Full Circle

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A farmer finds what he thought he’d lost.
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I caught the aliens in the middle of my wheat field just after midnight.

I'd been hoping they'd show up again. They'd been a giant pain in my ass.

Their crop circles were impressive. I had to give them that. The first design featured multiple circles of various sizes connected by a thin ring.

The second design, which was much bigger, showed up five days later. A series of circles radiated outward from a central point to form giant spiral arms, like a galaxy.

The local news loved that one. They used a drone to get aerial footage for their nightly broadcast.

That, of course, brought out the crazies. People came out of the woodwork to check out the mysterious alien designs.

And it wasn't enough just to see them. No, sir. They needed to touch them. Dozens of clumsy, careless feet tramped through my field every day, doing far more damage than whoever had made the stupid circles in the first place.

Pranksters love attention, so I knew they'd be back. The prospect of making the news again would be too tempting to resist.

For three nights I waited in the middle of my field, like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. And for three nights, I trudged home tired and disappointed.

On the fourth night, my luck changed.

I heard them before I saw them.

"Start over there," a girl's voice whispered.

I poked my head above the wheat. Four teenagers were fanning out through the field, each carrying a long wooden plank with a rope threaded through either end. I crept closer as they made their way toward the center of the field.

"This good?" a boy whispered.

"No," the girl said, annoyed. "Pace it out, like I showed you."

The boy nodded and took a series of measured strides away from me. The girl spun in the opposite direction and started pacing forward. Right toward me.

I waited for her to stop, but she just kept coming. She held her head down, eyes fixed on the ground. Her mouth moved in a silent count. She had no clue that she was almost on top of me. I grinned.

"Evening!" I shouted, leaping to my feet.

The girl shrieked, then stumbled backward and fell on her butt.

"Shit!" a boy's voice hissed. The three other trespassers dropped their boards and scampered through the field into the darkness.

The girl was still sitting on the ground, staring up at me in wide-eyed shock. I pulled out my phone.

"Smile," I said, snapping a photo.

She jumped to her feet. "Hey! What the fuck was that for?"

"Evidence," I said. "And watch your mouth."

She glared at me. I glared back.

I waited until she dropped her eyes, then angled my phone toward her so that she could see the photo. "Funny. You don't look like an alien. More like a scared kid."

"I'm fifteen. And I'm not scared."

She pivoted and glanced in the direction where the others had been.

"They're long gone," I said. "Left you to take the fall. Nice friends."

"They were smart. I should take off too." Her eyes made a quick sweep of my lanky frame. "Not like you could stop me."

"Don't need to." I waved my phone. "I have this. You run; I take it to the police. That's door number one."

She sighed and crossed her arms. "What's door number two?"

"Own this. Call your folks. Right now. Tell them what you did. Tell them to come pick you up. And tell them I want to have a chat."

She stared at me for a long time, then pulled out her phone. "Fine."

She made the call then followed me through the field to the house. I paused at the front porch with my hand on the doorknob. "You scared of dogs?"

"No."

"Good."

I opened the door and Luna, my yellow labrador retriever, bolted onto the porch.

"This is the girl that's been tearing up our field," I told Luna. "Bite her."

Luna wagged her tail, licked the girl's hand, then flopped onto her back for a belly rub.

"Traitor," I grumbled.

"Hi, puppy!" the girl said, dropping to her knees and stroking Luna's belly. "Oh, you're so sweet!"

The girl's eyes lit up and a huge smile spread across her face. For the first time, she looked like a kid and not a sullen brat pretending to be a world-weary adult. "You're a good girl," she cooed. "Yes, you are!"

"What's your name?" I asked.

Distracted by Luna, she answered instantly. "Katie." Then her hand froze on Luna's fur and her head whipped around. She stared at me with narrowed eyes, like I'd tricked her into revealing a secret.

"Hi, Katie," I said. "I'm James McCreary."

Katie gave me a brief nod and continued to pet Luna in silence. After a long time, she rose to her feet. Suddenly deprived of attention, Luna jumped up and pawed at Katie's leg.

"Look, Mr. McCreary ... I'm sorry about your field."

I studied her face. She was a cute kid. She had straight black hair drawn into a loose ponytail and a smattering of freckles that dotted her cheeks.

"No, you're not."

She gave me an indignant look. "Yeah, I am."

"You don't sound sorry. You sound irritated."

"Well, yeah. Because you don't believe me."

