“A food writer,” says Jack, for what must be the fourth time. “A food writer.” (Five.)
“Mm-hm.” No matter how many trash can fires he lights, there’s always a point in the beginning when the flame sputters and Eugene thinks: fuck, it’s gone out. They’ve been on the road for two weeks, and objectively Eugene is getting the hang of this part of it, at least, but that false alarm still gets him, every time. What he needs is kindling, he thinks. “Pass me those papers.”
“Right.” Jack reaches over to hand him a fistful of litter, and Eugene tries to feed it into the flames without looking too closely at any one piece—junk mail, a water-stained poster for some rock show, what was once the start of a shopping list (he reads milk, bread, baby formula before the rest dissolves into ash). “A food writer.”
Eugene sort of wishes he hadn’t mentioned it, although if he’d tried to dodge the question, that would’ve meant putting up with Jack’s guesses, which could’ve realistically gone on for days.
He knows—because Jack will talk about anything, anything at all—that before civilization went to hell, Jack had never held down a nine-to-five, that his most recent job had been bartending. Eugene can picture this. Somehow it’s not hard to imagine Jack pouring drinks behind the counter of a pub somewhere, stretching to reach the bottles on the high shelves, laughing with the regulars, thriving in the middle of the noise and the chaos. He’s not gorgeous, but he's got sympathetic brown eyes, a quick smile, a casually intimate way of talking that no doubt had half his customers convinced he was flirting with them. Well, the biceps probably didn’t hurt.
“What part of that is so surprising,” Eugene says, a little shortly.
“Just—“ Jack lets out a puff of air. “I dunno. Seems a bit—glamorous, I guess.”
Eugene tries not to hear ‘and honestly you seem a bit boring’, tries not to let that sting. You’d think, at the end of the world, people would be able to let the small stuff go, overlook petty irritations in the face of, y’know, the desperate human struggle to survive. If anything, he’s got a shorter fuse than he did before. Or—fuse isn’t the word. Eugene never feels in danger of exploding. Mostly he just wants to lie down for a while. In silence.
“A lot of hunching over computer screens, worrying about deadlines,” he tells Jack. It gives him a sudden, sharp twist of nostalgia for the days when a rush of adrenaline only meant ‘you’ve got an hour left to bang out the last three hundred words of this article about the best new Manchurian restaurant in Toronto.’
“Aw,” says Jack. Eugene’s eyes are still on the fledgling fire, but he can hear the smile in Jack’s voice. “Aw, you loved it, didn’t you.”
He had. He hadn’t realized at the time how much. He shrugs a shoulder. “Not how I’d planned on using my journalism degree, but I was getting paid to write, which felt impossibly lucky—“
“Bet you were brilliant at it,” Jack says, wistfully. “Wish I could read one of your pieces.”
“Another tragedy of the zombie apocalypse,” says Eugene. “My whole stance on arugula, vanished into the ether.”
Jack hums, carefully balancing a pot of slightly sulfur-smelling water on the lip of the trash can so that it hovers over the flames without suffocating them. There’s no way to be certain that boiling it will render it safe to drink, but a surefire source of clean drinking water is a thing of the past.
The pot is scuffed up, the plastic handle rough on the end like an animal gnawed on it. They’d found it out in the woods, near what might have been a camp site. Eugene tries not to wonder who it used to belong to. Beneath it, notes and fliers and receipts curl into heat and nothingness.
“You’re still here, though,” Jack says. “You could always write something new.”
Eugene swallows, tightens his grip on the handle of the pot. “I don’t see the restaurant industry making a comeback any time soon.”
“You could—you could do a review of this place, though,” says Jack, all sudden boundless enthusiasm. “Just a little write-up about this hip new establishment, Burnt-Out Remains of A Warehouse Where We Found A Tin of Beans. Waiting list’s a mile long, y’know.” Jack grins. “People just—“
“No,” says Eugene, trying not to smile. “No, for the love of god—“
“People just dying to get in,” says Jack as Eugene groans. “Y’don’t need brains to see the appeal of Burnt-Out Remains of A Warehouse Where We Found a Tin of Beans.”
“Although the ambiance leaves something to be desired,” Eugene deadpans. He tells himself it’s to stave off any awkward pauses, but he can’t completely ignore how it makes Jack light up. Eugene surveys the singed, barren room, empty except for the trash can, the litter, and some rubble. “Just try to get a table.”
