Land of Milk and Honey Dew Donut
“Hey,” Chulo says, and I wait for it, “do you think you might wanna . . . ” Both his hands are down, by the front of his tattered khaki shorts, palms out, pointing at his crotch. “You know . . . ” his voice trails off.
I kind of know he is kidding. I shake my head ‘no’ and push off past him. At least we can pretend it was a joke when I turn him down. The back wheel of my scooter wobbles and clicks on every pavement crack, my left foot is pumping hard and I am out of his sight in seconds. I push harder. Lean in and work my way up the steep incline to the crest of the hill. Past the giant –ORDSTROM -ACK letters high up on The Shoppes’ fake castle-wall rising on my left. Uphill, past where the REI sign used to hang until it collapsed and still lies amid sumac and juniper bushes. Along a hairpin turn that hugs an even steeper incline, where the scent of ripe Welsh grapes baking in the sun hangs in the air like dense yet invisible fog. To the very top, where the Mall sits astride the hill surrounded by the fortress wall, and from where the serpentine of the road is visible all the way down to the cracked asphalt of the old highway ramps.
We are at the highest point. Even the treetops are below us, even the birds.
I stop and wait for Chulo to catch up. I don’t mind doing the watch with Chulo. He takes no for an answer and doesn’t sulk like some other boys, just shrugs and moves on to things more important than a hand job.
I can hear him huffing behind me as he climbs up. I don’t have to look to know his gray T-shirt is damp on his back, his tan face is flushed. For a sixteen-year old, he is big and I am a runt even for a girl. Anyway, I am faster than just about anybody. On any given day, no matter who I’m paired up with, I can rocket down the hill shrieking all the winding way down, and be the first one to the bottom parking lot that marks the edge of our perimeter watch.
He stands next to me finally, leaning on the handlebar of his too-small scooter, taking a moment.
“Hey,” he says again, winded.
Despite what his Spanish nickname is supposed to mean, Chulo is not that cute. He was though, as a kid, some years ago when that Mexican couple wintered with us before trekking down south, and all the kids ended up with Spanish pet names. His stuck even after they left. I wonder if they made it to the coast, it sounded like a dream, the way they talked about it. The ocean, blue and green, salty. I wish there was a way to find out. But there isn’t. No pigeon post to bring back news. And nobody ever comes back.
“I think I found something.”
Chulo is always looking for something. Something he doesn’t have.
We both chuckle. Brother Noah will ask you that, every time you as much as look in his direction, ‘have you found Jesus yet?’ He is nobody’s brother, nor is named Noah, I don’t think, but we all call him that anyway. He’s got what my Dad calls a single-track mind. I guess it’s supposed to mean he only cares about one thing and one thing only. Jesus. Well, that and his distillery. So, maybe not so single-track after all.
“Something better, I think.”
I start moving, just coasting, really. Chulo grunts and shuffles off after me.
“I think it’s an undisturbed site.”
I stop short. “No way.”
We each have found one or two in the past. A place that was left untouched since Before. Not looted, not vandalized. Preserved. But it’s been years. My best find was a tiny little cabin in the woods I stumbled upon when Dad took me out to the Eastern slopes with a hunting party five or six years ago. I slunk away to pee, and there it was, just steps away from where we lay in wait for deer. Squat and cobwebbed and stocked with whiskey, porno magazines, and ammo. But yeah, years ago.
“I swear. It’s in the old utility building. The one at the north-west corner of the midway parking lot. Where the Mall had a guard station.”
“Please! We’ve all been there a thousand times. There is nothing left there.” I roll my eyes and start down the hill.
He overtakes me on my right, grins at me over his shoulder, and yells, “Race you to the guard station!”
I scramble after him, but he is faster on his way down and I eat his dust.
He jumps off while the wheels of his scooter are still spinning, lets it tumble into the weeds and runs the last few yards to the guard station entrance.
