American Heroic

Uncle David takes me to all the hot spots. He can take me anywhere, I just ask. We drive out in his crazy car, all the extra things stuck to the dashboard and jingling off the back bumper. Plastic action figures, jingle bells, metal slinkies. We make noise through the empty country roads, scatter birds, like zooming superheroes or supervillains, rushing to the next quest. 

Sometimes we go to the movies, or to ice cream, or my favorite place the used bookstore, or even once we went to a zip-line, which was crazy even though they didn’t let me do the Superman pose. We go to the ocean sometimes too, but mostly more people come with us for that. I love coming back to the farm and telling Mom and Mama what we did. Uncle David always plays along when I make up cooler things than ice cream (but also I like ice cream, I just like fighting zombies to get to the ice cream more).

I like to get off farm, so I even go with Uncle David when he goes to the store or to pick up new people at the bus station. That’s where we’re going today, to pick up a newbie named Jay. I like to meet people first, before they get distracted with all the other people, taller and louder people. There are no other kids on the farm, just the baby Nova, but she doesn’t really count cause she can’t even talk yet.

Uncle David seems quiet on the drive to town—usually we shout along with his music, or roll down the windows and try out our voiceover voices, but the clang-banging of the back bumper is extra loud and the only noise. Grown-ups just get quiet sometimes but I don’t even know why. I watch him sideways from the passenger seat. I only ever get the passenger seat when I’m just with Uncle David, otherwise the adults get first dibs, and they don’t even have to say shotgun, they just get it. 

“Daaaaaaaavy Crockett—” I sing at him. That’s what I call him sometimes. He’s supposed to answer in his super deep singing voice, but he doesn’t, just reaches out a hand and rubs the top of my head roughly. It messes up the braids Mama just put in before we left, but that’s fine, I like them a little messy anyway. I smooth down the flyaway hairs and try again: “Uncle David!” 

“What’s up, punk?” he asks, flicking his eyes over to me.

I poke him in the shoulder, right where his octopus tattoo is under his t-shirt. “How old is this new person we’re getting?”

“Older than you!” Uncle David says. “And younger than me!” 

“That’s not a very good answer. Everyone is younger than you, you old fart.”  “I didn’t fart.”

“No!” I poke him in the octopus again. “You are a fart.” He isn’t actually so old, but he’s definitely the oldest person on the farm. He even has some gray hairs in his beard, but only a couple. Mom and Mama are pretty old too, and their friends that they started the farm with are the same age I think, but everyone else who comes is usually a little older than college. That’s what Mom tells me. I can’t really tell. 

Mom and Mama were a little older than college when they bought the farm. It was them and Uncle David, and Ari and Al, and Aunt Mag and Aunt Roni. They’re not my aunts like blood though, just like best friends. Only Mom and Uncle David are blood. They’re like my millionth cousins a billion times removed. Not really but basically. After my mom (the birth one) died, back when I was a baby, younger than Nova I think, it took a long long long time for the foster people to find any family members. The farm had already started by then, and Mom and Mama decided they wanted to adopt me, and everyone else agreed to it. So here I am. Went from zero family to a whole farm full of family like a jump to lightspeed (that means super duper fast).

“Can we get ice cream before we go back to the farm?” I ask.

We just got to the main street of town (the only street with anything on it basically), and I watch the big pink ice cream cone sticking off the roof of Cone City disappear behind us, a torch of amazingness held up in the air like the Statue of Liberty.

“We’ll see what Jay wants to do. She might be tired from all the traveling and just want to get to the farm and settle in.” Uncle David turns into the bus station parking lot with a squeak and a clatter. I scan the benches under the overhang for all the waiting people and try to guess who Jay is. Uncle David texted her before we left and said to look for the yellow car with the weird stuff.

“That’s her—” Uncle David says, pointing at a short person hunched beneath a backpack holding a lightsaber. Not a real lightsaber. It’s actually a cane that’s painted to look like one. She raises her hand at us, picks up a green duffel at her feet, and starts to make her way over. She leans heavily on the cane, especially with her bags, and Uncle David quick jumps out of the car to help. I stay in the car and watch him as he fusses over her—she shakes her head, they both say things, and finally Jay gives up the duffel to him. They walk right up to the passenger seat door. I remember the shotgun rule and tumble into the backseat like a secret agent, while Uncle David sticks Jay’s bags in the back next to me. She keeps her cane with her when she slides into the front seat.

