Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2013
The Syndrome by Brian Francis Slattery
The fundamental issue with my patients, as with all the undead, is that they’ve merged with the eternal. It happens somewhere in the transition from life to undeath—their first death, they call it—and they come out of it with no ordered memory as we understand it. Everything is in the present, whether it happened to them yesterday or hundreds of years ago. It’s all the same to them. To us, it seems like they’ve scrambled their recent and distant pasts; in more clinical terms, it’s as if all the undead, the millions upon millions of them, are suffering from dementia, manifest in thought, word, and deed. But I’ve come to understand that it’s their form of sanity. Time isn’t an arrow for us, a former patient of mine has told me. It’s a continent. You say when things happen. We say where.
Does the land ever end? I ask them. Most of them just stare at me after that. They don’t even understand why I would ask such a stupid question.
The undead overran the planet at least four human generations ago. I say at least because the details are sketchy. History is written by the victors, they used to say, but the undead don’t write history at all. It’s meaningless to them. The rumors are that the Grand Transition from life to undeath was horrible, just horrible. To the impartial observer, it would have been an episode of mass planetary cannibalism. But that was a long time ago. My parents couldn’t remember any of it, and neither could their grandparents, and for me, the line back into the past ends there, except in books. Now, the handful of humans that are left are getting by. The undead stopped using us as food in my grandparents’ time—it was too much work both to hunt us and to herd us, so they switched to pigs and goats—and now they just keep some of us to do things that they’re not as good at doing. Accounting. Architecture. Overseeing long-term public works projects. Their entire food production and distribution system: the care and feeding of the animals, then their shipment and slaughter, because the undead want to eat them raw and bloody. And, as it turns out, psychological services, which is where I come in.
But training in human psychology doesn’t prepare you for treating the undead as much as it should. For psychologists in the past, who didn’t have undead patients, it must have been easy to take for granted that so much treatment rested on the idea of constructing a narrative for the subject, the way that his collective experiences led to the formation of his identity, his conception of himself. But the undead have no use for narratives, or any stories, at all. The idea of a beginning, a middle, an end. Of teleology of any kind. They don’t do it. But somehow they have psychological problems all the same—I suppose it will be my life’s work to understand why—and they come to me, whenever it is they come, for help.
* * *#
Derek, the patient I like best and who is also my most difficult, is, as far as I can make out, suicidal. He says he has always been this way, though of course he would say that. I’ve been trying to construct his narrative for myself for about four years, but even figuring out his age is complicated. As far as I can make out, he’s somewhere between two hundred and three hundred years old—if I knew when the Grand Transition was, my job of constructing personal histories would be a lot easier—and he was somewhere between thirty-five and fifty years old when he became undead.
“Why are you here today?” I ask.
“Do you mean visiting your office or in a more existential sense?” Derek says.
“The first one,” I say.
“I’m here because I tried again,” Derek says.
“I don’t know.”
Derek has tried to destroy himself at least four times. He has jumped off of buildings, bridges, and ships, but being undead, he has survived all these attempts on his existence with ease. Derek is what people before the Grand Transition would have thought of, more or less, as a zombie, though nobody uses that word that now. It turns out that vampires and zombies, which in popular culture were two separate creatures, are instead poles on a spectrum. There are pure zombies, former people without a thought in their heads but the desire to eat, and there are pure vampires, who I tend to shy away from taking on as patients because I don’t have a lot of personal tolerance for their brand of narcissistic ennui, and a lot of them turn out to be criminals. But most of the undead fall somewhere in the middle. If I were forced to plot the distribution, I’d say that the undead population forms a bell curve with a skew two-thirds of the way toward the zombie pole. That is, most of them shamble around and have trouble with hygiene, but they’re sentient and can carry on an extended conversation, at least until the mania to eat overwhelms them.
“If you don’t know when you did it, then how do you know you tried again?” I say.
“I’m missing my left pinkie,” Derek says. “In some of my memories, I still have that pinkie.”
“How do you know that wasn’t a long time ago?” It’s a rigged question. The last time I saw Derek, he had his pinkie; as with all my patients, I’m trying to make his brain work a little harder to construct the narrative I need to treat him. But Derek’s a little too smart to fall for that.
“I don’t,” he says. “But you do. How long has it been since you’ve seen me?”
“About five months.”
“At least that long since you made it into my office. Do you remember ever coming to the lobby and just leaving?”
“Yes. But I don’t remember if I had my pinkie then or not.”
