Short Story In the After
We stayed warm and near to each other around the crackling flames. That’s how we continued on.
It all began ninety-three days ago when the world shut down. There was an unforecasted windstorm that covered the state of Vermont from end to end. Bad storms, each bigger than the last, had become common since the oil refineries were put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, but that may have been a coincidence. The whirlwinds covered everywhere from Brattleboro to Burlington, and their increasing velocity snapped the exposed telephone poles like kindling. That formerly standing lumber was bent over the knee of the storm and broken into splinters. Out went the power, out went our internet, out went the lights.
My daughters, my husband, and I sat in darkness wondering how everyone else was doing. Earlier in the day we had seen that other localized whirlwinds were popping up throughout the country, and there were even a few across the border in Canada, but were their results as damning as ours? Were we all separately experiencing this same catastrophe? We felt cut off from knowing.
At the start, we imagined that a switch would be flipped somewhere and everything would return to normal, as it normally worked, but when days continued to pass with no change and no utility trucks appearing to assess and repair the community’s damage, we remembered earlier storms in far-off countries where the electricity would be out for months. We even thought about more recent storms in Puerto Rico where help was late, if it came at all. Our expected systems of protection had grown increasingly unreliable for more and more people.
As Vermonters, we quickly adapted to the lack of electricity and the darkness it brought. After all, hadn’t we lived through many winter solstices where only a few hours of light were considered a gift? We had long thought of ourselves as resilient. In the Before Times, we used our sunrise-simulator lamps to keep our endorphins up through all of that seasonal darkness, but we could use no such technological aid now for the indoor gloominess. Instead, we ushered the girls outside in coats and blankets. My husband split some extra wood, I built a fire in the pit, everyone made s’mores, and I read the children Edgar Allan Poe stories to scare the pants off them just a bit.
“At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious,” I pronounced in my creepy reading voice. In this tale, one man had tricked another into the cold, damp family vaults beneath his home with the simple offer of some sherry. “Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris.”
The girls sucked in the air around them to fend off the fear while taking in the story. Even as adults, we were a little scared, too, by the real-world terror around us, so we confused the kids and ourselves with some fiction and a sleepover party for the whole family.
At the end of the story, when vengeance is wrought and a man is left to die behind a basement wall for mocking the other’s name, our older daughter said, “People are cruel.”
“Sometimes,” my husband said, “but sometimes they can be a help, like you girls.”
He stroked her cheek, and we stayed warm and near to each other around the crackling flames. That’s how we continued on.
As spring approached, we reminded ourselves that with it came the ever-increasing natural light we craved. Surely this disruption to our lives wouldn’t last too long. We would get back to our jobs, to productivity and our regular schedules soon. We were used to the nine-to-five, and without it, we wandered, not yet aware of what else there was to seek. We couldn’t just be on our own.
As the days passed, though, we began to wonder about other things. The car wouldn’t start. My husband fiddled with the engine and performed an oil change, logically knowing that it was nothing he could fix, but it kept his hands busy for a while. There seemed to be some kind of electricity in the air that wouldn’t allow the spark to take hold, so eventually we accepted that we were isolated to the area within walking distance of our property.
That meant the grocery stores were outside of our consideration. No more Cheetos, Oreos, or even Cape Cod sea salt and vinegar chips. Our mouths salivated, so we started planting our summer seeds early, out of yearning and a fair bit of nervousness. We thought about how we might trade our future bounty with our neighbors a few miles down the road who raised goats for milk and another who had grown grain in the past. We scheduled those long walks in the backs of our minds, but isolation breeds isolation. The trips were few, which we blamed upon the bitter cold that had overstayed its season.
Neither my husband nor I were farmers by any means, but we knew how to grow tomatoes and greens. Our berry bushes were a favorite of the kids. And we wished for the weather to warm for a longer growing season, even as we hoped the electricity would miraculously come back on. Of course the telephone poles remained in heaps by the side of the road, so we knew better. Still, we hoped, and I even performed some magical thinking—like, if I can read seven pages of a book before one of the children interrupts me, then the electricity is sure to return. I felt an anger brewing underneath it all, but without a target or, really, with so many targets I couldn’t reach, I buried the feeling. Mostly, we both tried to stay calm for the kids and planned for the future in small ways that grew with the lengthening daylight.
Surely this disruption to our lives wouldn’t last too long. We would get back to our jobs, to productivity and our regular schedules soon.
One day, just a few weeks into our new normal, we were outside identifying plants with the girls, who were doing anything but the planned activity. Their primary goal seemed to be shouting into the woods in search of an echo. Just as I hushed them, I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I thought I had seen a low-flying vulture swoop toward the house that I could point out to them, but there at the end of our gravel driveway, I spied a traveler who seemed to have appeared like an apparition. He wore a long black coat, a tall black hat, and carried a bulging suitcase by a handle well-worn. He was the first person we’d seen in many days, and his presence was disconcerting. We had grown unaccustomed to visitors.
“Hello, folks,” he said. His ginger-colored hair flopped forth unnaturally when he tipped his hat in an exaggerated bow. He was more sinister than comical, but we bowed back, because what else do you do?
My littler one tugged tentatively on the man’s oversize coat, revealing his rotund belly. When she saw it, she quickly moved backward but stayed silently staring. He stared back.
I decided to step in, and said to her, “Would you like to say hello?”
She stayed where she stood and said to him, “You look cold.”
