"Turn the TV down, Elijah. I'm on the phone," Alexandra barks from her office.
"Seriously Mom? It's Supernatural! Sam and Dean are trying to stop the apocalypse," Elijah yells back.
"I don't care what they're doing, it's too loud!" Alexandra shouts. "As if those two boys could stop the apocalypse," she said quietly to herself. "I'm pretty sure if the apocalypse started we'd all know, and no one would be able to stop it."
Alexandra didn't realize at the time she shared that sentiment with billions of people. They were all wrong.
* * *
"Hello, brothers and sister," a shrouded figure said. Reaching up with a shriveled hand, the figure brushed back his hood. His pallid face stretched into a smile that reminded the other's present of a grimace. "Have any of you seen the news lately? It appears one of us has been busy." The slight grimace turned unmistakably into a broad smile.
"What are you talking about, Famine? We don't have plans right now. What have you been doing?" Death said.
"You know we work in a group Famine. If you've done something to tip the scales in your favor, you could be bringing about Armageddon; and it isn't time," War said.
"I know it isn't time. I simply had a little fun," Famine said with a chuckle. Turning in his chair, Famine pressed a glowing button on a remote control to start a paused news broadcast.
A recent study by the USDA into how likely crops are to survive in the next fifty years has shown shocking results. Lead scientist Theodore Grabage said, 'due to recent changes in weather patterns, over-planting, and increased chemical usage, vegetation is struggling more than ever to thrive in this hostile world. We expect in the next 50 years the only plants that will grow will be inedible.' The study goes on to show unless environmental factors and consumer behaviors change this planet may be nearing its end.
"Damnit, Famine!" Pestilence exclaimed. "What did you do?" He rose from the bare wooden chair he perched on and strode across the room. A single light bulb lit the cramped dining room where the four siblings conversed, casting bare shadows on the hardwood floor.
"You've only given them fifty years Famine? You've forced our hand. Is this like last time when they simply needed to genetically modify crops to survive? Have you given humanity any hope at a solution?" War said.
"There's always hope for humanity. Isn't that the whole shtick with God? He can do anything? Maybe I just caused a global crisis of faith. Maybe God will be happy to help when everyone starts begging," Famine said.
"You know that isn't how this works," Death said quietly, staring at the paused image on the television. "You have left us no choice Famine. This is the end."
The room grew still except for the constant bouncing of Famine's legs against the bottom of the table.
"You were the first one made, Death, and you'll be the last of us alive. What do we do?" Pestilence asked.
"I need time to think. I'll be back," Death said. He passed through the only door in the room and found himself in a hallway with doors branching off at even intervals. Slowly pacing the hall, he heard the sounds of life all around. Children cried, mothers yelled from their kitchens that supper was ready, Mickey Mouse's unmistakable voice squeaked from TV speakers.
Death, despite his name, found great joy in life. He was the first of the horsemen created during the time of the great uprising in Heaven. Death's face twisted in rage as he thought the name Lucifer. If not for that bastard Death would never have been born; or whatever it is God did to bring Death forth.
From the start existence pained Death. He took no joy in his role, bearing it stalwartly but with a strong sense of self-loathing. Why must I be the one to rip these beings from their lives? If it were up to me, they would go right on living as long as they wanted. And that was the kicker, Death knew. Eventually, everyone greeted him; some with terror in their minds, and others with serenity.
Death learned to drown out the sound of the living. It pained him too much to know the joy he would one day take away. It hurt worse though knowing this world didn't care much about Death anymore. He paused his stroll to listen at the door of an apartment several doors down from his own.
Inside, a young boy, no more than thirteen Death guessed, shouted at someone or something. "That's right you piece of shit! Die! Die! Die! I'm glad you're dead."
Death waited a moment for the familiar tingle he felt when called to end someone's life. He smiled for just a moment at the secret only he knew, everyone who had ever died, died by his hand and no one else’s. If not for death, people would continue forever.
The warm tingle didn't come. Death pressed his ear closer to the door and heard faint clicking. Is that the sound of a gun misfiring? Death wondered, but it wasn't quite right. Then realization dawned. This boy sitting on the other side of the flimsy wooden door was committing digital murder. Likely "killing" a stranger from the other side of the world on a game like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto.
Death felt anger growing deep in the pit of his stomach. He preferred the anger to his true feelings, resignation and sadness. Without thinking, the anger took control and Death burst through the door.
