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Eating Cricketburgers in The Sands with Concrete on the 4th of July

The pro-tien source of the fu-ture! Bing!

By J. Otis HaasPublished 5 months ago Updated 5 months ago 24 min read
Runner-Up in Arid Challenge
4
Eating Cricketburgers in The Sands with Concrete on the 4th of July
Photo by Šárka Krňávková on Unsplash

Payment was expected at the permanent oases. These were bustling places with names like Watertown and Shady Palms, mostly built up with ramshackle structures, but whose precious trees were made into stately homes for the wealthiest inhabitants. Past the gates, vessels, artifacts, and resources could be traded with merchants for hamster-pemmican or hamster oil, which was burned for light in lamps, but nothing in The Sands was more valuable than water. It was always a matter of what you could afford to part with versus how much you could carry versus how thirsty you were. Jack knew he’d have to be pretty desperate to part with his shovel.

There were also temporary oases, like Old Faithful or Summerspout, that would predictably rise out of the sand with no warning other than the masses of rodents and foxes that would arrive before the water appeared. Diggers and the destitute would join the animals, everyone and everything assembled maintaining a truce as long as respectful distance was maintained. The first time Jack had seen such a gathering he had approached a family of five, each holding a vessel in anticipation.

As Jack neared, the father had shouted, then dashed forward, striking Jack in the head with his bucket. Red streaks flashed across Jack’s vision as he grunted and withdrew. Standing there, rubbing his head, Jack saw a sleuth of foxes in the distance dip their heads before people began dropping to their knees in concentric circles of genuflection. A minute or so later, Jack was up to his ankles in water, and he finally understood. People were vessels too.

Jack didn’t know what the endgame was, whether it was trading his way up to governorship of a permanent oasis town, or making his way to the mountains that stretched across The Sands to the horizon, or combing the beach where salty rain fell, but fish could be caught by the dedicated. Or maybe it was just to dig. Anything else seemed too far-off and difficult to even consider.

The entire civilization of this land’s previous inhabitants lay buried under The Sands, and many people made their living digging up the past. Dig down, choosing a spot randomly, and testing your luck, or finding a depression indicative of a prior dig, and simply start moving sand until you find valuables, or your lack of water forces you to give up. For Jack, that was the point of life in The Sands.

Food was less of an issue than water. Edible plants were nearly nonexistent in the desert, but grew abundantly at the permanent oases. Fruits and vegetables were eaten fresh by those who lived by the water, but were usually dried or mixed into hamster pemmican when in the inventory of a digger. As far as Jack knew, nothing larger than the skittish, tawny foxes that were active at dawn and dusk lived in The Sands, but deadfall traps and various techniques could be used to acquire hamster meat, which was the primary protein source for everyone. It was also possible to survive on insects, and more than once, Jack had sated his gnawing hunger with tarantulas, careful to not eat the heads. One time he had found a cave so full of crickets that he made it his home-base for several days until his water supply began to dwindle.

It was inevitable that, at times, you’d run out of water. Usually it was best to spend at least some of your energy yelling for help. Though, if it arrived, it would either be someone eagerly willing to assist, or, more often, someone looking to exploit you in your time of need. Resource management was key when the other option was death. If you were too weak, some people would just watch you die and take your things. People were vessels, too.

Jack stood, staring at the mountains. Rumor had it that no one who had ventured to the distant range had returned, but no one Jack had spoken to seemed to know anything more about it than that. He had inquired about maps that might show water sources in the wastes, but could find none that charted more than a few miles east of Summerspout.

The sound of Jack’s dad’s truck pulling into the driveway drew his eyes away from the screen. He hadn’t lost track of the time, he’d lost track of the days. Crap biscuits. His dad didn’t mind him playing video games per se, but he greatly disapproved of Jack playing The Sands. The game’s tagline, “Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.” which Jack found outrageously enticing, rankled his father. “Is there not enough fucking sand here, Jack?” said his father upon first learning of this new obsession.

