Second Place Winner: RE: 2021 Status Meeting By Isabelle Cai
RE: 2021 Status Meeting
By Isabelle Cai
He peers up at the clock on the wall, the dark, ticking hands staring back at him almost tauntingly as he narrows his eyes. Lowering his chin, he sweeps his gaze across the office, eyeing the two filled seats before stopping on the empty chair sitting askew next to the door. He stares for a moment longer, sucks in a breath, then sighs, resisting the urge to slam his head into his desk and groan.
He cannot wait any longer—after all, Death waits for no one.
Reaching up to tighten the emerald green tie hanging around his neck, he clears his throat and plasters a bright smile onto his face.
“Good morning, everyone,” he chirps, clasping his hands together. “I’m glad you could all make it.” He pauses for a split second. “Or at least two of you.”
The words have barely left his mouth when the figure dressed in white speaks.
“Blah, blah, blah,” he huffs. “Stop with all the small talk, Death. It’s boring.” He waves his hand dismissively at him, his polished ivory nails flashing beneath the fluorescent office lights. “Just get on with it.”
Death’s smile falters the tiniest bit. His eyes dart to the figure to the left, clad in a pristine black suit, not a single thread out of place. Dark eyes blink back at him indifferently, and Death sighs, a new smile spreading across his face.
“Look, Pestilence,” he says calmly, not at all missing the way Pestilence scowls at him, “I was going to wait until everyone was here—”
He eyes the empty chair, again.
“—but I suppose not.”
He coughs into his fist, then continues. “Anyways,” he says, “I’m sure you both know what today’s meeting is about—”
“We don’t,” Pestilence says, picking at his nails.
“—since I know you all read my emails—”
“Not at all,” Pestilence says, humming distractedly.
“—all the time.”
Pestilence doesn’t look up from his hand. “Literally never.”
Death’s fingers curl into the wood of his desk, his nails scraping against the clean, polished surface. He’s quite certain he could pierce the top using only his nails if he truly desired. But the desk is made of mahogany, and he’s grown quite fond of the particular way his drawers creak, so instead, he simply leans forward and places his elbows on top of it, his chin resting atop his interlaced fingers.
“Sometimes,” he says slowly, drawing out each syllable with a sweet lilt, “you guys make my life so much more difficult.” He shoots a glare across the room. “Especially you, Pestilence.”
Pestilence’s head shoots up like a bullet. “Me?” he gasps, pressing his hand to his chest. A sickly sweet smile graces his lips. “I would never.”
“No,” Death says, returning his smile with a polite one of his own, “you would.”
Pestilence chuckles, and it is a quiet, grating sound. “You’re right. Anyways,” he hums, “what did I do wrong this time?”
Death grins like a reaper. “That’s what we’re about to discuss today. I am demandi—” He clears his throat, again. “Ahem, I mean to say that I am kindly asking you to shut down project COVID-19.”
Pestilence’s fingers freeze. “You’re kidding,” he says.
“I am not,” Death affirms.
His jaw drops wide open and he leans so far forward that Death distantly thinks he is going to fall right out of his seat. “You actually want me to stop little ol’ Corona? My precious? And what for?”
Now, it is Death’s turn to gape, and his hands drop to his desk with a thud. “What for?” he repeats, his lips twisting upward into a menacing grin. “What for?”
He laughs, but the sound rings dry and hollow within his chest. A few moments later, the smile drops off his face, almost as though it had never been there in the first place.
“I’m asking,” he says darkly, “because it is adding so much more work to my day!”
He taps his finger against his arm, quickly yet calculated. “Death rates went down thanks to modern medicine, but your virus is making them go back up again and my department is not adjusting as well as you may think. Even if we may have done so historically, we were not expecting this.”
Pestilence blinks at him once, then scoffs, slumping back into his chair. “Oh, so what? Who cares about a little extra work?” he mutters, kicking at the ornate rug. “At least it gives you something to do.”