“Hey there! What’s your name?” Jay asks, turning halfway in her seat towards me. She can’t turn around enough to really face me, but she glances back and smiles a bit. Her eyes are brown behind big round glasses and the combo of that with the lightsaber makes me think of Maz Kanata (my favorite Star Wars character). She’s got her hair cut really short and curly, which makes her look even more like an alien but like a cool alien.

“I’m Abigail,” I tell her, as Uncle David gets back in the car. “Do you like ice cream?”

Jay laughs and twists the handle of her cane between her fingers. “I do. I’m vegan though, so I don’t eat dairy.”

“Oh yeah I know about vegan, my Mama and Aunt Mag and Aunt Roni are vegan, and a bunch of other people on the farm too. I only eat ice cream when I go off farm with Uncle David and he takes me to Cone City. That’s the ice cream place.”

“I don’t mind stopping!” Jay says, looking over at Uncle David.

“Well then, folks!” he says in his voiceover voice. “Ice cream it is! Coming right up!”

We just do a quick stop at Cone City cause Uncle David feels bad that Jay’s been traveling for like seventy hours and also he trusts me not to drip on his seats but also if I do he doesn’t actually get mad. I get mint chip cause it’s the best, and Uncle David gets his usual strawberry two-scoop in a waffle cone and holds it while he drives.

“So Jay,” Uncle David says, gumming his ice cream. “I hear you’re from the east coast. What brought you over here?”

We turn onto the long road that winds all the way back to the farm. I watch the back of Jay’s head as she nods and stares out the front window. “Yeah, I grew up in Maine, but I’ve been in Boston the past few months, figuring things out. Once I turned eighteen and started getting my base pay I could finally leave.”

“Getting far away as possible?” Uncle David asks.

“Sorta. I didn’t have anything keeping me there, just the group home I was living in before I aged out.”

I pick out the biggest chip in my cup of ice cream and plop it onto my tongue. “I was in the foster system too,” I say, sucking on the chocolate.

Jay turns half around to me again and smiles bigger this time. “No way! Is the farm a permanent thing for you?”

“Yeah. My moms adopted me when I was four, so I don’t remember a lot from before, just a little.” I smush the melty chocolate against my front teeth and grimace at Uncle David in the rearview mirror. He sticks out his tongue back at me. “You’re gonna love it here,” I say to Jay. “Especially if you’re a nerd, cause—” I point to her lightsaber cane. “Everyone on the farm is a nerd about something.”

Jay laughs and taps the cane against the floor under her feet. 

“So how’d you find us out here?” Uncle David asks.

“The internet,” Jay says. “I saw something about worktrade—stuff like that getting bigger since base pay started. It got me actually excited to age out. The internet’s pretty much Jesus for kids like me.”

Uncle David snorts then chomps the rest of his cone in a few more bites. I finish my cup super fast too as we pass the corn field and turn into the driveway. Ari and Al are at the farmstand and Uncle David slows down to wave. I unbuckle and poke up between the front seats to wiggle my fingers at them.

“The dastardly duo, back again!” Al shouts from behind the farmstand. They lift their fist in the air and shake it at us and Uncle David and I do our evil supervillain laughs out the open window. 

Uncle David drives slow down the gravel driveway, crinkling and crackling and scraping all the thingies against the rocks. We make a loud commotion. We like to announce our presence. Hear ye! Hear ye! I stay up between the seats, leaning my elbows on the center divider between Uncle David and Jay. I grin at Jay, try to see what she’s seeing, Rock Creek farm for the first time ever. 

It’s free time, so there’s a couple people out in the circle to greet us when we hop out of the car (I guess only I hop—Uncle David is too big to say what he does is hop, and Jay sticks her cane down in the gravel and kinda wiggles slowly sideways). I run ahead of them over to the circle where Mom is eating a popsicle and Aunt Mag is holding Nova and a bunch of the work-traders are playing a board game in the grass. Dakota and Rex and both Annes. They look up and wave at me before turning back to their game.

Dakota’s dog Bruno lies on his side, stretched out in the sun, his ears flicking a little in his sleep.

I flop onto the ground at Mom’s feet and open my mouth for a bite of her popsicle. She leans forward in her chair and wipes her thumb along the corners of my mouth. “Hmm… looks like you already had something sweet,” she says, raising an eyebrow at me. I try to raise my eyebrow back at her but I can’t do it which really doesn’t help with my whole supervillain character. An evil laugh and a pointy eyebrow raise would really be good. 

“Hey there!” Mom says, and I sit up to watch as Jay lightsabers over with Uncle David beside her carrying the bags.

