Bogleech.com's 2018 Horror Write-off:
A Summer Shanty
The world was getting warmer. It was obvious by this point. Shame there was nothing to be done about it.
Such were the thoughts of one Gregory Louis Morgan as he sat back in his poolside chair. The Chairman and CEO of Renfield Industrial was celebrating another lovely Fourth of July in his own private villa. He had earned some time off from running his multi-billion dollar conglomerate and was taking a well-deserved summer vacation.
Sure, there was always work to be done at some point, but what was the point if he couldn’t enjoy himself every so often? He really did deserve to indulge himself every now and then. A man who traveled as much as he did had certainly earned a little relaxation.
Morgan wasn’t about to retire though. He would go stir crazy in a week if he had to give up his business for some worthless life of leisure. To give up the board meetings, the dinner meetings, the financial reports...No, he was like a shark in that regard. He would always keep moving.
Morgan chuckled to himself as he took a sip of his margarita. That was a clever little metaphor of his. Fitting, even, considering the nearby coast.
The heat had gone down as the night dragged on, and the din of fireworks had gradually subsided as revelers, red-blooded Americans celebrating their nation’s independence in a grand show of lights, gradually went off to drink or party or even sleep. Whatever those types of people did.
Morgan preferred his parties more subdued. Less aggravating, in that way. People could be so noisy.
Morgan valued his quiet.
“Heh. Well, ain’t this snazzy?”
Morgan’s eyes snapped open as he sat up and glanced around. There.
The billionaire smiled as he slowly stood to face the younger man standing by his pool in a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts. “You’re on private property, young man. You need to leave, now.”
He kept the false smile on as he took in the lightly tanned man’s clean cut appearance, his dark brown hair cropped short. The man was taller than Morgan, slightly, and had more of a muscular figure than the aging billionaire. Hm. Was he one of his security officers?
“Nah, sorry old timer. I’m right where I’m supposed to be tonight.”
Morgan’s lips twitched and he idly pressed the security signal in his pocket. Really, the layabouts should have arrested this man before he even got in this far. “No, you’re not. Are you drunk, boy? You are in my home.”
“Yeah, I am,” the blond man replied, his brown eyes oddly bright in the patio lights...Wait...No, it was some trick of the light. “And your home is where I’m supposed-”
“No, it isn’t. Get out of my damn house already! Do you even have any idea in that drunken mind of yours where you wandered into?!” Morgan snarled, dropping all pretense of civility in the face of the idiot’s lackadaisical response. Where the hell was his security anyway? And why didn’t Tatiana notice this idiot? How did even get past his gate, much less the fences?
“Woah now man. No need for all that hostility,” the man replied, an odd accent to his word-Wait, wasn’t he white? Why did he look hispanic now? The man placed a hand on his chest, smiling with pearly white teeth. “Me llamo Jonathan Doe. You can call me John.”
“I-What?! No, that is it, I am done with this!” Morgan strode over to the man and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, bodily yanking him down to his eye level. “You will get out of my home immediately or-”
And the man’s face cracked. “You’re being really rude right now, Mr. Morgan.”
Doe smiled. He looked...arabic? What? There was a crack splitting across his forehead, some sort of glow-
Morgan yelped as he was shoved backward, landing right on his rear. “W-What?! What-H-How did you just-What?!”
“Wow, real articulate. First you shout, then you put hands on me? Man, you old bastards really can’t handle your temper.” The now black man smiled, squatting down in front of him. “So, Morgan, we need to talk.”
“I-I...I will not be treated like this! What even are you supposed to be!? Some...Some kind of radical trying to extort me-”
“Hey man, that’s real rude.” Doe frowned and sat down fully, his legs crossed. He looked different again, his skin a lighter shade of brown, his face narrower. “Real rude. I’m just here to tell you what’s going on tonight, for you and you alone.”
“You keep saying that. Why not try listening for a second?”
“Ah, you-” Doe held up a hand and Morgan felt a sudden surge of rage. “I WILL NOT-”
And then he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t make any noise come out of his mouth.
Doe sighed, running a hand over his short hair. “Y’know, I doubt Marley had to deal with this shit back in the day.”
Morgan tried to speak again, tried to shout at the bastard in front of him, tried to call for someone. Where was his security!? Where were his dogs?! Where was...Where was anyone?
He looked towards his house. All the lights were off. There...wasn’t anything there. At all. No motion in the house whatsoever, no indication that anyone was home. How could that…
He stood, surprisingly easily...there was no pain in his knees. He’d been shoved to the ground but his back was fine. The moon was still high in the sky, half of it shrouded in darkness. He couldn’t hear any noise either. He looked lower, and saw that the suburbs below him were dark too. Dark, and silent.
Only the lights around his pool were still on. There couldn’t be a blackout. That didn’t…
Doe was standing again, his hands in his pockets. He was smiling again. He looked Asian now. “Okay, I think you’ve reached the point where you gotta listen. Good, didn’t want to start cutting into the schedule or anything.”
“Schedule?” Wait, what? “I can talk?”
“When you’re not trying to shout, sure. Now, I think we got off on the wrong foot here.” The redhead grinned, holding out a freckled hand. “My name’s John Doe. You’re Mr. Greg Morgan. It’s interesting to meet you.”
Morgan didn’t take his hand. “...This is a dream. Ha, so that’s it...I fell asleep at my chair and this is a dream.”
Doe kept smiling, but dropped his hand, pocketing it again. “Heh. You’re going to be a piece of work.”
“You can’t speak to me like that,” Morgan snapped, before huffing, fixing his polo shirt. “So what, are you supposed to be made up of all the employees I’ve ever fired or something?”
“Nah, worse than that.” John Doe grinned. “But we’re not at that yet. We’re talking about you, Mr. Morgan. You’ve been chosen for a little something something.”
“Oh? And what would this be, Mr. Doe?”
“Ha, wow, you sure change your tune fast when it suits you.” Doe chuckled for a moment. “Congrats Mr. Morgan, you’re getting Caroled.”
“C’mon. You must’ve see, like, any cartoon in the last sixty years or so. Dickens, pal. Think.”
Morgan blinked, then scowled. “You can’t be serious. It’s nowhere near Christmas! And I’m no Scrooge! I’ve earned every penny I have and I’m entitled to use it as I wish!”
“You’ve earned a lot more than pennies, Mr. Morgan,” Doe replied. “And no, it’s not quite that.”
“What is it then? Am I to be visited by three ghosts to teach me the meaning of materialism or whatever that trash was about?”
“No, Mr. Morgan. You don’t get ghosts. You get worse.” Doe’s smile was thin. “See, you’re thinking of a story where a miserable miser driven by loneliness finds his heart. A wonderful classic, teaching the good in people.
“This ain’t that kind of story, Mr. Morgan.” The crack on his forehead began to split further. “You’re not that kind of man, so you get a different one. Congrats though. It’s practically an honor here.” Doe smiled, and his cheeks cracked, an orange glow visible in his split skin. “You get to represent America, Mr. Morgan. You’re the perfect man for the job.”
“...What? What...What could you possibly mean by that?” Morgan mumble, staring transfixed as the man’s skin burst into flame.
Doe kept smiling even as his skin burnt the color of charcoal, embers lighting every inch of his body. “You’ll see. As a little hint, I’ll tell you a secret.” He leaned in close, his grin wide and his teeth black. “Hell’s real, Mr. Morgan. Hell is very, very real, for men like you.
“Oh, and, to answer your earlier question, I’m a soldier, Mr. Morgan.” His eyes were gone. Two burning pits were in their place. “Just a soldier.”
Morgan woke with a start, flinched as he blinked. He sat up in his pool chair and looked around. His lights were still on. Every light in his house was still on. The houses below had their lights on too.