Since summer vacation had started, he’d barely left the house on account of the heat, and his dad couldn’t fault him for that. The solar-powered battery banks kept the air conditioning on through the daily brownouts, but the internet connection had been shoddy for the past year, so Jack mostly busied himself by playing single player offline games like The Sands. A copy of Moby Dick, which was “required summer reading,” had sat on the edge of his desk for weeks, the furious whale on the cover staring at him accusatorially every time he looked at it, but last year it had been so hot that the schools hadn’t opened until mid-November, and lack of reliable internet meant that attending class virtually was often not an option. Consequently, Jack felt like he had plenty of time.

Life had changed a lot in the past few years for people living downriver, like Jack and his father, a mountain of a man who worked for a construction company and who was known to the locals, affectionately, as “Concrete.” Construction had slowed as it had gotten hotter, and most of Concrete’s work over the past year had been demolishing abandoned homes around the county to reclaim whatever materials could be found within. Everyone in the county knew the story of how, as a teenager, Concrete had carried two starving foals over five miles back to their spooked mothers one blazing hot summer. “Concrete was either too dumb to know he should’ve died, or too smart to care,” Jack had heard people say, before figuring out what a backhanded compliment was.

During the summers of his childhood, Jack and his mom would prepare for Concrete’s return from work by donning bathing suits and getting into the pool. Upon arriving home, Jack’s father would strip to his underwear poolside, before cannonballing off the diving board, his massive frame sending water flying everywhere, much to Jack’s delight. He’d then swim to the shallow end to kiss his wife and hug his son. Filling swimming pools had been banned for the past three years, but the one at Jack’s house had been empty longer than that. These days it was full of dust.

Jack’s social studies classes required him to keep informed of current events, and so he had some sense of what had happened. The world had gotten hot, fast, with temperatures outpacing hundred year projections in less than a decade. This had been a slow-motion catastrophe for people on the coasts, with terrible storms pushing the tide lines ever higher, and driving populations used to urban comforts inland. At first, this merely drove up real estate prices, but eventually resulted in a full-blown refugee crisis, overwhelming the middle of the country.

Jack lived in the middle, not far from the banks of one of the once-great rivers that had flowed like arteries through the landscape. Jack remembered swimming in the river as a child, how his mom would sternly warn him to stay in the still, pond-like offshoot of the river and away from the turbulent waters beyond. He remembered fishing with his grandpa and pulling fat rainbow trout up from the calm stretch under the bridge. These days the river was a muddy rivulet that barely ran.

One day during the previous summer, Jack had heard a knock at the front door. Thinking his dad had forgotten his key, Jack was surprised and a little scared to find a dusty, ragged man on the porch, holding an empty canteen, and asking for water. He’d left the man standing there and locked the door behind him while he filled the vessel. After that, at least once a month, someone would appear on the property. Jack’s dad explained to him that these people were headed south to cross the border in search of better lives. Eventually Concrete taped a sign to the front door that read “HOSE IN BACK HELP YOURSELF.”

The evening after Jack had first told his dad about The Sands, Concrete had taken him outside. With insufficient wind to stir up the dust, they’d gone maskless as they made their way to the edge of the property. Standing by the fence, his dad said, “When you were born, all of this was farmland, Jack. Look at it now.” The news said that “agricultural concerns” upriver had diverted so much water that by the time it got to where Jack lived there was none left. Jack’s understanding of the situation was that at one point people had grown mangos or mangosteens here, using not only water from the river, but experimenting with deeply drilled wells, but the money had run out and the land before them was now packed dirt, baked hard by the sun, stretching out toward the mountains in the distance.

“Agricultural Concerns” always made Jack think of a giant made of wheat and vegetables contemplating something deeply, but his dad had explained that it was just “greedy farmers with no sense of community upriver” that were responsible. Jack didn’t know if that made him feel better, or worse. “What’s the quote from that damn game?” his dad had asked.