“Cool cane!” Rex says, throwing Jay a thumbs up. The Annes nod too. “Woulda done a red one myself, but the green is awesome.”

“Told you they’re all nerds,” I say.

“Look who’s talking!” Mom pokes me with her feet in my ribs and I roll away from her in the grass cause it tickles. “This one’s the nerdiest of all. She just started reading Lord of the Rings and she’s only ten.”

“Oh, I was the same!” Jay takes a chair in the circle and Uncle David plops her bags down in the dirt and takes the seat next to her. “Although I think I was thirteen when I attempted LOTR, so you’ve got me beat.” She says it like “loader” and I giggle. Not like an evil giggle, just like a regular person giggle, cause I think I like this Jay person.

“Mom, can I take her for a grand tour?” I turn to Mom and watch her slip the last bit of purple popsicle off the stick with her teeth. Her lips are dark purple like lipstick. 

“Dinner’s in forty. Just listen for the horn.” She turns to Jay. “I’ll give you a full orientation tomorrow, but it’s probably more fun to get the tour with this one anyway. We eat dinner all together at six, and that’s the dinner horn—” She twists around and points at the long skinny horn sitting in its hooks outside the front door. “Don’t be alarmed if you hear a noise like a dying goose.”

“C’mon! Let’s go!” I shout, jumping up and scaling the bench and the picnic table and then jumping down into the dirt.

“Parkour!” Dakota says, and we wiggle finger guns at each other.

“Okay, monkey-brat,” Mom says to me. “Can you just take it easy please. Think about how fast you’d be going alone and then just split that in half like five times.”

I wait for Jay and remember she’s lightsabering and stuff, and she walks pretty slow with it, kinda wobbly a little, so I do what mom says and keep myself slow (well I kinda do, but really I run ahead and then run back and do some more parkour cause then it’s like I’m going just as fast). I take Jay out past the circle and the big tent, past the tool shed and the little greenhouse. I tell her all my favorite spots to sit and read (but make her promise not to steal them), and then I take her down the path past the flower garden to where the woods start. I point to the little wooden bridge and the downhill path and tell her that’s the way to my favorite climbing tree.

Jay nods. “That’s awesome! I’d love to see it… but that path looks kinda treacherous.” She lifts her cane a little. “The whole tripod thing.”

I raise both my eyebrows at her. “So you can’t go in the woods?”

She shrugs and smiles, her brown eyes crinkling at the corners like Mama’s do, even though that’s cause she’s old and Jay’s not old. “I don’t mind!” Jay says. 

I don’t want to tell her that not going in the woods means she’ll miss a whole lot of the most awesome things. No climbing tree, no rock scrambling up Rock Creek, no swimming in the pond, or finding cool secret hiding places. I scratch my part between my braids and try to think of where we could go instead. 

“Do you wanna see the CSA field?” I ask, spinning around back the way we came.

Jay agrees so I lead the way. On the other side of the flower garden is the gate to the CSA field that I helped Ari paint. I painted each post a rainbow color and then on each one Ari painted a veggie or a plant that matched up—it’s our masterpiece, and when all the CSA members come to do their volunteer hours they have to walk right through our gate and they all love it. I unlatch it and hold it open for Jay.

“This is amazing,” Jay says, and I want to say thank you cause I think she’s talking about the rainbow gate but then I look and she’s staring out at the field, big smile, eyes behind her big glasses even bigger. I look out over the vegetable beds but it just looks like it always does. I know exactly where everything is—ask me to find beets, bush beans, lemon cucumbers, zukes, lettuce, onions, I can bring back all of them in like ten seconds flat. My superpower is basically veggie identification. But I try to see what Jay sees—all something new.

“Did you only live in a city before this?” I ask her, as I step ahead down the path between beds two and three. Regular cucumbers and lemon cucumbers on the left, squash hybrids and honeydews on the right. 

“Yeah, I was in Boston, and then Portland before that. It was nothing like this.”

I skip ahead on the path to the circular herb bed and pinch off an end of basil for Jay to smell. That’s what Mama always does when she takes the volunteers into the field for the first time. Or she makes them munch some stevia but that always makes my stomach feel weird. Jay presses the basil leaves right up against her nose and breathes deep. I lead her down between the rest of the beds, walking backwards without looking where I’m going cause I’ve got it all memorized, so I can point at each bed and tell her what grows there. I think she’s impressed by my superpower as she lightsabers down the path behind me. 

