by Ken Brosky
The moment they saw the horse in the drive-thru, they knew it was bad news. Motorcycles? Occasionally. A truck pulling a boat? Once in a while, on a crisp Saturday morning in the summer.
But not a horse. Not a guy sitting on a horse.
They were watching him through the small TV screen hanging above the drive-thru register. Aimee, Mark, and Lucas had all heard the ring in their headsets that sent them to the register, looking up into the low-definition black-and-white TV set with the expectation of seeing—most likely—a minivan. Not a man on a horse. At least, they all thought it was a man. There was no way to be sure; the figure was wearing a long black robe with the hood drawn up.
Mary pressed her thumb on the A button on her headset.
“Welcome to the Fixx. Did you… want to try one of our new chocolate chip scones?” she asked, shrugging at Mark and Lucas.
“No, thanks,” replied a raspy, tired voice.
“It has to be a prank,” Lucas said. “You know what? Don’t even talk to him. Let him sit there. He’s probably got a camera in his… robe and he’s going to put this on YouTube.”
“We have to serve him,” Mark said. “Those are the rules, dude.”
“Hello?” the man said. On the screen, they could see him turn his head toward the menu. They all craned their necks forward to try and see underneath the hood. But the picture was too grainy, a consequence of their manager’s frugal decision to purchase a secondhand camera setup from a foreclosed business on the north end of town.
“Sorry,” Aimee said. “What can we get for you?”
“Just a double espresso,” the man said.
“Okay…” Aimee punched the order into the computer screen. “That’ll be a buck fifty. Come on up.”
She turned off her headset and turned to Mark.
“You’re dealing with him.”
“I’ll pour the shots,” Lucas said, hurrying over to the espresso bar near the counter overlooking the café. The Fixx, a staple of the neighborhood, was an extremely small shop, catering almost exclusively to a single demographic that used the long, winding drive-thru to place its orders. That demographic—married, middle-class, liberal-leaning women and men who refused to purchase from Starbucks or even the “underdog” Caribou Coffee—avoided the cramped café at all costs. In the morning, the line extended out of the parking lot and into the street while the inside remained empty.
Most mornings anyway. This morning the rush had tapered off abruptly at nine o’clock, rather than its usual time of ten-thirty.
Mark opened the drive-thru window. First he heard the clop-clopping of the horse’s hooves on the pavement, then the white horse’s head bounced into view. It was an undefiled thing of beauty, pure white, with a long flowing mane hanging over dark blue eyes that seemed to regard Mark with a calculated apprehension. It continued forward, stopping on some unseen command when the rider—wearing a flowing dark brown robe—was next to the window.
This was a first for Mark.
“Greetings,” the man said, turning to the window. As he did, the gray clouds hanging overhead momentarily blotted out the sun, darkening the shadow across his pale face and making his features indistinguishable.
“Something tells me you don’t have money,” Mark said. He forced a friendly smile. If this was a prank, he decided it would probably be best to play it out nonchalantly. No point in making more of a fool of himself than necessary.
Lucas finished the espresso and handed the cup to Aimee, nudging her toward the window. She walked over with The Fixx’s classic gray eight-ounce to-go cup. She set it on the ledge of the drive-thru window and took a step back.
“No money,” the man said. “Sorry.”
“Well, we made it already,” Mark said. “You might as well take it.”
“I would appreciate that,” the man said. “Really.”
“Can I ask why you’re on a horse?”
The man seemed to think about it. The clouds overhead parted and the tip of his pale nose became visible underneath the dark hood.
“You really have no idea?” the man asked.
Mark shook his head.
“Is it a prank? We all guessed it was a prank.”
“I could tell you,” the man said. “But you won’t like the answer.”
“Please tell us,” Aimee said, standing on her tiptoes. It now seemed like less of a prank and more of an event of some kind, something the baristas were missing by staying inside at work. Mark wondered if the Circus Parade was in town, but surely someone would have put up a poster on the Community Happenings board next to the front door.
The man drew in a deep breath, then leaned down and gently ran his short pale fingers down the horse’s neck. The horse’s hair looked so soft, Mark was sure even the gentlest of breezes might send strands flying in every direction like dry leaves.
