Your Vermont home is cold, airy. Outside, the mountains that surround your house are dim shadows, silhouetted against the embers of the setting sun. Lately the leaves have exploded with rich sunburst hues, bright golds and reds and oranges that beg to be painted, the palette of autumn—which would be fine, except it is late July. This is the kind of thing that might drive one mad, if one thought about it for too long. Try not to.
You haven't decided yet whether to take down the family portraits, collages of people long since dead. If only you had paid more attention to your grandmother's endless explanations; now there is no one to point to the photos and say: “This is Great-grandpa Willie. This is Cousin Myrna. This is...” Together, you have done a lousy job preserving your family's history. That guilt is partly why you lingered in the house after they died, unable to dismantle their possessions, sell it and move back to New York. Now it is too late—the borders between the states have been shut down. Thanks to your sentimentality, you are stuck here.
Do you know what the whitest state in America is? It's not Connecticut, or Alaska: it's Vermont. In Sandgate, where you live, there is only one elderly black couple. Your grandparents used to be the only Jews; now you are. Everyone else is white.
You sit in the living room by the fire and stare at the mountains, in search of the miraculous. It is there somewhere, behind the thin shimmering gleam of the false reality. If only you could grasp it, for a moment—but no. There is no enlightenment in store for you. All you see when you look outside is pain, disappointment, and misery.
The miraculous will come. He said that it would, and he’s always right; even his untruths had a spark behind them, a spark of something real. That is all that you have to cling to, and so you do.
In the meantime, you sit. You wait. The zombies only come out at night; be grateful of that.
You can still see your grandparents in the house, like ghosts. Every day, you stumble upon new secrets: here, in the crevice above the basement stairs, are a set of Amish dolls arranged in a silent tea party; here, over the boiler, is a miniature cast iron stove, reproduced to the last detail. He must have set them up, imagining the pleasure they would bring to the person who discovered them.
He did things like that. He played games with children, imagined faraway magical lands that existed underneath a blanket fort. He had a way of saying things that made them seem true. When you were eleven and lost a very dear mouse, made of cardboard and pasted fur, you searched the entire house, in tears. The next morning, he told you to come look at something. There, in the outstretched hand of a wooden Indian goddess statue, was the mouse.
Your grandfather said, “He missed you.”
“How did it get there?” you asked, dumbfounded.
“He climbed up there,” he said. “He’s been trying to find you all night, he told me. He whispered in my ear.”
“You put it there.”
He smiled, and shrugged, then walked away. You snatched the mouse out of the hand, and, although you were too old, you believed that the mouse had climbed up the statue by itself. How could your grandfather lie like that, so casually, unless he believed in it too?
Your grandfather was a man of many theories. According him, a vegan diet could cure everything, from arthritis to allergies. He gathered you up on his lap, so large and warm, and told his vision of an ideal world. “Eating meat and dairy is what makes people warlike and cruel,” he said. “If everyone in the world would give up meat, there'd be no more war. There'd be no more poverty. If people would only share their wealth, there'd be enough land for everyone to have a kingdom. It would be like heaven on Earth.”
You listened, enraptured by the idyllic description. But as you grew older, you noticed a rift between the world he was describing, and the one that existed. You are not sure which of his sayings to believe, and which are the rantings of an old man.
One philosophy to which he heavily subscribed was the work of Gurdjieff, who says that men walk through life in a state of semi-consciousness, performing mechanical acts as though asleep. In his eyes, everyone is a zombie. The thing that we see as reality is only a shadow of the universe’s truth. P.D. Ouspensky, one of his students, wrote, “Beyond this thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us.” The only way to raise your level of consciousness and enter this new reality, which Ouspensky called the “miraculous,” is through self-denial which he called intentional suffering: meditation, fasting, hurting yourself, experiencing pain. Followed to its logical extent, a person who starves himself to death has been a good student of Gurdjieff; but only if there is a purpose behind his starvation.