“...Heh. Hehahah...I knew it was a dream,” he muttered to himself as he stood up from his pool chair. Suddenly falling asleep like that was unusual for him...perhaps he was letting himself relax a tad too much. Lying down in his actual bed would do him some good, particularly with how late it had grown.
He stood and started walking back to his home. How late was it, even? He checked his watch as he stood up from his pool chair. One in the morning. Really now? It had gotten quite late all of a sudden. He really should be in bed by now.
He stood up and walked to the patio door. It led to a living room. He had a few of those. He slid open his door and stepped inside and blinked at the light of his study. Which was on the second floor, overlooking his pool.
“...How...did I get here?” he mumbled to himself as he sat down in his leather office chair. Had it always felt this comfortable? He quite enjoyed the brown look to it too. It fit well with the color of his full bookshelves and the wood of his desk. All mahogany, all very cozy.
“Really? Rand? Wow, way to stereotype yourself, jackass,” muttered the white woman looking through his bookshelves. She pulled a book, flipped through it, and casually tossed it over her shoulder.
Morgan blinked, and sat up in his seat, instantly alert. “What? Who the-Who are you supposed to be?!”
“Johnny Boy told you, asshole. I’m your first visitor tonight. Gotta say, not real fucking impressed,” the white woman replied. And by God, she was white. Her skin looked like new-fallen snow, and her hair, tied back in a bun and covered by a white bowler, was equally ivory. She was dressed in a long white coat and a long white skirt with white shoes. From what he could see, even the frames of her glasses were white.
In fact...everything about her was white. Morgan couldn’t see any hint of shadow on her body. The woman was entirely white. There was no hint of yellow or gray like some shades, it was just all white. Every inch-
“Hey asshole. Eyes are up here,” the white woman spoke again, turning to face him with a hand still on the bookcase. He couldn’t see her eyes. They were completely covered by her round glasses. Even the lenses were white. How in the world could she see out of them?
She pointed at her lenses with two fingers, clenched her fist, and then pointed both fingers at him. She stared at him and he stared back and she huffed in irritation and crossed the room in two strides and slammed her hands on his desk. “GAH!”
“So now you wanna fucking speak? Fuck me, I thought this would be a fun gig,” she complained, sitting back in a white chair that looked exactly like Morgan’s own.
“...No. No, no, this isn’t happening,” Morgan began, shaking his head, “Earlier was a dream, and this is just another one-ow!” He rubbed his head, blinking in surprised pain as the woman lowered a white walking cane with a rounded top. She slipped it into the crook of her arm and smirked at him.
“Good, now you can actually fucking listen.”
“...You’re very foul-mouthed for a woman.” She just smirked back at him. “So...So then what is this supposed to be? Are you going to carry me around on some wondrous vision of my own past so I can appreciate what I have now?”
“Fuck no. I’m not here to deal with namby-pamby bullshit like that, Greg.” She suddenly leaned back and put her feet up on his desk. He noticed how the soles of her dress shoes were also white before indignation overtook him.
“Get your shoes off of my desk!”
“No. Alright, let’s see,” the woman muttered, leafing through a green book that was suddenly in her hands. “So, Greggy Morgan, son of blah blah blah, some old fuck rich bastard and a woman who doesn’t matter-”
“What? My mother was-”
“Oi.” She pointed at him with one hand, the other still flipping through her book. “Don’t interrupt me while I’m working. Born in Kansas, moved to Texas, lovin’ those as’s. Studied business, economics, shit philosophy, lots of emphasis on ‘personal freedoms’, built up an inherited company, oil and refinery, ties to agriculture and pharmaceuticals, got tons of subsidiaries, damn, you’re a regular king capitalist, huh?” She closed the book with a snap and tossed it to the side.
Another book, this one with a gold-cover, was in her hands already as Morgan frowned. “...Was that it?”
“Fuck no, again. So, big supporter of the free market, personal freedoms, all that.”
“Yes, I am. Is there a problem with that?”
“Everything’s a problem to someone, dumbass. You could say you’re all for giving free money to everyone and you’d have bitches whining about unwarranted charity. Hell, you could say you’re pro-puppy petting and some bitch would whine about the wasted time to pet them. Bitches whine, it’s what dogs do.”
“...Is there a point to this?”
“Everything has a point, dumbass. Fucking hell, that college fucking education didn’t do jack for you, did it? No, that’s one’s not totally fair, is it? Education cures ignorance, not stupid. Can’t do anything for a dumbass that insists on being blind and deaf.”
“I don’t need to take this,” Morgan bit out. He stood and-
He was on the floor, clutching his temple. “...A-Ah…”
“Oi.” Suddenly, the woman’s white face was in front of his, her lips turned down in a small frown. He couldn’t see her eyes behind her glasses. She was using her walking cane to hold herself up as she leaned down towards him. “I didn’t say you could stand.”
“...You hit me.”
“Yeah, I did. Isn’t that what you do with unruly children? You say that often enough. Gotta give them discipline, no more participation trophies.” She snorted, smirking again. “That one always gets me. Parents act like they didn’t demand the trophies so their shitty kids wouldn’t look like failures, blame it on the kids they fucked over. It’s fun, y’know?”
“Every piece of shit passes down their own fuck-ups to their kids, creating more and more fuck-ups.” She abruptly giggled. “You have to wonder, where did all start? Where will it all end? But then again, we all know where everything ends, don’t we?” She held out her hand to him. “C’mon. You’re getting up now.”
Morgan didn’t take her hand. He pushed himself up, stood on his own two feet, and touched two fingers to his temple. There was no blood. In fact, his pain seemed to be fading remarkably quickly.
The woman stood too, still smirking. “You just reminded me of something hilarious.”
Morgan stared at her, slowly brushing himself off. They weren’t in his office anymore. They were in some kind of white hall… “Where are we-OW!” The damned woman hit him again!
“Oi, listen when your better talk. Now, like I was saying-”
“You are not-AGH! STOP THAT!”
And then her hand was around his throat. He gulped as she spoke. “Now, as I was saying, I found out a really damn funny thing some time ago. A bunch of you idiots seem to have started using the phrase ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’.”
She grinned at him, tracing her thumb over his adam’s apple. “See, what makes that funny is that the phrase originally refers to a fuck up you Americans got. A little misattribution of an old wives’ tale, and even then the meaning still refers to something so ludicrously impossible that it simply can’t be done. Like, say, pulling yourself over a fence by lifting up on your bootstraps.
“And seeing you, Greg, fumble as you tried to get up, reminded me of that. Ain’t memory fun?”
“...I see. So is this place supposed to lead back into my memories then?”
“No, dumbass,” she stated, her tone flat, “We’re here for a different reason. C’mon, walk and talk.”
She let go of his neck and wrapped her arm over his shoulders, leading him further down the hallway. He could see doors along the wall, plain white doors, but all of them were closed. Though, he could vaguely hear something…Voices? It was hard to tell. The clack of the woman’s shoes drowned out most of the sound.
“So, what’s up first on our agenda? Race, religion, sex? No, no, we don’t have enough time to focus on all of that shit. They’re all fucked, of course, but I can’t get to everything here, you dig?”
“Medicine it is! Hey, Greggy, you ever think to yourself about all the people those pharmaceutical companies of yours murder?”
“What? What in the world are you talking about?” he asked, turning his gaze on her as she continued to pull him along the hallway. “No company I support has ever murdered anyone and insinuating that is-” He bit back his instinct to bring up defamation and slander. What good would it do him in this sort of situation? In a dream. A dream, of course, because this couldn’t be real, and the thug dragging him along wasn’t real.
He still didn’t expect her to outright cackle. The woman didn’t slow her pace in the slightest as she roared with laughter, her amusement wild and unrestrained. “Eheheheheheha~! Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.” She cracked another grin. “You really shouldn’t lie to my fucking face, Greggy boy. It looks bad on you.”
