1. Death Watch
The waiting room was brightly lit. It was a wide space of clean white linoleum, cheap but functional furniture and the mingled smells of coffee, tears and nervousness. People flipped through magazines, shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, studied the faces of the nurses behind the thick, curving counter top and tried to discern from the nurses' expressions the conditions of their loved ones. They couldn't. The nurses' faces were blank masks.
Doctors came and went, consulting charts, speaking in doctor code. The waiters nodded at the doctors, pretending to understand, looking for the heart of the matter. Will my loved one live or die? Whatever the answer, there were tears.
The waiting room darkened for Neil Coburn when Dr. Wexler walked in. Dad stood up, wringing his hands, wanting the answer to be life but knowing it wouldn't be. Neil and Phaedra clutched each others' hands without even knowing they were doing it. They couldn't hear everything Dr. Wexler was saying to Dad. They didn't need to.
Dr. Wexler put his hand on Dad's shoulder and said softly, "Six months, maybe less."
Phaedra whimpered, her grip on her brother's fingers almost crushing them. Neil let his fingers be crushed. He couldn't feel them anyway. He was cold, cold beyond numbness, cold as death. He was ten years old, and in six months, maybe less, he would no longer have a mother.
* * *
"I can't do this," Plague says. "I don't belong here."
Ely says nothing, only listens patiently to Plague's arguments. He's heard it all before. He knew everything when he offered Plague a chance at redemption. He can't tell Plague that he's wrong. He has to wait for Plague to figure that out for himself, and he wonders why Plague is so resistant.
"I know you've told me a thousand times --"
"More," Ely says.
" -- that I do belong, but I can't ... I don't see how. I don't know what my place is. I can't figure out my purpose."
"You're still Plague."
"But what does that mean? How can what I am, what I can do, be in anyway good?"
"Why do viruses exist in nature?"
"What do you mean? You're asking me for philosophy? I don't think a virus ponders what its purpose in life is."
"No. Scientifically. It's a predator, essentially. It culls the weak, controls a population."
"Maybe that's what it would like to be, but human interference makes all that a moot point. And if you're asking me to use my viruses to kill more people, you can go to hell."
Ely shakes his head. "I would never ask you to do that. Viruses will do what they will to humans without your help. What you can do is be an overseer of sorts."
Plague thinks about what Ely is asking him to do. How, he wonders, is it any different than what he did while he was alive? It isn't, except for the fact that he no longer needs science to do the work. Then why can't he accept it? Why does he keep resisting? If he could get to that reason, maybe he could get past it. As it is, he sees nothing in his future but the taint of his past.
"You have time," Ely says. "I don't know how much, but you have time."
"Time for what?"
"Decide what? Why is there a time limit? What are you not telling me?"
For a moment, Ely remains silent. He fixes Plague in his calm, grey gaze, and Plague sees, for the first time, that Ely is afraid of something. Well, not afraid. Ely doesn't seem to fear anything, but he is worried about something.
"What?" Plague asks again.
"You weren't the only one."
"The only one of what? What are you talking about? Give me some straight fucking answers for once. Maybe if you tell me why you brought me here, I'll understand."
"There were three others. Famine, War and Death."
That's all Ely says about it. That's all Ely has to say. Plague understands instantly what the problem is.
The room goes dim for Plague. He puts his hand over his eyes. "Fuck," he mutters.
"You were the only one I could get to. The others are remorseless."
"But ... but why me? Why did you choose to save me? It's not because you think I give you some upper hand. You wouldn't use me like that. Would you?"
"No. I did it because I could. And because Phaedra asked me to. Because there's more in you than what you were being used for."
"I don't deserve this. I'm not --"
"It was a gift. Gifts aren't given because they're deserved."
* * *
Plague takes refuge in a secluded spot far from everything, the place where Ely first brought him when he accepted Ely's gift of redemption. In those first hours -- or days or months, he's not sure -- he had been terrified. The trauma was incomprehensible. He thrashed, he screamed, he cried, he begged for it to end. Finally, it had ended, and there was silence and comfort. He had wept in pain, in relief, in sorrow and in gratitude, huddled in the shelter of Ely's arms and his immense grace. Peace had followed. He had slept, fitfully at first, but it was better than nothing. Then one day, Plague woke up and felt nothing. No fear, no pain, no joy. He simply existed. It was a wonderful feeling, to be, to know that he could be. It was only later, when Ely took him deeper into heaven, that the doubts crept in. Maybe here, Plague will be able to shove all that aside again and do what Ely is asking, not because Ely is asking but because it's the right thing to do.
