Not quite sure whether you’re interested in The Elephant of Surprise (book #4 in the Russel Middlebrook Series)?
Here are the first three chapters!
I was deep in the thick of the jungle, wild animals glaring at me from all around. I stood frozen, certain that if I made even the slightest move, these vicious beasts would lunge for me, biting with glistening fangs and rending my flesh with razor claws.
No, really, I was!
I know, I know. You’re thinking: “He always does this. He starts the story pretending he’s in the middle of some exciting event—a war, a fire, a zombie apocalypse—but then it just turns out to be something metaphorical. I’m not falling for it this time.”
But this time, I really was in the middle of a jungle. I really was surrounded by vicious, wild animals.
Okay, so it was just the “African safari” section of the zoo. The “jungle” was the bamboo and banana plants growing along the concrete pathways, and the “wild animals” were in the enclosures all around me—the “immersion” kind, designed to recreate the animals’ natural habitat, but with cleverly disguised moats and hidden wire fences keeping the lions and hyenas and wildebeests away from all the helpless people.
But hey, at least it’s not a metaphor for anything!
My name is Russel Middlebrook, I’m seventeen years old and a junior in high school, and I’d come to the zoo on a Saturday afternoon with my two best friends, Min and Gunnar—although Gunnar had wandered off somewhere else at that exact moment.
“Did you know that lions are the only species of cat where the males and females look different?” Min said, staring out at the animals.
I hadn’t known that. There was a lot I didn’t know, something I was reminded of whenever I spent any time around Min, a self-described “Chow Mein brain.” This is my polite way of saying that—at least in a certain light and from a certain angle—Min can be something of a know-it-all.
“They act differently too,” she said. “The females don’t just raise the young, they also do most of the hunting. The males look and act all regal, and they’re big on fighting each other, but they’re mostly sort of worthless.” At this, she sort of eyed me pointedly.
“Wait,” I said. “What was that look for?”
“You just sort of eyed me, as though the way male lions act is somehow a reflection on me, on males in general.”
“I did not.”
“You totally did! That’s totally sexist. You of all people. I can’t believe how sexist that is!” For the record, Min is an outspoken feminist (I am too).
She ignored me, just turned for the wildebeests. (Or wildebeest? Does anyone know the plural of “wildebeest”?) Out in their immersion pen, five of the animals stood listlessly in the dirt—their hooves had long since worn the grass down to almost nothing. So much for recreating their natural habitat.
“As for the wildebeest”—naturally, Min knew the plural of wildebeest—”people talk about herd animals like they’re mindless, that the ‘herd mentality’ is just everyone blindly following everyone else. But herds can actually be intelligent. Scientists now refer to it as something called ‘swarm intelligence.’”
Min was being even more know-it-all-y than usual today. This had the effect of making me feel even more insecure.
“What’s the only marsupial where both sexes have a pouch?” I said.
She looked at me. “What?”
“Marsupials. You know: animals with pouches—like kangaroos and koala bears.”
“I know what a marsupial is,” Min said.
“The water opossum. That’s the only one where both the males and females have pouches. Well, I guess male Tasmanian tigers also had pouches, but they’re supposed to be extinct.”
She kept staring at me. “What exactly does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, you were just talking about how male and female lions were different. And about how wildebeests—I mean wildebeest—use swarm intelligence.”
“Yes, but that’s because we were looking at lions and wildebeest. We’re not looking at water opossums. I mean, this is the African savannah. Aren’t water opossums from Mexico?”
Were they? I didn’t know. I’d only known that bit about male water opossums having pouches from a special on TV a few nights before, but I didn’t remember the narrator saying where they lived. So not only did Min know more than I did about every other animal, she even knew more than I did about the one animal that I’d thought I’d known something about.
She smirked. “Feeling a little insecure today, are we?”
I’ve already admitted that if Min could be something of a know-it-all, I could be a little insecure—at least in a certain light and from a certain angle.
“What about you?” I said.
“What about me?” she said.
“Something’s up. What’s going on?” I couldn’t come right out and accuse Min of being more know-it-all-y than usual, but it was kind of implied.
She turned and headed into this fake cave-tunnel that led to the next cluster of animal displays. I followed. Inside the cavern, there was this stretch of glass panels that showed African termites in their nest, sort of like a giant ant farm. I think the idea was that we were supposed to be walking through one of those giant termite mounds you see on the African savannah. It wasn’t bad, actually.
Min lingered at the termite display. Behind the glass, termites plodded. They’re slower than ants: they don’t scurry.
“It’s Leah,” she said.
Min is bisexual, and Leah was her girlfriend who went to a different school. It was February, and the two of them had been going out forever, at least since November.
“What about her?” I said, concerned.
“She’s hiding something from me. Keeping secrets.”
