This is a strange one. A friend of mine is a screenwriter, and he said he was interested in creating a modern day story about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And that set me thinking… This isn’t a classic short story – it’s more like a pitch for a film or TV series, in fact – but it was fun to write.
‘I could probably be there by midnight. Will she… Will she last that long?’
Beyond the kitchen window the snow fell more fiercely, turning the green lawns and gabled roofs a thin, impersonal white.
‘I understand. Thanks for letting me know. Yes, yes. Bye.’
Elena replaced the receiver gently and stood, motionless, for a minute or more. Then, with a cry, she ripped the phone from the wall and hurled it against the floor. It skittered across the tiles and came to rest against the refrigerator.
This was the old bitch down to a tee, Elena thought. No, ma, don’t worry that the first I hear of you in ten years is some nurse calling to explain that the cancer – that I never knew about – has left your bones like an old sponge and will finish you off within days if not hours. And, sure, do it during the worst storm in decades, when it will take twice as long for me to reach the hospital.
Of course, it was not a given that Elena would go to the hospital at all. Sure, the nurse had said to come straight away. But the truth was, ma probably didn’t want a visit from her daughter. This might actually be how the whole sorry battle between the two of them was supposed to end – with neither side winning, both simply falling into a silent and eternal cease-fire.
Elena lit a cigarette, and the two sides of the argument clamoured in her head. She could go back to normal life right now if she wanted to, just crack open a beer and go back to her Saturday night TV. Pretend she’d never taken the call. Or she could pack a bag, with her pyjamas and a toothbrush, maybe that bottle of bourbon she’d been saving for a special occasion. She could also pack the newspaper article, about the gunmen she’d apprehended at the bank, the article she kept neat and pristine in a plastic folder in the box room. She didn’t know whether it was genuine pride or childish defiance, but for years she’d dreamed of saying: look, ma, they called me a miracle.
In the end, the side of the debate that emerged victorious was the side that wanted to make peace.And so, just as the sun retreated below the horizon, Elena’s beaten-up SUV crunched out of the driveway and down the street – ghostly, now – onto the main road, towards the North. Even with the snow chains the roads were treacherous, and it took all of Elena’s concentration to keep control.
Which is perhaps why she didn’t notice the other car, sleek and black. The car that followed her as she made the last painstaking march towards her dying mother.
There have been many Famines.
This one is gluttonous, and she eats like a calf being fattened for the feast. Her father blames this on the happening at school, where a stranger with a tattoo tried to carry her from the playground. She is traumatised, father says. But that isn’t true. She is just hungry, and always has been. At night, she dreams of barren fields and arid dunes, searching for food, hearing no voices and no sound but a baby’s distant cry. In the day, she plays alone and yearns for fulfilment.
She becomes a woman. She volunteers at local shelters, visiting those wasted by age or addiction, those who cannot avoid her awkward, lumpen company. This is where she finds the baby, blanketed by sauce-stained napkins, abandoned behind a dumpster. As she approaches, the baby begins to cry. And the cry is the one from her dream.
Surely, she says to herself, this is a sign.
And so, not knowing whether this is the realisation of her destiny or the beginning of her damnation, the woman takes the child, who she will love and feed and protect, and bears it away to another part of the country, to the beginnings of another life. For a while, the woman believes she is happy. It will be years before she realises that Famine is not just a dream but her very nature, and while she is living there is nothing on earth that will sate her hunger.
Elena had never seen the roads like it. Even the highway was thickly white, and any tracks that rush-hour drivers had ploughed as they hurried home had already been refilled with fresh snow. The further she went, the fewer drivers she saw – and the more abandoned vehicles she passed, discarded at the roadside like broken toys, banks of snow building up around them. Eventually the local radio station turned to static, the transmitters finally overcome by the relentless blizzard, and Elena felt the first chill of anxiety.
‘Is this your last little joke, ma?’ she murmured. ‘I get stranded out here and freeze to death? You’d probably pull through after that, just to spite me.’
Glancing in her mirrors at the snow-dappled landscape behind her, she saw it. A black car, in the distance. Someone else with a job that can’t wait, she wondered. And, as the miles ticked by, she thought that the job must be in the same direction as her own. Because, whichever exit she took or turning she made, the car was always there, a blot on the edge of vision.
