Mom's funeral was strange for Neil. It felt like the wrong way to mark her passing, but he didn't know what the right way would be. The sky was bright and cheerful, but all the dark clothing and the tears and the cloying scent of flowers made it seem as dreary as a rainy winter day.
He daydreamed through the church service. Cancer was a massive black dragon, spitting acidic pitch and destroying everything in its path. Neil was a knight -- or a ninja maybe, it didn't matter. He had a sword, and it was big enough and bright enough to kill the dragon, and he did just that. Cut and cut and cut away until it was nothing but ribbons of steaming black flesh and curdling blood.
At the graveside service, he was distracted by the closeness of the casket and by his knowledge of what lay inside it. The meat that was no longer his mother. He tried to daydream his way through it. He was a pirate now, wielding swords and pistols, but his foe was invisible. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't see the thing that stole his mother from him. He fought anyway, but he couldn't defeat what he couldn't see. The daydream ended as a nightmare. He was the one torn to bloody ribbons, and his invisible enemy stood over him, gloating.
Neil and Phaedra hid behind Dad as people streamed away from the funeral, pausing to give condolences, share a fond memory or pipe empty offers of assistance. Neil and Phaedra didn't know most of these people. They were the friends, the acquaintances, the extended family who only showed up for weddings and funerals. They said stupid things like "she's in a better place now" or "the kids are being so brave." Neil didn't like it when adults talked about him like he wasn't there when he was standing in front of them, but he made an exception for this occasion. The last thing he wanted to do was to try to talk to someone who couldn't possibly know what he was going through.
By the end of the ritual, Neil and Phaedra were exhausted and hungry. They sat shoulder to shoulder on the church steps, waiting for Dad. They would go to Grandma's house for a big family dinner, after which Grandma would pull out her old photo albums and show everyone the pictures of Mom when she was younger. They would trade stories and laugh and probably cry, but it would be good crying. It would be the real celebration of Mom's life that the funeral couldn't be.
"I don't want a funeral when I die," Neil said.
"Me either," Phaedra said.
"What do you want instead?"
"I don't know."
"Me either. I don't want to be buried, though. If I die before you, make sure I'm not buried."
"How do you know you'll die before me?"
"I was born first."
"I wasn't that far behind you, stupid."
"I was still first."
"I won't be that far behind you at the other end either."
2. What the Angel Saw
Plague watches Gershom pace and absently rubs at the scabs on his arm. The wounds itch, and he swears he can feel the maggots squirming against his skin. For the last two nights, he's been unable to sleep because he's seen his skin bulge and shift. Ely and Gershom have both assured him, many times now, that he's fine, there are no maggots in his arm, that what he saw was a trick of the demon's. He tries to believe them, but he can't. He's always just seconds away from cutting himself open to prove them wrong.
Gershom is pacing so quickly that he's a disconcerting blur of spinning green and flesh. Plague didn't think it was possible for Gershom to get so distressed, and he realizes, with a fair amount of his own distress, that Ely still has not told Gershom anything. Ely's silence on the matter is poison to Gershom's compulsion to investigate and know.
"Stop pacing," Plague says. "You're giving me a headache."
"I can't be still under the best circumstances. You really expect me to sit patiently at a time like this?" Gershom asks.
"He should be here by now."
Plague says nothing. He's worried, too, but not quite for the same reasons. He knows Ely is going to ask him to fight this threat. He'll say yes because he has to, because he loves Ely and is grateful for everything Ely has done for him and because it's the right thing to do, but he has no confidence that he'll be able to pull it off.
When Ely finally arrives at the meeting place, he isn't alone. Phaedra is with him. Plague hasn't seen his sister since she tried to stop him from spreading his virus at the airport, and at the sight of her and Ely together, things click into place.
Ely told Plague that Phaedra had asked him to help her brother. Ely had far more motivation to do so than as a favor to one of his angels, and Phaedra knew that. Of course, Plague has no way of knowing that Phaedra is one of Ely's, but he's certain that that's the case. How and why, he isn't sure. He could guess, but he thinks there will be an explanation. He'll demand one if it's not forthcoming.
