It was late afternoon and the sun had just set behind the tall pines to the west of us. As always in the mountains, when the sun disappears, so does the warmth. Even in mid-February, the days are often above freezing when the sun is out. But now, the cold poured into our valley as though it had been released from a great reservoir of winter. I stood looking out of the front windows at the landscape of white snow, watching it turn blue with shadow.
We were waiting for Mom, Dad and Grandpa to get home before we started the evening chores. Will began to light the lanterns and Jake stoked up the fire in the indoor wood-burning stove. I put the green chile stew on to heat, knowing it wouldn’t be long before the truck came around the corner.
“They’re home!” Susanna announced, bouncing up off of the couch to open the door and run out to meet them. T-Rex and Miner leaped joyfully around the arriving party, welcoming them home again.
Sue came back inside with Grandpa, who was moving more stiffly than usual in the chill weather. Dad and Mom followed with Anna and arms full of bags.
“Would you unload the wheat into the barn, boys?” Dad asked. “I’ll meet you at the barn in a minute to do the milking.”
“Ah, thanks for starting dinner, Ramona,” my mom said, reaching out to touch my face as she walked by. I smiled. Mom still treats me like I’m Anna’s age sometimes. I decided I didn’t mind. It’s nice to be loved.
I plumped up some pillows in Grandpa’s favorite chair and brought him a cup of tea and his pipe tobacco. He looked tired.
Dad and the boys returned from the barn a few minutes later. Their faces were pink with cold and their eyes sparkled like ice. Dad put his cold hand on the back of my neck. I jumped away and he laughed. Then he turned to warm them at the stove.
“The stew’s ready,” I said, and put it on the table next to the bread and butter.
When we had almost finished dinner, Dad suddenly stopped eating and patted his front pocket.
“Hey!” he said, “I forgot! We got a letter from Daniel! A big fat one, too.”
“Holy macro—at long last!” Will exclaimed.
“Mackerel,” I corrected, absent-mindedly. I was surprised too. We had written Daniel several times and called his dad twice but never heard back from Daniel. I had wondered if maybe his dad was hiding our letters or something.
“Looks like he wrote a note to you, Will,” Dad said, handing over a folded piece of lined paper. “And one to you, Mona.” He added, handing me an identical piece of paper.
“And one to ‘The Morgans,’” Dad finished, dropping the empty envelope on the table and opening the letter in his hands.
“Hey, why didn’t he write me!” Jake exclaimed.
“Probably because you didn’t write him,” I said, trying not to act self-conscious about my own letter. Jake frowned at me and I smiled serenely back at him, while tucking my letter into my pocket to read later.
“Dear Morgans,” Dad read aloud.
“I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. I got the letters you sent and the map from Will. Thanks for sending that. I’m not good at writing by hand, so I’m hoping you’ll email me instead. I’ll include my email address at the bottom of the letter.
“So, I guess you probably want to know what I’m doing and all that. I am fine. I miss you guys and Cricket and T-Rex.
“I started tenth grade this year. It’s going okay. I’m doing pretty good in computer stuff. I even got a design job off the web and I might try going that direction and making some money that way.
“I set up the hydroponic bucket thing that you guys sent with me and planted tomatoes in one and lettuce in the other. They are growing just fine but I have a hard time remembering to take care of them. It’s funny how different it is when you’re alone in your ideas. It’s harder to keep going that way.
“I have a job on the weekends that gives me some cash to buy good bread, cheese and meat. It isn’t much and I really am not eating the way I should be. But I’m trying. Thanks for your encouragement about that.
“And guess what—the job is mucking out stables down on the Rio Grande! I get to be around horses and every now and then, I can ride one of them. The people I work for are really rich.
A week later . . .
“Sorry, I forgot I was writing this letter. Anyway, good news; I met some people at the co-op this week that overheard me asking the cashier for raw milk. He said it’s illegal to sell raw milk and I didn’t know that. But when I went outside, these really nice people were waiting for me to come outside and they told me that they sell ‘Pet Milk.’ I have to ride my bike four miles to go get it, and then four miles back. But it’s worth it. I’m not sure if the cow is the ‘Pet’ or if I am.
“I wanted to ask you guys if there is any connection between cancer and GMO food, because it’s weird how many people in my school have cancer right now. Even some of the kids.
“Anyway, that’s all my news. Please tell Grandpa that the smiley tortilla face T-shirt he gave me is a real hit at school. Just like he said, ‘The chicks dig it.’
“Tell Jake, Susanna and Anna ‘hi’ for me. I miss you guys. Thanks for everything.
Will was reading his letter at the same time and he looked up to say,
“His dad got a job but they didn’t get a different apartment. He doesn’t mention coming back here and I don’t think he knows we tried to call him. Dad—do you think I could go visit him? I could pay for the gas myself.”
