A speaker embedded into the dingy wall crackled to life just as the first rays of sunlight streamed through a moth-eaten curtain. The third set of curtains in as many months, all of them devoured by moths. A lilting, feminine voice rasped through the badly beaten cone of the wall speaker: “Rise and shine! Rise and shine! Time to wake up for your morning exercises, comrades!” The emaciated couple lay on their backs on a filthy mattress jammed into a corner, eyes wide open as if they’d never been shut before, staring blankly at the ceiling. After a few moments, the male, on the outside of the bed, began to stir. He swung his bony legs over the side of the mattress, his bulbous knees rising to meet his ears as he pulled himself into a sitting position. “Time to get up, love. It’s morning now.”
Her round eyes flickered in recognition of the man’s mild exhortation and she lazily rolled to the edge of the bed. The man stood, very carefully, his body popping and creaking as he extended to his full height, and he shuffled over to one of two doors in the room, a closet. Opening the battered door with a combined squeaking of the hinge and his joints, he disappeared inside the closet for a moment and returned with two yoga mats and a pilates ball. By this time, the woman was fully risen and prepared herself for that morning’s duty. The couple hated morning exercises, which always reminded them how much they’d deteriorated in recent years.
Things went well at first. Political and ecological awareness at the beginning of the twenty-first century resulted in much social progress and conservation, erasing the environmental damage done by previous generations by 2022. Unwilling to repeat the mistakes of their forebears, mankind resigned themselves to using renewable resources that wouldn’t clog up their landfills: it was in 2024 that scientists were able to develop the first combustion engine that ran completely on smug satisfaction. This boded well for Prius owners and patrons of farmers’ markets who had been flaunting their superiority for years.
However, as ecological consciousness gained popularity, general levels of smug satisfaction decreased and new levels of righteousness needed to be attained. It was no longer enough to be vegan and eat locally-grown produce, instead you could only assume a holier-than-thou stance if you ate food grown in your neighborhood. Then it had to be grown in your backyard. Then it had to be grown in your house. Before long it was considered bourgeois to own a home and people moved into subsidized tents and huts. Over many decades, different aspects of life became trendy to excel in: by 2030, it was not enough to exercise a few times a week, so people began exercising several times a day. Yoga became the only acceptable form of exercise since it required the purchase of new yoga clothes. Being vegetarian and not eating meat wasn’t enough to show your support for animal rights by 2040, so people began treating their pets and beasts of burden like royalty, preparing five-course meals for their cats while they ate raw celery. Little by little, animals began edging their way into professional society, first as laborers and busboys, then eventually as clerks and office managers. In 2052 a giraffe passed the bar exam for Massachusetts and became the first animal lawyer. By 2060, animals had full voting rights and several mammals and amphibians held seats in the Senate and Congress.
In 2080, the first animal president was elected, a tiger named Tabby, who won by a landslide, having courted the insect vote. His first edict, the very core of his campaign platform: humans are now food. Humans accepted the new executive order and stayed in their homes as much as possible. Windowsill wheatgrass withered, cows strolled lazily in and out of deserted shopping centers. In four short years, the human population in America was cut by two-thirds, the remaining stragglers huddling in abandoned homes, making do with discarded American Apparel clothing and eating mainly paste.
“Okay, comrades! Let’s begin! Roll into a rocker with open legs and hold it for thirty minutes!” Simultaneously, the couple slumped to the floor onto their carefully-placed yoga mats and laid on their backs. With great exertion, they moved their feet into position over their heads as they curled into this awkward position. The man could feel every vertebrae in his back pop as he inched his legs ever so slowly over his head until he was practically kissing his knees. He looked over as it partner, struggling to perform the same maneuver. She was too weak, she couldn’t do it, and like a house of cards collapsed into a shapeless heap on the yoga mat while the pleasant voice from the speaker encouraged everyone to get limber. The man unwound himself in a flash and dashed to his lover’s side.
“What is wrong? Are you okay?” he stammered through cracked, dry lips. It was illegal to drink unfiltered water and he hadn’t seen a usable water filter in months. The woman did not reply, she could not reply, so starved was she for sustenance. The man’s brow was knotted with worry, knowing full well that there was no authorized food in the building, not even a dandelion. He stroked her hair and considered revealing to her his biggest secret. There was food in the house, food which had not been freely available in half a decade, but it was food nonetheless. He had come upon it while scavenging for wares to sell on the black market, the only place where one could buy necessities like razor blades and Tupperware. He had hidden it in the home, and wasn’t sure what to do with the illicit comestible until this very moment. He hurried back to the closet and dove within, emerging within seconds holding a small red and yellow stick. He descended to his lover’s side clutching the strange item.
“My dear,” gasped the man, “I have food here. It is meat.” He pulled back on a tab extending from the red and yellow stick, and the woman watched with weak amazement as it peeled back to reveal a short brown stick, glistening in the morning’s light. A salty smell not unlike excrement filled the air. “It is called a Slim Jim,” explained the man, “unenlightened people used to eat them all the time. I implore you, please eat this Slim Jim. I fear you will die otherwise.”
Her withered, gnarled hand extended shakily to take the Slim Jim, which she brought back to her face for closer inspection. She breathed deep the aroma, which now smelled more like a horse carcass than salty excrement. She rubbed her calloused fingertips over the slimy stick, noting that it was softer within than without. Lastly, the woman turned the Slim Jim over to examine its packaging, and all at once her eyes shot open in horror and she quickly tossed the meat stick out the window where it would certainly be consumed by rats, who comprised most of the city’s Sanitation Department. The man watched all of this unfold as if in a dream, but when the Slim Jim flew out of the window he was startled into cognizance.
“Why did you do that?” shrieked the man, “You will die without food! Why wouldn’t you eat that meat?”
The woman’s eyelids slid over her panicked eyeballs and she spoke in a whisper: “It wasn’t locally grown.” And with that, she expired.