09-30-09 – Breakfast of Champions

“Happy Last Day of September!”

I wake up to breakfast in bed. It’s the first hot food I’ve had in weeks: oatmeal with maple syrup and chocolate chips. There’s a little fabric posy on the side of the plate, a flower no doubt clipped from one of the many fake bouquets decorating Ms. Weather’s apartment.

“What’s this for?”

“I wanted to say thanks, you know, for saving me from the dreaded death by golf club.”

“You’re welcome. I don’t believe in cruel and unusual punishment. I do, however, believe in chocolate chips.”

“Lucky guess, I suppose.”

“How did you manage to heat this up?” I ask. Zack is sitting a safe distance away on the edge of the bed, forcing Dapper to move over. The dog glares at him and then rolls over and goes back to sleep. I would be embarrassed, but we’re all so filthy and disheveled that I won’t look much different later in the day.

“That’s the other thing I wanted to thank you for… My brother, I know you moved him. I couldn’t… I’m a coward. I couldn’t touch him, couldn’t look at him,” Zack says, staring down at his palms. He’s wearing faded jeans and a dark green thermal long-sleeve tee. “I saved some things from his place, before the thieves showed up.”

“So that’s what happened,” I say quietly.

“They took everything and one of them… You saw. I was trying to warn you. I’m worried they’ll come back. They couldn’t get into this apartment and I wouldn’t be surprised if they returned,” he says. “Everyone is so desperate. They do terrible things.”

“We’ll be ready for them,” I reply, forcing a smile. “I’m sorry for cutting you off yesterday. I don’t want the others to know about your brother, about what happened to him. It was hard enough just to get them up here in the first place – you’d think it was halfway around the world and not just upstairs. I’m not sure how they’d react to something like that.” We’re talking in generalizations, euphemisms, but I’m too nervous to say the word “murder” in front of him. I choose to leave out that once Phil stepped in, the move upstairs happened relatively quickly. “That still doesn’t explain the hot oatmeal.”

“Oh!” he says, brightening up. The curtains are open and the light coming in is pale, milky. It casts a glowing light that makes the room feel sleepy and comfortable and soft. Zack’s green eyes glimmer in the dim haze of yellow and he smiles. “I rescued a Hibachi. There aren’t many coals left, but enough for a few meals. I’ve never tried lighting it up with just newspaper, but we could try that.”

“A Hibachi? Phil will positively die of happiness. Unless it comes off a grill he doesn’t consider it real food.”

“I’d have to agree with him there,” Zack says, chuckling. “I mean… Well, alright, I have a confession to make,” he says, his smile fading. I don’t know why, but the expression makes my stomach flip over. He sighs very slowly, his chest inflating and collapsing like a baster balloon. “I was the sous chef at L’Etoile, so hot oatmeal doesn’t exactly present a challenge.”

“See? I knew there was a reason I stuck my neck out for you,” I tell him, smiling. That feeling in my stomach fades. Out in the living room I can hear the first evidence of Hollianted waking up. There’s shuffling and the scratch of a can opener across a counter top.

“It’s cute,” Zack says.

“What is?”

“How you worry about them. You’re the mother around here, aren’t you?”

“I – oh, it’s that obvious?”

“You sure you don’t want to tell them about the thieves?” he asks. I want to eat the oatmeal but it’s hard to dig in with him scrutinizing my face. “It doesn’t seem right, ya know, to leave them in the dark.”

“Let me worry about them. Like you said, I’m the mother.”

“You don’t think they have a right to know?”

It’s touching that he’s worried about people he’s only known for a matter of hours, but it’s hard not to snap at him. That’s something I need to work on, the urge to start a fight at the first sign of disagreement. I don’t know what’s got me so touchy, maybe it’s the tantalizing food just inches away that I haven’t been allowed to touch yet.

“Everything is so fucked, Zack. Who knows what will happen tomorrow or the next day? It seems like leaving it open, letting them think there’s a chance for something good… I just can’t add another reason to worry, not now. Not yet.”

“Fair enough,” he says, holding up his hands. “I’ll leave you alone. If you’ve gotten them along this far then you must know what you’re doing.”

“Thanks,” I say. “I just want everyone to get along.” The oatmeal is perfect, gooey and warm and remarkably well-textured. It does not taste like it’s come out of a cardboard can. “This,” I say, holding up a spoonful of the oatmeal, “Is probably your one-way ticket to their hearts and minds.”

It only takes a few hours for Zack to start fitting in. I don’t know why I was so worried about it; it’s how we live now. Another human, another living creature, you learn to accept them and like them and take them into your family. It’s not even a conscious process, but an unavoidable survival technique. None of the usual friendship rules apply – there’s no slow, intermediate zone where you’re just starting to know someone. You’re living in close quarters, you sleep, eat and live in the same small, cramped apartment and you discover quickly how to fit that new person into your routine.

Zack helped with dinner and somehow we made a kind of fried casserole out of cocktail weenies, baked beans and canned corn. Now he’s helping Hollianted clean up the dishes. I’m back in my room, sitting on the bed with the curtains open. I can see the city, I can see what’s left of it. In the distance, smoke lingers on the horizon, buildings black and charred as they burn slowly from the inside out. I wonder if it will all end in fire, if we will live to see this apartment, the store, in flames. And I wonder where my mother is, if she’s alive, if she found a group like I did, a broken little family to cling to.

I’ve been tinkering with the radio. Sometimes I think I can hear voices, a single voice, humming beneath the static. I’ll find it for a minute and then it’s gone. I hope it’s not just a hallucination. I want so badly to hear someone out there that I think sometimes I’m imagining the ghost of a voice.

Update: Approximately 1:30 AM

Ms. Weather’s wine supply has been discovered. Ted and Zack now best friends. All of us now best friends. There’s no more room on the bed, there are bodies sprawled everywhere. Dapper insists on taking up 1/3 of it for himself. Dog not drunk.

Zack has requested – nay – demanded I provide a portrait for you all. I oblige. Behold:

Zack

(Note to reader: Zack insists I point out the following: That his hair is not, in fact, made of macaroni noodles, that he actually has a bit of a beard and not the pocks, and that he is jubilantly swigging from a bottle of Chianti, not a giant’s used tampon. Also that his eyes are not wildly out of whack as shown in portrait.)

And again. Cubist:

cubist

And finally, Holly’s contribution:

freeeench

Spot the art major.

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