Death can feel his patience wearing thinner by the second. Digging his heels into the floorboards, he calmly raises his head, his posture going stiff as he opens his mouth once more.
“In a year,” he grits out between clenched teeth, “I typically fill out paperwork for about fifty-five million human deaths, give or take. However, in just the past year, you’ve added nearly three million deaths to that total.”
Pestilence cocks his head at him, eyebrows raised as an unimpressed gleam flickers across his face. “And?” he says. “Am I supposed to care?” A crooked smile tugs at the corners of his lips. “Seriously, you're such a party pooper—it’s only one little virus. Don’t something like...”
He gestures vaguely.
“...nineteen million people die of cardiovascular disease in a year? Three million is nothing compared to that.”
“You say that as if three million is some insignificant number,” Death shoots back. “Today alone, it’s already killed nine thousand more people! That’s nine thousand more files to fill out!” He gestures to the stack of paper sitting on the corner of his desk—only one of thousands more. “Every new death COVID is another new paper that I don’t want to fill out.”
Pestilence pauses for a moment, then raises a finger. “Strokes kill nearly five million people per year.”
Death is nearly at his wit’s end. “Pestilence,” he says again, slower this time, “COVID-19 has killed three million people.”
Pestilence groans, rolling his eyes as he crosses his legs. “I know,” he scoffs, “you keep saying tha—”
“Three million deaths may come from your precious little Corona,” Death spits, slamming his hand into his desk, “but that doesn’t include Coronavirus-related suicides.”
Pestilence’s shoulders go slack. “Oh.”
The sigh that escapes Death’s lips is long and heavy as he sinks against the back of his chair, sliding a hand down the side of his face. “I can’t even begin to figure out how many people have taken their own lives because of all the lockdowns and isolation and jobs lost and fear and...”
He trails off, reaching over to grab a viridian green pen from the side of his desk and twirling it between his fingers. “My department has to track down those numbers ourselves, and it’s difficult to keep track like this, you know?”
Pestilence shrugs, kicking his legs. “Not really, if I’m being honest.”
Death bites his tongue for a second, exhaling sharply before his fingers go still and the pen comes to a halt in his hands.
“My point is,” he says, “you either need to tone it down a little, or just cancel the project entirely. It’s taking a huge toll on my schedule, and we are not keeping up. There are simply far too many papers we have to dig out and fill because of it.”
Pestilence looks like he’s just been told to eat out of a dumpster. “You can’t just tell me to shut it down!” he says in disgust. “That’s just... no!” He crosses his arms over his chest, raising his chin. “Corona is my newest pride and joy since, oh, I dunno… 1918? She is my baby, and I am not giving her up so easily.”
Death doesn’t hesitate for even a second. “Then just turn it down a few notches,” he says immediately. “It can’t be that hard.”
At that, Pestilence stares at him for an achingly slow minute, almost as if he were staring at a madman. Then, his lips peel back to reveal a pearly white grin, peals of laughter bubbling up in the back of his throat before tumbling from his lips.
“Are you kidding me?” he breathes between fits of giggles. “You think toning it down will actually make a difference, let alone help?”
Death’s frown deepens, and he grimaces. “This is no laughing matter, Pestilence.”
Pestilence cackles a fraction louder, probably just to spite him, Death thinks. Wiping a tear from his eye, Pestilence throws one arm over the back of his chair and flashes him a sardonic smile.
“That’s what you think, Mr. Grim Reaper,” he hums, wagging a finger at him, “but you’d be surprised to learn that you’re wrong. They just make it too easy for me!”
He reaches down to loosen his porcelain white tie, crossing his legs over each other. “Come on, just think about all those humans.” He raises his hand, counting off his fingers as he opens his mouth. “They don’t use hand sanitizer because they think it smells weird, they throw parties and gatherings, they actually hug when they see each other, and I don’t even know how to describe to you just how many people don’t seem to know what two metres looks like. It doesn’t even matter how many bylaws governments will enforce—humans are extraordinarily bad at following instructions.”
