by Chris Eng, illustration by Karlene Harvey
“You brought a shopping list?!” Spit gaped at Sarah.
“I’m not after bagels and donuts, man. That may be what you want to survive off of, but I set my sights a little higher. Besides, I don’t get what’s on my list, you don’t get my home cooking. Do you want that?”
Spit mumbled something and stared at the ground.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“No, Sarah,” he uttered sheepishly.
“Well, all right then.” Sarah stood with Jenn, Becky and Spit on a side street near their house. “Okay, so where do we hit first?”
Becky checked her watch. 2:00 a.m. “Bella Pizza closed an hour ago. They’ve already dumped their leftover stock, cleaned up and went home. If we get there ASAP, it’ll still be warm.”
“That’s downtown, right?” Jenn asked.
“Yeah. So we head there first, then on the way back we loop over to Nature’s Bounty to look for produce and then hit Revolutionary Breads, where we’ll probably find more stuff than we can carry.”
“And…” Sarah prompted.
“And after we’re done getting the staple supplies and dropping them off at the house, we head to Paragon Foods to help Sarah with her shopping list.”
“Okay,” Sarah said.
“Cool,” said Spit.
Jenn looked at everyone. The four of them were dressed almost completely in black. Sarah wore a black denim jacket. Spit had a black toque. Jenn was wearing borrowed clothes from head to toe, including a plain black hoodie and an almost worn-through pair of Chucks that were a little too big, because Sarah didn’t want to have to explain to Jenn’s mom why her daughter came back from this “enriching weekend” smelling like garbage.
Standing in a pool of darkness, Becky held up her hands to display a pair of heavy-duty work gloves. “Everyone got a pair?” The rest of the crew held their hands up. Jenn wiggled her fingers. “Flashlights?” The group unenthusiastically droned “yeah”. Becky nodded, satisfied. “Go, Team Dumpster!”
Spit flipped up the lids of the unlocked garbage container. “Your turn, cutie,” he said to Jenn.
“By myself?” Worry creased her face.
“We saved you the easy one,” Sarah said. “There’s probably no rats in there.”
Jenn shot her back an angry and terrified look as she clambered halfway up the side. “I hate you,” she said, flipping a leg over into the darkness of the bin.
“Now, now,” laughed Sarah, “is that any way to talk to a close friend of your mother’s?”
Jenn flipped her other leg over and carefully lowered herself in, trying not to step on anything consequential… or alive.
“The guys who run Revolutionary Breads are cool,” Becky said for Jenn’s benefit. “Most of them are punks like us. They know we’ll be by most nights and rather than have their food go moldy, they make it easy for us to come and get. They leave the dumpster unlocked and put their discards in thick, black bags so they won’t tear open or spill. You see the garbage bags?”
Jenn looked down at her feet. The whole scene was unreal. She was standing inside a gigantic garbage can at 3:30 in the morning, pulling out food that other people had just thrown away. The gang had come away from the pizza place with the mix-and-match equivalent of about five large pies and Spit and Becky had both filled their backpacks to capacity with almost-gone-off produce at Nature’s Bounty. Jenn had been trying to figure out what was wrong with the food they were collecting, because none of this made any sense.
“Nothing,” Spit replied earlier when she’d asked. “Not a damn thing. They just can’t sell it anymore, so they throw it away. And then we come and get it before it’s wasted. Yet somehow we’re the ones who are creepy and wrong. Go figure.”
Looking down, Jenn counted three black garbage bags at her feet. “Yeah,” she said. “I see them.”
“Okay, start passing them to us.”
Putting one hand underneath and the other on the knot at the top, Jenn lifted the first bag up and over the side, taking a deep breath as Spit took it from her. “That was heavy,” she said, surprised.
“Yeah,” Spit said, evaluating the bag in his hands. “It’s probably bagels. They make a lot of bagels in there.” He hefted it and grinned. “But it just might be donuts!”
“Jesus Christ,” Sarah said. “You and your donuts.”
“I like donuts.” Spit set it down at his feet. “And you don’t have to have any if you don’t want to.”
“I won’t get the chance to. You’re like Homer in the Ironic Punishment Machine.”
Spit rolled his eyes, gave her the finger and looked back toward the dumpster. “Okay—next!” The second bag was smaller and lighter and the third bag was as big as the first, but lightest of all (there were suspicions about that one being full of rolls).
Jenn clambered back over the side and dusted herself off while Spit lowered the lids again.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Becky asked Jenn while she tidied up.
“Not as bad as I thought rooting through garbage would be, no.”