“I am not lying, I…” What was the right answer here? “While certain individuals within companies that I hold shares in may provide financial support to other individuals who could have committed less than moral actions in their pasts, I do not condone nor support murderers.”
“Cut the legal speak and the bullshit along with it. Your hard-on for the military aside-”
“I support our great nation’s soldiers-!”
“SHUT IT!” she barked right in his face, snarling down at him until she abruptly grinned again. “Now, we’re leaving that can of maggots for later. My session here’s all about how you, Greggy the investor, Greggy the shareholder, Greggy the lobbyist, support the thieving pricks making money off of human suffering. Granted, that’s all capitalists, but we’re talking about the ones that rip teeth from the sick this time.”
“Companies have a right to profit from their products,” he retorted. “They put in time, effort, and money into their work and the profits garnered from those sales go back to supporting the very companies that produce the medicine.”
“Aw, cute, you actually believe that. It doesn’t help people who can’t afford the medicine, but fair enough. You gotta look out for you and yours first, right? Fuck everyone else, you gotta survive in a hellish world where the merest disease or injury can throw you out on the streets with tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical debt to you name, all because the top dogs want their crap to land on someone when they shit. It’s a fun little cycle.”
Morgan rolled his eyes. “That’s why people get insurance.”
“Ooo, yeah, because everyone can afford insurance, and it’s such a good idea~! Everybody’s just gotta do as they’re told, pay their dues, and march right up the death panel that decides whether their coverage is good enough to save their life! And God help you if you can’t miss payment. Not everyone can be born a CEO, Greggy boy.”
He sighed in irritation. The woman felt like a culmination of every idiot undergrad who thought Marx was their damn savior. “Think for a moment. A CEO runs their company. They manage the production and distribution so everyone can be rewarded for their efforts and therefore-”
Her hand abruptly clamped down on his nose. “And that’s real cute. They get to sit up there in their big boy offices pretending that what they say and do actually matters. Lead the company! Direct the troops! Be our king. But that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?”
Her fingers tightened around his nose. “Gh...l-let go-”
“Shhhhh. I want you to look around you, Greggy. I want you to recognize where we are.”
“What? What does that have to do-”
“Oh for fuck’s sake man.” She swung her cane out, the door opened, and-
“GOOD LORD!” He stared in horror at horribly scarred thing in the room, in a hospital bed it was a hospital and terrible bumps and lesions covered-
A hand slapped the back of his head and he was being dragged along again. “Don’t be fucking rude, asshole.”
“W-What was that?”
“That was Ailen.”
“Yeah, Ailen. She needs a change of blankets,” she explained casually. “Do you want to go back and say hi?
“No! No, no, n-never!” he immediately snapped, shaking his head rapidly.
“Aw, shame. You’re losing out, buddy boy. And besides, why such a bad reaction? I did say this was a hospital. You’re bound to see some gross shit.”
“...W-Why am I in a hospital?” he asked, actually glancing back at the room for a moment. More of the doors opened and he immediately averted his gaze, trying to look forward. “What even was that?”
“I told you-”
“NOT WHO! WHAT!” he snapped and then he was on the floor again, clutching his nose. Good God had she just broken it??
He was yanked to his feet again and she kept pulling him along, holding him around his waist as groans started to fill the air.
“Oh, just a fun little remnant of your shitty country’s past victories, about the only thing you fucks can count on. You want to know something funny, Greggy?”
“...Y-You...y-you just broke my nose-”
“HA! Ah, that is funny.” She grinned down at him with pearly white teeth. Had she gotten taller? “But no, this is funnier. Did you know Pratchett and Gaiman thought I was on my way out way back when? See, they thought things like antibiotics, disinfectants, penicillin especially, all that fun stuff, would drive me on my way out. Hell, they put fucking Pollution in my place!
She took a drag of a cigarette, white smoke filling the air. “Now that was cute, real cute, brat got a real chuckle out of that one. Cute kid, really, kinda dumb, but working her way up there. Could sink your entire world one of these days but my point is, you dumb mother fucker, is that I’m still around and not going anywhere because of people like you.”
Morgan blinked, trying to keep himself from tearing up as he clutched his nose. He had to breathe through his mouth because it felt like blood was leaking from his nostrils. “W-What?”
“Oh you poor stupid bitch. Don’t you get it yet? Why I’m one of the chucklefucks here for your stupid salvation drive? I’m one of the big ones, the fun ones, the kindly ones that rip out all your throats and guzzle down every bit of sweet, salty nectar in your pus-ridden bodies~!” She giggled, high-pitched and psychotic. “Oh now don’t be rude now~. We’re running a ‘scare you straight’ program and it won’t do if you start thinking uncharitable things about the mentally unwell~! Another think I have to thank your people for, by the way!”
“W-What-” The doors were banging open faster and faster as they walked. Everything was starting to become a white blur but he could hear vomiting, defecations, revoltingly leaky noises-
“What what what, you keep saying what, say something that matters. Look, think, you’re on a fucking one way road, dumbass. You profit from the sick, you demonize the mental, you call the broken lazy while you sip pina fucking coladas by the poolside~! You fuck and fuck on an old, broken dick while people writhe and die with cunts full of cysts because you can’t be assed to let them control their own vags! You don’t get it yet, but you’re my favorite kind of vile bastard!”
She sudden lifted him up and he was eye level with her, his feet off the ground as she grinned wide and carried him through the hall. “Eheheheheha~! Oh, if only you were an outright anti-vaxxer instead of just supporting their ‘freedom of choice’~! I’d throw you down and fuck you right here and now and fill your cock up with every nasty infection your abstinence only shit can’t name~!”
He went pale. “L-Let me down, let me down right-”
And then he was on the ground and she was dragging him by the leg and at the end of the hall a set of double doors opened and he saw an endless white void. “N-No no no! No, let go of me! Stop, stop you can’t do this to me!”
“I can’t~? Why can’t I~? I have the freedom to do this~! It’s my right to choose, and it overrides yours.”
“STOP! STOP THIS RIGHT NOW! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME! THIS CAN’T HAPPEN TO ME!” And suddenly she pulled him up again and smiled. In an instant, she looked almost kind, the lights of the hall behind her, now silent, illuminating her white face in an almost serene glow. And then he felt the pit at the edge of his feet.
He couldn’t stop himself from looking back. Behind and below him, there was a massive pit, far larger than anything he’d ever see, and it was full of bones. Bleached, white bones. “W-What?”
“Aw, really? What, again? Jeez, I thought you’d have something more impressive to say.”
“...W-Why did you bring me here? Why are those down there?”
“So you could see it. And those down there are the bones of every human being killed by the good old United States of America through disease. Down at the bottom you have the smallpoxed Natives, further above you have the hundred thousand AIDs victims old Ronny Regs condemned to die–and hey, if you look close enough, you might see him still trying to climb out–sprinkled all around are the thousands of people your shitty health care let die because it was cheaper than saving them, and in between are the poor fucks who got the short end of the deregulation stick. Rot in the food, filth in the waters, smog in the sky. All those amazingly fun shitshows~.”
She giggled again and leaned close to him, her smile wide and white. Up close, he could see the inside of her mouth was white too, from her gums to her tongue and every last one of her teeth and the whiteness wasn’t clean. She didn’t look like some pristine, marble statue, no, she was absolutely covered in blisters and lesions so white they all created a pale patchwork over her entire face. “You people are definitely some of my favorite~.”
“Y-You said that before,” Morgan said, starting to nod and smile, trying to keep down his bile. “Y-You said I was your favorite. S-So, please, I can give you so much-”
“Oh? Would you leave your third wife for me then?”
“YES! Yes, anything!”
She laughed again, high and giddy. “You’re so easy! Ah, a fucked up slut to the end then~.”
