The apocalypse came, or so we figured. How can anyone be sure? It’s speculation, every time we shout Oh, God—The End! A working theory based on the available data, and here’s what we knew: the beautiful things turned ugly. Castles gave to their rotting frames, forest gave to pests, oceans to piss. Everybody got lice. Those with decency shaved their heads, and those without wore their lice proudly, like crowns. It was disgusting. How could we not say it was the end?.
I say we because ours was a family of three: me, my husband, and the dog. We’d taken refuge in a cave in the Virginian highlands when things got ugly, our row house in Alexandria collapsing into the harbor, the grocery store running out of everything but greeting cards. We had to start over, we reasoned. In the cave, we let our fingernails grow long. Better to scrape moss off the rocks and deposit it onto our tongues, better to itch our scabies in the dark.
“We’ll adapt,” my husband told me, showing me how to use a rock as a pillow. “We’ll get through this.”
My husband proved precious about eating the dog, despite our budding starvation. He combed the burrs out of his fur with his fingers, postponing the inevitable with an outmoded sentimentality; the dog was a bright spot, wagging, and according to my husband’s reasoning, betraying such a loyal creature would spoil the meat. We had to wait for the dog to turn on us. To froth at the mouth, to gleam his teeth.
“That’s when the meat is ready,” he said, rubbing my back in the cave, the dog curled up and warming our feet. “But tough. We’ll have to draw the sweetness out with fire.”
“I didn’t agree with this, but my husband was adamant and this was an argument we quickly laid to rest. I always came around to his view of things: I was too anxious, I didn’t know how things worked, I had too many questions.
“But what if we’re wrong?” I asked my husband our first night in the cave, clutching his chest. “What if the world didn’t really end?” He looked at me the way my mother did when I brought home a kitten that had frozen to death in the fields and insisted it was just sleeping. Tenderly, dismissively. “You’ll go crazy if you don’t shut down your doubts,” he said, but still, I worried. In the coming weeks, my hair came out in clumps and my skin erupted into hives. It pained him to see me, so I receded farther into the cave. On the nights I couldn’t sleep, he’d hold me close and recite our wedding vows in a monotonous voice. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ice ages and burning wildwoods, collapses of economy and self-control…
We’d really thought of everything. Both of us planners, both of us pessimists, even in the best of times. Maybe especially then.
When the world ended, it revealed two types of people: those who fixated on the hunger, and those on the ugliness. I was among the latter and my husband among the former. I liked to sit with my toes in the light pooling at the mouth of the cave and watch him work in the distance: scraping bark off trees, measuring dirt into water like it was instant coffee. The sun had browned him deeply and his ribs jutted gloriously, and although he better resembled Moses in the desert, I couldn’t help but compare him to a pine cone.
“Algae scum sweetens like sugar,” he’d shout, the dog romping beside him in the pond. “Why don’t you join us?”
I’d try to sound interested, calling back, “In a minute!” But I think we both knew I didn’t plan to leave the cave. He must’ve assumed it was on account of a lingering anxiety, when really those fears had subsided months ago and, pulling out of my insomniac frenzy, I’d discovered a plain-eyed, gratifying truth: I was just too offended by how ugly everything was. Tiny bugs pocked the ground and mosaic viruses gilded leaves sickly. I wanted nothing to do with any of it. The pond was suffused with dissolved plastics that, in the warming sun, concocted a ghastly odor. It gave me migraines that could only be alleviated by the cave’s damp, ancient air. I spent most of my days with my head resting again the cold rocks, the salinity soothing my thoughts. The dog must’ve thought I was dying; in the morning I’d wake up and even in the cave’s darkness, I could sense the seriousness of his attention on me, feel his hot breath on my face.
“You should see him outside the cave,” my husband assured me, carefully arranging our dinner of screws, grass, and cigarette butts onto a long, flat rock improvising as our table. “He wags and fetches and barks as if nothing’s changed. For him, maybe it hasn’t.”
My husband salivated over his doomsday harvest. He rubbed his hands together greedily. Then, his appetite turned to me. He grabbed my hips, pulled me under him and I recoiled. Under his touch, I could see myself: a bird plucked and boiled. In the cave’s darkness, I was usually spared this agony, but, beneath his fingers, I was rendered a monstrosity becoming in perfect clarity.
“I love you. I’m fighting for us,” he whispered, and I clenched as he pushed into me. “I’m going to get us through this.”
And I don’t know how we are alive.
For better, for worse. When the land wrenches, when the sea writhes. In flayed nerves and decapitated hopes. Forever. This is my solemn vow.
Once my husband fell asleep, I calmed down. I walked outside of the cave and vomited up my dinner of metal and plastic. I shooed away the dog as his nose wandered onto the mess, and, curious, I returned to the cave and put my ear on my husband’s belly and listened. I wanted to know how his body digested the inedible junk we ate, when I couldn’t keep it down. There was no sound, though. No jangling of screws, no queasy sound of stomach acid gnawing on cigarettes, no peristaltic lunge of wasp nests vibrating up onto the skin of his abdomen. There was only silence. I tapped on his stomach and listened to its echo in the emptiness underneath, a sound so faint I couldn’t rule out that it was simply the sound of my own blood coiling around the lobe of my ear.
