by Nic Anstett
When Anya arrives at a new town, she searches the mom-and-pop stores first. She knows that their pickings will be slim. Before the collapse the chances of a two-story house converted into a downtown pharmacy carrying spiro, estradiol, or progesterone was unlikely. Now it is near impossible. She keeps her expectations low when she opens their doors, but she knows that it’s the safest of her options. Clear of hungry militiamen pausing between skirmishes or opportunists hocking overpriced oxy. If Anya is lucky, she will find a few scattered pills. If she is unlucky, she will find corpses and wild dogs. This time she finds a starved cat behind a shattered coffee pot. The cat hisses, runs, and leaves her alone in the capsized shelves of one dollar squirt guns. There are no pills.
Anya walks I-50 through fly over country. She avoids the road itself which is often under patrol and cluttered with the jetsam of unrest. A half mile off road is the safest pathway. It allows her a view of the path westward but enough space to find a hiding spot at the slightest noise of rolling tires. She’s gotten good at throwing herself flat, ignoring the stinging pain in her still budding chest, and waiting for the air to clear of the deep voices of men.
She remembers the first time she felt scared walking alone at night. It was a neighborhood she had deemed safe. One she had walked in the daylight without problem and wandered home alone drunk through many times back when she could still be mistaken for a man. That night though, just two years before the collapse, she felt a tugging paranoia hiding behind each bush and sped walked between the glow of stoplights like they would shield her from groping hands in the dark. When she got home, she slid against the oven and breathed in deep from the filtered air. Denny brought her a stemless glass of wine and the two drank together on the linoleum floor of the kitchen. “Real women carry mace,” Denny told Anya and they rested their heads against one another and waited for their breath to fall into rhythm.
Anya heard on a podcast a year before the collapse that in the event of national catastrophe, the northwest was the place to be. Water will swallow the east, freeze the north, and abandon the south, but remain a steady mist in the alpine forests of California, Oregon, and Washington. Anya knows that was where the fighting was worst. But it had also started there. She figures they have to have the most experience in quelling the violence. That’s at least what she tells herself to help get through the cold empty of Missouri. She hasn’t given much serious thought of what she will do if the northwest is similarly terrible. If the air raids and car bombs had torn the water-logged forests apart and kickstarted a long storm of fire and smoke. But Anya tells herself that is a problem for farther down the road. Right now, the focus is walking, surviving, and pills.
When she ultimately finds the mom-and-pop pharmacies lacking in hormones, she next visits the local chain pharmacies. These have a higher chance of being ransacked, guarded, or boobytrapped, but often still yield results. The types who scrambled through drug stores in the first days of the collapse were often looking for the high value medication. The stuff that could be sold to junkies or lorded over the chronically ill for personal gain. Hormone supplements weren’t an obvious grab, most commonly of use to the gender nonconforming or those with thyroid imbalances. Now, after tossing a rock through a broken window and waiting for the snap of a bear trap, she enters. There are, again, no pills. But there is a case of canned soda beneath a cardboard standee of Captain America that has somehow been missed in the scavenging. The drink is warm, but it fizzes and in the moment that watery electric crackle against her throat is all Anya needs.
On her last birthday in the closet, Anya’s brother, an outdoorsy type that summered in the woods of Maine, gifted her a water filtration kit. Anya had told him many times that she had a deep fear of getting lost in the woods and that was why she never joined him on his many hikes. In truth, she just didn’t see the appeal in being dirty and cold. “Now you don’t have an excuse,” her brother had told her and smiled. In her current voyage, she uses the kit every time she needs a drink. Even though most water faucets still work and pour out streams of clear liquid, Anya doesn’t take chances. She’s heard the rumors of chemical weapons and environmental pollution. She knows her past self would laugh at this. It reminds her of Alex Jones announcing that the water was turning the frogs gay, but also of the time her fifth grade teacher mentioned that cleaning products in local lakes were tricking fish into changing sex and the heart skip of excitement she felt at that thought. It was the first time she learned that a body could be remolded, realigned, and corrected.