“It’s the apocalypse, I’m afraid.”
Mark chose to keep a slight smile on his face, just in case it was a joke.
“Well,” he said after an uncomfortable silence, “that would explain the lack of customers in the past few hours.”
“Right,” the man said. “Do me a favor and set that cup on the lip out here.”
Mark took the espresso and set it on the metal lip hanging at the base of the drive-thru window. The man used his left hand to pull back the hood of his cloak. He had smooth—if slightly asymmetrical—features, a rounded nose and dark brown eyes with short curly brown hair. His face was clear of blemishes and whiskers, and his chin dipped just slightly into his neck.
Mark had imagined something much more sinister—after all, this was a Horseman of the Apocalypse, if such a thing could be said with any seriousness. Where were the harsh red eyes? Where was the diseased, gray skin?
“Is this a joke?” Aimee asked. She wasn’t smiling. Her eyes were wide and her lips pursed, the way she looked when one of her co-workers showed up late for a shift.
“I’m afraid not,” the man said. He took a sip of the espresso and seemed to savor the liquid on his tongue forever. Finally, his Adam’s apple bounced. He pointed to the small dandelion sitting in a paper cup at the edge of the metal lip, a dandelion Mark had plucked before his shift started that morning.
He moved his finger closer. As he did, the green stem began to fade to a light brown, then a dark brown, and then the leaves withered, the bright yellow florets quickly blackening.
“Oh my God, this is real,” Lucas said from behind them. “I knew this would happen.”
Mark turned, wondering how long his co-worker had been watching. Lucas enjoyed labeling himself an Average Christian American, but in reality Mark felt he was much closer to a Bible Freak, the type who took everything just a bit too literally.
“Why am I still here?” Lucas asked, staring up at the ceiling panels. “Why haven’t I ascended, oh Lord?”
Mark considered his co-worker. If this was indeed the Apocalypse – which, well, it was – then he figured they were all in fact Damned, cast aside by a God that Mark had up until moments ago not believed in.
“Why am I still here?” Lucas asked. He pushed forward, elbowing Mark’s arm in the process. In the face of Armageddon, it seemed trivial and yet Mark couldn’t help but wonder if such an asshole act was the reason Lucas hadn’t been chosen to ascend.
The man’s horse jerked, pulling away from the window.
“Easy,” he said, balancing his cup level so nothing would spill from the lid. He ran a hand across the horse’s smooth fur. In the sunlight, the fur looked very shiny and attractive. But as the sun crept behind thick clouds the horse’s fur turned dirty and greasy.
“Why am I still here?!” Lucas yelled.
“Jesus Christ,” Mark said, rolling his eyes. Suddenly embarrassed, he turned to the horseman. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to use his name in vain or anything.”
The man’s thin dark lips cracked into a smile.
“Hardly necessary to apologize at this point.”
“Please,” Lucas said. He clutched his hands in a praying position, the way he’d most likely been taught as a child and had continued to use every Sunday of his life. “Please, tell me what I did wrong. I have to know!”
“I don’t know why you’re here,” the man said. Aimee and Mark pulled Lucas from the window; the man’s horse stepped closer. It was a nervous, fidgety horse, one Mark would have thought was hardly cut out for Armageddon, what with the screaming and suffering and all.
“I have to go,” Lucas said. He pulled away from Mark and Aimee and ran for the back door.
“That’s not a good idea,” the man said. “Death is still roaming these parts.”
“Killing one out of every four that remain?” Aimee said. “I remember that from Sunday school. God!” She grabbed her hair with both hands. “Why didn’t I fucking listen to my mom?”
“Didn’t do Lucas any good,” Mark said, turning back to the horseman. “Why do you think that is?”
The man shrugged and said, “I wasn’t given many explanations.”
“So what are you doing out here?” Mark asked.
“I’m Famine,” the man said. He sipped his espresso. “I wander around, and things die. I’ve got this, too.”
He raised his right hand. He was holding onto a golden scale, a balancing weight like the kind Mark remembered seeing on the statue of Justice on his family field trip to D.C.
“Don’t ask me what it does, though. I have no idea.”
