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 barn’s central roof beam is bowed, sagging gently in a way that feels warm and inviting, like the childhood ideal of a barn. There have been a half dozen farms along the last stretch of road, but none prominently displayed the signal flag, or showing any signs of habitation. It seems providence that I should come to this place, and I step of the highway onto a nearly overgrown gravel path.
I’ve been following Highway 37 all morning, a blacktop scar dividing the glass-still wetlands to the South and the fields and hills of wild golden grass to the North. I savor the quiet emptiness of Creation. 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. Beneath my feet the pavement is already growing warm, and the air begins to shimmer in the distance. There is a wet, earthy riot of smells, wet and earthy like fresh tilled soil and stagnant water. The whine and drone of insects is a warbling 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 room structure with pale yellow paint peeling in the sun. Again, I feel a comforting warmth and my grin widens at the charming innocence of the little home, and I try to imagine it without the thick wooden boards over the windows and doors.
On the porch, an elderly man in a stained white shirt stands up, slowly and stiffly as he wipes his hands on his jeans. He hoists and shoulders his rifle, bringing the sights into alignment with our eyes. I smile and wave.
“Ho there,” he barks in a voice like tumbling rocks. “Would you mind speaking, please? What’s your name?”
“Caleb,” I reply. No point in lying. I hold the grin firm and come to a stop as I swing the pack off my shoulders. “I just… I just saw your flag.”
“That’s why we have it up.” The rifle comes down to his side as he steps slowly off the porch. “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 do need anything. I 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?”
“The Crater, and before that, I come out of Winters, up near Sacramento.”
He regards me silently for moment with his head tilted, smiling slightly. “That’s a long way on foot,” he says finally. “Where you headed?”
“The ocean, I think, sir.”
He smiles wide at this, and when his skin creases into a weathered map of a joy, I see, so clearly, what a good and righteous man he is. It’s clear at once that God has led me directly here, and I thank Him for his guidance. The man steps down from the porch, leaving the rifle behind.
“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 do it 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 quickly, as if it embarrasses him. “I’m Daniel. Pleasure meeting you, Caleb.”
“Likewise, Daniel.” I nod slightly, lowering my eyes, another small calculated gesture.
“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. “You don’t need to know the first thing about carpentry. I just need you to be able to hold some planks still and follow directions.”
“Daniel, I think that would make me very happy,” I say with sincerity now. The thought of good honest work with my hands to better Daniel’s last days fills me with the same warmth as before. I offer my hand and we shake once; his hand is calloused and cool.
“Good, good…” he nods thoughtfully, his eyes narrowing a little; I get a little nervous twinge of paranoia that makes me have to work slightly harder at smiling and I drop his hand. “Well, shall we get started?”
I lean my backpack against the side of the house and turn to follow him towards the barn. He turns to stare out towards the highway and shouts over his shoulder at me. “You didn’t see any of the sickos on the road or nearby, did you?”
“No sir.” I respond, suppressing 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 barns rotting timbers. I can hardly absorb all the information he can offer, surrounded by a cacophony of shuffling, clucking and baying farm animals. He shares his personal advice on hammering and woodworking with an almost guilty pride, lowering his voice conspiratorially. He is aghast at the fact that I don’t carry a gun, and he even tells me a little about what he remembers from Before. I am a blank page, now rapidly filling.
Before long I fall into the easy rhythm of the simple repetitive actions, and we are finished far earlier than I expect. The air is starting to grow 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 heartily.
Caroline is slow and doughy woman with thinning hair and rotting teeth, and I take a liking to her instantly. 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 as I flare with panic and am suddenly conscious of all my little affectations; but it’s obvious by her wide grin that she finds it 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 shuffles in his chair. The tiny flashes of body language fill my heart with sadness.
I offer up the tin of coffee I recently scavenged and we 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 excitement.
“I just can’t see how Dan can deny it anymore after all these years,” she tells me as he shifts in his chair. “It’s just like it says in the Bible. These days are proof that He is coming.”
Daniel smiles, one that on a lesser man would look patronizing. “I could argue the opposite…” he locks eyes with her, and I can see the weathered and worn smooth love between them. I gently steer the conversation away.
When they retire, I unroll my bedroll out under the stars and soak in the chaotic summer night. The stars 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, and 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 sheepish 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 sadly at him. He opens his mouth to speak, but looks confused momentarily. “About the End,” I offer, and I see now that he understands.
“Look, Caleb…” I can 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 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 is furrowing in frustration; he looks 10 years older now, 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.
He starts to say my name, the first hard syllable exits his lip and then stops as I slide the thin blade gently between his ribs and into his heart. I hold him tight and whisper gently to him as he slides away, his eyes growing dim. Later, I lay him on the floor and admire 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 hanging in the air like a chemical flag, but it was even 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.
“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 bad to be able to comfort her. But I know she will understand as soon as I have set her free. I am crying slightly, 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 with a smile, as I press the pillow tight against her face. She only struggles for a few moments, and I stroke her hand gently as she goes still.
Afterward, I use the thin bladed knife to cut and shred between the vertebrae just above her shoulders. I’ve seen the disease take hosts that were already two days 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 so 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, and the winter of all God’s Creation; but still, there is work to be done.
Author Information: Josef K
Story Title or Titles: Before
Original Source: 4chan, /x/ imageboard
Date: Unknown. Posted by entropyblues at the Foundation wiki on 21 Jan 2009.