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This short story was first published in Global Dystopias and is featured in our new special project:
There’s a difference between dissection and butchering. Dissection reveals, but butchering renders. I’m a dissector, professionally, pressed into service as a butcher. I mean, I was a biologist. Am a biologist.
I’m not attracted to men when they’re alive, much less when they’re dead.
The body in front of me is a man. I know him, although not very well—there aren’t that many of us so I know pretty much everybody. His name is Art. He looks much smaller, positively shrunken, laid out in the kitchen, and very, very white. I haven’t seen many naked male bodies but I am intimately acquainted with Art’s. I have washed him. I’m not attracted to men when they’re alive, much less when they’re dead, but I feel a weird protectiveness toward Art. I’ve felt the soft spot in his skull from the fall that killed him. I have washed around his balls and the curled mushroom of his penis. I have cradled his hard and bony feet.
Now I tie a rope around his ankles and hoist him. This is a commercial kitchen with big steel counters and a Hobart dishwasher. The pulley in the ceiling is new. It sounds easy—“I tie a rope around his ankles and hoist him”—but I am not very strong these days and just one pulley means I’m hauling his whole weight. I don’t know what Art weighs. He used to weigh more; we all used to weigh more. I am so tired, my fingers are cold. I’m seeing spots when I pull hard on the rope.
Kate has taken to calling the town Leningrad, which is lost on most of the people here. It’s because we’re under siege in this stupid little Alaska excuse. It’s got an airstrip, a Coast Guard base, an Army listening post, a dozen houses, and it’s surrounded on two sides by water—the ocean at our back and a river called Pilot’s Creek on one side. The Army listening post was monitoring the Russians, of course, which is probably where Kate got the idea of Leningrad.
So anyway, I get Art hanging, fingers just sweeping the floor. The dead are limp. Heavy. One of the locals used to hunt when there was anything to hunt. Eric Swetzof is a long-bodied, short-legged native Unagan. Maybe, he says, he and his wife are the last Unagan left alive. He told me the steps to field dressing a large animal.
Eric is not going to eat Art. There is a group of people who have declared themselves to be non-eaters. Eric says he understands the people who have voted to eat and he doesn’t judge them, he just can’t. Can’t cross that line.
I understand him, too. I stand in front of a human with a good knife. “Blade at least four inches long,” Eric said. “You want a real handle on the thing, and a guard. When the knife hits bone it can turn and you can end up cutting yourself.”
It’s still very hard to open his throat. His viscera are lukewarm.
I used to like to cook. I’ve cut chickens into parts. I’m familiar with the way a joint shines white with ligament and tendon. What hangs in front of me is an animal. I am an animal. I don’t believe there is something particularly special about bodies and I don’t believe in souls, the afterlife, or the resurrection of the dead. I tell myself that this is a technical challenge. It’s a skill I have some parts of and I will learn the rest as I go.
I am not sentimental.
I put a plastic tub underneath Art to catch blood and viscera.
It’s still very hard to open his throat. His viscera are lukewarm.
I’m so hungry.
• • •
Butchering has gotten me out of manning the defenses today. We all have to man the defenses but I’m nearsighted and terrible with a gun. Luckily, there isn’t much shooting because neither side has much in the way of ammunition. They are mostly men, as best we can tell, a lot of them fairly young. Maybe thirty of them, some still in ragged military fatigues. They are in the sharp green hills, waiting us out. They have a couple of boats, Zodiacs, but we sunk one when they first attacked and now they either don’t want to risk them or they are holding them until we’re too weak to fight back.
Or maybe they’re getting too weak to fight.
I find Kate on Beach Road. It runs along the beach, of course, and then turns inland and runs to the airstrip. It’s cloudy and soft, it rains all summer here. The air off the water smells wrong. It should smell of fish and salt, that slightly rank and pleasant stink of ocean, but instead there’s a taste to it, like nail polish or something. Organics. Esters and aldehydes.
The air off the water smells wrong. It should smell of fish and salt.
Kate is sitting cross-legged with a paperback on one knee and a rifle next to her. Technically she’s on sentry, watching the ocean, but we’re sloppy civilians. Does the distinction even matter anymore? She’s taller than me—a lot of people are taller than me. I’m 5’4”. She’s rangy; a long-legged, raw-boned woman with large hands and feet. She’s originally from New Mexico but she’s an Anglo with light hair and blue eyes.
I am still surprised when I see her in glasses. She has worn contacts as long as I have known her. She was always going to get corrective eye surgery. Too late now.