"Sorry we're late," Ely says. "It took me longer to convince the Council than I thought it would."
"Convince them of what?" Plague asks.
"There was Council?" Gershom asks. "I didn't know about that. Why wasn't I told?"
Plague can't help but notice that Gershom has not rushed to take Ely in his arms. Normally, they're quick to make physical contact, even if it's only a brief touch of hands. Ely's secret has done more than upset a few archangels, and he knows he can no longer bear the burden alone. Ely accepts Gershom's distance with grace. They'll be fine once the crisis, whatever it actually is, passes, but Plague doesn't like the thought that anything could come between them.
"It was last minute, and it wasn't my idea," Ely says. "I wanted to keep the meeting small, but --"
"Ely, you're talking about Armageddon. That isn't small."
"No. No, angel, I'm not. This is something else entirely."
Gershom scowls and begins to pace again.
"I think you better start explaining things," Plague says.
"It's my fault," Phaedra says.
"It's no one's fault," Ely says. "It would have gone on without what you found, and no one would have known."
"What good is knowing something if you don't tell anyone what you know?" Gershom asks. "Especially when it involves some scale of Armageddon."
"I made him promise not to tell," Phaedra says. "I was scared. I thought I caused it."
"The apocalypse show," Plague says. "Something happened when you were working on that set. You never told me, but I knew something happened."
"Enough talking around the problem!" Gershom says. "I want straight answers now, or I'll ..." Whatever threat he has in mind doesn't make it out of his mouth. He seems shocked to have even thought it.
Phaedra looks nervously at Ely. Ely nods and touches her shoulder to reassure her that no matter what, he'll protect her.
"I had this idea, when I was still in high school actually, that I wanted to photograph supposed signs of the apocalypse. If you look hard enough, they're all around us, and they all have solid scientific explanations. I wanted to take them out of context, both scientific and religious, and show them in such a way that the viewer would need new context to explain the image. I wanted people to look at these things and realize that we're poisoning our world," Phaedra says.
"The end of the world as a self-fulfilling prophecy," Plague says.
"Exactly. And it's physical as well as spiritual. I --"
"Get to the point," Gershom says. "We can discuss your art and philosophy later."
"I found something I couldn't explain. I went out to the salt flats in Utah, mostly for a change of scenery and getting ideas for my next project. I kept thinking how much the flats reminded me of skin, of how it cracks and flakes when it gets dry enough, and then as soon as I thought that, the ground began to bleed. It was real blood, not the algae infested shit I'd found before. I touched it. I tasted it. The ground split open at my feet, and I could see a river of blood under the crust of salt. It was full of dead things. The smell of it made me sick, and I was too scared to try to get any pictures of it. I decided just to get out of there, but then the demon was there. It wasn't happy that I had seen what I saw. It was going to kill me. I don't know if it thought I would try to stop whatever it was doing. It didn't seem to realize that I couldn't even explain what I was seeing. And that's when Ely showed up."
"You and Boaz were racing your cars out on the flats that day," Ely says to Gershom.
"We all felt some kind of disturbance," Gershom says. "You said it was nothing."
"I told you, I made him promise not to tell anyone," Phaedra says.
"And at the time, it was nothing," Ely says. "I wasn't sure what the demon was trying to do, and until I knew that, I wasn't going to break my promise."
"So when did you figure out what was going on?" Plague asks.
"When Phaedra got sick. The virus she got came from that river of blood. The demon had said it would come back for her at some point, when it needed her. I didn't know at the time what that meant, but when I found out she was sick and I went to keep the demon away from her, I realized that the demon was trying to prepare its own version of Armageddon. I still don't exactly know why. Once I had Phaedra safe, I tried to take the others away from the demon, but that proved impossible. What I could do was keep it from completing the set. As long as it didn't have all four, it couldn't do what it wanted to do. When Neil became Plague, I wanted to go to the Council, but Phaedra insisted that I try to save him. That should haven given us time."
