“Even as vines creep upwards on a wall, so the heart of the Mung Fu warrior grips a challenge and removes paint like tiny fingers, as well as causing mold, leaks and inexorable structural damage in that which he conquers.” –A State of Bean: Principles of Mung Fu
“Let’s light a fire,” Jack said as he surveyed their campsite.
“So you’re the one,” Pak said. “I never would have thought it, but all the pieces fit.”
“Excuse me?” Penny said, taking off her floppy camouflage hat. “Jack is the one? What do you mean?”
“Can I fill her in?” Jack asked. Pak nodded.
“Great,” Jack said. “I wasn’t sure about opsec. Though you said she could come, so I guess she’s fine.”
“Yeah,” Penny said. “I’m fine.” She did a little half spin like a fashion model in her well-fitting camo pants and olive-drab tank top.
“You’re ridiculous,” Jack said. “Did you go shopping at the LL Bean Army Surplus?”
She shrugged. “Tell me what’s up. I’m dying to know.”
“Arson,” Pak said.
“Right,” Jack said. “Someone has been starting fires all over the place and we think this is the next spot where they’re going to break out.”
“Cool,” Penny said. “I was making some guesses on the flight, but they were all plant related. I thought you might have discovered some new kind of corn or something boring.”
“Boring?” Jack said, stricken.
“No offense,” Penny said.
“Too late,” Jack said. “Why did you want to come if you thought I might be doing something plant related out here?”
“Because you’re here,” she said with a toss of her hair.
Jack smiled. “That works. I am glad you came. Anyhow, we’re going to see if we can catch the arsonists in the act and – wait – what’s that in your backpack!?”
Something was moving in Penny’s pack. Jack pulled his hunting knife expectantly – then saw the head of a small cat emerge from the bag.
“Dinglebat!” Penny said. “I thought I told you to stay home?”
“Lots of people inviting themselves along,” Pak said.
“Meow,” Dinglebat said.
“So, about that fire,” Jack said. “It doesn’t feel like camping without a fire.”
“True,” Penny said. “We could use some of the dry scrubby stuff to light a campfire. If we clear an area it won’t spread.”
“No,” Pak said. “They’ll see our smoke rising.”
“You’re right,” Jack said. “I forgot about that.” He looked around at the prairie stretching off into the distance. “This is crazy, though. We’re in the middle of nowhere. We drove two hours out and haven’t seen a single person in miles and miles. It would take a dedicated arsonist to come all the way out here.”
“The models don’t lie,” Pak said. “They may come in on a helicopter.”
Jack and Penny looked up at the blue sky, starting to turn pink and gold around the edges as the sun sank below the horizon. It was completely devoid of helicopters.
“They could also arrive in a balloon,” Pak said.
Jack and Penny looked up again. No balloons.
“Or a rocket,” Pak said.
“You’re joking,” Penny said, after looking up for a third time and failing to detect any rockets.
“If we don’t have a fire, I can’t cook s’mores,” Jack said. “Look,” he said, pulling a paper bag out of the bed of their rented Ford Ranger. He reached in and produced bag of marshmallows, a few chocolate bars and a box of Graham crackers. “I picked up everything we need when we hit the grocery in town.”
“I saw you buy it,” Pak said. “I assumed it was your idea of a balanced meal.”
“No,” Jack replied. “It’s not balanced. It doesn’t have Ocean Octaves in it. S’mores are just a treat. You know, a ‘let’s reward ourselves for chasing Oklahoma arsonists’ treat. But you need a fire to make them.”
“You’ll have to wait for the arsonists to start one,” Penny said.
Jack looked up at the darkening sky. “I don’t see any rockets yet.”
“I was joking about rockets,” Pak said.
“I know,” Jack replied, then walked to the truck and popped the hood.
“What are you doing?” Penny said.
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
“Meow!” Dinglebat yowled indignantly.
“Have no fear,” Pak said to the cat, patting it on the head. “It is simply a statue of talk.”
“Do they have mosquitoes out here?” Penny asked Pak.