Jack hesitated before saying, “Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.”

“Jesus, Jack. There’s no reason to simulate more fucking sand,” Concrete had said, as they looked out at the dry farmland, with still-discernible, but not-for-much-longer rows of earth that had once held crops, stretching to the horizon, turning to dust on the wind.

Jack exited the game as he heard the low rumble of his dad’s truck’s engine come to a stop in the driveway. His father entered the back door, closing it quickly so as to not admit too much dust, and stood in the mudroom slapping at his clothes. Next to the entrance a spade had joined the snow shovel and broom as the dust had gotten worse. Jack dashed downstairs, trying to not look guilty. Despite his best efforts, his dad gave him a sidelong glance as he hung up his jacket and walked into the kitchen. “Are you excited for dinner, Jack?” he asked enthusiastically, and then stared, awaiting a response with a gigantic grin on his face. Jack stared back. It was somehow Friday already, it was the 4th of July.

As a kid, Jack remembered going to big barbecues on the Fourth, hosted by the construction company his dad worked for. They’d eat hot dogs and drink pop. One time he did a three-legged race with his mom, who had hiked up her sundress and grabbed Jack by the back of his shirt, half dragging, but mostly carrying him as they crossed the finish line in first place. He remembered how she had roared with laughter the whole time. The barbecues hadn’t happened for the past several years on account of the oppressive heat. This filled Jack with mixed emotions, because while it was fun to see all the other kids, and he loved the way the fireworks at the end would boom in his chest, making him deliciously afraid and excited at once, but it wasn’t quite the same without his mom.

A week prior, via a government subsidy, a company called Jiminy’s had sent a four-pack of cricketburgers to every household in America. For months, advertisements had drenched every form of media, inviting Americans to “Celebrate The Fourth of July with The Protein Source of the Future.” Since the ads had first appeared, Jack and his dad had made fun of them, but his father’s tone had changed after finding out that part of The Sands gameplay was eating bugs.

The news had said it was every American’s “civic duty” to eat cricketburgers, and Jack knew he was expected to at least try one. Jack had also heard the cynical take that, like them or not, before too long, bugburgers, as they were derisively called, would be the staple of the American diet. Loss of grazing land was driving the price of meat so high that it would soon be unaffordable for most people. Crickets required only a small fraction of the water that beef did to produce a pound of protein. Jack wasn’t too worried, though. He knew there were hamburgers and hot dogs in the chest freezer in the garage, next to the bay which held the solar system’s battery banks, though he’d noticed that his dad had hidden them under a big bag of corn.

“It’s simple economics,” James had said one day at school. He’d said it smugly, as his father owned the construction company Jack’s dad worked for, and it was unlikely that his family would go without steaks and burgers unless things got truly terrible. Jack didn’t like James, who was arrogant and entitled, and always obnoxiously clean, but Jack understood that he was trying to deflect. Calling himself “James” was a recent rebranding for a boy who had been known as “Jiminy” since kindergarten.

Once the advertisements had started, even the kids who had been known to suck up to Jiminy for access to his house, which featured a magnificent gaming computer and widescreen tv, with very reliable internet due to a dedicated line, as well as an unattended refrigerator stocked full of beer in the garage, had been unable to resist calling him “Bugboy” or “Cricketboy” or humming the Jiminy’s jingle, The pro-tien source of the fu-ture! Bing! when he was in earshot.

For as long as Jack could remember, his dad had been insistent that he be nice to Jiminy, sorry James, and that had rankled him when he was younger, until his mother had explained to him that sometimes when people have everything they want, but not enough of what they need, they can feel small and empty inside, and when they brag, it’s them trying to make you feel smaller, so they can feel big. Jack could understand that, and so, for many years had tolerated James in a way few others did.

