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“Hurry up, and eat it,” said the small roundish man. He wore muddy denim overalls, patched with fabric torn from old t-shirts, and his red-rimmed eyes seemed out of focus. It was as if he were staring at something other than the large filthy man in front of him.
“I can’t. I can’t eat another bite.”
The small roundish man picked up the wooden spoon that sat on the broken table. He handed the larger man the spoon and eyed the window. “Hurry up and eat it. They’ll be here soon and there will be nothing I can do to stop them.”
The larger man, seated as he was, began to shift his weight in his chair. Any semblance of comfort taken in this action was stripped away by small roundish man’s utterance of “them.” The very proclamation of which had been enough to make the larger man stop his shifting and begin to cry.
“Mr. Clarewater, please lock the door. Why won’t you even try?”
Mr. Clarewater wouldn’t lock the door. He wouldn’t barricade it with a dresser or the now useless refrigerator. He wouldn’t do any of those things because he had listened to the radio.
Mr. Clarewater told the larger man tied to the chair in front of him a simple no. He told the larger man this because Mr. Clarewater understood that he was as good as dead, plain and simple—unless.
The unless of the situation was Johnny, Johnny Nishmann, the large man uncomfortably seated in front of Mr. Clarewater, Johnny Nishmann, who had been wandering from home to home, eating whatever he could find before the “they” from the radio came and took it.
Johnny had heard a radio, too. It was more by dumb luck than anything. But, when Johnny was over at the lake, he had found one that still had some juice. The message came over loud and clear. They were coming. No point in hiding your essentials. Put them outside your door. Your generators, your gas, your rifles, your fishing tackle, and, of course, your food.
All of it.
Put it all outside in a nice pile and they wouldn’t come inside. If they had to come in, they would—and then they’d get you, too. So, put everything outside the door because they’re on their way now and it won’t be long.
Johnny had put down the radio, clicked it off, and run. If he were going to live out the winter with nothing but what he already had in his belly, Johnny figured he’d better have a lot in there.
So, Johnny, not the smartest man, but a survivor nonetheless, began eating.
Houses left years ago, houses left months ago, houses with people still in them, anywhere that had food outside the door or in a forgotten basement—Johnny went.
He ate his way through suburban neighborhoods and out into the fields surrounding them. He ate his way past the fields and into farmers’ very backyards. He ate his way through their storage shacks, through their pantry sheds, through their back doors—if they were open. He ate their beans, their cabbage, their roots, their berries. He ate the dog food, their children’s food, whatever they had to take.
If the farmers had already piled their essentials outside their doors, he ate that too. Never mind what would happen, when the “they” from the radio came and found nothing there. Never mind that.
Johnny ate it all.
Which is why, Mr. Clarewater, the small roundish man, had knocked Johnny out with a shovel.
He had watched Johnny enter the small vegetable garden behind his farm house. He had watched Johnny lean over the tomato plants and begin to feast, the red juices mingling on his stained shirt with whatever Johnny had last eaten before wandering into his garden. Mr. Clarewater had watched Johnny become filthy, animal-like—and it gave him hope. Mr. Clarewater only had tomatoes and a few cans of beans. He was no farmer—but he lived on a farm. He had vast fields for grazing, but behind his house, he had only a small vegetable garden. Not enough to feed them. Not enough to feed him through the winter—and them. Not nearly enough, in Mr. Clarewater’s opinion.
And in Mr. Clarewater’s opinion, Johnny was already a victim of circumstance. He was already a roaming animal, and Mr. Clarewater saw nothing wrong in walking up behind him and slamming the back of his steel shovel as hard as he could against the soft spot of Johnny’s head.
“They’re going to strip this area clean. Eat.”
“Mr. Clarewater, I really don’t feel good.”
“Don’t get sick on me. Johnny Nishmann, if you get sick, you’ll never make it. Now, please, eat some more, then you can stop. That’ll be enough for today.”