Your grandmother put up with all of these eccentricities, although she did not share his beliefs. She wanted to retreat further into the shadow-world, escaping into books, and her artwork; he wanted to cast it off. They bickered about her choices in books and food, although for the most part they left each other alone. It drove him crazy to see her relaxing on the couch, reading one of her dime novels, a mystery or true crime. Sometimes, when she curled up with a book after a family dinner, he’d mutter to anyone who would listen, “Do you see this? She has such a beautiful mind, and this is the trash she reads. Nestle, you’re rotting your brains.”
She’d smile, her eyes bright behind her bifocals. “That’s alright. I figured they were already pretty rotten anyway.”
He’d shake his head but said nothing.
She became vegan under his pressure, too—he was convinced that dairy was killing her. She agreed not to buy any meat, although at parties, when she broke away from him, she was always the first to be seen scarfing down pigs-in-blankets. You are vegan now too, although not by choice. When you got here, the only hint of an animal product in the house was a single stick of butter in the freezer, which is now gone. Without dairy, the mushy carrot-celery-potato soup you stewed on the electric stove tastes of dirt and tinfoil. Your daily cup of Cafe Bustello is bitter and burnt without milk to mask the flavor, but drinking it is something to do. You sit at the table and read Faulkner as you eat, reading through the books in the house room by room.
The house is a fortress, solid and impenetrable. Your grandfather had a presentiment of doom that never went away. In the month before he died, he took you aside. He beckoned you to the basement door, and you followed him down the stairs. His ancient joints creaked louder than the wooden steps—he died a nonagenarian, but he gave the illusion of timelessness. Wisps of white hair topped his bald, liver-spotted scalp, and his large horn-rimmed glasses and disheveled hair made him seem off-kilter.
He stopped in front of a pantry door. “Look,” he said, opening it, “there is food here. Look. It is all good, all vegan. It is pure, good food. Not like the garbage you eat.”
You picked up a can of chickpeas, stared at the red label. There are hundreds of cans in the closet, sacks of flour and sugar, boxes of noodles. It’s a year’s supply of food for one person, easily.
He looked at you. “You must stay here, after. In case something happens. There is food here, and clean water from the pond. It is safe.”
“That’s very nice, Grandpa, but I have a home in Brooklyn.”
He shook his head. “That is no good. Stay here. Take some time off and try to find yourself. Remember what I have told you. Read Gurdjieff. Study the Torah. The answers are all in there.”
Under the weight of his eyes, you nod. “O.K.”
“Good,” he said. “They don’t know what they are doing. They’ll blow the whole world up, if they have the chance.”
Just your luck that, for once, he would be right about everything. You are sure he’s smiling up from his shallow grave gloating at the mess we’re in—unless he’s risen from his grave already.
What do vegan zombies eat? you wonder. If anyone could retain that capacity for thoughtless moralization after death, it would be your grandfather. You picture him lecturing the other zombies.
“We are machines,” he would say, his bald head gnawed open to reveal the gooey brains beneath. “Only through intentional suffering can we awaken ourselves.”
Now that you are forced to eat vegan, limited to the food he kept in the house, you can safely rule out the idea that abstention from dairy reduces aggression. You would happily gouge someone's eye out for a slice of cheesecake.
Over the last few weeks, you have become intimately acquainted with the house. Go out only if you absolutely must: That was the last official warning you heard before the radio connection went dead. That cold voice urging all people living within fifty miles of Manhattan to stay inside and stay calm until further notice is the only thing that has kept you from fleeing thus far, (besides having nowhere else to go). If there is anything scarier than staying, it is leaving and discovering that New York City has been demolished, everything you know and love dead. So you stay put.
It's funny; before this, you had dreamed of being trapped in a library the way others might dream of being locked overnight in a candy store. But at least half of the books in the house are things you wouldn’t care to read. They are organized by room, by how important your grandfather found them: the basement is children’s and classic fiction; the bathroom is comics. His office and bedroom are filled with heavy philosophical books, religion and mysticism, history, linguistics. The guest bedrooms on the second floor are eclectic reference books, encyclopedias on every topic from fairy tales and Greek mythology to the types of fruits and flowers native to New York state, as well as an unabridged Oxford dictionary. Your grandmother’s books on nature and science have been relegated to one of the downstairs bedrooms.
