Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
“Shit” I said to myself, as I poured out the last bit of water in my three liter Poland Spring jug into the pot above my portable gas range. I tossed the empty tube of plastic aside and it clattered against a mess of garbage in a corner, making a hell of a racket when it hit the floor. The amount of water filled the pot barely over a quarter of the way, very much under the least amount necessary to cook most things. I opened the cabinets of my recently new home’s kitchen in desperate search for food, finding only the empty wrappers and boxes of morsels previously ingested in the dusty compartments.
Buried among old plastic cracker sleeves and rat shit was a box of pasta. I feverishly pulled it to me and embraced it as if it were my own child. I returned to my pot, only to see that there was still almost no water in it. I dejectedly put the box of pasta next to the pot’s lid on the kitchen counter, and sighed deeply; staring at me from the floor where I threw it upon first moving into this home, that wasn’t my own, was a can of old dog food, the label scratched off over the months or years it’s been in this home before I. Feeling the pangs of hunger in my gut, I took my hunting knife and cleaved the can in twain, voraciously yet reluctantly eating the contents to get something in my stomach.
After finishing my impromptu meal, I curled up in a ball on the floor. I looked up at the front door just a few feet in front of me, still boarded up to hell and back as I left it, and began to let my mind wander. ‘You’ll have to go out there sometime’ I told myself. I shuddered at the thought, letting my own case of sudden agoraphobia prevent me from once again entering the Outside World. Since the world was engulfed in the flames of nuclear war, I found myself inside the home of a no-doubt doomed family that was on vacation when the bombs fell. The terrified screams of mothers clutching their children as the bombs falling in the distance grew ever closer bolstered a nail in my psyche and a nail in the door of this home, to prevent me from going Outside ever again. There was nothing out there for me. But now, against all of the notions I believe in, there was- survival.
Before the bombs, I lived for many years as a drifter, knowing how to survive by rendering garbage and the little I found into sustainable nourishment to keep my twenty seven year old body going. But now that the world has ended, finding what was once everywhere would be nearly impossible. Markets and small stores would have been cleared out by my fellow tribesmen in a desperate attempt to cling to existence. Worse yet, I fear that those that survived and are now, like myself, without food have turned to a… different, form of sustenance. The slim prospect of survival has driven others in better situations than I to the forbidden territory of human flesh, so I fear who, or what I suppose, may lay Out in the world beyond my door.
But as my stomach growled, not sated by the lackluster meal of various processed animals meats pressed into a can, I knew that I soon would have to leave my comfort zone. While being homeless for a long time has made me quite resilient, I am nothing more than a skeleton without proper nutrition. I worried that I would bumble into a much stronger survivor and be easy prey, or perhaps worse yet, have someone break into my sanctuary whilst I am away. ‘You can do without what lies on the other side’ I said aloud to myself, clutching my stomach, now in knots. I can do it. I can. I must.
These positive thoughts were cut short when the bile in my gut manifested as a pile of putrid regurgitation on the wood floor. Now completely empty and slightly dehydrated, I had no choice. I dug through my satchel next to the range for my hammer, and started yanking out nails, one by one, from the boards pounded against the door.
All of my love, all of my kissin’
You don’t know what you’ve been missin’, oh boy
When you’re with me, oh boy.
The song I had heard many years ago escaped my lips as I toiled to get the door open. The name of the singer faded from my memory, all I remember were the glasses. I get the last nail off the last plank in the door, and stack them next to the entrance, now only inches of wood shielding me from the Outside. I took a deep breath, and opened the door. The hazy sky was a dark green, ash and small debris dancing in the wind. The temperature was both warm and cold at the same time, and I was immediately sick to my stomach. Clenching my teeth and my fists, I stepped out, eyes shuttered intensely as I lurched forward, one very deliberate step at a time.
I moved forward until I hit the street, and I slowly opened my eyes. Not another soul in sight as far as the eye could see. I gradually opened my eyes until they were fully revealed. The house I was in sat right in front of the remnants of the Grand Central Parkway- or was it the Jackie Robinson? Below on the roadway were dozens of immobilized, abandoned cars, rusted and depressing. I stared down at them for a long moment, leaning on the chainlink fence that kept me from plunging over, before my growling stomach prodded me to keep going. The hellish sky was a baroque nightmare; no gods or angels, as the dark air was the perfect embodiment of harm and evil itself. I clutched my hunting knife in my waistband as I moved forward, the world feeling as if it were a thick sheet enveloping and suffocating me as I strolled. In the distance, I saw what looked like a crashed car. Intrigued, I began moving slightly faster toward it, hoping someone else’s tragic loss was my tragic gain.
All of my life, I’ve been a-waitin’
Tonight there’ll be no, hesitatin’ oh boy,
when you’re with me, oh boy.
Upon reaching it, I could see the fender of the sedan wrapped partway around a light pole, the partially decayed corpse of the unfortunate driver wrapped in a deflated air bag, the trunk popped slightly open from the sheer force of the impact. I looked at the deceased motorist for a moment before I opened the trunk, hoping to find something good, or, at the very least, something. As it had been stuck in this position for an unknown period of time, the boot took some effort to open. Upon doing so, I squealed with glee: the back was filled with bags of food and water, almost all of the former in bags and cans. I took my satchel and emptied all I had in it: my favorite book, a baseball cap, a pair of sunglasses, and an old locket my mother had given me when I was but a child. I began stuffing my now empty bag with as much as I could stuff into it, which was about 60% of what was there in the trunk. I put the satchel back on, and carried the rest in the plastic bags they came in back to my new home. I stepped on the book as I turned, smudging the second word in the title with dirt and grime, leaving only ‘Dante’s’ visible as I began my walk back.
Stars appear and shadows a-falling
You can hear my heart a-calling.
A little bit a-lovin’ makes everything right,
And I’m gonna see my baby tonight.
I slowed my singing to a hum as I opened my door, closing it behind me. I piled the wood up in front of it, to board it back up after I had ate. I unpacked everything, and a few Poland Spring bottles among the groceries, that I used to fill the pot up the rest of the way for the pasta. I happily tapped the top of the box of rigatoni as I passed it, organizing the food into a corner. Finishing that, I turned the range on to let the water boil, pulling my knife from my waist and laying it across the top of the pot, an old trick I learned to avoid water boiling over. I went upstairs to the bedroom to put on a robe I found in the closet, gleefully eating a chocolate bar as I did so. When I got the comfortable garment on, I finished my bar and crumpled the wrapper in my hand. I heard a noise from downstairs, and thought the knife slipped off and into the pot, because I didn’t properly position it.
I went down the stairs and entered the kitchen, to see the knife gone, but nowhere to be found, much less in the pot. But, it turned out, the noise I had heard before was actually the pot lid from earlier, spinning on its handle gently against the hard plastic countertop, combined with the sound of a slight breeze coming in from the wide open door.
Credit: Elias D. Tavarez