“I wish I had gotten laser,” Anya told Denny early into their trek westward. “It seemed expensive and like something I could put off until some point in the future when I had money. But now that’s not an option and I’m just stuck with fighting whiskers for the rest of my life.” She shaved her face in the flickering bathroom light of a motel in West Virginia. Anya could see that Denny’s face had begun to prickle and scratch. She felt the sandpaper roughness when they kissed and it made some part of herself flinch. Images of sloppy drag queens playing dirty for show bubble to the surface of her thought. Anya offered her razors, but Denny turned them down with a gentle handwave. “I’m fine,” Denny told Anya. “Really I am.”
On the walk, Anya practices her vocal training. She doesn’t talk much with others but fears the moments where it’s necessary, the negotiations with drug scalpers or face offs with “stand your ground” types that accost her as she passes through their lands. She doesn’t want her voice to crack or crumble back into its previously accustomed depth and gravel. Best not to interrupt an already tense moment with the threatening specter of her former masculinity. To practice, Anya argues. Political debates or heated discussions about movies she had liked before the collapse. She tries to imagine her pissy uncle Jake or the boy in her dorm room with the Quentin Tarantino posters who thought he had it all figured out. It is best when she pisses herself off. If she sounds like a woman when she is mad, when she raises her voice, then she will be okay. Or that’s what she likes to tell herself.
Anya named herself after a character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The fictional Anya was a scorned woman who became a demon who became a woman who became a demon who became a woman again. Anya felt the show’s Anya was underappreciated, a comic relief nympho that got lost in the shuffle of superheroics. She could relate to her anger towards men and constant shifting of being. Denny used to tease her about how she had picked a character from a nerdy show from the nineties as her name, that it made her look old and ignorant of the fact the show’s creator was a creep and potentially a transphobe. Anya would tease back that Denny had named herself after a diner chain. The show Anya died in the series ending apocalypse, cut in half by a sword wielding extra. She got no dramatic send off. Her death was quick and brutal. In the aftermath, her ex-fiancé called her stupid. Anya had never really thought much about her namesake’s death much before the collapse. The show was an artifact frozen in time and Anya could rewatch it forwards, backwards, or by hop scotching between the especially good episodes. Even in death, Buffy’s Anya lived. But now, in Anya’s wanderings, the only image of that version of herself is her split-second death, played on loop.
When Anya does camp with others, she always picks other women. She avoids mixed gender groups, and before approaching a campfire she always listens to the aural collage, trying to find the depth and tempo of male voices. She approaches every campfire with hands in the air and a soft but firm request to join. There is always the necessary skepticism and negotiation. The “who are you’s,” “are there more of you’s,” “are you armed’s,” “are you sick’s,” “where are you going’s.” Some women do still turn her away and Anya can’t blame them, but most welcome her to their fireside. Anya swaps canned goods and news of what cities to avoid. She finds that she misses that familiar high of existing alongside other women without discomfort or caveats. She has yet to be clocked. A mother outside Kansas City does ask Anya about her clean-shaven legs which peek out from between her pants and her socks. The mother never lets her daughter, who has to be no older than twelve, sit too close to the newcomer. It’s just the three of them and Anya wants to give them their space. “You don’t need to do that anymore,” the mother says. “I haven’t since this all started. I thought ‘who am I trying to impress?’ and figured it would be better to keep my legs warm.” They laugh together and Anya knows that in some ways she is being judged for her vanity. She wants to tell the mother that the first time she shaved her legs in college with an ex-girlfriend was one of the happiest moments of her life and that she never again wanted to feel the tickling or the itch and scratch of hairy legs and that the simple thought of its presence makes her feel on alert like an antelope with ears pricked at the sound of a gunshot. But Anya instead just tells her that it’s a force of habit and hands the two of them a can of peaches.