The place looks like a small, one-room log cabin, although Plague doesn't believe that its physical form relates in any way to the materials it's made from. It's too secure to be made out of rough-hewn logs and too comfortable to be so antiquated. There's a large fireplace on one side of the room, though there's no need for a fire. The room temperature is perfect. On the other side, there's a bed that's far more comfortable than it looks. Next to the bed are a chair and a table. There isn't a single source of light in the room. It's dim but not dark and clear enough to read by comfortably. But Plague hasn't come here to read. He settles into the chair and closes his eyes.
He doesn't pray. He doesn't know how. He's never understood the concept of prayer. It makes no sense to him to ask for the intervention of some unknowable force. It makes even less sense that such a force would listen. Prayer as a way of focusing, however, makes perfect sense. It's meditation. It's a trick he's used many times in his research. When he was particularly stumped, he would leave his lab, go out to the beach or into the mountains and think about what it was that was in his way, how he got to that place and where he ultimately wanted to be. It was a trick that always worked for him. He would come back refreshed and inspired. Was it divine intervention? Probably not, but then, who's to say that it wasn't?
So he does that now. He thinks about what's got him stuck. He was made a demon and set to the task of spreading sickness and death. He took the lives of thousands of people, many thousands. He never kept count, but he knows he killed more than his fair share. From there, he was given a choice. He made his choice. He's an angel now, but that hasn't erased his sins. He still took those lives. He still did so without thinking. He doesn't deserve this chance. How could anything as vile as he let himself become deserve this?
* * *
Six months sounded like such a long time. Neil let himself be convinced of that, tried to believe that in six months, he could do everything he needed to do to make Mom proud and happy. In six months, there could even be a cure for her cancer. Six months was practically forever. On the day Mom died, Neil decided that he hated time above all else, except maybe cancer. It was six months, two weeks and three days, and it wasn't nearly long enough.
Madeline Coburn passed away at home, comfortable in her bed, her beautiful children and her husband all at her side. There had been some debate about whether the kids should be there at the moment of her passing, but she insisted and so did the kids. There had been talks with Mom, Dad, psychologists and priests, and the kids knew exactly what was going on. They had no illusions about Mom's dying, and no one could have kept them from her side that day.
On that day, Neil and Phaedra sat on the bed holding Mom's right hand while Dad sat in a chair beside the bed holding her left hand. There were no tears. Those would be for later.
"Tell me what you'll be when you grow up, Phae," Mom said. Her voice was onion-skin thin. The cancer had eaten away at her breasts, lungs and throat, and it made her sound like nothing more than wind blowing through dry grass.
"I wanna be an artist," Phaedra said. "Maybe a photographer. I wanna be the kind of artist people talk about now, not in a hundred years."
Mom smiled. This was absolutely true. She knew that. Her daughter was gifted, and the more Phaedra learned, the more skill refined talent, the more people wouldn't be able to ignore her work.
The game made Neil uncomfortable. He didn't know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Right now, he wasn't sure he wanted to grow up. He hoped she wouldn't ask him.
"What about you, Neil? What will you be?"
For a minute, Neil couldn't answer. His mouth had gone dry, and when he opened it to try to tell her what she wanted to hear, it felt sticky. I'll be a teacher, he started to say, but he caught Mom's eyes and found he couldn't lie to her. He leaned closer to her and whispered so that Phae and Dad didn't hear. "I'm gonna learn how to kill the thing that killed you," he said.
* * *
Plague opens his eyes. He doesn't feel like he's made any progress. He still feels unworthy and tainted. He's not thinking about the problem at hand. The day his mother died, though its impact on him is unquestionable, isn't the problem. The problem is the choice he made when he died.
He gets up and goes out the back door of the tiny cabin. A covered porch sporting a roughly made rocking chair faces a lake the color of mercury. A silvery white sun sets (or maybe rises) from the lake. The monochrome is soothing. The colors of an actual sunrise (or sunset) would make his eyes throb and tear up. He walks down to the edge of the lake and stands at the spot where the little waves roll up onto the grey sand. He takes in the shimmer of the silver sun on the water, watching light shift in the ripples. The calmness of the scene goes a long way towards easing his mind.
Deserving or not, this is what he's been given. Ely offered Plague the chance to do the right thing, and Plague took that chance. The demon didn't give him a choice, not the way Ely had. The demon didn't care about anything except getting the job done. Plague isn't entirely sure that Ely cares any more about him than the demon had, but Ely certainly gives the impression that he does care.
