Before it all happened, before everyone from his life disappeared forever, Greg prided himself on being a gourmand. Every week he set his sights on a restaurant and chose an appetising dish from the menu. Never did he behave like the other food bloggers, who subtly suggested they get a free meal in return for a good review. He always paid for his food, even when he went out on behalf of a newspaper or a magazine. And he always sent his compliments to the chef, more as a show of gratitude for the food rather than an appreciation for their artistry.
It was a good life. His work was something he loved, receiving appreciation in the form of online comments and (once in a while) money.
But then, one day, two years ago, he woke up to the most terrifying silence. There were no sounds of cars, birds, or people. He walked out of his room, his home, his housing estate, and found nothing but dead cars all over the place. Some had even crashed into trees or buildings. He moved around aimlessly for a while, before collapsing in the middle of a once-busy road in a heap of tears and shock. One by one, facts hit him and denied him the chance to break from his weeping. His mother, and twin sisters: gone. His friends and acquaintances: gone. His favourite chefs and fans: gone. (He didn’t care for his father, estranged so long ago he considered him to be dead.)
He had no idea where they could have gone and why he was the only one that was left behind. It couldn’t be a religious phenomenon, for he had always been respectful towards the idea of a God. It couldn’t be a prank either, something he was sure of when a week went by and he saw no other human. For a long time he thought it to be a dream, and every time his eyes closed to sleep he hoped and hoped for them to open in the old world. During that time, all he ate were contents of his fridge. There had been plenty in there, the kitchen having fed his mother, his sisters, and him in the years preceding that fateful day.
But as time went on, he realised he needed to be more efficient. For him to survive in this changed world he needed to be smart about his eating habits; he needed to store as much as possible and in numerous fridges and freezers all over town. Whatever had taken all the humans from the world, had taken every animal, too, so all the meat and fish there were on Earth were inside restaurants, shops, and in other peoples’ homes.
He made sure to organise all the food and store them accordingly. He believed the freezers in eateries to be the strongest to support the excess meat, and chose thirty establishments to do so. The vegetables and fruits on the other hand, were much easier to sustain. More than half, he used to replant in his neighbours’ gardens and the big park near his house, and the rest he stored in the fridges inside the houses surrounding his. Then there were the snacks and drinks, the pasta and rice and flour, all of which he used specific shops or (again) houses to store in.
There would come a time, he knew, when the meat and fish would run out. But then he would just become a vegetarian. There was no dearth of water, with a river still flowing in the town centre, and no issues with electricity, the government’s decision to shift to solar energy for the entire town’s electricity needs turning into a boon in this situation. He was cautiously optimistic about the Internet, too. His mobile network stayed strong and still provided him a gateway into an empty virtual world. It took away money from his bank account, 30 bucks every month, and he was sure it would last him 15 years at least.
But, despite its steadiness, Greg sparingly used the Internet. He only went online once every day, that too only to post his food reviews on social media. Two birds with one stone, he thought. If, by any miracle, there was a second person out there in the world, they might come across his posts and try to contact him. Secondly, the reviews provided him with a sense of comfort, the process of writing about food reminding him of the bygone era. His honest critiques didn’t disappear, even though his audience did; even though in the time after the horrible thing happened it was always he who cooked the meals and he who ate it.
It was always the time afterwards, after he had posted his writings online and scoured the Internet for a comment, even that of a troll, that he lost some of his nerve. On some days he cried himself to sleep, on others he chose a film or a TV show from his collection, or his neighbours’ or the display section of shops in the town centre, and distracted himself with fictional conflicts.
It was on one such evening, when he was perusing the selection at a video store, he heard an unusual sound – the opening of the store door. His hand was still hovering over a film about four runaway zoo animals when his ears registered footsteps behind him. He turned around, slowly and dramatically, and gasped out in shock. It was another human being, of course it was. But what caused him more alarm was the human’s appearance. It was like looking into the mirror, albeit an old and rusted one.
They had the same eyes, the same nose, and the same beard, too. One more grey than the other.
“Hello, Gregory,” the old man said. They even had the same voice.
“I go by Greg, actually,” he replied, adding, “What are you doing here?”
“I was hungry and I had run out of canned food so I just started walking. My phone stopped working a while ago so I had no idea where I was going... but then I saw you, and I recognised you instantly!”
“But... I don’t understand.”
“What do you mean?”
“How are you here? Why aren’t you... gone like the others?”
“I don’t know. Do you... know what this is? What happened?”
“No. I try not to think about that. It just makes me feel more alone.”
An uncomfortable silence descended on them, before the older man pointed at the movies behind Greg. “Did you choose one?”
“Um. Yeah,” he answered, turning around. He picked one at random. “I was going to watch this.”
They both walked out of the store after that, with the younger man leading the route to his house. After a short tour of his home, spending more time in the kitchen than anywhere else, to boil some water, Greg told him to settle down in the sitting room and handed him a cup of tea.
“Why didn't you ever visit us?” he asked, before either could take the first sip. “Or try to call us?”
He stopped, feeling years of anger overpowering him. He knew he shouldn’t turn away the only other human in the world, but he just couldn’t let go of his resentment. He spilled some of his tea in anger, cursing instantly, and placed the cup on the centretable between them. The older man placed his beside Greg’s.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “It's just my wife... I mean my second wife wasn't very keen on the idea. She thought, well, it doesn't matter now what she thought. But I'm sorry, I really am.”
“You are such a coward.”
“I... yes, I am.” He sighed. “Do you want me to leave?”
Greg scowled at him for a long time, before closing his eyes in defeat and standing up. “No,” he said. “You’re going to stay for dinner, at least.”
In the kitchen he tried to calm himself. He knew he was not wrong in being resentful but the circumstances were such that he couldn’t be so dismissive of his estranged father. He grimaced as that word, ‘father’, formed in his mind. It would be better, he thought, if he addressed the man in his sitting room by his first name. They were already so distant, a little more distance wouldn’t cause them any more harm.
“Matthew?” he called out, as he placed a roast chicken at the centre of the dining table.
A moment later the summoned man emerged from the sitting room. His shoulders seemed hunched, his beard greyer, and the lines around his eyes deeper.
“Oh, that looks delicious,” he said immediately.
“Thank you. You may sit.”
There were still so many questions in Greg’s mind. Did he ever love them? Did he miss them? Did he have any regrets? But when his mouth opened, there was a more basic question on the tip of his tongue: “What do you think of the chicken?”
“It’s very good,” the old man replied, pouring some of the gravy on his plate. He cut a small piece of the newly gravy-drenched meat and placed it inside his mouth, swallowing it immediately. For a second his face was still buoyant in appreciation but then his face started to swell, and a moment later he began to have difficulty breathing. Greg was frozen in place, not knowing what to do.
“What was in the gravy?” his father asked, struggling.
“Just some chicken stock, flour, and peanut butter.”
“Peanut butter! I’m allergic... how could you...” he tried to say, but his throat was closing in on him.
“I first had it in a Michelin star restaurant. It was so very simple yet elegant and I thought I’d make it because I was so sad and I—”
He stopped when he noticed he was rambling and his father was more busy clutching his throat in an effort to breathe properly. He should have run to the pharmacy, Greg realised later, or at least searched the Internet to see what he could do, but he was so in shock that he just sat in his seat and watched his father die.