Before

The sun is high above me by the time I see the farm on the horizon, with its tattered yellow flag whipping in the hot breeze. The central roof beam of the barn is bowed, sagging gently in a way that feels warm and inviting, a childhood ideal of a barn. There’ve been a half dozen farms along the last stretch of road, but none displayed the signal flag, or showed any signs of habitation. It is providence that I should come to this place, so I step off the highway onto a weed-choked gravel path.

I’ve been following Highway 37 all morning, the blacktop scar dividing the glass-still wetlands to the South from the fields and hills of wild golden grass to the North. Alone except for the elegant cranes above the water and the herds of deer grazing in the dry brush, I find long silent hours to reflect and meditate on the days passed, and the glorious days ahead. I savor the quiet emptiness of Creation. Beneath my feet, the pavement is hot, and the air shimmers in the distance. There is a wet, earthy riot of smells, like fresh tilled soil and still waters. The whine and drone of insects is a monotone symphony, unbroken save for the short cries of waterfowl.

The Vallejo crater is far behind me now, hidden by a ridge of meek hills and the opalescent summer haze. Ahead, a little farmhouse comes into view from behind the barn, a leaning two floored structure, pale yellow paint peeling in the sun. My heart sings at the charming innocence of the little home. I try to imagine it without the thick wooden boards nailed over the windows and doors, without the furrowed claw marks on the barricades.

On the wrap around porch, an elderly man in a stained white shirt stands up as I approach, slow and stiff, and wipes his hands on his jeans. With no particular hurry, he hoists and shoulders his rifle, bringing the sights into alignment with our eyes. 

I pull the corners of my mouth into a smile, and wave.

“Ho there,” he barks, in a voice like tumbling rocks. “Would you mind speaking, please? Your name?”

“Caleb,” I reply. No point in lying. I concentrate on holding the grin firm and come to a stop as I swing the pack off my shoulders. “I just… I saw your flag.”

“That’s why we have it up.” The rifle comes down at his side as he steps off the porch, the aching of his joints visible like a road sign. “What can I do for you, Caleb?”

I exhale and raise my eyebrows with what I hope is a convincing look of honest confusion. “To tell you the truth, sir, I’m not sure if I need anything. Just got excited to see the flag. It’s been a little while.”

“I imagine it has,” he says softly, “it’s been a while since anyone’s seen it. Where you coming from, son?”

“Around the crater, and before that, out of Winters, up on the way to Sacramento.”

He cocks his head to one side and regards me for a long moment, absently chewing at his lip. “That’s a long way on foot,” he says at last. “Where you headed?”

“The ocean, I think, sir.”

He smiles wide at this, and when his skin creases into a weathered map of joy, I see, so clearly, what a good and righteous man he is. It’s evident at once that God has led me here, and I thank Him for his guidance. He takes another step, leaving the rifle behind him, and I struggle for one hot moment to keep still, to wear the mask.

“You in any hurry to get to the ocean, Caleb?” he asks with a few dry chuckles that could be mistaken for coughs.

“No, sir.” His smile is infectious and I no longer have to strain to affect the expression. “I’d just like to get there sometime before the end of September. The heat makes them sluggish, and it’s been easy traveling so far.” 

He barks once with laughter at this. “No need for ‘sir’,” he says with a wave, as if it embarrasses him. “I’m Daniel. Pleasure meeting you, Caleb.”

“Likewise, Daniel.” I nod, lowering my eyes for a moment, a gesture of deference and submission, practiced so often it almost feels natural.

“Listen, Caleb, I wonder if you’d be interested in a day’s work. I’ve got a beam on the barn that’s rotted through, and I could sure use a hand setting up a brace. We could give you as much food as you can carry, fresh off the farm. You interested?” I open my mouth to speak, and he cuts me off with a rapid shake of his head. “You don’t need to know the first thing about carpentry. I just need you to be able to hold some planks and follow directions.”

“Daniel, I think that would make me very happy,” I say, with something approaching sincerity. The thought of good honest work with my hands to better Daniel’s last days fills me with warmth. I offer my hand and we shake. His hand is calloused and cool, and his grip is still strong. Perhaps stronger than mine. I make note of this.

“Good, good…” he nods, his eyes narrowing a little; a nervous twinge of paranoia bolts through me and I harden my smile, fixing it in place. “Well, shall we get started?” 

I lean my backpack against the porch and turn to follow him toward the barn. 

He glances out toward the highway and then back over his shoulder at me. “You didn’t see any sickos on the road or nearby, did you?”

“No sir.” I respond, with a little laugh at his vernacular. “Haven’t seen them all morning. It’s been nice and quiet.” He gives one last scan of the horizon and turns away with a little nod of satisfaction. We enter the barn, and I have my first lesson in carpentry.