“One man’s trash…” Sarah added.
Jenn made a face. “I don’t think I would go so far as to call it treasure.”
“Oh, you say that now,” Becky replied, “but you’ve never had the 5 a.m. post-dumpstering feast!”
Becky balanced the partially crushed and manhandled pizza boxes as Jenn, Spit and Sarah each hoisted one of the bags.
“The feast can wait,” said Sarah, heading off. “We need to get this home. We’ve got one more stop to make.”
The four of them stood out behind Paragon Foods and stared up at the eight-foot, razor wire-topped fence which surrounded the back of the natural and organic supermarket. “Well, that’s new,” Sarah muttered, her voice tinged with disappointed surprise.
“Nice,” Spit observed. “So we go home now?”
Sarah looked at him like he’d just suggested a day-trip to Tanzania. “No. There are ways around this.” She walked up to the chain-link gates, reached into her pocket for something and started fiddling with the bullet-proof padlock.
“What are you doing?” asked Jenn, both curious and concerned.
“Opening the gate,” Sarah said without looking away.
“You have lockpicks?” asked Becky.
“Easier to get than most people figure.”
“And you walk around with a set in your pocket?” Spit asked, slightly put-off.
“Sometimes I need them.”
“Okay, this is the point in the evening where we go from a defensible grey area to out-and-out trespassing,” Becky commented.
“We’re still stealing garbage,” Sarah said slowly, paying close attention to what she was doing. “This time we’re just breaking into the dumpsters to get it. How is that different?”
“I don’t know,” said Becky. “It just is. Shut up.”
“Will do.” Sarah worked for another 20 seconds or so before holding the padlock up for everyone to see. “Voila,” she said, swinging the gate inward.
“What if they’ve got security cameras here?” asked Jenn, unnerved.
“I looked. They don’t.” She sidled through the gap in the gate and waited patiently on the other side.
“Are you some kind of expert in security measures?”
“Pretty much. Coming?”
Spit looked at the other two. “You know what? She probably is.” He shimmied after Sarah and the two of them started to walk over to the dark of the building where a series of squat monoliths—obviously the dumpsters—sat. Becky and Jenn shared a look, then followed.
Popping the lid on the first bin, Sarah leapt up and hopped into it. From the outside, the other three saw her flashlight flick on. “Bingo,” she said quietly. “Okay, toss your backpacks in here, I’ve got discards galore. Oooh, and unbroken jars!”
“Jars of what?” asked Spit, lobbing his bag over the side with Becky following suit.
“I dunno yet. Does it matter?”
“I guess not. Hurry up.”
“I’m doing it.” Clinking and rustling sounds came from within for a couple of minutes while the rest of them fidgeted.
“Why are there jars of stuff in there?” Jenn asked. “Doesn’t most stuff in jars keep for, like, forever?”
“A lot of it does,” Spit whispered, “but Health Canada says everything has to have an expiry date on it. If it’s past its expiry date, they can’t sell it and it goes in the trash. Even stuff that’ll keep for years, like pickles.”
Sarah’s head appeared over the side and she passed Spit’s knapsack over. “Bag number one,” she said as he took it.
“Damn. You don’t pack light, do you?”
“There are capers in there.”
“Capers?” Spit’s eyes sparkled in the dim light.
“Capers. So shut up and put it on.” She dangled Becky’s bulging knapsack over the side. “Bag number two.”
Becky took it and slung it over her shoulders with a grunt as Sarah vaulted back out again. “One second,” she said as the group prepared to leave. “There’s a whole ‘nother dumpster. I want to be sure we’re not missing anything.”
“Sarah,” Spit hissed as even-tempered as he could, “we don’t have any more backpacks. How are we supposed to carry anything else?”
“With your bodybuilder arms, stud. Just gimme a minute, all right?” She pushed open the lid to the second dumpster, crawled carefully over the top, flicked her flashlight on and stood there motionless. “Holy fuck.”
The other three rushed up for a vantage point to see what she was looking at, and were greeted with the sight of Sarah standing in the midst of abandoned cheese wheels. Whole, unspoiled, intact cheese wheels—a few only a hands-width across, others almost two feet. More than twenty, by the looks of it. Sarah leaned down and picked up one of the smaller ones, inspecting it carefully before looking back at them, eyes wide. “Its expiry date was yesterday. These are worth hundreds of dollars. I need these. We need these.”
“I’m not disagreeing—that’s a hell of a lot of cheese—but how do you propose to get them home?” Spit asked.
