It wasn’t war or an asteroid that nearly wiped out society. It was a disease, and how stereotypical, right? The bug could have been another footnote in history, like the Spanish flu or the bubonic plague. Everyone had been through something like it before, after all. Except society had grown too reliant on technology, and so this time it was the apocalypse.

The disease seemed related to food.

Advice on the Internet ranged from avoiding meat to avoiding gluten to avoiding anything processed. Organics took off, and herbal remedies were top sellers. One group brought back inedia, or the belief that one can live on air alone, and as more social media influencers became “breatharians,” infection rates slowed. So it seemed they were onto something! But prolonged fasting leads to a weakened state, and living on air proved unsurprisingly impossible, just like it always had.

The disease spread faster than ever, and then what had gotten people through past pandemics died.

“You’d think people could live without their Facebooks and Insto-grams,” the oldest generations said. But apparently, not so much. The tech industry was short-staffed, so social media servers, deemed least essential, went offline. After losing many real friends, the “deaths” of amounts of online friends of several magnitudes higher had a cascade effect. Electrical utilities went under as their workforces, mentally crushed, stayed home. Quickly afterwars, water and sewer plants shut down. Houses burned from improperly-made fires, but there were no firefighters or anything to put the fires out with.

But it wasn’t like in the movies; when the police stopped responding, crime didn’t take off.

There wasn’t raping or cannibalism, and the post-apocalypse refusal to form gangs—or at the very least cults—was actually the preeminent problem. Survivors spread out, leaving behind the urban centers where they had too-painful memories of lost loved ones and Wi-Fi. They wandered, and on the rare occasion they crossed paths, only the barest of greetings were exchanged. So it was a world in need of a million therapists, or at least an old-fashioned college mixer, and most countries didn’t make it.

But in the central Midwest, one couple had a plan.


Ted fed pumpkins to the cows day in and day out.

As he would tell you, he was the brawn of the operation, and Dr. Alethea the brains.

Yet Ted had demonstrated quick thinking of his own when the world went to crap. Directly before the apocalypse, Ted was just one cow shy of owning a dozen Holsteins. He’d stopped ranching the year before, sold most of his cattle, and planned to try the Iowa artisan market scene; raw milk and cheese and the like. But then the world went crazy. Not that Ted knew for a while, as he didn’t have a TV and he didn’t know what social media was. But the sounds from the neighboring farms caught his attention.

Cows that hadn’t been fed in weeks.

Cows that hadn’t been milked in weeks!

And so, following a quick investigation via four-wheeler, Ted committed himself to bovine rescue.

Most of the cattle followed Ted willingly. If they wouldn’t, Ted didn’t push; you can’t lead a cow to water, so to speak. Ted labored day in and out, cutting down fences, moving troughs, and transporting hay bales. It was rough work, but it kept him sane as he began to realize how truly alone he was now. And after it was all said and done, Ted’s herd numbered 600 head, rounded out with Angus, Simmental, Hereford, and a few of those wooly beauties, the majestic North Highland.

In truth, 600 cows was too much for one retiree. But luckily, a month after his round-up, Ted met Dr. Alethea.

She was about his age, so in her early seventies, and was stopped on the side of the road. On her torso she wore a lab coat, covered in blood, and in her hand was a latte which Dr. Alethea had made by breaking into a coffee shop right before the Iowa border, which wasn’t too far back.

But now, sadly, her latte was getting cold.

And Ted didn’t know what to do.

Dr. Alethea didn’t know what to do, either. Both were the first people they’d seen since the apocalypse hit, and neither were ever that good at social interaction. But this was Ted’s turf and he figured he should speak first, so he offered to go back and get the espresso machine Dr. Alethea had used. They could hook it up to his homestead’s generator and she could have another warm drink. Then they could keep each other company for a day or two. Or something.

It sounded good to Dr. Alethea, so that’s what they did. Then Dr. Alethea never left.

Ted attended the cows and he got Dr. Alethea fresh milk.

Dr. Alethea gave Ted the company he never knew he’d missed.

And thus they became just about the only couple to exist in America, and if only they’d been of breeding age! But they were happy, content to simply exist and enjoy each other’s presence. Though in the winter of the second year, Ted and Dr. Alethea began gathering pumpkin seeds, and when spring came, Ted planted them. Artisan markets hadn’t worked out, but Ted still managed to make a late-life career move.