Right now, you are working through the novels in the basement. You don't like the room—it's chilly, and the carpet is littered with the shells of dead ladybugs that crunch between your toes as you walk. You just grab stacks of the books and carry them upstairs. The shelves empty out as the days go by—now you are up to D, Dickens. Some day in the near future you will read to the end of the shelf, and you don't relish that day coming. How bored will you have to be before you dive into heavy volumes of Jewish mysticism? More bored than you are now. Much more.
The one book in the house which you refuse to touch is Frankenstein. Fantasy is supposed to be an escape from daily life, after all.
Zombies aside (and you begin not to notice the zombies—it's funny what a person can get used to, given enough time), the house is a pleasant property, forty acres of land on the side of a mountain. During the day, when they retreat into the forest to curl away from the sun's harsh light, you come out. It is impossible to care forever about the black pebbles of radioactive fallout that spot the ground, not when the sun is so warm against your skin. You're going to die just the same either way, so you may as well enjoy yourself on the way down—that's what your grandmother always said. You sit on the rocky pebble beach by the pond and look into the ice-cold water, so thick with tadpoles it is mostly black. Salamanders float near the top playing dead, smooth white bellies pointed to the sky. The wind blows across the surface, making the reflection of the pine trees and the clear, deep blue sky bob back and forth. The sky is smooth across the sunburst autumn mountains, a crisp blue you can almost taste.
Your grandmother was shameless in the way she used the house to entice her children to visit every summer. She loved to sit at window by the living room couch where she could watch all seven of you swim in the pond outside, laughing and pushing each other off the plastic floatable raft. When her friends came over, elderly Jewish women who complained that their children never visited, she would smile and say, “Mine used to be like that. But then I got a grandchild trap.”
It's strange how quickly you've adapted to being trapped. The horror doesn't get to you after a while as much as the tedium. What can you do to amuse yourself in a house with no Internet? The vacuum of information hurts the most: the landlines are out, cell phone reception is gone, and even your FM radio produces only a thin layer of static. It used to chafe you that the house only had dial-up internet, a slow winding connection that took hours to load (your grandparents never thought it would be worth the money to install wireless in such a heavily forested area), but now that you are disconnected, you realize that you never truly appreciated the miracle of the Net while you had it. You cannot remember a time when the internet was not there, waiting to wrap you inside its web and carry you home, and you don't like this feeling of dissociation. Sometimes you enter your grandmother's studio, walk past the stacks of half-finished canvas paintings and broken microscopes, and boot up her computer longingly, start up the browser and stare at the LOADING bar that never goes away. AOL taunts you with the ceaseless noise of dialing and ringing.
Did you know that there are places in the world where you can go days without seeing another person? Think about it. You never did, not before they shut down the state borders and stranded you here. Living in the city, you always took company for granted.
Stand by your kitchen window. Examine the yawning mountains, the gaping expanse. There are only a few dozen people living in this area; they could all fit in your living room, if you so desired. It is hardly enough people to have a party with, and yet they are scattered across land big enough to swallow Manhattan five times over. The emptiness is stifling.
Most of the literature in the house is like your grandfather, heavy and serious, but your grandmother made her presence felt as well. You feel the ghost of her every time you pass by her paintings on the wall, the ones she did in the last few months before she died, bold dots and lines dancing with each other on the canvas. Her work grew more abstract the nearer she felt herself to death, as if she were capturing fleeting glimpses of the afterlife as she saw it. Or maybe it's because her mobility faded as she aged and she could no longer stroll as easily down the road to sit on a bench and sketch, so had to look inward for inspiration instead.
Being a recluse, by force or by choice, does things to a person. On the wall over the staircase hangs a framed, type-written copy of a Dickinson poem: “Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.” You've always considered Dickinson a raving madwoman, an agoraphobe. But now that you have an eternity to parse the words, they take on more significance for you every time you climb the stair. The specter of Death looms over the house with its black cloak and scythe, and the grim threat of eternal life.