I devour every word he says as we brace and buttress several of the barn’s rotting timbers. I struggle to absorb all the information he can offer, surrounded by a cacophony of clucking and baying farm animals. He shares his advice on woodworking and farm labor with an almost guilty pride, lowering his voice conspiratorially. 

He is aghast at the fact that I don’t carry a gun. With only a little prompting, he tells me a some of what he remembers from Before. I am a blank page, rapidly filling.

I fall into the easy rhythm of the simple, repetitive actions, and we are finished far earlier than I wish. The air grows cool and the whine of mosquitos rising off the wetlands is audible. It feels almost perfunctory when he invites me in for dinner with him and his wife, and I, powerless against the inevitable, accept with all my good grace.

Caroline is a slow and doughy woman with thinning hair and rotting teeth, and I take a liking to her at once. She unlocks the thick barricaded door to let us in, and I am met by a bouquet of smells from the small kitchen: the peppery grease of fried meats, the bright sharp tang of something bitter and green. I am already salivating as I bow politely before her when Daniel introduces me.

Caroline remarks over dinner that she’s never met anyone as polite and well-mannered as me, that even Before, I would have been called ‘old fashioned’. I am silent for a moment, flaring with panic, and conscious of all my affectations, even the ones I no longer have to think about to maintain. But it’s obvious by her wide grin that she finds me charming.

“I was raised well,” I offer with a smile, feeling my heart rate slow. “My parents were good God-loving people, and we had a very secure community in Winters.” She nods heartily at the mention of God and closes her eyes; Daniel looks momentarily embarrassed and shifts in his chair. The tiny flashes of his body language fill my heart with sadness.

I offer up the tin of freeze-dried coffee I found in the locked trunk of a car outside the crater, and we sit and talk late into the evening, trading news and stories we’ve heard, much of it baffling and contradictory. It was Caroline who brought up the End Times, and I tried to defer to Daniel’s visible discomfort by suppressing my own fervor. 

“I just can’t see how Dan can still deny it, after all these years,” she tells me as he shifts in his chair. “It’s just like it says in the Bible. The dead, risen. These days are proof the He is coming.”

Daniel smiles. On a lesser man, it would look patronizing. “I would argue the opposite….” He locks eyes with her, and I can see the weathered and worn-smooth love between them. The old argument, long set aside. I gently steer the conversation away.

When they retire, I excuse myself to sleep outside, refusing the offer of the battered old couch. I unfurl my bedroll out beneath the stars, and soak in the chaotic summer night. The constellations are a shimmering riot, and I trace the shapes I know again and again as the stirring breeze from off the water cools the air. I close my eyes and concentrate on the near silent passage of a coyote, as he walks a slow half circle around me before bounding off into the dark. The night is woven with life. It cradles me like a nest. I sleep long and well.

I awake before dawn, and prepare myself. 

Daniel is up before me. He has packed a box full of fresh cabbage and squash, a dozen grapefruit as well as a half dozen jars of homemade jams. He looks at me with a sheepish grin when I discover him filling the box, and I know, more that ever, that God has not led me astray. There is a contentedness that fills me as I approach.

“Thank you Daniel. And… She’s right you know.” I say, smiling at him. He opens his mouth to speak, but his eyes are crinkled in confusion. “About the End,” I offer, and I see that he understands. 

“Look, Caleb…” I see how much this pains him. I wonder if he lost his faith, or if he ever had it. “I don’t really want to have this argument, not with you. The dead aren’t rising. This is a disease.”

“Who says viruses can’t be divine or diabolical? The Revenants are just one of the signs…” I am already starting to strain with exhilaration as I somehow manage keep my words even and slow. 

“Kid. I’m really not interested.” His brow furrows in frustration, making him look ten years older, and tired. 

I take another step towards him.

“Daniel, I’m sorry for what you’ve had to go through, you didn’t deserve it.” I lock eyes and continue moving. “I want to make it right for you.” I put one arm around him and pull him toward me. I can feel him start to panic in my arms, his strength undiminished by the years. 

He starts to say my name, the first hard syllable exits his lips, and then stops as I slide my thin blade gently between his ribs and into his heart. I hold tight and whisper to him as he slips away, eyes growing dim. Afterwards I lay him on the floor and admire, with a twinge of jealousy, the peaceful expression on his pale face.

Caroline is still in bed, but awake. I could smell the sickness on her the night before, the demonic taint of the disease flapping in the air like a chemical flag, but it is stronger now, surging forward as she grows weaker. I sit next to her on the bed, smiling warmly. She is fixated on the blood on my shirt, and I curse myself for the lapse in empathy, for scaring this good woman.

“Caroline. I know… you must have felt sometimes like God has abandoned you, like you’ve been left behind. But you’re not. No one will be left behind. God is loving.”