A couple of hours in, she found herself on a stretch of single-track road, snowy fields spread either side like rumpled bedsheets. And there, a few hundred yards back, was the black car. Elena eyed it, surprised at its speed, too fast for these conditions. Getting closer.
Too close, now, much too close.
She pulled to one side, allowing the driver to overtake. But as he did, he braked suddenly, angling the car across the road like a barrier. Elena braked too, felt her SUV scrambling to a stop. For a moment both vehicles were still, engines growling in the dark, headlights illuminating the still-falling snowflakes.
Elena watched as the driver emerged, followed by a passenger. Men, both dressed entirely in black. The driver tramped slowly towards Elena’s car, his hands raised in mock surrender. He opened his mouth to speak.
And Elena would have listened, calmly – had she not spotted the shape hidden at the passenger’s hip, the shape revealed briefly when the wind whipped at his jacket. A taser.
Thoughts fluttered through Elena’s mind like leaves torn from trees. These guys were hardly about to ask for directions to the nearest 7/11, and if things went bad there was nobody nearby to help. She felt sure: this was not a time to reach for her badge, to question or apprehend or call for backup. She just had to get away, to the hospital.
A dark shadow against the snow, the driver came closer.
Elena slammed into reverse, tyres grasping at compacted ice. The driver and passenger leapt into action, stumbling back towards their own car, but before they could get inside Elena changed direction – she was coming forward now, fast, a battering ram hurtling towards them. They dived out of the way just as her SUV thumped their car in its side, and they watched as she reversed again, thumped again, spinning the black car until it was pointing the wrong way, the bodywork crumpled like a paper bag.
And then she was thundering, sliding, down the track, wheels skidding, heart hammering, looking in the mirror at the men scrambling behind her. She had no idea what they wanted. And, had she seen the holdall they carried in the trunk, containing duct tape and rope and a sheath of papers detailing her name, her social security number and her entire personal history, she would have been none the wiser.
There have been many Wars.
This one, like the rest, has dreamed of it since childhood. She hears the thunk of bullets, throats gargling blood. She dreams of a man, reaching. Her father says: it’s only a dream, nobody can hurt you. But the girl doesn’t say what really frightens her. That, in the dream, she is the one doing the hurt.
The dream infuses her days with a tension, faint but insistent, like the smell of gunpowder, and she grows up quarrelsome and edgy. Quick to anger. There are few visitors to her parents’ farm, way our West – and she is wary of all, presuming they are more likely to be adversaries than allies.
Which is why, that night, when she sees the trespasser stepping darkly around the house, reaching towards her window, she lifts her father’s gun and pulls the trigger.
Her parents bury him, beside the moonlit rows of wheat, neither remarking on the peculiar tattoo on his hand. As the three of them pack up their belongings, sure that safety can now only be found in another home, another state, the girl feels a white hot despair. Why, she weeps bitterly, why didn’t you listen when I told you there was danger?
It will be many years before the girl realises that War is not just a dream but her very nature, and that even if her parents had listened, she was always destined to take lives in battle.
At the hospital, Elena had no time to think about the men in the car. She was met by a tall, thin doctor – whose name she heard and immediately forgot – who led her briskly down a long, bright corridor. ‘It’s apocalyptic out there,’ he said, smiling weakly, as they walked, clumps of snow falling from Elena’s coat.
At the end of the corridor they came to a private room, its door closed.
‘I know you haven’t seen each other in some time,’ the doctor said. ‘It may be a shock.’
Elena nodded, mechanically. Then she pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The room was large, airy and spotlessly clean. A huge window stretched across one wall, far beyond which distant high-rises sat, blizzard-blurred, infusing the night sky with a sickly yellow glow. Elena wondered how her mother, notably bad with money, had ended up somewhere so plush. Then she looked to the middle of the room, to the bed and the little table beside it bearing nothing but a clipboard of medical notes.
There was something on the bed, tiny, like a child.
‘We’re in the wrong room,’ Elena murmured.
The doctor shook his head, No. ‘Annie,’ he called, softly. ‘Your daughter is here.’
Elena stepped slowly forward, looking at the shape – its exposed scalp, its flaking cheeks. The gingham nightgown, now many sizes too big, was the only thing she recognised.
‘Ma?’ Elena murmured.
Annie – because, yes, it really was her – turned her head and opened filmy eyes. Immediately, her mouth became a puckered O of horror.
‘Get out,’ she croaked.
‘Get out of here.’