I can’t tell if she is pleased to see me. I mean, usually she would be, but she knows what I’ve been doing. Kate is a non-eater.
I sit down next to her and watch the chop.
“All done?” she asks.
I think for a moment she is going to ask me if I’m OK, which is something we would have done for each other before. She doesn’t and I don’t know what I would answer if she did. I’m both not OK and weirdly OK.
“What’s the book?” I ask.
She flips it over so I can see the cover. The Da Vinci Code. I can’t help it, I bark out a laugh. Kate hated the book when it came out.
She sighs. “There aren’t that many books here at the end of the world.”
“It’s not the end of the world,” I snap.
She rolls her eyes. “Don’t tell me about the Great Oxygenation Event or Snowball Earth again or I’ll scream.”
It isn’t the end of the world—just maybe the end of us.
It isn’t the end of the world—just maybe the end of us. Or maybe not, humans are clever beasts and the world is a big place. It’s probably not even the biggest extinction event the Earth has ever seen. The Permian extinction killed something like 95 percent of life—including bacteria. Life comes back. It may take millions of years. First bacteria, then multicellular organisms, then plants and animals. We’re just another set of dinosaurs, about to go extinct. Although some dinosaurs actually survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. We just call them birds.
“You’re sitting there composing a speech,” Kate says.
“I’m not going to say anything,” I say.
“You intellectualize as a defense mechanism.”
“I don’t think psychologists talk about defense mechanisms anymore,” I say. Back when we were both at the university we were also both in therapy. Growing up gay pretty much ensured you were messed up about something. My therapist told me I was an emotophobe—afraid of negative emotions.
“What’s your defense mechanism?” I ask.
She laughs. “These days? Anger. When I have the energy.”
I brought her here. Not specifically here, this ass-end little Alaskan town, but “here” as in leaping at a chance to go to Juneau to study giant viruses and get us away from the increasing chaos of the lower forty-eight.
I look at her wrists, narrow, the knob of the styloid process standing under scaly skin. Her ankles are swollen.
Kate and I bitched about Houston the entire time we lived there. When I took the position, I had no idea that Houston was tropical. Ninety-eight degrees in the summer with ninety-nine percent humidity. Flying cockroaches the size of my thumb. Getting into the car at the end of the work day was like climbing into a pizza oven.
Honestly, though, I remember Houston this way:
In the last year we were there, crime was getting horrible. There were refugee camps outside Brownsville and Laredo. Rolling brownouts. We had a used Prius, which was good because gas was rationed. Hamburger was twenty-two dollars a pound.
Kate gardened and we had half a dozen chickens. We had close friends, Ted and Esteban, and we’d take eggs and garden vegetables over to their place and make dinner. They had huge trees in their backyard and a pool. The electricity would go out and we’d sit in the dark and complain about mosquitos and drink beer.
I was coming home from work one day and stopped at a stoplight, as one does, and someone wrenched open the driver’s-side door of the Prius. It was a very angry man with a blue bandanna covering half of his face. He’d have looked like some kind of old movie bandit if he hadn’t also been wearing sunglasses. He was waving around a gun and screaming at me.
He yelled “Get out of the car!” at some point.
As the city vibrated into pieces around our ears, we worked to take care of each other.
Back in the day, if you were on Facebook or Tumblr, and you were a woman, you probably got safety tips in your feed. I had read something about whether you were safer in a car or out of it although I think it was about getting into a car with someone who was armed—like someone who was going to get you into the car and take you somewhere. I remember it seemed vitally important to know whether I was safer in the car or out of it but I couldn’t remember and in the end I scooted across the middle console and out the passenger’s-side door.
He got in the car and drove off. My laptop was in the back seat. I had the key fob in my pocket, so he didn’t have that.
The police came and we went down to the police station and I told them everything. Then Kate took me home in a Lyft and Esteban made me a precious vodka martini (vodka was expensive) and everyone came over and sat around, commiserating. The electricity went out and we lit a couple of candles. I remember people brought food. Ted said he could take me to work the next day. Another neighbor volunteered to pick me up at work—it wasn’t that far out of her way.
I was genuinely shaken. I don’t want you to think that I wasn’t. But it was such a pleasure to be the center of everyone’s concern and attention. As the city vibrated into pieces around our ears, we worked to take care of each other.