Years ago, before we moved into The Shoppes, a run-away eighteen-wheeler ploughed through the side of the squat one-story guard station, where it still sits – rusted, lodged in the cement and blue board that it crushed. The first time I saw it, in the no-longer-stainless steel cabin of the truck, still secured by his seatbelt, sat the driver’s long decomposed corpse. If you climbed up on the steps outside the driver’s cabin then, you could touch the skeleton through the glassless window. I sure did. The browned skull, the feather-light wisps of fabric still clinging to his yellowed bones. That’s when the site was still undisturbed. The driver’s body still rotting in the truck cabin, his loot of plasma TVs and sound systems in a heap, all mangled cardboard boxes and shattered glass and jagged plastic, the guard station’s front room half-buried under the rubble, crushed office furniture and lounge chairs.
That was eight years ago.
Since then, Brother Noah took the driver’s body and buried it properly so that his soul could find Jesus.
Joe and Minnie took the truck’s battery so they could rig it up with one of our two photo voltaic cells for The Shoppes’ water filtration system.
Mr. Rodriguez took the tire rubber so he could patch up the roofs.
Chulo’s older brother, Mikey, took the truck’s audio system to deck out his ham-radio station. We still fire it up once a month to listen for any chatter on the radio waves, sparse as it has become.
Dad took the steel off the truck bed for the greenhouse siding.
Every piece of tarp and leather, every spring and coil and bolt, every inch of wire and every drop of oil had been scavenged and collected from this truck and the old guard station. Undisturbed site my ass.
Chulo is sitting on a chunk of cement the size of Delaware, as my Dad would say. Which I guess means that Delaware was small for a state, but pretty sizeable for a block to sit on. He is leaning back, his arm wrapped around the rusty rebar that protrudes upward, his foot idly kicking the rubble.
“So you wanna see it or what?” he says matter of fact.
On the up-kick, I can see the sole of Chulo’s poison-green Merrells, worn out paper-thin. Men-sized shoes are few and far between now. Even worse in the winter. Plenty of earrings and yoga mats left though – just not shoes.
I know he is dying to tell me.
I shrug. “Sure.”
He jumps off, heads to the inside block of the building wall that is still standing, wades through the jungle of cement and vines. I follow.
He is standing still, staring at the old building evacuation map. It’s faded. Its greens and yellows and reds are pale under the scratched-up Plexiglas cover, but it’s screwed pretty tight onto the wall, so there it hangs. I’ve looked at it before. I studied the boxy squares of rooms, the arrows pointing to the exit signs. I wondered what good this map did when shit hit the fan. Nowhere to evacuate really, so.
“You see it?” Chulo is all business.
I take my time, study the plan. I see nothing.
“Yeah,” I wait a bit, “not really.”
He reaches and points at something on the map. His fingernails are surprisingly clean. Cleaner than mine, probably.
“Here, at the back.”
I squint, like that would help, I stare some more. And then I see it.
Could it be? Culmination of Chulo’s dreams, pinnacle of his ambitions. An undisturbed site. Possibly, maybe.
I look away from the evacuation map, checking it against the layout before me. The biggest box marks the front office. And there should be a rusted eighteen-wheeler drawn right in the middle of that box.
“So?” He is impatient.
I nod. “Yep. This little thing here.” I point at the thin rectangular sliver bumping off of the main room box at the back end of the diagram. I never noticed it before.
Chulo is beaming. “I think it’s a locker room or showers, or something like that.” For a boy who has never even taken a proper shower, he seems very excited.
“All right,” I say.
He is surveying the scene. The skeleton of the truck is lodged in the debris and piles of rubble as high as me standing on Chulo’s head with my arms stretched up. The back of the room connecting to the hypothetical showers is buried. It would take days to clear a safe path. Six years ago, when Dad finally decided to convert The Shoppes’ courtyard parking lot into a garden, it took all 227 of us nearly a week to wreck the pavement and break away the concrete.
Carting the chunks away for the main entrance barricade took another week. Chulo and I will need a lot of help and will probably see none of the glory.
“We’ll need help,” I say, but Chulo is shaking his head ‘no’.
“Follow me,” he says, and walks off. I follow, of course.
He is climbing the slope to the right of the guard station, going around the building to where it backs up against an overgrown parking lot. I scramble after him, my sandals instantly slippery from the wet grass. I am glad he has a better plan than me.
When I catch up, he stands in waist-tall grass facing The Shoppes towering up above us, his foot tapping the rusty square hatch set in a cement box. Some access vent cover, I suppose. I can only imagine how he stumbled upon it. Romping in the grass with one of the twins, I bet.
