Possum Stew

PART 1

36 DAYS AFTER THE STORM

Scott Bryant clenched his stomach, his heavy eyes locked on the cabin in the middle of the harsh field. The wind howled, whipping his thick, unkempt hair across his face, the ends of which had been burned by a gas leak in one of his kitchen’s fryers. A gust blew underneath him, lifting his coattails and kicking up the gray dust covering the tall grass that brushed against his knees. He curled his other hand into a fist, digging his nails into the palm of his fingerless glove, crushing an empty Burger King Whopper wrapper. He tossed the paper to the ground and wiped away a splotch of ketchup under his bottom lip. A bubbling gurgle rumbled in his stomach and he let out a groan, covering his mouth.

“Oh God…” he hiccupped.

The cabin was roughly a hundred yards away. Half of the awning above the front porch had caved in, the windows shattered, and vegetation was creeping up the foundation. The Storm had formed a layer of dust two inches thick around the entire house, creating a sheen that reflected the light from the sun onto Scott’s glasses. He adjusted the thick black frames on his nose.

The cabin was like a bag of frozen pasta that had found its way into his Michelin-starred restaurant.

“This will do,” he said.

The contents of his stomach churned inside him like a rowboat in rough seas. He tightened his overcoat across his chest, pulled the strap of a burlap bag across his shoulder closer to him, and hurried toward the house.

He approached the porch and stumbled up the steps. The door was already cracked open a few inches. Scott placed his hand on the door frame and peeked inside.

“Hello?” his voice echoed into the cabin. He reached inside his bag and fished along the bottom, pulling out a blood-splattered ladle.

He pushed through the door and tiptoed into the entrance, tracking mud onto the dusty wooden floor. It creaked and moaned, keeping his head on a swivel.

“If there’s someone in here, you show yourself right now!” Scott yelled, both of his hands shaking as he gripped the ladle. “Okay? Don’t fuck with me! I’m warning you—”

His stomach gurgled again and he clutched his side. He quickly pulled the burlap strap over his head and dropped the bag into the foyer with a thud. He crept around, ducking under pieces of wood that had been warped from the Storm. Ahead was a long hallway, its doors closed. He picked up his pace.

He approached the first room to his right and pushed the door open. The bathroom. Sanctuary. A foul odor smacked him in the face. He pulled the collar of his shirt up to his nose and hacked. Behind the toilet, he saw what looked like the abandoned nest of an animal, made from grass and twigs. The wall next to it had been chewed open. He took a deep breath and stepped inside.

The anarchy in his stomach had reached a boiling point. He quickly unbuckled his belt and pulled down his pants, planting himself onto the ice-cold porcelain.

What followed was an evacuation of days’ worth of fast food: McDonald’s chicken nuggets that had felt like cardboard between his teeth; a steak sandwich from an abandoned Arby’s, the meat having started to sour; and, most recently, a soppy Whopper with moldy cheese that had dissolved like papier-mâché in his mouth.

If an attacker were truly lurking around the corner, the smell coming from the bathroom would be Scott’s greatest weapon.

Suddenly a rustling came from behind the toilet. Scott raised his ladle just as a possum crawled out from underneath the nest and began scratching at his ankles. Springing from his seat, Scott swung the ladle at the possum, banging at the floor like a madman.

“You goddamn devil-rat!” Scott yelled as blood from the possum’s head splattered onto his legs.

He continued to swing the ladle until only the possum’s hind leg twitched. Scott pushed the carcass away with the edge of his pinkie toe and dropped the ladle to the floor, leaning back on the toilet seat with a heavy sigh. Then he clenched his stomach again and held on to the rim of the seat while the remains of his fast-food nightmare continued to spiral through him.

• • •

His stomach empty, Scott walked back toward the front door, where he had left his bag. On the opposite side was the entrance to the kitchen.

“Be a miracle to find something decent in Jersey,” he chuckled.

The refrigerator door was open, as were the cabinets above the countertop. Empty boxes of granola bars and cereal littered the floor. The kitchen must have been raided long ago. Scott got down on his knees and looked into the cabinets underneath the counter. Still nothing. Near the back of the kitchen, a pantry door stood halfway open. He got back up onto his feet and walked to the door.

The pantry was a morgue. The floor was covered with uncooked grains of rice. A half-empty plastic bag hung over the edge of a shelf. Cans of stewed tomatoes and black and brown beans lay empty, knocked over. The contents of a pierced bottle of syrup had coagulated and was now glued to the shelf.

He stepped onto a stool in the middle of the closet to inspect the higher shelves. Behind a dusty bag of flour was a dented can of ground beef that hadn’t been opened. He grabbed it and stepped down, examining the label. The expiration date was still a few weeks away.

He pushed his glasses up onto his head and closed his eyes, imagining the familiar tastes from his restaurant: a plate of spaghetti smothered in a tomato and basil sauce; roasted garlic and crushed red pepper flakes; his famous mushroom sugo with polenta and truffles. He reached into the breast pocket inside his coat and took out a rolled-up leaf of basil, placed it under his nose, and took a deep breath. Then he gave it a closer look, sliding his glasses back down, and saw that the leaf was already halfway brown. He closed his eyes again and took another deep breath, then placed the basil back into his pocket.

Scott left the pantry and walked toward the front door, where he knelt down next to his burlap sack. Inside, he sifted through cans of whole and diced tomatoes, pickled vegetable relish, a carton of vegetable broth, half a bag of uncooked rice held with a rubber band, and packets of salt and pepper. He placed the can of ground beef into the bag, then reached in farther to pull out a four-ounce bottle of truffle oil. He held it up at eye level—only a few drops left. He curled the bottle into his fist and let out a heavy sigh.

Another night of bland, uninspired food lay ahead of him. Or maybe not.

• • •

Scott tightened the noose around his neck. He pulled at his coarse beard so that the rope lay against his Adam’s apple, unobstructed. He gave the rope a light tug and moved his feet closer together on the wooden stool. The howling wind outside bashed a wind chime up against the cabin wall. Gray clouds peeked through a hole in the roof.

Scott licked his cracked, trembling lips and looked up, muttering something to himself. He took his glasses off and folded them into his breast pocket, next to the basil leaf, then closed his eyes and began swaying his hips back and forth. The stool tilted back and forth as well. With one big heave, the stool fell over onto its side, leaving Scott suspended in the air. The rope around his neck tightened and stretched and the wooden beam above him strained. He struggled for breath and flailed his legs, his now bulging eyes darting around the dimly lit room. His vision began to blur, blood rushing to his head, his airway narrowing with every passing second.

Across the room, on a shelf that was leaning to one side, a clear vial holding what looked like red strands caught his eye. It was small, about half the size of his bottle of truffle oil. Scott instantly recognized it. Quickly, he grabbed the rope above him, trying to pull himself up and loosen its grip around his neck. He gasped for air, unable to yank himself up or undo the noose. His arms shook. His eyes rolled to the back of his head. With one final attempt to save his life, he pulled down on the rope, but it wouldn’t give. His arms flopped to his sides like wet noodles.

Just then the support beam gave and the wood snapped in two, sending Scott plummeting to the floor. His knees hit the ground hard and he collapsed. Moments later he came to, catching his breath. He coughed and untied the rope around his neck, throwing it away from him. He got up and stumbled toward the vial on the shelf. Digging into his pocket now, he pulled out his glasses then grabbed the vial and turned it around.