Jack’s dad had never liked him going over to Jiminy’s house, saying that Jiminy’s father, his boss, was “a paranoid gun nut,” and Jack hadn’t known what that really meant until Jiminy’s twelfth birthday party. Jack and his dad had stayed after most of the guests had left. Later, in the truck on the way home, his dad’s monologue was about the importance of schmoozing and brown-nosing and how it made him feel like “an asshole,” but Jack barely heard a word, not because the drone of adults talking often made him feel like he’d never understand the world, but because his head was swimming from what had happened when Jiminy had taken him on a tour of the house.

As they walked through the cavernous home, Jiminy revealed how nearly every room possessed a hidden cache of weapons. He did this with a great amount of pride and more than a hint of threat. Deep in the house was a den full of mounted heads and taxidermied animals, including a snarling cougar that had always terrified Jack, touching some caveman part of his brain that shrieked “scream and run” whenever he was in its presence.

Like a spokesmodel on a game show, Jiminy had gone over the features of the third Tactical Couch Jack had been shown so far, but this time when Jiminy fiddled with the armrest and exposed a handgun, he expertly removed the magazine and popped the bullet loaded into the chamber out with one quick motion. He then handed Jack the unloaded weapon, the first time Jack had been allowed to touch anything he’d been shown. Jack didn’t really care about the guns or knives, but he had terribly wished to hold the samurai sword Jiminy had waved around after taking it down from where it had hung on the wall. “Hai! Hai!,” Jiminy had shouted, his war-cries echoing off glass display cases full of military memorabilia, slicing the blade dangerously close to Jack’s head.

The gun in Jack’s hand felt surprisingly light, especially in contrast to his grandfather’s revolver, which his dad kept in a gun safe in his closet and had felt like a blacksmith’s hammer the few times he’d been allowed to hold it. The carbon-fiber couch gun felt like a toy by comparison. Jack looked up to see Jiminy holding the single bullet between his thumb and forefinger, slowly moving it through the air towards him. Jack said nothing as Jiminy’s hand crossed the distance between them. He didn’t move back even when Jiminy touched the bullet to his forehead. “My. Dad. Could. Kill. Your. Dad.” Jiminy slowly and seriously enunciated as he pressed the lead slug against Jack’s skin while making intense eye contact.

Jack imagined the little piece of metal moving at the speed of sound and held his breath a moment before bursting laughter into the air. Jiminy had inherited his mother’s height, but his father was an impish little man who thought his mustache made him look like a cowboy, even though he must have known full well he was called “Snidely Whiplash” around many a dinner table. Jiminy’s dad would need two guns, no, a machine gun, a nuclear bomb, maybe, to stand a chance against Concrete.

When Jack laughed Jiminy pressed the bullet hard, very, very hard against the skin of his forehead before snatching the gun away, quickly reloading it, and returning it to the hidden holster in the couch. “The tour is over,” said Jiminy, coldly. Jack refused to rub his head, even to see if he was bleeding, but later, as they stepped outside, his dad asked what had bitten him, saying he looked like William Tell’s kid. Jack didn’t tell him what had happened, though he had the feeling he would have told his mom.

Grief had settled over Jack like a blanket, the way it does some people. He had always been a peaceful, introspective soul, but whether it was his mother’s influence or his father’s example that caused him to gather up his hurt in folds and ensconce himself in its soft shell, he did not know. On his thirteenth birthday, Concrete had told him he was “a man now,” and revealed the combination to the gun safe in the closet, making Jack promise to not even think about opening it unless there was real danger. Twice he had disobeyed, and taken out his grandfather’s supple, oiled gun belt, then sat his dad’s big bed feeling the enormous weight of the iron six-shooter in his hand. After Jiminy’s tour he’d developed a distaste for guns, which might have been a obstacle in the social life of a country boy in previous times, but the oppressive head had made plinking cans or shooting rabbits an unappealing option even for those who were inclined to do so. He had not gone into the safe again.

