“When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come and see.’ And I looked, and behold, a black horse, and she who sat on it had a pair of scales in her hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.'” — Revelation 6:5-6
“Can I join you?” Famine asked, already sitting down.
“Of course,” Pestilence said. “How are you? It’s been some time.”
“I’m fine,” Famine croaked. “What are you doing in Baltimore?”
Pestilence shrugged. “Port cities are always full of good feeding. How about you?”
“I was going to Egypt, stopped here along the way. I didn’t expect a chance meeting.” She hung on the word chance, and bit her lip with overly-pronounced canines. “Last time we were in the same area was 1847. I was traveling with a group called the Donners, remember? They ate each other alive, buried what was left in the snow, carving tunnels between the tents. I thought I felt you nearby.”
Pestilence took a sip of water. “1847 frontier? I think the timeline works out.”
She nodded, digging her heels into Pestilence’s foot. “If you had been, I would’ve crucified you to a pine tree and skinned you alive, but it didn’t feel like the end times.”
Pestilence had a very high pain tolerance. Famine had very sharp heels. “Does it feel like the end times now?”
“That’s not my point,” Famine insisted. “Why are you avoiding me?”
Pestilence finally squeaked, “I haven’t been avoiding you. We’re not supposed to meet in the first place unless the seals break. We’re immortals, we just wander around until then.”
“We’re not immortals, we’re outside time.”
Pestilence threw his hands up in the air. “What’s the difference?”
“Immortals implies that we live forever. We’re not living, we just exist.”
Pestilence sighed. “I’m not going to argue semantics with you. I don’t even know what you’re mad about. Are you upset that we happen to be in the same city, or that we were both bored a millennia ago and shared dates under a magic f-cking tree in a magic f-cking garden!”
Pestilence tried to drink some water but his hands were too shaky and he ended up spilling half of the glass on the table. “Can you please release my foot?”
Famine stood firm for 30 more seconds before relenting. She crossed her arms and tapped her foot. “We did a lot more than stuff each other’s mouths with dessert fruits. We did it before Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve!” she spat in Pestilence’s face, her teeth appearing to transform into a shark’s. “What you did was rude, crude and above all else unmanly.”
“I’m sorry.” Pestilence leaned back in his chair, nursing his foot. “I’m sorry, that’s all I can say. What do you want me to do?”
“Why do you think I want something from you? My whole existence doesn’t revolve around some bald, limp-d-ck bringer of the apocalypse … Oh my god, what are you doing?”
Pestilence had taken off his shoe, revealing feet that barely saw the sun.
“Look,” Pestilence whined, “you left a bruise and everything.”
“That didn’t stop you.” Pestilence’s anger rose and crashed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. We’re just getting nastier.”
“What do you propose?”
Pestilence resumed eating. “After I’m finished, I’ll leave. We’ll pretend like this never happened. We’ve discussed our past … I’ll see you at the end times.”
“So that’s it? The second time we see each other and we go on like we never did?”
“What do you propose, then?” Pestilence echoed.
Famine sighed, and looked up at the hospital. “I don’t know. I wish we could leave it better, better than how we left it cause that just sounds utterly depressing.” Slouching, her teeth shifted to resemble the rough and bristled baleen of a whale. “It’s been too long for me to be truly mad. It feels like a bad dream. I can remember the premise, but not the details.”
“Yeah,” Pestilence muttered, appetite spoiled. “I remember you laying there when I left. You were pretty; you were always very pretty. I get flashes of you in my mind. Lurking in Versailles, trying on the different dresses while they chopped the queens head off. Waiting by the fire for the farmer to eat the strangers. I get these visions the closer I get to you.”
“I don’t think we’re even supposed to be together unless it’s on the calvary, period.” Famine nibbled on her fingernails. “Is that why you left me?”
Pestilence remembered how Famine curled up in the golden fleece, the tree already starting to wilt. He was always clammy, but the beating inside his chest scared him. “I left cause I wanted to,” he lied. “We shouldn’t see each other.”
Famine nodded. “You’re probably right. You don’t have to leave yet, I’ll go. I wasn’t hungry anyway.” She got up from her seat. “Did it feel like a long time to you, or like it’s only been a day?”
“It was a mix. I tried not to think about it.” For the second time that day, Pestilence heard the deafening Navy ship. Famine was also startled. A group of military graduates flocked to the street, and from the opposite direction were men in uniform carrying suitcases trying to flag a cab. A man emerged from the commotion, his appearance shifting rapidly. At first, a caveman brandishing a club. Then a Goth barbarian, a redcoat and a union officer. He walked over to their table wearing green camo with short blonde sideburns and long flowing hair. A golden sword was at his side. He wore dark red lipstick.
“Is this who I think it is?” War bellowed with laughter. The nearby couple left in a spontaneous fight, so War took the girlfriend’s seat and dragged it over to Pestilience’s table. “End times?”