He paled. “Th-The end?”
“No, not yet. Just for part one.” She abruptly smirked, her hand going and grabbing the collar of his shirt. “Before you go, though, you deserve a little treat. Now, I’m not going to fuck you, because frankly I could do better, but I’ll give you a good look, kay~?”
“I-What?” What did she-Was she going to-
The woman reached up and pulled her glasses free from her face. She tilted her head, smiling at him with white eyes. Wriggling, white eyes. Shifting, twitching, white maggots spilling from her eye sockets and-
Morgan screamed and pushed her back. She was far too solid for him to move but he went backward and into the open air, watching her smile as the maggots wriggled from her eyes. He saw her hold one on her fingers, lift it to her lips and give it a little kiss before he hit-
And then Morgan woke up in his office chair.
“Hh-!...hah…” Gregory Louis Morgan exhaled, leaning back in his chair and looking around his dark office. His heart was racing harder than it ever had before and for a moment he felt like he was still falling. He shook his head and pushed himself up from his desk. There was something deeply wrong here.
When had he moved into his office? He had just been dreaming. He wouldn’t...he didn’t sleepwalk. It didn’t make sense.
His breath was still coming in fast pants as a sudden worry hit him and he looked at his watch. ‘2 AM’ blinked back at him.
Morgan was not a stupid man. Indeed, in some ways, he was quite intelligent. One of those ways was pattern recognition, and while he wasn’t exactly as well-versed in the classics as some, he could figure out very quickly that there was some significance to the white woman appearing around 1 AM and it now being 2.
“...Come on out,” he muttered, before shaking his head and glaring up at the ceiling. “COME ON OUT! I KNOW YOU’RE THERE, WHATEVER YOU ARE! YOU THINK YOU CAN SCARE ME!? I WILL NOT BE INTIMIDATED BY VIOLENT THUGS! I EARNED EVERY CENT I HAVE, AND IF YOU THINK I’M GOING TO FALL FOR THIS CHICANERY, YOU HAVE ANOTHER THING COMING!”
And for all his enraged shouting, the ceiling remained silent.
Morgan stared up at it for a moment, then slowly raised a hand and felt his nose. It was still crooked.
“...Gh. Bastards…” He swore to someone that he would make whoever was doing this-No. No, it was a dream. He’d almost forgotten. It was all a dream.
He rubbed the back of his neck, felt how sweaty he was. He needed some air. Some air and some water, and then some actual bedrest.
With those thoughts in mind, Morgan walked over to the door to his study, and opened it up.
“...What the devil?” he murmured, staring out into the vast, cold desert stretching in front of him. His study was on the second floor. How on Earth did he…
He turned to look back at his study and flinched back, stepping into the sand. Red moths and locust covered every inch of his bookshelves. He could see them gnawing at the wood and carrying off the books, devouring the curtains, the windows, the walls-
In an instant, his study dissolved in an explosion of bright insects and he was left in the desert alone, the half-moon overhead. It was shockingly cold. He could see his own breath. Weren’t deserts supposed to be hot?
“...Hello? Hello!” he shouted into the barren land. There was nothing-No. He could see a sign. It said…”Please Wait”?
He blinked for a moment, then looked past it. Further along was a bush. A dead bush, that looked oddly burnt, but still a bush.
Morgan walked over to the bush, scowling and looking around. “I know you’re out there! Show yourself already! What’s the point of this!?”
He growled and glared at the bush. “Damn thing.”
“Hello Louis. You didn’t wait by the sign.” Morgan stiffened and turned his glare back at the woman standing behind him. And then up at the woman now in front of him.
She was at least a foot taller than him. The other woman had gotten disturbingly tall and lanky when she was dragging him before, a thought that brought a wince from Morgan as he looked down at his ankle for a moment. This new one was already bringing up unpleasant thoughts…
He huffed, then bothered to actually look–Dear God, she was red. Where the white woman had been a horrifically, ghastly white, the tall woman was a visible mix of vibrant reds. She had actually shades to her body and her clothes; her skin was a bright red and her hair, which was cropped close to her head in a buzzcut, was a darker shade.
The woman was wearing an army service uniform, all in shades of red with over a dozen red medals pinned on her jacket. As she adjusted her tie, the red woman looked almost professional, though the overall effect was ruined by the headphones she had on, completely covering both of her ears.
“...I have no intention of playing along with this farce,” he stated, trying to ignore the pit in his stomach. For some reason, he felt underdressed. “I will not be dragged around and abused like some...beaten housewife! I have my pride, young lady, and I have no intention of...I will not go along with this...joke!”
He felt his cheeks burn for a moment. He was stumbling over his words like a damn junior high student and the woman just stared at him impassively.
“Do make sure to sit down,” she abruptly said. “You won’t have a pleasant time if you fall off immediately.”
“What? What does that-Hey! Don’t turn away from me!” He glared at the woman’s back, but she only took a few steps before she turned again and suddenly sat down, cross-legged and apparently uncaring of the sand around her. “Gh...what, are you mute now? Too good to lecture me about the ‘evils’ of participating in actual economics?”
She stared at him. Her eyes were red too, because of course they were, though each part of the eye was a different shade of red. The iris was the brightest and the pupil was the darkest.
“...Well say something! Tell me then! What are my sins this time, hm? What have I ever done that was so wrong!? I have a right to live my life as I choose to!”
“The United States of America was founded on July fourth, seventeen seventy-six, Anno Domini, otherwise known as Common Era, if we are to go by the Gregorian Calendar, when the thirteen colonies at the time declared independence from the British Empire,” she answered.
He blinked. “What? What does that have to do with anything? This is about me, isn’t it? How is American history a part of this?”
“Born through revolution, the United States were conceived through treachery and bloated by enslavement and genocide. From the moment of its conception, the United States have been a country of immense evil.”
Morgan actually flinched, then scowled at the woman. “So is that it then? What, are you supposed to be the embodiment of communism? Give up everything you own so everyone else can have what they didn’t earn! Ha. If you think I’m going to just sit with you and listen to you regurgitate that hippy bullshit, you have another thing coming.”
The woman just stared at him impassively, then spoke again. “It’s a curious thing. The United States professed to be a beacon of freedom while ripping people from their homes and condemning them to death and suffering for the sake of its own enrichment. The United States claims itself as a land of opportunity while shunning the immigrants seeking to live there and ripping opportunities from its citizens through poverty, imprisonment, and suppression of their voices. The United States proclaims that it is a defender of freedom and democracy while disrupting the autonomy of other nations and holding Puerto Rico, Guam, the North Mariana Islands, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa under the yoke of Imperialism.”
“I don’t need to listen to this,” Morgan muttered. But where was he supposed to go? All around him was desert. It was aggravating. At least the white one had kept him moving.
The red woman stared at him again, then patted the ground in front of her, her expression still neutral. “Don’t misunderstand me. I love my young child. In less than two hundred years, it built itself into a superpower matched only by its chief rival, itself a younger nation built from the corpse of an old empire. That is an impressive feat, and its accomplishments are its own, even if they are evil in the eyes of God.”
Morgan blinked, then shook his head, taking a step towards the woman. “What on Earth are you babbling on about? What ‘child’? What...evil?” What sort of crackpot was he dealing with?
“You’re a very obtuse man, Louis. You should be sitting by now.”
“Don’t call me by my middle name! And I refuse to sit down in the sand like some filthy vagabond-” There was a red towel laid across the sand in front of him.
Morgan stared suspiciously at it for a moment, then looked back up at the impassive woman. After about a minute of complete silence, he finally sat down on it, grimacing. “I would have prefered a chair.”
“Do try to sit still.”
He only had a brief moment of confusion that immediately erupted into alarm as the ground beneath them suddenly rose. In seconds, the two of them rushed high into the air as the sand around them fell away into a massive crimson field.