In Houston I was studying big viruses. Everyone was, all over the country. My head of research, an asshole named Mark Adams, said it was like the nineties when everybody got sucked into the Human Genome Project. Careers were stagnant for a decade, he said.
Careers. Imagine worrying about a career.
Imagine having deep discussions about things at conferences in Atlanta or Baltimore. Big viruses were different from regular viruses. They didn’t just take over a cell and destroy it to make new viruses. They took over a cell and turned it into a virus factory, pumping out viruses at an order of magnitude higher. They had already been linked with a meningitis outbreak in India.
I was doing work on ATP, the energy transfer mechanism in cells, and how the virus co-opted the system. I was at a conference and ended up sitting next to a guy named Zhou Limin from the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. We’d corresponded but never met.
We ended up getting lunch. He was a short, intense guy in glasses. He’d done graduate work at Penn State and been a post doc at UCLA so he spoke great English. We bitched about the emphasis on virus coatings and how that was a legacy of HIV research and how the organizers of the conference were biased toward those people.
“You want a beer?” he asked.
I didn’t know if he knew I’m gay. I think I did the thing where I said I had promised to call and check in with my girlfriend.
He didn’t care so we ended up sitting in the hotel bar, some Hilton or Sheraton. The beers were nineteen dollars a piece.
“Let me expense it,” he said.
“USTC covers alcohol?” I asked.
‘The government is weaponizing big viruses. They’re trying to make them to deliver bird flu.’
He grinned. “There’d be mutiny if they didn’t.”
Sometimes I fantasized about doing work in China. There were fewer restrictions there. The Chinese were willing to play fast and loose with ethics. I mean, I knew it would not really be anything like I thought; their office politics were complicated and so were their governmental. “I wish we could do some of the things you guys can do,” I said.
He turned his beer glass in his hands. “The government is weaponizing big viruses,” he said. “They’re trying to make them to deliver bird flu.”
Everyone talked about what China might be doing. China had been the first country to bring human clones to term in violation of international ethics. Of course we thought they might do something like this. “You know for sure?” I asked.
“I know people on the project,” he said. “I’ve seen some of the results.”
• • •
So, you might think I would instantly rush to the government or to the newspapers. That I was in a position to save the world.
But I wasn’t. What were we going to do, invade China over microbiology? All that would happen was that Zhou would be compromised. I think he just had to tell somebody and I was the stranger on a plane.
I told a couple friends without mentioning Zhou. Then I saw the job listing at a new lab in Juneau and it sounded so far away, so clean and cold and safe. (Juneau was actually like Seattle, wet and green.) I remember watching TV in the airport while we waited to catch our plane first to Salt Lake City and then to Seattle and then on to Alaska. There were reports on the bird flu epidemic in Russia. Russia had been saber rattling at China in Mongolia and the Chinese had retaliated. In a month we were all working on ways to stop the viruses—vaccinations, antivirals, manufactured viruses that spread their own antivirus (and look how well that went in Japan). People were getting sick all over the world. Kate got sick early on and was in the hospital on a ventilator for three days. She was lucky. In a month there were nowhere near enough ventilators for the people who needed them and infection among hospital staff was running at over 80 percent.
Pakistan and India went to war and we all waited for India to drop the bomb, but instead North Korea nuked Tianjin and Los Angeles.
The pandemic was burning unchecked—bird flu, the counterflu—and it seemed like being near other people was a terrible idea. We decided to retreat to a cabin on the Alaska Peninsula. It was owned by a guy in my department but he was dead.
Kate got sick early on and was in the hospital on a ventilator for three days. She was lucky.
My parents died in the pandemic. Kate’s mother, too. We don’t know about her father, she hadn’t talked to him in a decade. Is Houston still there?
It’s like asking if Troy is still there. There’s a place on the map marked Troy but nobody has lived in those ruins or called it Troy in millenia. Maybe someone still lives in Houston. Maybe Ted is standing on his back deck looking at his empty swimming pool and he’s converted it into a kind of greenhouse, like he always threatened. Maybe they are growing things. Maybe the chickens we gave him live there.
Everything we try to grow here in Alaska dies and no one, least of all me, knows what that means.
• • •
In the late afternoon there are gunshots and I scramble to the airstrip. Scramble is a relative term. When I stand up too quickly, I see spots. We all conserve energy. But the rule is, when you hear shots, anyone not on sentry has to grab a weapon and go.
We dug trenches and put up barricades of useless vehicles, trash, and fence before these guys even showed up. I find Eric. The big man is crouched in a trench.