‘Don’t get upset, I haven’t come to fight–’
‘You can’t be here,’ Annie cried, louder now and frenzied, yanking at the tubes in her arms and sending an IV stand skittering on its wheels. ‘Get out! GET OUT, ELENA, NOW.’
‘Calm down and I’ll go. Alright? I’ll go,’ said Elena, her chest tightening, her head swimming. ‘I thought it was the right thing to do, okay? I thought…’ She shook her head, inched backwards.
Stupid, she told herself. She should have known this would happen.
Deep down, Elena knew she could leave, quietly, with dignity. But she could feel the years peeling away now, leaving her raw and cold with fury.
‘You know what, ma,’ she said, rage shivering through her body, ‘I get it. I know what I did, when I was a kid. But you never even tried to forgive me. You just left me the first chance you got. And even now, you won’t try and understand. But it doesn’t matter, because there are no more chances. You hear me? I’m done.’
Legs almost buckling, she turned to leave. But there was someone in the doorway.
‘Please, Elena. Stay.’
It was a man in crimson robes, almost like a cassock, flanked by three other men also in shades of red. Annie screeched, even louder now, and the doctor rushed to her side – he pushed something into the canula dangling from her papery hand, and she sank back into the sheets, her voice dwindling to a drooling whine.
‘I’m a friend of Annie’s,’ the robed man told Elena, extending his hand. ‘My brothers and I have been with her these last months.’
Elena blinked away tears, shaking the hand and only vaguely noticing the small, strange tattoo on the back of it. She’d never known her mother to be religious. Then again, she clearly didn’t know her mother at all.
‘She doesn’t seem…’ Elena said, unable to find the words. ‘It doesn’t seem like the end.’
‘Oh,’ smiled the man. ‘The end. How funny you say that. She’ll last a little longer yet.’
He sounded almost playful, and Elena felt her anger rising again. ‘If you’ve been with her, you should know that she’s dying.’
‘We’re all dying, Elena,’ the crimson man said. ‘And in dying we will find eternal life.’
His men looked on, their expressions bland and beatific as tombstone angels. The parts of this picture weren’t fitting together. Elena looked to the doctor for an explanation, but he was standing, his mouth slightly open, staring at the man and his peculiar entourage.
‘What the fuck is going on?’ Elena shouted. ‘I want to speak to whoever’s in charge here–’
She strode towards the door but the men made a line in front of it, blocking her path.
‘No,’ the man said. ‘Stay. You need to be here. To make up the Four.’
Death is different.
There are not many – there is only one. It will not shift and morph, like the other three. It will not soften or age. It will not bargain or delay or question, and it will not lose or gain in its power. It will simply continue on its journey, step by relentless step.
It will come to all of us, and to the wide world we live in, in our turn, as it has ever done, and as it will do for all time.
The storm thundered above the city like horses across the sky, tails of ice whipping against the expanse of glass.
‘Did you never feel it?’ The man asked, smiling, smoothing his robes. ‘Your true identity?’
Elena looked blank. She felt as if he were talking to someone else.
‘Not even after the shoot out? At the bank?’
His words were like a flash of lightning. ‘What do you know about that?’ she murmured.
‘Your patrol car, showered with bullets. Your partner, killed in seconds, struck so many times that his poor wife couldn’t even identify his body–’
‘How do you know that?’ Elena stammered. ‘You can’t, the papers never printed–’
‘And you never wondered how it was that you walked away, completely unharmed? You thanked God, for a while. And that was right. Because it’s part of the prophecy. None of the Four can be destroyed by another human being.’ He smiled. ‘That’s why you survived.’
He took a small step towards her.
‘And when they told me the rest,’ he went on, ‘I laughed. It can’t be true, I said, that two of The Four are mother and daughter. The chances are impossibly small. But they explained how she’s not your real mother. How she picked you from a dumpster like a piece of trash.’
‘No,’ she yelled. ‘How dare you? Four what?’ She felt unsteady, as if the floor was warping and buckling beneath her feet. She wanted to find a manager, someone in charge, and made for the door – but, as the crimson man watched, his henchmen closed in, grabbing her painfully in the same restraint she’d used herself on countless petty thieves and drug dealers, arms pushed up behind her back.
‘You know the Four, Elena. Even children know them. War, Pestilence, Famine. Death. Of course, telling you she had cancer was the easiest way to get you here. It would have been harder to bring you by force. Now, the last is on their way. And when all of the Four come together, the prophecy will be fulfilled.’
