The pot was getting old, Jessie decided. If she were to hold it up to the firelight she’d see right through it, as clear as glass. But she couldn’t do that because the pot was never empty. Not for years. Not since Jessie was a girl.
It had once belonged to her grandmother. One of those old-fashioned pots, heavy to lift, with a thick base and strong steel handle. But it had seen a lot of use since her grandmother’s day. Since the old days, when there were people. Now it was wearing thin. She could feel it when she stirred it. Thin bottom, waiting for the spoon to break through.
She must have stirred it a billion times, because she stirred it every day. Every single day without fail Jessie had stirred that pot. Ever since she was fourteen and the world changed.
Sometimes she dreamed of that day. It woke her up and, sometimes, it woke her up screaming.
She woke up that day, too. Only the rest of the world didn’t. Of course, she didn’t know that. Not right away. Not until she’d sat at the window for a while, waiting. The postman was due. It was February 14 and Tim Fisher always sent her a Valentine’s card on February 14. Jessie pretended she didn’t like getting the pink envelopes in the post each year, like having a mystery admirer freaked her out. But she knew it was Tim, and it always gave her a glow.
But on that Valentine’s Day, the pink envelope never came. Jessie never knew if Tim sent it that year or not because the postman didn’t come. He wasn’t tardy or unreliable, he just didn’t wake up. Tim Fisher either, she guessed. He didn’t wake up. Her parents didn’t wake up.
Apart from a very few, like her, the whole world didn’t wake up.
It wasn’t till she started wondering why it was so still outside and so quiet inside that she went up to her parent’s bedroom and checked. They were there. Nothing had happened to them. They were peaceful, still sleeping. But they looked pale and somehow too asleep. When she got closer, she saw they weren’t breathing. When she touched her mother’s cheek it was cold and kind of waxy. Jessie put her head on her mum’s chest, listened for a heartbeat. There was none. Or on her father.
She tried phoning for a doctor, ambulance, but the phones weren’t working. Not even 999. So she went to the neighbours. They weren’t home. Or at least weren’t answering. Next door to them either. She tried a few other doors. Eventually she stopped knocking, started pounding. Started yelling. Then she started getting scared.
It was getting late now, and it was so quiet in the neighbourhood. Way too quiet. No cars, no people. Breaking the dead stillness seemed criminal, sacrilegious. Something bad, whatever bad thing had done this, would hear her. Come and get her.
She crept home and shut the blinds. Sat on the floor and cried.
There was no school that day, Jessie recalled. So maybe it had been a Saturday. Had to be a Saturday because there never used to be post on Sundays and she was waiting for the Valentines. No school but waiting for a card. Yeah. It had to have been a Saturday.
She’d eventually stopped crying. Even with her parents dead upstairs. She got hungry, went to cook some food but the gas was off. So she ate stuff that didn’t need cooking. It was only doing that, looking in the fridge for sandwich filler, she saw the electric was off, too.
She lit candles when it got dark. Sat at the window, peeping past a gap in the blinds, looking out at a dark world, where the streetlamps didn’t light, and no cars growled past. No neighbours came home from work. Nobody walked their dogs. Because, she’d guessed by now, they’d all never woke up. Not even the dogs.
When the fridge food started smelling bad, Jessie lit the barbecue out on the patio. It was one of the charcoal ones and there was a stack of it in the corner of the shed. She lit the charcoal, put a pan of water on the grill and cooked dried pasta.
By then several days had passed and her parents were starting to smell as bad as the food. Phones still weren’t working but she knew that by now. There was no one to answer them anyway. Nobody there, nobody in the neighbourhood. No postman. No dustbin men. No dogs, no birds. Well, a couple of birds, but that was it. Apart from that, she was alone. And Mum and Dad smelt bad.
She sewed them up in a couple of sheets. She’d seen it done, or heard it done somewhere. She couldn’t remember where, or when. But that’s what she did. Pulling them one at a time down the stairs at the feet end of the sheets – one pink, one brown – she wept and apologised every time a head bumped the stair as it went down. Which was every one of them. It was nearly a whole day, getting them out into the back yard. She had to borrow a shovel from next door. Left a note, promised to return it. Then she dug holes. Daddy’s hole – the brown sheet – she didn’t make long enough. Had to haul him out again and dig some more, even with the blisters on her palms and her throat sore from all the weeping.
When they were covered over with dirt it was dark again. The stars were clear and the moon shone down, nearly as bright as day. She knelt by the dirt mounds and cried some more. Angry, sad, painful tears.
It was pain so hard in her chest it felt like a steel ball inside her, trying to crush her lungs.
The barbecue bricks ran out. Jessie had to look for firewood. She’d go down to Wincombe Lake, get some fallen sticks, come back. She still didn’t like the quiet, but it didn’t scare her now. There was nothing there. Nothing left but her. Nothing to be scared of.
As the days grew warmer, the trees tried to push out their leaves but it didn’t happen right. Something, maybe the same thing that made people not wake up, had happened to them. Some were dead completely, others just couldn’t manage it. Same with the grass. Instead of growing, it just stopped. Then it went brown. Died. Most of it. There were patches. Just enough to feed the few rabbits she saw in the wood around the lake. Even so, they were skinny.
And Jessie was skinny too, by then. The smell in town had got so bad she couldn’t stand it anymore. Grabbed the camping tent, pots, pans and hiked down to the far side of the lake. She found a clearing and set up there. She’d brought her grandmother’s pot with her. That big one, the one with the copper bottom. It was heavy and far too big for one girl to use, but she figured if she could fill it, she could eat for a week and only have to cook once. Of course, when she tried it – not that she could fill it up, not really, not with the few measly things she managed to scavenge or forage – it went bad before she could eat it all. Which was a waste.
