Our hearts are dangerous creatures, wild and untamed, and perhaps that is why our ribs are cages.
It is the heart that makes all of the insane and delirious decisions to abandon a quiet life in Notre Dame, Indiana for a hectic, terrifying one in Braxstaff, California; a new town that the National Guard had built almost overnight to house and aid the homeless population of the Western United States.
But it’s the brain that grounds you, and it was the brain that told me to decline the opportunity to give an education to homeless kids at Braxstaff, warning me that it was dangerous to walk into the path of Death, to walk into where the pandemic was festering like an open wound, killing people every single day.
But if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a coward.
I boarded the solar-powered bullet train for the Wild West, my heart like a dark stone in the palm of my hand, ripped out to keep from making more decisions that would put my self-preservation in jeopardy. I hugged Papa goodbye, grinning through the tears, assuring him that everything would be fine, that I’d come visit for Christmas and everything would be as it was. I needed to do this, needed to spread my wings and leave the nest. It was time; I was, after all, twenty-four-years-old.
“You’re making the biggest mistake of your life,” Papa had said for weeks. “You’ll die out there.”
But so would the children. All those hopeless, tiny lives, thriving on an education, one that would give them a fighting chance after the economy was back in order and the world was set right on its axis again. I could almost see their glossy eyes, the hunger in their bones, their bodies rail-thin like mine. We were experiencing a famine, and so we were all half-dead, but it was worse for them, the children. They have not known hunger as long as we adults have.
I’d always agonized over my lack of involvement, mortified that there was nothing I could do to help them in a world where there was no money, only funds for distant wars. I couldn’t give money because I had none—no one did— couldn’t volunteer at a shelter because everyone was sick, and they didn’t want to risk exposure from more strangers. Viruses, famine, war, and death, so much death. There was nothing I could do but watch in silent terror.
The convoy kicked up the dust, the solar-powered military vehicles transporting provisions that would need to reach the new town by sundown. Hitching a ride with the Army were myself and a handful of other public servants: the official liaison with the government of California: doctors, nurses, EMTs, other schoolteachers, and even the elected mayor. We all sat huddled too close together to be safe in the vehicles, quiet and wary; I couldn’t be the only person that was second-guessing my decision to travel to Braxstaff, California. It was one of the many prefab towns that had seemed to sprout almost overnight to offer relief to the homeless population of America, providing housing, medical care and schools to give an air of normalcy in the middle of this pandemic. Those of us who had volunteered in these towns were taking risks with our health, but it was the right thing to do. The homeless were sick, and I mean sick, but they were still people, and we had to look out for one another if we were going to survive as a species.
I didn’t even bother glancing out of the windows anymore. I’d been traveling for days, taking solar-powered transportation from Indiana to California, all so I could take this job and make the difference I was hoping to make. I was a schoolteacher, credentialed for grades K through 6, and I hardly had any experience at all being fresh out of school, but these towns were desperate. They paid for my transportation and promised housing and food in exchange for giving an education to homeless kids. It was a good deal, and these days, it was hard to find a “regular” job, so I took the opportunity and ran with it. My father, head of the Ancient Languages Department at Notre Dame University, had found it positively absurd that I hadn’t even given him the chance to pull some strings at the university. I didn’t want to get a job by nepotism, and I was desperate to spread my wings after twenty-four years under my father’s watchful eyes. It was time to leave the nest.
“Do you know how much longer it’ll be?” asked a woman from the back of the vehicle. She was wringing her hands, sweating buckets from the heat, and had a panicked look in her eyes. She was one of those that seemed to be reconsidering her decision to come aid the sickest people in the world.
The mayor, a middle-aged woman with greying hair and a pinched sort of face, replied, “Can’t be long now. We’ve just passed Bakersfield. Shouldn’t be more than another eighty miles north.”
The military personnel looked bored, ignoring us completely. I closed my eyes, exhaustion lingering in my bones, and did my best to ignore them back. I’d heard about the kind of people that had been stationed at Braxstaff; they were the kind that handled riots with brute force and had no sense of sympathy for anyone that considered it a right to protest. Martial Law now dictated everything, and it was without the approval of the public. It had been this way since the day the world ended.
I still remember it, when the planes had come falling from the skies and the cars had all stalled on the highways. Communication had come crashing to a halt, all modern technological advancements suddenly useless. It had taken months to rebuild, to work around it with renewable energy, which seemed to be the only thing that would still work. Cars didn’t run on “dinosaurs” anymore; it was all rechargeable batteries.