It’s like he reads my mind.
“I didn’t find it by chance, you know. I puzzled out the map thing first and then started poking around, looking for access.”
I look behind me towards the guard station. Only the remnants of its flat shingled roof are visible from behind the tall grass. There are no other buildings in sight. The hatch that Chulo found can’t possibly lead anywhere else, so we are in business.
“How do you figure we do this?”
He glances at the bundle of kindling stacked into a signaling pyre at the edge of the parking lot, fingers the lighter in the pocket of his shorts. I know what he is thinking. If we both go in to look for the shower room, we are abandoning our watch, and there is no one left to light the fire if we need to signal an ambush. Last time The Shoppes were attacked, the two watchmen barely made it back inside, but not before torching the pyre and giving us all a heads up. By the time the marauders got to The Shoppes’ entrance, it was all barricaded. We lost almost all the dairy goats that were grazing on the slopes outside the fortress, but that was it. My Dad is a genius for coming up with this system.
What I really want to know is the reason Chulo waited for a shift with me to do this. I have butterflies in my stomach just trying to guess. Any one of the guys would have died for a chance. And I know he is not chicken to go at it alone, he’s proudly done dumber things.
But like the most awful slog, I say, “I dunno, Chulo. One of us should probably stay up here.”
“We’ll be quick.” His voice is all chirpy all of a sudden, he knows there is no way this could be quick. “C’mon! When was the last time you did anything this exciting?”
I can picture my Dad shaking his head in that guilt-tripping way that he does, disappointment personified. He says we need the rules to keep everyone safe. Bad shit happens when you break the rules.
But maybe not every time?
“Chulo,” I try again, feebly, “maybe I can wait for you up here . . . ”
He steps towards me, reaches to touch me lightly, on my arm. The butterflies wake up again. “Come on!” he says, “Stray from the straight and narrow for once. Don’t you want to see what’s in there for yourself?”
Oh, fuck it. “All right,” I even produce a sigh, “I’m in.” He grins and nods.
The rusty bolts securing the hatch screech and protest but we twist them out one by one, pulling off the cover and the grill in sweaty silence, working as fast as we can. Chulo takes out a stubby candle and I light it to see what we can see. Not much, so. I blow out the candle. In we climb.
The vent chute is wide enough for both of us to go side by side. He is crawling, I start off crab-walking on all fours until it starts to slope, and I have to drop down next to him and shimmy, still in silence. The button on my shorts zipper hits the bumps of the corrugated metal. The rhythmic ding sounds exactly like a spoon hitting the inside of a mug when my Dad is stirring a hot drink. He says it’s a habit from when we still had sugar.
“What do you think we’ll find there?” Chulo’s voice is hoarse with dust, but giddy.
If I had my pick, we would arrive to find a stash of salt. Boxes of Morton iodized. Bags of Diamond Crystal Kosher. Jars of coarse Celtic Sea. The white dust, the mystical crystals. The pinch of magic that transforms bland into delectable.
Chulo probably just wants something new. Some proof that there were other places, another past, another future. I think he just wants to escape.
It’s like he reads my mind again. “You know, I read this story in the National Geographic,” he coughs and I say a silent prayer, thanking the Mall gods for gifting us a Barnes and Noble store with its cache of books and old magazines. I can’t even imagine what a shithole The Shoppes would have been without the books.
“So,” he says, “maybe we were meant to be nomads. You know, as a species.”
I nod again.
“Think about it, for millions of years we just roamed around. Hunted, and gathered, and drifted. And then boom, some caveman genius figured out a way to grow buckwheat and domesticate sheep, and that’s it.”
My button is still dinging on every bump and digging in, and I now have a sore spot where it bites into my belly.
“Yeah,” I say, “that makes sense.”
“And The Shoppes is the opposite. I wish I could just, I don’t know . . . just leave.”
“What, you mean you don’t enjoy milking goats?”
He chuckles. “Right. Or cleaning out the outhouse.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t love laundry duty!”
We could probably go on like this for a while. Truth is, I don’t mind the laundry duty. Or the goats, for that matter. This is how we survive, this is how we stay safe. But I know Chulo doesn’t exactly share the sentiment.
