I was reduced to crawling through the dirt. My legs and back were done. On the upside, being near the ground meant I could better see any movement among the leaves and trash. Movement meant something living, and that meant food.
I inched along toward a wooded area and my hope grew as I neared a rotting log. I struggled to flip it and saw dozens of larvae and some larger bugs scurrying around. I gleefully reached in and got a fistfull of rotting wood and grubs and picked out the larvae one by one with my lips, as though kissing them. I didn’t chew – just let them slide down my throat.
This was the biggest meal I had had in days, but I suddenly felt even hungrier than before and scrambled around looking for any more possible food. But there was nothing other than some moss, which I sucked for the moisture. I gave up and lay on my back to look at the gray sky. After a while I pulled out my prized possession: my Can of the Unknown. There was no label. It was the size of a standard-sized can of beans or soup, or dog food. After the grubs I knew I didn’t need to delve into my backup quite yet.
Over the past few weeks I had spent many hours guessing what was in the can. It sloshed a little more than dog food, but a little less than soup. My hope was that it was a can of black beans, and I’d spent many hours envisioning quesadillas.
A few days earlier I had discovered that I had lost my can opener. I thought about opening the can without it: hitting the top with a rock seemed like the best way. But then I thought about how much of the food would spill out and I knew I couldn’t sacrifice a single drop of whatever was inside.
And that is what brought me to the wooded area, which was growing next to what was once a parking lot next to an old mall, where there surely would be a can opener.
The malls were horrific places during those first few days and weeks: Tens of thousands fighting over supplies and food. I made a point of staying clear of malls since then. But time has passed and there simply weren’t as many people around since then.
I rolled over and looked at the front entrance of the mall, where the big glass doors used to be, and made my plan: I would need to stand up and walk in on foot, since I would have to run out if there was trouble. The meal I had just eaten and my little rest had renewed my strength enough to do that, I thought. I wasn’t familiar with this mall, but I assumed they would have a kitchenware store, and I assumed that the store shutters would have been forced open once people remembered that there would be knives inside. And I also assumed that even the desperate looters would not have had need of most of the other items; waffle irons and rubber scrapers don’t have much value when you’re eating bugs.
I made my itinerary
Step 1: Stand up
Step 2: Assess whether I can do this or need more rest, but don’t waste time second-guessing myself. The days of lingering self-doubt are gone.
Step 3: Walk cautiously to the entrance
Step 4: Find the directory if it’s still there and locate a kitchenware store
Step 5: Walk there quickly and quietly, always making note of the exits
Step 6: Find the can opener and then get out fast.
I took a deep breath and had made it to step 2 when I saw them: a group of seven or eight people sitting around a fire. They were behind a Jersey barrier, which is why I hadn’t seen them when I was crawling in. I should have seen or smelled the smoke from their fire, but the air was still so dirty I hadn’t noticed.
It looked like there were at least two women in the group of otherwise young men. There were no children or older people, but I hadn’t seen a child or an old person in weeks. The fire looked like it might be for boiling water, or could it possibly be for cooking? A cooking fire could be a sign of civilization, as was the fact of women and men cooperating together. I had encountered a few groups of only men in the past week and things had ended badly.
I was still studying them when one of them noticed me. I was covered in dirt, and thus well-camouflaged, but there were few leaves on the trees and I wasn’t well concealed when I had stood up. I should have thought of that but starvation has not made me any smarter.
A few of the men in the group stood up to look at me and I could tell from the ease and speed of how they stood that they were well-fed, at least not starving. I didn’t know what to do, but knew that running away would be an invitation to be chased. And I had seen too many human bones in old cooking fires to know how that ends. I could stay where I was, but that wouldn’t give me any advantage, and eventually they would come to me. So I tried to take control and began walking toward them, slowly but as surely as I could. I did not want to look weak. I gave a little wave as though this was a perfectly normal situation. I wanted to shout, “Hello!” but I knew my voice was not strong enough.
I got closer and they looked at me with growing horror and I saw them get into defensive postures. I was not prepared for this – being the feared instead of the fearful. I looked down at myself and understood: I was, after all, covered in filth and leaves and blood. And that is when I realized how clean these people were; not freshly-showered by any means, but no smudges on their faces, little dirt on their clothes.
“We don’t have any food to spare.” One of the women said to me. They were pushing me away but I suddenly knew I had to join them. I couldn’t scavenge like an animal anymore, yet I was not one of them. I had to do this. “Oh that’s fine, I have some to share if you want.” I was proud of my bluff as I pulled out my can. They all stared at it unblinking, mouths open.
Finally one of the men asked, “What is it?” and he quickly grabbed it from my hands.
I couldn’t speak.
“Thanks.” One of the women said. “See you around.”
My advantage was gone and I was being pushed out again.
Finally I said, “I don’t remember. Beans I think. But I know where to get more.”
It was the biggest lie I’ve ever told and I spent the rest of my life trying to make it true.