“Yes. It is saffron.” His beaming smile was reflected onto the glass. “Thank you, Jersey.”

• • •

Scott gazed into the swirling pot of sizzling water in the middle of the room. He opened the vial of red strings and pulled out a few strands, taking in a deep breath of the saffron. The smell penetrated his brain and took him back to that summer after culinary school when he had lived in southern Spain, learning classic Spanish techniques while he was still a young chef. With great focus, he carefully placed the strands into the simmering water and continued to stir.

He traced his hand across his neck, his fingers trembling, and ran them from one ear to the other. The skin was bruised, and tender to the touch.

Once the water had achieved a rolling boil, he lifted a spoonful of the amber liquid up to his lips and slurped. The bubbling broth glided down his sore throat and warmed his entire body.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” he shouted, pumping his fist in the air. “Let’s see anyone else try to make a decent broth around here.”

Next, he unrolled the bag of rice from his pack and poured half of it into the pot, giving it a quick stir. A dash of salt, pepper. Another stir. Then he reached for a roll of tinfoil in the pack and tore off a piece, covered the top of the pot, and lowered the heat on the portable burner. He checked the battery—37 percent—then sat back on his stool and crossed his arms.

Over the last three days, Scott had been working his way out of New York City, avoiding the fallout from the Storm. After spending over a month holed up in his restaurant in Lower Manhattan, he and his staff who had survived the initial squall had eaten through most of the kitchen’s food supply. The city was collapsing around them and Scott had decided to escape and venture into New Jersey. It took him and his staff three days to get out. Three days of eating rock-hard Olive Garden breadsticks and cold, grease-soaked McDonald’s fries.

Then the Storm hit again and Scott became the lone survivor, somehow finding his way into the meadowlands of New Jersey.

On his feet now, Scott picked up the rope, coiled it around his fist, then placed it in his bag. For a moment he contemplated hiding it in one of the kitchen cupboards. But the saffron had given him the confidence to swallow his guilt and put the rope’s potential use above his lingering shame.

He continued walking down the hallway until he reached the master bedroom. The bed was made but covered in leaves and a heavy layer of dust. The window was open, and the draft was bringing in more dust from outside. Scott walked over to the window and shut it, the wood screeching the whole way down. He looked out onto the field, pulled at a handkerchief dangling from his belt, and wiped away the caked-on dirt covering the glass.

Beside the bed, he dusted off the nightstand and sat down. The bed was too hard. He bounced up and down on it a few times and sighed. He pulled the top drawer of the nightstand open and sifted through its contents: loose papers, pens, an empty jewelry box, receipts from the electric company. He glanced at the burnt-out bulb in the middle of the room. Back in the drawer, he reached in deeper and felt a hardcover notebook. He pulled it out and examined it. It was a pink notebook with a broken lock. Scott opened it: about a third of the pages had been ripped out and the back half of the ones that remained were bent and mangled. He stowed the book and a pen in his jacket pocket and then, for some reason, heard the voice of his mother echo in his head.

You wanted your bicycle; now it’s time to pedal.

When he was six years old, for three months straight he’d nagged his mother for a bicycle. He was the only kid in his group of friends without one. But Scott’s family was poor, and it took everything he had to convince his mother to spend the money. She got him the bicycle, and on Scott’s first ride, he fell so hard, he nearly broke his arm. That was when his mother spoke those words to him.

He turned around and went to check on the rice.

Darkness began to overtake the cabin, as if beckoning him into its cold grasp. The hall leading to the entrance seemed to shrink around him and he quickened his step, feeling like someone was right behind him, ready to throw the rope around his neck and pull him back again. The light from the metal burner guided him to the center of the living room, and he knelt down to check on his dinner. He lifted the tinfoil lid. The rice had already absorbed most of the water and had that distinctive red glow to it.

Delizioso,” he whispered.

He covered the rice again and sat on the stool, bringing his hands up to the hot stove. The cool air easily found its way into the cracks of the cabin, much of the roofing having been stripped away from the Storm. He knew he would have to spend the night in the grimy bedroom to keep warm.

He reached into his bag and pulled out the can of ground beef and a switchblade from his jacket and began carving away at the lid.

“Olive oil…garlic…red pepper…basil…tomato…” he said in a choked whisper as he cut through the aluminum. He collected himself for a second. “Saffron…you delightful bastard.” He wiped a tear from his eye.

The can was open now, and he brought it to his face and sniffed, then gagged and buried his nose in his arm.

“Jesus…what savages use this?”

He held the can away from him and drained the meaty liquid. Then he pulled it in closer to confirm the expiration date once more.

This is still in date?”

Now that the rice had completely absorbed the water, he spooned the beef into the grains and began to fold it in. An extra dash of salt and pepper. Another stir. He lowered the heat, set a timer on his watch, and let the mixture sit for one more minute.

He pulled the pink notebook from his pocket and thumbed through a few of the blank pages again. He flipped it over, front to back, back to front, then took the pen out and tapped it on the cover.

He turned to the first page and began scribbling.

TONIGHT’S SPECIALS

BRAISED SHORT RIBS WITH FARO RISOTTO, BUTTER, GARLIC…
SPAGHETTI WITH TOMATO, BASIL, TOUCH OF GARLIC, RED PEPPER FLAKE…
SEARED BLACK COD WITH CARAMELIZED FENNEL, POLENTA…

Scott stopped writing, placed the pen in between the pages, and laid the notebook on the floor. He turned the heat off and gave the pot one final stir before taking a spoonful of the broth to his lips and blowing on it. The steam was whisked away into the icy room, and he took a bite. The flavor melted onto his tongue, coating every taste bud. It was as if he were back in his restaurant, relishing the first taste test of a dinner service.

“Oh man…”

He took another spoonful and continued to eat from the pot until nothing was left. He let out a loud belch.

“Well, excuse me,” he laughed, covering his mouth.

With a belly full of saffron rice and canned beef, Scott made his way back to the bedroom. He wiped off the sheets, giving them a few shakes to get rid of the dust and leaves, and lay down as the last of the light from the sky disappeared. He let out a long sigh.

He looked at the pink notebook, now on the nightstand, then picked it up again.

Maybe a more seasonable menu? he thought.

He tore out the page he had begun writing on, crumpled it up, and threw it at the floor. Then he started again:

BRING 2 CUPS OF WATER TO A ROLLING BOIL. ADD A PINCH OF SAFFRON. DASH OF SALT. PEPPER. STIR. ADD 1 CUP OF UNCOOKED RICE. REDUCE HEAT TO LOW AND COVER…

“All right,” he said. “Time to pedal.”
 

PART 2

THE DAY OF THE STORM

Scott Bryant dipped a ladle into the boiling pot of pasta water and poured the water into a pan. He lifted the pan off the burner and gave it a few tosses, sending a mixture of garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and searing tomatoes into the air. He grabbed a pinch of kosher salt from a small saucer beside him and sprinkled it into the pan. The sauce simmered along the edges, releasing an aroma that wafted into the haze of Italian scents in the kitchen. He drained a portion of spaghetti boiling next to him and tossed it into the sauce, spooning more of the pasta water into the pan. He grabbed a clean plate from overhead and carefully dropped the pasta into the center of the dish, wiping away a spot of sauce that had splashed on the edge. Then he gave the plate a ninety-degree twirl and sprinkled a few chopped basil leaves on top.

