The cult finally dispersed, after many emotional speeches and celebration on their impending deaths. After the meeting the Grandmaster invited us into his home, bringing us into a guest bedroom that had two bunk beds on each side.
“For those who need a place to stay, as part of our charity work” he added, smiling.
And the next few days were mostly concerned with that, charity. Outside of their meeting, the people within the cult were friendly and industrious, serving soup for the poor and homeless, coordinating donations of clothes or small gifts to many families in need around the neighbourhood and giving counselling to the bereaved.
How many of those given counselling had been persuaded to join the cult?
Me and Suzy helped them with small tasks, while getting to know the rest of the cult. From Amanda, who seemed to have endless energy and was always trying to help people, to Claire and Adam, an elderly couple. The husband, apparently, had terminal cancer, but they still helped as best they could, his wife always by his side. Conversations were for the most part (excluding Amanda) brief, but friendly.
“So, why does it have to be this way then?” I asked Suzy.
We were back at the diner at a late evening, after I had been unable to sleep. Uneasiness at this situation plagued me constantly whenever I had a moment to stop or reflect. A fear of what would come, this minor impending death reflecting the greater doom that loomed ahead. Even when I slept, there were nightmares. I saw faces smiling, as blood ran down their mouth and eyes, crying blood while wearing peaceful smiles...
Few things would make me invite an eldritch goddess for a cheeseburger, but this merited it. Despite how often knowledge had only hurt me before, I had to know more.
The cheeseburgers were still delicious as always.
“Why do they all have to die?” I asked again, quietly despite the emptiness of the diner. There was nobody sitting on the stall next to us and only a few patrons in the bar. An old man staring at the TV and a trucker enjoying his cup of coffee, both sitting at the bar.
“Why Shub-Niggurath demands sacrifice? I thought that would be obvious by now,” replied Suzy, after swallowing another bite. She wiped her mouth and gave one of her trademark grins. “It’s all about food.”
“Food,” I repeated, frowning. “That makes no sense.”
“It makes perfect sense,” countered Suzy calmly.
“If this Shub-whatever is looking for calories aren’t there easier ways to get it?” I argued. “I mean… There are cows and stuff if it needs meat. Besides, isn’t it a god? Or goddess? Can’t it just poof food into its mouth or... Point is… Why people?”
Suzy took another bite from her burger and chewed while pondering over my question. She finished chewing and swallowed it again before replying.
“In Japan,” she said, “there are places where you can ask for a fish right out of the aquarium and have it sliced and served right in front of you, the fish still alive. The freshest catch, eaten while you watch the fish wriggle and die after being eaten alive.”
“I don’t like where this conversation is going...” I muttered.
“The best way to cook lobster, everyone knows, is to boil it alive. And even this simple hamburger was made by fattening a cow, keeping it confined for all its life and then slaughtering it when reaching maturity, with many years left to live.”
“Are you trying to make me vegan?” I interjected sarcastically, in a weak attempt to ward off what I knew was coming.
“What I am getting at,” said Suzy, calmly ignoring me, “is that sometimes good food requires… sacrifice. And Shub-Niggurath likes her food alive and wriggling.”
She punctuated her statement with a grin, while I made a disgusted sound. “She could eat meat, yes, but she doesn’t want just that. She wants fillet mignon! She wants veal! She wants screams accompanying her meal - I suppose it adds to the… Flavor.” She savored that last word before taking another big bite out of her cheeseburger. A string of melted cheese stretched to her lips and she had to pull and break it free, before munching the string of cheese back into her mouth.
“I knew I’d regret asking… I knew it, but I still had to ask.” I rubbed my eyes while digesting what she had told me. My mind went to the people of the cult, most of them elderly and kind.
No. I did not want to think of that.
Suzy shrugged. “It’s how Shubby gets her favorite kind of meal. She entices random lowly creatures with power, and ascension, then asks for food. Lots of food. Fresh. She would probably gobble up your whole planet if she could, but since she can’t get off her fat, always-pregnant ass to travel to this reality, this is the next closest thing.”
“I guess it was too much to expect humanitarian motives from an eldritch god,” I commented, still looking away.
“In a way Shub-Niggurath is a humanitarian. You know… Since she eats humans.” Suzy looked at me, grinning, and after a brief pause added. “Get it? You know… She’s not a vegetarian, she’s a humanitarian. So she eats humans...”
“Yeah, I get it. Your joke just sucked,” I snapped back at her. My mood had not been improved by this conversation.
Suzy just shrugged, unperturbed, and took another bite off her sandwich.