His focus went from ranching to farming.

And later, once the pumpkins were plump, Ted began feeding them to the cows.


Dr. Alethea was far from Jersey when it all went down.

She was attending a conference on the West Coast, which coincidentally was held right outside Silicon Valley. And notwithstanding the blood on her coat when she first med Ted, and notwithstanding her title, she only knew as much about the human body as the next person. Dr. Alethea worked in the flavor industry, enhancing foods with new extracts and distillations. Not, however, that the additive business was Dr. Alethea’s passion. “Essences are essential for paying the bills,” she would explain, “but spices are the only true spice of life.”

Most people didn’t get it. Or they thought it a joke.

But it wasn’t.

Dr. Alethea was learning the newest facts about cumin and cardamom, about sumac and sage, about white pepper and wattleseed, and day one of the conference was great! But by day two, many of the attendees had stomachaches. And by day three, whatever would later devastate the world proved to be extra virulent in California. Dr. Alethea woke to empty halls. She investigated to find rooms occupied with bodies turning bright shades of mustard, which was Dr. Alethea’s least favorite spice.

So she hit the pavement.

The interstates were full of abandoned cars, or worse yet, cars full of bodies turning sick shades of Dijon. Dr. Alethea took the back roads, heading northeast, and everywhere she went it was eerily quiet. Though not depressing; despite New Jersey’s reputation, Dr. Alethea was not a talker. But with that said, Dr. Alethea was interested when, right after leaving Nebraska, she heard the sound of squealing tires. Another survivor?

But quickly following was a BANG, and once Dr. Alethea got around a gently sloping hill, her heart dropped.

She found a car, overturned, wheels still spinning.

In the cab, there was a boy of no more than 14.

And though he survived the pandemic that ravaged the world, and apparently was not someone who minded the loss of Snapchat or Tiktok, he didn’t have long left now. Dr. Alethea did her best, pulling the boy clear and applying pressure, but he still passed. Shaken, Dr. Alethea then drove away with a single goal in mind: to find a coffee shop and make herself a pumpkin spice latte, her comfort drink. But when Ted found her later, with beverage, in hand it was truly just expresso mixed with soy milk. Because dairy doesn’t keep when the world’s gone to pot, and though her expresso wasn’t bad, it still lacked the steamed two-percent or creamy whole milk that Dr. Alethea craved. And, being June, the store hardly had her needed spice mix.

It was a rough day.

Things changed, however, after Dr. Alethea met Ted. Not just a second encounter in one day with a living person, but with one who looked like a rancher out of a Rockwell painting? Who smelled of soil and dairy cows, and who was about her same age? Ted and Dr. Alethea only exchanged a dozen sentences in their first week together, but that was perfect. And before long, Dr. Alethea couldn’t imagine why she’d ever wanted to go back to New Jersey.


Now back to the pumpkins.

Ted, like Dr. Alethea, had never been married. And he found what he soon considered to be a common-law marriage quite satisfactory. His heart was full and his bed warm. Ted had more help around the homestead, which was good, since it was a lot of property, and if he ever got a splinter or boil, there was someone to lend a hand. Ted’s relationship with Dr. Alethea also benefitted from a lack of the stressors couples previously encountered pre-apocalypse: bills, taxes, neighbors, kids. So when Dr. Alethea mentioned she’d like pumpkin spice for her lattes, Ted was amendable.

Though he didn’t really know what pumpkin spice was.

“Pumpkin spice?” he asked

“Pumpkin spice,” she replied.

“Spice made from pumpkins?”
“No, spice made for pumpkins. Well, made for pumpkin pies.”

“Which spice is that?”
“Actually, it’s a mixture.” And so Dr. Alethea told Ted that pumpkin spice, properly referred to as “pumpkin pie spice,” consisted of about ten parts cinnamon to three parts nutmeg, three parts ground ginger, two parts cloves, and two parts allspice. Or at least that was the ratio she’d used in a previous life. But besides the fact that pumpkin spice tastes like those spices after they’ve been through an oven, there was now most importantly the problem of availability.