Jack laughs. He takes a few steps around the can until they’re side by side, bumps shoulders, companionable. “So! Professional food writer. What’s your—what was your all-time favorite meal?”
It’s an innocent question. It’s a harmless question. Before the plague, it would’ve counted as small talk. Now, every conversation about the past inevitably devolves into another litany of things lost, things never to return. Eugene carries the weight of it in the back of his throat, like smoke damage. He’s fine if he keeps moving, but grief expands to fill any container it’s given and he can’t let himself fall apart in front of Jack, this guy he’s known for less than a month, the only person he sees every day. Jack wouldn't be a dick about it—Jack must be at least decent dealing with crying people; he was a bartender—but that would almost make it worse.
Eugene’s never been great at discussing his feelings. It’s sunk more than one of his relationships. Just before the outbreak, he’d started seeing a therapist, but it’s unclear if he was making progress, because he wasn’t great at discussing his feelings with her, either. Safe to say the zombie apocalypse has not been good for his emotional issues. (He tries not to wonder if she’s still alive. He tries not to wonder about the middle-aged couple he used to see in the waiting room. He tries not to wonder about the receptionist, this Asian girl with pink hair who was always reading vintage lesbian pulp novels behind her computer. He tries, and tries, and tries—)
“I don’t know,” says Eugene, terse.
“Anything,” says Jack. “You must have stories. I dunno, your top ten, or—something that stands out, like not even the best food you had, but if there was something really weird, like—squid ink, or cow spleen, or—“
“Can you stop talking for five seconds?” Eugene bites out. “Just, as a little after-dinner treat?”
“Okay, touchy,” says Jack, stepping away. Even standing in front of a fire, Eugene registers the loss of heat at his side. “Just trying to make conversation.”
There’s a long pause. Jack never really seems bothered by the shit Eugene says—seems to see it as encouragement, half the time. But he’s quiet now.
Eugene rubs his forehead. Jack will forget all about this by tomorrow, but he feels like an asshole nonetheless.
Eventually, the water boils. He lifts it off the fire, sets it on the floor. They’ll pour it into bottles later—right now, the heat might damage the plastic. When he looks over, Jack’s curled up in one corner, holding W.G. across his lap, still not talking. Eugene’s not sure if he’s sulking or genuinely trying to follow the request. Either way, it makes him feel shittier.
“Should we,” Eugene starts. His voice sounds rough.
“What,” Jack snaps, which settles the sulking question, at least.
“Can you think of any use for the empty can, or do we leave it,” says Eugene.
Jack flashes him an indignant look that Eugene can’t begin to decipher. “I don’t care.”
Most of the time, things are very easy with them. Almost shockingly easy. So easy that it borders on worrying, because it’s only been two weeks, and they’ve spent every hour of that together, and Eugene already has no idea what he’d do without this frequently annoying bundle of energy and pop culture opinions and jokes. The end of days has got to be the worst possible time to go around cultivating giant, gaping vulnerabilities, but Eugene’s only human.
“Sorry,” says Eugene.
It’s probably a bad sign that Jack passes up the chance to make fun of his accent.
Jack sighs heavily. “It’s not about you, really.”
“Then, uh, what—“
“I don’t know,” says Jack, “maybe it’s the fucking apocalypse?”
Eugene glances down at the pot of water, wishing he had something to do with his hands. “I’ll take first watch,” he says at last. “You get some rest.”
“Thanks.” Jack spreads out his sleeping bag and lies down, facing away from the fire. Eugene watches the span of his back in the dim light, thinks about how effectively Jack can take out a pair of zombies using only a cricket bat. Thinks about how, an hour earlier, when they sat on the bare concrete, splitting what little food they’d scavenged, Jack had gestured so hard in the middle of some point about Alien that he’d managed to hit himself in the face with the back of his own hand.
The end of days is also a pretty bad time to develop a stupid unrequited crush on the only remaining person in your life, but there you go.
Part of him really does want to ask Jack what’s wrong, which is out of character enough to be worrying in its own right. There’s a reason Eugene was never the guy his friends went to when they wanted to talk through some messy emotion. He was the one you called when you were moving, or if you needed a ride to the airport. He’s always been good at showing up. He’s always been hopeless with words. The irony is not lost on him.
Jack’s sleeping on his side, W.G. an easy arm’s reach away. Eugene thinks, stupidly, ‘I would drive you to the airport no matter how late it was.’ If he still had a car. If they still had clear roads. If they still had airports to head for, airplanes to board, any guarantee of safe landing.