“Spaghetti. Order out!” Scott declared as he placed the plate onto the line.

Next to him, half a dozen chefs and sous chefs were cooking and plating, their heads down, discarding tasting spoons and garnishing plates with fresh herbs. The kitchen was abuzz with the sizzling of pots and pans and waiters reading back orders across the line.

“Scott.” A thin man wearing a fitted three-piece suit and square thick-rim glasses appeared at the end of the kitchen line. “Marcus is on the phone,” he said as he slicked his dark hair back.

Scott wiped his hands on a towel hanging from his hip and pulled his white apron over his head.

“Gene, you’ve got the kitchen,” he said, patting the chef next to him on the back.

“Yes, sir,” the chef replied as he garnished a plate of roast chicken.

Scott approached the suited man and put a hand on his shoulder.

“How did he sound?” Scott asked, tapping his glasses up higher on his nose.

“I don’t want to count our chickens just yet, but I hope you’re in the mood to make some omelets.”

“C’mon, Ted—who’s making omelets around here?” Scott said with a toothy grin.

They stepped into a small office tucked away in the back of the kitchen. Inside were six small monitors stacked on top of each other, all with live camera feeds of the restaurant; papers pinned to the walls with staff schedules; and a menu entitled Tonight’s Specials. One of the feeds was glitching and Scott gave the monitor a smack on top, clearing up the picture. On the desk were swaths of papers and an old touch-tone phone, its red light blinking.

Scott stood over the phone and picked up the receiver, waiting to take the call off mute.

“Hey”—Scott looked over at Ted—”do you mind if I take this?”

Ted stopped in his tracks, already having closed the door halfway.

“Alone?”

“Yeah,” Scott said. “It’s just…you know how I get on the phone.” He put on an awkward smile.

“Uh, sure,” Ted said, rubbing the back of his neck. He pursed his lips and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Scott sat down and let out a long sigh, cracking his neck from side to side, and then unmuted the call.

“Marcus! How’s it going, my man?…Good, good, pretty crowded. The mayor’s dining with us tonight…I know. Well, it is an election year.” Scott let out a forced laugh.

There was silence on both ends now.

“So, what do you got for me, Marcus?”

Scott remained perfectly still. Then a smile began to build at the corners of his mouth until it enveloped his entire face. “You’re kidding me! We got it?” He stood up from his chair, pumping his fist. “That’s incredible, Marcus. This is amazing news.” He listened, then exhaled in relief. “I never doubted you for a second.”

Again, one of the monitors started glitching and Scott smacked it. This time, the picture stayed fuzzy.

“You bet. I’m booking tickets to Miami tonight.”

He gave the monitor another smack. Suddenly a rumble shook the ground underneath him. A hanging light above swayed and the contents on his desk trembled.

“Whoa…” He returned his attention to the call. “No, no, nothing. Just the subway making a bunch of noise, shaking my whole goddamn office.”

He pulled the phone away from his ear. “Ted! Get back in here!” he called out. “And bring champagne glasses!”

Another monitor glitched, then one by one they all turned to static.

“What the hell?” he whispered.

“Scott, everything all right over there?” Marcus asked, his voice faint.

Scott put the phone back to his ear. “Yeah, yeah. Hang on a second, okay?”

He placed the phone down on the desk and approached the door. The ground shook once more.

The kitchen was empty. Pans had been left behind, meats still cooking, sauces still simmering, pots of boiling water overflowing. Scott rushed over to the burners to turn each nob off. Scrambling, he grabbed the handle of a cast-iron pan and immediately pulled back, sending the pan crashing to the floor.

“Ah, goddamn it!” He flapped his burned hand. “Hello? Ted?”

The ground shook a third time, now with more intensity. Scott lost his footing and grabbed the range. Plates fell from counters and smashed to pieces on the tile floor. He held on until the shaking subsided, then ran into the dining room.

The tables had been abandoned, meals half-eaten, the last rush of guests fleeing his restaurant. Scott wove among toppled chairs toward the front of the building. Outside, he could hear a mob of voices shouting over each other as people forced their way out the door.

“Ted!”

Scott finally reached the front and looked out the window. A curtain of gray blocked his view; a vicious squall of dust was hurtling down the sidewalk. Ted appeared on the other side of the glass and Scott banged on the window to get his attention.

“Ted! What’s going on out there? Ted!” But the chaos outside drowned him out. Scott made for the door and burst onto the street.

The ferocious wind threw him off balance and he was whipped to the ground. His glasses flew off his face, hitting the concrete. People raced through the streets of Lower Manhattan, trying to get to their cars or down into the subway to hide from the vortex of dust. Scott squinted through it, shielding his eyes with his arm. The earth continued to rumble, sending a lamppost crashing down onto a nearby car.

A voice called out. “Scott!” It was Ted, crawling toward him.

“What the hell is happening?” Scott yelled.

“I don’t know!”

Down the block, they heard screaming. They looked back. A wall of smog was barreling toward them.

Scott’s eyes widened.

“Get inside! Get back inside!” he yelled.

He scooped up his glasses and quickly ran to the entrance, pushing past his former customers, then tore through the front door and fell down. Some of his staff had made their way back in as well. Scott got to his feet and fumbled in his pocket, pulling out a small ring of keys. He locked the door and secured the dead bolt above and then stepped away, breathing heavily. He slid the keys back into his pocket.

“Scott, open the door!” a voice begged from the other side, followed by a fury of fists. “Scott, it’s Ted, open up!”

Scott reached back into his pocket to grab the keys, but dropped them, his hands shaking.

“Hurry up! It’s coming! Open the door! Open the—”

Silence. A darkness cloaked the windows and dimmed the interior of the restaurant. In an instant, the knocking ceased and nothing but ghosts befell the streets.

• • •

40 DAYS AFTER THE STORM

Scott’s legs were going numb. He lifted his elbows up and leaned back against the toilet. He looked down—his forearms had left two big oval impressions on the tops of his thighs. Though there wasn’t much in his stomach, whatever he’d put in it had run through him like watered-down marinara sauce.

He reached for an old Cosmopolitan magazine that was on the floor. On the cover, sporting a white-and-gray bikini, was celebrity chef Padma Lakshmi. It was the summer issue from 2011, and in it Padma dished about food, love, and happiness. Scott reminisced about the times he and Padma had been judges for a competitive cooking show. She had always been softer on the contestants. He had always been “the tough one.”

His tough guy persona had all hatched from an episode in which one maniac contestant had insisted on serving raw onions in all his dishes. Despite Scott’s guidance, the contestant defiantly continued to lace his plates with the pungent vegetable. The episode went viral, and the false portrayal of Scott’s personality took root, like green shoots sprouting atop a rotten onion.

On the cover of the magazine, next to Padma’s face, it read “BE A SEX GENIUS!” in bright pink letters. Scott rolled his eyes and tore a page from inside to wipe himself, then pulled his pants up and flushed.

In the kitchen, Scott lifted up his bag and placed it on the counter. It came down with a noticeably lighter thud. He picked up the vial of saffron; there were just a couple strands of the spice left. A cold bead of sweat dripped down his neck. He swallowed a lump in his throat and shook his hands. He placed the vial back into the bag and made for the front door.