This bears some explanation. Back in November, when Min and Leah had first started going out, they’d had this big conflict because Leah didn’t want to come out as a lesbian, at least not in high school. Leah knew she was a lesbian—she wasn’t conflicted or “questioning”—but she also wanted a “normal” high school experience. She just didn’t want to have to stand up for herself or be the center of attention. For a time, this had been a real sore point for Min because (a) she’s definitely a stand-up-for-yourself kind of person, and (b) she’d gone through this disastrous relationship earlier last year with this girl who refused to come out, and Min had vowed never to do anything like that again. But eventually Min had come around to the idea that different people, even people who like each other, can sometimes come to different conclusions about things.
“How do you know?” I said to Min, about the secrets Leah was supposedly keeping.
“Little things. Like she’s weird about letting me borrow her phone. And she changes the subject whenever I talk about the future.”
“You could be imagining things,” I said.
“I know. It’s mostly just a feeling.”
I spotted something on the floor of the fake cave: a dead termite. Was it possible one of them had escaped from the colony? And if one of them had escaped, did that mean one of the lions or hyenas or tigers could get out of their cages too? Hey, maybe I really was in danger of being torn apart by a wild animal.
“How’s the relationship itself?” I asked.
“That’s just it. I thought we were doing great. But suddenly it feels like she’s withdrawn. I mean, she’s not here today, is she?”
“But maybe she’s just reacting to your being suspicious.”
“I know.” She sighed. “Do you think she could be cheating? Like, with a boyfriend or something? I mean, isn’t that part of the ‘normal’ high school experience?”
I thought about this. I was tempted to say, “No way! Never!” But I’d had an experience of my own back in November when I’d learned something about my ex, a guy named Kevin Land, that had totally shocked me. Now I knew you couldn’t ever assume anything about anyone.
So finally, I just said, “I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I’m not sure I know anything anymore.”
Min gave me a long look, like she wanted to say something, but didn’t quite know what. Finally, she turned and walked the rest of the way through the termite mound out into the daylight of the next cluster of displays: zebras, elephants, and monkeys. You expect monkeys to be swinging around and whooping it up, don’t you? These weren’t. Maybe it was too cold that time of year. What were they doing putting animals from the African savannah outside in February anyway? Besides, those monkeys were in cages. How excited could they ever be?
“How are things with Otto?” Min said as we stopped to watch the monkeys.
Otto was my boyfriend—a really great guy. We’d been going out even longer than forever, since summer the year before when we’d met at camp. Unfortunately, he lived eight hundred miles away.
But how were things with him? I had to think about that. It was right then I noticed the air smelled like three different kinds of animal shit.
“Things are good, I guess,” I said. “Wait, no, they’re great. No, hold on, maybe they’re just good.”
The last time I’d seen Otto, back in November, Min had been trying to figure out if she and Leah could be together, and I’d been trying to figure out if Otto and I could make a long-distance relationship work. In the end, we’d decided we could. And we had. That wasn’t what was wrong. But something was. Did my feelings toward Otto have something to do with the fact that I’d been feeling especially insecure that day?
Min and I sighed at exactly the same time.
We looked at each other and laughed. It was one of those unexpected moments where you feel totally connected to the person next to you—sharing the exact same feeling in the exact same moment in time. Better still, you know it.
“Can I be totally honest?” I said.
“No,” Min said. “Whatever gave you the idea you could be totally honest with me?”
I smiled. “I think I just feel like I’m in a bit of a rut. You know? I mean, I go to school and stare at screens and blackboards. I go home and stare at televisions and computer screens.”
“And right now, Otto is nothing but a blip on one of those computer screens.”
“Yes. No. Maybe. It’s more than that. But yeah, with our relationship being an online one, I guess everything does seem a little predictable. There’s no excitement. No adventure. How could there be? We’re in completely different states!”
Now we’d finally gotten to the bottom of it: Min and I, the know-it-all and the insecure neurotic, were both feeling weirdness about our partners.
Over in one of the enclosures, a zebra shuffled its feet.
Relationships are tough, I thought. Who’d have thought that after all that drama with my ex, I’d miss it with Otto on any level? I guess it just goes to show that when it comes to relationships, you can never predict what’s waiting for you up ahead. There are always dangers lurking, just out of sight. The whole experience was like being lost in a…
Oh, damn. I guess that whole jungle/wild animal thing is turning out to be a pretty good metaphor after all. Sorry about that! (Which isn’t to say the “wild” animals were playing their parts. Would it have killed them to be a little less listless? For one of the lions to let out a terrifying roar behind us?)
At least I wasn’t lost in the metaphorical jungle alone. I had Min, and she had me, and together we had our other best friend Gunnar. We’d forge our way through the metaphorical termite mounds together.
It was at that exact moment that Gunnar, in fact, finally reappeared. Hippopotamus ears sprouted from his tousled head—a headband of some sort, probably from the gift shop—but he had his face in his phone.
