Danny loved Central Park. Danny’s father, Thomas, hated the walk through the pencil towers that got them there.
“Can we please do a boat ride today, Daddy?”
“Sure, buddy.” Thomas scanned the sidewalks ahead of him, trying to pick out any areas where they might run across someone Thomas didn’t want to have to explain to Danny.
Danny stopped short and looked back at Thomas. “Maybe we can have a snack on the boat?” he asked hopefully.
Thomas sighed. He was on edge from meandering through the towers and another request for snacks wasn’t helping his nerves. A stiff could pop out of an entryway or hidden exit at any moment.
“Did you bring the peanut butter crackers?” Danny asked, piling on. What else did a five-year-old have to worry about besides food?
“We’ve not helped anyone yet today. If you want to eat on the boat, let’s find someone to help.”
Danny wrinkled up his nose into a pout. He wanted crackers; not to have to help someone. Then suddenly, he smiled.
“How about that man?” Danny pointed at a disheveled, cachectic man in the shadow of the overhang of the nearest pencil tower.
Thomas recoiled. Dammit. Sometimes they made it to Central Park without encountering any stiffs. They preferred their penthouses to being seen out in public, but occasionally they did have to come down and interact with others. He supposed they got hungry too, even if they wouldn’t admit it.
“It’s not polite to point,” said the man in shadow. He had a day’s worth of black stubble, which stood taller against his sunken face. His charcoal suit hung from his pale white frame like it was on a plastic hanger. Thomas could practically see the outlines of his ribs through the suit. The man held a cigarette to his lips. Some of the stiffs used nicotine to suppress hunger.
“Come along, Danny,” Thomas guided Danny by putting his hand on top of his head.
“But Daddy!” Danny stomped his feet. “That man looks so hungry.” Danny quieted and scrunched up his face, as if making a very hard decision. “I think …” He started to whisper. “I think we might have to give him our crackers.”
There was a raspy cough from behind them, a smoker’s chuckle. “Kid, I don’t want your stupid crackers. Move along, why don’t you?”
“That was very nice of you, Danny,” Thomas reassured him. He grabbed Danny’s warm little hand and led him to the park.
Danny was quiet until they reached the tree line, then he stopped and looked back toward the pencil towers.
“Why’d that man use a bad word, Daddy? Why was he so grumpy? Was it ’cause he was so hungry?”
Thomas took a deep breath in and let it out. “You know how we have to help other people so our bodies will let us eat?”
Danny nodded fervently.
“Some people would rather not eat than do nice things for other people. I think that man doesn’t want to do nice things for other people.”
Danny cocked his head. “But why, Daddy? Doesn’t he know how good peanut butter crackers are?”
Thomas couldn’t help but smile. He nudged Danny forward and they continued walking toward the lake.
“When you were just a tiny baby, people put something in the water that, after we drank it, made it so our bodies couldn’t digest food if we didn’t help other people first. It made a lot of things better because everyone was helping not only each other, but animals, the land, the oceans, the whole planet. But some people didn’t want the world to change. They didn’t want to do nice things. So now they do the fewest nice things they can just to survive.”
Danny considered this. “What happens if you don’t do any nice things?”
“Then you die.” Thomas said. When Danny frowned uncertainly, Thomas continued. “And no peanut butter crackers.”
Danny gasped. “Who would want to live without peanut butter crackers?”
Thomas shrugged. “Beats me, buddy.” He didn’t bother to correct Danny’s misunderstanding of the finality of death—an anticipated paucity of peanut butter crackers conveniently conveyed the direness of the situation.
They arrived at the placid lake and climbed onto a rowboat after putting on their orange life vests.
“Would you like your crackers now?” Thomas asked.
Danny’s eyes went wide. “But I didn’t do anything nice, Daddy. I don’t want to throw them up.”
Thomas pulled the crackers out of his backpack and handed one to Danny. “You were nice to offer that man your crackers even though he was mean and told us to go away. I think that was nice enough for some crackers.”
Danny took the cracker from Thomas’s hand and tentatively put it to his lips. When he didn’t throw up the first bite, he relaxed and ate them ravenously, crumbs spilling into the bottom of the boat.
When he was done, Danny took a big gulp of water and handed the bottle back.
“Even though he said no, I think we should still keep trying to be nice. Maybe that man will change his mind and be nice too.”
Thomas smiled. He loved the optimism of youth. “Maybe so, buddy. We’ll keep trying.”
Copyright © 2023 Jason P. Burnham
Jason P. Burnham loves spending time with his wife, kids, and dog. He strives to do his small part in the collective actions necessary to ensure the things he loves have a planet that remains habitable for them. He also co-edits If There's Anyone Left, a magazine of inclusive speculative fiction with his friend C.M. Fields.