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Screw Your Courage to the Sticky Place

Jenn Reese writes speculative fiction for readers of all ages. Above World, a Norton Award finalist, is the first book in her trilogy about bioengineered mermaids in an post-collapse future, from Candlewick Press. Her short fiction has appeared in China's Science Fiction World, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. She lives in Portland where she revels in the rain, plays too many video games, and works as a freelance graphic designer.
Ana did not expect to open the door and find the four horsemen of the apocalypse standing in the hallway outside her apartment. She opened it expecting to find her mother.
So, honestly, it was a relief.
"We're looking for Connor Archibald McKreeley," War said, barreling into the apartment. She wore a red tracksuit the same color as her lipstick and smelled like the flower-covered soil of an ancient battlefield. Apparently Ana was staring--or sniffing--because War raised an eyebrow and repeated, "Are you Connor Archibald McKreeley?"
"Sorry, no," Ana said. "It's his place, but I'm renting."
Death, farther back in the hallway, laughed.
War sighed. "Can we come inside? We need to sort this out."
Ana's mother was due any minute. The rest of the day would involve lectures about Ana's inability to survive in the Big City, comments about Ana's clothing and makeup choices, and updates about Trevor Landau, the blandly nice boy Ana could have said yes to after high school if she had cared at all about her mother's nerves.
Ana pushed the door open. "Who wants a beer?"
It wasn't easy to fit all four horsemen of the apocalypse--horsepeople, she corrected--into a 385-square-foot apartment in the Village. Good thing they hadn't brought their actual horses.
Pestilence, who appeared to be nothing more than a human-shaped pile of oozing pustules, popped, blurped, and glugged his way towards Ana's Murphy bed. Ana redirected him to the shower stall instead.
Famine, a thin hipster with a stubbled jaw, douche-bro goatee, and a thin expanse of flesh where his mouth should have been headed for her galley kitchen and popped open the fridge.
Death, dressed in a black ensemble that was less "Grim Reaper" and more "Diane von Furstenberg, Hades Collection," sat in the faux-Eames chair by the window and crossed her bony legs. "Cute dog," she said, and stuck a bony finger towards Sweeney, Ana's Maltese. Sweeney gnawed happily.
"What do you know about Connor's whereabouts?" War asked.
"Nothing. I've never even met him," Ana said. "He does everything by email."
"And you've been here how long?" War asked.
"Two years."
War surveyed the room with the intensity of a general assessing a battlefield, and Ana wondered what she was seeing. Ana's clothes half packed and in boxes by the broken radiator, evidence of her imminent retreat? The thick-soled shoes Ana wore to work in the deli, combat boots of a sort, but stinking of pastrami instead of gunfire? The Playbills stacked like rations on the coffee table, her only sustenance during the long, soul-crushing treks between auditions?
She should leave the Playbills here. No one in Utah would be impressed.
"I'll say this for Connor, he has good taste in apartments," War said, and her voice was honey dripped over razor wire. "I'm a sucker for exposed brick."
"You are a sucker for many things," Death said with the controlled laugh of someone making an inside joke who wants you to know--really know--that you are not on the inside. "Now get to the point, please."
"The 'point' is that Connor has been Called To Service," War said, enunciating the capitals. "He has been Chosen to Serve."
"That sounds... important?" Ana ventured.
War snorted. The tiny diamond piercing her right nostril glittered. "I can't remember the last time a nation needed help choosing conflict. Things mostly run themselves these days. Although..." She raised an eyebrow at Ana. "Occasionally I get a case that makes it all worthwhile."
"It's true--the world is full of self-starters on the apocalypse front," Death agreed. "Nevertheless, Pestilence has been granted leave to retire, and Connor Archibald McKreeley has been Called."
Ana looked at Pestilence who was oozing all over the white subway tile in her bathroom. He glurp-glurrrped happily.
"I don't know what to tell you," Ana said to War. "I can give you his email address, if you want."
Death retrieved her finger from Sweeney and patted the dog on the head. Sweeney, surprisingly, let her. "I don't suppose you have any interest in taking Connor's place? It's only a ten-year commitment and afterwards you'll be set for life."
Ana considered it. It was difficult to imagine a better way to upset her mother, short of getting a full-face tattoo or actually landing a job on Broadway. But unless someone started casting Buboe! the Musical, her answer was easy.
"I'll pass," Ana said. She thought about Utah and her inevitable future office job at her mother's insurance firm. She thought about the pencil skirts and panty hose. "But... maybe check back next time you have an opening?"
"I'm out in fourteen months," War said.
Ana was shocked. "You think I could take your place?" She had aced her last stage fighting class, but "understudy to Cyrano de Bergerac" was the closest her resume got to violence. Unless she counted the review she'd received in her college production of Macbeth. Now that had been a slaughter.
War winked and nodded to the Playbills. "No, you should stick with acting. I just wanted you to know when I'll be off-duty."
"Oh?" Ana said. She flushed. "Oh."
"You'll be here?" War asked, and it was more than a simple question.
If it was War's job to help Ana gird her loins, she was definitely succeeding... and in more ways than one.
Ana stared at the boxes, at her Playbills, at War's red lips.
"Maybe I'll stick around," she said. It was the first time she'd allowed herself that thought since at least three phone-calls-with-her-mother ago. Maybe, she thought, there were still battles worth fighting.
The four horse people left. Ana spent twenty minutes unpacking her boxes, forty minutes arguing with her mother once she finally arrived, and almost three hours scrubbing Pestilence off every surface of her bathroom.
It would have taken six, but her mother stayed to help.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 26th, 2018


I've always thought of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in grandiose terms, but for "Screw Your Courage to the Sticky Place," I wondered if the battle that War wages could have much smaller and more personal stakes. (And also involve flirting because, well, flirting.) What surprised me most about this story, though, was how adorable I found Pestilence. Do me a favor and don't unpack that, okay?

- Jenn Reese

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