Denny was the first trans woman that Anya met in person. The two stumbled into each other at a clothing swap sponsored by the local university. It was Transgender Day of Rememberance and the school had planted a tree out of respect and offered a place for the local queers to discard and exchange clothes to suit their needed bodies. It wasn’t much and there was part of Anya that was offended at the minimum display of effort, but it was also more than her own school had ever done when she was a student pretending to be a scruffy boy. Anya liked to think that she didn’t clock Denny. She was and is still ashamed to admit that part of her was always scanning for breaks in gender presentation, if only to learn how to improve herself and avoid the perceived mistakes of others. Whose jaw was too angular. Who had missed shaving their chin that day. Who dressed too young for their body. But, there was simply something about Denny, who was burrowing through a bin of too small t-shirts for bands that had long stopped touring, that told Anya who she was looking at. Something about her fuck-it-all hip cock and curly blue streaked hair. Denny broke the silence, holding up a medium All American Rejects cutoff, and asked, “Do you want this?”
The big box stores are Anya’s last resort. If all other pharmacies have been stripped dry the only remaining options are the sprawling grocery stores and catch-all markets. They are almost always occupied. Taken over by starving military outposts, angry militant camps, or the occasional survivalist enclave. There are certain flags and emblems that she has learned through the hard experience of hurled slurs and weaponry to avoid altogether. Some trade though. If brought food, bullets, or fresh batteries, most will barter with drugs. Again, hormones are cheap and often unwanted. She has written her former prescriptions down on a shred of cardboard box that she keeps in her coatpocket. Best not to even risk speaking and spelling out phonetically the word “spironolactone.” When Anya asks for her usual meds the day after the cat and soda, the barterer pauses and mouths out their titles, his tongue lisping in the middle of “estradiol.” As he wanders back into their storeroom, Anya feels like she is back in the old world, wasting through that twenty-to-thirty-minute period between refills that she often occupied with browsing half-price pants and cheap paperbacks. The barterer returns with half of what Anya needs, but she doesn’t try to argue with him. The rifle slung across his back announces itself too loudly. She hands the man five cans of beans and a jar of strawberry jam, they shake each other’s sweaty dirty hands, and she leaves with what she can.
At first, Denny joined Anya in their searches. They would alternate between look out and scavenger. There was an effort to split their duties evenly, but Denny almost always played look out. Her eyes were sharper, and, in the early days, Anya had more luck finding enough pills for the two of them. Denny, who had gagged on a cough drop in middle school, dreaded the sensation of choking and had been injecting her doses as soon as she could. But now, there were no more sterile needles. Only pills. Anya coaxed Denny through her first few swallows, standing by with a bottle of water and waiting hands to catch any pills that her girlfriend rejected. It wasn’t long before Denny started to refer to Anya’s open palms as “little barfbags.” It wasn’t long after that the scavenged Rite Aid’s and Walgreen’s began to turn up more meager results. For the first two weeks, they halved their doses, split evenly among the two of them. It was in these moments that Anya tried not to think too much of her diluted womanhood and to remind herself, once again, that her gender was not defined by the suppression of her testosterone or the rising of her estrogen. It was in Ohio, with the siege of Columbus booming in the distance, that Denny told Anya not to bother anymore. Denny’s five o’clock shadow had crept up and along her cheeks and chin and her black nest of hair was now tied back in a knotted bun. “It doesn’t matter to me,” Denny told Anya. “I’ll be okay, but you need it.”
Anya does her best to fight the guilt that comes with her thieving. Even before the gunfire and mass panic that preceded the collapse, she never had much affection for corporate America or the pharmaceutical industry. The guilt she decides one evening, hiding out next to a fire from cold air on the brink of snow flurries, is for the other scavengers that might come after. The other trans or nonbinary folk searching to keep their own internal equilibrium in place. Or even worse those with actual endocrinological diseases that might need her stolen bounty to simply stay standing. She imagines herself on trial in a rebuilt world facing a tribunal of faceless jurors. They play for her an unending video of the lives she stole from in her own greed for survival. A highspeed flipbook of pained and hopeless faces racked by sickness and dysphoric despair. The jurors ask her how she could be so selfish, so ravenous. Why couldn’t she have stopped at any time? Because, of course, she could have. Others had before her.