With the end of everything, came the beginning of the sickness, the wars, the famine, and the death. The wars were far away now, somewhere in the East, but the famine, death, and sickness had made its way to our doorstep. A deadly disease had been spreading for years, evolving and mutating before scientists could make a vaccine in time. It didn’t discriminate, killing the rich and the poor, the sick and the healthy, the young and the old. It hit the homeless population the hardest, and so in an attempt to protect themselves, people from the big cities had pooled together their resources to build these towns to ship them all off to. They were concentration camps; it was said that most people came to these towns to die.
Which begged the question: what the fuck was I doing?
“There it is,” the mayor said, pointing to the distance. My eyes followed her finger out the window, catching sight of the crude buildings and tents that made up Braxstaff, California. There were a few actual buildings, like the hospital and police station and city hall, but mostly, it was tent after tent after tent. I wondered if I would even be teaching in a building. I held the backpack on my lap tightly, as if hugging it would bring me some comfort, but it did nothing to ease my anxiety. This was crazy. I couldn’t believe I’d come here.
We sat quietly as the vehicles took us into town, jerking us down dirt paths rather than paved streets. It was bumpy and extremely uncomfortable, but we managed to reach the center of the “town” in one piece. I had on my rubber mask with the filtration system on. This was my only defense against the disease, known as the Black Death, though the government preferred that we refer to it by its scientific name, Rapidly Mutating Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or RAMARS-30, a horrible mutation that had started as COVID-19.
“Single-file,” said one of the military personnel. None of us argued, not even the mayor, because we all feared them, feared what they were authorized to do to us if we failed to follow an order. Their word was practically law. We got off the vehicles and stood in one single-file line, our masks hiding just how freaked out we were to be in such close proximity to the Army.
But this was what we’d signed up for.
“I have your assignments,” said a uniformed officer who had appeared from a nearby tent. Behind him were a handful of people, some in lab coats, others in uniforms EMTs, et cetera. I reckoned that they were probably the ones who had been sent to retrieve us.
“Cynthia de Dios,” read the officer off a clipboard. A frail woman in a lab coat stepped forward to lead Cynthia away, who appeared to be a person who worked in the medical field. One by one, names were called and people were taken away, disappearing into the sea of tents, off to fulfill their duties. I was one of the last to be called.
“Jaden Clayborn,” the officer said, looking around. I raised my hand and stepped forward. “Over there,” he said, pointing his pen at a short man with a crooked nose, a fresh sheen of sweat dripping from his brow. He had kind brown eyes, and I tried to focus on that kindness as I made my way over to him. He introduced himself as Tate Graff, a sixth-grade teacher from Braxstaff Elementary, the only K-6 school in town.
“Thank you for coming out here,” Tate said, sighing. “We lost two teachers this month, one who had to leave for a family emergency, and another who got sick with RAMARS-30 and is recovering in the hospital. We need all the help we can get right now.”
The sun began to set as Tate and I waited for another teacher, one that had taken the journey with me from the last checkpoint. It was usually impossible to guess ages these days with everyone wearing masks, but judging by the graying hair, I could tell that the other new teacher, David Hall, was likely in his fifties or above. He made the mistake of reaching out for a handshake before remembering what era we lived in, that in these times, distance was what kept us alive.
“It’s nice to meet you both,” he said, putting his hand into his pocket instead. He was skinny, but we all were. We lived in a world that was slowly starving to death. This was our best bet at survival: working for the government, no matter how scary it was. There was guaranteed food here, and despite the dangers of catching the Black Death, it was a risk we’d been willing to take.
Tate helped me with my luggage. We were each permitted to bring a single suitcase and a backpack. I’d packed my entire life into my suitcase, filling it with not only clothes but memories. Pictures of Mom before she’d died, my favorite books, mementos from my childhood, and some comforts of home, like my favorite tea, were all carefully packed away. My backpack held my teaching materials, some toiletries, and my radio. Cell phones were a thing of distant past, but radios like mine still worked, ones that were battery-operated and could be recharged. My radio would be one of my few connections to the outside world, far out beyond this desolate town with its dying people.
