by Michelle Muenzler
The gray man and his gray horse are waiting for me when I wake.
Even knowing he was coming, it never sits well when first I see the pair. He looks as tired as I feel, though looks can be deceptive with the gray man. What appears as a weakness in him is often his strength.
“So,” I say, stretching out my long arms, “the end of the world again? Seems like the last one was just yesterday. They’re coming faster, lately.”
The gray man shrugs, his attention drifting somewhere between everywhere and nowhere at all.
I try not to fidget. The air feels wrong; thick, like breathing cotton. “You know they’re going to choose me,” I say, trying to cover my discomfort. “They always choose me, once the two options become clear.”
The gray man shrugs again, so subtly I’m not sure he’s moved. I shake my head, wishing I had the power to clear out the fog worrying its way into my thoughts.
“So,” I say, “are we going?”
At that, the gray man speaks at last. “Sure. Why not?”
The end of the world can be a tricky thing. It’s not always meteors and bubonic plagues, or strings of nukes unloading like molten pearls across the continents. No, some ends come quietly, like ketchup inching from the bottle. For humanity, the hardest part with these is noticing them. Noticing is difficult work. It’s effort.
It seems like every time I wake up, I’m more exhausted than before. All I need is a good half century or so of solid, unbroken sleep. Or heck, a whole century, if I’m being totally honest. But that’s not how it works for the gray man and me. We don’t get to make the choices here.
We’re just the two options.
Not that I think the gray man cares. He’s carried so many names over the centuries, so many faces. He sheds his skin with the same ease as a lizard, becoming whatever incarnation of negativity the masses make him. Pestilence, War, Anger, Pride… all these and more he has been.
And his horse, but a pale reflection.
This time, the gray man is Apathy.
My form, however, is more constant. I’ve always carried but the one name. Worn the one face.
As I ride behind the gray man, my gaze dulls into near sleep. We pass through the slippery void between spaces, me clutching at his waist and the gray horse like smoke between my legs. I start to close my eyes, tempted for a spare moment to allow myself to drift away. Wondering if perhaps the gray man might choose to drift with me, or if he would stay, loyal to his duty despite his current form.
But then the moment passes, and the horse’s hooves clatter against a concrete driveway as we solidify at our destination.
I force a smile to my face that I don’t quite feel on the inside, and the gray man and I dismount. We approach the faded beige door with its peeling paint and its cracked “No Solicitation” sign and, as one, press our fingers to the buzzer and wait.
It’s always the same, when they first see us. Bleary-eyed, no matter the century. Bewildered. Annoyed. Frustration and fear riding their backs as easily as the gray man rides his horse.
Always the same, and yet also different.
This time the representative of humanity is a woman with bruised hollows haunting her eyes, threads unraveling along the hem of her t-shirt. In another room, a baby shrieks, its voice crowding out the TV, crowding out the man I can just see slouched on the couch yelling “Who’s at the door?” and telling her to tell them to fuck off, can’t they read the sign?
I resist the urge to look at the gray man one last time. At the uncaring slump of him as the bewildered woman takes in our presence, as his gray horse leans its head into the weed-ridden flowerbed and begins to chew.
I’m too afraid of what I might see.
Instead, I hold fast to the strained smile on my face and launch into the words that have been repeated far too often lately. “The end of the world is nigh,” I say, “and you have been chosen to decide its fate, whether to let the ills of the world overtake it at last, or to reach for that gleaming salvation that may yet save you all.”
And as I speak, the woman’s gaze flattens, her uncertainty settling into dull blankness and my words washing empty across her.
Halfway through the speech, she shuts the door in my face.
The gray man nods slowly, then mounts his horse. “Guess that’s that.”
The door stands solid before me. Final. I can feel my insides peeling just like the paint. “Did you just … win?”
The gray man shrugs. Nudges his horse, about to leave.
Victory is his at last and he can’t even bother to crow about it.
“This can’t be happening,” I say. “This can’t be … it.”
But it is. Already the woman’s presence is dissipating from my senses. Her part is played, the decision made, and whether I agree with it or not, it is done. Lethargy carves its way into my limbs, filling in the empty spaces. The desire to crawl back to my slumber—my final slumber, this time—is almost unbearable.
The gray man, of course, seems unaffected. “Coming?”
His horse raises its head and nickers in my direction.
I must go with him. It’s my duty. My purpose. My entire existence. And maybe it won’t be so bad, just fading away at last. Just letting everything go …
The gray man startles at the loudness of my voice.
“I’m not going,” I say, fighting against the lethargy threatening to consume me. “I still have work to do.”
The gray man frowns a moment, then shrugs once more. “As you wish.”
And with that he begins to fade into the void.
I don’t know what, exactly, it is I’m going to do; the woman made her choice, after all, and such things cannot be unmade.
But I am Hope, dammit.
And Hope always finds a way.