“I need a shopping cart. Spit, grab me one from the parking lot as fast as you can.”
Jenn thought she might have seen Spit roll his eyes, but it was dark and hard to tell. Still, he ran off without saying anything and the others tried to look inconspicuous standing next to—or in—the dumpster.
“I’m not saying this is a bad plan,” whispered Becky, “but this is an awful lot of cheese. I don’t think even us and all our friends can eat it before it goes bad.”
“Do you know what I can do with these?”
Becky shook her head. “Make a really big fondue?”
Sarah’s eyes shot daggers at Becky. “Just for that, you don’t get to try anything I make with the Emmental.”
“I do or I don’t carry anything home.”
“Fine. You win this round. Now, shh.”
A few seconds later, Jenn heard the trundling of metal wheels off in the distance. It drew closer, then veered toward them across the parking lot, pulling up next to the dumpster. “It’s a piece of shit,” Spit said under his breath, gesturing at the nondescript shopping cart, “and one wheel likes to stick, but it’ll get us home.”
“Wicked,” Sarah said. “Let’s load this fucker up.”
It took effort to be both speedy and quiet, but they mostly managed it, the cart ending up about half-full. Spit and Sarah deposited their backpacks on top, which almost filled it. Sarah grabbed the push-bar and attempted to spin it around, her muscles straining as the wheels ground ineffectually.
“It’s too heavy. There’s no way this thing is going anywhere unless we lighten the load. Becky, Spit—knapsacks on.” They groaned, but took them and slung them over their shoulders again. “And you—how’re you doing?” Sarah said, turning to Jenn.
“What? Me? I’m fine.”
“Good. You carry this.” She picked out one of the larger cheese rounds and deposited it into her arms.
Jenn sagged under the weight. “It’s kind of heavy,” she said.
“You can do it,” Sarah encouraged. She pushed the cart again and it swivelled around, albeit grudgingly. “Okay, we’re good to go. Spit, I might need you to help me push.” He shrugged. “Everyone all right?”
A chorus of unenthusiastic but affirmative grunts replied.
“Okay,” Sarah said. “Let’s go.” She and Spit propelled the cart toward the gate, pushing as hard as they could to get the momentum up. The cart produced an unsettling rattle, but eventually started moving at a respectable clip. As they cleared the gate, Sarah asked Spit if he could handle it by himself for a minute and she bolted back to reattach the chain. She’d just slid the padlock closed when a door creaked open from inside the fence and a flashlight flicked on, lighting her up.
“Hey!” came the surprised shout of the security guard.
“Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Sarah exclaimed loudly and rifled frantically through her pockets. “RUN!” she yelled over her shoulder, and they did—all of them loping along at the fastest speed their burdens would allow.
The guard was halfway across the fenced area by the time Sarah yanked the Super-Glue from her pocket, popped the cap off, jammed the nozzle into the keyhole, and squeezed a good quarter of its contents into the lock. She re-capped the glue and wrapped it in a piece of paper as she turned and ran.
“What the–?!” The security guard had reached the gate, but considering the fast-acting glue she used, she doubted very much that he’d even be able to get his key in the lock. He’d have to double-back through the building and head out the main door, which would buy them at least a couple more minutes.
Sarah caught up with the group and moved up next to Spit, helping to push the cart, which rolled along a little faster.
“Do all your plans go off this well?” he asked, the anger in his voice not disguised at all.
“Sometimes,” she snapped back.
“’Cause this is some real Ocean’s 11 shit we’ve got going on, y’know?”
“Well, that’d make you Julia Roberts, wouldn’t it?”
They kept running.
Jenn’s arms felt like limp pasta wrapped around a chunk of lead. Her lungs burned and she could hear her heart beating in her ears, but she kept up with everyone, because the alternative was getting left behind and that wasn’t an alternative at all.
“We need to get off the main streets,” Sarah said. “That guy is totally calling the cops right now.”
They turned at the next corner, barrelled up a side street and sprinted down a nearby alley. The conflict in Jenn’s mind was intense. On the one hand, she’d never felt as alive as she did right then. How had she never done anything this exciting before?! On the other, she couldn’t believe she was in possession of stolen goods (even if they were just someone’s garbage) and was running as fast as she could to evade hypothetical cops who were homing in on them at that moment. The two voices didn’t lend themselves to easy reconciliation, so they both yelled at her as she ran.
They were another five blocks on and maybe only five blocks from home when they heard a car slow down in the alley mouth a block back. Light from a flashlight flitted around for a second but, failing to catch them in the beam, the car drove on.