“We were just discussing that,” Famine said, shocked. Pestilence was petrified. “What are you doing in Baltimore?”
War scratched his beard. “I was muddled up in a conflict south of Syria, where the Russians and the Americans and the English and the Germans and god knows who else were meeting in secret to divvy up some land. It went sour real quick, so I traveled here on a battleship for the trial of some Admiral Flashman for his war crimes. I figured I’d restock on power in the Pentagon.” War rubbed Pestilence’s bald head. “Didn’t you used to have a crown? Or did you leave it somewhere?” he joked, obnoxiously winking.
“And a bow,” Pestilence croaked. “I wear the crown when we ride, same as you with that sword.”
War unsheathed the red blade and held it aloft over the table. “The last time I swung this sword, I was chained to a rock in Siberia. The flame went out 20 years ago. It was only a wisp of fire around the tip, enough to roast a marshmallow. All of a sudden, I reach the Dead Sea and the blade is engulfed in flames. What are your thoughts on that?”
“Can you put that away, please?” the waitress asked War in a dreamlike state. War ignored her, as she was bound to forget what she saw the instant she turned around.
“End times. That’s what you’re suggesting,” Famine said. “Were there rules on the final ride? I always figured the ground would open up, and I would get a message to prepare for next week.”
War stuck his sword into the cement. “There’s only three of us here. Perhaps we should consult Death.”
“Absolutely not,” Pestilence said. “There’s no reason to assemble the Four Horsemen. This,” he waved his hand across the table, “is a chance encounter, but if all four of us are together again it can only lead to one thing.”
War blew a raspberry and mimicked an explosion with his hands. He leaned in and asked Pestilence, “Are you rejecting your divine purpose?”
Pestilence recoiled. Famine watched cautiously. “I’m not rejecting it. I’m ignoring … random bits. This doesn’t feel right. Where’s the ceremony? Where are the angels and Leviathan? Where are the Horses? Where’s Death?”
“He’s coming,” Famine said, eyes rolled into the back of her head. War’s eyes transformed into small suns. Pestilence himself suddenly envisioned a swamp writhing full of black alligators, eels and lampreys. In the reflection of the water was a line of hearses taking a left turn in the direction of the hospital.
Pestilence’s eyes reinflated. He cleared his eye gunk with a napkin. War returned to this reality, followed by Famine. She took out an old scroll and jotted down what she remembered from her vision. She used reading glasses for this. Pestilence had never seen her in glasses, but wished he had.
“Death is coming,” he said. “I’m going to order another lunch. You guys want anything?”
Famine was just as glum as Pestilence. “Why are you ordering another lunch, you weren’t hungry to begin with?”
Pestilence shrugged. “I like this place. I figured now rather than later when it’s up in flames.” Pestilence turned to the waitress, “Hi, can I get another chicken panini, please?”
Famine was reading the menu. “I’ll just have some coffee, thanks. Black.”
“Do you guys do burgers?” War asked.
“We’re a cafe, sir,” the waitress answered.
War looked at Famine’s menu. “Do you have jalapenos?”
“Yes, sir, would you like a jalapeno panini?”
War considered it. “I think the jalapeno will be enough, thanks.”
“You just want a plate of jalapenos?”
“Yes, and a lot-t-t-t-t,” War clicked. War pulled over a fourth chair and propped his combat boots up on it. “Saving a seat for the pale one. So, are you two still a thing?”
“No,” they answered in unison.
War smirked, tossing and flipping his sword in the air effortlessly. “You know, Pestilence, I kinda agree with you. I don’t think I’m ready for the end times. Combat is like a fantastic meal. Your instinct is to eat it as fast as you can. Mmmm! I. Want. This. In. My. Mouth!” War wagged his finger. “But you shouldn’t do that. You have to eat slowly. One itty bitty bite of pepperoni pizza so you get the flavor on your tongue to settle.”
Pestilence was in disbelief. “That’s your metaphor? You’re comparing doomsday to dollar pizza?”
“It doesn’t have to be dollar pizza. I’m imagining the more expensive pizza where the pepperoni slices are the small semi-burnt pieces of salami. Also, it was a simile because I used the word ‘like.’ I learned that in a bombed-out elementary school.”
“I would have appreciated a more relatable simile,” Famine said. Her teeth shifted again into a bear’s. “He’s here.”
The caravan of hearses passed through the area. Men on the street stopped and lowered their hats. The hearses blinked by, and in the space between the hearses, a man was taking shape. The black cloak was customary, but when he floated across the street, Death wore baggy black pants and a colorful designer jacket with logos from bankrupt companies. In his free time, Death had found a career as a stand-in for John Malkovich.
“So that’s where my glasses went,” Death said, pointing at Famine. “I had to buy a new pair last year.”
Email Leo Sheingate at [email protected]