” A short story featuring Pestilence of the four horsemen and a trip to the hospital. Sometimes a chance encounter changes the entire way a person works. “
By Devan Petersen
Pestilence was leaning outside of a small town hospital with the hood of his sweatshirt drawn up so that his face was mostly hidden. He was zeroed in on his cell phone screen, and hoped that his appearance would deter any curious mortal that would have the misfortune of trying to talk to him. Well, not misfortune quite. Pestilence was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Not your average day job sure, but being a living legend had to be done by someone. Pestilence wasn’t exactly sure which to call himself—to be honest if asked for a label he’d probably wrinkle his nose and grumble something along the lines of “middle child” before he decided he was legendary or anything of the sort.
That meant that the sibling younger than him got babied, and the two older than him never let him forget they were older. That was a fallback of working centuries in “the family business”—which, actually, wasn’t really even a business. Not officially. See, he and his siblings weren’t supposed to be out and about until the world was ending. They could do small stuff to stir things up—or to get the bigwigs “upstairs” to pay attention. Where upstairs was, Pestilence didn’t have the foggiest idea. Or even who the bigwigs were—he’d been traipsing around the planet since before humanity and had never heard from them or seen them. Death swore she’d met them before though, and the family just didn’t go against the eldest. Everything they did was supposed to end at her after all.
Pestilence scowled and peered at his phone. She had been sending him text after text all morning. He half wished she had continued to have her aversion to technology—the eighties had been filled with her complaints about the new wave of human invention but now she couldn’t pry herself from her iPhone.
Pesti, make it something good (:
Pestilence clicked the back of his teeth with his tongue. He wanted to respond for her to get off his back—Pestilence had been cooking up disease since the old days. That’s what he did, touched people, made them sick, waited til’ they wasted away and let his sister swoop in and take em’ off. Humans kept evolving with their immune systems, which meant he had to stay on his toes and make up something new to keep them scrambling.
He pushed his phone into his pocket and slipped inside the hospital. Clean white walls rose up around him, fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. Pestilence sniffed and rubbed at the end of his nose, dodging the people filtering by him. More for their own sake than his, he didn’t need what he had pieced together this morning spreading through people who were healthy. That got them on their toes too fast. All it took was a touch, a brush of shoulders or fingertips and they’d be bedridden and possibly visiting his sister before their time.
That was what happened though, he figured—after all, he was a Horseman. On his heels road death and destruction, and the day that the world ended would be his day of triumph. He and his brothers—they would rid the world of the sickness that plagued it’s surface. Death told him that when that day came his touch would be healing, that it would be curing the blight of the human race by helping the others to get rid of it. A purging.
To be honest the idea terrified him. It made him recoil in horror of himself, but there was an order to things and all had their place and nature. He wasn’t any difference, he was Pestilence and he would do what he had to in life.
Not a person glanced his way in the hospital, and that was what he was used to. He glided by doctors and nurses with barely a glance—Pestilence didn’t have anything big in the works at the moment. Sometimes his older brothers got bored, and he set something out that had the mortals running around like dimwitted animals. They were easy to scare, when it came to sickness. It reminded them of their mortality.
“Are you lonely?” The question almost fell into the white noise backdrop that was the conversation in the hospital—Pestilence was used to that. People hear spoke, talked to one another in dreaded tones and quiet concern. The question wasn’t so out of place, what was out of place was the small boy stepping into his path with a frown, “Hey—are you okay?”
Pestilence stared—he wasn’t, and never had been, the sort that would draw the eye of a person in public. He just looked like a slightly sick teenager, a little too red around the eyes and nose, a little too pale—and he certainly hadn’t been acting lost. People passed him by, because maybe some tiny part of them could feel that stopping near him was a terrible idea.
They didn’t just… talk to him.
“You looked kind of sad,” the kid continued a little nervously. He had a gap in his teeth, and his hair was sticking up in a way that suggested he hadn’t brushed his hair. There was an old camera dangling from his neck, one of the ones that spat the photo out directly instead of needing to be printed later. The boy was bouncing from foot to foot nervously, his brow furrowed, “So I thought, ‘hey, is that guy okay?’ and decided to ask. So, are you okay?”