"I believe you're sorry you got caught. But that's not the same thing."

"It's not like we killed the wheat," she said. "I researched it. The boards we used only bent the grain. It'll keep growing."

"Doesn't matter," I said. "I still can't harvest it."

"Why not?"

"A combine can't cut below six inches. If I try to harvest your artwork, it'll ruin the whole machine. Can't make money on wheat I don't harvest."

Katie's cheeks flushed pink.

"Didn't research that bit, did you?" I asked.

Luna started barking. A few seconds later, I heard car tires crunching up the gravel path to the house.

I grabbed Luna's collar and pointed to the porch swing. "Have a seat. I'm gonna take her inside."

When I got back to the porch, a Honda Civic with a dented front quarter panel and missing hubcap was parked in front of the house. The door flew open and a tall woman in sandals, flannel pajama bottoms, and a blue T-shirt jumped out. As she jogged up the steps to the porch, I saw that her shirt was inside-out and backward.

She shot me a wary look. Her right hand clutched what looked to be a container of pepper spray. She strode to Katie's side. "¿Estás bien?"

Katie stared at the floor and nodded. "I'm fine, Mom."

I suddenly felt like an enormous asshole. Katie's poor mother was scared out of her mind. I'd dragged her out of bed and forced her to drive to a complete stranger's farm in the middle of the night—alone—to pick up her daughter. Just because I wanted to teach Katie a lesson.

This was exactly why I hated being around people. I wasn't good at it. Not anymore.

All I wanted at that moment was to be alone.

"I'm sorry," I said. "This was a mistake. It's late. You two go home. Get some sleep. I'm going to do the same."

Katie's mother looked confused. "Katie said she damaged your property. That you wanted to talk to me about it."

"Changed my mind." I turned and opened the front door. "Sorry to have troubled you, ma'am."

With that, I disappeared into the familiar silence of my kitchen.

*******

They were back the next morning.

The doorbell chimed just as I scooped Luna's breakfast into her bowl.

"Here you go, girl." I set the bowl on the floor and walked to the door. I opened it to find Katie and her mother standing on the porch.

I didn't want to talk to them—or anyone else, for that matter. I just wanted to eat breakfast with Luna and start my day.

Katie's mother nodded at me. Her deep brown eyes conveyed a steely resolve. I realized I wasn't getting off the porch without a conversation.

"Good morning, Mr. McCreary," she said. "I'm Sandra Parades."

Sandra's hair was longer and darker than her daughter's, but she had the same smattering of freckles on her cheeks. She looked around five years younger than me, maybe mid-thirties. Instead of an inside-out T-shirt and pajama bottoms, today she wore a black shirt and faded blue jeans that had been patched at the knees.

"Morning, Ms. Parades," I said.

"Just Sandra," she said. "If you don't mind."

"Only if you don't mind calling me James."

She tilted her head to the left. "I believe you've met my daughter, Katie."

Katie squeezed her eyes shut and scrunched up her face, as if trying to make herself disappear.

"My daughter has something she'd like to say."

I waited. Sandra's elbow nudged Katie's ribs.

Katie opened her eyes. "Mr. McCreary," she began, "what I did to your field was selfish, reckless, destructive, and ..."

Katie glanced at her mother. Sandra narrowed her eyes. I watched an entire unspoken conversation pass between them in less than a second.

"... and really, really stupid," Katie finished. "I'm sorry."

This time, I believed her.

"I appreciate that," I said. "It's not easy admitting you were wrong. Takes courage."

"But Katie knows sorry isn't good enough," Sandra said. "She'd like to make amends for the damage she caused."

I gave Katie a questioning look. "That so?"

Katie nodded. "Yeah. That's so."

"Okay. Come on in. Let's talk."

Luna was overjoyed to be reunited with her buddy Katie and equally thrilled to meet Sandra. After she'd finished trying to lick them both to death, we made our way to the kitchen.

As I was pouring two glasses of water, Katie pointed to a charcoal sketch that she'd spotted on the wall. "Hey, that's your farm."

"It is," I agreed.

She walked over to examine the frame. "Did you sketch this?"

I shook my head and chuckled. "Don't have an artistic bone in my body. My wife did that."

"It's good," Katie said, leaning closer to get a better look. "Wow. It's really good."

I handed Sandra a glass of water. Her fingers grazed mine as she took it. "Katie is an artist too," she said. The pride in her voice was unmistakable.