‘There’s something wrong with you,’ Elena spat. She tried to pull and twist from the men’s grasp, but her arm felt as if it might break.
The wind reared and wailed. As the doctor stood, transfixed, Annie began pulling at the tubes on her body, upsetting the tray on the bedside table. ‘Elena… Sweetheart…’
Bent almost double, Elena strained to look at mother. ‘Please, ma…’
‘Elena, you must listen… I know it sounds crazy… but it’s true.’
‘What? What’s true?’
The man in the robes smiled. ‘Can’t you see? This is no ordinary storm. It’s because the last of you is nearly here. The Four are gathering.’
He’d barely spoken the words before there was an explosion of fire – lightning, striking the building, setting the foundations trembling. The huge window shattered, spilling crystals of glass and ice across the room – and through the empty pane a gale reached, toppling the table and making a whirlwind out of Annie’s useless medical notes. The doctor fell whimpering to the floor, lashed by glass, his cheek pouring blood.
In the commotion, Elena kicked out at one of the men holding her, knocking him to the ground. She grappled with the second man, his shouts drowned by the screeching of the wind, grasping and pushing. But within moments the first man was up again, and they were dragging her to the ground, they were too strong, she could hardly breathe–
A bellowing made them all start. The crimson man was pointing at the empty window, his cheeks soaked with rain.
Everyone turned. Across the room, pushing with all her strength against the wild wind, Annie stood on the windowsill, gripping the frame with both frail hands. Behind her, nothing but rain, at least twenty floors to the ground.
‘Don’t come any closer. Any of you,’ Annie called, as loud as she could manage.
‘Ma!’ Elena cried. She, and the men, all began to step forward, but Annie held up her hands, warning them back. The rain crashed against her, but she stood firm. Then she looked at Elena and spoke, carefully, as if as if conscious she only had so many words left to spare.
‘It was destiny that made me find you,’ she said. ‘But it was love that made me keep you. And I never wanted to leave you, not ever, I swear to God. But, once I found out who we are, I knew that was how it had to be.’
‘Ma, I don’t understand what’s happening–’
The lights flickered on and off, like a frantic signal from a sinking ship. From outside came a rending sound, as if the earth was pulling itself apart. Alarms, and people, wailed in the distance. One of the men made a move towards Annie.
‘I love you, Elena,’ she said.
Then she stepped off the edge and into the dark.
Elena folded to the floor, her screams disappearing into the wail of the wind. The crimson man staggered to the window. The serenity had leached from his face, and he was looking at the ground with a terrible despair.
‘No, no, it can’t be… We were so close…’
As he fell to the floor, figures burst into the room. Them: the same men in black who had tried to stop Elena on the road. She was vaguely aware of a struggle, stripes of black and red, thrashing and falling – but grief had already wrapped her like a dark blanket, weighing her down, and she could only kick uselessly as strong arms carried her from the room, her heels clattering on the polished hospital floor.
‘We’re here to help you, Elena,’ a voice cried. ‘We need to get you away.’
And somehow she was being piled into a car and driven along the freezing roads, past torn-up trees and shattered shop fronts. In the distance, car horns sounded incessantly, piercing and ominous as the last trumpet.
But back in the hospital room, the wind already travelled more gently through the window frame. It moved quieter, as if awed by Annie’s act – one more powerful than any storm, than any plague or flood, and one of far greater consequence.
The old Famine is dead. And now, on another part of this globe, a new Famine is born.
One who will always feel longing, craving. But who will feel other things, like the sun and the sea breeze and the taste of sugar cane on the tongue, who will dance and work and rest, who will love and lose and love again, a child who is as perfect and flawed and as human as any of us.
One who will hunger, who will fight, who will sicken. And who will also find fullness, who will make peace, who will heal.
One who will die, but – before that – will live.
Elena lies, curled like a baby, in the back seat of the black car she rammed only an hour or so ago. The driver is speeding them down the highway, while the passenger gives directions and checks constantly for anyone on their tail. Elena cries and moans for her mother. But the driver won’t stop talking. He says that she has to listen, she needs to know.