Dad looked at Will and nodded. “Yeah. Could be possible. You could take him some food stuff. I’ll pay for the gas.”
We didn’t talk much after that, I guess we were all thinking about Daniel. As soon as I’d cleared the table, I went to my room to read my own letter.
“How’s T-Rex? Thanks for the picture you sent of you and T’ in the garden last fall. I keep it in my wallet and tell my friends that it’s a picture of my girlfriend. Just kidding!
“Thanks for writing me and sorry I haven’t written back sooner. School is driving me nuts. I never really fit in but now . . . well, there just aren’t many people like you guys. Other than that, I’m doing well. And if I stick with it, I can go on to other things that matter more.
“I keep telling myself ‘two more years, two more years’ . . . although I guess it’s a little more than that. I don’t know if I’ll be the same person two years from now. But like you said, change can be a good thing, right? I know you all pray for me. Thanks a lot. Tell Cricket and T-Rex ‘hi’ for me. Keep being you.
“Mona. Dad wants us all to come to the living room and pray for Daniel together.” It was Will, standing at my bedroom door. I nodded and stood up, folding the letter.
“Yeah,” I said, “good idea,” and walked with him to the living room. The rest of the family was already there. Everyone had a cup of tea and a couple of cookies, and Mom gestured at the table where two more cups of tea stood waiting next to a plate full of cookies. Will and I took ours and sat down on the smaller couch in the shadows.
“Is cancer GMO related?” Jake asked, his brow furrowed.
I had to admit, he had grown up a lot in the last six months. I still couldn’t see myself being as close to Jake as I am to Will. But we certainly don’t fight as much as we did a year ago. Dad was nodding.
“Tumors, especially, are a significant side effect of GMO soy and corn in animals. Unlike hamsters and pigs, the human life cycle is much longer and the effects of GMO foods will take longer to appear. But those effects may have begun to show up now.”
“The babies in Texas?”27 Mom asked. Dad nodded.
“There was a test done a few years ago in Texas, in which they checked the umbilical cords and cells of unborn human babies and pregnant mothers for any GMO traces. Over 80% of the babies and 93% of the mothers had significant levels of GMO related toxicity.”
“What does that mean? Will they all get cancer?” Susanna asked.
“No,” Dad shook his head. “Not necessarily. Toxicity results in all kinds of illnesses that are given labels like cancer and chronic fatigue and psychological illness. Scientists, paid by the genetically modified seed companies, will tell you that those diseases cannot be traced to genetically modified food.”
“Yeah, right!” Will exclaimed. Dad spread open his hands, palms outward, as though revealing a truth he’d had been holding in his hands and continued,
“But the facts are that the animals that have eaten genetically modified foods also have high levels of toxicity and develop all those same diseases, dying prematurely. I don’t know if anyone has painted a really clear picture of how genetic modification affects the human body. What can be done is, to simply look at the results.”
I wished Daniel could be there to hear what Dad was saying. It would be hard to do it alone, I thought.
“Anyway,” Dad added, “let’s pray for Daniel, right now while we’re thinking about him. And maybe next week Will can visit him and bring him an ice chest full of good foods.”
Then Dad prayed, like he does, as though he were talking to someone he knows and believes can help him. I smiled at the floor, pushing around a ball of wool with my toe as I listened.
“Existing One, Holy God, Maker and Friend of Man . . . I just want to pray for Daniel right now. I ask that you’d help him get the foods that he needs to grow strong and be clear headed, and help him to know when something is tainted. I also ask that you’d give him some quality friends, people that take him seriously and want to help him instead of slowing him down. And give him strength of spirit to keep fighting when it’s hard-going. And if it’s all right—I think everybody here would ask that you’d bring him back to us again someday. Thank you for answering prayer. Thank you for hearing and caring for us all.”
Grandpa had fallen asleep in his chair and was snoring. Dad made a bed for him on the couch, knowing his cabin would be cold after a day without a fire in the stove. Mom and I cleaned up while Susanna put Anna to bed. Then I went to bed as well.
I laid there looking at the ceiling, thinking about what Dad had said and what Daniel had written. I guess life is never easy for anyone.
The people who fight the hardest become the strongest, I thought.
I picked up Daniel’s letter from my bedside table and looked at it in the moonlight shining through my window. I thought of him sitting at his desk writing it and imagined the hydroponic bucket farm behind him in the corner and his organic food stashed in an old ice chest near the door. I saw him pulling out his wallet to look at the picture of me and T-Rex while he smiled that funny, mischievous smile. And in the darkness, I smiled back at him.
“Keep fighting, Daniel,” I whispered.