“Er, yes,” Pestilence frowned and drew back from the child automatically. He wasn’t who he was here for, and he ought to not be drawn into a conversation with him. Still part of him longed for more—was that so much to ask? When a single touch of his fingertips destroyed things so slowly? He didn’t think so, maybe that was selfish, but it hovered there in his chest. A want for something just a little bit more. “I think—you thought I looked sad?”
“The way my sister does sometimes,” the boy frowned and rubbed at the end of his nose. “She’s lonely too, I think. People at school don’t talk to her much—Mom says she’ll get over it, girls just go through that kinda thing y’know?”
“It’s important to her though,” Pestilence said quietly. Death was too busy with teenagers if you asked Pestilence—he usually dealt with the very young and the elderly. People who had either only just tasted what life could be or had had their fill. The ones in the middle always made him uncomfortable—he didn’t mind cutting it off at the beginning or near the end, but it seemed strange to do things right in the center.
“Probably,” the kid frowned as though troubled. “She doesn’t listen to me though.”
“Siblings do that,” Pestilence found himself saying distantly. He was suddenly vividly reminded of the Swine Flu epidemic, and his brothers chanting—“C’mon Pesti, when was the last time you did anything big? The Bubonic Plague?”—like Yellow Fever had just been a breeze, it wasn’t his fault that he’d piqued in the sixth century.
“How come?” the child asked.
“I don’t know, that’s how mine act. They don’t listen, that’s a sibling thing,” Pestilence shrugged his shoulders.
“But I listen to my sister, so not all siblings do,” the child pointed out with a grin.
“Yeah but most of them don’t,” Pestilence said, feeling nettled. The child didn’t seem to notice, he trailed after Pestilence as he tried to walk away. Pestilence huffed, squaring his shoulders.
“Are you here because you’re sick?” The kid was leaping to a new topic faster than Pestilence could keep up—that’s right, humans were always go-go-go. He’d forgotten that, it was an unpleasant thing to deal with in person. He liked to stop and think about thinks, to stare and wonder at the complexities of the universe around him. Still, he allowed himself a sort of cough of laughter.
“No, not really. Business mostly,” Pestilence found himself unconsciously shoving his hands into the ragged sweater he wore. The boy looked interested, he’d made a mistake and he knew it the instant he saw those eyes light up.
“Like a job?” the kid asked, swinging around and almost bumping into Pestilence. The being pulled back with a scowl, letting the child dodge around him as he skipped over linoleum. “But you’re my sister’s age and she’s too little for work.”
“I’m older than your sister,” Pestilence snorted.
“How do you know? Do you know my sister?” this kid was beginning to drive him crazy. The child seemed too energetic for his own good, swinging around in place and holding both arms out as though he were an airplane. Pestilence had to press his back against the wall to avoid touching the little boy.
“Why are you here?” the Horsemen asked, the kid stopped abruptly.
“My mom cut her hand,” the boy wrinkled his nose. “She got lots of blood everywhere, but we came here to fix it up.”
“So they just let you run around like wild?” Pestilence rolled his eyes.
“It’s boring,” the kid complained. He perked up, “Can I come with you?”
“No,” Pestilence’s response was flat—the last thing he needed was a mortal tagging along with him when he started to spread a disease. The boy’s lip pursed out, and he looked petulant for a few moments. Like he was about to cry, Pestilence moved past him carefully. The kid made as though to grab for him and he jerked away.
“Do not touch me, got it?” Pestilence felt his throat close up when the kid stepped closer to him and he stepped back again. The child meant it playfully, he could see it on the kid’s face—mortals were open books. This, to him, was nothing more than a game. The last thing Pestilence wanted was to get the boy sick—he’d been a pain but it was refreshing to get to talk to people every now and then. Even a ridiculous mortal. So he snapped, “Seriously, don’t.”
“How come?” Goddamn what was with human kids and their questions? Humanity had too many questions, their inquisitive minds ought to have been quelled. Pestilence briefly, and with a good deal of irritation, wondered if he could make a sickness that would stop that. A sickness that dulled that human instinct to ask questions one after the other.
He couldn’t explain why, not exactly, but the idea suddenly made him a little sad.