Katie continued to stare at the sketch. "No, I'm not. Not like that." She turned to face me. "Your wife is a super talented woman."

"Thank you," I said. "She was."

I watched as Sandra and Katie exchanged a glance. Even after all this time, I still hated the awkwardness of these conversations, so I plowed ahead with my stock explanation.

"She passed away," I said. "Four years ago. Pancreatic cancer."

Four years. Had it been that long?

I stared at the frame on the wall. I'd mounted it for Heather, along with a half dozen of her other sketches, for our anniversary. Paper. That was the traditional first anniversary gift, so I'd picked some of her favorite works and surprised her by hanging them throughout the house.

Heather acted embarrassed when she saw them, but I could tell she was pleased. We'd danced together that night, right there in the kitchen, without any music. I could still hear the creak of the floorboards under our feet, smell the scent of her skin, feel the warmth of her lips on mine.

The sketches always reminded me of what I admired most in Heather. She had a gift for finding beauty in the world and drawing it forth, like one might draw water from a well. She poured that beauty into her art so that others could share it. You'd study a stack of hay bales she'd sketched and wonder how something so simple could make you feel so happy.

She had the same effect on people. When you were with Heather, you could sense the joy that filled her soul, and it filled yours too.

After she died, so did that joy. It leaked in tiny drops from every crack and crevice until I was completely drained.

"I'm so sorry." Sandra's voice was soft, the words barely a whisper. Both she and Katie were staring at me.

My eyes felt moist. I walked to the sink and spent a long time pouring myself a glass of water. By the time I joined them at the table, I'd regained my composure.

"Amends," I said, sinking into the wooden chair. "What did you have in mind?"

"We want to pay for the wheat that you can't harvest," Katie said.

"That's really not necessa—"

"It is," Sandra interrupted. She took a long drink of water, then set the glass on the table. "How much would that be?"

I hesitated. "About twelve hundred dollars." When I saw the look on Sandra's face, I added, "Probably not even that much."

"I'm so dead," Katie muttered.

"I see," Sandra said. "Well, that will take some time. Would you be open to monthly payments?"

"This wasn't all Katie's doing," I said. "Three other kids were there that night. There's no reason she should foot the bill for their part in all this."

"Estoy de acuerdo," Sandra said, glaring at her daughter.

I didn't speak Spanish, but it was clear that Katie and her mother had discussed this before. I turned to Katie. "You're not willing to give them up. That right?"

Katie gave me a defiant stare.

"In that case, I have a proposal. It's June. That's harvest season for winter wheat. It's a busy time and I could use a hand with a few chores and projects."

Sandra's brow furrowed.

"Nothing too difficult or dangerous," I continued. "Front porch needs to be cleaned and re-stained. That sort of thing. I'll pay twenty bucks an hour. We'll figure out a schedule and Katie can work off her debt."

"I suppose it might help keep her out of trouble this summer." Sandra turned to her daughter. "It's your debt. What do you think?"

Katie shrugged. "Doesn't sound like I have much choice."

"Not unless you have twelve hundred dollars under your mattress," her mother said. Then she turned to me. "But I'm not dropping off my daughter with a stranger for the day."

"Course not. You're invited too."

Sandra fidgeted with her glass.

"Or Katie's dad can come with her," I added, hoping I hadn't made her uncomfortable.

Katie gave a brief snort of laughter. "Doubt he'll bring me. He's never even met me."

"I'll bring her," Sandra said.

"Then it sounds like we have a deal," I said. "When can you start?"

*******

To her credit, Katie showed up ready to work.

"So, what's first?" she asked, setting a faded red cooler under an elm tree in my front yard. Sandra followed a few steps behind, carrying a water bottle in one hand and a book in the other.

Sandra had decided that late Tuesday and Thursday afternoons fit best with her work schedule. That was fine by me. As the owner and only year-round employee of a small farm, I had the flexibility to adjust my schedule however I liked.

"We'll start up here." I motioned for Katie to join me on the porch. Sandra took a seat at a picnic table in the front yard and watched us.

I tapped my toe against a white bucket filled with a clear liquid. "First step is to clean the wood and get rid of the old stain."

I grabbed a stiff-bristled brush attached to a pole and showed her how to work the cleaning solution into the wood.

"Only do a few boards at a time and make sure they stay wet. Let the solution soak in for twenty minutes."

She nodded. "Then what?"

