Chapter Six ~ Conquest of the Can
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, even with blots of light shining through holes in the roof. Elizabeth scrunched her nose at the smell, then forced herself further inside. She turned, squinting, then huffed in disappointment. What a bare, ramshackle place. Other than a pile of empty beer cans, discarded candy wrappers, dirt and cobwebs, the hut was empty. So much for finding food.
Sighing, Elizabeth stepped towards the door, then stopped, heart hammering. There was something in the shadows. But what? Monsters? Spiders the size of Shelob?
Elizabeth took a deep breath, reached out, and nudged the door aside. A shelf hung on the wall. On top of it sat two rusted nails, an empty matchbox, and a can of Bush’s baked beans. Elizabeth blinked. Was she hallucinating? Did starving people do that? Only one way to tell.
The label crinkled under her fingertips as she picked up the can and turned it in her hand. It was intact. Fourteen beautiful ounces. And only a month out of date. Elizabeth rubbed a tear from her eye, then tapped her thumb on the lid. But how to get it open? Bash it on the floor? Try to poke through the lid with a pencil?
Her eyes wandered back to the shelf. Ah. She grinned, grabbed one of the nails, and hot-footed it outside to look for a rock.
It took some time to find one that fit in her hand. Elizabeth wiped sweat off her forehead and glanced at the shore of the lagoon. Melissa had her backpack on the ground and was rummaging for something. Nicki was dipping her bare foot in the water. Several ducks flew overhead.
Elizabeth set the nail near the lip of the lid, raised the rock and smashed it down. The can tipped onto its side and the rock bashed her thumb. She sprang straight into the air, then performed a convoluted dance while holding her thumb and silently screaming.
Once she recovered, she stomped around the hut until she found two large boulders, shifted them with effort, and wedged the baked beans in-between. Then she tried again. Whack! The nail sank through the lid.
“Hah!” Elizabeth pried it out, set it a bit further along the edge and hit it again. Whack, whack, whack. Four holes, then ten, then 15. The nail bent in half, so she went back in the hut for the other one.
Whack! Elizabeth fanned herself with the edge of her shirt, breathing heavily. She’d never worked so hard for a meal in her life. Whack, whack. She scraped her thumb again, but didn’t stop.
There. Elizabeth shoved the nail into one of the holes and applied pressure. She grunted, swiped more sweat off her face, and tried again. The lid bent. She got a finger underneath and…up it came! Her salivary glands kicked into overdrive.
Elizabeth trotted to the edge of the lagoon where Nicki was busy rubbing mascara off her cheeks with a wet pencil case. Melissa was wading in the water, stopping now and then to nibble the leaf of a floating plant. Chickadees sounded their two tone whistle from the nearby trees.
“Chow time!” Elizabeth called.
Melissa turned towards her and saw the can. Her mouth open dropped in shock. “Galloping Garfunkles.”
Elizabeth’s stomach started doing cartwheels. “Got a spoon?”
Melissa splashed towards the bank, scrambled out, and attacked her pack. She emerged with a spoon and a fork, caught sight of Nicki staring at her, and paused. “Do you want any?”
Nicki dipped the pencil case into the lagoon to wet it again. “Err, no thanks.”
They sat down to their picnic. Oh man oh man oh man. Baked beans, dinner of champions. Elizabeth groaned with pleasure. Melissa chewed with her eyes closed. They passed the can back and forth until every bean was gone and the sides were as clean as their fingers could make them. Nicki watched them eat, something unreadable in her expression.
Elizabeth ignored her.
When they finished their meal, they lay on their backs and basked in the warm sunlight. Birds swooped and dove for insects and their stomachs curled up like fat, happy cats. They could have stayed like that forever.
Then Nicki cleared her throat.
Elizabeth peeked at her through the slit of an eye. She had blue eyes, blonde hair, and wore multicolored bracelets that said things like: I ♥ Kale, Gummy Bear Fiend, and Physics is 4 Real.
“I really need to get back to town,” she said.
Elizabeth tucked her hands behind her head and looked up at the sky.
Nicki played with one of her shoe laces. “It’s kind of a long walk, and my ankle hurts. So I was thinking, what if you guys help me get there, and I’ll buy you each a hamburger in Farisberg?”
A hamburger? Elizabeth’s stomach growled at the idea. She sat up and was about to shout “yes” when she caught herself and crossed her arms. It wouldn’t do to be too enthusiastic.
Melissa crossed her arms too. “What’s the catch?”
“My sibs and I are having a movie night. I don’t want to miss it.”
“A movie night?”
“Yeah, with popcorn with smarties and root beer floats.” Nicki rubbed her ankle, glanced out at the lagoon, then looked back at them. She shrugged. “You could come if you wanted.”
Elizabeth forced herself to shrug. Stupid traitorous stomach. “Eh,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Melissa, “How would that work?”
Nicki grinned. “I can sneak you in the side door. Anika and Pieter won’t tell, they’re good at keeping secrets. And you can sleep in my room afterwards. No one else needs to know.”
Melissa looked at Elizabeth and raised her eyebrows. She didn’t need to speak for Elizabeth to know what she was thinking. It sounds fun.
“Hmm…” said Elizabeth. Getting food was practical. But going to town as a fugitive was probably impractical. Wasn’t it? Or would practical runaways head straight there? Bother it all! Suddenly Elizabeth didn’t care whether it was impractical or not. She’d had it with both extremes.
“Make it a cheeseburger and I’m in.”
Melissa crowed, jumped up, and did a little jig. She held out a hand to Nicki. “We’ll take turns being your crutch.”
“Nah,” said Elizabeth, hopping up and heading for the woods, “I’ll do you one better.”
After a bit of bush whacking, tree wrestling, and punching saplings, Elizabeth returned from the woods with a sturdy branch for Nicki to use as a cane. She applied more mud to her cheeks, donned her pack and tucked pencils behind her ears.
Nicki watched her with amusement. “Planning to stab something with those?”
“Wild animals, brigands, bears…”
“And boyfriends,” added Melissa.
Nicki smirked. “Perfect.”