My thanks to Jack, who provided the first line of this story.
Jeanette sighed as she put the hamster into the microwave. He was so tiny, barely enough for a mouthful for each of them. Carrots and potatoes would be nice, too, if they had any.
She set the cook time and started the oven.Poor Jeffy had eaten the last of his food yesterday and there was no more to give him. Now the kids wouldn’t have to watch him starve. Jeanette’s stomach growled.
She gathered the skin and offal into a bowl and took it out to the backyard, staying in the meager shade of the oak trees. A cage sat behind bushes that were once beautiful, but were now dying for lack of water. She placed the bowl in the back of the cage and set the door to drop shut when something came looking for a meal. Something always came looking. Maybe it would be something larger than a hamster.
In the kitchen, she quickly cleaned up the bloody knife and cutting board. The microwave dinged. Good, the meat was done. She set it aside to cool.
The pantry held a few cans of vegetables and soup, and a small bag of instant rice. On a top shelf, hidden behind a dusty soup kettle, sat a can of sliced peaches Jeanette had hidden. She climbed on the step stool to retrieve them. This was just the sort of special occasion she had been saving them for.
A can of tomato soup was dumped into a bowl with an equal amount of water. This was followed with enough rice to thicken it. The cooked, deboned hamster meat, barely a handful, was tossed into the bowl. Dehydrated onion flakes and garlic powder, a few seasonings, and the bowl was put back into the oven.
David arrived home a few minutes later, with eight-year-old Danny and six-year-old Kelly. Danny’s thin face lit up. “Something smells good, Mom.”
“I hope it tastes good, too, little man.” She wrapped him in a hug, feeling his small bones through his skin. Kelly grabbed her mother around the knees., and was hugged in return.
David’s smile of greeting did not reach eyes. He glanced at the hamster cage, his eyes asking. Jeanette nodded slightly.
“Anything?” she asked.
“Not what we hoped for, but something. I’ll tell you in a minute.” He glanced at the kids.
Jeanette gave the youngsters a huge smile. “Why don’t you two go wash up while we still have running water. And fill up all the containers while you’re at it. I’ll get the table set and we’ll eat as soon as you’re done. Okay?”
“Okay, Mom,” they said in unison.
As soon as the children were out of sight, she turned to her husband. “Well?”
He pulled a bottle out of his pocket. She took it and read the label. “Seconal?”
“There’s enough for all of us.”
“What are you saying?”
“There is no food, Jeannie. We looked everywhere. I found a drugstore that wasn’t cleaned out and found these.” Jeanette looked at him, silent. “Do you want to watch our kids die of slow starvation?” Tears gathered in his eyes. “Because I don’t. This way, we can all go out peacefully.”
“We can survive, David, there is a way, we just have to figure it out.”
“Aren’t you paying attention?” He held out his arms, pleading. “Our world is in trouble. Humanity is dying. The climate has altered so much that we can’t grow crops. We can’t feed food animals.”
“It will get better…”
“It isn’t going to get better.” His voice rose.
Jeanette shushed him. “You’re going to scare the kids.”
“The kids are too hungry to be scared.” He put his hands on her shoulders in a caress. “We are starving, Jeanette. We are putting off the inevitable. I would rather go out in a way I can still choose, and I want to spare our children the suffering.”
“I don’t want to give up, David.” Jeanette hated that her voice quavered.
David’s gaunt features hardened. “I won’t force you to do this, Jeanette, but I’m checking out tonight, and I’m taking the kids with me.”
Jeanette looked at him for a long moment, her mouth dry. Nausea replaced hunger. Her once handsome, robust husband had grown thin. He was right about them starving. It had become a way of life. Maybe he was right about the Seconal, too. It would be an easier death than one by starvation. It was hard to see the hunger in the kids eyes every time she looked at them, but life was hope. Wasn’t it?
“Alright.” She blinked back tears. “I hate it, but you’re right.”
Danny and Kelly came back into the kitchen. “The tub and the pots are full, Mommy, and we washed up. See?” They both held up little clean hands.
“Wonderful. You two go sit at the table in the dining room while your Dad and I get it ready.” The kids took off at a run. “Give me the pills. I’ll get the food ready while you get some silverware and napkins.”
He nodded and kissed her tenderly on the lips. “This is the best way.”
“It’s a special occasion,” said Jeanette, “It’s Kelly’s birthday.” On the table, she set a tray containing four bowls of stew and four smaller bowls of peaches. The children gobbled up their stew. They sang “Happy Birthday” to Kelley before eating the peaches. It was the most they’d had to eat in days. Jeanette and David gazed at each other as they finished theirs. When the kids started yawning, they all lay down to take a nap.Jeanette lay with her eyes closed and listened as her husband and children settled into sleep. Kelly mumbled and Danny began to snore. David’s breathing grew shallow.
She got up and sat on his side of the bed, holding his hand. Soon after he stopped breathing, his pulse slowed and stopped. The children slept deeply, but they would wake up in a few hours.
“I’m so sorry, David. I couldn’t let you kill my children.” She wiped tears from her face.
Kelly mumbled in her sleep. “Thank you, Jeffy.”
A howl came from the back yard, followed by barking. She smiled through her sorrow. They would eat tomorrow.