You think about fleeing. It’s only natural. How far can you get on a half tank of gas before nightfall comes and the zombies roam free? Not very. Vermont’s dirt roads are covered with treacherous debris: here a thigh, grey and bloody; there a left boot with the foot still inside, teeth marks on the flesh. Have the zombies been eating each other? It makes your stomach turn to think of it.
One day, you go. You can’t help it. Curiosity drives your legs to walk down the winding driveway and into the street. These houses were carved into the side of the mountain, and the road follows its natural curve in a steep spiral. The gravel has eroded, washed away by heavy rains and no one to take care of it.
There, at the bottom of the driveway, a huge pine tree has fallen across the road. You pull out a saw and begin to hack at it, running the teeth slowly through the woody flesh. As you do, a chill runs up your back. Out here, deep in the mountains, you can't shake the feeling that humanity is nothing but a speck the Earth wants to brush off its back. And it's succeeding.
No way a car could make the trip down, let alone to anywhere. The nearest town, a little nowhere place called Arlington whose most remarkable feature is its distinct un-remarkableness, is twenty miles away. Even if you risked the trip, presuming there was enough gas to last, there is no way of knowing whether things would be any better there. Here, at least, you have a house full of food and books, a fireplace and a chest full of wood. It's not much, but it's enough.
You abandon the tree, and explore the surrounding area, wielding the saw. There are only two houses within easy walking distance: one belonged to a lonely man, a chef, divorced from his wife. His driveway is a lonely slope, eerily quiet. Two of his horses lie dead on the field; a third grazes from their distended stomachs. All of the grass in the field is brown and dead. You fight the urge to vomit and walk past them, feeling the large black eyes of the horse on you.
The door opens easily. No one locks their doors here. But the smell, the pungent smell of roadkill. Inside, his body swings on a noose from the ceiling, ripped clean of all flesh. Maggots crawl up and down the floor.
When you see the date of the suicide note on his desk, you suppress a laugh. He hanged himself two days before this whole thing started. Before, not after. It is ironies like this that keep you going. Ironies remind you what it is to be human.
You leave, ready to go back. The clouds are darkening; it is almost dusk. Don’t bother checking on your other neighbor. She is a stubborn old woman, and is feuding with you; yes, feuding. Twenty years ago, your grandparents thought it would be cute to paint their roof barn red. She objected, saying it was an eyesore, and demanded that they paint it back. Your grandparents refused. She hasn’t spoken to a single member of your family since.
You do not miss talking to her, except that she has a nice farm which she used to let you and your cousins play in as children. She has chickens too, rabbits and a billy goat which you were once fond of.
You bet they would be delicious.
Every morning now, you go out to the vegetable garden to see what damage the zombies have done. Your grandma showed you how to protect it from deer and chipmunks, rubbing soap and pepper over things. She spread dog hair around to scare the deer with its smell. But the zombies fear nothing. Each day you board up the side with loose planks and chicken wire, and each night they tear it down and trample your lettuce. But it's OK; who likes lettuce anyway?
You spend more of your time during the day repairing the house, nailing boards to the insides of the doors so they can't get in. Whenever they break a window, you cover it with wood. Your hands have grown rough and callused from the heavy hammer, fingers sore and bleeding where you hit them instead of the nails.
As the days go by and the zombies break more of your windows, the house grows darker. This is probably a metaphor, but you cannot guess of what.
Your grandmother, a retired research biologist, had strong feelings about her own death. She spoke of suicide as casually as if she were euthanizing the family pet. “I don't want to live past the point where I can take care of myself,” she would say, chopping garlic and onions into a saucepan for dinner. “The minute I start to lose it, I want someone to kill me.”
You think of her as you prepare your daily instant coffee and drink it, grimacing at the taste. She left a huge jar of it in the cupboard, unopened, and you hate for it to go to waste. It was one of the vices they told her to give up when she started the chemo, caffeine and wine. “Just one more glass,” she'd argue with your grandfather, haggling over a bottle of Pinot Grigio.
He sighed in the way that only Jewish men of a certain age can, a deep groan that started all the way in his belly and didn't even look up from his metaphysical writing when he said, “Fine, if you want to kill yourself.” Somewhere, deep down, he knew that she did.