The endocrinologist that wrote Anya’s first prescription lied. She had winked and told her not to worry, they did it all the time. Not all insurances supported prescriptions for gender dysphoria and white lies didn’t hurt anyone. Anya’s prescription simply read “hormone imbalance” which in some way, Anya liked to believe, was actually true. It was a moment that she had anticipated for months and the fact that this woman in scrubs and a white lab coat was scribbling down the first key to the liberation of her femininity felt like an essential sacrament, like being christened with oil. It was almost enough to push away the thoughts of Anya’s fleeing parents and siblings. “I do have to warn you again about the decrease in sperm count that follows hormone replacement therapy. Sterility following long term testosterone suppression is very common. Many women freeze theirs prior to undergoing treatment,” the endocrinologist said. Anya knew this and her doctor knew that she knew this. Freezing her cells was a financial impossibility and although Anya had always imagined a future of crowded holidays and dabbing away at bruised knees after rough soccer games, she had long accepted that it wasn’t possible for her. A lonely life felt like a future Anya needed to prepare for.
On her most desperate days, Anya visits makeshift markets thrown up at major intersections. She can find almost anything there. Scavengers and wandering families set up tents piled high with uncovered or discarded treasures. Anya sees a boy with a missing ear offering an Xbox and a pile of games in exchange for pillows, blankets, or food. She debates going over and feigning interest to wipe away the empty look in his eyes but decides to keep her distance. Best not to give false hope. There’s a long line leading to a medical booth operated by a tired man. Anya is unsure if he is selling medication, but she waits anyways. She is the third from front when the rifle fire erupts and the running starts. Anya cannot hear where the bullets are flying from so she throws her hands above her head and runs for the empty farmland, away from the screaming.
Two months before the last election, Anya had rolled over in bed and told Denny that she wanted to buy a gun. They had talked often about Anya’s discomfort around weapons. One of their biggest arguments after transitioning from roommates to girlfriends was about shooting video games. Their adoration of the military and mass packaged slaughter made Anya squirm, but Denny had spent her evenings gunning down profanity spewing teenagers on the internet for over a decade. After several stubborn hours, Denny finally offered a compromise. She would only play when Anya wasn’t home. Because of this, Anya had anticipated pushback to her late-night request for a weapon. She at the very least expected to be called a hypocrite. But Denny surprised her by saying, “I’m scared too. I don’t think I’ve ever been this scared. I want a gun. Yeah, let’s get a gun.” They decided on something small that they could hide and carry, if needed, in a purse. They had dates at the range, taking turns pointing at silhouetted targets and anticipating the kick and smoke. Denny’s turns were longer. She claimed she needed to work on her accuracy, but really Anya could see the edges of a grin on her lips. There was a part of Anya that couldn’t help but feel like a man when she held it. The concept of a gun as a penis never lingered far outside her mind. She knew this was regressive and that really the gun was just a weapon, a thing that should be devoid of gender. But part of her couldn’t help but feel stripped down and exposed with it in her hands. She could feel the men at the range watching her, trying to decide if they wanted her or wanted to remove her.
A woman who offers Anya a bowl of soup one night tells her that the northwest is an ash pile. “It’s been burning for years, dear. The air up there is straight smoke,” she warns. Anya asks her how she knows this, and the woman says that she heard it from someone on the road. “I’m still going,” Anya says and the woman shrugs. Walking is one of the few things Anya has. It doesn’t matter if the destination will be rain or fire.
On the night that Denny walked out into the dark and never came back, Anya and she had set up camp in an abandoned bicycle shop. They each chewed on jerky and took turns trying to ride the one bike that remained, a too-small, pink two-wheeler with unabashed, long tangling streamers. “I always wanted one of these,” Denny screamed as she careened through the stripped bare storefront. Anya laughed and winced because she couldn’t help but find the new, prickly Denny ridiculous. She hated that she saw a man trying to squeeze into something that was meant for a small girl. There was a revulsion that she feared might resemble the same panic of those she despised. She tried to convince herself that her disgust was really a feeling of betrayal and what she actually hated was that Denny had given up and abandoned her. That she had somehow left her standing alone in the long scrambling quest for gender euphoria. That night while they passed back and forth scavenged cans of light beer, Anya asked Denny if she wanted to be a man. Denny told her no. “I’m scared, hon. I’m scared and I’m tired and I just don’t see the point anymore,” she said and rested her head between her legs. Anya wondered if Denny thought she was ridiculous. A silly creature that was still primping herself when the first thoughts should be of survival. “We know the truth. I know the truth. We were always women and we always will be,” Denny told her and Anya knew that this was true but also that it was wrong. “I’m scared too. I’m scared all the time, but I can’t go back. I can’t give up. Not when I’m finally here,” Anya said and she realized after speaking that she had accused Denny of something she didn’t mean to. Not fully. They lay together in the darkness and for one quiet hour held one another, but then Denny pulled away just before midnight and told her that she was stepping outside for some air and a walk, leaving Anya alone in the store’s static shadow. At first, Anya made nothing of the staccato gunfire and screams that violated the night. After the collapse the noise of violence had become as known and natural as a barking fox or passing car. It wasn’t until midday when Denny was still gone that she realized that the darkness might have been trying to tell her something.