He blinks, and his grin widens. “Oh, and the masks! Or should I say, the lack thereof. People don’t wear them because they think they’re annoying, or hard to breathe in, or unpatriotic, or unfashionable, or whatever other dumb excuse they’ll find. Some people just take them off whenever they feel like it. Plus, humans just love to cough all over the place, spreading my project everywhere they go without so much as a blink of an eye.”
Death swallows, his brows knitting together into a dubious look. He half-hopes that Pestilence is lying—surely humanity had not stooped so low as to actively choose to ignore one of the best preventative measures against COVID-19. Then again, Pestilence is not the type to lie, despite how flamboyant and naïve he may be.
“That reminds me,” Pestilence suddenly adds, sitting up straighter in his seat, “I haven’t even talked about the people who don’t even actually believe in Corona.” His lips curl into a scowl. “Like, please. Back in the day, a doctor would tell people to drink clean water so they wouldn’t get cholera and they would just do it! But now, some people still think it’s a hoax, and they actually have medicine.”
The sigh he lets out makes it seem as though he had never been more offended in his life, and he flings his arms into the air with splayed fingers. “Can you believe that?” he shouts, shaking his head in disbelief. “They have no idea just how much work it took for me to find a new, interesting way to infiltrate and attack the human lung. Sure, there might be some people who are making vaccines, but other people just straight up refuse them even when the easy way out is right there! It’s like they don’t even appreciate my craft. It’s just preposterous.”
When Death only stares back at him blankly, Pestilence’s face slowly returns to a calmer, curiouser state. “Have you even left your office and seen it all?” he finally asks, eyes wide and blinking.
Death presses his lips into a thin line. “No, because someone is making me stay later and later to finish my paperwork.”
Pestilence tucks a hand under his chin and croons, “Aw, I wonder who.” Only a stern look returns his playful gaze, and he lets his smile fade, rolling his eyes yet again.
“You tell me to shut it down or tone it down,” he drawls, boredom soaking into every letter, “but I’m telling you that it’s kind of hard to do either, so I’d rather do none of them. It’s not my fault humans make it so easy. Besides,” he adds, his lips quirking upward, “when’s the last time we had a fun, history-changing epidemic? I know there was SARS a couple years ago, and the Spanish flu—oh, that one was good. But I don’t know if anything will ever top the Black Death.” He sighs, smiling wistfully in an almost nostalgic, dreamlike haze. “She was my magnum opus, my chef-d’oeuvre, really. I miss her.”
Death blanches. “Do not,” he says abruptly, “remind me about the Black Death. I don’t think I slept for nearly a decade during those dark days.”
Pestilence pouts, his lower lip quivering with feigned hurt. “But I named that one after you.” “That does not cut it,” Death growls. “And stop distracting me!”
He doesn’t miss the way a tiny, triumphant grin flickers across Pestilence’s face—one that he so desperately wants to smack right off. Pointing a finger at him, he frowns, again.
“A spike in deaths like this doesn’t happen often, and COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. You’re just doing...” Death presses his tongue to the roof of his mouth, pondering for a second. “Too much.”
All of a sudden, the loud scraping of metal against wood fills the room as a chair is pushed back, and Death lifts his head to come eye-to-eye with the man clad in black, who had been silent up until this point.
“Too much?” he whispers so quietly that Death almost misses it. “You think that Pestilence is doing too much?” He pokes a finger into his own chest, the dark fabric of his suit rippling at the pressure. “What about me?” he shouts, each word rising higher and higher. “My work helps kill nearly nine million people per year, but you think Pestilence is the one who’s doing too much?”
Death reaches up and pinches the bridge of his nose, his mouth twitching downward. “Famine, you know that’s not what I meant.”
Famine glowers at him, unconvinced. “Then what did you mean?”
