When the woman set the table, she carefully laid out two plates, two sets of silverware, one can of peas, one hourglass, and a loaded gun. Her husband sat at the head of the table and she sat at the other while they tried to forget the third chair was vacant. Routine was a harmless habit. One of the few comforts left for them to rely on. The calendar on the wall was seven years out of date and the perishable food was quickly approaching four.
She had stopped tallying their days long ago. Sometimes she would glance at the concrete wall and forget for a moment that day 1000 was in the past. They had grieved their lives, turned to answers in the bible, and pleaded with the devil, before ultimately giving up and forming a religion of their own. A curated routine was ritualistic practice. They told the same stories like reciting hymns. They had the same conversation every night like a closing prayer. As she dished them each a portion of peas she began:
“How was your day today? Anything new?”
Her husband would sigh as if exhausted from an 8-hour day in the office, furrowing his brows and rolling his eyes to the ceiling in thought. He would turn to his left (as if looking at the large window in their kitchen) and then turn back to face her. In reality, he was looking at another concrete wall that housed the limp mattress they slept on. It was all an act, a play, a bad dream that maybe they would wake up from if they made the most of it.
They had planned for the end and kept a detailed itinerary of what would occur if—when—they ran out of food. She’d known for weeks that that day was coming; she’d had less and less to serve for meals. But touching the last can in their stash was still as jolting as touching a hot stove. A last meal of peas; a food she had consistently pushed aside her entire life and neglected until the rest of her meal was gone. Rolled, mushed, hidden, stabbed but in the end her only sustenance.
Her husband delivered his lines without hesitation and though his hands shook slightly his voice didn’t waver.
“Uh, the same as always, can’t complain too much. If I keep up my number of sales, I could be up for a promotion by the end of the month!” His voice cracked and the pitched note hung in the air. The end of the month. How long till the end of the month? What month was it? It had been so long ago; normalcy had been so long ago. Her husband cleared his throat and stared. She stared back. Then, she turned her eyes back down to her plate, where she scanned the diminishing amount of peas. The performance continued.
“That’s amazing! We’d have to go out to celebrate, maybe even take a vacation.” The last word felt foreign on her lips.
The conversation went on, with small blips along the way. She stole his line, he paused too long. Silently they agreed to take their last meal — their last night, slowly. She dropped her spoon once, then twice. Counted her peas once, then twice. Ten on the left, eight on the right. Eight on the right, ten on the left. The crowd of peas faded into a smaller group, then a nuclear family of four, and then finally into a couple.
He asked her to dance. He asked her to dance every night and every night she said yes. Only for a few minutes, she would laugh, whining that she didn’t have the time. Give me just two minutes of your time, he would counter. He had gifted her the hourglass, and it worked as a compromise that left them both content. Measuring of time didn’t seem as insignificant as it used to.
“Dance with me?”
“Only for a little while.”
Neither of them moved from their seats. She kept her hands grasped in her lap to keep from gripping the arms on the chair. Their plan for the end was final, written in stone, a prophecy inevitably being fulfilled. She tried to remind herself that she was doing this willingly. Routine, ritual, and sacrifice were all part of their religion but suffering was not. Desperation was not.
Finally, he stood, dragging his feet with each step to the record player, which was one of the first things he’d grabbed in their hasty move to the bunker. The first thing she had grabbed was their wedding photo and the hand of their son. But grudges are held by those that have time.
The hourglass was more explosive than the loaded gun. It was this notion that finally got her to stand, even if it was on shaky legs.
Her husband stood hunched over the record player despite the fact that he had only one vinyl and on that vinyl, only one single. But still, he stood and waited as if there was an important decision to be made, because in a way there was. The song started, and he swayed in time to the opening instrumental. He hummed while they danced, in amateur dance steps that might have resembled a choppy and slow tango. Her smile was tilted at an angle that was out of character from her usual flirtatious taunt. They were silent the entire time, their eyes expressing words their mouths couldn’t organize. True to ritual, he dipped her as the last line was sung and left behind the remaining seconds of the instrumental. The last of the song faded as she glanced at the table and did something out of routine. She reached out.
Fiona E. is a published author of both poetry and short stories. She loves twisted, ambiguous endings along with the most raw and unpolished human emotion.
Featured image by Ron Lach on Pexels