The apartment looked like the one he shared with his brothers. Stained hardwood floors covered a living room and kitchen. Grime and grease coated the laminate cupboards and counters, illuminated by a single overhead light that had long since lost its shade.
Sitting directly in front of Death was a boy holding an Xbox controller and wearing a headset. It was into this device he screamed those hateful words.
Perhaps the anger he felt toward Famine finally reached the surface, or maybe it was simply this child's callous attitude toward death. The reasoning didn't matter to Death though, he simply began berating.
"What are you thinking speaking to another person like that? Do you know this person whom you are so callously telling to 'Die! Die! Die!'? Do you really want that person dead? Is their life not worth anything more to you than a casual comment meant to reduce them beyond existence?"
Stunned, the boy's mouth dropped open. People couldn't just barge into his house, could they? "Screw you, asshole," the boy spat at the intruder, with more venom and bravado than he felt. Then, seeing the rage in the man's eyes the boy changed tactics. "MOM!" he screamed into the next room.
A woman waddled from the one bedroom wearing a grimy white t-shirt and shorts 4 sizes too small with the word "Juicy" written across the back. "Who the hell are you?" the woman said, holding a burning cigarette in one hand and a small revolver in the other. "I should shoot you right now. I have the right you know. This is America. If you trespass on my property I get to take your life."
Now it was Death's turn to stand agape. Looking at the woman, he felt no fear of the weapon she held. Only one thing could hurt him, much less kill him, and that thing was not a Ruger GP100. No, the thing that scared Death was the words she chose.
"Did you say you get to take my life?" Death asked the woman.
"That's right asswipe. I get to take your life, and unless you are out of my house in the next three seconds, I'm going to exercise that right with a big fat smile on my face," the woman responded. Without responding death turned and walked back through the door and turned the corner just in time to hear a single report and see the wood across the hall explode with the impact of the .357.
Death continued to the end of the hall, choosing not to listen to anything happening behind the remaining doors. Descending the stairs, the same familiar sadness he'd felt the last few years welled up, and tears washed away the anger he'd felt moments before. Don't these people understand the gift they've been given? To live, and laugh, and love? Death mused, realizing he sounded like one of those inspirational wooden signs couples hung in their first homes.
Why would anyone think it a pleasure, a gift, to take another person's life? That young boy wanted to kill whoever was on the other end of that headset, and his mother wanted to kill Death. When did life become something so easily thrown away?
He sensed society's belief changing from a desire to protect life, to a desire to protect one's own interests. If a person wanted to buy an assault rifle and murder dozens of children at an elementary school, that was their right these days. And there were thousands of people willing to fight for that right tooth and nail. In the days following those tragedies people often remarked we should have stricter gun laws so innocent children didn't die while learning long division, but inevitably the conversation would stall until the next person decided it was their right to murder 60 people at an outdoor concert. Then the whole cycle repeated. Forever, and ever, amen.
But Death knew the answer to his own question even before he asked it. He had made them numb to death.
In Death's younger days he operated with the same vigor and short-sightedness that Famine recently displayed. With a thought he caused Mt. Vesuvius to blow and eradicate two thousand lives. He brought up tsunamis and hurricanes to drown sailors and coastal communities alike. With a few well-placed suggestions from him and his brother, Hitler's little tantrum went on to claim over sixty million lives.
Much like those same Nazis, Death had simply been following orders. Every action was part of a master plan he had been assured when he struggled with the order. After all, if two thousand was a lot of lives, how could one even categorize sixty million?
Those same orders had now created a world where the machine of death ran itself, like a perpetual motion device. Death hadn't lifted a finger in over fifty years, yet millions still died every year. Death simply had the duty of cleaning up the messes.
Lost in his own mind, Death didn't see the man in front of him and their shoulders bumped. Death turned to apologize but before he could get a word out an older man with disheveled hair who reeked of piss and Canadian whiskey yelled, "Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand. We live in the end of days foretold in Revelations."
Death smiled, even daring to let out a chuckle. "Trust me, buddy," Death said, "when the apocalypse happens you won't have any idea."
* * *
When Death rose from the table, the other three siblings were shocked. Sure, he had shown some strange signs in the past few decades, but nothing like this. Almost as though he no longer found joy in his calling; even if it had become trivialized in the last few years. Hell, it was less common to see a local news report cover an exciting holiday festival, than to see the face of a rapist and murderer on the 5 o'clock news.