I tried to cover her directness about his harsh demeanor and said, “We’ve taught the girls to never leave anyone out in the winter weather.” I continued against my better judgment, “Would you like to come inside?” He smiled with a carved-pumpkin jaggedness. My husband and I shared an uneasy look.
We offered hospitality, as we always would, brewing him sassafras tea (the trees had been thriving farther north with each warmer year) and serving him some of our freshly baked sourdough bread, which he slathered with our blackberry jam jarred last fall. Don’t let anyone tell you that we hadn’t already been savers and preparers even in the Before Times.
Once he had feasted, he licked each digit of his tiny hands greedily. It was a slow, unsavory process done as its own performance. I could imagine the stickiness that endured.
“I was looking for a place to spend some time,” he said, when he finished with his final finger. “Seems you folks could use new blood. I’ve been spying a lot of questionable types that I could help you with.”
We looked at him, waiting for more words to arrive. This seemed to call him back into action.
“I come from a good family. My family’s name is the greatest.”
This addition took nothing away from our disquiet.
“Most people around here have tight quarters,” my husband managed with a taut calmness. “But we sure were glad to give you a quick reprieve from your traveling.”
“Okay. I see how it is,” the stranger replied steadily. “Well, I need to do some selling of my wares before I can move on, if that’s what I need to do.” He took a raspy breath, and then his voice brightened. “This sure is your lucky day. I’m here to tell you all about the world. I have the answer for how to make things as they were—or perhaps even greater.”
We sat rapt, even as we doubted. What quick fix did this stranger think he was going to sell us?
“You see this toaster?” From his heavy valise, he pulled a gleaming toaster with four extra-wide slots and set it on our kitchen table with an awkward thud. He rubbed out a fingerprint and then admired his reflection in its surface.
“It is the finest brand in toaster manufacturing, a simple culinary process refined by a complex machine. What a beauty. While its precision-toasting capability is impressive enough, it has another quality you won’t want to miss out on. This toaster will bring back the electricity, but more importantly it will bring back the economy. If you plug it into that slot over there,” he pointed to the outlet where our now permanently darkened TV used to connect, “everything will return as it was.”
We stared at the dead outlet and back to the stranger. He waited for us to say something, and when we didn’t, he continued.
“I should know, I’m the best salesman on the East Coast—beyond that even, really. But I will sell you this toaster for a deal. Two hundred dollars and you will save your community. Your neighbors will thank you and rejoice, and sure, a few may be caught up in the electrical surge, but most will make it through, and then things will return to what they once were.” He finished his speech, convinced of his own convincing, and held out his hand, palm up.
“A few may be caught up in the electrical surge?” I asked. I felt that familiar anger in the pit of my stomach. It was acid in my mouth.
“Not everyone can be successful,” the salesman responded with a shrug. “Getting rid of the weak ones is a small price to pay.” He grinned. “What do you say?”
We had nothing to say.
“Everything will return as it was.”
He stared back at us in a standoff. He seemed to have barricaded us inside our own home. We needed a way to get him out. I pushed back my chair and nodded toward the living room so my family would follow me, leaving him in the kitchen. Huddled together we talked it through in whispers. We didn’t believe a word of what he said—there was no going back—but we were considering the best move forward to free ourselves from this sinister man. If he was willing to sacrifice our neighbors, he was willing to sacrifice us as well.
I should have never let him inside in the first place. I should have chased him from our property, shouting all the way, so that no one else would be taken in by him either. Politeness got the better of me even though I knew better. You don’t let the devil cast a shadow on your doorstep, and here I’d let him in our door.
Our contemplation ended when our elder daughter ran out of the room only to reappear with two crinkled hundred-dollar bills that she handed to my husband without a word. They were beige, from our Monopoly set. We smiled to each other, hoping it would be enough.
“Well, sir,” my husband said, as we all returned to the kitchen, “I think we’d like to take that toaster off your hands so you can be on your way.”
The man again extended his hand, and my husband handed him the two large bills. There was a slight tremor in my husband’s fingers, but only I noticed. The man’s gaze had returned to his own reflection in the toaster’s side.
It was that simple. The man pocketed the money without a downward glance. He nodded at the toaster on our table to complete the exchange. Then he solemnly returned his hat to his head, donned his coat, and strolled out our front door. We watched him disappear over the horizon, hoping never to see him again. We had received a symbol of the old world that contained both good and bad, and he had received the fake money from a child’s game. Somehow he hadn’t seemed the wiser.
But we should have never let him inside in the first place.
To this day, we admire the unplugged toaster on our counter because its attainment freed us from that charlatan—a brief encounter with danger becomes a story instead of a tragedy. Still, the gadget is useless, part of a world we left behind, so we continue to toast our bread imprecisely over campfires. The girls love it best with apple butter.
As the days pass, they don’t seem quite as long. Birdsong and sometimes laughter fill the air; deer, foxes, and an occasional moose trod the same ground we walk. We fix old bicycles to check on our neighbors more often, gaining what we can from each other to make things better than they were before. Together we learn a lot. A few people have even found their way to the area, traveling great distances, enduring greater hardships, and so we offer what we have and talk about what is beyond our own space and what is possible for the future.
We have tough days of course, and we have much to figure out. But that acerbic feeling has receded for now, and I’m showing the girls how to prune the fungus from the blackberry stems as soon as they spot it, so it can’t spread and the plants can be productive. As a family, we check each other regularly for ticks, and we rip out the powerful vines that strangle our trees and climb the walls of our home, rotting it from the outside in. It makes the girls strong to pull and heave and sometimes even shout.