“All nations bear sins. None are clean of blood. America is only exceptional because it has chosen to be as such,” the woman continued as though nothing had happened, as though Morgan wasn’t clutching his chest as he felt his heart racing, pounding against his ribcage.
“W-What...What the devil was that?” he asked, staring in utter shock at the abrupt change all around him.
“In its own way, America has had immense opportunities and advantages that no other country was afforded. It was born in a time of turbulence, where old empires attempted to stretch their roots across the world and were repaid for their vicious cruelty with impoverishment and death of their own,” the woman droned on, uninterrupted, “Sin is a curious thing. It repays all sinners with an end brought about by their own actions. Inevitably, all empires are crushed under their own decisions.”
“I...I don’t…” Morgan slowly stood. He could feel them continuing to move, slowly, steadily. What in the world were they on top of?
“Consequences come to everyone, in the end. Cruelty is repaid, and those who escape punishment in life rarely find their legacies untarnished. History spares no one, and the lovely warmongers face retribution sooner or later.”
Morgan stared at her for a moment, then turned his gaze out towards the sands, his remaining hair blown back in the breeze. It was still dark, and he could barely see out into the desert surrounding him. But...things seemed to be moving out there.
“Allow me to tell you a story.”
He took some slow steps forward, squinting.
“Once, the world lived in an age of earth and trees. In a small land, the smallest land, a number of trees had grown. These trees grew high and their branches stretched far over their little land. The branches tangled together, sometimes snapped, sometimes fell, and yet the trees continued to grow.”
He could vaguely see those shapes in the dark. They were large. Maybe as tall as skyscrapers.
“Eventually, the trees discovered a strange truth. Their branches could extend further than they had known. Water was no barrier. Sand was no barrier. People were no barrier. And so, they stretched their limbs, and claimed the earths they now shadowed were theirs and theirs alone. They had no roots in those soils, and yet they claimed them as theirs. But the trees are not important.”
Abruptly, the shapes seemed to light up, standing out against the night sky.
“The true importance, the modern importance, comes from those born from their branches.”
It was a parade of elephants. Bright, red elephants, shining out against the night sky.
“From the broken branches and rotted corpses, flames were born.”
For a moment, Morgan thought he might be hallucinating. Then he wondered how he got to the point of hallucinating in his dreams.
“The western flames rose from sickness and exploitation. They devoured the dead indigenous and built pyres of slaves, trapped by race and poverty, to sustain themselves and build their flames brighter. Of the west, the southern flames split into many, a myriad of phoenixes sprouting from broken branches. In the north, the flames centered themselves into three, but one clawed itself westward in a manifested destiny, cloaked in blue and branded with stars. Yet its soul was red all the same, cored in blood and gore.”
It wasn’t quite a parade, was it? The elephants were scattered, but all moving in the same direction. Did they have women on top of them too? If he looked close, would he see someone he knew getting lectured?
“The starry bird preened proudly for many a year. It squawked, it cawed, it called attention to every victory and forgot the times it was chastised by the trees. When it had gorged itself to a bloated size on the flesh of aboriginals and the labor of enslaved captives, it cawed loud and declared all the phoenixes were under its sway. The West belonged to it alone. The birds were its to protect, even if they needed no protection. It was the West. And, after its time of callous enslavement ended in a fumbling reconstruction and an era of arrogant isolation drove it to proud heights, it turned its eyes eastward.”
Morgan glanced back at the woman. She was still talking. He turned his gaze back to the red-eyed elephants and tried to understand what they were doing, where they were going.
“It crooned so joyously when the world wars occured. Its cowardice paid wondrously, and it always entered the battles long after all the trees had been bloodied. It could crow to itself for its resplendent rescue, and the second made it more joyful than ever. Three monsters had formed in the world, fascist, nationalist and imperial, committing atrocity after atrocity. The greatest of evils had entered the world and the starry bird could be the hero it always wished to be.”
The elephants were trailing blood. It was hard to tell, at first, but despite it still being night, everything seemed to lighten just enough for him to see the darker red leaking from massive cuts and bullet wounds in the elephants’ hides.
“And yet, their foes fell, as foes are wont to do. The evil of their east fumbled and faltered and blew its brains out while the evil of their west was cowed through nuclear fire. The starry bird had been victorious, but it wanted so much more. Repair was so dull when compared to the glory of war. How could it be a hero when it had no villain?
“And then and there, the starry bird found its truest love: a glorious rival with radiant plumage, cast in gold and red.”
He almost wanted to get closer. The elephant he stood on, and it had to be another elephant, had a wide back, so he could afford a few steps further, surely.
“The two birds had been allies against the twisted trees. Once the trees burned, they turned their gazes towards one another. They hated each other from the start. Their ideologies were too different. One declared that all people were created equal, and the other said they deserved equal treatment. And so, the bristling, burning birds allowed themselves to pretend at being ice. They would prolong their conflict, for a direct battle would see them both dead, and there were so many more birds they could slaughter in their enemy’s stead.”
Morgan turned and looked behind himself. There were more elephants on that side too. Scattered, but all still moving in the same direction.
“A third rival, feathered red and gold, eventually rose close to the eastern bird, born of ruin and famine much like its northern sibling in ideology. This new bird would eventually rise high, but the starry bird only had eyes for its first golden rival. They were so eager to prove themselves once again, it came as a horrible shock when the wall in Berlin came crashing down and their rival shed its gold for white and blue bars. They could no longer pretend at being foes, so the starry bird despaired. Where could it find itself a new rival?”
Morgan walked to the other side of his elephant, trying to stare at the ones closest to him. Could there be other people here? Where were there going?
“Still, the starry bird crowed to itself, proclaiming its victory, then shrieked a most horrible sound. A smaller bird, one its rival had clawed in their conflict, had nipped at its talon, and drew blood. The starry bird shrieked again, in fear and rage, and ripped the small bird and all its siblings apart, viciously slaughtering them while screeching in a thunderous cacophony that it had declared war on terror itself.”
Morgan paused and looked at the woman. “What?”
“It was inevitable, of course. The starry bird had never known fear before. Its nest had never been truly hurt. At most, it was scuffed at times by foolish attacks and forgotten invasions. This was different though. The all-important civilian had been harmed, the eggs in its nest turned to martyrs to justify a mass-murder of a hundred times what it lost.”
“I...were you talking about the war on terror?” Morgan muttered, frowning at her.
“The starry bird had been spoiled. It had never faced bloodshed on its soil, so it said. Aside from its birthing revolution, its culling of the indigenous, its chastisement by the parent it abandoned, wherein its slave-built houses burned, its brutal theft of land from its southern neighbor and, of course, its noble war against itself to smother an even more vile child before it could grow into a nation of slavers.”
The woman suddenly smirked, tilting her head back in what was clearly smug condescension. “Do you think that’s why the wondrous southern states fear abortion so much? Because it reminds them of how their adorable confederacy was snuffed out by its own parent?”
“What!? What the hell is that-” Morgan cut himself off and looked skyward as he heard something move over head. It sounded like something just went right over his head. He looked around and–Was one of the elephants gone?
“At any rate, that is where my child’s story has led it.” His gaze immediately went back to the smirking woman. She was showing her teeth, and every last one of them was red. “It’s not the end, of course. Stories don’t end until death has come to all involved. Everything else is merely a pause.”
“What? Wait, no, go back. You said-What was that about abortion?”
“It’s cute.” The woman smiled and she stood, placing both her hands in her pockets and staring down at him in obvious amusement. “My poor child thinks they have won every war they fought. Never defeated. Never scarred. They think their rival vanquished when it merely wears a new coat to profit. Ideology pays little, you know, yet my poor, rich, stupid child thinks it can conflate wealth, logic, and religion altogether.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“All the while, it declares more conflicts with itself than any other. War on drugs, war on faith, war on protest, war, war, war. My child so does love their mother.” She grinned again, her eyes glittering like bright flames.