Instead, it’s like the water, which has retained a whiff of rotten eggs but which probably won’t kill them before anything else does. It’s a matter of the next best available option.
There’s still plenty of loose papers blowing around. Eugene smoothes out a leaf of notebook paper, retrieves the battered-but-still-functional Biro he’d found on the side of the road miles back. He settles down, back to the trash can, facing the door, takes a deep breath, and uncaps the pen.
His hand is cramping badly by the time he’s done, and the first watery rays of sun are just sifting through the high windows. He wakes Jack with a light squeeze on the shoulder.
“Five more minutes,” Jack slurs into his own forearm. His hair is coppery in the early light, already standing up in every direction, although Eugene’s must be as well. Sooner or later, they’ll have to figure out haircuts.
That’s the thing: order breaks down, countries fall, everyone you ever met dies or disappears, but somehow life keeps happening. Sometimes it feels like a betrayal to keep going, to keep caring about collecting food and sanitizing water and making plans. Mostly it feels like a betrayal not to.
“Come on,” says Eugene.
Jack struggles to sit up. He blinks, registering the time of day. “You let me sleep in,” he says accusingly as he crawls out of the bedroll.
“Your snoring scares away the wild animals,” Eugene mutters, taking his place. It’s not a great comeback, but he’s exhausted and the sleeping bag is very warm.
“Oh, ha ha,” says Jack, sarcastic, and it already sounds far away. Eugene drifts.
He wakes up some six hours later, to delighted giggling. Loud, delighted giggling.
“What is wrong with you,” Eugene says, rubbing his eyes. “You’ll wake the—the armies of undead? Remember those?”
“Oh my god,” says Jack. When Eugene rolls over to look at him, Jack’s clutching the paper in one hand. Eugene had tucked it in with their maps, but Jack must’ve noticed it when he was packing up the water bottles. “‘Located at the end of a road strewn with debris and abandoned cars, Burned Out Remains of a Warehouse Where We Found a Tin of Beans is the definition of an exclusive dining experience.'"
“I know what it says, genius,” Eugene protests. “I wrote it.”
Jack shakes his head, still beaming. “No, you need to hear it,” he says. “You need to sit back and enjoy this.” He clears his throat and goes on, in a smooth, assured announcer’s voice, “‘However, as we neared the distinctive building, we were nervous. Would Burned Out Remains of A Warehouse live up to the hype? Would it prove a hollow disappointment, like its sister restaurant, Underside of a Bridge That Was Full of Only Empty Food Wrappers? Would it be crawling with reanimated corpses bent on devouring our brains? We could only approach with an open mind, and our weapons at the ready.’ ”
Already, Eugene’s itching to make edits. Armageddon or no, it’s always cringe-inducing to hear his writing out loud. Or, it should be, but Jack reads it so well that Eugene can almost appreciate the effect. He wonders if, in and among all the other odd jobs, Jack’s ever done voiceover work.
“‘We began with a light salad,’ ” Jack continues. “'Burned Out Remains of a Warehouse has reached the dubious cutting edge of the farm-to-table movement: all vegetables are locally foraged by the customers themselves. The leaves were fresh, but the plating—by which I mean the lack of plates; we ate straight from our dirty hands—was a mystifying choice. The sharp, acrid dandelion greens do provide a welcome change from SPAM, and with any luck, we have staved off scurvy for another week. Unfortunately, washing them would have wasted valuable water, and our enjoyment was tempered by the memorable observation, ‘Anything could’ve shat on these, Eugene. Bloody—anything.’ ” Jack coughs. “I stand by that, you know.”
“You ate them, too,” Eugene points out as he rolls up the sleeping bag and secures it with a piece of twine.
“Yeah, because life is risk and also, wow, do I need fiber. I wouldn’t have time for a five-hour bowel movement if I wasn’t on the run from zombs.”
Eugene’s not laughing at that. He’s not.
"Anyway,” says Jack. “’At any rate, no appetizer could compare to the main course. Burned Out Remains of a Warehouse Where We Found a Tin of Beans really shines here, with its best-known dish, the titular tin of beans.’ ” Jack breaks off. “The titular tin of beans—” he repeats, choked with laughter.
“It should probably be ‘eponymous,’” says Eugene with a frown. Restaurants have names, not titles.
