After years of the government taking everything he grows, homesteader George Vega has had enough. Food is scarce and people are starving. To provide for himself, he’ll need to break the law. Together with his next-door neighbor June, he sets up a system to hide food from the controller during his weekly collecting visits.
Axel Rowe won’t survive much longer. Every scrap of food he can get his hands on, he gives to his six-year-old daughter, but it isn’t nearly enough. Luck is on his side when he secures a job as a controller. He realizes taking the job will make people dislike him, but he has to eat.
George understands the danger he’s in when his old, lazy controller is replaced with a new, more observant one. Axel suspects there is something George is withholding, but when George takes care of him after nearly collapsing from hunger, Axel is more curious about how he's able to keep food for himself than he's interested in reporting him. George knows the risk, but after having looked into Axel’s desperate eyes, he’s compelled to take care of him. But can an outlaw homesteader have a relationship with the man who’s supposed to make sure he follows the law?
“And seven eggs are all you have this week?” He couldn’t let Mr. Vega get away with giving less than he could.
“Yes.” He gestured at the rhubarb plant. “They need another week to grow, and the government hasn’t given me my seeds.”
Axel nodded. Why did it take so long for the farmers to get their seeds? If the farmers didn’t get seeds, everyone would starve, come fall. Icy fear awoke in his gut. If no farmers had gotten their seeds, they’d already missed weeks -- months maybe -- of food.
“When ... Erm ... When do you normally get your seeds?”
“Earlier than this.” Mr. Vega crossed his arms over his chest, and Axel jumped as he noticed the hens, having given up their pecking in the garden bed, were now surrounding him. He took a step closer to the stairs, ready to run up to Mr. Vega if they attacked.
“Do you know if anyone else has gotten their seeds?” He threw Mr. Vega a quick glance before focusing on the hens again.
“I hope those registered as farmers have or we’ll be in for a rough winter.”
Right, Mr. Vega wasn’t a farmer. He was a baker with a homestead. According to his notes, he hadn’t failed to pay his toll in several years, which was remarkable. It was almost as if the government wanted them to fail so they’d have power over them. One failed toll payment would mean a cut of the quota they were allowed to keep, which meant Mr. Vega would have to give away more of his produce to the Friday market.
Axel wasn’t sure it was a sound system. They needed farmers. People in the cities were starving, and if the farmers were starving too, no food would ever reach the market.
The ground swayed under Axel’s feet, and he closed his eyes.
“Are you okay?”
He wouldn’t call Mr. Vega’s voice concerned exactly, but while speaking those words, it had lost some of its edge.
Axel tried to nod, but had to reach out and grab the railing to steady himself. He couldn’t drop the basket. Taking a deep breath, he fought against the roar in his ears. Was he fainting? He couldn’t faint in front of Mr. Vega. He was a controller -- the strength of the government.
It was laughable. Axel had no strength left.
“Fuck. Come with me. Can you walk?”
Axel tried to focus on Mr. Vega, but everything blurred before his eyes. Strong warm hands gripped his and pried his fingers open so Mr. Vega could take the basket Axel was clutching. Then Mr. Vega pulled him up the stairs.
“I’m sorry.” It wasn’t more than a whisper, but Axel wanted to die of shame. How could he be this weak? He’d get to eat tomorrow, if only he could get through the day. Mira would get to eat.
“When did you last eat?”
Axel didn’t reply as Mr. Vega steered him into the kitchen and pushed him down on a chair.
“I can’t be here, the guard --”
“Is a lazy fucker. He won’t be here for another couple of minutes.” Mr. Vega rummaged around in one cupboard, then he held out something small. “Eat.”
Axel didn’t know what it was, but he put it in his mouth. It was leathery but sweet. “Apple?”
“Yes. Dried apple slices.” A glass of water appeared in front of him. “Drink.”
Mr. Vega stepped closer to the counter, and Axel downed the water in big swallows.
“You need to get out now, he’s coming this way.”
Axel shot to his feet and swayed, but his vision had cleared. He couldn’t have the guard report him to the authorities.
“Easy.” Mr. Vega stepped close. He smelled of vanilla, a scent Axel hadn’t breathed in for years. Bakery. He shoved something in Axel’s jacket pocket. “It’s not much, but there are some apple slices. Eat them in the car on the way to June’s.”
Axel nodded. He’d eat one, but the rest he would save for Mira. An ache spread in his chest, a lump forming in his throat. This was dangerous, way too dangerous, but he wasn’t giving the apples back.
Mr. Vega opened the door right as the guard was about to put his foot on the first step. “I’ll put it in the basket, Mr. Rowe, but I want the basket back.” His voice was back to being harsh, and Axel had no idea what he was talking about.
He stared as Mr. Vega gently put a cucumber on top of the eggs.
“You’re giving extra?”
“Two cucumbers a week, Mr. Rowe, that’s the rule. I had three ready to harvest from my windowsill garden. You inspected it.” Mr. Vega gave him a stony look, and Axel nodded.