“Gunnar!” I said. I was always happy to see him—even after all these years as best friends, even after only being separated for fifteen minutes.
He looked up. “What’s gnu?” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Gnu is another name for wildebeest,” Min said.
I should explain (Gunnar always takes a little explaining). If Min is a know-it-all and I’m insecure, Gunnar is…different. Quirky. Take the hippopotamus ears. Was he being hipster-ironic? Geek-chic? Or just kind of clueless?
That’s the thing with Gunnar: you never really know. That’s also what’s so great about him. It’s not that he doesn’t care what other people think of him—sometimes he does care, desperately. He just can’t ever do anything about it. He is too different to even realize how different he is, if that makes any sense. It’s something of a curse, but it’s a good curse: it makes him one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, and probably one of the most interesting people I ever will meet.
“Oh!” he said suddenly. “A pissing zebra!” With his phone, he immediately took a photo of the zebra and posted it to his online profile.
Okay, once again, I need to explain something Gunnar-related: a couple of weeks earlier, he had announced to both Min and me one day at lunch: “I’ve decided to chronicle my entire life, every waking second of every day, online for the whole world to see.”
“How is that different from any other teenager?” Min had said.
“Mostly, it’s a question of degree,” Gunnar had said. “Plus, I’m doing the whole thing ironically.” He’d been typing into his phone even as we’d talked.
“You just recorded that conversation of you telling us what you’re doing, and you’re now posting it online, aren’t you?” I’d said.
“Yup,” Gunnar had said. And I’d known right then that, as much as I like Gunnar and am always happy to see him, this was going to be his most annoying obsession yet.
Back at the zoo, I didn’t bother filling Gunnar in on the conversation Min and I had just had. He wasn’t really the kind of guy you had conversations about your love life with (although sometimes he surprised me with how much he picked up on the things going on around him).
“Where to now?” I said.
Min and I looked around the zoo. Gunnar, meanwhile, took a picture of an ant trying to lift a huge piece of a cinnamon churro.
“I think I’m ready to go,” Min said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m just not feeling the zoo either.”
“I don’t think I like zoos in general,” Min said. “It seems cruel to put wild animals in cages, then use them for our entertainment. But even as entertainment, they’re just not that interesting. They’re boring. There’s no element of surprise.”
Gunnar looked up. “Elephant of Surprise?”
“Element of surprise,” Min said.
I laughed, and Gunnar did too. Okay, so he didn’t always surprise me with how much he picked up on the things going on around him.
“What?” Min said.
“I really thought that’s what you said!” Gunnar said happily, even as he was posting something about it online. “The Elephant of Surprise! I mean, this is a zoo, right? We’re standing next to the elephants.”
Min smiled at last. “The Elephant of Surprise. Can you imagine if it really existed? No, I definitely think we can do without him—or her.”
“Yeah,” Gunnar said. “Imagine if he stepped on you. Ouch!”
Looking back now, I can see we were all wrong about that elephant not existing. There definitely is such a creature, and it was definitely on the move in all three of our lives.
Oh, and Gunnar was right: when the Elephant of Surprise stepped on you, it really, really hurt.
That night, I IMed Otto, the boyfriend who lived 800 miles away. FYI: my screen name is “Smuggler.” His is, well, obvious:
Smuggler: Hello you.
OttoManEmpire: Hello you.
Smuggler: How was your day?
OttoManEmpire: Eh. But it’s nice to talk to you.
Smuggler: It’s nice to talk to you too.
This was all true. I felt so safe around Otto, because I could always be exactly who I was. I hesitate to say this because I know how annoying it will sound, but at this point in our relationship, Otto and I had become one of those couples who had a way of always knowing exactly what the other was thinking. Weirdly, the effect even worked over IM.
Smuggler: Did you know that lions are the only species of cat where the male and female don’t look basically the same?
OttoManEmpire: What’d you do, go to the zoo today with Min?
Smuggler: LOL! That’s it EXACTLY!
See what I mean? It was uncanny.
I told him more about my trip to the zoo, sans the discussion Min and I had had about being vaguely dissatisfied with our partners, and he told me about going shopping with his mom (it wasn’t as boring as it sounds—he found a wallet with fifty dollars in it).
Smuggler: You know what? I like you. You’re a good friend.
OttoManEmpire: I totally agree.
Wait. Why was there a “but” there? Was it because something felt off? It wasn’t just a conversation between Min and me at the zoo. Something had been off for a while now. But I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was.
I waited for Otto to type something. After all, if we always knew what the other one was thinking, maybe he could tell me what I was thinking about our relationship, since I apparently didn’t know.
OttoManEmpire: What’s wrong?
I knew exactly what he meant: not what’s wrong with me. What was wrong with us.
Smuggler: I honestly don’t know.
This whole conservation had this weird feeling of anticipation to it, like right before you leave the house on a trip to somewhere you’ve never been. You know something is going to happen, but you have no real idea what, and it’s a little scary, but also kind of exciting. What unexpected destination was this conversation going to take us to?