Outside, the crisp air penetrated his skin through his shirt. The sun was out, and for a moment he believed he was playing the lead role in a new show about a chef who had to survive in the wilderness. But one look at the smoky New York City skyline and he was reminded of how very real his situation was.

His stomach grumbled and he placed a hand on it.

“I’ve gotta get the hell outta here,” he said, then headed back inside to gather his things.

In the kitchen, he pressed a button on his electric burner and the screen lit up for a few seconds—32 percent—then he turned the burner off and placed it into his bag, along with a slew of cutlery from the counter. He threw the strap over his shoulder, buttoned his coat to his neck, and headed for the front of the house. He passed by the empty shelf in the living room, chuckling to himself, and walked back out into the cold.

With the city at his side, he continued south, across the Passaic River and deeper into New Jersey. It wasn’t his first choice, but food was the only thing on his mind and Newark was the closest city.

The route down I-95 was littered with abandoned cars and overturned trucks coated in dust. Out of curiosity, he momentarily stopped to wipe off the window of a blue Mazda SUV, only to find empty bags of potato chips in the back seat. The subpar snacks motivated him to get to Newark as fast as he could.

When he reached the outer limits, the redbrick buildings lining the streets looked more like sand castles on the Jersey Shore than homes. The ground was covered in garbage, the streets dotted with tall mounds of dust pushed up against car doors, front porches, and telephone poles. The city looked completely abandoned, and Scott wasn’t sure if people had run away, were hiding…or worse.

He ventured farther into the city and eventually found himself on the corner of Hawkins Street and Roanoke Avenue, a block lined with two- and three-story apartment buildings.

“Not very promising,” Scott whispered.

He scanned each of the buildings until he spotted a yellow three-story apartment on the corner. The front door was barricaded with large slabs of wood and an old couch.

“Hmm…could be secure.”

He reached into his bag and pulled out the bloodstained ladle, clenched the handle tightly, and kept his head down as he snuck toward the building.

Scott reached the apartment and pinned himself up against the wall. Slowly, he peeked into the first-floor window to see what was inside, but it was too dark. He looked out onto the street and his mind took him back to the sidewalk outside his restaurant, almost two months ago. Sweat started to bead at his hairline and he wiped it away with his forearm.

I have to get inside, he thought.

He took a step back and stretched his shoulders, shaking his arms, loosening up. With a grin, he cocked his arm and launched the ladle at the window. The utensil smacked against the glass and ricocheted back, flying out of his hand and hitting the concrete with a clang that reverberated down the sidewalk.

“Ah, goddamn it.” Scott winced, flapping his hand in pain. “Goddamn window!” He pounded his fist on it.

The windowpane rattled and he noticed the lock on the inside was undone. He rolled his eyes and let out a grunt, then picked the ladle up off the ground.

He glanced through the glass once more and saw nothing.

Voosh!

He slid the window up and climbed through. He landed on a plush carpet. It was nearly pitch-black inside the apartment and the floor smelled of mold and stale coffee. A beige couch sat against the opposite wall.

Scott got up to his feet but stayed crouched down, surveying the room. It was quiet. The kitchen was right across the hall.

“Bingo,” he whispered.

He crept through the house and headed straight for the promised land. Once there, he began opening up cupboards at a feverish pace. To his surprise, there was still food inside: cans of green beans, cannellini beans, and corn, and two packets of dehydrated tuna fish.

He let out a dry heave at the thought of post-apocalyptic fish parts, ground up scales and eyeball goo congealing together like an unholy cement, then placed the items onto the counter.

Scott explored the rest of the apartment, ladle in hand, to make sure the place was truly vacant. He peeked into the next door down the hall, the bathroom. He took a step in and checked behind the toilet, clanking his ladle around the base, then let out a sigh. Continuing through the house, he eventually came across a stairwell leading to the second floor. It was barricaded with chairs, a dresser, and a dining table. He leaned forward to get a look upstairs, but it was too dark. Just then, one of the floorboards above him creaked and his face heated. He cocked his head a little closer to hear if there was someone upstairs. Nothing. The air fell silent again.

“Be cool, Scott. Be cool,” he whispered.

He backed away slowly and into the kitchen to prepare his evening meal. He glided his fingers along the knobs on the range, then stood over the oven and closed his eyes.

“Please…”

He turned a knob.

Click! Click! Click! Click! Click! Click!

Nothing.

He tried again.

Click! Click! Click! Click! Click! Click!

“C’mon, you son of a bitch,” he said, gritting his teeth.

Still nothing.

Scott exhaled loudly.

Keep pedaling, keep pedaling, he thought.

Click! Click! Click! Click! Click! Click!

“C’mon!” he yelled, and kicked the bottom of the oven.

Suddenly a small blue flame ignited along the base of the burner, quickly forming a ring of fire.

“Yes!” he shouted, swinging his arm over his head. “Now is there a”—he crouched down and looked inside the oven—”yes!” He opened the door and pulled out a sauté pan with an orange handle, then placed the pan onto the stove.

After that, he laid his ingredients out in front of him, reached into his breast pocket to pull out his notebook, and began writing:

WARM A SAUTÉ PAN OVER MEDIUM HEAT, ADD TWO TABLESPOONS OF OIL…

“Shit,” he said, placing the pen on top of the notepad. “No oil.”

He spent the rest of the night combining the tuna fish with the canned beans, and did his best to convince himself that tomorrow he’d find something better in town. After his meal, he settled onto the couch in the living room and tried to sleep. There was already a blanket and some pillows, so he moved them around to get comfortable. The apartment remained quiet.

Scott let out a long sigh, fluttering his lips. “This is definitely a step up.”

Again, he heard a creaking noise above him. He pulled the ladle closer to his body and stared at the ceiling. Would he have to spend this night on guard? Would someone strike in the dark? He closed his eyes for a moment, just to rest them, before preparing for a long night ahead on lookout.

• • •

41 DAYS AFTER THE STORM

Scott’s eyes flung open. An inferno bubbled in his abdomen. He threw the blanket off his body and rushed to the bathroom, his bare feet kicking up dust off the hardwood. Last night’s dinner was speeding on a one-way track through his underground tunnel. He kicked open the bathroom door and planted himself on the toilet.

“Oh god.” He exhaled, rubbing his face and running his fingers through his hair. “When—will this nightmare—eeeeend?”

He leaned back on the seat. Suddenly, the creaking noise upstairs returned, this time noticeably louder—and moving toward him. He heard the furniture in the stairwell shift and the pegs of the chairs slide across the floor. Frantically, he looked around for something to use as a weapon. There was a plunger next to him and he grabbed it, gripping it with both hands.

“Hello?! W-who’s there?” he shrieked.

Silence.

A plate slid across the floor and into the bathroom, stopping just before his feet. Scott hiked his legs up, as if a rat had just run past him. In the center of the plate was a frosted strawberry Pop-Tart.

“Breakfast?” a female voice called out.

“What?”

“I said, do you want breakfast?”

Scott looked down in disgust at the stale, dry treat.

“No.”

“Well, you kinda have to accept my offer.”

“Why?”

“So I know you’re cool.”

“Are you serious?”

Scott looked around the bathroom for a way out.

“Do you accept?” the girl drove on.

“Will you give me some privacy if I do?”

“Yes.”

He looked down at the plate once more and slowly bent over to examine the pastry. “It’s not even warm.”

“Are you serious?”

