This is how the world finally ends.
This was not his first funeral. He had flown to one with his family—mother, father, sister—when he was only seven years of age, maybe six, maybe younger. He remembered his dad gripping his mother’s hand, tears running down only one of her cheeks, as if the other eye had malfunctioned. Sara stood in front of him, her hair ruffling apart, folding over in a frigid breeze. The sun was luminous, a façade of warmth, and yet they were freezing. Caleb kept his hands clasped together between both thighs. The grass between his shoes was delicate and beige, the soil beneath a rigid, frosty base. Sara looked up to ask a question and Alex squeezed her shoulder, gently shushing. Caleb couldn’t recall who this funeral was for. He couldn’t remember where they were that afternoon, other than it was “out east” and involved airports, hotels. And as Caleb now stood, watching the canvass-wrapped corpse of Jeffery Gladstone rest on the muddy grass, he accepted that he would never know the details of these vague memories. Everyone who once possessed the answers to these questions had died years ago. Not that such details had any significance to Caleb’s life—he existed in a world where the past had been imperfectly, and yet almost entirely, erased. With so little to remain certain about, that funeral from his childhood meant nothing. A curious memory.
This, however, was real. Caleb could smell the rot from Jeffery’s body, unmistakable, unavoidable, no matter how many layers of cloth they had wrapped around the old man. He wanted to hold his hand to his nose but knew that it would be impolite. Like everyone else, he sneered from the vinegar twang of sour meat, sucked in breaths between his teeth. But he would not make a scene. Ada started coughing, teetering on gagging, and then muttered an apology. Steven was delivering the eulogy, his eyelids fluttering from the falling rain, refusing the umbrella that had been offered. He spoke of Jeffery as the founding father of Alexis Creek, someone dedicated to their small community, to the wellbeing of every person, every survivor. Caleb looked around to the others, their faces weary, tired, and impatient, waiting for Steven to finish and then skid the body into the bottom of the grimy pit, yearning to escape this putrid stench, almost gasping for fresh air. These were the same people who dared not enter Jeffery’s house for those final months. No one knew what it was that he had been dying from. No one possessed any semblance of medical training and the best they could do was draw upon anecdotal memories and then fill in the vast chasms of uncertainty with fear. Their greatest fears. What if it there was a contagion? What if it’s from radiation? What if this is just the beginning? Steven used the word “citizen” to describe the people in attendance—the citizens of Alexis Creek, the citizens of the new world—and Caleb found this a dishonest word. To him, this implied caring, responsibility, empathy. But as far as Caleb could tell, these supposed citizens let an old man die on his own, rationalizing that it was humane and just since Jeffery was “home,” in the same physical structure that he had lived in for almost half a century. He was comfortable there, they’d claim. Caleb would walk through the town at night, windows of homes flickering from candles, but in these last months, Jeffery’s were always dark, seemingly unoccupied. Caleb might sit on the front step and listen. Just the patter of rain, rustling tree tops, and then a hacking, scraping, feeble cough. He should be quarantined, people said with ashamed tones. Steven was the only person who might enter Jeffery’s home, always donning a facemask. They had gone into the nearest towns, looking through pharmacies at bottles of years’ expired medications for a cure to something they could not diagnose and would never understand. Even Steven was reluctant to stay in Jeffery’s home for more than a few minutes. He might see Caleb sitting outside, in the rain, and ask him what he was doing. Caleb would shrug and carry on, as if he had only stumbled upon Jeffery’s house in passing, by accident. In his final weeks, Jeffery never left the house. Caleb could only imagine what was happening inside. He sat on the hood of a car that had not moved in years, windows opaque, scattered with red needles. Jeffery Gladstone was the only survivor of the original Alexis Creek. Like everyone else, he endured the events of The Fourteenth of August thanks to dumb luck. The exact details did not matter. Caleb knew that Jeffery had a wife who did not make it, who was never found, but he decided to persevere. He met others and brought them to this town. They founded a new colony, what was meant to become a self-sufficient community. He was among the few that drove to Bella Coola and replied to the note. It was his handwriting. Against unimaginable odds, Jeffery Gladstone survived the near extinction of the human race only to end his life shitting in his bed, alone in the cold, the damp, and the dark, unable to move, no one coming to pay their respects until after he had perished, until after they could drag him out with gloves and masks, until after he had been sprayed down and then wrapped in thick layers of canvas that still failed to withhold the stench of his rotting carcass. This was the end that awaited Jeffery Gladstone, pioneer of this New World. And these were his “citizens,” Caleb thought, as they shoveled the first dense piles of mud on top of his body.
Ingrid gripped Caleb’s hand, squeezing his ring and index fingers together. “Are you okay?” she asked with eyes that were consoling, as if he’d been crying. He remembered when she had to look down at him, her irises a streaked hazel, like cracks in stone, he used to think. Back then, her hair dangled from either cheek, straight but erratic at the tips. Now her neck arched upwards, the bridge of her nose at the level of his lips. He wanted to ask Ingrid why all these people pretended to care so much about this one death. He knew that they were acting. How could those tears be authentic when they would not dare step foot in the dying man’s house for weeks, for months? How can this one funeral mean anything compared to what everyone had already experienced? Ingrid’s eyes were glazed; a pair of dark lines trailed down each cheek to her chin. Caleb looked into her expression and wanted to ask what was she crying about? Was it that Jeffery Gladstone died? Or for something else, something more profound: the fact that this man would have been better off should he have never survived the events of The Fourteenth. Stop crying, he wanted to tell Ingrid. But he nodded, his expression indifferent. She tugged at his arm to take him home, like he still needed to be walked, but he pulled his hand free and motioned towards the men shoveling. He helped them dig Jeffery’s grave. He would help them fill it back up. Remove any trace of his existence. “I’ll see you at home,” Ingrid said, intoned as if she sought confirmation. Caleb nodded, watching her turn and join the scattered procession of others strolling back along the street.