My question to him isn’t crazy. Having no sense of time as a linear dimension, the undead don’t make or keep appointments. They just show up at my office when they need my services, and they can wait a very long time without complaining if I happen to be with a difficult patient. My theory is that they could wait literally forever if the urge to kill and eat didn’t overtake them first; thanks to some mild screening on my part, my patients have the self-awareness to leave my office when they feel the rage coming on, though if a patient is hungry a lot, the chances are very good that I won’t see them much at all. It means that my patients don’t get equal care, which I feel bad about, but it’s better than being eaten, as has happened to a few of my less careful colleagues.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” Derek continues. “You’ve told me about this need to construct a story.”
“Yes,” I say, “even though you’re going to tell me there’s no point.”
“That’s right. There isn’t.” He smiles. He’s missing two-thirds of his teeth and doesn’t know it.
“You know,” I say, “that the inability to find a story, some sort of meaning in your own existence—and thus, for most humans, joy, or at least satisfaction—is a hallmark of serious depression.”
“But it’s our natural state,” Derek says. “We’ve talked about this. We think the human impulse to find meaning, or even patterns, in everything is comical. There’s no meaning for us in anything, and no need to find one. If you ask me, that seems healthier. There’s so much less anxiety involved.”
I make a move I’ve been thinking of making for a while. “So if you’re so relaxed about everything,” I say, “why are you trying to kill yourself all the time? And maybe more important, why do you even feel bad about that? Why not just off yourself the right way and be done with it? Why cling to your second life at all if there’s no meaning to it?”
Derek pauses. He’s thinking. I sense that I might be close to something. But then he smiles and I realize he’s just amusing himself.
“You’re saying I might be more self-aware than I’m aware of. How is that even possible?”
I shrug. “I don’t know.” I say this a lot with Derek—I don’t know—and this time I say it with enough weight to refer to other conversations Derek and I have had, that the living and the undead can’t always comprehend each other because our perceptions of the world are so divergent. Time is an arrow. Time is a continent. We can understand the difference as a concept, but how can either of us know it, feel it?
I press on. “It’s possible though, isn’t it?” I say. “The vampires are very, very self-aware.” We still use the word vampire because the vampires use it to define themselves and demand that everyone else do it, too; they’re always trying to set themselves apart from everyone else.
“Yeah, but they’re just assholes,” Derek says.
I laugh. This is just one reason why Derek is my favorite patient. But Derek doesn’t like it when I laugh, or at least laugh first. He always thinks it’s because he said something wrong. I think when he was alive, he was a very sweet man.
* * *#
The human impulse to find meaning, or even patterns, in everything is comical. Derek isn’t trying to be condescending when he says that. But it’s something to think about. There are no psychological services for the living anymore, maybe because it’s pretty obvious what we would find: that those of us who are left are worn out, exhausted, tired of being terrified all the time and still as terrified as ever. We’re paranoid and depressed. And the idea of finding meaning in how we live now strikes me as a path to insanity, or a revolution that’s sure to fail, or a fervent religiosity that’s fascinated with death, none of which seem very healthy. The vampires have fetishized the meaninglessness of their existence into an all-consuming nihilism; what makes them insufferable to everyone else also makes them total hedonists. They live apart even from undead society, and party all the time. There’s blood everywhere when they’re done. They’d kill all the few living who are left tomorrow if they didn’t also know how much they depend on us to make them their food. Every once in a while, a few of them decide to try it anyway. Three people are ripped apart at a feeding station before the other undead subdue the vampires who did it. Then those vampires are incinerated and the ashes scattered in the ocean. It’s unclear whether, even then, the vampires are really dead, or dead again. Some say the ashes still harbor a bit of undeath in them, and it’s just a matter of time—say, a hundred thousand years—before they put themselves back together. But again, that perception of time. For the rest of the undead, the cremated vampires are gone now, though also still here, and it doesn’t matter very much one way or the other.
Sometimes I envy the undead for this. Hey, it’s all meaningless, they say. So what? They’ve taken all their human anxiety and ambition, even the notion of progress—the cause of so many problems—and thrown it out. In its place is a static serenity that shows up nowhere in human history that I’m aware of. Since the Grand Transition, nothing serious has changed, at all, on the entire planet for four generations. There’s no culture anywhere: no new books or movies, no new music. No more scientific discoveries or technological breakthroughs. When something the humans built falls over, the undead put it back up again only if they need it, which means a lot of things stay broken. But there are also no wars, no crime other than what the vampires commit. No oppression or even inequality. When the undead aren’t hungry, they go about their days in a state of lazy bliss. It’s the utopia that only the most idealistic among us dared to dream about, and they were mocked for it when they told anyone else what they were thinking. We live in a global peace in which almost everyone gets to live forever. The only problem is that it’s driving me crazy. It’s as though the Great Transition stopped the story of the world—the living and the undead stopped reading it or writing it—and we, the living, have been going over the same page, maybe the same paragraph, for our entire lives, again and again. Maybe we think there’s a word we missed, or maybe we think the words will change. But we didn’t, and they don’t.