He leaned forward some more, lifting himself off the toilet seat.

“You can’t see me.”

“I’m not trying to see you,” Scott snapped, planting himself back onto the toilet. “I’m…reaching for the plate.”

Scrunching up his face, he took the strawberry tart and inched it closer to his mouth.

“Umm, I don’t hear any chewing,” the girl said, sounding like a bratty teenager.

“Umm, okay!” Scott said, mimicking her inflection.

He pressed the Pop-Tart between his lips and held it there for a moment, before finally taking a small bite. The processed sugary-red filling and powdery dough infiltrated his taste buds.

“Are you chewing?”

“Yeth!” Scott yelled, crumbs flying out of his mouth.

“Okay, you’re cool,” the girl said, the soft patter of her steps dispersing.

Pppffftttthhh!

Scott turned his head to the side and spit out the Pop-Tart.

• • •

“You look familiar,” the girl said, spooning in a mouthful of Apple Jacks, milk trickling down her chin. “Have we met before?”

They were in the kitchen, the girl sitting at the table as Scott scoured the cabinets once more.

“Doubt it,” Scott replied, unwilling to entertain a glance in her direction.

“I told you, I picked this place clean,” she said. “Plus, you already found my stash,” she added, rolling her eyes.

“Most people wouldn’t know the first thing to do with a chestnut if they saw one,” Scott said, voice muffled, his head in one of the cabinets. “You’d be surprised what gets left behind.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chestnut before,” the girl said, her own words muffled from the cereal. She pulled the edge of the bowl to her lips and slurped some milk. “You sure I don’t know you?” she asked again. “Have I seen you on TV?”

“Getting warmer,” Scott answered.

“I really don’t know.”

“I’ve just got one of those forgettable faces, you know?” Scott said, furrowing his brow.

“I guess you do,” she said, almost bored. She slurped some milk again.

Scott poked his head out and planted himself on the kitchen floor, his legs crossed.

“What are you slurping?” he asked.

“Milk, duh.”

“Yeah. Where did you get it?”

“It’s dehydrated soy milk. Scored it from some pantry down in Ironbound. I think they were vegan or something.”

Scott let out a groan.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He got to his feet. “It’s just the world’s gone to shit but its food was already way ahead.”

“That’s it!” she exclaimed. “You’re that guy, that chef, uh…”

Scott flattened his shirt, perking up his collar.

“Bobby Ray!”

He raised an eyebrow, then walked to the opposite end of the kitchen.

“What? Was I wrong?”

He stopped at the window and peeked out onto the street. The city seemed to look back at him with an arrogance he wasn’t used to receiving, only dishing out. It shook its head at Scott’s futile efforts to return to normalcy.

A brilliant chef with no place in this world, he thought.

“We need food,” Scott said, his breath fogging up the glass.

“We have food right here,” the girl said, shaking the box of Apple Jacks.

“We need real food.” A cold sweat broke out onto his neck again. “Processed sugars and simple carbs are not food.”

She turned the box around to read the nutrition facts.

“Oh…” She read a few lines, then slowly opened her mouth, letting a wad of chewed-up cereal plop into her bowl.

“There’s a bodega across the street. We should check it out.”

“Not worth it. It’s already been raided. The locals took to the streets in the days after the dust storm, and last week it was raided again. I think I heard gunfire, too. There must’ve been some kinda fight over whatever was left.”

“Well, we need to see if there is anything left. There has to be.” He rubbed the back of his neck, slicked with sweat. “There has to be.”

“What about the school? There’s an elementary school a few blocks from here.”

“Later. Right now we’re going to that bodega.”

• • •

The street was quiet and unfamiliar but carried with it fragments of civilization. A black van was crashed into the side of the bodega and a dumpster next to it was covered in graffiti, a cartoonish red-faced man with big teeth. A receiver was dangling from a payphone on the corner of the sidewalk. Scott and the girl cautiously approached the building, staying low as he cranked up the dial on his senses.

Scott found himself wondering why he hadn’t asked the girl for her name.

The shelves inside the store window were mostly empty, save for a red toy fire truck, a stack of cardboard boxes, and bottles of laundry detergent. The light piercing through the glass gave the inside a sickly green hue.

They crept up to the front door.

“Ready?” Scott asked, flexing the ladle in his hand.

“Yeah,” the girl answered, already reaching for the handle.

“Wait.” Scott put a hand on her arm. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Beth.”

“Oh.”

“And you’re not Bobby.”

“It’s Scott.”

“Scott. Okay.”

She opened the door and he followed her in.

The store mimicked Scott’s psyche. Broken glass and loose papers littered the floor. Shelves had been knocked over and the cashier counter had a smattering of dried blood on it. Scott spotted an empty bullet casing by his foot, then another a few feet away, and another, and he traced his eyes from bullet to bullet, like following a march of ants. Until he reached a pile by the register.

“Let’s split up,” Beth whispered.

“Split up?” Scott asked, his voice going higher.

“Yeah, we’ll cover more ground. In and out, right?”

“Right.” Scott nodded. “Okay, so you go this way and I’ll go…?”

“Why are you acting all weird? I’ll check out the front, you check out the back.”

“Okay,” he said as Beth broke off.

Scott tiptoed through the store, stopping periodically when the wind blew outside and smacked debris up against the walls. The ceiling above him seemed to bow, like a backyard awning sagging from a torrential downpour. Reality was beginning to seep back in. It was easier to be courageous when he was distracted by the turmoil in his stomach, but now he was feeling the anxiety of his current reality.

At the back of the store was a door with a sign on it in big black letters:

STOCKROOM

Scott placed a hand on the rusty knob and turned it slowly, peeking through a gap in the door frame. The room was filled with emptied cardboard boxes, which had likely contained stockpiles of food at one point. He walked in and shoved some of the boxes with his feet. Then a tower of packages above toppled over and landed next to him, also empty.

“Damn it,” he muttered.

He surveyed the rest of the room. Behind him was a metal shelf reaching up to the ceiling. A white box teetered on the very top. He planted a foot on the bottom shelf and tried lifting himself up to grab the box. He was just barely able to graze it with the tips of his fingers.

“C’mon, you son of a—”

The box came toppling down, hitting him on the head. He fell backward onto the pile of empty boxes and a wild hiss materialized from underneath. Just then, a family of possums emerged from the rubble and scurried across the floor.

“Ahh!” Scott shrieked, swinging his ladle around like a madman. “Shit! Fuck! Goddamn devil-rats!” He flailed around on the cardboard, trying to get back on his feet. Before he could, the possums ran out of the room and Scott backed into a corner, pressing himself up against the wall.

“Everything okay back there?” Beth called from the other side of the store.

His breathing was frantic and he placed his hand over his mouth as his eyes darted around the room. But, in the pile of boxes, directly underneath where he had fallen, he saw two more boxes, both taped at the seams. He looked closer. A big label on the side of each box read:

FOOD SUPPLIES

“Scott?” Beth called out again.

“I’m fine!” he yelled.

He picked up the box on top and shook it, the contents rolling around inside.

“Definitely fine,” he said to himself.

• • •

In the soft glow of a lantern sitting on the kitchen counter, Scott swirled a brown liquid in a pan. The medium heat from the stove brought the liquid to a soft boil and sent a cozy warmth through the kitchen. He dipped a spoon into the sauce and slurped it, then reached for the salt.