And Morgan, who could be quite clever at times, began to understand. “War. You’re...You’re war? W-What? You mean you’re Mars? Or Ares or...but you’re woman. That…”
“It’s getting about that time. You have another stop along the way, Louis. I enjoyed our talk.”
And then he actually did connect things. “...The first woman was disease. She was in a hospital, she talked about...Pestilence. She was Pestilence, and you’re War, then...the four horsemen? But...you…”
War chuckled, a rough, husky sound. And then she pulled her headphones down from her ears. Her nonexistent ears.
They’d been cut off. The wounds were blatant, it wasn’t as though she’d been born without them, no one was born with their ears cut off. Right? “I...W-Why would you be here for me? I haven’t...I’m not...I’m barely involved with any part of the military! I don’t produce weapons, I don’t sell mercenaries, I don’t...I’m not! Why would…You can’t blame me for being in oil!? I-No, for all that liberal bluster, my companies–we didn’t start any wars! It was the damn-!”
He cut himself off again. She’d mentioned the war on terror earlier, hadn’t she? It was always going back to that, she said it, but what did she say? “I...we weren’t involved. None of that was our fault.”
She let him stammer, then smiled kindly. “Resources are such a lovely thing to fight over. There’s a desperation in it, born of a desire to survive at all costs. It’s not my place to talk of alternatives or wastes. That, I leave for the third.”
She looked out towards her side. He looked too, and flinched back. The elephants were smiling now. Horrible, ghastly smiles where their cheeks were ripped open to bare blunt, block teeth stained a vibrant red.
“...I-I don’t understand.”
“Before you go, Louis, I would like you to remember something.” He looked back towards the red woman. Towards War. She was wearing a peaked cap now, her headphones gone entirely.
“All sins are paid for. If not immediately, then eventually. People love accountability and vengeance and my poor child has committed so many sins.’
Her smile widened, her eyes gleaming with an unhinged glee. “I do so look forward to what their pyre births.”
And then every elephant erupted in massive explosions of fire and sound.
Gregory Louis Morgan stumbled on his front porch. His ears were still ringing and he blinked tears from his eyes. His breathing was heavy and he couldn’t even hear it.
“Why is this happening to me?” he finally moaned, clutching at his racing heart. His skin felt hot.
Good God, why was this happening to him? He just wanted to relax. He earned that, hadn’t he? He–
There was a limousine parked in front of his house, on his lawn. That...wasn’t possible. He lived on top of a hill. There was a gate! He hadn’t let anyone in! This wasn’t fair!
“P-Please...please just leave me alone,” he murmured, trying desperately to ignore the blinking of his watch. He knew, if he looked, it would say 3AM. “I’ve...I’ve learned my lesson! I-I’ll...I’ll donate to charity! Many charities! All over the world! I can hold fundraisers a-and take care of orphans and send money to...to welfare states! I can do that! I-I have the money! I don’t-”
There were two men standing in front of the limousine. Both were in black suits and were wearing black sunglasses and both of them had gray skin.
“...Please. I don’t want to do this. You can’t just make me!” He looked back at his house and of course it was gone. All he could see was the night sky.
He tried to steady himself and looked back at the two men. One held up a sign between his hands. It was white, and it said ‘Morgan’ in perfect, black cursive.
“...I-Is this really necessary? I’ve learned my lesson. I have. Please.”
The other man opened the limousine door. He had a ‘W’ printed on his forehead. The other man had an ‘I’. The man by the door gestured towards the limousine’s interior, all entirely pitch-black.
“...” Was that it then? But, God, what choice did he even have? He couldn’t run from these things. They would hurt him. He was sure of it.
With heavy steps, Morgan walked to the limo. He entered it, and sat in the lush seats, sinking back into the startlingly comfortable cushions as the man closed the door behind him.
The interior of the limo was surprisingly comfortable all around, and it had an actually quite pleasant mix of blacks, dark violets and indigos lending it a very cozy, pleasant feeling. But that wasn’t what really caught his eye.
Sitting directly across from him, right in front of the window separating the driver from the passengers, was yet another woman. She was...startling.
The woman’s skin was a pitch-black, darker than any he’d ever see, like petroleum or vantablack. She was closer to the white woman than the red one in that regard. Everything about her body, from her tightly braided hair framing her narrow face to her long nails to her completely black eyes were all the same shade but startlingly defined. She looked so real, but so impossible at the same time…
The woman crossed her long legs, her feet wrapped in stiletto heels, and leaned back, allowing him to stare at her like she was a queen to be awed over. And she did look stunning…
A long, flowing evening gown covered her body from the neck down, baring her shoulders and slit at its sides to leave her legs unbound. Black earrings dangled from her ears, black lace gloves covered her arms up to the elbows...she looked so different from the other two. Where the others had been disconcerting and terrifying, she seemed to radiate grace and beauty, wealth and taste, immeasurable poise that put her a far step above either of those horrors.
And then there was her mouth. The first woman had been missing her eyes. The second woman had been missing her ears. The third had her mouth sewn shut. Black threads looped through her lips, sealing them shut in a permanent smile.
But the woman didn’t seem bothered by her disfigurement. She was just staring at him with completely black eyes, smiling.
“...Ah...hello.” Morgan shifted slightly in his seat. The car had started pulling out at some point. He could feel it moving around as the drivers maneuvered their way off of his lawn.
The woman remained silent. Of course she would, she clearly couldn’t speak.
“A-Ahem.” Morgan cleared his throat. “You would be Famine then, correct?”
The woman nodded.
“Of course. Of course, I did put that together...the first one was Pestilence, the second was War, and that must make you Famine. The fourth is Death. Will I...Will I be meeting…’her’ as well?” God, he hoped not.
Famine shrugged, tapping idly on an armrest.
“...So, what now then? We just...You can’t speak. What sort of torment am I supposed to go through now then? I can’t listen to you lecture me.” He glanced out the window for a moment. They were driving now, down some road. He couldn’t see much out there, just passing streetlights. Were they on a highway?
He looked back and blinked. There was a scale next to Famine. The armrest was wider, more like a table, and there was a large balance measuring scale next to her, two small bowls hanging from chains on either side of it.
“...What is that supposed to be?”
Famine ignored him, reached into a bag in her lap that hadn’t been there before, and pulled out a handful of seeds. Sunflower seeds.
One by one, she dropped seeds into the further bowl of the scale, the left side. Seven seeds dropped and she let the rest spill onto the carpet of the limo before she sat back.
The scale was drooping to its left side now.
Morgan blinked. That seemed oddly familiar, like something he’d seen in a documentary once.
“What is this supposed to be then? I know you can’t speak, but just presenting me with a scale doesn’t help me.”
Famine tilted her head, her eyes creasing upward in amusement, then she tapped her mouth with two fingers. She then pointed both at him, moved them back and tapped her mouth again, then pointed at him again.
“You want me to talk?” She nodded. “I...about what?”
She just shrugged.
Morgan’s brown creased. “I...fine, I think I can understand what you want here. The first woman, Pestilence, she was rambling on about healthcare and pharmaceuticals, then War was...er...she was talking about...freedoms, and oil, and...the military-industrial complex. Of course. So then you would be agriculture and food, right?”
Famine seemed to smile a little wider.
“Fine then. Agriculture…” There was a way out of this. He was the one setting the pace of the conversation this time, so he just needed to say what she wanted to hear. “Hm. Well, I can admit the food industry as a whole is irredeemably horrible. They, er, keep animals in terrible conditions and slaughter them in inhumane-”
The empty side of the scale dropped slightly.