I know where I’m taking her next. If she can’t go in the woods to find her own secret spots and hobbit-holes, I’ll share one of mine. Sometimes I’m an evil supervillain with an evil laugh, and sometimes I’m really the good guy. We let ourselves out through the far gate of the CSA field, and trek down the path past the big barn. “That’s where the work-traders like to have dance parties,” I explain, pointing through the open doors to the dark inside like a cave. “I’m only allowed to come sometimes, but that’s okay. I’m not very good at dancing.”

Past the big barn, the path curves around through one of the overgrown fields. I watch carefully to make sure it’s flat enough for Jay and I think it is cause I don’t see any rocks or things and Jay is still clomping on behind me. I slow myself down to walk next to her.

“Where are we going now?” she asks.

“One of my hideouts,” I tell her.

The path opens into a clearing, all scraggly grass and dandelion puffs, walled around with shrubs and big old trees and new ones. I point to a square slab of concrete at the edge of the clearing. “That’s our welcome mat!” 

Past the welcome mat, we have to step over some broken branches. Jay reaches out a hand at me and I take it and try to hold her steady like a strong hero would. She gets over just fine though, she just needed a hand. Past the branches is the tire swing and past that is my hideout: the old house. Or what’s left of it, I guess. 

A square concrete border boxes us in on one and a half sides, and everything else is open to the trees, creeping in like creepy arms and fingers. The walls and roof are long gone. Things are laid out like it might’ve looked, but who knows. 

“What was this place?” Jay asks, stepping forward to look. There’s the legless desk with the typewriter that has zero keys, and next to it a file cabinet rusted into grossness, and the skinny oven with only two stove burners. In the middle of all the broken stuff is a big pile of bricks, and someone’s stuck a root beer bottle neck-down into the top of it. 

“This was the house that used to be here before my moms and my uncle and their friends bought it. This old lady lived here in this tiny house and they needed more room so they just built everything new.” 

I lead us around the mess, to outside the ghost walls where there’s a flat patch of grass, and an X-men blanket that I like to lie on to look up at the leaves and the sky. I kneel down and brush all the stray leaves off the big X logo. Jay lets go of her cane and bends forward slowly until she’s balanced up on all fours like the down dog pose in yoga. I watch her lean and bend until she can twist around onto her butt. I don’t know how to help so I just let her do what she’s doing cause she’s obviously done this before. We lie down on our backs and stare up at the green leaves and yellow leaves shimmering and shimmying and flickering in the wind. We’re both quiet for what feels like a long long long minute.

“When I get my base pay I’m going to buy a big boat and sail all the way down around South America and then all the way back up to New York City.” I reach my fingers up above me and stretch and wiggle them like I can grab the leaves.

Jay doesn’t answer right away cause she’s probably amazed by my idea. Finally she says, “That would be really hard.” She reaches only her right arm up towards the leaves too and squiggles her fingers.

Two of them don’t really bend, but the rest are regular squigglers. “Do you know how to sail?”

“No, but Rex can and he said he’d teach me someday!”

“That’s awesome! But a boat is expensive, you know.”

I float my arms back down to my sides. “Not more expensive than Rock Creek farm was! I just have to get some people to buy it with me!”

“Wait—your family bought their farm with their base pay?”

“Mom and Mama always say it was their dream forever with Aunt Mag and Aunt Roni to buy a farm someday,” I say. “But they wouldn’t have actually been able to do it before. They had all regular jobs and stuff. I don’t know. They just did it!”

“I mean, I’ve only had it for a few months, and it’s been a miracle cause I could buy a plane ticket and actually leave, but I couldn’t buy a farm or a boat or anything. It works like, for food. For a place to live. For like staying alive.”

I turn onto my side and stare at Jay staring up at the sky. Her eyes blink below the flat line of her glasses. She smiles while I watch her. 

“What are you gonna do?” I ask. 

Jay frowns a little like she’s thinking. “That’s like what they used to ask us in elementary school,” Jay says, picking up a reddish leaf from the grass and lifting it above us. “What do you wanna be when you grow up.” She rips the leaf in half and tears it along all its little veins into leaf confetti. “We all had huge dreams. Astronaut, ballerina, baseball player. Those things would’ve just stayed dreams before, but I hope now with the money, we all get to actually try to be what we wanted to be.”

“What did you want to be?”

Jay looks over at me now, twirling the stem of the leaf between her fingers. “I wanted to be an artist. Like a painter with an easel and a French beret, that’s how I pictured it. But now I want to make comic books. I want to make stories about kids like us saving the world.”

