Another prompt from Accentuate Writers. My words begin after ‘Instead…’
“Hey, mom, could you pass the soup?”
Gail passed the bowl down, but there was no soup in it. Instead… there was a momentary absence. Later, Gail would describe it as the sensation that the world’s pause button had been pushed for a single second, put on hold whilst a minute adjustment was made. When the world resumed the bowl was empty and her family, daughters Hannah and Ruth and husband David, sat around the table with almost identical expressions of vague confusion.
Hannah was the first to break the stillness. She shook the bowl, held it above her head and laughed.
“Come on, Mom, what is it, one of those trick bowls that lets the stuff drain to an inner lining? Very funny, but I’m hungry!”
Gail retrieved the bowl and examined it, glancing round the three expectant faces with no hope of an answer.
“Not me. You guys?”
Ruth and Dave shrugged, nothing to do with them.
Gail trotted out to the kitchen, aiming to refill the tureen. The stove-top crock was as empty as the bowls on the table. Insanity seemed to be the order of the day. Gail’s mind simply couldn’t grasp how the soup had vanished before their eyes. Her inability to comprehend this strange event sent her into mother mode, foraging to put food on the table for her ever more vocal and apparently starving young.
“You have no idea what it is to be starving” she muttered into the complaining voices as she rummaged through the cupboards. Packet after jar after bottle came up empty. It seemed that every comestible in her home had evaporated without trace. Gail had no words, her mind a whirl of increasingly impossible scenarios as she returned to the dining table and the questioning gaze of her family.
“What do you mean there’s no food?” Dave scoffed, well aware of how well stocked his wife kept the pantry, not to mention the cupboards, fridge, freezer and even a few ‘spares’ in the cool of the cellar. He left the table and headed down there; maybe she hadn’t found the boxes after he’d moved things around a couple of days back. Gail told the girls to get their coats and boots. A trip to the store was in order, maybe a take-out. She felt wholly inadequate to the slew of questions coming from Hannah and Ruth, eventually clapping her hands over her ears;
“I don’t know what happened!” she shouted, Dave returning, his frown speaking his lack of success. He snatched up the car keys and sent the girls out to wait in the car, turning to catch Gail close.
“We’ll find out, girl, no fretting. Someone in town will know what’s going on, and we can get something to eat there. Probably some stupid practical joke down to Jeff.”
Jeff was their best friend but he had a terrible reputation for suddenly deciding to play pranks on townsfolk. The possibility of so simple an explanation made Gail feel better. They joined the girls, Gail apologising for snapping at them, and drove the couple of miles to town.
Pulling up outside the store, Gail’s apprehension returned with a bang. The lot was littered with people and the contents of the store. They didn’t need to get out of the car to know that all the containers were empty. The mixed fury and confusion of the townspeople was writ large in their every gesture and expression. Dave wound down the window a little, Gail’s anxious hand on his arm preventing him getting out or opening the glass more than a crack.
“Tom! Hey, Tom!” Dave bellowed at the store owner, sat with his head in his hands on an upturned garbage can, “What’s happening?”
Tom looked up, shook his head and then rose, limping slowly to the car. Dave thought a man that beaten and wearied was going to be no threat, winding the window down fully. Tom leaned on the rim, nodded to Gail, tried to smile at the girls and then shook his head.
“End of the damn world, David. The food’s gone.”
“All of it?” Tom nodded, Dave sharing the beginnings of panic with Gail in a glance, “Gone where?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. It just upped and vanished, every drop and bite. I’ll tell you another thing” he leaned in, lowering his voice as a distraught woman passed by clutching an empty pack of Cheerios to her chest, “John Cramer, over at Dale’s farm? He rang me, said every crop in the fields is gone. Just rows of empty earth. How ‘bout that?”
Dave sunk back in his seat, winded, the seeds of fear uncurling in his stomach and fingering their way up to his heart. Tom wandered off trying, for what vain reason who knew, to gather up the empty containers. Dave watched the milling townspeople and had an unnerving flash of every zombie movie he’d ever seen. He wound up the window and backed rapidly onto the main road. He took off, curled onto the freeway and aimed the car at the next major city, stopping once to refuel at a gas station awash with empty food litter.
They traveled in silence. Finally, having checked to see the girls had drifted into uneasy sleep, Gail voiced her immediate concerns.
“What if it’s everywhere, Dave?”
“It can’t be hun. The government has contingency plans for this. There’ll be military aid and stuff in the city. I know it.”
Gail smiled fondly, but shook her head.
“You know no such thing. That is the kinda thinking you get from watching too many disaster movies on late night cable. If there are any such plans, they won’t be for the likes of us. The bigwigs and hobnobs will be down in those bunkers, but you know something?” she paused long enough to take in the sight of two men standing forlornly under apple trees full of nothing, “I wish them well of it. You want to know what I think?”
“Probably not, but I’m guessing you’re gonna share anyhow.” Dave tried to smile but he was too scared her thoughts were the concrete echo of his shadows.
“I think it’s all gone. Every seed, every drop, every plant, fish, fowl and flesh that ever fed the human race, gone. I don’t know how and I don’t know where, but I reckon even those bunkers aren’t safe from this. Here, stop.”
Dave pulled over, aware as they drifted to the dirt verge of what she was aiming to show him. Careful not to wake the girls, the couple walked to the edge of the stream. It wasn’t there. It was the clearest, purest, water in the area, always so full of fish you could lie on the bank and hook ‘em out with your fingers. It was gone. Gail looked up, watching the sun slowly sinking down the sky, aware of the vague shimmer there. Somehow knowing the ocean was gone too. Dave caught her thought, as he often did.
“You think the oceans are empty, dried up? Why?”
“Because we’re human beings and we are smart. We could or already have for all I know, find a way to make it potable.”
“What about all those seed banks, experimental facilities with GM foods and that?”
Gail turned and lay her head against his shoulder.
“You’re clutching at straws. It is all gone and we are going to follow… unless.”
She shook her head, refusing to face that thought; at least not yet.
They holed up in a cabin in the woods. The fear and panic had led to every imaginable atrocity, the world gone insane with the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of everything which could nourish human life. No plants, no animals, birds, fish, insects, no water. Before long it began, people killing people to drink their body fluids, eat the flesh, but it couldn’t last. Gail watched Dave and the girls die, unable to do what they knew they must.
The day Gail buried her husband, the last to go, she stabbed the spade into the soil, dropped at the head of his covered mound and wished for tears. She had none to give. Rage flooded through her emaciated frame and she shook her fist at the sky, screaming for an answer.
“Why? Why do this?”
She didn’t know who or what she was raging against but it made her feel slightly more alive to let the anger course her veins.
“It was an experiment.”
Gail held off a second, pretty sure she had hallucinated the voice, but the urge to understand burned strong in her heart.
“Are you real?”
“That depends on what you believe” came the reply, “You are stronger than I thought. There are more like you.”
The voice echoed in the small clearing, at once everywhere and yet only in her head.
“Those strong enough to do what they must to survive. Most could not, like your children, your mate.”
Gail hitched dry, exhausted coughs in place of the sobs she wanted, visions of the meals she had eaten, sustained by her dead children, her beloved David, burying their bones with as much reverence as she could, her iron will forcing her to do the unthinkable.
“It was time to change. The world would not do it alone. I helped. Do better, you strongest that remain.”
At the exact moment she was aware the voice had departed it began. Suddenly there were insects sounds, bird song, a scatter of some small animal nearby and tantalisingly close, the soft splash of a renewed stream racing over its pebble base. Gail drank, caught a rabbit and ate, then began the slow walk to find others. Finally, she cried.