“Mikey says there are people living on the coast,” he says after a pause. “You know, like, peaceful fishing villages and stuff. Boats. The ocean.”
“Your brother,” I say, “makes shit up all the time, Chulo. You have no idea what’s out there. Nobody comes back.”
We crawl in silence for a bit. I feel vaguely betrayed by Chulo’s wanderlust.
“Well, maybe they don’t come back because The Shoppes is the pits and they like it better by the ocean.”
He has a point there. I try to picture the ocean. The colors look different on every photograph I have seen. I try to imagine how it would feel to float in the water, or to run full speed into the crashing surf. I can almost taste the briny splashes on my tongue.
By the time my hand finally comes up against whatever is blocking our path, I swear I am turning invertebrate from all the crawling.
I let Chulo fiddle with the grill, and he puffs and grunts trying to push it through. No go, so.
“Should we try to kick it in?”
I am sure he nods.
Trying to turn around in this vent is like wrestling inside a zipped up sleeping bag. We tangle up, Chulo’s legs and mine, his elbow in my stomach, my pony-tail in his face. I am pretty sure I brush against his hard-on.
We kick together hard, just once. The vent cover crumbles and falls in. By the sound of it, it doesn’t fall far, we must be close to the ground. Chulo goes first, I light the candle.
Chulo was right, it is a locker-room. It’s a skinny pencil box of a room, two shower stalls, benches, lockers. Lockers!
I grip the candle with my left hand, with my right I reach to open the first one. It’s empty, so is the second one. The third one is padlocked.
What did people keep in a locker? Clean underwear? Keys and wallets? Certainly not salt. I jiggle the lock, pull on it, try to pry the rusted latch plates off.
“May,” Chulo says, which is a first. It’s usually just Hey. “Look at this.”
I can’t see him, but I follow his voice.
At first, I cannot make out what’s in front of him. Boxy, taller and wider than him. I bring my candle closer and closer until I see its reflection flicker in the glass panel, see the lettering on the side, the slit for bills, the slot for coins. This is a vending machine. Really-truly. We peer through the glass at the bounty before us.
It’s been a few years since we finally ran out of the goodies from Before. In the years that we have occupied The Shoppes, we ate our way through the shelves of the Whole Foods and depleted the edible aisles in the CVS, emptied out the stockpiles in Chipotle’s and the Legal Sea Foods. Right down to the last tin of tuna fish, the last little ketchup packet. Since then, it’s only what we grow and hunt. But I don’t need to see Chulo’s face to know that he can still taste those Skittles melting on his tongue. Just as I can still feel the oily sheen that Doritos leave on your lips as you lick your fingers, each and every orange one.
I can’t top that, so I don’t say anything.
Chulo starts tentative, but I know immediately how it will go. He fingers the coin return slot, he punches some random buttons, pulls on the handle lightly, then hard.
“Damn it!” he slams the glass panel with his open hand, “now I wish I still carried those stupid quarters around like when we were kids.”
“So, what, you could buy yourself some chips and candy?”
Honestly, vending machines don’t make much sense to me. These people worked here, showered here. But if they wanted a snack they couldn’t just reach in and take one?
“Come on!” Chulo slams the glass with both hands now, really hard.
Nothing surer to anger a man than an obstinate machine.
He steps back then, and before I can say M&Ms, he charges and body slams the vending beast. It shakes, but will not release its loot. He pulls back again, as much as the cramped space will allow, turns his body sidewise, and delivers a magnificent karate kick to the glass panel. It shatters, raining glass shards and hard candy.
“Shit,” he says, still standing on one leg, and I see that his other one is still lodged inside the machine. Held in place just above his boot by two nasty looking jagged pieces of glass. I put the candle on the floor and reach in to free his leg, lift it up and swing it out and lower it to the floor. He is leaning against the machine. My hands are slick and I know it’s too much to be just my sweaty palms. There is blood everywhere.
“Chulo,” I say, and he says nothing. “This is bad.”
My heart is racing.
I am on my knees in his blood, trying to find where the cut is, but the candlelight is meager.
I reach up, grope for his belt buckle. “Give me your belt!”