Plague reaches down and scoops a smooth round stone out of the sand. The stone is the color of a thunderhead, almost the color of Ely's eyes. Again, that calm, soothing grey. The cool stone seems to vibrate in his palm, and he closes his fingers around it. "Why can't I just move forward?" he asks the stone. "I can't change what happened to me or what I did. And the only way to make up for my mistakes is to go forward. That's why I'm here. Ely's not asking me to be anything I'm not. He wants me to do what I'm good at. I owe him. I'll always owe him, but this isn't like it was with the demon. It's not just a job."
The stone has nothing to say, but it continues to hum coolly. Plague slips the stone into his pocket and turns to head back for the cabin.
The figure that blocks his path is like a smear of excrement on a pristine surface. It stinks, and flies buzz around it. Its skin is grey and cracked, oozing thick yellow pus and maggots. It grins at Plague, showing him teeth brown with rot and grey, splotchy gums. "So glad you finally figured shit out," it says. "I was getting damn sick of listening to you prattle on about your moral dilemma."
Plague says nothing. He's not ready for a fight. He's only had a few lessons in hand-to-hand combat, and he's not good at it.
"You don't look happy to see me. What's the matter, Plague? Does it hurt to know you've been replaced already?"
Plague knows what he's facing then. Ely hadn't mentioned that Plague's empty slot would be filled. He probably doesn't know. This means the situation is worse than Ely thinks it is. This means that Plague has one option -- run.
He gets two steps before his replacement is on him, twisting his arm up behind his back and forcing him to his knees. He grinds his teeth against a cry of pain. His wrist burns with the strain, and the burning quickly engulfs his arm up to his elbow and starts to creep towards his shoulder. He tries to roll out of the grip and sweep his assailant's legs out from under him, but he can't manage the maneuver. He ends up flat on his stomach with his arm jerked so far up that he feels his shoulder pop out of place. A sharp knee plows into the small of his back. He grunts in pain.
"I'm not here to kill you," the demon says. "Boss still thinks you're valuable somehow. So I'm just delivering a message. We're not done with you, and no one you care about is safe. By the time we are done with you, you'll be back where you belong and grateful for it. Personally, I'd rather take you out, but Boss wants to play, so I'm playing."
"You can tell the boss to kiss my ass," Plague says.
The demon laughs. "I will."
Two bright, sharp lines of pain flare along Plague's arm from his wrist to his elbow, and then the demon is gone. Plague sits up and gingerly moves his arm to his lap. His arm hangs lower than it should, and his range of motion is limited to moving his arm in front of him. There are two deep cuts along the inside of his forearm, and writhing in his blood, deep in his flesh, are meaty white maggots.
* * *
Neil recognized the moment his mother died without understanding what he was witnessing. That came later. At least the clinical definition of death came later. One day, he would be able to replay the memory against scientific knowledge and would comprehend the biological process of death, and he would accept this without question, taking comfort in the fact that whatever lived eventually died. It made sense. It was entropic. It was the only way that any life form could be successful over a length of time. He didn't -- could not -- identify or explain the rest of it. Even at ten years old, he didn't believe there was anything more to life than biology.
The second Mom's body could no longer be defined as alive, something else changed. Whatever it was that defined Mom left her. The body was just that -- a body. Neil didn't recognize her face. The corpse looked like his mother but wasn't. Mom was gone. Something more than biology had changed.
Neil cried. Tears dribbled silently down his cheeks. He hadn't expected this change, hadn't even thought such a thing was possible. It scared him. It saddened him. It angered him. The cancer took more than her body. It took her -- her essence, her soul. Mom was gone, and all the intellect in the world couldn't prepare him for the emptiness he found in her place.
He pressed her cold hand to his hot, teary face and closed his eyes. Her touch didn't soothe him. She was just meat -- dead meat already succumbing to rot. I'll kill the thing that killed you, he thought. He opened his eyes to see if she smiled at his thought.
She did, and his heart throbbed like a fresh, deep bruise. She wasn't gone after all; she came home for one last smile, one last goodbye, one last I love you. But as her lips drew back, he saw that he was wrong. She wasn't there. It was only biology that parted her lips, and over the dead grey flesh of her mouth, maggots writhed.