“What’s the password,” he says. A joke between us.
“Leningrad,” I say. “Where’s Deb?” Deb’s his wife.
He shrugs. Eric doesn’t talk much. It took me a long time to figure out he’s a sarcastic bastard. He’s so deadpan it’s scary.
“What are they doing?” I ask. “I heard shots.”
(I wish I could say I was some sort of intrepid survivor, but the first time someone shot at me I just froze. I hunkered down and couldn’t move. Eric’s comment later was, “It happens.”)
“They aren’t doing anything,” Eric says.
I watch the green and granite hills. No sign of movement in their trenches.
“I wonder how much food they’ve got,” I say. “Maybe we should do some kind of nighttime sneak attack.” Not that there’s much night at this time of year.
“Jeff said no,” Eric says. Jeff is our elected mayor/commandant.
I’m tired from jogging to the airstrip and these days my concentration is pretty shot so I sit for a minute carefully studying the landscape and feeling empty and stupid. (And thinking about Art cooking back in the kitchen.) “Wait, you suggested it?”
Eric glances at me, expressionless, which I think is Eric speak for “Are you a moron?” He looks back out at the blank hills.
We sit there for a while and I try to figure out what that means. It starts to drizzle.
“Do you think they’re planning something?” I ask.
“I think they’re desperate,” Eric says.
“Join the club,” I say.
Eric looks at me, stonefaced. But I’m beginning to get when he’s amused. I think he’s amused.
• • •
We have Art a couple of ways. We have some of Art roasted and sliced thin. Lean strips of meat. The rest is boiled.
The eaters assemble in the canteen. Len did the cooking. He has worked very hard to make sure that Art no longer looks like Art. We have Art a couple of ways. We have some of Art roasted and sliced thin. Lean strips of meat. The rest is boiled. So here it is: human flesh tastes . . . pretty bland. Tough and maybe a little bitter. I can see why people compare it to veal or pork or chicken. I am so hungry but I eat it slowly. Len cries as he eats. He was a fisherman—like the guys in the television show who catch crab, only he worked on boats that caught halibut, pollock, and herring and occasionally did stints in processing plants. I almost sat down next to him, solidarity in our grisly parts in this meal. But I thought maybe it was better if I didn’t make us so obvious.
There isn’t a lot of meat. The broth is salty. I feel full.
Thank you, Art.
I wonder who at this table will eat me? Although I’m a short woman and there’s a good chance I’ll outlive most of the men.
I almost fall asleep at the table. Spoons clink against bowls. Len cries as he drinks spoonfuls, salty tears slipping into his ragged beard, flannel shirt loose on him.
• • •
A single gunshot the next morning brings us to the airstrip.
It’s sunny for a change. Kate and I walk over together. We haven’t said anything about what I’ve done. It should have been some kind of personal Rubicon and maybe it was but what I feel is that I held out on Kate. That I didn’t share food with her. Like I cheated. There was a time when we’d have talked about it. It’s what lesbians do, you know, we talk and talk. We negotiate our needs and our wants. We explore our feelings. But here, at the end of the world, it’s okay that some things won’t be resolved. We’ll go to our deaths with resentments and unfairness clutched to us like greedy children. What else have we got?
There’s a white T-shirt flying on a stick.
We all sit on the ground, the edge of a trench, whatever. I mostly feel as if I don’t have the energy to deal with this. Not after Art. No more decisions.
“What do you want to do?” Len asks everybody and nobody in particular.
“They surrendering?” Callie asks.
Eric’s face doesn’t exactly change but I suspect he’s thinking, “moron.”
Callie is perfectly nice. I think she was local, administration. Like a secretary or data entry. I can imagine her thinking she’d work for a few years, get a nest egg, and then get a job in Juneau. Or maybe she’s like a lot of Alaskans and she likes the ass end of nowhere and she had a husband who loved snowmobiles or something.
“I don’t trust them,” she says.
Oh for Christ’s sake.
“We can ask them,” I say. I thought I was too worn down to care but I remain myself—opinionated and unwilling to shut up till the end.
Everyone looks at me.
I stand up and yell over the tipped Land Cruiser that forms part of a barricade. I yell, “Hey! Are you surrendering?”
Kate finds me embarrassing sometimes.
A guy comes over the hill. He’s dressed in camo pants and a T-shirt and he looks normal, not super skinny. He waves his arms. “We need help! We’re dying! We’re sick!”
“All of you come out in the open!” Eric yells.