"But it didn't," Gershom says. "The demon that attacked Plague ..."
"Pestilence, maybe. I don't know what it wants to call itself."
"That means this demon's got a full complement of horsemen."
"It told me the boss has plans for me," Plague says.
"Not if I have anything to do with it," Ely says.
* * *
It was twenty years too late.
The lives that would be saved because of the vaccine should be enough, but the weight of the one death that had the most impact on him made it impossible for Neil to celebrate his victory.
It wasn't a cure for cancer. That might never happen. There were so many kinds of cancer, so many ways it could devastate a human body, that a single cure was likely impossible. But it had been possible to find ways to fight the various kinds of cancer. Neil and two of his associates had been working on a vaccine for breast cancer since they were undergrads. Now they had something. Now they had big pharmaceutical conglomerates wanting to make deals. Now they had FDA approval to begin human clinical trials.
People would still get breast cancer. People would still die from it. After all, influenza could still kill. Cancer wouldn't ever be eradicated like smallpox, but there was a good chance that it would become as treatable as a host of other formerly life threatening diseases.
But still. It was twenty years too late.
Neil crouched beside his mother's headstone. He dug a tiny hole in the ground with his car key and pressed a small glass vial into the hole. I learned how to kill the thing that killed you, he thought.
* * *
"So now that we all know what the problem is, we need a plan," Gershom says. They have left the room where they met and have found their way to a dark, desolate stretch of shoreline. Waves crash in the distance. Gulls, invisible in the dark sky, cry. They've built a bonfire and sit with it between them and the ocean. Ely and Plague share a fifth of rum. Gershom doesn't drink, and Phaedra isn't interested in getting drunk tonight.
"I have a plan," Ely says. He takes a generous swig from the bottle and passes it back to Plague.
"If it's anything like the plan you had before with the whole not telling anyone anything, I don't want to hear it."
"We need to take the horsemen out one at a time. Which means making sure we get to them separately."
"So we need bait," Plague says. "Something to draw them out."
"You know what I'm gonna say, but I'm gonna have to be a hell of a lot drunker before I actually say it."
"And that's the plan you got the Council to agree on?" Gershom asks. "Using Plague as bait to draw them out?"
"What about the boss?" Phaedra asks. "We know it'll replace whatever we destroy."
"We should take out the boss first, then."
Ely shakes his head. "Too dangerous. We don't know enough about it. What little I found before seems useless."
"That's because the boss has a boss, too," Plague says. "Someone else is calling the shots." Plague feels something moving under the skin of his injured arm. He grabs the bottle away from Ely and knocks back a couple of swallows before handing it back. The squirming doesn't fade, and he rubs his arm.
Ely finishes off the rum and sticks the bottle upside down in the sand. "There's no telling how far this plan actually goes, then."
"We're in over our heads," Gershom says.
"That's nothing new, angel."
"It's new to me," Plague says. "I'm not exactly comfortable with so many uncontrolled variables. We don't know anything about the boss or the boss's boss. We don't know much about the other three horsemen. They know everything about me. They've got the advantage. What do we have?"
"It sounds pretty hopeless when you put it that way," Phaedra says.
"I hate to say it, but it does seem hopeless," Gershom says.
"Nothing is hopeless," Ely says. "Our biggest advantage is that it appears they have the advantage. If they believe we can't fight them, they won't be prepared when we do."
"I'm not ready for this," Plague says. "I barely know how to throw a proper punch, and I'm terrible at it. I can't fight. I couldn't protect myself against that ... that thing that attacked me. How the hell am I supposed to do this?"
"I don't expect you to get physical. Use what you have. Your viruses, your mind. You're smarter than they are." Ely looks at Plague and grins. His eyes are bright, like polished silver. Plague isn't sure if it's because of the bon fire or the rum or something else. "I believe in you."
Plague grins back at Ely, almost involuntarily. For just a moment, like a flicker of flame, he understands what faith is.
-- Mel Trent