By the kitchen table, Beth sat on a chair, her legs crisscrossed, one of the boxes in her lap.

“Why am I sorting through all this?” she asked.

“Because I despise physical labor,” Scott said, keeping his head down.

Beth raised an eyebrow, then placed a can of olives on the table.

“Well…it smells good.” She inhaled deeply. “What is it?”

“I’m making a broth,” he said, never breaking eye contact with the stovetop.

“Ooh, what kind of broth?” Beth asked, clapping her hands. “Like a chicken broth? Or a beef broth?”

“No,” Scott said, a phony rise in his voice. “Not like a chicken broth or a beef broth.”

“Something more…authentic?”

Scott rotated the pan, scraping the bottom against the metal burner, then reached for the counter again to grab a handful of chopped onions and garlic. The ingredients sizzled.

“I don’t do ‘authenticity.’ It’s all about the technique.”

Beth shrugged. “Well, I’d be fine with whatever.”

“You won’t be fine with just whatever after you taste this.”

Beth narrowed her eyes and chewed on the inside of her lip. More items came out of the box and she placed them on the table: tomatoes, corn, peas, boxes of rice.

Thirty minutes later Scott joined her at the table with two plates of rigatoni in a red sauce.

“Now, it’s not the correct pasta or the correct sauce, but it will be the best thing you’ve eaten in weeks,” he said, handing her a fork. “Dare I say months.”

“I have a friend who cooks at a diner. He says good pasta should taste like the ocean.”

“Well, he’s wrong. Good pasta shouldn’t taste like the ocean—it should taste like the broth.”

She grabbed the fork and started eating. Scott let out a long sigh and rubbed his hands together. The room filled with the clanking of their utensils piercing through dough and scraping against plates.

“Mm-hmm?” Scott grunted.

“Mmm! Mm-hmm,” she replied.

They continued to eat in silence, looking up from their plates now and then with awkward smiles. Beth swallowed a big forkful of pasta, then wiped her lips with the back of her hand.

“So…what next?”

Scott finished chewing, then looked up at her.

“What do you mean, ‘what next’?”

“I mean…what do we do now?”

He placed his fork down beside the plate and lifted himself up from his seat to reach into his back pocket. He placed the pink notebook down and slid it across the table.

“What’s this?” she asked.

This is what’s next. I’m going to rebuild, start over.”

Beth picked up the book and thumbed through it.

“This meal, and others like it, will go into this notebook and become part of my new cookbook.” He ate another bite of pasta. “It will be the first one to come out from all of this,” he continued. “And when things return to normal, and this nightmare is behind us, I’ll publish it and be able to pick up my career exactly where I left it.”

“Scott…”

He glared at her, waiting for a sign of recognition.

Beth looked at him with a half-hearted smile and nodded.

“That sounds nice, Scott,” she said, taking another bite from her plate. “That sounds…wonderful.”
 

PART 3

57 DAYS AFTER THE STORM

Scott Bryant stared at himself in the bathroom mirror until his eyes stung from the moisture building up under his eyelids. The steam from his shower had all but dissipated, and the cool air seeping in from the cracks under the window was working quickly to seal his pores. He dipped a disposable razor in a foamy pool of water in the sink and sloshed it around, bringing the blade up to his neck and shaving off the last few hairs straggling under his chin. He dipped the razor in the water once more, then placed it on the counter. He ran his wet hands down his cheeks and throat to wipe away the leftover shaving cream.

He continued to stare at himself, then perked his eyebrows up and leaned over the sink toward the top of the toilet tank. Sitting on a folded towel were his glasses and the pink notebook, opened to the middle. He grabbed the pen next to it and continued writing a recipe already in the works.

…YOU CAN SUB OUT FRESH TOMATOES WITH CANNED IF NECESSARY. BUT REMEMBER, FRESHER IS BETTER. GIVEN THE CIRCUMSTANCES, YOU MAY NOT ALWAYS HAVE FRESH INGREDIENTS ON HAND. FOCUS ON TECHNIQUE AND YOU CAN BRING YOURSELF BACK TO A TIME WHEN…

He put the pen down. He had to stop himself from slipping any further into the past. He slid the folded towel out from underneath the notebook, dried his face, and then threw the towel onto the floor. He slicked his hair back, put on his glasses, and headed out to the kitchen with nothing but the towel wrapped around his waist and the writing materials in his hand.

It was early morning and Scott wanted to get a head start on the day. Beth was still upstairs, presumably in her bed. He had devised a plan to venture out to the elementary school to pick up the remaining provisions they hadn’t been able to carry during their trip a week prior. More boxes of pasta, a half-dozen cans of tomatoes and stocks, and spices and herbs like pepper, garlic powder, and oregano.

He placed the notebook down on the kitchen counter and opened to the first page, revealing lines of crossed-out words and phrases. At the very top of the page, it read:

COOKBOOK TITLES

He tapped the pen against the paper and bit his lip, the lines on his forehead deepening. Without writing anything down, he tossed the pen onto the counter with a grunt and headed to the living room to get dressed.

Once there, he slipped on a T-shirt, a pair of pants, and a crew-neck sweater, then threw on his coat and buttoned it halfway.

Since the keys to the front door were missing, maintaining the barricades that leaned against the entrance were of the upmost importance. To make any trip, he needed to go out through the same window he had used to enter the apartment.

Scott approached the window and looked outside, checking to see that the streets were clear. He pressed his face up to the glass to get a better look at the bodega on the corner. Not a soul in sight. He slid the window up and made his way to the school, alone.

• • •

Some hours later, Scott had safely made his way back to the apartment with the supplies. It was now early afternoon and Beth was in the kitchen, hovering over a pot of water. A litany of ingredients standing an arm’s length away.

“So,” Scott said as he paced behind her. “Are you ready for this? These basket ingredients will be your toughest challenge yet. Do you have the patience to go all the way?”

“Definitely,” Beth said as she tied an apron around her waist. “But you have to hold up your end of the agreement.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” he said. “‘No coaching. No peeking. No tasting.'”

Beth smirked and let out a chuckle as Scott headed into the living room. He sat down on the couch and let out a sigh, stretching his arms and legs, sinking into the plush fabric. He closed his eyes, listening to the faint sound of bubbling water coming from the kitchen, smelling the salt wafting through the air. For a moment he imagined himself back in his restaurant.

Maybe it’ll be half-edible, he thought.

He took in a deep breath through his nose and out the same way, then drifted off to sleep.

He awoke sometime later. The evaporated salt smell had been replaced with garlic and butter. There was an odd smell of molasses with him in the room. He curled his nose, sniffing the couch, then himself, but couldn’t find the source of the smell. Nevertheless, he followed the otherwise pleasant scent into the kitchen.

Beth was using a spoon and fork to lift a portion of linguini into a bowl.

“I see you managed not to burn the place down,” Scott said, leaning up against the door frame.

“Ha-ha,” Beth mocked, sticking out her tongue. Every inch of her apron was stained, pieces of her long dark hair were sticking out in all directions, and her forehead was smeared with oil. She dipped the makeshift tongs into the pot of pasta again and filled another bowl. “Okay, dinner is served.” She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand then dried her palms on the apron. “Can you untie me?” She gestured to her back, lifted her arms up.