#* * *
I don’t see Derek again for another seven months. When he comes back to my office, another piece of him is missing, his right ear. He says he lost it when he threw himself off the smokestack of an old factory. He smacked his head on the metal roof of a shed on the way down, and after that, he only remembers waking up and walking away. He must have lost his ear then, though just like the pinkie, he’s not sure; he didn’t notice it was gone right away, and now he can’t order his memory enough to pinpoint when it happened. It’s frustrating: It feels like we’re going around in circles, which, of course, the undead say we always are. Everything’s a cycle, they say. Even the cycles have cycles. But I have another angle to try now.
“Derek, in a way I’m glad it took you so long to come back,” I say, “because in the meantime, I realized I’ve been thinking about your case all wrong.”
“How do you mean?”
“I’ve been fixated too much on your behavior itself. I’ve been thinking too much about what you’re doing, instead of what you’re not doing.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Derek says.
“You say that you think you want to die because you keep doing things intended to destroy yourself.”
I take a breath. “But for someone who wants to die,” I say, “you’re doing a terrible job. We both know that it’s only a sure thing for the undead if you burn yourself to cinders.”
“There are accidents,” Derek says, “that cause people’s second deaths. That’s what I’m emulating.”
“I know, I know. But I don’t think you’re playing the odds of death by falling because you’re hoping to die. I think you do it because you want to live. And I don’t mean live like the undead do. I mean live like the living do. Like I do.”
“I don’t follow,” Derek says.
“When you jump,” I say, “you’re making yourself more fragile. Making your existence more precarious, and thus more precious. When you’re falling, you’re in danger of dying the same way the living are in danger of dying all the time. You’re not looking for the oblivion at the end. You’re looking for what’s before it. The fear, the exhilaration. The life.”
Derek doesn’t say anything, and I’m afraid he’s going to make a joke. But he doesn’t.
“If you’re wrong,” he says, “then you’ve just told me to burn myself to ashes.”
“You must be pretty sure of yourself. If you’re right, what would you have me do instead?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I believe I’ve missed most from being born after the Grand Transition. What I would have liked to have seen. The places I can’t visit now because it’s too upsetting. It’s not libraries; the books are alive enough, still, and I don’t think my distance from them is any greater than the distance between writer and reader has ever been. The same goes for recorded music; maybe I’m not what used to be called a music fan, because I’m happy enough with everything that’s survived—there’s so much of it, and I’m still always finding new things to listen to when I need to. No, it’s the art museums that make me angry. I see it, the progression through the ages and media. The abrupt plunge, in the twentieth century, into vertiginous abstraction; whether it reflects the chaos of the century or just the fact that photography killed the market for realistic portraiture, or something else, I have no idea. Then there’s the where-do-we-go-from-here art of the early to mid-twenty-first century. It’s too easy to say that it embodies the sense of a society fragmenting, losing cohesive direction, collapsing, because the Grand Transition happened then. But the pattern is there, I swear, almost as if they saw it coming; and since then, there has been no more art. A few artists among the living, of course. But no such thing as art as a practice, a culture, a thing for some people to do and for other people to vilify and celebrate.
“Go out and get some paper,” I say to Derek, “and some paint.”
“What do I do with it?” Derek asks.
“Whatever you want,” I say.
* * *#
A few months later Derek visits my office with an envelope in his hand.
“What’s this?” I say.
“I don’t really know how these things work,” Derek says, “but it’s an invitation.”
It’s for a show, for his artwork, in just a few days. I go.
From a technical perspective, the work is what you would expect from someone who’s just started painting. Derek hasn’t learned how to control the medium very well. The colors are sometimes a little too bright, a little too dark; other times, they’re a little too subdued, washed out. There’s no sense of history, no sense of fitting into a continuing tradition. Still lifes and portraits hang next to more simplified figures and cartoons, which are next to pieces that are pure abstraction. At first I think it’s yet another symptom of Derek’s undeath. But the books Derek must have looked at, the museums he visited, are the same as he is. Right up until the Great Transition, the paintings had historical meaning because the living gave it to them. Now the traditions they came out of are long gone, the history has leached out of them, and what’s left is what they have always been, at their most fundamental: products of personal expression. That’s all Derek sees, I think. And it’s hard not to wonder if maybe it’s better that way, because some of Derek’s paintings are beautiful. They have an ecstasy and torment to them that, at first, I have trouble understanding, until I realize that maybe it’s because I can’t. In the paintings, I think, Derek is grappling with his experience, his fragmented memories, of his life and first death and the years upon years of undead stasis that have followed, and maybe I’m reading too much into them, but they seem to be asking why: why the Great Transition happened, and not in a general sense—because that can be explained by epidemiology—but why it happened to him, why he survived it, why he was spared and damned, and what he’s supposed to do now. He has new eyes; he’s trying to look back into his own narrative and read how he got here. And he’s trying to turn the page forward and read what happens next, or maybe write it. In a word, he’s looking for meaning, like no one has for four generations.