Smuggler: You’re my friend. One of my best friends. And you always will be.
Once again, Otto was reading my thoughts. But he didn’t seem to know what I was thinking any more than I did.
Smuggler: We’re friends.
OttoManEmpire: But not boyfriends.
That was it! He’d said exactly what I was feeling, even though I hadn’t known I was feeling it.
Wait. Otto and I were breaking up?
OttoManEmpire: No, we’re not breaking up.
Smuggler: We’re not?
OttoManEmpire: Okay, maybe we are. But I think maybe we already did. At some point back and we just didn’t realize it.
Was this true? Had we gone from boyfriends to good friends and not even known it? It felt true.
Smuggler: Are you sad?
Otto didn’t type anything for a second.
OttoManEmpire: Yes. No. Maybe.
Smuggler: Me too. Well, a little sad, but not too bad.
OttoManEmpire: And a little excited too.
Smuggler: Excited? Why?
OttoManEmpire: Well, there’s this guy I know.
Wait. Otto had a crush on someone else?
OttoManEmpire: It’s not like it sounds. It’s not like I’ve been thinking about this.
But here’s the really interesting part: I wasn’t jealous. In fact, I was kind of excited for him.
Which told me everything I needed to know. Somewhere along the way, we really had gone from being boyfriends to good friends. It had something to do with what I’d been telling Min at the zoo. It’s one thing to feel safe in the wild jungle safari of your relationship—to know the other person is watching your back for lions and tigers. It’s something else entirely to be bored.
* * *
I didn’t tell Min and Gunnar what had happened until I saw them in the school hallway Monday morning before class. All around us, locker doors squealed and slammed. The air smelled like hair product and soap from all the early morning showers, with a faint hint of ammonia from the floor.
“Remember the Elephant of Surprise?” I said to my two friends, standing by our own lockers. “He stopped by Saturday night.”
“What?” Min said. “How so?”
I explained how Otto and I had broken up, not because of the long-distance thing, but because we’d both basically realized at the same time that we’d somehow stopped being “lovers” and turned into “friends.”
“And you didn’t call me?” she said.
“No,” I said. “But that’s kinda the point. It just wasn’t that big a deal.”
“Russel, I’m sorry.”
“I’m okay. Really.”
“But it’s not like he’s gone forever, right?” Gunnar said. “I mean, you guys are still friends?”
“Yeah, definitely,” I said. “And I’m not just saying that. That’s the whole point: we are friends. Really, really good friends. But we’re not boyfriends.”
“Good,” Gunnar said. “I really like Otto.”
As we were talking, Kevin Land, my ex, stepped into sight at the far end of the hall. He was wearing a blue sweatshirt (spattered with red paint) and carrying a computer bag instead of a backpack. It’s not like he was in my direct line-of-sight or anything. No, he was buried somewhere within the crush of people. But I guess you could say that I tended to be aware of exactly where he was and exactly what he was doing whenever he was around.
Oh, God, Kevin Land. How do I bullet-point this to make it as simple as possible for those who are just joining the story now?
- He’s totally hot.
- We’d had a thing almost a year before. But he was closeted, and a total jerk about it, so it hadn’t worked out.
- Then, in the fall, he’d come crawling back, desperate to make amends, even coming out to his friends. I’d almost given into him when I learned he was even more of a jerk than I’d thought before.
And before you call me a hypocrite for saying I was totally done with him, but was still obviously aware of his every move, let me just say I knew it was a problem and was working on it. But come on: I’m only human—a teenager in high school, no less. Isn’t this when you’re allowed to do dumb, hypocritical things like this?
Kevin yanked on the padlock on his locker, but it didn’t open. Had he dialed the wrong combination?
I deliberately turned away. “I’m done with love,” I said to Min and Gunnar.
Min looked up from her locker. Gunnar glanced up from his phone.
“What?” she said.
“I mean it,” I said. “After that whole thing last year and now this thing with Otto, I’m done. At least for a while.”
“Don’t bother,” Gunnar said. “I tried that last summer at camp. Remember? Em and I got together anyway.” Em was Gunnar’s girlfriend. She went to another school in town, but she was so great she was even humoring him on his annoying document-his-entire-life-online obsession. “Love will always find a way.”
“Love can go fuck itself!” I said. I opened my locker, defiantly blocking any view of Kevin (even though I still somehow sensed that he’d opened his lock on the second try).
Gunnar just shook his head sadly. “You know, you’re practically begging the universe for an ironic twist of fate.”
“I am not.”
“You are. Now you have no choice but to fall in love with an ice sculpture.”
“An ice sculpture?” I said, confused.
Gunnar shrugged. “Not only can it not love you back, it’ll melt in a couple of hours anyway. I mean, talk about your tragic love affairs!”