Scott pushed off the door frame and came to stand behind her. He pulled the strings away from her back and tugged at them until the knot loosened and the strings draped down past her hips. Scott stood there for a moment longer, losing focus on the apron and moving his attention to the back of Beth’s heather-blue shirt.

“Did you do it?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“Y-yeah,” Scott stammered, quickly backing away.

“Sit down. I’ll bring it over.”

Scott pulled a chair out from under the table and sat, rubbing his face with his hands. Beth placed a bowl in front of him.

“It looks good,” he said, avoiding eye contact.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a smile trace her lips.

Scott sat poised, thin-lipped, but he moved his nose in closer to take a whiff. His nostrils scrunched. His brow furled. Something was off. The molasses smell burrowed into his nose once more. He dipped a finger into the red sauce and sniffed it, then gently dabbed it on his tongue. He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, opening them again after a brief pause.

“What?” Beth asked, her eyes wide, moving around the room.

“What did you put in this pasta?”

“What do you mean?”

“The ingredients. What did you use?”

“I don’t know. Salt, pepper, some garlic powder, butter…Okay, so it’s not the way you make it, but this is my version.”

“Where are they?”

“What?”

“The ingredients,” he said.

Beth pointed to the far counter. Scott, on his feet now, stampeded toward it. He picked up a small ceramic shaker coated in spots of grease and turned it upside down, pouring out what looked like salt until it formed a mound on the granite.

“Taste this,” he said, hovering over the counter like a master over a dog’s coiled-up shame.

“What are you doing?” Beth asked, looking down at her hands and worrying the skin around her thumbnail.

“Taste. It.” He pointed to the mound on the counter.

Beth looked down at her feet and pushed her chair back, standing up. She inched toward him. Then she took a pinch from the mound and touched it to her tongue. The color drained from her face.

“It’s not salt.”

“It’s not salt,” Scott repeated.

“I’m sorry. I—I thought it was.”

Scott walked away, throwing a hand in the air, his other hand at his hip. “I knew this would happen. I fucking knew this would happen.”

“I’m sorry, really. I thought—”

“No, it’s not—I just—” He paced back and forth, his hand on his forehead now. “God damn it!” He smacked his bowl of pasta off the table, the sauce splattering onto the floor. Beth pressed her back up against the countertop.

“None of this was supposed to happen. You know where I should be right now? Sipping Bellinis in South Beach, opening my new restaurant!” Scott punched the wall, his fist puncturing the flimsy drywall.

“Now all of this”—he held his hands out, motioning to the ceiling—”all of this“—he reached into his back pocket and retrieved the recipe book—”is for a future that no longer exists!” He cocked his arm and then threw the notebook across the room.

He stormed out of the kitchen, and Beth loosened her death grip on the counter, finally exhaling.

“And fuck Bobby Ray!” Scott yelled from down the hall.

In the living room, he threw his clothes on the carpet and kicked over a coffee table before sagging onto the couch. He sat there for a few minutes, mulling over the hot pasta, coated in that horrific sauce, both of which now covered the kitchen floor. It was more than a waste of ingredients or a bastardization of his craft; it was the realization that had awoken inside him. All that he had worked for his entire life had been rendered meaningless in only two short months.

He sat up and ran his fingers through his hair, letting out a long sigh.

“Beth!” he yelled. No response. He peeked into the kitchen. The dreaded sauce had caked onto the linoleum.

“Beth?” he shouted again.

He walked to the bottom of the staircase and listened for movement. “Beth, can we talk?” He made his way up to her closed bedroom door and knocked.

“Listen…I’m sorry for how I reacted. I’m not mad about the salt. Mistakes happen in the kitchen. God knows I’ve made mistakes of my own. It’s the first thing you learn as a chef.”

He swallowed a big lump in his throat and leaned his head against the door, waiting for Beth to respond. Still there was silence. He gently creaked the door open with his fingertips. Her room was dark, abandoned.

“Beth! Where are you?”

He jogged down the steps and then scoured each room, pushing open doors, looking behind furniture, until finally stopping at the entrance to the apartment, at the barricaded door. Only, it wasn’t.

Scott stepped outside into the fading daylight and looked around at the former barricade of furniture now spread across the front porch. He suddenly felt like a marinated stuffed bird being placed into an oven.

What the hell?

He quickly descended the steps and ran onto the sidewalk.

“Beth!” he whisper-shouted, his eyes darting in every direction.

Just then the street came to life, screaming awake. An ancient vehicle revved its engine, barreling toward him as, almost simultaneously, a beige Cadillac turned the corner, speeding down the middle of the road.

Scott sprinted to the nearest car, a white Prius, and ducked behind it.

The rogue vehicle slammed to a stop in front of the bodega and held there as Scott held his breath. The driver and passenger doors were flung open in sync, and two men stepped out. One man, the driver, had a shaved head and piercings in his nose. The other man, the passenger, also had a shaved head, but donned a long, bushy beard. Both were clad in black biker outfits: ripped jeans and leather vests. A gold chain hung low on the passenger’s neck.

“This the place?” the driver said, hoisting his pants up, stuffing the excess of his shirt over his large stomach and under his belt.

“Yup,” the passenger said, hocking a ball of snot onto the concrete.

The driver knocked twice on the car’s rear window and stepped back.

The door opened, and a third man emerged: a stocky guy dressed in flannel, with slicked-black hair and a scar across his forehead. In his hand, Scott made out an open can of peaches with a plastic fork inside. The man surveyed the area, giving a long look at the bodega as if it owed him a large debt.

The driver reached into the back seat, pulling out two metal baseball bats and handing one to the passenger. Then the three men crossed the street and walked into the bodega. Scott followed them, sneaking from car to car. He made it to the storefront and peeked in through the window. The two bald men were knocking over shelves, kicking empty toilet paper boxes, and smacking dried-up iced tea bottles and beer cans with their bats, like it was a game of Whack-A-Mole. The man with the scar was already behind the register, checking underneath the counter.

“The stash is here,” the passenger said. “I’m sure of it.”

Scott watched the passenger disappear from view toward the back of the store, then eyed the driver, who was pacing around the aisles. Scott leaned in closer against the glass. There, under a knocked-over display shelf propped up on one side by more fallen wreckage, was Beth, concealing herself from the men. Scott’s eyes widened, and somehow her stare locked onto his. Beth had her hands clasped tightly against her mouth, and in that moment Scott couldn’t shake the image of a frightened turtle receding into its shell.

He motioned for her to crawl to him, but she feverishly shook her head.

The passenger kicked in the stockroom door and seemed to be rooting around in the mess Scott had made a few weeks ago.

“Goddamn possum nest back here!” the passenger yelled.

“Yeah, great. What about the stash?” the driver said, unknowingly inching closer to Beth’s hiding spot.

The man with the scar leapt over the counter and walked to a nearby display shelf that held a mirror. He stabbed a peach slice from the can and slurped it in one bite. The way the sugar-laced juices dribbled down his chin filled Scott with disgust. The man pulled a comb from his back pocket and ran it through his hair a few times, revealing a holstered pistol under his belt, just above his groin.

The passenger appeared from the back of the store. “It’s gone!”

“What you mean ‘it’s gone’?” the driver asked, finally moving away from Beth.

“The stash. Someone jacked it.”

The man with the scar drew his attention away from his reflection and took a few steps toward the stockroom.

Scott saw his opening. He quietly entered the bodega, fighting back the adrenaline coursing through him. He needed to grab Beth and sprint the hell out of there.