At the slamming of the front door, War rose from her chair and yelled, "What is his deal? He's been so sullen lately. I need to go cool off." She left for the single bedroom and slammed the door behind her, and as an afterthought shouted through the wall, "it's all your fault he's like this Famine."
She sat down at the plastic folding table that functioned as her desk. Papers littered every visible surface, even obscuring the ergonomic keyboard and mouse. "What is all this shit in here? Pestilence are you too lazy to put your stuff away?" War needed to blow off some steam.
In the past, she would have started a fight somewhere and watched the inherent hatred in everyone spill out. Nothing serious, just a gang war here, a husband beating his wife there. But times were changing. The media would have everyone believe these criminals who participated in violent wars were getting smarter; now gangs shared drug drop locations via coded messages on Twitter.
War knew the truth though, people were just getting lazier. Like a scene out of Wall-e, most Americans could be found lounging in some sort of repose with their eyes glued to two or three different screens at once, all forcing entertainment directly into the mind. "Warriors" hadn't gotten smarter, they just couldn't be bothered to fight anymore.
Always ready to fight for her beliefs War found an entirely new outlet for her aggression; the Internet. War double clicked the browser icon, and 20 different windows appeared showing news outlets, social media sites, and celebrity gossip pages.
For the next hour, the only sounds to be heard from the bedroom were the furious clicking of a mechanical keyboard, and the occasional laugh. Pestilence and Famine knew their sister was hard at working waging her wars.
War logged into the local news page and found the top story, "Dozens dead in latest robbery attempt". Perfect War thought, smiling. She jotted off a quick comment, seems like if we had better gun control these kinds of things wouldn't happen. No one needs an assault rifle to protect their home. Idiots. Then War quickly logged off and wrote a comment back to herself anonymously, whatever you Libtard! Just because you're afraid of guns doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't get to play with them. Besides, these people are criminals, do you really think they wouldn't get their hands on guns one way or the other? Try thinking for once, moron.
With these keystrokes, War began a fight that would sustain her appetite for days. Instantly new comments began pouring in. As they usually do, the comments started respectfully and with coherent arguments; but they devolved into personal attacks faster than War had ever seen.
War's scowl dissolved as she moved from website to website spewing hatred and inciting the masses to argue over meaningless trivialities. It seemed people were eager to trade written jabs over the validity of Kim Kardashian's career, whether our President is a secret Russian Nazi or not, and what the best episode of The Simpsons is.
"This is almost too easy," War murmured, her scowl now replaced by a predatory smile. "It's like these idiots can't wait to start fighting. All I have to do is give them the smallest of shoves."
She leaned back from the keyboard, brushing a stray wisp of her red hair away from her pale face. War looked to her left and saw her own reflection staring back at her from the mirror perched atop an empty dresser. A hollow pang of longing echoed through War as she thought of her old personage.
She had once been the strongest of her siblings. In the early days, she wore a shining suit of armor perfectly contoured to her body. She brandished a mace forged from heavenly metal and used it as her baton to orchestrate violence on a global scale. Time marched slowly, and she found herself trading in the armor for a more refined Kevlar vest. The mace set aside in favor of a concealed pistol.
Even then War's frame would have struck fear into anyone who saw her. Cords of muscle rippled beneath her milky skin with every movement, a promise that she could, and would, hurt anyone who stood against her. Her flaming red hair served only to strengthen this impression of a powerful, otherworldly entity out for blood.
Those who delighted in bloodshed found themselves drawn to War's dangerous beauty and built monuments to her. They worshipped her form and her function. Now though? She barely recognized herself in those monuments. Her skin had grown grey, no longer possessing the milky glow she expected. Her muscles waned from non-use, leaving her body a doughy bootleg of what she once was.
Still, War smiled though, if only for one reason; her hair. What had once been a brilliant auburn now shown like neon. A vibrant mass of red and orange that seemed to feed on the constant stream of LED light she basked in. These are the only wars I get to fight anymore, War lamented. The real wars, the fun wars, are being taken care of quite nicely without any input from me.
War turned back to her computer screens, resignation weighing her shoulders down, and typed away once again.
* * *
Inspired by his sibling's exodus Pestilence sat down to write. "They are as crazy as the rest of the world," Pestilence said, smirking.