Death opens his mouth, but nothing comes out for a few seconds. That is more than enough time for Famine to shout, again. “See? It’s always Pestilence this and Pestilence that.” His voice comes out mocking and sarcastic as he bats his eyelashes, mimicking Pestilence’s voice. A split second later, his plastic smile melts away, leaving behind a puddle of rage. “What about all the work that I do?”
Death’s gaze is trained on Famine’s narrowed, pitch-black eyes, looking so dark that they may just devour the planet whole. “Do you want me to yell at you too, Famine?” he says at last. “Is that what you’re saying?”
Famine flinches, curling slightly inward as he meekly slinks back into his seat, the heels of his boots knocking together. “No?” he offers, uncertainty creeping onto his face. “Maybe. Yes?” He bends over, resting his elbows on his knees as he hangs his head in his hands, groaning. “Ugh. I don’t know.”
He pushes his thumb into the side of his cheek and lets one hand gesture freely in the air, the other still pressed to his face. “I just feel like I don’t get enough recognition around here. Like, I come in and ruin people’s water supplies or all their farmland, and people hardly even bat an eye.”
He casts a glance up at Death, a certain melancholy swirling deep within his gaze. “It’s so demoralizing.”
Death takes in Famine’s dispirited demeanour, eyeing the now rumpled lapel of his pressed, ebony suit and the way he almost seems to fold into himself in desperation. He rolls his office chair a little closer to his desk, lying his palm flat atop the wood.
“Well, Famine,” he begins, a certain gentleness seeping between his vowels, “even if we don’t say it very often, we want you to know that your work is very much appreciated. Your work ethic is impeccable, and your dedication doesn’t go entirely unnoticed.”
Famine glances down again at his shoes, frowning at a small scratch on the toe cap. Suddenly, a white shoe pokes at his own, pristine, spotless soles nudging at his own. Famine’s brows furrow together as he turns, a grinning, pallid face gazing back at him.
“Chin up, Famine,” Pestilence chirps, running his painted nails along the side of the chair. “While I may be the most extravagant, you put me to shame in numbers and consistency. Just what would humanity do without you?”
Famine lets his hand fall from his face. “Feast?” he offers.
Pestilence blinks once, then chuckles, mischief dancing on his lips. “Oh, that’s just cruel of you to say.”
Famine smiles a little, but the smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I just... I wish they at least thought about me a little more.” He taps his foot against the rug. “Right now, I’m not just running the famine in Yemen, but also the one in South Sudan, and I’m still making hunger rates in countries like Chad and Haiti. Yet I still get barely anyone saying that it’s awful or a travesty.” Slouching forward slightly, he grumbles, “People just don’t really care about famines anymore, I guess.”
He pauses, wrinkling his nose. “I mean, there were those few days where people would post all over their social media with help links or whatever, but that kind of stuff lasts a day at most, maybe two if they’re lucky. Heck, I don’t even know if they’re posting about it because they actually care or if they just want attention. It’s not like anyone will bother to point it out, anyways.” He flips his hand with a deep-set frown, scoffing. “It’s almost like I’m not starving millions of people every single day, like, c’mon. Do I need to start starving the entire planet for them to notice? Even War gets more credit than I do.”
Death’s gaze darts back to the clock on the wall. “Speaking of War,” he says, “where is h—”
Just then, the office door swings open with a creak, the golden handle ramming into the opposite wall with a deafening slam. Famine leaps in his seat as he whirls while Pestilence cringes at the harsh noise. Death merely blinks at the tall, looming man standing in the doorway. A scarlet, Hawaiian print shirt hangs off his large, scarred frame, and his crimson flip-flops snap against his heels as he ducks into the room.
“Hey, guys,” says War.
Death does not bother to offer him a smile. “You’re late.”
An apologetic smile stretches across War’s face as he pushes the door closed behind him and sidles up behind the empty chair. He doesn’t sit in it, but rather chooses to rest his hand atop the backrest. “I know, I’m sorry. I just got back from vacation, and I’m still not used to waking up early again.”
