(This is part of Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge, “The Unexpected Guest.” Clicky to check out the other entries!)
Jess stared at the fork on the floor in disbelief.
Droppin’ your silver means company’s comin’. Gran’s voice was loud in her head, the memory of the old woman in her rocker still crisp, though both matriarch and beloved chair had long since rotted away.
The fork gleamed in the sunlight. Cheery. Ominous.
A fallen fork’s a man on his way, said head-Gran.
But there weren’t any men. There weren’t any women, either, except for Jess herself. Everyone was gone. Away an’ over the hills, Gran might’ve said. Wherever they’d gone, whatever had emptied the world of all the people save one, it had been thorough. Six years, and Jess hadn’t seen a soul.
Not a peep on the radio, not a single flare burning against the sky, not a car on the highway. No one had drifted through town looking for survivors — had there been an event to survive? No scavenging motorcycle gangs roared down the street looking for food, water, firewood. No one at all.
Because they were gone. Jess had accepted it.
Her cutlery, it seemed, hadn’t.
Still, she wasn’t about to neglect her hostessing duties. Gran would be appalled. So she put sheets on the guest room bed (hoping her guest would be a gentleman and stay in his room. She slid a steak knife under her pillow, in case he wasn’t. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, Gran had said. She’d meant it for doctors’ appointments, weather forecasts and money, but Jess had always applied it to people, too.)
With the guest room aired out, she brought up a box of MREs from the cellar – beef brisket and buffalo chicken. She’d raided the local army surplus store a shortly after the world cleared out, and even though the instructions said they’d last three years, the rations hadn’t turned yet. She baked bread and took down a jar of her blackberry jam as a precaution, in case today was the day the MREs went bad. Worst case, they had dessert.
She took a bath, dug out a sundress, and made lemonade from a powdered mix. Then she sat on the porch to wait, wondering if she should have tamed the front lawn. (She wondered if she should have tamed, ahem, something else as well, in case she didn’t want her visitor to be a gentleman, but it was a bit late for that.)
But no one came that day, gentleman or otherwise. She stayed out well past dark, keeping the candles lit. All she got for her vigil was a smattering of mosquito bites.
She dreamed of sweet pipe-smoke and newspaper pages rustling in distant rooms.
The next morning, her spoon went clattering, streaking reconstituted milk across the polished wood. Spoon’s for a woman, whispered head-Gran, and Jess wondered if they were arriving together, or if she should make up a bed on the couch.
Or what if they didn’t want to stay with her? Every house on the street was empty; they could have their pick. If the street didn’t suit them, every house in the neighborhood, the town, the whole world was up for grabs. Why cram into her tiny ranch when there was so much room to spread out?
Well. Even if they didn’t sleep over, the silverware said they’d be stopping by. She’d be a good hostess and let the rest shake itself out.
As morning melted into evening, though, Jess was just as alone as ever.
She went to bed scratching more mosquito bites. In her dreams, a dark-haired couple danced the foxtrot in the kitchen. Jess woke up humming “Beyond the Sea” and missing Gran and Pa.
The next day, the utensil drawer slipped its rails. Knives and forks and spoons skittered off into the corners.
Maybe I’m just clumsy, Jess thought, digging a cheese knife from beneath the china cabinet.
Maybe I’ve gone crazy, finally. Snapped from the loneliness. But she’d never felt alone, to tell the truth, and as far as hawks and handsaws went, she was pretty sure she could tell the difference. She picked up the rest of the runaway silverware, then did her best to recreate Gran’s oatmeal cookies using powdered eggs and olive oil. They came out a bit greasy, but edible. She made four dozen.
She ate them by herself, over the course of two weeks. At night she dreamed of holidays and christenings, birthday parties and funerals attended by people she used to know. Sometimes she woke to murmured conversations, but when she wandered through her darkened house no one was ever there.
After that, Jess stopped watching for visitors. She’d make a treat if something fell, but only enough for one. Those nights, she’d hurry to bed so company could come.
On the first day of autumn, she bobbled Gran’s silver ladle. When she straightened from picking it up, Gran was at the table, shelling peas.
The old woman looked up, her smile deepening the wrinkles that were just as Jess remembered them. “Jessie! We missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.”
“It hasn’t been any trouble, has it? Us barging in unannounced? It’s terribly rude, but we didn’t have a way to…”
Jess clutched the ladle to her chest and sat. “It’s been fine. I like the company.” Then she asked, “Where have you been? Where did everyone go?”
“Over the hills,” said Gran.
“And far away?”
“You could come with us.”
But she liked her solitary life, her little house, the night sky full of stars. “I think I’ll stay.”
“Well enough, if you’re happy,” said Gran. She knocked a fork from the table. “Company.”
Then Pa stepped through the door, and others followed. Later, Jess traded the ladle for a more reasonably-sized teaspoon, and still her guests remained. She visited with them while the dark descended and the night grew close.
They faded with the sun, and Jess tucked the teaspoon back in its drawer. “Good night, Gran,” she said, and tottered off to bed.