“Hey, you changed your mind,” he laughs. But his fingers are trembling even harder than mine. We fumble at it together, get it undone, pull the belt out.
Do I tie it above the knee or below? I decide on below. The belt is sliding and slipping, and I have to wrap his calf twice so that I can tighten it.
“Can you walk?”
He tries to lower his foot and makes a hissing sound. Must hurt.
“I can hop.”
“Come on, then!”
I am dragging him back to the vent opening, like a regular Florence Nightingale, and the idiot says, “Wait, what about all the stuff?”
I want to tell him he is bleeding out. I want to tell him we are not going to make it out of here. There are many more things that I want to tell him.
Instead, I say, “We’ll come back for it.”
I shove him in the shaft and squeeze in next to him. Prod him. Drag him.
He is barely moving.
“I feel kind of funny, May.”
I am trying to think.
“Listen, I am going to go ahead and then come right back for you, ok? You need to keep moving though, you just keep crawling, Chulo. OK?”
I think he nods and I take off.
I rip through the idiotic tunnel like I have a propeller on my back.
I fall out of the chute, and I am shocked for a second to see how beautiful everything is. The grass. The stupid trees. I scramble and run to the parking lot where the signaling pyre is kept. The Christmas cookie tin that holds the kindling proves a challenge. My hands are shaking and slippery and I think I have added tears and dirt and snot to the mix now. I pop it open at last, and take fifteen tries to light it. When I finally manage, it’s ablaze in seconds and I put the whole tin under the pile of sticks and branches and pine tree boughs that will smoke to high heavens.
My descent back into the shaft is even faster. The dinging of my shorts button comes as a feverish rattle now, and I skin my knees and elbows raw as I make my way back down to Chulo.
I can’t tell how far he’s come up but he is still moving up when I reach him.
“Hey,” he says, and I am so relieved to hear he is alive, I want to kill him myself.
“They are on their way,” I say. And I pray that it is so. “Let’s get you out.”
We slither laboriously towards light.
After a while I have to drag him.
We slide out of the opening like a pair of newborn kittens, slick with Chulo’s blood, barely able to move. He looks a ghost, and when I peer back inside the shaft, everything is smeared black. A slithering shiny zigzag, swallowed up by darkness.
I sit in the tall grass and put his head in my lap. He is staring up at me. Or the sky, I can’t tell.
He brings his hand up and puts something in my lap. It’s a cellophane pouch, covered in his blood, and I have to wipe it on the grass to see what it says. The thing reads ‘Honey Dew Donut,’ and it’s a mess of crumbs and smooshed pastry and powdered sugar. It’s airtight though, and I have to laugh.
“Chulo, you are an idiot, I swear.”
He gives me a crooked smile. The kind that earned him his nickname in the first place.
I wish I could see the road that leads back to The Shoppes from where we are, but the grass is too tall and Chulo is dead weight in my lap. I peel off my filthy t-shirt and wad it up beside his leg, hold it tight against the gash. I should have stopped him from going in.
He opens one eye a slit, squinting against the sun. “That ocean thing?” he says. Almost whispers.
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Well,” his voice is rasp, “I am going. You in?”
I picture myself running into the surf again. This time, with Chulo. Yes, I am in.
I nod. I look up at the sky myself. Shiver in my tank top under the blazing, brilliant sun.
“They will come soon, just stop fucking bleeding,” I say. “They will see that there is no ambush and they will know we are in trouble and they will come looking, Chulo, I promise.”
I know I am right, I just hope they show up in time.
I close my eyes and try to listen for anything other than the blithering, oblivious chirping of the birds. From the deepest trenches of memory, I conjure up the long-forgotten sounds of an ambulance siren, and I will that promising wail to grow stronger, to come closer. And it does for a moment, even if it’s just in my mind. But then it fades away and there are only the stupid birds again.
“Chulo,” I say and shake him a little. “Keep talking to me.”
He mutters something, his eyes now closed.
“Here,” I say, “let’s try this donut thing.”
He smiles now, and nods, eyes still closed, and I fiddle with the little pouch, squeezing it in my one free hand until it pops. I put the gooey mess of crumbs to his lips, and then to mine.
And I savor it, and it tastes so, so sweet. Like a promise.
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