“Yes,” Pak replied. “But it has been very dry, and we are not near any piles of discarded tires where they might breed.”
“How did mosquitoes reproduce before we invented car tires?” Penny asked.
“They lived in horse troughs,” Jack said from the other side of the truck.
“I was just wondering about mosquitoes because we don’t seem to have any tents,” Penny said.
“Sleeping outside balances the qi,” Pak said.
“Oh,” Penny said.
“There!” Jack said, returning with the truck’s battery, some wires and a few parts. “We’ll be able to make s’mores later. I have a plan now.”
“Great,” Penny said. “But I think I want to eat something less sugary first.”
“Of course,” Jack said. “It needs to be way dark before you make s’mores. Ideally, your eyes shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between carbonized marshmallows and melted chocolate.”
Dinglebat disappeared into Penny’s bag and then remerged with a tin of sardines in his mouth.
“Ew,” Penny said. “Where did you even get those?” Dinglebat pulled the tab without gracing her with a reply, then delicately nipped at a fish – then pulled back as if he’d been bitten.
“What is it?” Penny asked. “Is one of them still alive?”
She picked up the can and read the side.
“Aw shucks. These aren’t real. They’re made of soy. It says ‘Soydeens – the taste of the sea, cruelty free.’ Oh Dinglebat, I’m sorry buddy. You picked up the wrong ones.” She shook her head. “That’s what you get for stuffing sardines in my bag. Not to mention your own silly self.” She sniffed at the open can and looked closer. “Yuck. Look, Pak – they even made little spines out of soy. Gross!”
Pak shook his head. “It is a misuse of a noble bean. Here, I have some food in my own pack.” He lifted a satchel and handed it to Penny.
She opened it and pulled out a few square packages. “Ramen? What is this, college?”
“They are a traditional food of my people,” Pak replied. “Long ago, in the Ming Dynasty, Li Ramen invented the first dehydrated-”
“Don’t listen to him,” Jack said. “Ramen came from Japan.”
Pak shrugged. “They stole it from China.”
“Do we have any water to boil?” Penny said.
“No,” Pak replied. “Adding water dilutes the Ramen’s energy. Here,” he said, taking a package from Penny and tearing it open. “You simply remove the square of compressed noodles, then open the seasoning packet, like so,” he said, ripping open the seasoning packet with his teeth and sprinkling part of it on the compressed block of dry wheat noodles. He rolled up the remaining half of the seasoning packet and put it back in his pack, then took a loud, crunching bite of the ramen noodles.
“Do you use all the seasoning packet?” Penny asked, taking a ramen square of her own and preparing it as Pak had shown them. Jack did the same.
“No,” Pak replied. “Some remains behind, like echoes of our provisions, meals tasted and untasted, culinary signposts on the road of life, a dusting of eternity, like stars of flavored salt in the front left pocket of one’s khakis.”
“Wow, that’s beautiful,” Penny said.
“Also, you can suck on the packets later,” Jack said around a mouthful of crunchy noodles. “When you crave more MSG.”
Pak shook his head sadly as he chewed the final bite of his meal. “I will not grace this nonsense with a response. I am going to sleep.”
“Now?” Jack said. “It’s what – 8:30 or something?”
“I have been awake continuously for 27.5 hours,” Pak replied, unrolling a sleeping bag. “Please watch for arsonists. I would not like to burn to death in my time of slumber.”
“How can you sleep when your bed is burning?” Penny said.
“And how can we dance when the earth is turning?” Jack said.
“Gravity,” Pak said, shutting his eyes.
Jack could see Penny’s outline in the moonlight a few feet away. He gathered up his s’more cooking supplies and set them up a dozen feet from Pak. Penny followed him over after a moment.
“Here,” Jack said, handing her his flashlight-enabled cellphone. “Hold the light for me so I can put this together.”
“Sure,” Penny said. “That looks complicated.”
“Not too much,” Jack said, running a pair of leads from the truck battery. “Not compared to rigging up my Mustang to burn vegetable oil. You’re supposed to do that with diesel engines, not gas engines.”
“I had to do some MacGyver style stuff back when I was little,” Penny said.