At first the corpse is just another blob in the distance. An oddly shaped hill or maybe a bisected bale of hay. It is not until Anya is a few yards away that she realizes that it’s an animal. A large tan cat sprawls out across the otherwise brown-gray of the rolling Kansas grass. It had to have died recently, its body untouched by the pecking feed of scavengers. There is a single hole tunneled through its large spotted head. Executed like a criminal or cow for slaughter. Anya assumes at first that it is a lonely mountain lion that has wandered too far from home, but the size and faded stripes tell her otherwise. She has seen one of these before. Alive and pacing in a roadside zoo somewhere on the way to Arcadia National Park in Maine. It’s a liger. Or a tigon. She’s never known the difference. A crossbreed of two big cats that existed as a novelty. A giant, sterile beauty of a predator that only hunted for pre-skinned rabbit or past expired grocery meat. Anya sits by the dead cat for much of the day, shouting away any buzzards that descend to feed on its carcass, and wonders how long it wandered in this infinite flat America before being put down. She sees the big dead cat as a creature designed for orphanhood and loneliness. But Anya looks at its large shoulder blades and imagines how they would have rotated and slid beneath its cascading white-tan skin and realizes that it lived all the same and that it was beautiful.
Anya looked for Denny for a week before pushing west. She’d sit beneath spiraling Appalachian trees and fumble about her brain for tracking tips that her redneck of a brother may have ranted about at Thanksgiving or one of the last welcoming birthdays. Her memory always came up empty. She’d wander through woodland and tie strips of t-shirt to branches to mark her path. Anya’s throat would itch to call out for Denny, but she’d keep her tongue still and lips sealed. She couldn’t bring herself to scream and signal that she was here and ready to be taken as well. The night had hungry, waiting hands and Anya could only brave them for so long. On a cold morning at the start of winter, Anya returned to her walking. At first, the lonely quiet of the road felt like a loud crashing roar, but soon, like all noise, the quiet too became nothing.
Anya always expects to find a stone bowl and rod in each pharmacy she enters. Even after scouring dozens of stores across the country she still doesn’t understand how pills are made. She searches behind every counter for an array of powders and chalky cubes to be mashed together and reformed into something new and potent. Part of her refuses to believe that the mystery of where pills come from is answered elsewhere and not in a CVS. That somewhere there were scientists in masks and overworked factory people that did the imagining and assembling. Anya knows that they are likely dead or scattered about the country, scrounging in stores themselves. Anya also knows that there is a time in the future when there will be no more pills. And even if they are found, they will have started to expire, their effectiveness weathered by the passing years like any other body. Anya laughs when she meets other travelers that describe the collapse as the end of the world. America’s widespread violent spasm wasn’t even the death of a nation, just its latest sad evolution. She does see that day in the future when the pills have vanished as something of an apocalypse. The end of the many days she will have fought for to inhabit a form that was right. A body that was to be beautiful, feared, lively, and all her own.
Nic Anstett is a writer from Baltimore, MD who specializes in the bizarre, spectacular, and queer. She is a graduate from the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, University of Oregon’s MFA program, and the Tin House Summer Workshop where she was a 2021 Scholar. Her fiction is published and forthcoming in Passages North, North American Review, Lightspeed, Barrelhouse, Sycamore Review, and elsewhere. She is at work on a collection of short stories and maybe a novel.