“-condi...why did that just...Ah, no, um, what I meant to say was that they’re horribly wasteful. Did you know they throw out thousands of pounds or...tons, or something of food every day? Often for minor issues with appearance! And then there are the restaurants, particularly fast food, that just throw out so much food instead of...giving them to the homeless! It’s despicable when you think of all those poor orphans in Africa going-”
Morgan stopped himself and looked out the window. He saw something. Something out of the corner of his eye.
“...Ah. My point is, um...their standards are...you understand, a good deal of it is due to issues with government regulation-”
The scale dropped again. It was still higher than the one with the seeds on it but it was visibly lower.
“I-What? It-Look, you have to admit the government has problems! You can’t trust it, every ‘aid’ program they have is ultimately just designed to give them more power over us! Over the natural citizens-”
It dropped lower.
“-of-What?! I’m just-I’m telling you what I think! I’m sharing my damn opinion! Do you hear those people who insist on building themselves a damn nanny state? They want to be catered to for doing nothing! Things like education and health aren’t rights, they’re–No, no, I know what-I am not going to fall into some stupid trap and say something to...It’s not true. They...They’ll say that we, my party, the men I fina-support, that we deliberately sabotage the government to prove ourselves right but it’s not true!”
And the scale dropped lower. It was still high, but so close to halfway mark.
“I-I can-Fine, I can talk about other things! I can prove that I learned my lessons! You-War said that...She was talking about how war is-no, not-My point is that yes! Yes, the military-industrial complex, the defense industry, the private military contractors, they’re all bastards! Every last one of them is a greedy sadist looking to profit off of the abuses of American soldiers and the deaths of foreign civilians! They pump out propaganda, Hollywood works right alongside them, all so they can pretend war is heroic! They’re dragging this country through the mud so they can indulge in their fetishes for glory! So why aren’t they here?!
“Why am I the only one being punished like this!? What have I done that’s so wrong?! All my life, I worked to get where I-”
It dropped lower, hit the halfway mark and Morgan choked like a drowning man.
“That-Th-That...That wasn’t-I’m not lying! Is that-Is it supposed to be dropping every time I lie!? I haven’t-”
There it was again. Out in the dark and he looked this time and saw things out there. Humanoid figures. He couldn’t see any part of them. They were completely covered in shadows, except for their eyes, and their mouths. Their open mouths, baring teeth as they stared at him with bloodshot eyes.
“W-What? What are...What are those things…?”
There were buildings all around them now, and he could see the creatures standing on the sidewalks, just staring. Some seemed to smile, some stared in visible disgust, others in pure hatred and all of them were baring their teeth.
Morgan looked back to the black woman, tried to stare straight ahead and ignore what lurked outside. “I-I...I can...ph-pharmaceuticals. Yes, I...D-Did you know they keep raising the prices of life saving medicines like insulin? They’re willing to let people die of completely...c-completely…”
He slowly swallowed. Famine still smiled. “I-I...They, um...Reagan, he let...s-so many people die. We just...th-the news media, it’s all...same broadcasting companies, just...They glorified him after the fact, a-acted like he was the perfect man when he was a shill and crook and God in heaven would have hated him-”
He shook his head, tried to breathe. Were they getting closer? “A-And...I can admit, I can admit, that the...the anti-vaccination people, they’re all idiots, they believe a discredited quack who wanted to sell his own version of it, killing their own children at the word of a snake oil salesman so they can–A-And the NRA, they’re all vile, they just take bribe after bribe to discredit restrictions and I know the men who bribe them! I can give you their names! I could give you-I could give you the name of every man and woman you could ever want! The most-The richest people on the planet! They’re all-I’m not like them-”
It dropped past the halfway point.
“N-No, no! P-Put that back up! M-Move it back up! I’m not like them! I-I-I’m learning! I’ve learned, I’ve-I’m not just saying this-”
It dropped lower. He could see teeth in the corner of his eye.
“NO! No, no, no, I can-Please, I could-You don’t understand! I’m a billionaire! I have-I have more money than any of those idiots out there could ever dream of! The homeless, the middle class, the, uh, the working poor, whatever they call them, I could buy all of them! The entire population! I have more money than there are people in the US! I could-I could buy every castle in Europe and have money left over! I could-I could do so much more! You can’t just-I can’t-
“PLEASE! You don’t understand! I’m a-I’m an important man! I matter-”
It dropped even lower, further than it had before.
“Ghk-! P-P-Please! I could-I can-What do you want?! You’re-You’re someone who wants money, right!? You-I can-Pollution! Fine, I can admit that! I can admit, I’m in oil, I’m in coal, I KNOW! I know we’re killing the planet! We pretended that it was all a hoax! We profitted because people were convinced we had to be right! We suckered a succession of idiots into thinking they need life-ending jobs in terrible conditions because of tradition! Because it was all they ever knew! They made it mythical, glorious, important because we convinced them that’s the way it had to be!
“I know, I was there! I was there, along the way, I know just how-We’re not evil! We’re not! Why is it wrong to try to help yourself!? It’s not my fault if people buy what I sell! I-No, if anything, America’s the damn con man to begin with! The land of the free is bullshit! We all know it! We play along because it benefits us! We play along with everything because it benefits us! That’s how it is!
“Do you really think there are anyone out there that actually believes in religion?! Do you really think anyone believes in race?! In sex, in purity, in anything!? NO! We all play along because that’s how life fucking works! Only the stupid actually fall for these platitudes we pump out day by day and we have the GODDAMN RIGHT TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THAT!”
And the scale clattered against the table.
Morgan was standing over Famine. He’d been shouting down at her, spit flying from his mouth. She was spotless. He was soaked with sweat as he stared, woodenly, at the scale. The empty bowl had dropped fully.
Famine stood and he fell back, landing hard on the floor of the limo, a splash coming up around him. The black liquid soaked into his clothes and clung to his skin, the sharp reek of tar filling the air as Famine loomed over him.
She took the seeds from the scale, the bowls staying perfectly in place, and crushed them in her hand. When she opened her palm, dust poured from it.
Morgan just stared at Famine, who stared evenly back, silent as ever. Then she leaned towards him and extended a hand.
He didn’t want to take it. He wanted to stand on his own feet, but the tar was clinging to him, holding him down. He couldn’t get out of it, he couldn’t even sit up, so-
He took her hand and she pulled him up easily. And then her smile seemed almost kindly and she petted him. Her dark hand ruffled his hair, then caressed his cheek.
“W-What...what are you doing?” he asked, his voice quiet and hoarse. His throat hurt.
She lightly patted his cheek, then placed a dusty hand on his stomach and roughly shoved him back. This time, when he fell, he sunk.
It was over before he knew it.
One moment, it was all dark, clinging, and smothering, and the next, Gregory Louis Morgan was lying flat on paved ground and staring up at a gray sky.
It was odd. It wasn’t a gray sky in the sense that it was covered in clouds, but in the sense that it was all just gray. It seemed clear, it was just gray instead of blue. The half-moon was still out, hanging overhead.
Morgan laid there. He didn’t know if he wanted to get up.
He didn’t want to look at his watch as it blinked 4AM.
A person was staring down at him. He’d blinked, and they were there. If he had to use a color to describe them, he would say something like teal. Not quite blue, not quite green, not quite gray. Somewhere in a pale middle.
They were bald and their nose had been cut off. They smiled though, as they walked around him and extended a skeletal hand from the sleeves of their pale, hooded robe.
Morgan finally propped himself up on his elbows and stared at it. It wasn’t just thin. There was nothing there but bone. Pale bone from a pale person.
He couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up inside of him as he took it, pushing himself up as the stranger pulled.
“You’re Death then,” he muttered. They were smaller than him, oddly enough. Short and thin, every inch of them a shade of pale teal.
“Very astute, Mr. Morgan.” they replied, their tone completely flat despite their smile.