“So we’re pretty much fucked,” Aimee said. Every breath came out quickly in the form of an incredulous scoff.
“Well, I won’t do anything,” Famine said. He sipped at the cup. “I’ll probably be back again for another drink. I miss caffeine. There’s no caffeine in Heaven.”
“You look like Houdini,” Mark said.
The man nodded and smiled.
“I saw him perform a show once, when I was alive. Right here in Wisconsin. Back then, all of this land along the lakeshore was prairie. You could go to the beach and see dozens of ships sailing toward Chicago.”
“So you were alive,” Mark said. “And God just picked you one day and said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna go back to earth and ride a horse.’”
The man chuckled. “Something along those lines.”
“This is incredible!” Mark said, laughing. “I mean, it sucks that we’re fucked, but that’s probably my fault. I never bought into the religion stuff.”
“What were you?” Aimee asked Famine.
The man frowned. It was a light frown, the inquisitive type that came from someone who’d accumulated bushels of patience during his life. Mark imagined he’d been the type of man who avoided the politics and land disputes and intolerance of his day in favor of something much more simple, like an afternoon with a good book.
“I mean,” Aimee said, “what was your religion?”
“Seventh-Day Adventist,” he responded.
“Of course,” said Aimee, snapping her fingers. “I’m a Lutheran. I knew I picked the wrong religion, I just knew it! Martin Luther was just too crazy to be right.”
Mark shrugged. “How could you have known?” Then he turned to Famine. “How could any of us have known? It was like a crapshoot. There’s a million religions.”
Famine shrugged. “You couldn’t. I was extremely lucky believing in what I did.”
“How could we have known which religion was right?” Aimee asked. She seemed to be asking everyone and no one.
Famine’s horse shifted feet, clamping one hoof hard on the concrete.
“I need to go,” said Famine. “Will you do me a favor? Stay open so I can get some more caffeine before this is all over? You’ll be safe as long as you stay inside.”
“What if the power goes out?” Mark asks.
“Just keep some coffee ready,” Famine said with a warm smile.
Mark watched him trot down the driveway, turning onto the street and kicking the horse into a full gallop. As it passed the row of houses leading south into the suburbs, the grass along the sidewalk on both sides of the two-lane street wrinkled and blackened like paper in a flame.
Mark and Aimee sat on the counter, the radio in the back room turned to 620 AM and broadcasting news of the carnage from around the world. None of the hard-right conservatives dominating the airwaves had ascended, it turned out, a fact that had shaken their otherwise stern voices so that every news item they read was peppered with wet hiccups and stifled sobs. A lot of people had simply disappeared, a lot more were rioting. Some had seen a man on a pale horse. They had seen him gliding between crowds of panicking people in crowded city streets, hacking at them with a long red blade. It was such a terrifying sight, the newscaster sputtered, that people were literally dying of fright.
“Dying of fright,” Aimee said. She’d begun washing dishes in the stainless steel sink for no reason in particular. “Do you really think that’s happening?”
“Of course not,” Mark said. “These radio jockeys made a living terrifying people with political theatrics and now they can’t turn it off. We’ll have to listen to the play-by-play of Armageddon from men who probably think they were left behind due to liberal bias.”
The doors to the store were locked. Lucas had gone, a long time ago, with no intention of coming back. The three black leather chairs in the café were empty. The silver cylindrical Regular and Decaf coffee urns sat on the counter, their one-hour timers reading zero. No point anymore in brewing any fresh pots. They had just one customer now, and he preferred espresso straight from the espresso machine.
Two hours passed. Mark wondered vaguely if any of the other horsemen had found a restaurant or bar that had appealed to them the same way the coffee shop appealed to Famine. Maybe Death was sitting in a pub somewhere, reminiscing about his life while his bloody sword rested against the barstool. Maybe Pestilence was sitting in a Burger King somewhere, gnawing on French fries while occasionally refilling his cup with various fountain sodas.
The headset rang again. Aimee flinched, then immediately stood up and went over the espresso machine to pour two fresh shots.
“Come on up,” Mark said into his headset. He didn’t need to check the TV screen—the quiet sigh of the horse was a dead giveaway.