“Now’s not a time for regrets, man,” Jack says with a wave of one arm. “'Served family-style, these white beans came submerged in a largely unflavored tomato sauce—a dazzling combination of tastes and textures that nearly brought tears to our eyes. The presence of more than one ingredient at a time was a revelation. It was almost like eating seasoned food. I didn’t even mind the lack of maple—‘ “ Jack shakes his head. “Maple syrup? In your beans?”
“In breakfast beans?” says Eugene. “Are you kidding me?”
“Canadian,” Eugene counters.
“Like there’s a difference,” says Jack.
“Do we really wanna start in on the, on the crimes against food your people have committed?” Eugene says. “And if so, do you want that list alphabetically, or—”
Jack just laughs again. “ Ohh, critical hit!” He clears his throat. ‘“Not enough praise can be heaped on this tin of Heinz baked beans. We will remember it fondly for weeks to come. Dessert options, however, were slim. My dining companion and I split a piece of stale gum, which we assumed had once been mint-flavored due to the greenish color, although neither of us could be sure.’ ”
A sizable hole in the roof gave us an excellent view of the stars, as well as some anxiety about the possible collapse of the rest of the roof. The lack of any other patrons might in theory create an intimate eating experience, but the uninspired decor, uncomfortable seating, and difficult-to-barricade door make this a less-than-ideal date night spot.
Overall, if you’re looking for a new dinner destination, I can’t honestly recommend Burned Out Warehouse Where We Found a Tin of Beans. For one thing, service was so slow as to be nonexistent, and there’s a real parking problem. For another thing, we already ate all the beans. However, nobody died, and my dining companion discovered half a pair of scissors in a pile of garbage. And frankly, given we are living after the total downfall of society, at some point you start grading on a curve.’ And then,” Jack adds, grinning like an idiot, “then you gave it five stars. Five stars, Eugene.”
“I know, I was there,” says Eugene, hefting his pack onto his back. One of the benefits of not owning much anymore: it never takes long to get ready. He glances around the warehouse, making sure they don’t forget anything.
Jack folds the paper into a small square and slips it into his pocket, still smiling. “Dining companion,” he repeats, and Eugene freezes. In retrospect, it sort of painfully sounds like a euphemism for something. (‘Mom, Dad, I’d like you to meet my—dining companion.’) Eugene’s still searching for some way to backpedal when Jack wiggles his eyebrows. “If I’d known that was a date, I would’ve made more of an effort to wash some of the viscera off my shirt,” Jack says. “That’s a—that’s gotta be a faux pas, right?”
When Eugene laughs, it’s half from relief. Coming out as bisexual is potentially thorny, but if Jack is accepting enough to joke-flirt with a man, it might work out okay.
“Don’t worry,” Eugene says, glancing up at the window like he’s trying to gauge the time. “I don’t think it’s the kind of place that leads to a lot of second dates.”
When he looks back, Jack’s already donned his own backpack, W.G. in hand. He’s almost a head shorter than Eugene and their packs are more or less the same weight, but Jack never complains. Or, he does, all the time, but not about that.
“Eh, I’m open-minded,” says Jack with a shrug. “And I think you know how to show a guy a pretty good time. Those beans!” He gives W.G. a jaunty twirl. “Personally, I’d say, let’s give it another try or two.”
Being able to see clearly indoors is another one of those things they’ve lost, but there’s enough light to make out the freckles dusting Jack’s arms, his careful grip on the bat, the flicker of uncertainty in his smile. ‘You’re fucked,’ Eugene tells himself. It’s not exactly news, given recent world events, but it’s true in a growing number of ways.
“Okay,” Eugene says, which isn’t a funny response at all. “I—yeah.”
“Okay,” says Jack, laughing, although again, they’re not exactly reaching new heights of comedy. “Should—should we head out, then?” He shifts his weight from one foot to the other—nervously, Eugene thinks, although he can’t imagine why.
Then he thinks: ...oh.
Then he thinks: of course not.
Then he thinks: maybe—
“You know,” Eugene says, as they step outside, “I hear there’s this great new bistro twenty miles down the road, called, uh, Abandoned Gas Station Where Somebody Might’ve Left a Stale Pack of Pretzels? If you’re up for it.”
“Yeah?” says Jack, mock-casual, although just from the quality of his voice, he’s obviously grinning. Eugene can almost hear his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Well, hey, it’s on our way. Let’s do this.”