“...Is this the end then?” He looked around the gray place. It looked like a blank parking lot. Paved road stretched out all around them, disappearing into the horizon, and dimly he could see the black limo driving away off in the distance.
“In some ways. It is the end of your trial, Mr. Morgan.”
“Ah. Ah, hah...so...so why? Why me? Can’t you answer me that?” He didn’t bother to keep the bitterness from his voice.
“You were chosen, Mr. Morgan, because of who you are.”
“...And...and what? That’s it? I was just-Who chose me?”
“I cannot answer that.”
“Why not!? Don’t I have a right to know!? What have I ever done that was-...No, no, I won’t get caught in another trap. I won’t…This isn’t fair. You know that.”
“It is, Mr. Morgan. You forget. Life is not fair, but Death is.” They kept on smiling. “All those who perish end in the same way. It all fades away. Everything they are dissolves into history soon to pass. All are equal in Death.”
“...That...I-I refuse to believe that. I don’t...deserve this. Why should I be dragged here?”
“Would you like to go elsewhere. There are other options. A car. A ferry. A train. Planes are rare, but some prefer them.”
Morgan stared at Death. “What? Why-Why aren’t you taking this seriously?! I-I don’t deserve to be treated like this! I don’t!”
“That does not matter, Mr. Morgan. You were chosen.”
“But why!? Why me!?”
“Because you are a billionaire, Mr. Morgan.”
He reeled back as if slapped. “I-What?! Why would-My finances shouldn’t have anything to do with how I’m treated!”
“Please, Mr. Morgan. We both know what your wealth means for you.”
“I don’t! I don’t know why my wealth means I was dragged to my death like this!”
“Mr. Morgan, you misunderstand what it means to be a billionaire. It means you are greater than normal humans.”
He blinked. “I-...I know I-No, what are you talking about?”
“Your wealth puts you above them, Mr. Morgan. You are among the ruling class. Name a king, Mr. Morgan, that has ever been a billionaire. Name an emperor that has had access to every continent. Name a ruler that has the sheer scope of influence you and your ilk have upon the world.”
“...Ha...so…” Morgan shook his head, taking a step back and looking around again. It was just gray, all around them. Where could he go? Was this it? He turned back, and stared into Death’s pale eyes. “...Mister-...Miss-...Death, please. I don’t understand. I don’t...understand any of this.”
“Then you have failed, Mr. Morgan. You lied. You seem to have understood that you were being taught, yet you did not learn.”
“...What was I supposed to learn? That...that I’ve done-...That America has...That people suffer?”
“Mr. Morgan. What kind of human being deserves to suffer.”
“I-...A criminal? Someone who-” Death was shaking their head.
“You have not learned a thing, Mr. Morgan.”
“THEN TELL ME!” he finally screamed, “Tell me! Tell me what I was supposed to understand here! I can’t just-This isn’t fair! I didn’t get what was...I didn’t-”
“Why did you not ask Pestilence to stop.”
“I-What? No, I did! I did, I asked her-”
“You did not look in the rooms, Mr. Morgan.”
“I-Wha-” He cut himself off. He was starting to repeat himself, he hated repeating-
“Why did you not listen to War.”
“That-I was-No, I was looking that time.”
“You did not hear her words, Mr. Morgan. She never mentioned any complex.”
“Because I-...I swear I…”
“Why did you get in the car, Mr. Morgan.”
“I...I had to. Didn’t I? My house was gone. Those two...things were standing there. I...I couldn’t just...Don’t try to blame me for that!”
“Mr. Morgan. Why do you think you deserve redemption.”
“R-Redemption? What...What have I done wrong?”
Death sighed. “Mr. Morgan. The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is a critique of the wealthy and callous, yet also a tale of redemption. Mr. Scrooge had qualities, Mr. Morgan, that allowed that redemption. He was bitter and disillusioned. He sought companionship. He knew the impoverished. His heart was hard, but it could be cracked.
“Mr. Morgan, you do not care.”
“I-I care! I do! I care about-About so many things!”
“Mr. Morgan. You grew up in comfort. You lived in comfort. You strove for comfort. You care for your own comfort above all else. You have companionships that you have thrown away. You have family you lavish empty care upon. You have music you love, you have movies you enjoy, you have homes you decorate. You have so much, Mr. Morgan. Yours is not a story of lacking.”
“...Then...why? Why am I here?”
“You were chosen, Mr. Morgan. Ultimately, it could have been any other billionaire. You were fortunate in that regard.”
“...Why am I fortunate? Why is...any of this good for me?”
“Mr. Morgan, no wealthy soul will ever see the Christian heaven.”
He blinked. “...What?”
“It is stated quite plainly in your faith. Wealth in this life is material. The soul carries none of it. Merely the sins committed, and those who have wealth, yet use it for themselves and no one else, are condemned.”
“B-But...But I do use it for other people! I...My company has millions of workers!”
Death shook their head again, their expression unchanging. “Your company means nothing, Mr. Morgan. You are damned. You have, they have not. You fear them. You hurt them. And so, you are damned.”
“But that’s not fair! It’s not! Why can’t I-Why am I damned?! Why-Those-You could have taken anyone other than me!”
“That is not the point, Mr. Morgan. You would have been damned without this visit. You are still damned, but you have a chance.”
“To do what?! Give up all my wealth?! Is that it!? Should I just die destitute?! What about my family!? What about my children!?”
“No one needs a billion dollars to live, Mr. Morgan. You have won Life, Mr. Morgan. You do not need any more, yet you still want more. You could make so many people happy, Mr. Morgan, but you do not.”
“People with hospital bills, Mr. Morgan. People who need shelter. People who could use your help, Mr. Morgan. People you choose not to help.”
“How am I supposed to know who needs help?!”
“Look. Listen. Ask questions. It is not difficult to care, Mr. Morgan.”
“IT IS!” He grabbed the front of their robes and yanked them close. “Why should I!? Give me one damn reason that I should give up my own money to worthless leeches like that!”
“Leeches are more beneficial to the world than you, Mr. Morgan. The impoverished spend money, Mr. Morgan. You hoard wealth. You are poison to your own system, Mr. Morgan, and to answer your question, you should help others because it is kind, Mr. Morgan.
Their eyes were pale too. “Kindness is all that will save you.”
“I-No. No, I refuse to-There has to be something else!”
“Would you like to know what Hell is, Mr. Morgan.”
He blinked. “W...W-What?”
“Want, Mr. Morgan. Hell is Want writ large. In many ways, it is beautiful. A grand city of metals and jewels floating atop a sea of molten gold. Copper, brass, iron, bronze, steel, gold, and platinum all reaching towards the heavens overhead. The unworthy cannot enter. It is exclusive. It belongs only to the wealthy.
“Hell is tiered, Mr. Morgan. The Hell of Gold is wondrous in that regard. Any can climb to the top to sit amid the platinum. All they need is the money to rise high enough.
“But all want to rise, and no one will help you there, Mr. Morgan. The people there chose to stay. They chose to seek that rise. The proud are conned and stripped. The intelligent are beaten and stripped. The strong are bled and stripped. All failures are stripped to the bone, Mr. Morgan, and the newborn start at the bottom while those with experience far greater sit at the top.
“Hell is not fair, Mr. Morgan, but those with power could make it better. It does not have to be what it is.”
Morgan stared at Death. His grip loosened. Numb.
“Y-You’re just...y-you’re...I...I need to...H-Hell...c-can’t be real...but then what...I don’t…” Morgan swallowed. He felt something inside of him crumble. “...I want...to leave. I don’t want to be here anymore. Please. Please, just...please let me go home.”
“Of course, Mr. Morgan. You have that privilege.”
Death stepped back from him, their robes melting through his fingers, their skeletal hands at their sides. They smiled again, cold and kind.
“I hope you are a different man when next we meet, Mr. Morgan. Best of luck.”