Derek isn’t at his own opening. The living who come are talking among themselves; some of them are wondering why they don’t do things like this anymore. Most of the undead just shamble through the place, not seeming to even notice the difference between Derek’s paintings and the walls behind them. Several of them get hungry within minutes of arriving and leave. But a few of them stop and stare, transfixed. They’re losing themselves, as if the images are the only things in their heads, their only thoughts. I don’t know what happens to them, or how it changes them. But not long afterward, I get a lot more patients, and they all say the same thing: They’ve come after talking to Derek, and Derek says I can help them.
* * *#
I don’t see Derek again for months. When I do, the difference in his appearance is startling. It’s not just that he’s as whole as he was when I saw him last. His clothes are a little cleaner, his teeth a little cleaner, his posture’s more upright. He’s more put together. More alive.
“You look great,” I say to him.
“Thanks,” he says.
“You don’t look like you’ve jumped off of anything since I last saw you.”
“I haven’t, to the best of my recollection.”
“So what brings you here, then?”
“I have a lot of questions,” Derek says, “about being alive.”
“Don’t we all,” I say.
I tell him about how busy I am; I have about a hundred new patients thanks to him. At first, I’m stupid about treating them. I tell them to try painting. Only a few of them know what to do when they get in front of a canvas. Most of them just shuffle off, and then find their way back to me, as miserable as ever. A few of them don’t make it back at all. Their charred, half-ashen remains are found beneath bridges, in the basements of buildings. I consider giving up my license after that, but then I switch tactics and start getting results. I discover it’s not the content that matters; it’s the form. There are now undead who make furniture, plant gardens, build houses, create machines. I’ve been to see the things they’ve made, and they’re like Derek’s paintings, recognizable as drawn from the work of the living, but bearing the marks of the thought processes of the undead. The furniture is less comfortable than durable. The gardens are designed to bear fruit maybe now, maybe in a decade. The houses are built with basement subfloors, growing down as much as up; the undead don’t care much about daylight, or about how dank it is below. Their machines don’t do things faster, but they do make things easier. And the makers carry themselves like Derek now, keeping a little cleaner, walking a little taller. They’re developing a sense of pride.
Which brings me to a particular patient I’ve been meaning to ask Derek about; the undead don’t care about confidentiality.
“Do you know someone named Marvin?” I say.
“No,” Derek says.
“He says he met you.”
“He came to me a couple months ago. Classic Derek Syndrome—I hope you don’t mind I’ve started calling it that.”
“No, I don’t mind.”
“I’m trying to give you the respect you deserve for being the first.”
“I said I don’t mind.” He’s quieter when he repeats himself.
“You really don’t?” I say.
“No. Please tell me about Marvin.”
“Classic syndrome. But it turns out his thing isn’t painting or building or anything physical at all. It’s organization.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he’s organizing. Other undead. Getting them to specialize, to work together as a unit. He’s got about two hundred followers now.”
“But we don’t do that,” Derek says. “I mean follow or lead.”
“You do now,” I say.
Derek’s quiet for a while. Then he says: “This is the beginning of us replicating all the problems that the living had.”
“I thought of that, too,” I say. “But there aren’t any problems so far. The undead following him seem happier than they were before. They’re part of something bigger than themselves, and they like it. And they’re not hurting anyone else.”
“That could change,” Derek says.
“If it does, I think it’ll be slow enough that something can be done about it.”
Derek shakes his head. “Don’t count on it. You understand better than any living person I know how we comprehend time, but here’s the part you fail to grasp. The change can happen in a thousand years, or it can happen right now, in this instant. And either way, there will be no warning.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“We’re all going to live forever. It seems like a certainty that the change will happen sometime. We don’t care when it is. But you will.”