Death stares at him, then sighs. “Well,” he says, “I guess I’ll just tell you about the meeting since apparently, no one ever reads my emai—”
“I read it,” War says.
Death stops, his lips parted in surprise. “You did?”
War bobs his head, shrugging. “Yeah. I didn’t really have much to do, and I figured cleaning out my inbox might be productive.”
Death blinks, his lips quirking the tiniest bit. “Huh. That’s actually nice to hear. Well,” he says, “in that case, is there anything you want to add to our discussion?”
War drums his fingers along the backrest for a moment, shoving one hand into the pocket of his khaki shorts as he leans back to rest his weight on one foot. “Not really,” he says at last, “but I do have a request to ask of you.”
Death leans forward, a tiny ember of expectation floating aimlessly within his chest. “Go on.” An eager look flashes across War’s face. “I want to do another big project, again.”
In an instant, any joy that Death had garnered from War’s entrance is extinguished, and his smile is replaced by a firm, straight line.
“War,” he says slowly, “I think we can safely say that you had more than enough big projects in the 20th century.”
In his chair, Famine mutters under his breath, bitterness lacing his voice. “Yeah, talk about a show off. You got all the glory and monuments for it, too.”
War doesn’t seem to hear him, or at least pretends not to. “But Pestilence is always working on new projects.”
“Typically without permission,” Death points out, “but yes.”
Pestilence gasps and stomps his foot. “I get permission!”
Death cocks a brow at him. “From who?”
His lips curl up into a simper. “Myself.”
Before Death can even think about throwing himself out the window, War speaks up again. “Please,” he says, “can I have another big project? I miss working on those.” He slaps a hand over his chest, his palm pressed flat against the space over his heart. “You know I always deliver.”
Death does not budge, his face stony and hardened. “I’ve already given you so many smaller ones. You have a ton of conflicts happening all over the world right now, most of which you’ve been running for years. I can name three right now without even having to think about it.” He lifts three fingers. “The Syrian Civil War, the Tigray War, and the Persian Gulf Crisis. All of those have killed around or at least a thousand people each in the past year alone.” He folds his hands back into his lap. “Aren’t you already working on something like sixty ongoing armed conflicts, anyways? Why can’t you just live with those?”
War snaps his flip-flops against his heel again, as he lets out a whine, throwing his head back. “But no one cares about those ones. Or at least no one’s talking about them.”
He places a hand on his hip, a thoughtful expression slipping into his rugged features. “I want big,” he says. “Grand. Global. Historical.”
He goes still for a moment. Then, something sparks within his eyes, and a wide eager grin is spreading across his face. “Oh,” he breathes. “Oh. What if—”
Death can already feel the horror rising in his throat. “No.”
“What if,” War repeats, “we had another World War?”
Death has never wanted to retire more in his life.
“A world war?” Pestilence parrots, curiosity flitting across his dewy-eyed expression. “That I can get behind. It’s not like it would even be difficult to get them fighting. Just tug on a few alliances and then, boom!” He sighs, a cloudy haze of memory passing over his face. “Oh, I remember spreading trench fever like it was just yesterday. Those were good days.” His lips twitch. “I’m totally in.”
“Me, too,” Famine pipes up, the resentment of his tone now coated with a thorough layer of interest. “I got to introduce seven famines after the last World War.” His smile is sentimental as he shoots Pestilence a hopeful look. “After all, Word Wars are group projects, and you know that we all work great together.”
Death bites back the dagger sharp retort sitting on the tip of his tongue. “No, no, and no. You know we almost had one in January of 2020. That,” he says, “was a close call.”
“And it shouldn't have been just a close call!” War shouts, his fingers digging into the plush, cushioned chair. “We should have let it happen for real.” He lets his hand run over a faint scar decorating his arm and grins. “I miss my golden years, and I want to bring them back.”
Pestilence hisses, getting to his feet. “You just want to hog the spotlight again, don’t you? I’m thinking that it should be my turn, this time.”