“Really, Gunnar? Really?” I said this, but it was impossible not to laugh. Even Min laughed, and she had a habit of not laughing at Gunnar’s weird jokes.
“The point is, you’re just totally tempting fate,” he said.
“I am not tempting fate.” I looked at Min. “Help me out here.”
“Hey, I’m with Gunnar on this one,” she said.
“Okay, I’m tempting fate. But if tempting fate means that I’m forced to do whatever I vow not to do, then I also vow not to eat chocolate cake at every meal. And I vow not to have my parents give me my own car.”
“You realize, of course, you’re totally missing the point,” Min said. “Right?”
“And you realize that fate doesn’t really exist,” I said. “Right?”
Min rolled her eyes. “It’s a metaphor. About how crazy it is to think we can predict the future.”
Another metaphor, huh? Well, as I’ve already made clear, I was feeling pretty done with metaphors.
So I ignored her.
“I vow not to sleep until noon every day!” I said. “I vow not to have my parents install a hot tub in our backyard!”
Gunnar looked up from his phone long enough to take a couple of steps back from me.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just putting as much space as possible between me, and you and the universe.”
* * *
Fate didn’t strike me down the rest of the school day. Then again, if I were fate, I wouldn’t have bothered with our stupid school in our boring backwater town either.
That day after school, Min and I lingered in the courtyard waiting for Gunnar, who was nearby taking a picture of a melting ice-cream bar. Once again, I was totally aware of the existence of Kevin Land, tying his shoes on the opposite side of the courtyard.
“How’s Leah?” I said to Min. I’d been meaning to ask her that ever since we’d talked on Saturday.
“What?” she said. “Oh, she’s fine.” She fiddled with her hair, back to black now after she’d dyed it purple the year before.
I stared at Min. “No, seriously.” Min, Gunnar, and I joked with and teased each other a lot, like that whole tempting fate thing in the hallway, but we all still cared about what was really going on.
“It’s the same,” she said. “I think something is up, but I have no idea what it is.”
“Have you talked to her?” I said.
“Not yet.” She thought for a second. “I think you should talk to Kevin.”
“What?” I said, totally confused.
“Russel, you’re checking him out even now. You’re always checking him out.”
I had been checking him out—he’d finished tying his shoes and was now texting someone—but had I really been that obvious?
“So what if I check him out?” I said. “We have a past.”
“You and Otto have broken up now, so I think you should talk to him. Just talk.”
“Min,” I said. “Why would I talk to him? You know what he did!”
Remember when I’d said he’d done something that had totally shocked me? I’d arranged for us to meet at this park near my house, but when I’d got there, I’d seen him hooking up with an older guy in the bushes.
I repeat: he was hooking up with a guy in the bushes while he was waiting to meet me! Min was right that I couldn’t predict the future, but I knew one thing for sure: there was no way Kevin Land was in mine.
“What’d I miss?” Gunnar said, having finished his latest update.
“Min wants me to talk to Kevin,” I said. “Now that Otto and I have broken up.”
“Seriously?” Gunnar said. “Why?”
“Because life is complicated,” Min said. “Sometimes things aren’t always black-and-white.” Min was the one who was saying this? The bull-headed know-it-all who usually refused to compromise on anything? This was especially weird because Min had never liked Kevin, not since the very, very beginning.
“It’s true, things aren’t always black-and-white,” I said. “But sometimes they are. And this is one of those times.” I looked at Gunnar. “Let’s go.” He and I usually rode our bikes home from school together. Meanwhile, Min had her own car.
“Wait!” Min said, following behind us as we headed toward the bike rack. Naturally, it was located in just about the most unpleasant place on the whole campus: near the Dumpster behind the cafeteria. The whole area smelled incredibly foul, beyond sour. Even the asphalt around the Dumpster was sticky—the result of years of spills and leaks.
“Look,” Min said to me, “there’s something you need to know.”
“No, there is nothing I need to know,” I said. “Especially nothing about Kevin. I know what I need to know about him, which is that he’s a total asshole.”
“But—” Min said.
I stopped by the Dumpster. This was ironic: it was the same Dumpster where I’d once waited for Kevin, only to have him totally dog me in front of his friends. Talk about proving my point.
“Min?” I said. “Listen. I only broke up with Otto two days ago. The last thing in the world I want is to have anything to do with Kevin, now or ever. It’s over. So whatever it is you have to say, don’t say it.”
It was at that exact moment that the heads of two people popped up out of the Dumpster next to us.
For a minute, I was confused. Had bullies thrown someone into the garbage? It wouldn’t have been the first time.
But no. These were two people I didn’t recognize: a guy and girl—teenagers, yes, but ones who didn’t go to our school. It didn’t look like they’d been thrown into the Dumpster—even now they weren’t scrambling to get out. But why would anyone have gone in there voluntarily?
“Oh!” the girl said, like they hadn’t known we were there. Like they hadn’t wanted to be caught.