Jack preferred video games, opting mostly for those that encouraged building or exploring, only rarely choosing shoot-em-ups. He’d played thousands of hours of MindCraft, and had even managed to impress his father with the sophistication and level of detail he’d achieved with some of his constructions. When Jack was smaller it had seemed like knowledge of computers would be a prerequisite for success in the world, though this seemed less and less to be the case.

For a full year Jack had been obsessed with Caveman Simulator. All the gamers in his school had formed a tribe and taken over a decent portion of the game map that summer, waging war with clubs and rocks on other schools up the river. It was the most unified Jack could remember his class, but as the internet grew more and more unreliable, a tribe from Houston, Texas had taken over the server, and Jack had eventually deleted the game.

He’d thought about Caveman Simulator when Jiminy had done the thing with the bullet. He’d thought about how easy it was to kill with a gun. How that sort of thing could even the odds for someone like Jiminy’s father, especially facing off against a giant like Concrete. Jack had learned about Survival of the Fittest in school, but he suspected that meant something different in caveman times than it did now.

The lore of The Sands was that all the gunpowder (and gasoline and batteries) had dried up and gone bad. Jack knew about ice ages, but he’d developed the feeling that dry ages were worse. Sometimes this filled him with anxiety that he mistook for simple fear when he’d look out the window and see the dust whipping across the landscape, but he tried not to think about it, distracting himself with games. There was something Jack felt he should tell his dad, something knew he would have told his mom.

Jack set the table and got the potato salad out of the fridge while his dad sizzled two cricketburgers on the stove. In years past they would have been cooking outside on the grill, but it was too dusty for that these days. Oh how Jack wished they were barbecuing on the patio. The unfamiliar, earthy smell of cricket filled the kitchen. The pro-tien source of the fu-ture! Bing! sang Concrete. Jack suspected he was going to need a lot of ketchup.

As his dad arrived at the table with two burgers on plates, Jack wanted to delay the inevitable, but he also wanted to tell him that he’d been getting confused, that he thought he was too isolated, that one night last week he’d been dreaming he was in The Sands, looking at the mountains with his shovel in hand and his grandfather’s gun on his hip, and he’d awakened outside, standing by the fence, in his pajamas, clutching the spade from the mudroom, but otherwise unarmed.

Disoriented, he’d shivered in the night, and when he turned around to return to the house, he had seen a man filling bottles from the hose. Jack had crouched and the man had not seen him, but it was with some alarm that Jack watched the stranger stand on his tiptoes to peek through the windows. Jack’s heart leaped into his throat as he saw the man turn the doorknob, which fortunately must have locked behind Jack as he embarked on his somnambulistic escapade. The man tugged at the truck’s door handles before gathering his things and departing into the darkness. Jack had crept back inside and stayed up the rest of the night playing The Sands.

They didn’t say grace, but they both acknowledged out loud that it would be a better time if Jack’s mom were there. Then they both sat silently, contemplating their plates. Rather than tell his dad what was on his mind, Jack took a big bite and began chewing. His father followed his lead, and spoke around his mouthful. Jack tried to not be distracted by the taste as his dad explained that they had one of the deepest wells in the county and even though more and more people were going to be moving on or moving south, he thought they should stay.

Concrete said James’ family had always relied on river water and their well was dry now most of the year, but Snidely had been sending trucks around, draining every abandoned homestead and had begun hoarding water in their barn. He said it looked like they were going to stay, too. As Jack worked the smoky, nutty, tangy mass of cricket, bun, and ketchup around with his tongue, trying to work up the nerve to swallow, his dad asked him if he thought they should share their water or defend it. “Remember, it’s the 4th of July,” he’d added.

Jack thought about Jiminy, sorry, James and how, even during the best times of their friendship, if that’s even what it was, he would act like Concrete’s employment meant that everything Jack had was somehow owed to James. He thought about the arsenal in the big house and wondered if he had enough caveman in him to hit James with a club or a rock or a shovel. He wondered how many bullets were in the gun safe and wished for a sword of his own. He imagined himself choking the life out of James with his bare hands and wondered if his mother was disappointed in him.