Famine is standing in an instant, shoving an accusatory finger in Pestilence’s face. “You act like it isn’t your turn, right now! I want the spotlight, for once. It’s always one of you two—Famine is important, too!”
“Please,” Pestilence grumbles, batting Famine’s hand away from his face, “people notice you.” “Not enough people!”
“Come on,” War says once more. “Just let us have another World Wa—”
A hush falls over the office as Death’s piercing shout echoes off the walls. War goes stock still where he stands, Famine is frozen, and the constantly chattering Pestilence falls silent. Death’s chest heaves as he pushes back his office chair and rises to his feet, seething.
“I called this meeting so that we could address the issue at hand,” he says in a deathly low voice, “not to hold a complaint party.”
A brief moment passes, and the three others cast doubtful glances at one another before War is quietly raising his hand. “But isn’t everything we’re talking about technically an issue?” he offers. “It’s not like our projects don’t exist just because COVID-19 is taking centre stage, right now.”
Death smiles, but it is vacant. “I know that,” he says. “I know that very well. After all, I’m the one who has to file all the paperwork and write all of the reports to detail the impacts of all your projects. Believe me when I say I understand.”
Famine gulps, possibly out of nervousness. Death’s smile widens at the sight. Stepping out from around his desk, he strides over to the other side of the office, stopping only when he is standing directly in front of the three of them.
“I know you all want a chance to leave your mark on human history again,” he says, “just like you’ve all done before.”
His feet move to mirror a pair of carmine flip-flops. “War, your conflicts are still just as bloody and brutal as they were in the past, even if they are not on the same scale. But that was not the point of today’s meeting.” He cocks his head. “You read the email, no?”
War nods, shame colouring his cheeks as Death turns away, onyx black peering back at him. “Famine, your work is excellent in its conception and brilliant in its execution. People should be thinking about you more often.” He smiles almost kindly, but not quite. “But that’s still not what we are here to discuss.”
He shifts once more until he is facing a set of painted ivory nails. “Pestilence” he says, enjoying the flash of fear that fills his eyes, “I said it before and I will say it again—please shut down your project. Humanity and history are going to remember it. However, my staff would much rather not.”
Pestilence’s lips slowly curl up into a wobbly smile, and he takes a single step back. “Actually,” he says shakily, “I, um, I’m not a hundred percent sure I can do that, right now.”
Death goes very still. “What.”
“Well,” Pestilence drawls out ever so carefully, “you see, there’s one tiny, minuscule detail that I left out.”
Death does not move.
A mixture of panic and excitement soak into Pestilence’s tone as he continues. “So, I—uh—I recently released a new variant of Corona, just to see how she would hold up on Earth, and guess what?” His grin trembles a fraction less. “She’s way more infectious, way more lethal, and she also targets younger people. That means now it’s not just the elderly who are dying! Humanity hasn’t come up with a vaccine for her yet either, so I can’t exactly recall her, but she’s widening the target demographic a whole bunch.” He claps his hands together, sounding far, far too cheerful. “Isn’t that exciting?”
The office is dead silent, the only sound being Pestilence’s small applause that hardly makes a dent in the overwhelming silence of the room. Famine swallows again, the tension tasting like ash in his mouth.
“All of you,” Death suddenly whispers, “get out.”
Pestilence’s face falls. “Wait, wh—”
“I said,” he says, louder this time, “get out.”
He need not speak again. In a rush of clattering shoe soles, the three men are pushing one another out of the office, War waving one last time before closing the door with a gentle click. Death stands for a moment longer, his gaze practically boring a hole through the closed door.
He takes a deep breath. And another.
Then, he is turning on his heel and sliding back into his chair, opening up his laptop with a focused look. With one hand on the cursor and the other reaching for his viridian pen, he opens his email and clicks on the compose button, but not before he finds himself peering back up at the clock on the wall.
It looks like he is going to have to schedule another, more formal meeting—one that hopefully turns out to be more productive than the last.
He can only hope that they will actually read his email.