“Hey,” the guy said, not sounding busted at all, but rather like we were greeting each other at a party.
“Um, hello,” I said. “Did you lose something?”
“Nope,” the guy said. “Looking for something.”
“In the Dumpster?” But even as I said this, I knew: these were Dumpster divers. I’d seen homeless people rummage around in Dumpsters and trash cans before, but I didn’t think I’d ever seen actual teenagers doing it.
I looked at Min, but her face was non-judgmental blank.
“Why not?” the girl said. “They just dumped the kitchen trash from lunch.” She held up some kind of wrapped sandwich, still in its plastic wrap. “A lot of it’s perfectly good.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” I said. “If it came from our school lunchroom, it probably wasn’t much good to begin with.” I immediately felt stupid for saying this—for making a joke about how bad the food was in the school cafeteria when here were these people who were eating that same food after it had been tossed into the garbage.
But they both laughed, which I appreciated.
“You eat out of Dumpsters?” Gunnar said. He didn’t sound judgmental either. It was more like he was just curious.
“Sometimes,” the guy said, almost proudly—or maybe it was defiantly. “It’s not like we take the half-eaten stuff that comes from the garbage cans or stuff that’s been sitting in the sun. There really is a lot of stuff in here that’s perfectly good—still wrapped, still cold. Schools and stuff are required by law to throw something out on a certain date. And sometimes they throw stuff out just because there’s not enough room in the refrigerator.”
“Are you homeless?” Gunnar said.
“Homeless by choice!” the girl said.
“Not really homeless,” the guy said. “We’re freegans.”
“Freegans?” I said. Once again, I looked over at Min. If anyone would know what this was, she would. But her face was still blank—not non-judgmental blank now, more like she didn’t know what a “freegan” was either. “What’s that?” I asked the people in the Dumpster.
The guy climbed effortlessly up onto the metal rim, then hopped out. The girl followed him, almost as easily. Their backpacks bulged, no doubt with food from the Dumpster.
“I can’t just tell you what a freegan is,” he said. He smiled broadly. “That’s something I definitely have to show you.”
* * *
If I’d been alone, I wouldn’t have gone with this guy—not in a million years. But since I was with Min and Gunnar, and since this guy and the girl were teenagers, my two friends and I sort of simultaneously decided, Well, why not? We didn’t even talk about it—we just looked at each other and shrugged.
“Name’s Wade,” the guy said as he led us away.
“Venus,” the girl said.
Min, Gunnar, and I gave them our names, but that’s when I noticed that Wade and Venus weren’t leading us out to the main road, which is where I was sort of expecting them to go, but rather to the back of the school, out by the sports fields—the track, the baseball diamond, and the football field.
Now that they were out of the Dumpster, I had a better look at both of them. Venus was tall and thin—at least as tall as Wade, maybe taller. Her clothes were all military green—one piece, like a flight suit—and her hair was mousy brown, which is maybe why she reminded me of a cattail. Or maybe it was the way she sort of swayed when she walked.
Wade was black. I didn’t mention that before because I didn’t want you making any assumptions—about a black guy in a Dumpster, I mean. He was wearing jeans and a jacket, but somehow (unlike Venus) they weren’t dirty from the Dumpster—in fact, his white t-shirt looked spotless. He was also more solid than Venus. It was partly his body, which was a lot thicker than hers and looked to be about as hard as marble (they make black marble, right?). But it wasn’t just that. He also had this serious, down-to-earth expression. His head was shaved shiny smooth, and his voice was deep and soothing. I liked that while he had testosterone to spare, there was still a gentleness to him—the kind of guy who studied ants as a kid, not tortured them with a magnifying glass.
He led us all right past the sports fields, to the big swath of vacant land behind the school. It was just a forgotten pine forest, mostly only used by the mountain bikers who’d carved dusty trails with their treads, and students taking a shortcut to school. It was only February, but there were already red ants on the ground, marching off to their anthills of twigs and needles. I couldn’t imagine anything in here that Wade and Venus would want to show us. An abandoned car? Something in the grassy swamp on the far side of the woods?
“Where are you taking us?” Min asked.
“It’s a surprise,” Wade said, and you’d think this might have sounded scary or threatening, but it didn’t, not at all.
Of course, me being me, this is when I realized that they were probably members of a cult, and they were leading us into the woods so someone else could drop burlap sacks over our heads, tie our hands and feet, and then carry us off to be brainwashed to worship turnips.
“Everyone’s heard of dandelion tea and dandelion wine,” Wade said, pointing to the weeds along the trail. “But did you know you can eat the entire plant? The flowers, the roots, the leaves—the leaves are a little bitter, but they’re a really good source of calcium. And the seeds can be ground into flour. It’s really kind of a perfect plant for foraging, because, well, they’re everywhere, and there aren’t any poisonous look-alikes. Everyone knows exactly what a dandelion looks like, right?”
