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Summer Stories: Post-Apocalyptic Power Couple

Kate J. Reed

My husband, Joel, is squatting in a bed of pine needles over the bottom half of a dairy cow.

“Remember, the cow wants to be eaten,” he says, looking up at me. “Gives her purpose.”

Big grin from Joel. His two buddies chuckle at his joke, watching for my reaction. I keep deadpan.

Joel is a nice guy’s name, but my Joel is not a nice guy. He is, in fact, the worst. Joel likes to brag, even four years after the world ended, how when his family was dying, he “kept his cool” and “knew he was a survivor.”

Also, he’s not my real husband. It’s more like a prison-wife relationship. I am not sure this is an accurate metaphor; all I know about prison is from television. But it has something to do with necessity.

This is not the first time he’s made this joke as this will not be the first cow I, a vegan in my former, civilized life, have eaten since the end. Joel still finds it hilarious that I once chose not to eat meat, and now I have no choice. You could say Joel has a dark sense of humor, but I don’t give him that much credit. He’s just a jerk.

Black and white cows are the hardest to eat. I blame it on the Dairy Farmers of Washington campaigns. Even though it’s just the bottom half, I can’t shake the image of this cow in a pasture with a computer-generated grin and a square-bottomed brass bell. A black and white cow seems especially out of place in the woods. In my vegan activist days, a black and white cow used to be a symbol of our perverted power over the wild world. I’m sure there is a sort of irony here, but I am too tired to figure it out.

Joel examines the hack job with the tip of his knife, and I know he is trying to figure out if their weaponry is better than ours. We run through the following reasoning simultaneously and silently: one, the cow’s udders are swollen; two, anyone stupid/hungry enough to kill a producing dairy cow is probably some sort of a threat; three, that they left half the meat suggests they might have been in for a bit of gruesome fun.

“Idiots” he says.

“Morons,” I say.

Joel’s buddies don’t say anything. They are, respectively, a homeopath and an electrician specializing in solar panel energy, so they are important for our survival, but they lack a certain street smarts. I have no patience for either one. Joel, despite being a complete dick, has patience for anyone who acknowledges him as superior.

Joel explains our concerns and then, because he is their leader and likes to remind them he has something they don’t, sticks his hand inside the cow, pretending to fish for something. There is no reason to do this. But his buddies remain quiet and serious, watching.

If, four years ago, you asked me, should the world end, would I rather be married to a nice guy or a bastard, I’d have said nice guy without hesitation. I believed if everything fell apart, we’d all have to be really nice to each other, look out for one another. To be honest, I even fantasized about it: Makeshift markets! No makeup! Everyone fit and healthy!

But four years ago my belly was full of soy sausage and baby kale. And I was as-good-as-married to a really nice guy.

Now my nice guy is dead and I am staring at my “husband” wrist deep in a black and white cow carcass boiling with maggots.

“I’m going home, Joel. I’m sick of you.”

I’m not really sick of him, but we find we are both happier in our relationship in private if we are very rude to each other in public.

Walking home, I allow myself to think of Samuel, my nice guy. I don’t do this often because once I start, it’s hard to stop and I end up slightly catatonically depressed.

I think of the end. It was so quiet. Suddenly, no communication. No big warning or build up or big disease so, of course, we didn’t even know it was the end.

We were sitting on our futon, watching the second episode of some pithy show we didn’t even really like but thought we’d give the old two-episode try. And then the electricity was out.

We played cards by candlelight and it was very charming. Although I don’t remember what we talked about, Samuel was getting ready to defend his thesis, so I can assume we talked about that. And I can assume he would have been self-aware and quick-witted and funny because he always was.

I am not sure if his self-awareness always irked me a little, or if that’s something I invented to miss him less. I’ve invented so many meaningless stories that little details are getting lost. Like, did he sleep close to the middle or edge of the bed? Did he put his hand on the small of my back or did I wish he would?

As I pass the lookout tree, which lets me know I’m 1 mile from home, I let myself imagine he is waiting for me, but it’s useless. There’s no way the people who took me in would have taken him. He had no skills. Him dying was, as far as my survival, probably the best thing to ever happen to me.

My current crew took me in because I spent a few years between college and graduate school living in a hippie commune, so I knew how to grow food and compost my own solid waste. Also, Joel said I was the prettiest woman he’d seen since he wore out his Playboy. Which made me feel bad for the other women there, but secretly good because no one would have said that about me before. So, I am useful in two ways.

Joel is useful because he is a hunter and a heartless leader of men.

To stop thinking about Samuel I start chanting. Although in post-apocalyptic fiction, no one ever said “post-apocalyptic,” I often chant it to myself as I walk, sometimes to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Post a-poc-ta-lypt-ic world, post a-poc-ta-lypt-ic world, which somehow makes things a little lighter.

But today I just I chant to the soft crunch of my footsteps, to the dry hot summer wind raking through the pines, thinking about the dead half-cow, the cow-killers, the way Samuel and I used to talk and talk. Then I reach our garden and start picking beets.

When Joel gets home, I have a pot of pickling mix boiling on the fire outside and am peeling the last of the beets. I ask. “What did you decide, Heartless Leader of Men?”

This is my nickname for him. I don’t know if I’m trying to hurt his feelings or be funny. But it doesn’t matter because he is incapable of having hurt feelings and if our senses of humor were represented in a Venn diagram, the only overlapping area would have to do with women who still dye their hair. When he is serious (he is either being serious or a jerk) he tells me you have to be heartless to be a leader, because men – by men he means women and men – are stupid. I don’t agree, but don’t press the matter. Joel thinks he wins all our arguments.

“Too far gone, I think. Just too hot. And I don’t want to deal with those maggots. We could probably … ” Joel goes on explaining, though he doesn’t need to. He likes to hear himself talk. And I get that. But I like to hear myself think. I’m learning to think while he talks.

“The killers?” I am arranging the beets into jars, noticing the dark red blush on my hands. I’m tempted to compare it to blood, as I would have before, but now I’ve seen my hands covered in real blood enough times to know the difference.

“Ain’t killing if it’s a cow, darling.”

This is the only thing I like about Joel, that he calls me darling.

“We’ll go looking for them in the morning.”

I don’t ask what we’ll do with them once we find them. We finish the beets, me pouring in the pickling liquid, him manning the canning pot. It’s dark when we’re done and we’re too tired to eat more than a handful of dried elk before we go to bed.

In bed, like most nights, I lay my head on Joel’s mean-man chest, and tell myself the story about when we managed to grow our first strawberry, how he insisted I eat it. Then I forget how much I hate him and wait for the sound of someone coming for us. But I know, more likely, there’s someone out there who doesn’t even know they’re waiting for us.