I handed her a pressure washer wand and pointed to a small rectangle of boards that I'd treated before they'd arrived. She aimed the nozzle at the wood and squeezed the trigger.

The handle kicked up from the force, sending a jet of water high over the porch railing. Katie yelped in surprise. I glanced at Sandra, worried she might be having second thoughts.

She was laughing.

It was the first time I'd seen her happy. Her smile lit up her face and formed tiny creases at the corner of her eyes. I realized I was staring and looked away.

"What's so funny?" Katie shouted over the roar of the compressor.

Sandra pantomimed holding the pressure washer, then started waving her arms wildly back and forth. She pointed at Katie and started laughing again.

Katie rolled her eyes and pulled the trigger. I helped her guide the nozzle toward the floorboards.

"Nice even strokes. Don't hold it too close to the wood. That's it."

Like magic, the dark brown stain disappeared, revealing the wood's original color.

"Whoa," Katie said. "That's pretty cool."

I smiled. "Might not seem so cool after a few more hours. You won't finish today, so just take your time with it. Slow and steady wins the race. Got it?"

"Got it."

I left the porch and joined Sandra at the picnic table. "She's a natural."

Sandra grinned. "Is that what you'd call it?"

We sat together for several minutes, watching Katie work.

"Can you two please not stare at me like that?" Katie said, resting the brush against the railing and putting her hands on her hips. "It's creepy."

With nowhere else to look, I shifted my eyes to Sandra just as she turned to look at me. There was a brief moment of awkward silence before Sandra spoke.

"I hate to ask, but would you mind showing me the crop circles? Katie told me what she did, but I just ... I need to see it for myself."

"Absolutely."

I hadn't planned to hang around after I got Katie started on the porch. I had more than enough work to fill the rest of the day, but I didn't want to be rude. A short walk couldn't hurt.

I led Sandra through the field, skimming my palm along the heads of the wheat stalks as I walked.

"What are you reading?" I asked.

"Sorry?" she replied, confused.

"You brought a book with you."

"Yeah. To pass the time while Katie was busy. To be honest, though, I bring a book almost everywhere I go."

"Big reader?"

"Definitely. Comes with the job."

I paused to let a field mouse scurry across our path. "What job is that?"

"Children's librarian."

"No kidding. Creekside Public?"

She nodded. "You know it?"

I knew it well. I had always preferred keeping to myself, but after Heather died, any desire I had to be around other people pretty much evaporated. Most of the time, Luna was the only company I needed. But every now and then I'd get an annoying itch to talk to another human being. Books were the best way to scratch that itch.

"I stop in from time to time," I said. "Surprised we've never bumped into each other."

"Do you spend a lot of time browsing the children's section?"

I smiled. "Can't say that I do."

"It's called Under the Setting Sun," she said. "The book I brought. It's my third time reading it."

"Must be one heck of a book."

"It's not. It's kind of terrible, actually."

"Well, no wonder you're reading it again."

She laughed. "It's the setting I like. Most of it takes place in Ecuador. Reminds me of home."

The clearing was just ahead. We emerged from the field into a large circle of flattened wheat. Sandra walked to the center and spun slowly around, surveying the damage.

She shook her head. "This makes me so angry. I raised her better than this."

"Don't know about you, but I did some pretty dumb stuff too when I was a teenager," I offered.

She spread her arms wide, gesturing at the wheat. "This doesn't even look like anything. What's the point?"

"You have to be up higher to see the design. I should show you the drone footage I took. It's pretty impressive. Katie was giving orders to the others, so I'm guessing she drew it up. Takes a pretty sharp kid to plot out something this intricate."

"She's smart," Sandra said, "but I swear that girl has zero common sense."

We stood together, watching the wheat sway back and forth in the light breeze. Sandra turned to face me. "I appreciate the way you've handled all this."

"It's nothing. Katie seems like a good kid."

"She is." Sandra was silent for a moment. "She likes you."

I laughed. "Well, she has a funny way of showing it."

"You know how kids are. Or maybe you don't. Do you have any children? You seem so comfortable around them."

I shook my head. "Heather and I tried, but ... it just didn't work out."

She gave a sad smile. "Things rarely work out the way we expect, do they?"

"That's the truth."

I got the feeling Sandra had seen what she'd needed to see. I started walking home and she followed behind me.

When we made it back to the house, Katie waved to us from the porch. She'd finished about a third of the floorboards.