You could get pumpkin spice in the abandoned coffee shops and stores, in powder or liquid form.

You could get all of the cinnamon, nutmeg, and everything else you wanted, too, as long as you had a crowbar.

But the flavors! The freshness!

Good pumpkin pie spice required constantly harvested and frequently imported ingredients. And true cinnamon comes from the bark of the Ceylon tree, native to Sri Lanka. Difficult to get. Nutmeg comes from the seed of an evergreen native to the island Pulau Ai; nearly impossible to get. Ginger is a root also sourced in the South Pacific, but is commonly grown in America, and Dr. Alethea thought she could both obtain the seeds and grow it around the homestead. But what about cloves? Native to the Maluku Islands, also in Indonesia. And allspice, known as “pimento,” from Jamaica? Sure, finally, a New World spice! But as everyone knows, allspice only germinates after passing through the digestive tract of birds, and what birds in the greater Des Moines area had an appetite for Jamaican seeds?

Truly, making acceptable pumpkin spice lattes in a world where trade was nonexistent was going to be impossible.

But luckily, they had complete control over their milk supply, from cow to cup. So perhaps there was another way.


Send pimento seeds through a bird and you get sprouts.

Send onions through a cow’s digestive tract and you get oniony milk, or send through pine needles and you get dairy that tastes like forest. Which begs the question; what happens if you feed a cow pumpkins? A lot goes on in a ruminant’s digestive tract—cows have four stomachs and they ferment their food, after all—and Ted’s guess of pumpkin spice being made from pumpkins had given Dr. Alethea an idea. As chemists say, “like attracts like,” and as Dr. Alethea was well-aware, the human fat-sensing taste receptor CD36 is made of fat itself. So she hoped she could discover some commonality between pumpkins and the spice that went oh-so-well with them, and lacking a sophisticated biochemical lab, bovine gastrointestinal processing became her primary investigatory tool. And Dr. Alethea’ motives were not entirely selfish.

There weren’t many people left in the world. But the homestead was close to I-80, and since the previously minor freeway was hardly clogged with abandoned cars, now it was almost a thoroughfare. Resultantly, survivors that were always wandering, but never talking, came through several times a year. Now a year later and the pair hadn’t talked to one other living soul besides themselves, though one day, as Ted was fetching more coffee beans, a survivor stuck around.

Which proved interesting.

A young woman on a motorcycle stopped to watch Ted as he pried his way into an abandoned coffee shop. Ted didn’t say anything, which was generally his way. Though after leaving the shop with his duffels full of coffee, she was still there. “Coffee’s getting’ harder to get,” he explained, feeling like he needed to say something. “This is the last shop in a ten-mile radius, and not sure what I’m going to do after.”

The young woman continued to watch.

“Start drivin’ out farther, I guess.” He then loaded his duffels into the back of the truck.

And still, the young woman watched.

Ted didn’t know what to do. His work was finished and it was time to head back. So did he say goodbye and leave the young woman here? Did he offer directions? Or did she need something, like supplies? Admittedly, before the apocalypse, Ted was bad with the social cues. Was the woman lost? Cold? Ted looked from her, to his duffels, and back to the woman. Was she hungry? Thirsty? Wanted to sell him something? Still he was clueless, and she didn’t say a word. So finally, before starting his truck and driving away, Ted asked the only thing that came to his mind, and what he probably would have said before the world went kaput:

“Want to join us for a cup of Joe?”

Slowly, the young woman nodded.

And later, this caused Dr. Alethea to come up with a very important theory.


Her name was Brooke and she agreed with Dr. Alethea.

Not that she was rude. Dr. Alethea had asked Brooke several times, and Brooke was grateful to have a freshly made latte. It was the first she’d drank since everyone she’d ever known or loved had died an agonizing death, and the coffee brought her some normality and comfort. But yes, she had to concur, the latte would taste even better with pumpkin spice.

Though only if the flavoring was organic.

Brooke, like everyone else left, had come to the conclusion that by the fact they were eating and still alive that the breatharians had gotten it wrong. Though to the disdain of Dr. Alethea, it seemed Brooke had not shaken the belief that what ravaged the human race was associated with food additives.

“Don’t mention the French vanilla flavoring I used earlier,” Dr. Alethea whispered to Ted.