There are always Four, he explains, somewhere in the world. Not skeletons, like in paintings and storybooks. And not immortal beings. Just ordinary people, going about their lives, who have no idea of their true nature. They can’t be killed – not by anyone else, anyway. And when one dies, another is born somewhere in the world to replace them. Peasants, financiers, famers, political leaders, the Four can be anybody. But although they’re always changing, there are always Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
And if the Four come together? It’s like the Scriptures say. It’s the beginning of the end of the world. That’s the nature of humanity, he says. We carry within us, always, the capacity to destroy ourselves.
Elena sits up, wipes her eyes. Her voice is small. ‘Who the fuck are you guys?’
‘We’re The Fortress,’ the driver says. ‘An ancient society. It’s our job to identify the Four, from one generation to the next, and keep them apart. Finding each one is difficult, but our members’ – those skulking figures in black, Elena realises – ‘look for clues in different ways. Some of us study scripture, looking for coded names, dates, cities. Others have visions. We have some reliable government connections, too, which helps. As technologies develop, it’s getting easier and easier for people to connect with one another. And to travel. Which makes things more dangerous.’
‘So are there others,’ she says, thinking of the hospital, ‘who want to bring the Four together?’
‘They’re known as the Seal,’ he replies. ‘Those guys in red. You just met their high command at the hospital.’
‘Why? Why would they want to…?’
‘They believe humanity has had its time and its suffering must end. They identified you and your mother as two of the Four – and, once they captured her, they realised they could use her as bait to bring you two together. They kept her there for some time, while they looked for you.’
The driver looks at Elena in the rear view mirror. ‘It’s true what they said, that she found you as a baby, then took you away and raised you as her own. On some level, she must have sensed that you and she were the same. She was happy, with you and your father. But, that man you shot, when you were a teenager?’
Elena shudders. They had never told anyone about this. Never.
‘He was one of The Seal. He’d tracked you down, was coming to take you and your mother away. Good thing you didn’t let it happen. Thankfully, the Fortress had tailed him. We found your parents and told them everything, that it was too dangerous for you and your mother to be near one another. She understood. In the end.’
Elena feels the tears coming again, but isn’t ready yet. And there’s still something that isn’t making sense to Elena. ‘They said there was just one more,’ she says. ‘On their way to the hospital.’
‘The last of the Four. Who, thankfully, didn’t arrive in time.’
‘Right. But that means there must have been three of the Four already at the hospital. So, me. My mother. So who was the other one?’
The driver shook his head. ‘We don’t know. But we do have a feeling about the one who was on their way.’
‘What do you mean?’
The driver glances at the stars, just beginning to appear out of the black sky. The clouds must be dissipating. For now, at least.
‘In all the ages,’ he says, ‘nobody from the Fortress has actually met the one who is Death. We’ve come close. But the signs are always vague – Death has appeared as a rider in a grey cloak, a teacher with a black dog. We’ve had to be vigilant, to keep careful track of the other three. Some think that Death is the only one of the Four who never dies themselves, never exists from one body to the next. But we don’t know for sure. It turns out, even with the prophecy, Death is still a mystery.’
‘And you think Death was on their way? To the hospital?’
The driver nods.
As the car crosses the state line, Elena asks: ‘Do you know which one I am? Famine, Pestilence, whatever.’
The driver smiles. ‘You probably know better than we do.’
She looks back at the long road stretching behind them. But she isn’t thinking about the Seal, about how far behind they might be and whether they’re gaining ground. She is thinking about Annie, who made not one great sacrifice, but two. First, Annie abandoned her beloved daughter when it was too dangerous for them to be together. Then, when they could no longer be apart, Annie gave her life so that the world could keep turning. Elena realises that there is a fierce fight ahead. And she hopes that she, like her mother, will have the courage to do whatever it takes to win the war.
There have been many Pestilences.
This one was only recently qualified when the prophecy was told to him. A doctor, young and tired. Pretending not to be terrified every time a new patient was wheeled onto his ward, gasping or crying or, worst of all, silent.
It was in these hours that the doctor was visited by a man in red, a little tattoo on the back of his hand. The tattooed man told the doctor: dying is cruel, but death itself is a blessing. An end to suffering. In time, the doctor started to understand.
The man said: the world is suffering. Come with me, across the sea, and be with the others.
And that’s what should have happened, with Annie and Elena. And the fourth, whose face the doctor had secretly been afraid to see.
But the doctor still believes that it will happen soon, that he will be one of those to see the final days. Because while the Fortress works, the Seal works too.
And the Four are among us, always.