I flip over onto my stomach and push up on my elbows so I can stare at her more. I never thought about making new stories, like making them for real out of your own ideas and putting them down for other people to read. “You can make comics about me!”

Jay laughed. “Oh yeah?”

“Cause when I grow up I’m gonna be a superhero for real!” I sit up on my knees and take Jay’s hand and squeeze it cause I’m just so excited. “I know magic and stuff isn’t real but you don’t even need it to be a superhero.”

Jay nods. “Batman only had a cool car and lots of money.”

“Yeah! And Han Solo only had the Millennium Falcon and the most awesome best friend Chewie.”

“So I guess you just need a vehicle and a mission.”

“A boat!” I shout. “Are there any other superheroes with boats?”

“Uhh…” Jay thinks on it, scratching her chin like she has a beard. “Not that I know. Other than pirates but they aren’t always good guys.”        

“I’m gonna be a good guy.”

“That’s good!” She laughs. “What are you gonna do? To save the world?”

I look up above me at the trees and think. Bugs buzz around us in the grass and a bird squawks from the tire swing tree. “I want to make sure every kid has a place like this.” I say, twisting around to look back through the overgrown field to the big barn and the houses poking up just barely. “I wanna gather up all the babies and kids and teenagers that nobody knows they want, stick them in my big boat, and bring them around to every place so people realize they could want them.” 

Jay looks at me and keeps looking for a while. She forgets to smile at how great my idea is. I’m still holding her hand so I squeeze it to remind her.

“You know, they started base pay when I was seven,” she says. “I was in a foster home with these pretty nice people and then as soon as they started getting money they didn’t want me anymore. That was a thing for like three or four years after—people just stopped wanting foster kids cause they had this other money and didn’t need the foster kid money. We were all stuck in group homes, just way too many of us.”

I didn’t realize she wasn’t smiling cause she was sad but now I can tell.

“But then something pretty cool started happening,” Jay says. “The adults explained it to us a little, but I realized later what was going on. All these different people started wanting us. People who had this money now and felt more secure and realized they could do something like take another kid in. There was this flood of new homes again, and so many kids got to go.”

I scrunch my face up cause that sounds like a good thing but what about Jay? “No one came to get you?” I ask.

“There were more people again, but it’s never been enough for all the kids. And people are still weird about kids who walk funny or use chairs. Or kids who can’t sit still. Or who get really sad.”

“But there’s places for all of them, don’t you think?”

“Of course I do.” Jay lets go of my hand and pushes herself up slowly until she’s sitting almost cross-leg. “I’m still looking for mine… I just want it to happen quicker for everyone else.”

“Can’t we do that? Can’t that be our superpower?”

From way across the fields, the dinner horn rings out like an animal scream. Jay jumps in surprise and I laugh because that’s always the worktraders’ reactions. We both look back towards the farm, and like the horn’s echo, Dakota’s dog Bruno howls and howls. 

“Mama and Aunt Roni were on to cook tonight, so I promise you dinner’s gonna be really good, and also vegan.” I hop up off the ground and Jay gets herself up more slowly, pushing up on her lightsaber. We pick our way through the old house and I take Jay’s hand again to help her over the branches and back into the clearing. I don’t let go though when we’re back on the path because I want to keep holding her hand. It’s not like holding Mom’s or Mama’s hand or anyone else, cause Jay moves all jerky and grips my hand tight. I like it though. She feels big and solid, and it’s kinda like I’m lightsabering with her.

“So it sounds like we’ve got a mission,” Jay says.

I look in front of us, the overgrown field opening up so we can see everything—the houses and the greenhouses and the barn and the field and the woods behind it, all perfectly in place. Way far away, I see Al and Ari walking back from the farmstand, pulling the wagon behind them. And already people are coming out of the house with their plates and sitting down at the picnic table where we always eat until it gets too cold.

I wish I could bring them all here, all the kids who forget what it’s like to have a place (and the kids who remember, which almost makes it worse). We might not have room for all of them, but I’ve seen the maps—I know all the states and most of the capitals. I know how big this country is. There’s gotta be other people like us, with enough room for just one kid, or maybe two or three. I’ll save up for a boat, and Rex will teach me, and Jay and I can sail all over (and drive and fly and lightsaber around if we need to), and pick up all the kids till we’re full to the top. Then we can go to every town and city and farm, any place at all, and remind all the people everywhere how awesome we are, how completely super-heroic and amazingly crazy awesome we all can be. 

Sionnain Buckley