Famine pulled up and politely waited for his espresso. He had a smearing of dark mud on his left cheek and his right shoulder slumped. Mark wondered how heavy the scales were, if they served any purpose at all. Perhaps God was just one of those guys who had a flair for dramatic imagery.
Mark opened the window.
“How’s the Apocalypse going?”
“As good as can be expected,” Famine said with a shrug. “I wander around, the trees and plants die. Sometimes people shoot at me but I don’t feel it. I admit I’m not quite sure what else I’m supposed to be doing.”
“No training course, huh?”
Famine shook his head. He watched Aimee set down the cup of espresso on the counter, then walk to the back room. “The young woman’s not taking it too well, is she?”
Mark shrugged and said, “Well, it does kind of suck.” He set the cup on the lip outside the window. “I mean, it’s even getting to me now. It’s all sinking in. Pretty scary, I guess.”
Famine smiled. “Just rolling with the punches, right?”
“More or less,” Mark said. He sighed. “So long as I don’t wonder where my family is. And all the crap that goes along with that.”
“My wife died of typhoid,” Famine said. “We came out to Wisconsin so I could work a factory job. Then Francine died, just like that.” He snapped his dry fingers. “Then the factory went on strike. Then the owners called for the National Guard. When we tried to walk into the factory, they shot at us. I took a bullet in my calf and couldn’t go back to work. I lay in bed for six days and couldn’t move. Then I died of infection. I never once prayed.”
“Maybe that’s why you got into Heaven,” Mark said. “Because of those six days. The suffering. Maybe it’s not about belief at all.”
“Could be. That’s the best theory I’ve heard yet.”
“No one knows?”
“God’s not the talkative type.”
“Boy,” Mark said, “this isn’t anything like what I expected. It all seems so melodramatic.”
Famine grunted but didn’t say anything. He sipped his espresso.
Mark stood at the window, staring at the dirty tile floor and thinking. Famine sipped his espresso. The power turned off and Mark felt his heart skip a beat. What would happen to them now? Had he outlived his usefulness?
“We have iced coffee,” he said. “It’s bold. You might like it. I mean, you don’t have to kill us or anything.”
“I’d love to try something else.”
“We have cookies, too. And scones.”
“I’ll come back,” Famine said. He looked up at the dark sky. “Until I hear otherwise.”
“Do you think there’s any point to all this?” Mark asked. “I mean, it just doesn’t seem like there’s any point.”
Famine seemed to think about it, sipping at the espresso until it was gone. He set the cup on the lip of the drive-thru window. The white cardboard had begun to decompose where his fingers had touched it.
“I don’t know,” he said simply.
“It’s as if God’s some middle-manager or something,” Mark said. “I mean, all he would really need to do is use his Divine Power to wipe us all out. Instead, he’s got this long, side-winding plan that seems designed to waste time.”
Famine sat and stared at the back of his horse’s head for a moment. Then he reached over with his right hand and set the scales down on the metal lip, knocking the cup onto the ground. It made a loud, heavy clang.
“I’m so tired of carrying this.”
“Can you help us?” Aimee asked over Mark’s shoulder. She’d been crying in the backroom and the make-up on her cheeks had begun to come apart in clumps from the salty tears. “I mean, is there anything we can do at this point?”
Famine looked at her and shook his head. He looked as if he truly cared, and Mark imagined him walking his horse across the park next to Lake Michigan, staring at every blade of grass that withered as he passed.
The horse clomped one hoof down on the concrete.
“It was nice to talk with you again,” Famine said.
“You too, dude.”
As Famine trotted down the driveway, Mark shut the drive-thru window and locked it. Outside, it had begun to smell like fire and rotting meat. Dark clouds hung above, uninterested in moving.
Aimee walked into the back room, crying once more. Mark followed her, afraid she might leave. Or something worse. There were knives used for cutting the onions they put in the breakfast omelets and, even though he didn’t think she’d go that far, the fact that it was the Apocalypse made everything seem possible.
“I want to go home,” she said.
Mark put his arm around her shoulder.
“Just stay here for awhile. Until it gets better out there.”
“Gets better?” she looked up. Her eyes were bloodshot but, even still, the blue in her irises dominated the room. Just yesterday those eyes had been responsible for bringing fifty dollars in tips. Mark always let her work the drive-thru window so they could get good tips.