While you admire her persistence, you have come to realize that none of us get to choose how we die. The zombies are proof enough of that.
The seconds multiply and grow like the deer flies which cling to the walls in angry black droves. How do so many get in? They dive into the sticky flypaper your grandparents hung and stay there until they die, struggling feebly against the glue. Even your grandfather, peaceful in every way, could not stand flies. Why do some species get more respect than others? The flypaper, and the leather shoes he wore, were not his only hypocrisies.
He told you a story once about two men who meet at the gates of Heaven. Only one man can enter. One was a sinner, who committed every horrible and foul crime known to man, but who died saving a woman; the other was a saint, upright and virtuous to the last, who killed a fly. The woman appears, and she makes a heart-rending case for why the sinner should be in Heaven: he performed a truly selfless act in saving her, and as such this outweighed his many sins. The fly is also there, and he makes an equally moving case to bar the saint from Heaven: the saint went out of his way to strike a living being from the face of the planet, carelessly ending the fly's existence. “But you are just a fly,” the saint objects. “I have saved countless others, and the sinner has murdered other men.” The fly, flapping its wings slowly, asks: “Didn't I have a right to live as well?”
Your grandfather stops the story there. He turns to you and asks who you believe should be let into heaven, the saint who killed a fly or the sinner who saved a woman. You hate stories like this, which don't have endings. You tear at yourself, trying to think of an answer, but there is none.
Once when you were eleven, your grandma took a stick of butter out of the freezer while baking her famous vegan blueberry cobbler and whispered to you, soft and conspiratorial, “That's the secret ingredient.” That was the first time you began to doubt your grandpa; all those years of preaching about how his vegan diet had cleared his allergies, done wonders for his health and spirit, and he could be duped so easily into eating butter. In the last few years, when she got too weak to bake, he tried to take over for her, bustling around the kitchen in an apron. It was so sad, almost heartbreaking when he saw the finished product, the crust dry and crumbly and a grim shade of gray. “It's missing your special touch, Nestle,” he would say, poking at it. You lock eyes with your grandmother: you and she both know what it is missing, but he never guessed.
A few months before they died, you drove up to the house and baked a real pie for your grandparents, one with milk and butter and eggs. You felt a bit guilty doing it, but the satisfaction on his face while he scarfed it down was worth it. He chattered in a steady stream of Yiddish about how good you are, what a good cook, what a noble grandchild. You smiled and pretended to be happy.
The sinner or the saint? The question keeps you awake at night now as you listen to the drone of dying flies, fighting for life. You lie on the couch by the fire sleepless, swatting away the bugs which land on you and bite your face, your neck, your legs.
In the morning, you take down the flypaper and burn it.
The air grows colder, and the leaves drop and fall off. It is August, maybe, but it feels more like November —a nuclear winter. You mark time by books; you've begun reading through them a handful at a time, trying to fill the endless hours while you wait.
What are you waiting for? You're not sure. Will FEMA really bail you out? Vermont is probably last on the list for rescue, if there's a list at all. If there's still even a government. There is no reception on your FM radio, still no phone connection—you have no way of knowing what's going on without leaving, and you daren't stray too far from your house.
But still, this is the United States of America. Things will be okay in the end; they have to be. Somewhere in some corn-fed part of Peoria there was a boy raised on Dawn of the Dead, who believed in zombies even after he grew up and became a research scientist. That man has a really good zombie contingency plan, and that is what will save us all. You hope.
The news would only depress you now, anyway. Your grandmother was like that; she'd rather read stories than watch the news. Weeks ago, you found a treasure trove, a stash of dime novels hidden in her closet like cheap pornography: Patrick C. O’Brien, Georgette Heyer, mystery and science-fiction—it’s all here, 1960s vintage. You read by candlelight in the closet, curled up with the books, reading about wayfaring seamen and damsels in distress as the zombies knock around outside.
The day finally comes when you've finished every novel in the house. You've even finally cracked and read Frankenstein, although it was not as good a book as you'd hoped. The biggest surprise is that Victor Frankenstein attempts to have a reasoned debate with the monster instead of shooting it at first sight. So many problems in literature could be solved if only the characters used guns. Would that zombies were as easy to destroy as Frankenstein's monsters, your life would be simpler.