“Come on, I’ll show you to your rooms,” Tate said, leading us north into the town. It was promising, the idea of being given a room instead of a tent, but that was where the perks kind of ended. Almost everything was shared, including the bathrooms and dining area. When Tate led David and me to a trailer, we both tried not to look too relieved. It wasn’t a condemned building and it wasn’t a tent, and that was the best we could have hoped for. The dining quarters were pointed out across the street, and the bathrooms were in a trailer to the left.
“There are passcodes to get into each individual room, so you’ll have some privacy and security,” Tate explained. We followed him up the ramp and into the trailer, tasting the difference in the air even through our masks. The air inside the trailer was filtered!
“This one’s you, Jaden,” Tate said, handing me a badge and stopping in front of a door down a narrow hallway. “This will help you get into your room for the first week until you get your passcode memorized. Don’t lose this.”
“I won’t,” I promised. Like a hotel room key, I slid it on a bar by the doorknob. There was a small click, the sound of the lock unlocking, and then I turned the doorknob, opening up the door to reveal my private quarters. It was… a bed, a desk, and a chair. A narrow room, no bigger than a closet. Some sheets and a blanket were folded up and resting on top of the cot, and a thin pillow was sitting on top of it. There was no light switch, but there was a ceiling light, humming, and flickering.
“Lights are out at eight-thirty and breakfast is at seven,” Tate said. “Good luck.”
He carried my suitcase into my room and bid me goodbye, leading David further down the hall to a different room. I closed the door behind them and leaned back against it, breathing harshly as I took in my bleak surroundings. This would be my home for the next few years. I’d signed a five-year contract with the government, giving up my quiet life in Indiana for the Californian heat, smack dab in the middle of all the chaos.
There was nowhere to put my clothes, no wardrobe to fold my belongings into. I would have to leave them in my suitcase and rummage through it every single day to get dressed. I took my radio out of my backpack and put it on the desk, turning the dial until I found the local station. Braxstaff had its own channel. I tuned in as I took my rubber mask off and began to clean it with my sanitizing kit.
“Braxstaff Community Center is hosting its first-ever bingo! Drop by this Friday at 4 PM. Please bring your own snacks and dinner,” said the radio host. He sounded friendly but tired, as if this wasn’t his only job. It probably wasn’t. Along with being a teacher, I was also expected to do community work like cleaning and cooking. There was a schedule that I would be picking up on my first day at school.
I unrolled the mattress, made the bed, and untied my shoelaces. My trainers were old and worn, but it was hard to find cobblers where I lived. Factory-made clothes and shoes were a thing of the past because those required more electricity than the government was willing to spare. I was lucky to even have shoes on my feet and clothes on my back. I hoped there was a cobbler in town, somewhere I could spend the last of my money to replace my shoes. It was Wednesday, the middle of the week, leaving two more days in the workweek. I’d be able to explore on the weekend, so I made a mental note to do just that.
Tate hadn’t mentioned anything about dinner, so I assumed that the meal of gray vegetables and stale bread they’d served us at the last checkpoint was expected to hold us over for the night. It was okay; I was used to hunger. I decided I’d change into my pajamas, pull out the book on astronomy that my father had gifted me before I left, and settle in for a quiet evening of reading. My heart pulsed in my chest, aching from the fear that had gripped me all day. I was still scared, still afraid of what was going to happen to me here, but I had to be brave. I didn’t have any other option but to weather this storm.
After a few hours, the lights went out. I closed my book and sat there in the darkness. It must be eight-thirty, which meant that it was time to go to bed. I turned over, facing the wall so that I wouldn’t have to face the emptiness. Tears fell from the corners of my eyes, but I didn’t bother wiping them away. The world was such a fucked-up place right now. Wars in the east, hunger in the south, the Black Death spreading even to the north, and the west? The most fucked up of all, as if God was punishing us. I was barely surviving, made up of mostly bones, my face gaunt and almost lifeless, but soldiering on, pushing through, living because that was all there was left to do.
It was here in the darkness that I couldn’t avoid the thoughts of Them. They appeared in cities across the world, slowly bringing an end to us all. The government was hunting them, but there was no stopping God’s will. They were indestructible, immortal beings, incapable of feeling any human emotion, killing us humans because that was what they had been created to do.
They were the Four Horsemen, and I was living in the Apocalypse.
Special thanks to Jason Caldwell, Cheryl Terra, Chasten, Ginlover, SleeperyJim, Laura R., PickFiction, and GoneGray for their assistance in beta reading and editing this chapter. Much love to you all!