* * *#
Marvin has been coming to me once a week since Derek’s art opening. He’s a short, somewhat plump man with thinning white hair streaking his scalp; I’m guessing he was maybe in his late sixties when he died. His first appointments were so fruitful that I made the mistake of congratulating myself on how good a psychologist I had become. I now understand that Marvin himself can take credit for his own progress. His penchant for organization extends to his personal life. He cares when his clothes are in disrepair. He cuts his hair. He sets appointments and shows up for them. He might even shower. Except for his sudden urges to kill and devour, he could be mistaken for an actual living American, or what I understand Americans were like. And since he started his colony, he doesn’t seem unhappy, anxious, or conflicted any more. It makes me wonder why he still comes. A small part of me hopes it’s not just because he likes to hear himself talk.
He’s sitting in the chair across from me, legs crossed, looking at his brown nails. “I’m thinking of having an election,” he says. He looks up at me right after he says it and doesn’t change his expression at all.
“For what?” I say.
“Governor,” he says.
“You could just wait your turn, right?”
To the best of my knowledge, the undead have kept the basic structures of the governments of the living intact, though they have no interest in public office. The duties of governing are chores to be tolerated in between bouts of feeding, and since it’s almost impossible to convene a legislature, some rules have had to be ignored regarding how many representatives need to be present for a vote to be legitimate. The government functions only in the most basic sense of that word. But there’s also no politics of the kind that, I understand, people grew to hate so much. Positions are passed from one officeholder to the next without campaigns, ceremonies, or rancor. Our current governor got into office because he happened literally to be in the governor’s office, looking for something to eat, when a few of the previous governor’s appointees wandered in to ask his opinion of something. The previous governor hasn’t been seen for months, a situation that bothers no one at all.
“The governor hasn’t left his office in a while,” Marvin says. “And besides, I don’t want to wait my turn. I want to take my turn.”
I try and fail to keep my eyebrows from rising.
“Why?” I say.
“I have plans,” Marvin says.
“That kind of impatience would make sense if you were living,” I say, “but you have all the time in the world to execute those plans.”
“Do I? How can you be sure?” Then Marvin’s litany begins, of the many ways that an accident could destroy him. He thinks all the time, he says, about how his existence could end. “That would be catastrophic,” he says.
“For you,” I say.
“For a psychologist,” Marvin says, “you spend a lot of time tearing your patients down.”
“Catastrophe is a strong word,” I say. “I haven’t heard anyone use it in years. We call the events that led to the deaths of billions of people a transition.”
“That’s because to us, it isn’t a catastrophe.”
“That’s my point,” I say. “To the undead, nothing is a catastrophe, so it’s interesting that you used that word. It suggests that you have, well, ambitions.”
“Do I have to tell you how unusual that is?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why leave it up to chance by holding an election? I bet the governor would let you have his office if you asked him.”
“But I don’t want to just have the office,” Marvin says. “I want to win it.”
“Will it be legitimate if you run unopposed and the only ones who vote are your followers?”
“It has to start somewhere,” Marvin says.
“What do you mean by it?” I say.
He doesn’t say anything, and for the first time, I’m a little scared of him.
I’m there for one of Marvin’s rallies, a parade down a wide avenue. They don’t have the organization to shut down the streets all along the parade route, so those in Marvin’s colony marching on the avenue have to push away the usual traffic meandering in the road before the motorcade comes. There’s a band leading the way, twenty-five undead in matching, moth-eaten white uniforms with rusting horns and broken percussion, wheezing and lurching through a short selection of John Philip Sousa tunes. The candidate himself is sitting in the back of an old convertible, like the old pictures of Harry Truman, waving at the crowd, while six of his followers push the car down the road. The driver doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing; the car weaves from side to side across the entire avenue. But Marvin never breaks his smile. He’s even doing the slow wave that politicians used to do, so that their hands were in focus for the cameras. But there are no cameras now.
Marvin wins his election by an easy margin. He puts the current governor’s name on the ballot to give himself an opponent. Voter turnout is, of course, tiny. All Marvin’s followers, who now number in the thousands, vote for their leader. The rest of the votes—a few thousand—are an even split between Marvin and the governor. The story goes that Marvin strides into the governor’s office to tell him he’s lost.
“You mean I need to use a different office now?” the governor says.
“That’s right,” Marvin says.
“Okay,” the now ex-governor says, and ambles down the hall to what used to be the state parks commissioner’s post. Later he gets hungry and leaves the building altogether. He’s seen again at the seashore, waist-deep in the water, catching fish with his hands and eating them whole, everything but the bones.
* * *#
At first, Marvin’s regime as governor is nothing but benign. His followers go around the state looking for things to fix—bridges, streets, water lines, highways—and when they find them, they fix them. They work all day and night. In the first months of his second year as governor, things look as good as they ever have in my lifetime, and better than they do in the old pictures of what it looked like when everyone was alive.