Concrete didn’t take another bite. “Think about it, Jack,” he said, rising from his seat and making his way to the garage. Jack thought about how, as he understood things, a lot of people got a pretty raw deal in life, and depending on where you were on the spectrum of have/have-not you could either help at a cost to yourself or exploit others in their time of need, just like in The Sands. Everything felt real and fake at the same time. Reluctantly, he ate his whole burger, just to give himself time to think, even as his dad fried up hot dogs in a pan.

When Concrete returned and placed a platter of dogs on the table Jack said, “I think we should help for as long as we can.”

His dad smiled and spoke, “It’ll be longer than most, but it may not be forever. Then again, it might be, Jack. Ours is one of the last wells they dug. We were gonna sell our house to one of the agricultural concerns and move back to where your mom was from. Then…well, then things happened and that didn’t come to pass, but what we have here isn’t terrible, all things considered. People passing through are going to want to stop here. Do you think we should let them?”

“Yes,” said Jack, thinking about the worried giant made of wheat and vegetables stretching a long arm made of cornstalks down along the river, covering their house with an apple tree hand.

“Some people may want to stay. Do you think we should let them?” asked Concrete.

“Maybe,” said Jack, thinking of the man he’d seen prowling around in the night, “we’ll have to see.”

After dinner they ate ice cream and watched fireworks on TV, then they did the thing where Concrete pretended to cast a fishing line and reeled in Jack for hugs and “I love yous” in a ritual they hadn’t enacted in years, but which warmed Jack in a way he didn’t realize he needed, though he felt terribly embarrassed about playing along until he found himself in his dad’s huge embrace.

Jack knew he needed sleep. He felt tired and blurry and his stomach had a weird sour feeling that he knew was cricket-related. Instead, he put on his pajamas and booted up The Sands. Walking aimlessly around the desert without a soul in sight he began digging in a random spot. Much to his surprise and delight, he quickly hit something hard. It was a shingled roof, which he broke through with his shovel. Retrieving the rope from his inventory, he lit his hamster-oil lamp and dropped down through the hole, finding himself in a strangely familiar place.

Animal heads were on the walls all around him. His heart leapt into his throat as he passed the snarling cougar on his way to the couch. He placed his lamp on the end table next to the copy of Moby Dick, avoiding eye contact with the angry whale on the cover, and sat down. As if in a dream, Jack fiddled with the armrest, seeking out a secret button. With an expensive sounding click, the hidden compartment popped open. Jack reached into it and felt himself transported.

He came to, standing in a dusty field, holding the spade, with no idea where he was. The sky was clear and the desert full moon was like a searchlight in heaven, bright enough to hurt Jack’s eyes when he looked at it. His arms hurt, too, and he looked down to see that they were scratched up, with blood trickling down his elbows and dropping onto the earth at his feet, black beads in the moonlight that held together with surface tension for only an instant before being sucked into the dusty earth.

Jack could see the outline of mountains against the star spangled sky in the distance. His grandfather’s revolver hung heavy on his hip. Looking back, Jack could see the lights of his house behind him. He was on the far side of the fence, fairly deep into the former mango or mangosteen grove. As the breeze picked up, stirring the bloody dust at his feet, one thought repeated in Jack’s head: Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.

Short Story
4

About the Creator

J. Otis Haas

Space Case

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Comments (2)

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  • D.K. Shepard4 months ago

    Congrats! Such a unique concept and character!

  • Andrea Corwin 5 months ago

    Another intriguing piece! I really appreciate that your stories are carefully crated without typos or grammar errors. Crickets, ick. A new form of crispies, snap, crackle and pop? LOL. This story definitely has a future- scape that could happen with the worldwide drought. A bit of water wars, and power and food issues. Good job!

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