Johnny Nishmann had now been eating over Mr. Clarewater’s for a week. Mr. Clarewater had nursed him back to health after beating him with a shovel. It wasn’t just the soft spot on the back of his head that Mr. Clarewater had brought his shovel down on, but the shins, ankles, hands, face and fingers as well. Johnny Nishmann was a mess.
“When will they be here? I thought they were coming soon. Maybe they’ve come and gone, huh, Mr. Clarewater? Can’t you get the radio working?”
“Eat one more bite, then rest.”
Mr. Clarewater had explained to Johnny several times that when they came and took the little he could offer, what he had piled outside his door, that there would be nothing left to eat the entire winter, so it was important that they ate what they could now. “You see, Johnny, your idiot self actually had the right idea, eating like you had been. But it’s not fair for you to eat it all.”
Mr. Clarewater told Johnny that he would see to their survival. That Johnny had to be tied. That Mr. Clarewater had to eat too.
It had to be fair.
This made Johnny cry. He cried not because of the insane man’s earlier and terrible brutality or because of the insane man’s now terrible kindness, but because the day Mr. Clarewater had attacked him in the garden had not been the first time Johnny had visited Mr. Clarewater’s house.
Johnny had eaten his way through neighborhoods and farms, true, but he had done so because he was sneaky.
With the first houses, he had made a lot of noise, as if it were them outside, taking everything and moving on. But a neighborhood man had peeked and saw that it was just Johnny Nishmann, and Johnny had come under fire. So, he got smarter about eating everything he could.
Johnny ditched the neighborhoods and had begun camping in the woods, not far from Mr. Clarewater’s farmhouse and several others like it, all spread out over the area. He had been hitting up the different homes for quite a few days before he had been knocked out with a shovel. And in that time, Johnny had eaten almost every canned good, almost every little packaged, jarred, preserved morsel of food that had been piled nicely in front of those doors.
The sneaky part was that Johnny had carefully, as carefully as a mouse, replaced the cans, filled with dirt, back to where they belonged. He had carefully replaced jars, now filled with moss and water, back in front of doors. He had carefully made it as if nothing had been taken. What he took from one home, he used at the next.
So, Johnny cried. He wept because he knew about the switch.
He cried as Mr. Clarewater continued to feed him. He cried as Mr. Clarewater snuck off down to the basement to listen to the dying radio. He cried when Mr. Clarewater said they had only two more days before they came and took everything. Whatever was left, whatever was uneaten, would have to go outside the door with all the cans of food, with all the jars of pickled vegetables, with all the bullets, with everything that Mr. Clarewater had already put out there.
So, Johnny cried. Because Johnny knew what was going to happen when they came to the house. A few vegetables on top of jars of dirt would probably seem like an insult, especially considering how many other houses in the area would have the same thing outside their doors.
All thanks to Johnny.
It might even seem like a little rebellion. Johnny’s tears poured down his face, making his food salty. He wondered if they would think the farmers had gotten together and were trying to send a message. What would they think of that message?
Mr. Clarewater knew. They would come inside—unless.
Mr. Clarewater knew what they would think if they found jar after jar of moss and water. He knew that if they found tin lids loosely topping cans full of dirt that the “they” from the radio would come into his house and slit him open like one of the veal cattle he used to raise and butcher before they had started coming.
They had taken all his steers and cows except two the last time. Mr. Clarewater figured they wanted him to breed them for the next time they came—but he had slaughtered them both over the last year. That was what he knew.
Although he was sure they had left the cattle for him to raise more of, that wasn’t something Mr. Clarewater knew. That wasn’t how the slaughter business worked. Or, at least, that’s not how Mr. Clarewater’s veal farm used to operate, to survive.
What he knew, Mr. Clarewater thought to himself as he sharpened his butchering knives in his basement, was that they would be pleased with the salted steaks he’d have out waiting for them, piled high in neat stacks, each individually wrapped in its own brown butcher’s paper.