Marvin is doing in actuality what Derek is doing in his paintings. He’s turning the page, on us and the world around us, and the new words we get to read, the blank pages we get to write on, are making us giddy. For a few weeks, it’s possible to wonder if the biggest problem—the one of being alive, of being undead—has been solved: the chaos of the living world before the Great Transition taught us that life was too much for the living; the stasis that followed meant the undead were too close to death; and now we see, we all see, with our new eyes, that the perfect balance always lay between them. It just took us a few millennia to find it. It seems so obvious to us, in those first few weeks, that we even fool ourselves into thinking it’s permanent.
One night, five vampires go on a bender, the biggest one in a while. They break into a house where three of the living are sleeping and wake them up to tear them to pieces. To try to cover their tracks, they set the house on fire with the corpses in it. They end up being a little too good at it: The fire spreads so fast that the house collapses around them, and the vampires die in the flames. Then the fire’s out of control; it lights up three of the neighboring houses. It’s been a long time since anyone has had to deal with a blaze that big, and twenty-six houses burn to the ground before it’s put out. In the morning, the charred bodies of the vampires who started it are discovered. Under Marvin’s predecessor, this would be considered enough, even a form of poetic justice, as if the vampires anticipated the punishment they would receive for what they did and executed themselves. The ruined houses would stay ruined. But Marvin has higher standards than that. He conducts an investigation into what he calls vampire culture. This leads to over a hundred arrests, for everything from disturbing the peace to first-degree murder. Many of those arrested for murder are executed, and in Marvin’s public statement about it, he uses a curious phrase: Today, April 16, Year One. He’s started counting time again; he’s been counting it for over a year.
“January 1, Year Zero is the day Marvin entered office,” Derek says, when we see each other again. “You see? He’s starting history over again, like the dictators of the twentieth century did.”
“I can’t say I’m sorry about some of those arrests,” I say.
“Disturbing the peace?” Derek says. “I didn’t know there was a peace to disturb.”
“There was,” I say. I can’t help noticing that I’ve used the past tense.
“That was why it lasted so long,” Derek says, “because we didn’t know it was there.”
“What about the murder charges?” I say. “Are you saying you’d rather he just let the vampires kill us?”
Derek looks at me for a while. He’s trying to figure out how to say it. “I don’t mean to be cruel,” he says, “but it isn’t about you. You’re always telling me, and I assume you tell your other patients, that we have to construct narratives for ourselves. But there’s a bigger story out there than you or me, than the living or the undead. Much bigger. And that story scares me, because when I look at what Marvin is doing, I see him writing the same story for us that the living wrote for themselves, before the transition. I told you before that the undead think the search for meaning is comical. Maybe the joke is that we all think we have our own story, but in the end, there’s only one big story that gets us all, and we have to see it through to the last word. Even when we know where it’s going, and even when we don’t like what we see.”
He gets up and leaves, like other patients do when their cravings for living flesh are too much to handle. But I know that’s not why Derek is leaving.
* * *#
A month later I get an invitation to Derek’s latest show, slipped under my office door. I go.
All Derek’s shows have had the same dramatic exuberance as the first one, the same sense of experimentation. But there’s been steady technical improvement, too—it’s obvious that he’s been painting a lot, and what we’re seeing is a fraction of what he has produced. When he’s set his mind to it, he renders a pretty realistic image. A study of a vase with dried flowers in it, two shows ago, still stands in my memory as very fine, capturing the bottled luminosity of the glass, the brittleness of the flowers’ leaves. When he’s gone more abstract, his lines have been more assured, his brushstroke more confident, his sensibility both more refined and bolder, as if the canvas is showing us how he’s perceived the world all the time. He’s always been swimming in an ocean of color.
But not now. The canvases in this show are all dark, swathes of churning black and gray with bright sparks that seem more menacing than hopeful. The figures in them are distorted, grotesque; he’s taken what he knows about realism and abstraction to move into surrealism. It’s unclear what the figures are doing. Eating? Cutting something? I can’t tell. I want the painter to turn on the lights, but I’m afraid of what I would see.
All the canvases in the show are like that. The range of form, subject, and treatment that made his shows so unpredictable is gone. It’s Derek’s fixation on the one story, I think. It has to be. He’s trying to figure out how to avoid telling it again; how to be more alive without losing the lesson that the undead learned just be being undead; how to live in the world without imposing his will on it; how to keep the peace; how to tell a different story than the one we already know.
Derek visits me again a few months later. He’s as intact as he was the last time I saw him, but he slumps in his chair and his clothes are dirtier than I’ve ever seen them. There’s paint all over him, his hands, his shoes, his face.
“Are you going to have another show?” I say.