It got to be a daily ritual. She’d go down to the lake, find what she could, even if it was only snails or mushrooms, put them in the pot, with water and herbs and salt she’d taken from the cupboard at home, and set it on the fire. The fire was her companion in the dark. It was her life-source. It stood out against the quiet and the loneliness, made sure she didn’t go hungry.
She was bent over it one evening, just before her meal was ready, stirring the old pot. When she straightened up her eyes met those of a little kid who stood across the fire from her, staring at her. They were both as startled as each other, but when they got over it, they both moved back to the fire.
‘You okay?’ the kid asked. ‘Didn’t mean to scare you.’
‘Course I’m okay,’ Jessie said. ‘And I weren’t scared.’
Already, the kid’s eyes were on the pot.
‘That smells good,’ he said.
‘I got some spuds.’
He showed her. Three. They were small, had a couple of sprouts on them, but they weren’t wrinkled or mouldy.
Jessie nodded. ‘You get me some more firewood, we can share.’
He was gone in a second. He came back a short while later with some branches and an even smaller kid.
‘Her name’s Stacey,’ he said.
‘If you both want some you got to both put in your share.’
The kid looked at Stacey, who looked exhausted and half-starved. ‘We got nothing else.’
‘Go find me some snails,’ Jessie said. ‘The grey shells, not the green ones. And not slugs. They taste bad. Find your share, both of you. And a little bit more, so we got something for tomorrow.’
They were gone again, while Jessie put the wood they’d brought on the fire, and cut up the potatoes, carefully chopping them into even-sized pieces, so no one got a bigger piece than anyone else.
That night they ate out of the other pans Jessie had with her. Each of them had just enough to fill them, and, in the old pot, there was a tiny bit left.
‘So we know we can eat tomorrow,’ Jessie said again.
And that’s how it went. For days and days. They’d all go foraging. For wood, for dandelion leaves and nettles, wild roots, snails. Anything that was edible they’d bring back and it would go into the old pot with a little water and a pinch of salt.
Every evening, for days and days, they’d eat. And every time there would be something – just a little – left for tomorrow.
Next a man showed up. Skinny as they were and wild-looking. He had a rabbit skinnier than all of them. He held it up, all floppy and sad, and they could almost taste it.
Jessie told him the rule. ‘Your share, and a little bit for tomorrow.’
The wild-looking man was called Charles. Charlie. He wasn’t really wild, just hungry. And so desperate for other people he was crying when he handed her the rabbit.
‘It’s the alectric,’ he told them all later, when they’d eaten. ‘That’s what happened. Everything alectric stopped. Just like that. People’s brains run on alectric, and their hearts. So they stopped too. All at once, just like that. All except a few people.’
People like him, and Jessie and the two kids, Shaun and Stacey. Charlie wasn’t that much older than Jessie, but he knew a lot of stuff. He told them it was a sun storm. Something like that. Fused all the alectric so it stopped, and, he said. It didn’t look like it was going to ever start again.
The spoon Jessie was turning in the old pot stopped as she reminisced. That was a long time ago. Strange how she was thinking of those old days, the old words they didn’t use anymore. Like alectric and sun storms. No. Solar wind. That was it.
Jessie married Charlie when she got a bit older. If married was the right word for it in a world with no churches or priests. More people came as the days became months and turned into years, drawn by the fire, or the smell of cooking food. But the rule stuck.
‘Your share and a little bit for tomorrow.’
And there always was. The old pot was never empty. There was always something in it for tomorrow. The promise that starvation was always at least one day away.
The world came back to life. Grass grew again. Birds, rabbits, deer and fish started finding their way into the old pot, along with carrots, potatoes and barley. The contributions got smaller but there were also more of them. A lot more. There were a lot of people now, and only so much room in the pot.
Even though they had more food, the people always came to her at the end of the day with their plates, bowls, mugs or pans. And everyone got some. A spoonful each. So no one ever went without, even though there were some who didn’t put their share into the pot, but put it into the community with muscle or knowledge or skill. Each day, after ladling out the pot’s contents, there was always something left for tomorrow.
But the old pot wouldn’t last much longer. Her spoon would go through it one day soon. No surprise. The pot had seen a lot of stirring.
So much stirring that Charlie was grey haired now, and so was she.
He knelt next to her one day.
‘Jessie,’ he said. ‘Look what we found.’
Their granddaughter, Louise, was full-grown already. When did that happen? One day, while she was stirring, Jessie supposed.
Louise had a big pot in her arms. A different pot. A new one. This one had two small handles, one each side, not one long handle, like on Jessie’s pot.
‘It’s time to retire that old one,’ Charlie said. ‘Let it get some rest.’
Jessie frowned. ‘But tomorrow…?’
‘This one’s good enough for tomorrow,’ Louise told her. ‘And I can cut up the carrots into same size pieces, just the way you taught me. Let me do it Nan. I want to.’
Charlie took Jessie by the arm.
He led her away from the fire she’d tended and stirred over for all these years.
‘Did you ever stop to look what you built?’ he asked her.
She looked at him questioningly and he gestured. They stood in a market place. Wooden houses were built up around them, with shops, a blacksmith’s and a school on the corner. Down the road there was a field with cows and sheep and another field with corn. People were everywhere and none of them were skinny.
Charlie took her arm and led her to the biggest building, the one on the right, which she remembered being built but hadn’t paid much attention to. Inside was stacked high with boxes of apples. There were sacks of grain, there were crates of potatoes. Wheels of cheese, jugs of cider.
Jessie’s eyes widened.
‘Oh my lord!’ she cried. ‘What is this place?’
‘Why, you silly mare,’ Charlie said gently. ‘Outside, that’s our share. This is just a little bit for tomorrow.’