Bored, you begin reading the oversized dictionary in the guest room cover to cover. Discover new favorite words: ichthyic; widdershins; guano You love the specificity of language. Why did anyone ever need to invent “widdershins”, a word that meant “to spin counter-clockwise”? Nevertheless, you are glad this word exists. It describes the world right now perfectly: everything is falling widdershins, moving against the sun, against the order of nature. Everything is falling counterclockwise, spiraling out of control.
As the days grow shorter, yet stretch infinitely, you think about numerology. Your grandfather told you about the idea that God has used a numeric code to hide messages in the Torah, excitedly explained how there was a hidden message about Germany, which we could have used to avert the Holocaust if only we had known to look for it. You pore over your grandfather's copy of the Hebrew Bible for weeks, translating words into numbers—alef=1, bet=2, etcetera—but you cannot find anything that says, “Watch out, the zombies are coming.” Disappointed, you shut the book.
Reading through the Torah, you discover a lot of strange things. There is a section in Leviticus with instructions on how to cure leprosy: one must take a living bird and wash it in the blood of a dead bird while reciting a prayer, wash the walls of your home with a ritualistic soap, and so on.
But what ritual prayer is used to cure zombies? What mikvah is strong enough to purify the undead? Where is your God now?
As winter approaches and the food outside is scarce, the zombies grow bolder. Strolling down to the pond one morning, hunched over in one of your grandfather's old jackets, your breath forming frost in the wintery air, you see one lurching toward you. It was hard to spot from inside, blending into the gray sky as it does, but now its movement is apparent. Heart pounding, you turn around and run back toward the house. There is nothing to worry about, you try to tell yourself. Zombies are slow-moving creatures, only really terrible by their mass. You can outrun one without a problem. But, as you bang the door shut behind you and lock it, you know this is not a good sign. Where there is one zombie around and awake in the day, there might be more tomorrow.
Curl up in bed; read The Elements of Style for the dozenth time. The soothing voice of Strunk and White is the only thing that can take your mind off of these things. Punctuation is like a religion: there is no right answer, but you turn to a higher power for guidance anyway.
Lull yourself to sleep over the question of the semicolon; when is it appropriate to use?; when is it not?
Your grandfather used to say it didn’t matter how you prepared food, it all got mixed up in your stomach anyway. He would mix kale, nutritional yeast and orange juice in a blender and drink the resulting sludge, grimacing but professing that it was delicious.
Sometimes when you set down to eat cold baked beans out of a can for the fourth day in a row, you stare longingly outside. You think about opening the door, surrendering. It might not be so bad, really. Brains must be a delicacy to them; they stare at you so hungrily.
He would be so proud of you now, living as you are without the distraction of television, the internet, or anything. You are finally eating vegan, as he pestered you to do for so long. You spend many hours in the day meditating, thinking of nothing, simply because there is nothing else to do. You are not sure if you feel as enlightened as you are supposed to; are you fully awake now? Is this what Gurdjieff considered consciousness? After being asleep for so many years, would you even know what higher consciousness feels like? It feels like hunger, you suppose, and cold.
There are three ways you can imagine your story ending. In one, something goes terribly wrong: the generator breaks, you run out of food, the zombies surround your house 24/7 and don't ever let you leave again. It is a slow decline from there to your eventual death.
In another, you give up. Something within you snaps and you surrender, give yourself up to the zombies. Or maybe you just put a plastic bag over your head. You've heard dying that way is peaceful, like falling asleep.
The third option, the one you pray for, is this: someone makes a vaccine. You return to a world you once knew and start picking up the pieces. You don't care how unlikely this is; it is something to hope for, look forward to. Isn't that what religion is, after all?
Whatever happens, you know this: you will die. The only question is this: will you die passively, the victim of brute animal suffering, and enjoy what time you have left; or will you die with intention, with purpose, the way your grandfather meant for it to end?
Either way, whichever you choose, you know it will come soon. In the meantime, until your food supply runs out, you wait, fully conscious, perhaps for the first time.