In the good ol' days you scavenged to feed your family.
Back then there was still something left to find.
Canned stuff, mostly.
It was all more delicious than we knew—delicacies, all
taken for granted and even disdained by the health-conscious back before the
war took us down and all hell broke loose.
And after that, whoever had survived was mining the rubble
for bits of food or clean water or some kind of weapon, and the rules were,
there weren't any rules.
You played by your own rules.
You found what you could, and hid your stash, and tried to
But all of that stuff—the canned food and such—is gone.
Like most every animal you can think of, like every freakin' tree or edible
plant, canned goods are only a fond memory. Which, in itself is a cause for
grief. Because a man should not think fondly of anything from those first few
months of the Long Winter.
And yet, when it's gone, you remember. And it was better
then. Hard as it was, it was easier than now.
These days its fungi.
Things that thrive in the dim, cool light.
You pick barnacles from rotting wood. You dig for worms,
but seldom find them. You worry about protein. You crave it so much that even
roaches look good to you.
We set the traps for them—tin cans baited with precious
morsels—and check them every other day. I catch the boy eating lean, red
roaches straight out of one such can and clip him a good one on the back of the
"You got to share, Billy. I got to eat, too."
But I don't really blame the boy.
Billy wasn't mine, but a stray we picked up back before
We kept him out of pity—another mouth to feed. Another body
He was a tiny thing and prone to wailing, but Annie loved
him. I worried he might give us away and get us killed, though it never came to
anything like that. I tolerated him for her, but then she died, and now it's
just me and him, and I know I'd give my life for his.
He's likely eleven now, though you'd not know it to look at
There is a line beyond which a man is no longer a man. He
has devolved, and he is past all pretense, beyond all diplomacy and all manner
of truce. No treaty, no kind words, no sacred trust can save you who are
"other,” for we are at war, you and I, whoever you are, and winner takes
When you're down, you're out. When you fall, be prepared to
For there is no mercy when the world is ruled by tooth and
belly. And what awaits is not the worm, but the spit.
The slow fire.
Salt. A little mustard saved for the occasion.
You, my brother, are the spoils of war. You are the main
course, the entrée. Your virtues are a throwback from days you'll not see
again, for in these times your neighbor will loot your body for vittles, cut
you up like a chicken, and roast your parts like a Christmas ham.
Thing is, I've not done it.
Roaches and pill bugs—things that go crunch in the night—this
is the diet of the meek.
We hunker down when hunters pass. And everyone, we have to
assume, is a hunter.
We have seen the emaciated suddenly energized and running
like gazelles from the better fed, have seen tribes snare their prey like
raptors, have smelled the hunters' fires burning—human flesh sizzling on the
spit, meager fat dripping on white hot coals.
We are meat. We are
livestock grazing on bugs and thistles.
And I ask, is this my fate? Am I a cow? Can a cow become a
wolf? Can a sheep become a cougar?
Because, I tell myself over and over, it's kill or be killed. We need
food. Billy moves across my line of vision like a marionette, his movements
stilted, his head too heavy for his emaciated body. And I think of Annie, and
how she loved him, and I think I've got to do it.
We watch the old man from our spot on the hill.
Billy climbs upon rock and rubble like a tired monkey, and
"McKinny," he says on the second day.
"Rhymes with skinny."
"Do not," I tell him, "Give him a
It’s the same rule that was enforced on the farm when I was
a child: do not give an animal a name if you intend to eat it.
But the name sticks.
We watch McKinny every day. He stays close to his hovel.
Nothing grows in the cool, dim light of the Long Winter, but McKinny keeps
trying, sticking seeds in the lifeless dust, trying to coax some green to
He traps insects in empty cans, just like us.
Two or three roaches.
Bugs for breakfast. Bugs for lunch.
"That old man is turning roaches into meat,"
Billy says, and he smiles as though it’s clever. And I think I shouldn't have
told the boy—should have simply taken the old man's life, butchered him on the
spot, and brought home the bacon.
Because what's the boy to think once he's participated in
such a deed? That a human life is nothing?
Is a human life anything?
It must be something, lest taking it would not weigh on me
I am in McKinny's hovel twice, both times with bat raised,
so that all that was left was to let fly and bring that bat
the sleeping man's skull.
And yet I don't do it.
Instead I stand by his bed and watch
the rise and fall of
that bony, hairless old chest. I study the grizzled features and wonder what
life this codger might have led before the shit hit the fan and we, the
lucky-unlucky, survived to see another cold, dark day.
And then I ponder the idea of what
I'm charged with—killing
a man that I might eat his flesh and feed the boy who became my son. I weigh
pros and cons, as though I haven't done so constantly since the notion of
killing him came into my head. He is old, I tell myself, and while I'm no
spring chicken, my protégé is a growing boy. He is alone, and the boy and I are
But McKinny is a man—a human
being—and by the ideals with
which I was raised what seems a thousand years ago and in another world he has
as much right to live as I, and as much as my boy, who at eleven years of age
is spent, and tired, and weak, and stunted by lack of food.
On the third night as I stand, bat
at ready, lost in my
thoughts, I feel the shiv cut cold into my gut, and I wake from my reverie, my
wild eyes meeting his.
And the shiv is out, and then in again,
and then out, and
And I have dropped the bat and am
trying to grab that steel
shank and the remarkably strong piston that is the old man's arm, and all I see
in my mind's bleak eye is that Billy will be alone now and at the mercy of
hunters who will hang his thin body on a rafter, gut him like a shoat, and fill
their bellies with the only thing that means anything at all to me.
And then I have the shiv in hand and
it is in the old man's
throat and then out and then in again, and finally he is still.
And there you have it.
I manage to slow the bleeding but
there are no antibiotics,
no way to fight the infection.
The disease runs free and easy, and
by morning I am on fire
and too sick and weak to move.
I try to coach Billy to gut McKinney’s
corpse and light the
fire, but he struggles, and the old man's body is already stinking. Or is it
We talk a bit, and I tell Billy to
lay low, to keep the
traps baited, to never trust a soul no matter what they say or how nice they
But it's difficult to push the words out, and I know it
won't be long before I'm dead and the boy is on his own, and of course it
grieves me, but like so much in this life, there is nothing I can do about it.
Michael LaRosa writes fiction and poetry. His work has appeared in a smattering
of print and digital publications. He lives in beautiful Gaston, South Carolina
where the sun is so hot, it's burning a hole right through his skull. He thinks
he smells bacon frying, but really his brain is on fire.