“That was the cops,” Sarah hissed. “We’ve got to get out of here!” She and Spit hauled ass, hitting the next cross-street and bolting right. Becky adjusted the straps on her knapsack and tore off after them. Jenn let her instincts take over.
Setting the cheese down at the side of the alley, she ran straight ahead and kept going past where she was supposed to turn. Sprinting down the next block, she swerved around the backside of a tiny office building, propelled herself halfway up a flight of stairs and crouched.
All she could hear was her breathing. And her heartbeat. And that nagging voice. The voice that was asking her what the hell she was doing. What was she doing? Well, she was getting away from the cops. There’s no way the others weren’t gonna get nailed by the police as they pushed that shopping cart, and if she’d gone with them and gotten busted, her parents would be getting a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call from the cops, and she had no idea how bad things would get after that. She didn’t even want to imagine, which is why it was easier to run, to just back off and remove herself from the whole situation.
Then again, maybe she was wrong—maybe they wouldn’t pick them up. After all, the cops already passed by and were going in the opposite direction from Lark Street. There was no particular reason to believe they’d double back. The punks probably would come back, though, when they realized Jenn was missing. They might put the cart in the backyard first, but they’d come back to find her and the cops might very well grab them at that point. And if the security guard could ID any of them, the game was up for all of them. All because of her. All because she decided to run and hide.
Fuck. Shit. Damn.
She had to go back. She had to suck up all of her fear and stupid negativity and deal with the fact that she wouldn’t be responsible for getting her friends arrested—her friends who, despite a possibly poor activity choice, showed her the only real loyalty (or trust, for that matter) she’d ever experienced in her life. Arrest wasn’t an option for her or them, and neither was failure.
Jenn got to her feet and slunk back to the alley. She stuck her head around the corner and checked in both directions, walking back to where she’d dropped the cheese and analyzing (maybe over-analyzing) every sound in earshot. Taking a deep breath, she hoisted the wheel aloft (fuck, that thing was heavy! or it was after running with it for several blocks, anyway…) and started walking back to the house. She didn’t want to run. If she ran, she wouldn’t be able to hear anything. The odds of her making it home by herself were, she figured, pretty good, though. As long as she could make it past Main Street.
Jenn had to cross Main in order to make it back to Lark Street. That wasn’t likely to be an issue at that time of the morning, but she didn’t want to take anything for granted.
She walked, quiet and aware, padding through the shadows and hugging the walls of the buildings she passed until she came to Main. There was a car coming, but she couldn’t tell from which direction. It was going fast, though. Making herself as two-dimensional as she could, she leaned up against the window of the plumbing supply store on the corner and waited for it to pass. Headlights hit her and she stood stock still, barely breathing. The car slowed down and pulled to a stop, its passenger-side window unrolling.
A balding, paunchy man with five o’clock shadow and a tan windbreaker leaned across the front seat. “Hey,” he said to Jenn. “You okay? You need a ride somewhere? Hop in.” He reached out and pulled the handle, opening the door a crack.
Everything that had gone wrong in the last hour collided with all of the rage and frustration from her parents, her peers and pretty much everyone she’d ever known, creating a roiling ball of white-hot fury. She had never been hit on by anyone in her life, ever—she’d even had to chat up Spit—and now this guy—this creepy dude prowling the streets at 4:30 in the morning was gonna be the first?! Her mouth pursed and she took a step toward the car.
“You want a piece of this?!” The energy coursing through her veins was raw and she was aware she shouldn’t be making this much noise or calling this much attention to herself, but she couldn’t help it. As she took another step, the rage ball accidentally touched all of the anger she’d directed at herself and Jenn went supernova. Any hint of control was gone. Any self-restraint had evaporated. She didn’t care who saw her; she was out for blood. “You tired of nailing hookers? Thought you’d try for something fresher?” She dropped the cheese on the ground and spread her arms wide. “WELL, HERE I AM. Why don’t you come a little closer so I can TEAR YOUR FUCKING BALLS OFF, YOU LOUSY PEDO FUCK!”
The car peeled out without shutting its door and she stood there, suddenly deflated, the rush pouring out of her like someone yanked the plug out of a drain. Her knees started wobbling and she collapsed next to the cheese, leaning on it, laughing and sobbing at the same time.
And after a time she heard footsteps and Spit was there and he put his arm around her and held her. Then the laughter stopped and only the sobbing remained and they sat there and he stroked her hair and let her cry and told her everything would be okay. Because it was him, she believed it, but she kept crying just the same.