* * *
Plague wakes up almost screaming, but bile burning the back of his throat strangles any sound he might make. He coughs as he sits up, so hard that tiny white lights begin to swirl in the outer edges of his vision. A hand presses against his back then curls into his shirt as he starts to topple over. He steadies himself and slumps, covering his face with his hands.
"Are you okay?" Gershom asks.
Plague looks at the angel through his fingers. "What do you think?" he asks.
"I think no, but I figured I'd ask."
Plague drops his hands to his lap and looks around the room. It's not a familiar room, but he doesn't want to ask where he is or what happened to him. What he wants to do is talk to Ely. "Where's Ely?" he asks.
Gershom looks as if he'd rather not say, but then he tilts his head towards the door. "Out there," he says. "Things are getting ugly."
"What do you mean?"
"Some of the other archangels think it's your fault."
"That what's my fault?"
"The four horsemen of the apocalypse."
Plague says nothing. Of course it's not his fault. That's ridiculous, but he's not surprised that even angels would jump to that conclusion. He's not far enough removed from his days as a demon for their liking.
"Ely knew about this," Gershom says after a moment of silence. "He knew a long time ago, and he said nothing. Not even to me. But you knew." Gershom and Plague are friends, but Gershom's tone is accusing nonetheless. Plague doesn't protest. Gershom's accusation isn't without foundation.
"He told me before I went to the cabin," Plague says. It's no use denying it or lying about it. Gershom is an Investigator. Truth seems incapable of eluding him.
"I don't get it."
Plague shakes his head. He doesn't either. He would have thought that Ely told his lover everything.
Gershom changes the subject. "How's your arm?"
Plague hadn't thought about his injuries until Gershom asked. "Sore," he says.
"Why's that good?"
"You can still feel it."
"Was that in doubt?"
"You were cut pretty deep. I wasn't sure my tiny little healing gift could do the job."
Plague looks down at his arm. From wrist to elbow, it's wrapped in gauze, and he can see a rim of dark purple where the demon's grip bruised his wrist. He shoulder, seemingly back in its designated socket, aches. It hurts worse than he's willing to tell Gershom. "What about the maggots?"
"In the cuts."
"They were clean when I found you."
Plague tries to sink further into the bed. He has no idea what's going on, but he knows he doesn't like being in the middle of it.
Beyond the door, voices are rising in agitation. They all begin to speak over one another until one finally breaks out. "Silence!" the angel says. It's a sonorous voice, vast as a cathedral and heavy as stone. Plague doesn't know it.
The host of angels obeys the command. For a moment.
"This is insane," one mutters. Plague knows this voice, but he can't give it a name. He's only met a handful of the archangels in passing.
"I said silence," the sonorous voice says.
"I will not be silent while you let this abomination toy with the fate of the world."
"I'm not --" Ely begins, but the other cuts him off.
"You are making a mistake. Why should we trust you? You were worse than any demon we could have pulled up out of hell. You slaughtered thousands, demons and angels alike. God alone knows how many humans you killed. You reek of evil and death, and you should have never been brought here. Killing you at Deleth's pit was the one good deed your lover ever did."
Gershom bristles. His true form, a dense mass of constantly rotating rings of green fire, seems to vibrate against the flesh of the body he wears. He curls and uncurls his hands, but he stays where he is.
Plague is uneasy. The disrespect that the protesting angel is showing Ely leaves a sour taste in Plague's mouth. He would like to go out there and tell them what he thinks of the whole thing, but, like Gershom, he stays put.
After the outburst and a tense silence, heavy footsteps plod across the room, a door opens and closes, robes and wings rustle. In another moment, when the archangels have all departed, Ely comes into the room where Plague and Gershom are waiting.
Gershom is on his feet and standing in front of Ely before Ely can even close the door. He grabs Ely's shoulders as if to shake him, but Ely is pliable in his lover's grip and doesn't need to be shaken. "Why the hell didn't you tell me?" Gershom asks.
"There was nothing to say, angel," Ely says.
Gershom yanks Ely into his arms and kisses him fiercely.
Plague worries for a moment that they'll forget he's there and get carried away. It amuses Plague that they can distract each other so thoroughly, but he doesn't want to see them share their passion. Fortunately, Ely's in no mood for distractions. He pushes Gershom away.
Ely sits down in the bedside chair Gershom has vacated. He puts his hands on Plague's arm. "Are you okay?" he asks.
Plague nods. He's exhausted all of a sudden. Ely's touch is so steady, so soothing.
"Good. Rest now. There's a lot that I need to tell you."
"Do I still have time?"
"I don't think so."
To be continued ...