“No,” he says, “not soon, anyway.”
“You look like you’ve been painting a lot.”
“I have. But I’m not happy with the results.”
“Do you think that’s because you aren’t painting as well or because you’re just not as happy?”
He smiles and looks himself over. “I see why you’d think I’m not happy. But I wouldn’t say I’m unhappy either.”
“How would you describe yourself?”
He looks at me for a long time. “Good question,” he says. When I first met him, I would have taken this at face value. But I know him well enough now that I can tell he has a better answer. He just doesn’t want to say what it is.
I let the quiet hang there. Since the vampire purge, Marvin has gotten more aggressive. He’s dug up laws from before the Great Transition that haven’t been evoked in a long time, and he’s interpreting them in what seems to be an extreme way, letting them justify his using the government to consolidate his power. There are more police than there have ever been in my life, and they’re more active. They question people who, as far as I can tell, aren’t doing anything wrong. A few of them, last seen with the police, haven’t been seen again. The lieutenant governor has said that he has no idea what happened to them, and that, as much as Marvin would like to, he can’t keep track of everyone in the world. It’s a bad joke.
“You were right about Marvin,” I say. “I should have given you more credit.”
“This isn’t about Marvin, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Derek says. “It’s about that bigger story. But I think I’ve come to terms with it. I think we’re just seeing the start of the next cycle, a move back toward humanity. Which means that maybe this is the window opening for the living.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s your chance to take it all back again. The system we live under is turning in your favor. It’s just a matter of the living getting organized, running for office, putting themselves into positions of power. Then I would like to think that you would be kind to us. For a while, I think you would be. But then there would be one accident, one incident, where too many of the living die for you to tolerate. That would be the end of us, until whatever caused the Great Transition happened again. Then the cycle would repeat. It seems inevitable. Maybe it has repeated itself already. We could be on the third or fourth time around, swinging between living and undead, and we just don’t know it.”
“Inevitable is a strong word to use,” I say.
“Everything’s inevitable, in the end,” Derek says. “But you knew I would say that. You understand me so well. I’m grateful for that.”
“It’s good to see you smile.” I say.
“It’s the small things,” he says.
* * *#
Two weeks later Marvin is dead. It appears that, one night, he’s working late in his office and is the last to leave the building. Fourteen vampires are waiting for him at the door. Words are exchanged—you overstepped your bounds, Governor, or something like that. Whatever they are, they’re formalities, because everyone there knows what’s going to happen. The vampires descend on him. First they dismember him and pile his remains into a pyramid to set them on fire. Then one of them gets the idea that maybe it would be better to eat him, to send the message that transgression of the social order will be met with transgression. They divide Marvin up among them and feast on him. They gnaw and lick his bones clean. There’s an argument over who gets to eat the eyes, though agreement that each of them should get at least a taste of the brain. The next day the vampires run through the streets, telling everyone what they’ve done, waving the bloody rags of the suit Marvin wore over their heads as proof. Some are skeptical, but when Marvin doesn’t appear after a few days, the story gains credibility, and after a week the public accepts it and the logic behind the attack. The vampires go free, even though they’ve broken an obvious taboo. As best as anyone can remember, the undead have never eaten the undead. So no one is surprised when the vampires who ate Marvin seem to go insane. But they don’t think it’s just that Marvin was undead. They think it’s because of the syndrome.
Arnold tells me he’s the one who ate Marvin’s left hand and most of his right calf. He’s not sure which part of the brain he ate. He’s a thin man with messy hair who looks like he was about thirty-five when he died.
“I don’t treat vampires,” I say.
“Please,” he says. “Please. I haven’t slept in four days.”
I size him up. He’s a vampire, but something in him has changed.
“Come in,” I say. He sits on the couch, forward, elbows on his knees. He rocks back and forth a little. His eyes are frantic, always moving. They won’t settle on anything for longer than a second.
“Tell me why you can’t sleep,” I say.
“Because I can’t stop seeing things,” Arnold says.
“Even when you close your eyes?”
“It’s worse when I close my eyes.”
“And when they’re open? What do you see?”
Arnold doesn’t say anything. He just starts shaking. He looks at me, at last, and his eyes get wide. He looks scared.
“Arnold,” I say, “what do you see right now?”
“Well,” he says, “I see all of you. A living you, which, I am told, is what you are.”
“That’s right,” I say.
“But I also see an undead you, with a long scar across your forehead. I also see you as a corpse, propped up in the chair, half-eaten by undead and animals. And I see you as a girl, with blond hair, and as an old woman.”
“All at once?” I say.
“Sometimes,” he says. “Sometimes you’re all here, but all transparent. Sometimes you flicker.”