“Yeah?” Jack said, as he lit a portable acetylene torch and started working on the shaping of a crude cavity magnetron from the scavenged rear right hubcap of the Ranger.
“Yes, at the facility where they created us,” Penny said. “You see, it wasn’t like I had a normal upbringing, with a mom and a dad, in a place where…”
“Hmm,” Jack said, wondering if he was going to be able to properly direct the RF emitter or if he’d need to burn one of the truck tires in order to harvest the wires in the sidewall for a crude Faraday cage. No, that would involve lighting a fire, and if he was going to burn a tire, he might as well just cook the s’mores directly.
“…the intensity of the program would have destroyed normal girls, but we weren’t normal…”
“Right,” Jack said. Maybe aluminum foil would work, he wondered as he created a control circuit from parts of the truck radio. Though would s’mores even be good cooked with radiation? The burned edges were part of the charm.
“…over a thousand clones living their own lives right now. My sisters, my genetic…”
“Sure,” Jack mumbled, engaging the device and directing it towards a marshmallow. To his delight, it lit on fire almost immediately.
“So that’s the real story,” she said with a sigh, then looked at what Jack was doing. “And wow – you made a laser!”
“A laser?” Jack said, hoisting his first finished s’more proudly, then passing it to Penny. “You weren’t paying any attention. I made a microwave.”
“Same, same,” Penny said, taking the s’more and tasting it. “Ew.”
“Ew?” Jack asked.
“Yeah. The graham cracker is kind of stale or something. It’s like cardboard.” She licked her fingers. “I like the chocolate, though. It tastes kinda different.”
“What?” Jack said. “I bought a good brand!” He looked at the Graham cracker box, taking back his phone and shining the light at the small print. “No way,” he said. “I got the gluten-free ones. Ruined by trendy allergies!”
“Oh well,” said Penny. “We can just eat the marshmallows and chocolate.”
Jack sighed and looked at his crude and now worthless microwave. “Yeah, I guess so. If I knew the prairie plants better, I’d hunt for a Graham cracker substitute. On the east coast we have Buccellatum grahamii, with its wafer-like nutmeats. Out in Oregon there’s Panem meltuberculum. You have to roast the roots, but they’re great. Here, though, I’ve got nothing. Lost in the woods, so to speak. Or grasslands, as the case may be.”
“It’s okay,” Penny said. “I think it’s romantic that you tried to use a laser to cook me a s’more.”
“Thanks,” Jack said. “I’d better throw these bits and pieces back in the truck so the dew doesn’t mess them up.”
“Did you break anything reusing the bits like that?”
“Nothing serious,” Jack said. “I’ll put everything back together tomorrow.”
“Great,” Penny said. Jack loaded his microwave into the back seat of the truck, then sat down next to her. She leaned her head onto his shoulder and he slipped his arm around her waist. This could be the moment, he thought. Would it be weird to propose to her in an Oklahoma prairie? What if she said no? Maybe I should sing that “I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” song to her to kind of prime the pump. Like when a salesman asks a bunch of questions which all have yes answers, so you’re in a yes mood, then he asks ‘would you like to buy this 3,000 dollar vacuum with a built-in lounge chair on payments with 26.4% annualized interest’ and you automatically say ‘yes,’ then ruin your entire future. But it wouldn’t ruin Penny’s future if she said yes. In fact, it would give her the best future possible. Jack imagined the two of them raising a crop of little Broccolis. Maybe I’ll buy a station wagon. A station wagon would be cool. One of those huge ones from the 70s with the fake wood on the sides. I could refurbish the entire thing, he thought. A total restoration, and it would be awesome because everyone usually does that with muscle cars. And then-
“Well,” Penny yawned, standing up and patting him on the shoulder. “I’m off to sleep. See you on the flip side.”
She walked over to where Pak was and pulled out a sleeping bag, leaving Jack alone with his failed s’mores.
“Should’ve just asked her,” Jack muttered to himself. He looked at the box of pseudo Graham crackers, picked it up and hurled it off into the night. Nature could eat them. If they were even biodegradable.