Food, Water, Shelter

Katie Cortese

 The boy says, “In the world after this one, we’ll last six months easy.” He runs his hand along a row of canned corn, and wipes the accumulated dust on his jeans.

Jenny only goes halfway down the concrete stairs, the farthest any slant of sun will descend into the room crammed with two bunk beds, a chemical toilet, barrels of water, metal shelves packed with protein powder, and a bunch of unlabeled white buckets.

“There’s only one world,” she says, hugging knees to chest, relatively sure.

Jenny is supposed to go right home after school, but the boy was carrying a heavy tub into his backyard as she passed, and she went to him when he called for help.

“It will be so different, you’ll think it’s another planet,” the boy says, lowering himself to one of the bottom bunks. He seems sad, alone down there, all elbows and knees.

“I should go home,” she says. Her new house of the last month is two down.

“It’s only me and my dad,” the boy says, hands between his knees in prayer position. “But four beds. If the worst happens, we’ll take you in. Your sister too, but that’s it.”

Jenny bumps her butt down a step, then another, until her feet rest on the floor. It’s cool at the bottom, and smells of new paint. The boy flips the top off the heavy tub, revealing bags of dried pinto beans, which he starts to stack on the one empty shelf.

“What’s the worst?” she asks. He has to be older than twelve because she’s never seen him at the middle school. Her parents keep telling her to open up, smile more. Look at your sister, they say, who joined the high school’s swim team, and is swimming already in friends.

“A bomb. An asteroid. A flu that kills everyone off. Either way, we’ve got all we need to survive down here.” He slips one hand into a pocket bulging with keys, his dad’s maybe. Swiped from a nightstand. The cabinet he unlocks is tall and narrow. When she stands, some of the guns inside are exactly her height. He selects one. Polished wooden stock. Oily black barrel.

“I should go,” she says, but the boy’s arms spin her, fit the stock to her shoulder, crook her fingers under his on the trigger, and lift the barrel to the square of sky she can still see. He smells like burning leaves, up close, and the only truth she’ll remember is his solid warmth against her, and the purr of his voice she can feel when he says, “This is just for enemies. Problem is, enemies are everywhere. Sometimes they pretend to be friends.”

Warm breath shrouding her ear.

Months later, when he shoots the Phys. Ed. teacher at her sister’s school, not quite killing him, Jenny will dream of the cell sunken into the boy’s yard. Four walls. Bunkbeds. Bland food getting dusty in the dark, waiting to nourish someone.


Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared in Carve Magazine, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Crab Orchard Review, The Tusculum Review, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Creative Writing faculty at Texas Tech University.