Sleepless, I took the dog out to a field and played fetch with a gas station fuel nozzle. He moved like tissue paper; there was no meat left on him. Sometimes, pieces of him fell off. That night, he lost six teeth to the rubber tubing and I replaced them with glass shards from a busted television. The week before, I’d replaced his rib with a car exhaust pipe. His ears with silk handkerchiefs.
It was a lovely night. Supple moon, molasses darkness. The kind of night that preyed upon my doubts about the world having ended, and for the first time in a long while, I had to recite our vows to fall asleep.
I take thee, to have and to hold, in worlds to come and worlds forgotten. As in the beginning, as in the end. As now, in the interim.
I woke up in the morning and saw my husband stretching in the early light. His body was rigid, moving like a wire mannequin, and it looked like a goblet was caught in his throat, indicating mineral deficiency. Still: those wet eyes, that pained smile. Like my mother when she caught me pulling the icy, dead kitten from the garbage, holding a doll’s bottle of milk to its broken jaw.
“I’m going on a pilgrimage,” he said, putting on his backpack delicately, as if trying not to wake me any more than I already was. “To Alexandria. I want to pay my respects, and who knows? Maybe they’re other survivors. Maybe they’ve found other ways to survive.”
The dog left the cave to relieve himself and I rubbed the sleep off my eyes.
“You don’t believe the world ended,” I said, measuring out the words slowly, just trying to get the sounds right without considering what, strung together, they meant. He looked back into the cave and searched for me frantically, but had trouble locating exactly where I was in the darkness. His eyes settled on an emptiness a few feet away from me. This was comforting and insulting; I felt so small, almost imaginary.
“Of course the world ended,” he said sharply, turning away to climb down the rockside, his neck already damp in the heat. “And if you left the cave, you’d realize that. And if you realized that, you’d stop asking stupid questions. We could move on to ones that actually matter.”
A pause. The dog came over to me, his tail wagging low. I scratched his belly and felt his heartbeat under all that soft fur, slowly being replaced with electrical wire, broom straw.
“Be safe out there,” I said, mumbling my voice to avoid detection. “Remember, I need you.”
I wondered what would happen if he came across real food. An unblighted fruit tree, or a roadkill rabbit. It delighted me to imagine steak in his stomach. His lips licked and his blood invigorated, making glucose out of death. But, I realized, I couldn’t be sure he still had a stomach. Or blood. Everyone copes in different ways.
The world has ended and I can confidently report this as a misconception: hunger wants to be sated. No, hunger is a fist that wants to tighten and curl until it bleeds. Still, I didn’t kill the dog, at least not immediately. No matter how much his ramshackle existence offended me, he was a good thing. I knew this.
Instead, I took my husband’s absence as a reason to thoroughly explore the cave. For days, I walked back into a darkness that tunneled out in a million directions, and I crept along each one, calmly clutching onto its damp, cold edges, and sometimes I’d lick one of my fingers to savor the tastes of magnesium, iron, and aluminum. At some point, water dripped down and I felt my skin erupt in goosebumps. At another point, my lungs gilled out at the salty air. The dog’s bark echoed down and I reached the end—rocks rumbling out into a smooth bowl I could fit into, and, if I wanted, I could wait a million years for the weak acids of rain to wean that boundary away and grant me another inch of perfect darkness. But I had to turn back, because that was so much time, and I’d already missed the world ending, just like my husband said. I had to be prepared for whatever came next.
I emerged out of the cave, refreshed and resolved. Because I think it’s worth remarking all the minor glories and unbroken oaths we escape our lives with, I wish for whatever arises out of the detritus of this world to know that the dog didn’t betray me, not really. I was surprised to feel the power of his jaw on my thigh, the scent of my blood around his teeth. I was surprised at how easily I dispatched him, and how dead a dead thing looks. Mistakable only to a child.
I wouldn’t have blamed him, even if he’d meant it. But he hadn’t. No, it was a simple matter of mistaken identity. I realized this as I emerged from the cave and staggered back at the sight of my transformation: pale, rubbery mole rat flesh; bug scabs rumbling down my legs; nails curling and yellow with fungus. I was unrecognizable. I was a new thing, twisting around to see the sunlight glint off me at every angle.
When I spotted my husband on the horizon, I was ecstatic and bursting with love. No longer would I hide in the cave. We’d be together again, at last, and that was good because there was so much to do. Bury the dog, for one. Clean up the blood, share news of our time apart. Ask a question that mattered. My husband climbed up the rockside leading up to the cave, and he looked delicate, thinner than ever, like a collection of papier-mâché and gunpowder. Flammable. He was beautiful, I realized, a thing that survived by whittling down to pure hunger. And at some point, I imagined, I hoped, he’d look up and see me, too: this ugly thing that, alongside him, would live forever.
Frances Ray is a writer in the University of Alabama’s MFA program.