“Because, I—when I touch things they just, get sick. You know, like I’m contagious,” he surprised himself with the lie, but even more with the bitterness that tinged his tone. For all their faults, he thought that humanity was beautiful, and he could never touch it. Even staying as close as he was to the child at that moment was dangerous, wasn’t it? A single step and a touch, and that vibrant boy would be sicker than he’d ever been in his whole life. Pestilence curled his lip, suddenly disgusted with himself. Was this what his siblings longed for? The attention his sister so craved from the mysterious people that he didn’t even know existed—they destroyed things, and all for what? The approval of faceless people that were as substantial as wisps of smoke.
“Like, cooties or something?” The kid snorted, “Those don’t even exist!”
“Tch, cooties,” Pestilence rolled his eyes. “No, it’s more as though everything living that comes into physical contact with me meets a terrible fate. You understand?”
“That’s why you’re sad?” The question caught him off guard, and he stared at the small boy. Humans, who could get riled up over a few fevers and yet were quick to turn their noses up at hints of other more obvious sickly danger. Humans, who asked too many damn questions and stuck their noses in the business of others since the time they could form coherent sentences—they were damned perceptive. Always searching, thinking, dissecting the world around them. It was admirable, beautiful, and terribly breakable.
“Yes,” he finally replied. The boy frowned at him for a moment, before turning his large camera around in his hands and pointing it at his face. He beamed at the camera, tooth-gap showing, and clicked the shutter. The flash had Pestilence blinking and rubbing at his eyes, and he jerked back automatically when the boy’s hand extended toward him. The kid was shaking something, a photograph, and he held it toward him with a tiny smile.
“My dad gave this to me, so I could take pictures whenever I wanted! It’s not as nice as a hug,” the boy’s eyes were large as he extended his hand toward Pestilence. He was beaming at him, his solution came with a child’s simplicity. It was just a matter of this, “Still, you can keep this if you want. That way you can hold onto something and it won’t get sick.”
Cautiously Pestilence took the other end of the picture. The boy’s fingertips were close to his own, he could have brushed them so easily. It would have been a simple leaning forward, just a touch of the hands. He didn’t realize until he exhaled as he pulled the polaroid out of the child’s hand that he’d been holding his breath. The kid beamed at him again, expression mimicking the one in the photo.
“Thank you,” Pestilence peered down at the picture. The kid nodded, and then he was pelting down the hallway. An insignificant conversation likely already placed in some dark corner of his mind—years later, when Pestilence’s older brother met him, he probably wouldn’t even remember that moment. To him, who could touch nothing without it turning hideous, it meant the whole world. Pestilence pocketed the small picture and smiled.
The phone in his pocket chimed and Pestilence pulled it out with a frown. Impatient messages riddled the screen, he had texts from War and Famine as well as his older sister now. After a moment he clicked open his younger brother’s, frowning at the text in place.
dude pesti u kno that deedee’s starting to stomp around rite?
like she’s peeved as heck man what’s taking so long?
she said she texted u like 5ever ago
Right, the mission. The thing, he had to go find a person in the hospital and make them sick. How much time had he wasted, talking to some kid? He suddenly wondered what War would have done in this situation—his hot-headed little brother who enjoyed watching mortals tear one another to pieces. Pestilence shouldn’t have stopped to talk to the kid, he shouldn’t have stopped at all. He had a job to do, after all.
you guys are so impatient.
Pestilence replied, and after a heartbeat added, “also I’m telling Death you called her “Deedee” again” before he stalked down the hall toward his destination. The picture was still in his pocket, a gap-toothed boy grinning from the glossy square. He wondered those glittering eyes would judge him, if he continued on his way.
He pushed the door open, some young man was sitting on the bed with a nasty dog bite. Animal infections were good places to start with disease—they made nice building blocks for an outbreak, and it was easy enough to twist the infection to a mutation. Make something airborne and people started dropping like flies.
The guy didn’t notice him—people never did. They weren’t supposed to, not like the kid.
Pestilence frowned as he edged toward him, before pulling the picture out of his pocket. There was a reason, wasn’t there? For the kid to have seen him, to have stopped him—of all the mortals that could have crossed his path it was that child.
With a loud huff Pestilence turned and headed out of the room. He wasn’t sure what he’d tell his siblings—what excuse could he possibly come up with when he didn’t know why he was leaving himself? There was nothing to be said, Pestilence just knew he couldn’t bring himself to touch that man. He couldn’t make him sick, not with that picture in his pocket.