“A couple times a second.”
What else do you see?” I say.
Arnold looks out the window. “Those buildings?” he says. “They’re clean, brand new. Now a little dirtier, with a quarter of the windows boarded up. Now they’re just beams and scaffolding, and people with tools are crawling all over them. Now they’re on fire. There are flames coming out of every window. No. They’re wet, and half the windows are smashed, and they’re being knocked over in a flood. No. They’re fine, and there’s an ice cream truck coming down the street, and the kids are on the sidewalk shouting and waving money at it. It’s a beautiful day.”
“Arnold,” I say.
He’s staring at his arm. “If I look long enough at it,” he says, “it looks like it’s boiling away—like I’m boiling away—into the air. I can even feel it. It doesn’t hurt, but I can feel it.”
“You’re not disappearing,” I say. “I can see that you’re not.”
“How do you know?” he says. “You can’t see anything.”
What he says points to acute schizophrenia. The hallucinations, the emotional turmoil they’re causing. He’s suffering. But looking at my notes later, I realize that’s diagnosing him as if he were alive. I look at Derek’s notes again. There’s only one big story that gets us all, and we have to see it through to the last word. Even when we know where it’s going, and even when we don’t like what we see. But Arnold doesn’t see one story. He sees infinite stories. He sees everything.
When I was six years old, I was almost killed in a house fire. When I was seventeen, I was almost eaten by three undead who found me outside later than I should have been; I was waiting for my boyfriend, whose parents wouldn’t let him leave the house that night. The girl, the corpse, the undead me, my stories that almost were. If Arnold could be selective about it, he would seem clairvoyant. But Arnold is seeing way more than that. The window that didn’t break, the sandwich I didn’t eat. The bullet that was never fired. The child that was never born. The tornado that never spun down from the clouds. The field of corn and potatoes that never grew. The meteor two thousand miles wide that never crashed into Central Asia and melted the mantle off the planet. The end of the disease that never came, and brought everyone back to life.
Stasis versus chaos: The problem is with the versus. The problem is with the balance. Arnold can see through them both, the stillness of the undead, the movement of the living. Everything is moving and frozen for him, random and foretold, the possible and the actual collapsing into each other. The world dying and reborn, destroyed and created and destroyed again, in every passing second, while a man five generations ago drinks a cool bottle of soda on the street corner and a woman four generations later falls off her bicycle. He can see all of it, all the time, while the rest of us, the living and the undead, move through it, each of us ignorant in our own way. The human impulse to find meaning, or even patterns, in everything is comical. We make the patterns, make our stories, not because we see so much, but because we don’t see enough. See it all, and the narratives break apart, the stasis dissolves into a swarm of frantic movement. How can you see that and keep yourself together?
Four days after Arnold visits me, three of the vampires that had a taste of Marvin’s brain immolate themselves in front of a train station. The other eleven disappear from sight.
“Didn’t one of them come to you?” Derek asks me the next time he sees me.
“Yes.” I said.
“Why did they go? Why did the three of them burn themselves alive?” Derek says.
I shake my head. “I don’t know,” I say. This time it’s not a rhetorical device.
“You must have some idea.”
“Because of everything,” I say. “No. I don’t know.”
I can’t make a story. The city around me is settling back into the same stasis I’ve lived under all my life, a cycle within a cycle, no beginning, middle, or end, for me or anyone. I’m picturing the endless ways the missing eleven vampires could have destroyed themselves, as the other three did, except without us knowing it. They dive into incinerators. They set abandoned buildings on fire and run inside, a rescue in reverse. Or maybe they don’t use fire. They throw themselves into the ocean, let themselves drop until the pressure overtakes them, or they make a balloon and rise into the upper reaches of the atmosphere until they explode. No: maybe they’ve just left, and they’re going to the mountains, or to a secluded shore where no one else is, and they’re starting over, figuring out how to live with everything they see. I want to be there with them. I want to see how the new story starts, where it goes, though that yearning is paired with the crippling despair that I wouldn’t comprehend it. Say I found them, begged them to let me come with them. Even if they didn’t just eat me, there would be a morning when I’d wake up and they’d be gone, somewhere I couldn’t follow, and I’d be left in the middle of another narrative, broken off mid-sentence, with no idea why it happened, what it was all for.
Out the window, at the corner of my vision, something flutters, something big. I don’t have a chance to see what it is. I look back at Derek, who seems to see something in me.
“Tell me if I’m out of line,” he says, “but I think we get each other more than ever.”
“Maybe we do,” I say.
He smiles, shows his teeth. He starts laughing. Before I know it, I’m laughing too.