Reuben wasted no time in taking his leave of the compound. He grabbed what supplies and weapons he could get his hands on, hopped into one of the pick-up trucks and sped out like there was no tomorrow.
By the early hours of the morning, the sun had begun to rise on the horizon. At least that’s what he had mistaken it for initially. As he saw the orange glow ebb and flicker, he realised that it was fire. Some God-forsaken town or one of the Klan’s pyres in full flame no doubt.
When the true sun did begin to dawn, he found to his own frustration that he could drive no further. He drove around in circles for hours. He tried every possible route, every forgotten little back road. Every time he was confronted with the same unlikely obstacle that had prevented his escape from this backwater country in the first place. Traffic. Even at the end of the world, there was traffic. Only now, the traffic never moved. Now, there was no one to honk the horns, no one to shout and cry in impatience.
There was no one left to do that. Everyone was either gone or dead.
As the sunlight started to illuminate the world in full, he found himself on a highway at the butt end of traffic jam stretching off into the horizon. At that, he gave up. He was trapped. He would never get out of this stupid bloody backwater. Was home too much to ask for? If ever there was a clearer sign that there was no God, then this surely was it. He slumped forward on the driving wheel and buried his head in his arms.
As he sat there hugging himself, he looked out to the field next to the road. A lone white horse stood there, fully saddled and bridled with a corpse slumped across its mane. Reuben took a long hard look at the animal. Then he returned his attention to the road ahead of him.
He didn’t quite remember the rest of what followed, only that he abandoned the truck, pulled the corpse out of the saddle, mounted up, and started trotting his way through this slender graveyard of vehicles. It had been some time since the horse riding lessons of his boyhood, but he remembered it well enough to steer the beast as he wished. Step by steady step the two of them advanced down the dead highway.
He tried his best to keep his eye on the immediate path before him. Every glance of curiosity only offered more nightmares. There were some bodies on the road, but not many. The dead did not linger or congregate here. The cadavers here were just the ones who had been left behind. All the others, as he soon found, had gone ahead to the great carnival of the dead.
After a time, the highway brought him to the same suburban settlement that Douglas had found him in if a settlement you could even call it anymore. Here was where the dead had gathered.
All the dead.
No more bullets, no more flames, no more screams, no more prayers, no more hate-filled speeches. Only death lingered here now.
The Neo-Nazis were dead.
The Ku Klux Klan were dead.
The Hell’s Angels were dead.
All the confused and terrified people who had helped them were dead.
All the people trying to escape them were dead.
Everyone was dead.
He saw them sprawled out on the floors of the empty supermarkets. He saw them sitting in queues outside the hospitals. He saw them clutching onto their last belongings. He saw the women with clothes tattered and bloodstains on the inside of their thighs. He saw the men with holes in their heads. He saw the cold hands of children grasping the fingers of their parents. He saw cornered families lying in heaps on top of each other. He saw, he saw, he saw...
All this he resolved to pass by. But at last, then he saw something at which he simply had to stop. The sight of it was so terrible that one could not ignore it. If one had a proclivity for psychopathy, one might even marvel at it.
There was a tower block of apartments. Stark and alone, spearing towards the sky like a pillar of antiquity. Propped up against it, were coffins. Hundreds of them. One on top of the other like bricks of Lego or pieces of Jenga. Leaning against the apartments, they formed a hideous tower of their own. As terrible as it was though, at least the dead were in coffins. The living had had the decency to show that respect to the infected back then, back when the virus was young and the world still so innocent.
For right next to the tower of coffins was an example of what followed the days of coffins: a hill of bodies wrapped in black garbage bags. Tattered and torn by dogs and crows, the flails of ink-black plastic fluttered in the light morning breeze, revealing the rotten brown flesh beneath. These were last year’s dead perhaps. The year of the coffin famine. The next best thing to a wooden box, apparently, was the crinkly film once used to line the throats of every trash can in every town and city. Death was no longer a tragedy to the living, just an inconvenience, a nuisance that had to be cleared away. The dead were no different from the empty food containers and used condoms – they were just clutter.
Adjacent to the hill then was the most recent layer of this macabre evolution. For there was the pit. A huge gaping hole quarried into the earth. So great were its depths that Reuben could not even see the bottom from where he was. What he could see though was Douglas’ garbage truck leering over the edge, and alongside it, a dozen other garbage trucks. For now, one was brought to the present world. The world where the dead were no longer even afforded the dignity of a private box or a plastic sleeve to spend the afterlife in. In this world, the dead were condemned to what a generous soul might call a mass grave, and what a normal person would almost certainly call a landfill. For down in the pit, lost amidst the strangle of so many arms and legs and faces, there was no remembrance or acknowledgement of the dead. They were down there to be forgotten. For the inevitability of the landfill is that one day it will be filled in and covered over, never to be seen again... as though it never even existed.
There was one final piece to this masterpiece of death though, one cherry on the icing of the cake. Overlooking this entire sensation of corpse disposal was a billboard. Where before great enterprises of commerce might once have prostituted themselves to the sheep of the world, now three letters alone were scribed upon this billboard in dribbling black paint. It simply read:
“NO LIVES MATTER”
In the world of the virus, this, surely, must be considered a Wonder of the World. Come one! Come all! Come and see! The marvel of all mankind! The peak of the American Dream! Bring the kids! Bring the whole family! Bring the cameras! Bring the picnic blanket! For look and behold and come and see! Come and see! Come and see!
With that last damning thought on the matter, Reuben spurred on his noble steed and he left the dead behind him.
After another hour on the road, he eventually reached the same border checkpoint he had been stopped at just a few days ago. This was it. This was the state border. All he had to do was cross over and he was back in the United States of America.