The perfect plant for foraging? Why would anyone want to forage? But then I reminded myself that I was talking to people who ate out of Dumpsters.
“There’s so much you can eat that grows around here,” Venus said. She pointed. “Even nettles! You can boil the roots and the leaves, and you can also eat the leaves on a young plant raw.”
“They don’t sting?” I said.
“They do! But only a little. That’s what makes them fun—it’s like a little tickle in your mouth. I only put a few nettle leaves in a wild greens salad anyway. If you ever come over to our place, I’ll make you one, ‘kay?”
I smiled. “Okay.”
I looked over at Min for some kind of confirmation that Wade and Venus knew what the hell they were talking about—that they weren’t planning on poisoning us with their nettles and dandelions. Min nodded once, signifying that, yeah, they were telling the truth.
For twenty minutes or so, we weaved our way through the woods, picking one trail over another. To tell the truth, I was growing increasingly excited—where exactly was Wade leading us?—so much so that I completely forgot to be worried that someone might be dropping a burlap sack over my head at any moment.
We smelled our destination before we saw it: a furious stench that was even more foul than the Dumpster back at the school.
The five of us came to a chain-link fence. Beyond the fence was a massive pit, maybe half a mile across, and the bottom of the pit was completely covered with garbage.
“The garbage dump?” Min said. “This is the big surprise?” Part of me saw her point. But another part of me wanted her to shut up. He hadn’t shown us anything yet.
Wade said, “Just take a good look.”
So we did. A gravel road wound down around the edge of the pit so garbage trucks could reach the level of the garbage itself. Meanwhile, once it was dumped, tractors covered the trash up with dirt, but over the years plenty of the garbage had fluttered free, especially paper, a layer of which had been caught at the base of the chain link fence, getting soggy in the rain, then hardening like papier-mâché into a strip along the ground like a baseboard. A huge flock of seagulls along with the occasional crow churned over the garbage like a swarm of giant flies.
Gunnar immediately started taking pictures with his phone.
“Americans produce fifteen hundred pounds of garbage each per year.” It was actually Gunnar who said this, not Wade, even as he was focusing his phone-camera. “And most of that is just packaging—boxes and bags and containers for all the other stuff we buy.”
“That’s absolutely right!” Wade said. He sounded positively gleeful, like Gunnar had just made his point for him. “And that doesn’t include stuff we recycle—that takes a lot of energy too, just a little less of it—or sewage. Americans are five percent of the world’s population, but we create forty percent of the world’s garbage!”
“Incredible,” I said, because it was incredible. By this point, I was already eating out of Wade’s hand (presuming he cleaned it off after climbing out of that Dumpster!).
“But what does this have to do with anything?” Min said, and it was all I could do not to scowl at her.
“Well, we’re not done yet,” Wade said. “There’s still one other thing I want to show you.”
He and Venus turned to lead us away, and Gunnar and I immediately followed. But Min didn’t move from where she stood at that fence. I looked back at her.
I could see the open skepticism on her face. Unlike me, she was still expecting someone to drop a burlap sack over her head. And I guess she did have a point: what reason did we really have to go blithely on following this strange Pied Piper and his spacey girlfriend?
I stepped closer to her, even as Wade and Venus watched us from behind. “Let’s just keep an open mind, okay?” When she didn’t answer, I turned to Gunnar. “What do you want to do?”
Sure enough, he said, “I wanna know where this is going,” just like I knew he would.
Finally, Min sighed, and we all stepped wordlessly into line behind Wade and Venus again.
We walked through the woods for another fifteen minutes or so. Once again, we smelled our destination before we actually saw it, and this time it smelled a lot better: woodsmoke coming from somewhere within the trees ahead of us.
A second later, we stepped out into a clearing. There was a cluster of tents—well, “tents” might be too strong a word. They were more like cardboard boxes and tarps arranged in such a way to provide cover from the rain. There was one actual tent, but it was dirty and frayed, with more duct tape than actual vinyl.
In the center of the clearing, a little bonfire conjured up the smoke we’d smelled. A cluster of people, mostly old men in flannel, sat around the fire on logs and in lawn furniture that was as pathetic as the tents. Truthfully, there were quite a few empty beer cans and bottles scattered around the campfire too—and most were of at least the sixteen-ounce variety.
“Wade!” said a man with almost no hair (or teeth).
“Hey, Myron,” Wade said. “How you doin’?” At the same time, he opened his backpack and started passing out the sandwiches he’d collected from the Dumpster
“What is this place?” Gunnar said.
“A homeless camp,” Venus said, opening her pack too.
Once again, Gunnar started taking pictures—no one seemed to mind, and a couple of the men mugged mercilessly.
Meanwhile, Min and I watched as Wade and Venus walked around the camp—well, Wade walked and Venus sort of floated. They gave out food: more sandwiches, a big tub of shredded cheese, some salads in plastic containers, and half a bag of English muffins.