It’s a long five minutes or so before three men shuffle to the edge of the airstrip. We shout back and forth. They are all that’s left, they say. We don’t believe them. One of them weeps.
It takes most of the morning before we are convinced. There are four more guys too sick to walk. We could shoot them.
They don’t look starving. That’s the important thing.
“What if we quarantine them?” Kate asks me.
“We’d be talking Ebola levels of decontamination,” I say. “Bleach. The whole nine yards. We don’t have that stuff.”
“I’ve already had the flu,” she points out. “I’d be immune. I’d just have to be very careful.”
There are four more guys too sick to walk. We could shoot them.
Three of us have had it and survived. They decide to risk meeting; everyone else will be ready for an ambush. We have rubber boots and Wellingtons, and latex gloves and hairnets that were for the kitchen staff. The three put on raincoats and gear and I use duct tape to seal the sleeves of the raincoats to the tops of the latex gloves. When they come back I will make them walk through tubs of bleach and wash everything off before putting on a pair of gloves and taking all the homemade gear off.
“Cover me,” Kate says to me, grinning—I am a terrible shot—and walks across the airstrip.
No one shoots.
That evening, in our bed, she tells me what it was like. The graves. The newly dead. The smell. The sick. The trash and carelessness. “They were, like, teenagers,” she says. One of the sick men died during the afternoon.
There is a box truck three-quarters full of supplies. Bags of beans and rice. MREs. These weird emergency bars.
Kate tells me they were convinced we had medical supplies. One of them said that he knew we had supplies when they smelled meat cooking. They assumed then that we had power, maybe a freezer.
“They’re just kids,” she says. “Like my students.” Kate taught English, Freshman Composition, in Houston. “Just clueless kids.”
“Like we have a clue,” I say.
We eat MREs. Mine is Mexican chicken stew. There is the stew and a packet of red pepper to spice it up, Spanish-style rice, and jalapeño nacho cheese spread. There are cheese-filled pretzel nuggets. There is Hawaiian punch, so sugary that when I taste it, tears come to my eyes. And these weird crackers, like saltines but coarser. Some weird refried beans with so much flavor. There’s a full-sized bag of peanut M&M’s. It’s weird, seeing it all bright. It’s exotic.
Kate gets spaghetti with meat sauce (we reached in and drew blind so we wouldn’t know what we were getting). We agree she won. It’s like canned spaghetti and comes with a weird cracker that is shaped like a slice of bread but isn’t either bread or a cracker. Cheez Whiz–type stuff, hot sauce, potato sticks, and blueberry-cherry cobbler.
I feed her some of mine because, I keep saying, I ate yesterday. Besides, I’m full. We share her blueberry-cherry cobbler, which has no crust and isn’t really anything like a cobbler but who cares and we keep the M&M’s to share in bed.
Cheese and crackers! A meal!
It makes me think that maybe we’ll survive. Maybe in a few months there will be fish in the ocean and Len will show us ways to catch them. It makes me think that a society that made things this marvelous will not just disappear.
It makes me think that none of the rest of us will get the flu.
It makes me believe we will hang on.
We sit in our bed in the big main building of the Coast Guard station—no one lives in the houses because they are too hard to defend. Our home is a mattress and box spring sitting on the floor of an office, next to a desk. I feed Kate a yellow M&M and eat a brown one.
“Don’t eat all the brown ones,” she says.
“Oh, do you like them best?”
“No, you’re giving me all the pretty ones and eating all the broken and brown ones.”
“I ate yesterday,” I say.
“I ate today.” She picks up a red one and holds it out to me on the palm of her hand.
Maybe we’ll survive. Maybe in a few months there will be fish in the ocean.
I take it.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry I ate.” I wish they had surrendered before.
“I want you to eat,” she says.
“I am,” she says, and pops an M&M in her mouth. “Now I am again.”
I sigh and settle on my side.
“Promise me you’ll eat me,” she says. “If it happens.”
I don’t say anything.
“You’re so brave,” she whispers. “I would if I could but I can’t. I can’t be like you.”
I smell the M&M’s and the dusty carpet. I feel the bones of my hips on the mattress.
“Eat me because I love you,” she says. “Because you love me. Because you have to. Promise me.”
Maureen McHugh has written four novels and two collections of short fiction. She won the James Tiptree Award for her first novel, China Mountain Zhang. She was a Finalist for the Story Award for Mothers & Other Monsters, and won a Shirley Jackson Award for her collection After the Apocalypse.
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