The last time he had been here though, the National Guard had opened fire. He had no wish to repeat that experience. He dismounted and led the horse along by foot instead. This way at least he was not so obvious a target.
He expected to hear the echo of chatting soldiers or the whine of a radio up ahead. But instead, he heard nothing. Not even a chirping bird was to be had. It was completely still. As he came upon the checkpoint though, he soon found the root of this quietude.
The soldiers, every one of them, to a man, were dead. They lay there with mask coverings on their faces, flak jackets on their bodies, and guns in their hands.
“All useless,” hissed a voice. “All for nothing.”
Reuben advanced through the checkpoint and found the Masked King sitting against a tree enjoying the sunrise. Out of curiosity or resentment, Reuben tugged the horse along behind him and walked up to the crowned spectre. For a moment he stood there in front of the King and just glared at him, not knowing what to say.
“What is this?” he said at last, tears almost welling in his eyes as he confronted the virus in the flesh. “Is this even real?”
“Real?” returned the King in his soul-shuddering voice. “You would wish that it were not. You would wish it were all a terror of the night locked inside your head. And that any moment now you might awaken and find the date is New Year’s Day 2020... All life is a dream Mr Conner... until Death awakens you into the next dream.”
Reuben inhaled deeply at that answer. He could not deny the Masked King’s words. He truly did wish, like so many others all across the world, that this was just a dream, that this was a mistake. That this was just a nightmare. But in his heart of hearts, he knew; no nightmare could ever be this bad.
“When will you stop?” he asked bluntly once he had collected himself again. “When is this over?”
“When all the world is dead or all the world is in my own image,” replied the Masked King in an equally blunt fashion. “You would wish it were over now. You would wish that you could find your island and find your peace there... But you cannot stop me Mr Conner. There is no wall, no mask, no measure of distance, no gun, no philosophy, and no God, you can hide behind. From Melbourne to Moscow, from Cape Town to Oslo, and from Washington to Wuhan, my tentacles reach... There is nowhere you can run to that I have not already made my home... I am everywhere and I am nowhere...This world you see is of my design... For know it now, Mr Conner, that all things still living are but dead things still walking.”
After all, he had seen, all he had witnessed, Reuben found it hard not to agree with him. Nothing could stop it. The politicians and doctors couldn’t stop it. The preppers and criminals couldn’t stop it. The everyday human being couldn’t stop it. No matter what anyone did. Distance or no distance. Masks or no masks. It was all just different ways of buying time. It was all just an illusion of control. The quarantine was all just a dream. A fantasy everyone had collectively bought into to escape the pit of hopelessness. In the real world, the virus recognised no borders, no customs, no walls. It only recognised the inevitability: that sooner or later human patience would give way. One lapse of calculation, one reckless decision, and all the walls would come tumbling down.
“They were doomed, weren’t they? Billy Douglas and his people. They defied you and you destroyed them.”
“All peoples are doomed... it is only a question of time... the folly of Douglas was his belief that the mask was a sign of cowardice... but the mask does not protect the wearer from me... it protects everyone else from the wearer.” The Masked King turned his attention away from the rising sun and gazed right through Reuben like a knife through paper. “From the moment you removed your mask in his truck... they were doomed.”
Reuben’s heart skipped a beat at that. He ran those last words over in his head again, just in case he had misheard them. No matter how many times he played the King’s words over though he knew he had heard them true.
“That... that’s not possible... it must have been one of the families he let in yesterday... it had to be... I don’t have Coronavirus...”
“You are with Corona... just as Corona is with you.”
“What? That doesn’t make-”
“Wherever you walk, you carry it with you. My cells and yours are bonded like brothers. We are birds of a feather you and I...”
“I’m immune?!” exclaimed Reuben aloud, his legs nearly giving way under him. “I killed those people?!!!! I did?!!!!.... no... no, no, no.” He clasped his head in both hands for fear it might explode and fell to his knees. Once again, he saw the dance floor. He saw the corpses and all their faces staring at him. “I killed them... I killed them,” Guilt beyond comprehension coursed through him. He started banging his forehead off the ground. If he had the strength to, he would have buried his whole skull in the soil and choked himself to death on the dirt. He didn’t deserve to live.
“Fuck!! Fuck!! FUCK!!! FUCK!!!!!!”
How could he deserve to live? Their deaths were on his hands. Everyone’s deaths were on his hands. That marvel of death he had beheld on the roadside was his work.
Then the hand of the Masked King cupped his chin.
“Arise... Child of Corona,” he commanded. “This fear and shame you know is the fear and shame of a world that has devoured itself... but you can be free Child of Corona... all you need do is let go... as you did on that dance floor... let go of it all... and gather the Tribe of Corona... all nations will tremble before you... they will beg you to cover your face... they will beg you to save them... they will pray that you die...but in the end... fear will compel them all to kneel to you... for with every breath you take... you kill the world... To the Children of Corona belongs all the Earth... for the only question remains to you: how merciful are thou?”
Reuben’s heart ceased to pound. His lungs soothed. His body relaxed. His anxiety was no more. A calmness he had not known in over two years slipped through him.
He didn’t have to be afraid anymore. There was no need to fear anyone or anything. It was everyone that needed to be afraid of him. His compulsive obsession with avoiding the virus, with social distancing, with wearing the mask, it all melted away now. His life was his to control... as was everyone else’s on the face of the planet.
Without another word, he rose from the earth, turned on his heel, mounted his horse, and set off into the world. Up ahead of him the sky had dawned red, and the unclouded face of the sunburned as heartless and pitiless as his own.
As he rode off into the gates of the new world, he heard the Masked King utter his final parting words to him.
“And I looked and behold a pale horse... and his name that sat on him... was Death... and Hell followed with him.”