She is shaking in fear, and I want so badly to be able to comfort her. But I know she will understand as soon as I have set her free. Tears well in the corners of my eyes. I’m so happy for the opportunity to do these good works, and to save good people like this.

“I know you’re sick. And I know you’re scared. But I won’t let that stop you from going home. Daniel will be waiting for you.” I tell her, stretching my smile wider. I press the pillow tight against her face, cupping my hand above her nose and mouth. She only struggles for a few moments, and I stroke her hand and sing the old hymns as she grows still. 

After, I use the knife to cut and shred between the vertebrae just above her shoulders. I’ve seen the disease take hosts that were already hours dead, but without the spinal column, the Beast can never take Caroline’s body in thrall. I do the same for Daniel, even though he seems free of infection, because I take what I do very seriously. I am an instrument of God, and there are so many good souls that need to be called home.

I bury Daniel and Caroline side by side, beneath the noon sun, and say a few happy words over their earthly remains. There is much joy in me now, and a little pride as well. But mostly, I know how lucky I am to have been chosen. I fill my pack with the fresh food from the kitchen before I leave, thanking them both silently for their gifts.

I am on the road, the sun again on my back and the ocean ahead. This is the end of history, the winter of God’s Creation. But still, there is work to be done.

12 thoughts on “Before

  1. I found this the creepiest one yet. I’m curious however, as to when you intended the reader to figure out the narrator’s intentions. I think I caught it pretty early, even though I never did figure out exactly what his motivation was. But wondering, from the time the old guy put down his rifle, why the kid was going to kill them, had a pretty unsettling effect. Dunno if that was your intention, but it worked for me.

  2. Greetings.I did intend for Caleb to be ‘not right’ in some way from the beginning, to contrast his outwardly optimistic and romantic attitude about the world, so I gave him some cracks in his facade, one that he has to struggle to maintain. Without those little slips, it would be essentially a one note twist-ending.My core concept was that Caleb believes the rapture has occurred, but that it’s going slowly, and it’s up to good honest people like himself to help call the faithful home. I’m attracted to the idea of a good, decent, well meaning monster.This idea came from an unwritten screenplay I intended to write a year or so ago; this was to be the opening scene. I’ll keep mum on the details, as this still may be the opening scene of a longer piece.Again, thanks all for your feedback.

  3. Reminds me a bit of The Stand, a fateful meeting of strangers in the desert against an apocalyptic backdrop (which I understood to be biblical and zombified, usually a positive). Very interesting, and the soundtrack goes great with it, hope to see it as part of a larger work some day.

  4. Your best, in my opinion. This stuck so concretely in my mind after reading it. Everything about this one is just perfect. The setting is wholly believable and well-developed.I had a brilliant idea not too long ago. It seems a lot of your stories deal with a similar issue, that being an apocalypse, almost always zombie-related. If you've ever seen Pulp Fiction, I think a movie with these plots all told with the sub-plot hinted at linking them all would be incredible if done well and with the atmospheric touch your stories contain translated to the big screen accurately.

  5. Sean,This has become my favorite as well. As I said before it was part of a film I wanted to make, but lacked the ways and means for anything so ambitious. Caleb's story, as well as his brother who is tracking him across a ruined California, is a fairly long one still.You are correct to notice there are connections between some of these stories.Zero is a prequel of sorts to Before, and the story I am working on now, One, takes place a year after the end of Zero but at least a decade prior to Before, but ties it together. There is several other side story that live in this world that I have yet to write; one called South, about an Antarctic research station during the epidemic and war.My hope is to have a series of a dozen, nearly unrelated stories that tell a few decades of history, very much like the film you describe. I would of course, love to see it translated to film, but I still have much to write.

  6. Sir, I've read your trilogy of stories, and am in absolute awe of how beautifully written these stories are. I look forward and hope dearly that you write a book or make a movie someday, so that I might have something else you've created to enjoy.Good day to you, and may it be a happy one.

  7. Reading this story… I can't help but wonder if Caleb is still human — or ever was. Beyond just his creepiness, he seems to know both less and more than he should. He seems intimately familiar with the virus, to the point that he can detect signs of infection when someone who knew her better couldn't… while he seems to know very little about anything else. I have to admit that my first question upon finishing it was "Is Caleb a deranged person, or some kind of warped angel?"

  8. Simply amazing stuff, keep up the excellent writing because I guarantee you there are still people reading it. Me being one of them :DI saw Book of Eli a little while ago and I have to say that the scenario of that movie fits the virus series of your stories phenomenally… but that is just my opinion.Again, keep up the awesome work!

  9. This is sickening, really. You should be proud of yourself. I forget how I stumbled upon your stories, but I'm very glad I did.I love the way you wrote it. It seriously stunned me when I realized he seriously killed the old man. I had to reread it a few times.

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