hey, we can go to Powell’s and check out their roleplaying books.”
In the end, Steve earned seven dollars, less than half minimum wage for the time spent. Mrs. Hayatsu handed him the cash from a tin lockbox. “Not so bad,” she said. “We’ll see you tomorrow.” Mr. Hayatsu strolled by, glanced at Steve’s crate tally, and grunted.
When the bus dropped them off downtown, Steve towed Rei straight to a McDonald’s a few blocks south of Burnside, where he spent half his money on a couple burgers, a carton of fries, and a milkshake. He bought Rei a burger too, to pay him back with interest for sharing his lunch.
“So what did you think?” Rei said. “Sucks, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “It sure does.” He felt good for having done it, though, and the country was pretty.
“You gonna come back with me tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Cool. You’ll get used to it by next week. It’s good to have someone to go with. Besides, strawberries are just till the end of the month. Then it’s raspberries. You don’t have to bend over so much, and it’s easier to make money.”
Steve couldn’t tell Rei he’d be out for the rest of strawberry season with Tess. “Yeah, raspberries sound better,” he said. Then it occurred to him he had something even bigger to share, the school plans his parents had made for him. He recounted that part of last Saturday’s conversation.
“Is it for sure?”
“Yeah, I guess so, but I’ll be home on weekends, so it shouldn’t affect the campaign much.”
“No problem then.”
The next day he was much better prepared. He set out three layers of clothes: a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, and a rain coat, the latter to keep the dew off his arms. He got an old pair of tight-fitting wool gloves from his dad and cut the fingers out of them. For lunch, he threw a small jar of peanut butter and half a loaf of bread in a plastic sack, along with a big square of baker’s chocolate, half a bag of Doritos, and an apple and a banana.
Rei was tired and low on energy again, but he talked more. Having a shared day of work behind them raised the solidarity, which just made Steve feel worse about his imminent betrayal. In the fields, as the sun crept downhill toward them, Rei prattled incessantly about the adventure. He’d guessed that Stefan’s weapon was a claw from Varanor, and mused as to whether he could get something like that for Dirk. “Maybe some tail spikes or whatever, if they’re better than my daggers. By the way, that idea’s just too cool — demigods that give you pieces of themselves as weapons. Where’d you come up with that?”
Having approached unnoticed, Liz the row boss pointed out that Rei had missed several obvious berries, that his chatter could be heard clear down the row, and that both he and Steve were lagging far behind the other pickers. “If you don’t keep it quiet and speed up, I’m going to separate you. You’re holding your friend back.” Which was true.
Rei mumbled something before she’d quite turned away.
“What?” she said.
“I said my hands itch!” he lied.
“Oh.” She stalked off.
Being more comfortable made the time go faster than the previous day. Steve bore down and got six crates before they broke for lunch at ten-thirty. Rei had kept up but was a full crate behind, and got chewed out again, this time for creaming the row again.
Just before they finished at noon, Rei said, “I’ve got chores today, but I’m free later tomorrow, and I can play over the weekend.”
Steve sighed. His head felt numb. “I’m sorry, I’ve gotta pack for a camping trip.”
“What about Friday?”
“I’m leaving early Friday, so I can’t work.”
“For how long?”
Steve picked a couple handfuls of berries. Seconds dragged by. “Two weeks.”
“Shit. Two weeks? Where?”
“I don’t know exactly. Over the mountains. We’re going camping, me and my mom and dad, and hooking up with Mr. Harrison.”
“Just Mr. Harrison?”
“The Harrisons,” Steve said.
“Aw, man, you’re going to miss all the strawberries, and I’m gonna be with Liz the Row Nazi.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I was going to tell you yesterday, but I didn’t want to bum you out.”
They worked in silence. Steve could guess the progression of Rei’s thoughts. The next question was inevitable, but it took longer for Rei to get there than he thought it would. “Hey,” he said, “you’re going to be camping with Tess, right?”
Steve’s shoulders tightened. “She’s coming, I guess. Yeah.”
Shocked alert, Steve stood up. Rei beamed at him.
Rei nodded. Wary, Steve said, “We’ll probably have some time to finish the rescue plot. I could get her up to seventh rank, which could help you guys out a lot, really.”
“Whatever. You’re going to have Tess to yourself, alone in the woods, for two freakin’ weeks! You’ll get some action for sure.”
Steve felt the sun beating on his face, saw the other pickers hurrying through the jade rows ahead while the two of them stood still. For a moment, he couldn’t look Rei in the eye. “Nah, I doubt it,” he said. A dragonfly skimmed the nearby leaves chasing a bee. He slid his gaze over to Rei, who held the same expression of vicarious excitement, and Steve’s eyes watered at a press of emotion behind them, a mix of amusement, affection, and shame at how he’d underestimated Rei. He hated to wreck the mood, but he needed to be honest. “I thought you wouldn’t be too keen about me spending time alone with Tess.”
“Why?” Rei’s brows knit in genuine puzzlement.
“You like her too, don’t you?”
“Well, yeah, as a friend, and a hot chick. I mean who wouldn’t, but man, you’re the GM!”
Steve made a surprised snort before he could help himself. He knew Rei was an attentive player, but a fan? Rei’s goofy expression faded slowly. “What?” he said.
* * *
Steve finished out the day with eight dollars, and got lightly sunburned on his face and arms. Thursday, Liz assigned them to separate rows, much to Rei’s disappointment. Not having Rei to distract him, he finished eleven crates.
On the final bus ride home, as they neared downtown, Steve said, “Yesterday you acted like it’s a big deal I’m the GM.”
“It is to us.”
“Not to Curt.”
“You’re wrong. That’s why he’s such a pain in the butt sometimes. I like being a player, and he does too, but he really wants what you’ve got.”
Steve had always figured Curt’s thing was knowing the rules better than anyone else. “He’s never even asked to run an adventure.”
“He knows he can’t compete, is why. He tried once.”
“He did? When?”
“About a year ago. A few months after you and me and him got really into your campaign. He followed the rules exactly, and when he looked stuff up, it slowed us down. It just didn’t have that spark, you know? We stopped after a couple tries.”
“What was it about?”
“Some gnomes were living in these mines and some goblins and trolls lived in some caves that led into them, and we were helping the gnomes…”
“Huh.” This wasn’t really enough information to pass judgment. It didn’t sound too interesting, but Steve preferred not to diss Curt. He’d been a good player. Trying to be generous, he said, “Maybe he just needs practice. Should I make a subplot and let him run it?”
Rei stared out the window—considering, Steve thought.
“Should we do that?” he persisted.