“How’s that possible?” the driver asked.

Scott immediately banked a hard left and crept up to the knocked-over display shelf, ducking down to get face-to-face with Beth.

“I don’t know.” It was the passenger’s voice. “I remember hiding the box on the top shelf. Nobody knows ’bout it ‘cept us.”

Beth slowly army-crawled out from underneath her shell, Scott aiding her by tugging at her arms.

“This is some bullshit!” the driver yelled, shattering an empty picture frame on a shelf.

Beth was completely free now and the two crawled back on hands and knees toward the store entrance.

As they inched closer to freedom on the debris-ridden floor, Scott’s hand landed on a shard of glass. It pierced his skin, the shock pushing him off balance, and he knocked into a nearby display shelf. A stack of magazines shook overhead, and Scott reached up to keep them from falling. But he was too late. The sound of toppling magazines reverberated through the store and the three men turned around.

“Hey, who’s there?” the driver called out, raising his bat.

Shit.

Scott looked at Beth. She looked at him, frozen in fear. He held her gaze for another moment before motioning for her to stay put.

Scott stood up, hands already in the air.

“Well, lookie what we got here,” the passenger said. “If it ain’t the crook in question.”

“I’m not looking for any trouble guys,” Scott said, like he had recited it in his head a hundred times already. “I was just scrounging for supplies, same as you.”

The man with the scar took a step forward, unholstering the gun from his belt. “Bad news, dude,” he said, his voice scratchy, like he’d eaten a fistful of glass. “You came looking in the wrong place.”

He raised his pistol and aimed it at Scott’s chest. Scott winced, anticipating the shot, but the man continued.

“We’re gonna take everything you own. Your food. Your clothes. Your supplies. Then we’re gonna skin you alive, hang you up in the streets as a sign to the rest of New Jersey: We run this shit now.”

“Please,” Scott said, his lip trembling. “None of this is supposed to happen.”

“P-p-p-please,” the driver said, and started laughing. “‘Ey, this fool’s lost it. Cap ‘im right here, right now.”

The man with the scar pulled his gun in toward his chest to cock it, then aimed back at Scott.

“You’re just another potato in life’s big stew now, dude.”

Suddenly a great moan broke the tension in the room, and the building itself seemed to come alive. The roof above them creaked, the walls shook, and the wood and concrete let out a final gasp. A great rumble followed and, with it, the roof of the bodega caved in, steel and other rubble tumbling down in giant chunks right above where the three men stood, crushing their skulls and flattening their bodies, blood spraying from their eyes and ears, other viscera forcefully splattering outward. In an instant, any remnants of the three men were gone, replaced with plumes of dust enveloping Scott, cocooning him in gray. The moan of the building had ceased, now replaced with squeaks and screeches as a family of possums began to flee from the wreckage, scuttling past Scott’s ankles and flooding into the street.

Scott stood there, in shock, his eyes as wide as on the first day of the Storm. Freed bricks from the ceiling continued to fall and come loose. He looked down at the rubble in front of him, blood and possum carcasses mixed in with the wreckage.

Beth appeared from behind the shelf, swatting at the dust in the air, shaking off her shirt and pants. She looked over at the flattened carnage of the three men and, spotting a ground-up eyeball inside the can of peaches, threw up on her shoes.

“Jesus,” she said, spitting out bile and vomit. “That was crazy.”

She wrapped her arm around Scott’s and tugged at him. “C’mon, let’s get outta here.”

Scott remained still, mouth agape, his eyes glazed over.

Beth kept tugging at him until, finally, he took a step back from the massacre and let her guide him home.

• • •

Beth knelt down next to the portable burner, dumping two cans of SpaghettiOs into an empty pot. She dipped a wooden spoon inside the mixture and stirred, cranking up the heat, then sat down on the floor, curling into a blanket. The apartment was dark, save for the light coming from the burner and a few candles on the kitchen table. The power had gone out sometime while they were in the bodega, likely across the entire state. No other homes had been lit on their walk back.

Across from Beth, just a few feet from the burner, Scott also huddled in a blanket, his eyes still wide.

“Hell of a night for the power to finally go out, right?” Beth asked.

Scott didn’t budge.

“Luckily we’ve got this little heat lamp of yours. Nothing like an impromptu campfire, right?”

Scott continued to stare at the floor.

“You’re gonna love this once it warms up. I used to eat SpaghettiOs all the time when I was a kid. The secret is adding ketchup. It’s a game changer, trust me.”

Beth looked around, playing with her split ends.

“This kinda reminds me of the time when the power went out a few summers ago. Remember that big hurricane?”

Still, Scott didn’t budge. She continued anyway.

“My family got pretty worried we’d lose all the food in the fridge, so I remember them making me eat as much as I could.”

She took a pause, not for Scott but for herself.

“My grandmother was living with us at the time. She was really sick. Cancer. So we were taking care of her.

“I remember there was this grape Jell-O in the fridge that nobody touched. After about the second or third day without power, I took it out of the fridge and brought it to her. And we sat there together and ate this crappy warm Jell-O, just kinda enjoying each other’s company in silence.”

She looked over at Scott now.

“I gotta say, there’s nothing about two people quietly enjoying a meal together that says ‘end of the world’ to me. You said that all of your work is for a future that doesn’t exist. But this”—she pointed to Scott, to the food, to herself—”will always exist.”

Scott seemed to register her words, if only by averting his gaze to his feet.

Beth leaned forward and looked inside the pot. The red liquid bubbled along the sides of the metal. She grabbed the bottle of ketchup next to her and squirted a healthy amount inside the pot until it sputtered and let out a farting noise. She blurted out a snorting laugh, and immediately placed a hand over her mouth. She looked up at Scott, whose lip had curled up on one side. He then let out a stifled laugh, which made Beth burst out uncontrollably. They sat there, both laughing, Beth smacking the floor with her hand as Scott pressed his face into his hands to hide his smile.

Finally Beth collected herself enough to lower the heat, but just as she did, the burner’s screen turned off. The image of an empty battery flashed in the corner.

“Damn. Well, the battery finally went.”

Scott had stopped laughing and resumed his stunned gaze, gripping his blanket a little tighter.

Beth poured half of the SpaghettiOs into a bowl, then slid it over to Scott, stopping it just in front of him. He stared past it, eyes still as wide as an owl’s.

She dipped into the pot with her spoon.

“Oh yeah,” she said, mouth filled cheek to cheek. “Just like Momma used to make. What do you think?”

Scott moved his focus down into his bowl. He unfurled an arm from under the blanket, grabbed a spoon, and managed a bite into his mouth. He chewed until nothing was left, then swallowed.

“It’s…good,” he said.

Beth smirked at him, one eyebrow raised.

“Good?” she asked.

She reached into her back pocket and threw something at Scott. It landed in front of him. The recipe book. He looked down at it, then back at her. Finally she gave him a nod.

“How good?” she asked.

Scott leaned in to grab the book and flipped to a blank page.</p

Eric Locsh is a writer, which should be abundantly clear considering why you’re reading this. He’s best known for his fantasy fiction novel, The Tower of Blue, which his friends and family say was an “admirable first effort”. He enjoys cooking, practicing Muay Thai, riding his Vespa, and cappuccinos. You can find his other works on The New York Times bestselling list in about 10 years from now. Hopefully.

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