“It’s never going to get any better!”
“Then just stay here for me,” Mark said. “Please. My parents live in Kentucky. I don’t have anyone to go home to.”
She closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest.
“God damn it. We don’t deserve this, do we? Do we deserve this?”
“No,” he said. He knew that was what she wanted to hear, and in her case he believed it. For himself, he wasn’t so sure. Was it enough to be a good person? If he said he believed in God, but did it only to avoid damnation, would that have been enough?
They had sex in the back room, next to the large stainless steel sink, on the black floor mat while the news radio host said a long, rambling prayer over the speaker system and begged God to take just a few more souls, preferably those of his family and perhaps himself if there was room. It was satisfying sex, the kind brought on by two animals who were deathly afraid that their genes wouldn’t get passed on. Neither of them were particularly attracted to each other. They were both slightly overweight, with bland faces and a pair of birthday suits that could have used a good ironing. They kept their headsets on the entire time, in case Famine returned.
When they were done, they both felt slightly better—even if the feelings were purely chemical in nature—and brought the Jenga box over to the front counter. They stacked twenty-four stories before it fell and left the wooden bricks scattered on the counter. They shared a large chocolate chip cookie, the ones they occasionally munched on during their long morning shifts, and, for a few seconds, they forgot everything.
“What if he doesn’t come back?” Aimee asked. It was their fifth game of Jenga and the tower was twenty stories high. “Is he sticking around or does he go back to Heaven?”
Mark shrugged, spinning one of the Jenga blocks between his fingers.
“I never read the Book of Revelation.”
“I don’t know anything,” she said.
Mark placed his block on the top layer and the tower wobbled slightly.
“It all seems so ridiculous.”
The drive through rang and they heard the clomping of horse hooves. Famine guided his horse forward without speaking into the speaker box. As he approached the window, Mark could see that his shoulders were sloping low, his head hung down and the hood drawn loosely over. Even the horse seemed to be slouching, sighing every few breaths through its loose cheeks.
“How’s the Apocalypse business?” Mark asked. The scales were still sitting on the metal lip—they’d been afraid to move them.
“I’m tired,” Famine said quietly. He drew back his hood, looking Mark in the eyes for the first time. He had light brown eyes with just a hint of green and thin eyebrows.
“Listen,” Mark said. Behind him, Aimee was pouring a cup of iced coffee. “We don’t know what to do.”
“Neither do I,” Famine muttered. The horse impatiently shifted legs, sighing again. “When I was alive, I used to love taking a carriage into the country. My wife and I would spent the entire afternoon inside sprawling forests and I remember taking deep breaths through my nose because I loved the bouquet of scents. Now everywhere I go, the earth dies.”
Aimee set the cup of coffee down on the lip.
Famine reached out and grabbed the iced coffee. He took a sip through the straw and let the liquid in his mouth a long time before swallowing.
“This is my last drink here. I have to go to Israel.”
Mark nodded. They’d been living on pastries for the past twenty hours. His hair was greasy and his skin felt dirty.
“We’ll have to leave this place, I guess.”
“Why?” Famine asked. He took another sip. “Why not just sit right here for awhile? Don’t go out there. Sit right here until everything is settled. You seem like good people.”
Mark smiled, slightly forced.
“I don’t think I can eat any more coffee cakes.”
“My name was Timothy when I was alive. I appreciate your friendliness.”
“Good luck with the rest of it, Timothy,” Mark said. He gave a little wave as the Horseman of the Apocalypse trotted off.
“Let’s wait,” Aimee said. “I don’t know why I ever wanted to leave anyway. My friends are probably dead or gone. My parents are probably dead or gone. Running around won’t change that.”
Mark nodded, looking at her. He thought she looked strong. It gave him hope that maybe something would happen, that all of this would finally make sense.
He grabbed the Jenga blocks and started stacking them, his back to the window. Outside, the low-hanging black clouds began to release thick droplets of rain.
KEN BROSKY received his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska. He’s currently putting the finishing touches on a humor novel, a speculative novel, a mystery novel, and a short story collection.