“Oh?” he asked as he leaned in.

“That stuff hasn’t been real for decades.”

Ted didn’t say a word, and as for his preferences, he liked his coffee straight. And most of Dr. Alethea’s musings about pumpkins and spices went over his head, though not the fact Dr. Alethea believed whatever wiped out the human race, if it had anything to do with food, had nothing to do with how natural or artificial anything was.

After that, Dr. Alethea went to the den, which she had outfitted for small experiments, and locked herself in for the next three days. Ted kept Brooke company, and the occasional bang and bubble attested to the fact that Dr. Alethea was alive. And Ted assumed she was back to investigating the apocalypse, but when Dr. Alethea finally emerged, it was only to ask if Ted could find her something: acetaldehyde. Ted knew as much about acetaldehyde as he did pumpkin spice, though he was happy to get it. And it did sound a bit like the fuel he used for welding.

“Start with high school chemistry labs.”

“I can do that.”

“And after that, universities.”

“No problem.”

“I’ll feed the cows while you’re gone.”

“Should be easy enough.”

“Thank you.”

And that was it.

Brooke offered to help around the homestead, and so Ted loaded up jerky and preserves, water, a sleeping bag, his handy crowbar, and set out. They thought he would be gone up to a month, but it barely took Ted a week to fill his duffels with bottle after bottle of the requested compound. As it turned out, there was an extension campus on the outskirts of Des Moines with quite the stocked lab. And in fact, Ted was not only able to get all the acetaldehyde Dr. Alethea required, but he also found some of the benzaldehyde she had mentioned as an afterthought. So mission accomplished, and after putting all of the bottles in the den, Ted went to the kitchen for a mid-afternoon caffeine boost.

And there he was met by a surprise.


Kevin confirmed Dr. Alethea’s theory.

He was in his early forties and he said the aroma of coffee brought him in. Ted could hardly believe you could smell anything from the interstate. But while he was gone, Dr. Alethea and Brooke put holes in the smaller of the three milking barns and fitted the roof with metal piping. At the base of the tubes, they placed a vat used for pasteurizing milk, and in it they roasted coffee with Ted’s acetylene welding torches. HVAC fans attached to a hood wafted the smell, and if Ted’s olfactory organs hadn’t been exposed to so much manure when younger, he probably would have been overwhelmed on his way back in.

And all of which, of course, begged another question. Though when Brooke asked what they were doing, Dr. Alethea just replied by saying, “An experiment.”

Later, Dr. Alethea would tell Ted they needed to do something about the aroma’s volatility, which in chemistry refers to how quickly organic compounds dissipate; apparently people could only smell the coffee from a few miles off, not for the dozens of miles Dr. Alethea had hoped for. But the good chemist had a few ideas on that subject, so to return to Kevin, Ted liked him. The man, like Brooke before him, had not slept a single night in the same place since losing his family. He came for just one coffee, but just like Brooke, decided to stay, moving in to one of the houses behind the homestead with Brooke, at her invitation. There were six of these small three-rooms, constructed long ago for farmhands and their families, and when Ted was very young, the back schoolhouse was even used, too.

“Maybe it’ll get used again one day,” Kevin joked. “You know, at the rate the homestead is growing.”

“That’s the goal,” Dr. Alethea replied.

Kevin then asked if she was serious, but Dr. Alethea just walked away, which left him slightly confused.

But in any case, Kevin helped Ted search area farms and feed supply stores, collecting as many pumpkin seeds as they could. Later, he helped Ted till and plant the soil, too. They made regular runs to gas stations, getting fuel with hand pumps, and they were constantly on the hunt for more coffee beans, lumber, and glass panes. Twice they got more compounds for Dr. Alethea’s experiments; strange things with names like “sabinene” and “eugenol.” And there was idle time, too, spent at home playing cards and sitting in peaceful silence. The generators and coffee kept them warm, and the fruits and vegetables, canned by Ted and Dr. Alethea in past seasons, kept them full. And everything they ate was organic, much to Brooke and Kevin’s liking.

So the four of them were happy, and no one else came through until after the pumpkins were nice and plump.

After which it all rapidly changed.


For all installments of “Making Pumpkin Spice Lattes in a Post-Apocalyptic Iowa,” click here.