He pulled a yellow legal pad from a side table and sat down on a low couch. A cloud of dust blew up around him and motes shone in the light. The swirling mass reminded Pestilence of the brain. He pictured an illustration of synapses firing electricity from neuron to neuron.
Looking back to the paper Pestilence wrote at the top of the page Anxiety and its relation to physical akathisia. Unknown to his siblings Pestilence had been using their behavior as a springboard for ideas. Anytime they exhibited odd behavior Pestilence wrote it down. He made up some numbers to appease the scientifically minded and submitted article after article to journals with names involving psychology and psychiatry.
In this way, Pestilence had succeeded in diversifying his abilities. He no longer rode the backs of rats in cities spreading the bubonic plague. His rats were these journals, and the unfortunate victims were the doctors who read them.
Since beginning work on his magnum opus, Pestilence had seen it grow from a slim volume only one hundred years before into a tome well over one thousand pages. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was Pestilence’s pride and joy. He stroked the spine of each book when he saw it in a bookstore. Sometimes he even pulled it from the shelf and cradled the tome like a child.
Those old plagues never got me excited like this one Pestilence thought to himself. "Depression and anxiety, my two favorite things," Pestilence whispered. "They're great! General enough that everyone can be diagnosed; specific enough to make sufferers wield their diagnosis like a weapon." Looking again at the top of the page the word akathisia tickled at Pestilence's memory. Squinting his eyes, Pestilence attempted to remember why that word felt familiar.
Paging through his own copy of the DSM-5 Pestilence found akathisia and realized he'd already written on this subject years ago. "Dammit! It's like there's nothing left to write about," Pestilence said, slamming the book shut and tossing it on the couch next to him. Pestilence realized War would have enjoyed seeing her brother's outburst and got all the more frustrated for it. None of the siblings were on the best of terms, and he hated knowing he was acting like her.
Pestilence picked the book back up off the couch and leafed through the pages. Every idea that popped into his head had already been committed to medical science. Have I really come up with every kind of mental disease there is, Pestilence wondered? "The real problem is I did too good a job," Pestilence muttered. "I can only take credit for a little over half of what's in this book. Those damn doctors got it into their heads they could start creating diagnosis on their own, and they've worked me right out of a job. Maybe it's time to go back to the rats."
He threw the book on the side table along with the legal pad and flopped down on the couch. Straining to think of a new disease to create but knowing deep down he had finally reached his limit.
* * *
The only light in the room had been turned off hours ago. Famine sat in the darkness watching the news. As the youngest, Famine craved his sibling's approval. Unlike them though, he had not diversified his abilities. War stopped inciting global conflict and instead worked to covertly inspire hatred and aggression. Pestilence stopped spreading diseases that simply killed, and instead convinced the world they were all special, even though they all suffered from the same thing. Even Death had grown sullen. He had never reveled in his role like the other siblings, but he did it none the less. Now though, Famine got the impression the world had forgotten Death and felt a pang of loss on behalf of his older brother.
Death barged into the dining room from outside. The noise woke Pestilence who stirred on the couch and rose. Death called into the next room, "Sister, please come here. I have something to discuss."
The siblings were once again gathered under the harsh light of a bare bulb hanging over the dining room table. "I've come to a conclusion and must apologize for what I said this morning. Famine, I was wrong to say you pushed our hand. Walking through the city today I realized you haven't forced us to begin the Apocalypse, because the Apocalypse has already begun," Death said, his voice monotone as if he had practiced this little speech too much.
Always the first to react, War said, "What are you talking about? The Apocalypse doesn't start until we say so. I mean, isn't that our job? Our sole purpose for existing?"
"I don't mean to argue with you Death, but I think War is right. How can the Apocalypse have started already," Famine said?
"Look around. Watch the news. Is there anything we could do that would make the world worse off? War, when is the last time you started an actual war? Pestilence, the best you can come up with is making most people think they have a very mild malady, so they can get some drugs? Famine, even you did nothing wrong. Humanity's food source was depleting quickly. At best, you pushed them ahead a couple years. This world is fucked, and let's face it, these animals did it to themselves," Death said.
Everyone sat in silence for a moment relieved to have their own deep thoughts vocalized by their de-facto leader.
"So... what do we do," War asked quietly?
Death manifested a scythe, now appearing as a cliché version of the Grim Reaper. “Let’s help them get where they’re headed a little faster.”