The iron skillet smoked over the flame. It was cracked on three of its edges, black wedges now missing and long forgotten. Just like everything else in the room, the skillet performed its duty without further signs of complaint. Just like Annie, it kept going, because what else was it going to do?
Grey pellets simmered on its surface, slowly melting into a wet pancake, a thick soup in a thin layer. Some pellets started out nearly white, and some nearly black, but they all fused in the heat to a middle-ground grey. Unremarkable. Uninteresting.
This wasn’t the first time they’d seen fire, though. Far from it. All the colour had been burned out of them many times over. Heated and cooled, heated and cooled, until they resembled the opposite of food—whatever that was—all the water cooked out. But Annie chose not to think about that anymore.
She prepared two plates and set them on the table. When the soup started to bubble, she lifted the skillet off the flame and ladled the grey evenly onto each. The portions had to be even. If one plate had more, or less, Lily would think her mother was trying to poison her or starve her to death. There was no winning unless both were even.
Annie turned the burner off and put the skillet back on the steel claw that stood over it. Then she went to the bed where Lily still slept. The girl lay on top of her blankets in sunlight veiled by squares of canvas Annie had found behind a filthy, abandoned fridge last year. The thin canvas, now used as curtains, had already been used for something else, but facilitated privacy better than smearing mud over the windows.
Careful not to kick up dust beside the bed, Annie roused the girl. Rocked her shoulder until a languid groan escaped her throat.
‘Breakfast is ready,’ she said gently.
Her daughter was no longer too little to get angry about the state of things as they were. She was still young but had become aware of that intangible thing Annie thought only adults could understand. And it wasn’t just the food. The girl would strike her with arms as thin as tape. She would scream, blame her for all of it, but Annie couldn’t raise her voice in return.
Lily would never know the thing she was named after. Never touch the silken surface of a petal, never breathe in the sweet scent of one. There was no paper left, and certainly no ink, to show her with pictures. The only thing Annie could show her was the broken concrete sunflower embedded in the frieze of a disused building on the way to the dispensary.
In the end, maybe a few years from now, the anger would cool. Eventually the pellets wouldn’t provide enough energy to waste on anger.
Lily sat up, eyes sunken, skin sallow and hanging from her cheek bones. Her arms lay limp in her lap, skinny sprigs bowed to the earth from a bine old beyond its days. She sighed, her shoulders momentarily relieved of the weight of monotony.
‘Come on,’ Annie said, then added, unnecessarily, ‘It’s better when it’s hot.’
The girl moved to the table and Annie sat down beside her. Annie watched as her daughter scowled at the plate, spoon hovering over the grey mass. When had these reflections become ritual? In time, they would fade, just like the anger.
As Lily took her first bite, the squeaky wheels of the Tuesday cart rolled by their make-shift door of corrugated tin. Sometimes, Annie forgot what day it was, but she would always know when it was Tuesday by those uneven wheels, and she would reset the week in her mind. Today they would leave their dwelling and go to get their ration, but not until the cart had passed, a shrill bell announcing its arrival in case anyone had dead to offload.
Annie was assigned a number, and she could only claim the portion for that number once in a week. Tuesday was the day she chose to do that, because she wouldn’t forget what day it was then.
The dispensary was crowded. Each window produced a line more than a hundred people long that stretched across a cracked concrete square, strewn with garbage that hadn’t yet rotted away—faded foils and sun-bleached plastics. Annie waited in line for almost three hours with Lily stuck against her leg, and now that she was older, her hip and ribs. The crowd got bigger by the year, and the ration got less. Not by much, a few grams—maybe ten—cut back in no logically followable pattern.
Annie hoped the cutbacks wouldn’t kill them before Lily turned eighteen, when she would be entitled to her own number and her own ration.
She watched the delivery carts file into the holding area at the back of the building. Only she watched. Everyone else averted their eyes, because the same carts that brought the grey pellets here were the same that took the bodies. Even Lily refused to look.
Annie never needed to tell her. Lily had figured it out on her own. She wondered if all the pensive stares were Lily’s way of honouring those she was about to consume. Too young to mourn so many, Annie thought. Lily always scarfed it down, not because she was hungry, but to get it over with.
Annie was beyond such passion. She ate her portion with seasoned apathy, a numbness that came with age and relentless fatigue. That’s why the colour was cooked out of it, after all. Why it was abstractly shaped, why it was tasteless. So that, in a world where everything was gone, nothing—not even what they ate—could remind them of a past they could barely remember.
Suzy is a writer who thinks the most important thing in fiction is brevity.