TITLE: The Tomato Plant
By Valarie Sullivan
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Rachel felt like an icy fist slammed into her chest. Her heart stopped beating for a moment.
“Conscripted?” She did not know there was still such a thing.
The old man in the wheel chair cackled.
“It’s the New Depression, don’ cha know?” He took a long swig from his water bottle.
“But, where? Who?” Rachel’s thoughts buzzed in her head.
He cackled again. “What does it matter? You aint gettin him back, that’s fer sure! Shoo! Your hu’bin will only come back dead or lame.” He spit off to one side. “They don’ even look at me, ya know. Bein legless, they have no use fer me. But as long as yore hu’bin has good legs an a strong back…spitoo…they’ll keep’m as long as they can!”
“But, Mr. Patton, how can they do that?” Rachel looked up and down the deserted street as if expecting to see the press gang coming for her.
“Wal, it’s the guv’ment, don’ cha know.” Mr. Patton wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “They need new soldiers to fight in the war. Ya know that the front lines have moved west, don’ cha?”
Rachel clutched her blanket tighter around her shoulders. A dozen scenarios swirled through her head at the same time. Endless future possibilities. She came back to find he was still talking.
“…an seein’ as how I’m still good from the knees up, you an yore fam’ly can come stay with me.” The old man licked his lips and Rachel shuddered.
“Thank you, Mr. Patton, but I have a home.” Rachel stepped back, intent on getting away as quickly as she could.
“I know yore kids are sickly!” Mr. Patton called out to her. “Hope they get over the flu, soon!”
“Thank you!” She called back, but continued walking down the street.
The shock of it ran through her like ice water. She knew the war was intensifying, but to remove a forty years old man from his home without a by-your-leave! Leaving his wife and children, alone. To face the winter and starvation without him. It was unthinkable!
The quiet streets echoed her footsteps as she hurried home. The flu had taken down many people; many others spent their waking moments tending the sick. How often had the press gangs come? How many families were without their husbands and sons? Gratitude that her son was too ill to be on the streets filled her. Thank God for the flu! Ironic to have a reason to thank Him for an illness.
When she approached her house, a splash of color caught her attention. A pot of tomato plants stood by the door.
“Now where did that come from?” Rachel asked herself. She looked up and down the street, but blank windows and doors met her gaze. No one skulked by, watching her receive the gift.
Several green tomatoes grew on the vines, and three large red ones pulled the branches down.
She’d better get this in, before someone else sees it and takes it from her!
Hurriedly, she opened the door and went in. Setting the plant on the table she looked around.
The blank television mocked her. No electricity to use it. They had not had power for months. No way to keep up with the news except to run into old men like Mr. Patton who knew more than they should about other people’s business.
She kept her home as neat and clean as she could, considering. But she was seriously considering pulling up the carpet.
As Rachel pulled off her coat and scarf, she wondered if the carpet would burn clean enough to use in the fireplace. They had broken up many pieces of furniture that they did not need anymore to use as fuel. She and her husband, Tom, had closed off several rooms in the house to make heating more efficient.
Rachel ran a loving hand on the makeshift mantle. Her husband had built the fireplace not long after the New Depression started. They used it to heat the house and cook their meals. They hauled in water from wherever they could find it. She was thankful for the septic tank. At least it worked. Before communications cut off, permanently, a friend in town told her that the city sewer system was backing up. Tom had planned to build an outhouse after the ground thawed out.
The tomatoes gleamed in the light from the windows. Who could have sent those? And why?
Then it came to her. Thank You, Lord!
Rachel picked the three red ones and brought them to the beds set up in the living room. It was easier to keep warm when they were all together.
“Here, Billy, eat this.” Rachel shook her oldest son awake. He sleepily sat up and blinked at the red fruit.
She gave one to Megan and the last to little Jason.
“Mom!” Megan protested. “You know I hate tomatoes!”
“You don’t have much choice in this, dear.” Rachel sat heavily in the only chair. “Think of it as medicine.”
Jason wiped the juices from his chin. “What kind of medicine is this?”
“Vitamin C.” Rachel picked at her skirt before continuing. “I found out what happened to your father.”
“Where is he?” Billy asked, excitedly.
Megan had tears in her eyes, “Can we see him?”
Softly, Rachel explained what had happened.
Billy fell back on the pillow, stone faced.
“But, why?” Megan wailed. Jason peppered her with questions, but Rachel could not talk about it anymore.
“It just is, ok?” Rachel stood up suddenly. “Now, get some rest. You children need to get well, soon. There is much to be done and we have to do it all ourselves, now.”
Billy sat up again. “Mom,” He said, “I’m feeling much better now. I can get up.”
Rachel felt his forehead. Cool to the touch.
“Let’s see you walk.”
Billy climbed out of the covers and stood shakily on his feet.
“Alright, Billy.” Rachel conceded. “But only light duties until you get your strength back.”
“And I want all of you to eat a red tomato every time one gets ripe. Hear?” Rachel showed them the potted plant. “Someone left this on the porch for us.”
“Who?” Jason asked as he snuggled back under the covers.
“I don’t know. But it’s a blessing nonetheless.” Rachel tucked the blankets in tighter around her son and brushed the hair from his forehead. “It will be spring soon, and we can plant some more vegetables. Now, you and Megan rest while your brother and I get wood and water and scrounge up some food. Ok?”
“I’ll take care of him, Mom.” Megan volunteered.
“Thank you, dear.” Rachel smiled her first real smile in weeks. “We can get through this with God’s help and cooperation from everybody. And pray that your father returns home soon.”
Rachel and Billy bundled up against the cold winter air and left the house, knowing that their survival depended upon them alone.
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