Mostly, though, they just listened as the men talked to them, flirting with Venus and showing Wade things they’d collected in the woods.
One old man took off his shirt—he was crazy skinny—and Wade bent down behind him to examine his back. Even from where I was fifteen feet across the clearing, I caught a blast of the man’s terrible body odor. But Wade, who was a lot closer, didn’t seem to notice. He took a good look at an injury on the man’s shoulder blade—a scary black fungus of some kind—and then I heard Wade saying something about a free clinic.
Truthfully, I was touched by his concern.
But Min was still sort of scowling. And when Wade returned to us, she said, “First you show us the garbage dump. Now this. Why?”
“Let’s go somewhere where we can talk,” he said, leading us off into the trees, like it would be rude to talk about anyone as if they were visual aids in a presentation, even homeless people.
Out of earshot, he and Venus faced us.
“You said you wanted to know what freeganism is,” Wade said. “Well, freeganism is a movement that says there’s something wrong with the world when we waste so much stuff, especially when there are so many people who have nothing. Think about it. All that stuff at the dump just gets thrown away every year”—he nodded at Gunnar—”fifteen hundred pounds of garbage.” He gestured back toward the homeless camp. “Meanwhile, these people don’t have a shelter over their heads or even enough to eat.”
So this all had to do with “freeganism”? Whatever that was, exactly.
“It’s a protest?” Min said.
“Sort of. But also…well, kind of a principled stand. I guess you could say we’re opting out. We’re choosing not to participate in a culture that we think is immoral. Freeganism means we only use exactly what we need in life. We buy as little as possible, mostly living on what we can forage and what other people throw away. That way, we only use exactly what we need.”
“Freegansim means we’re free!” Venus said, throwing in an annoying little twirl.
Gunnar nodded back at the clearing. “But, I mean, if some people choose not to work, not to earn money, what can you do?”
“A lot of the people who are homeless in America are mentally ill,” Wade said. “A high percentage are veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome. There are also a lot of children, or single mothers with children. Even when they do work, they can’t afford child care. Sometimes they make it for a while, but then something goes wrong, someone gets sick, and they’re out on the streets. It’s not that they’re lazy like a lot of people think.”
Min nodded, her bleeding liberal heart warming to Wade at last. What Wade was saying made sense to me too. Was I being brainwashed by a cult? Was this how it worked? Say things so convincingly that they don’t even need to drop a burlap sack over your head?
Wade and Venus would probably say I’d already been brainwashed by a cult: the cult of a culture that carelessly wastes so much stuff while other people starve and doesn’t even think twice about it. Was that true?
“So you dropped out of school to live in the woods?” I said.
“I finished school,” Wade said. “Venus and I both did. And we don’t live here in the woods.”
“You don’t?” I said. “Then where do you live?”
“Not too far. We’re squatters.” I must’ve had something of a blank look on my face, because he added, “We live in abandoned houses. It also doesn’t seem right to us that some people are homeless when there are all these empty houses around. There’s a whole community of us.”
I nodded, fascinated—though I wasn’t sure if it was the freegans I found interesting or just Wade.
“What do you do for money?” Gunnar said.
“We don’t use money, not if we can help it,” Wade said. “Like I said, we’re opting out.” Wade zipped up his backpack. “But Venus and I should go. We’re heading the opposite direction you are. You guys know how to get back to your school from here, right?”
“Go?” I said. “Go where?” I was tempted to add, You live in an abandoned house and eat dandelions and Dumpster trash: where exactly would you have to be?
“Oh, we have a whole circuit!” Venus said. “Lots of homeless in this city.”
To tell the truth, I was surprised they were leaving. They weren’t going to ask us to become freegans? I thought at the very least they were going to ask us for money. Why had they shown us the landfill and the homeless camp anyway? Maybe it was some complicated brainwashing tactic to make us want to learn more about them. If so, it was working.
“See you guys later!” Wade said, even as he disappeared into the trees.
Min and I exchanged a look. This wasn’t how she had expected this encounter to end either. Gunnar, meanwhile, was busy typing into his phone.
“Wait!” I said, and Venus stopped and looked back at me. I stared at her stupidly. I didn’t know what I wanted to ask her—hell, suddenly I couldn’t even remember Wade’s name. “Are we ever going to see you again? You and your boyfriend?”
“I’m sure you’ll see us around.” She started to leave, but then stopped again. “Oh, and Wade and I aren’t a couple.”
But before I could ask a follow-up question—like did Wade have some other girlfriend? Or a boyfriend?—she’d drifted off into the woods too.
Okay, so maybe fate had it out for me after all. I hadn’t fallen in love with an ice sculpture exactly, but the same day I’d vowed to forsake love, I’d run into Wade, a homeless, Dumpster-diving freegan.
And I confess: I was smitten.