“Do they know?” I asked, dreading the answer. She looked back at me while chewing. I asked again, “do they know they’re going to be just god-chow for the sake of that grandmaster asshole?”
“Why don’t you ask one of them?” Replied Suzy, pointing to the bar. Behind the counter sat the waitress of the evening and early morning shift. Long black hair covering half her face as she stared at nothing in particular and absentmindedly rubbed her arm. The gloomy waitress that was a cult member, and who had cried when hearing of her incoming death.
“Can’t you just tell me?” I asked after a moment, not quite hiding the dread I felt of having to ask her that sort of question.
Suzy let out a sigh. “I am not all-knowing, Cody, and I’m especially bad at knowing WHY people do the things they do. Most people don’t even know the answer to that themselves, and it’s THEIR minds. And you’re asking if I know? If you really want to find out, you’re better off asking her directly.”
She pointed at the waitress. And with those words she popped the last piece of the cheeseburger in her mouth, got up and left, leaving me alone in the diner.
“Well… Shit,” was all I could say.
She had left me with the bill.
It took me a long, cowardly hour before I could even beckon her. And another few minutes before she even noticed I was calling her.
“Do you have a minute? For a private conversation?” I asked her, keeping my voice low. She stared at me , then slowly looked back at the other patrons.
“I’m not supposed to. But… I guess I can. If they don’t ask for anything,” she said, giving one last look at the old man and the trucker. Both ignored us. Still looking uncertain, she sat down and looked down at the napkin holder in the corner. She was waiting for me to start.
“Why did you join the cult?” I asked, staring straight at her. After agonizing over the best approach, I gave up and decided to be blunt. Being gentle had never been my strong suit.
“Oh. So it’s about that,” she said quietly. Her voice was not surprised or angry, merely resigned. There was another uncomfortable pause. “They were nice to me,” she added eventually.
“Nice?” I asked.
She nodded, not elaborating any further.
“Did you know when you joined, that they were going to ask you to kill yourself?”
She nodded again.
“And you’re ok with that?” I hissed. My voice was getting angrier, and harder to keep quiet. “Don’t you have family? Or friends?”
“My family hates me,” she replied, matter-of-factly. Without emotion.
“Still… Would they want you dead?” I asked.
“They wouldn’t care.” She didn’t sound sad when she said that. Only resigned. It was a reality she had long gotten used to.
“Friends? Someone who cares about you?” I insisted, furious now.
“The Grandmaster. And the people at the New Hope Foundation.”
The silence that followed was deafening. I curled my hands into fists so hard it hurt, trying to find the right words to reach her. To tell her how wrong all of this felt. But she spoke first.
“I got into drugs, about two years ago,” she said, with the same quiet voice as always. Some emotion crept into it, however, as she continued. “Molly. And later, Crystal. Most people… Most normal people, when they think of drugs, they think it’s bad. But... For me? For me it was great. My life before that was empty . No excitement, nothing worth fight for… Breathing in, breathing out, living another day. Nothing. Absolutely Nothing. No objectives for the future - nothing to look forward to. Drugs was the best thing to happen to me.”
She paused, as if expecting me to say something. Fight back, maybe. I stayed quiet, listening intently to her.
“I wasn’t dumb though. I knew I was self-destructing as I used them. My money was gone, and my things started going next. My hair, my nails… My health. All gone to shit. While I was on drugs, it was great, when I wasn’t it was worst. People talking behind my back. Lost the fake friends I had before... Still, I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t even alive before I started using them anyway. And if I died then, nobody would care, not even me.”
Her voice was still quiet, as she rubbed her arm again and looked at the window.
“That’s… A rough thing to go through,” I commented, as gently as I could. “Is that why you said your parents don’t like you?” Her eyes flickered in my direction, before going back to looking at the window.
“They didn’t care. They didn’t care about me, before the drugs or after. Except, well... My parents kicked me out of the house one day. Said they were washing their hands off their druggie daughter. Didn’t want me to ever come back. I… To be honest, I think they were kinda relieved when they did that. I don’t think I was ever a good daughter to them.”
Another moment of uncomfortable silence stretched out to its breaking point, and snapped. She spoke again, her voice trembling slightly.
“I was garbage, rotting on the side of the street. All I cared about was getting money for the next hit, until my death finally arrived. I was just waiting for it to come. Getting some charity. Begging. Making time and waiting for death. I had nothing. I was nothing.”
“And then… The Grandmaster approached me. And took me in,” she said. And a small smile seeped into her face, a tiny happiness crept in her voice.
“So… Is that when you joined?” I asked tentatively, my heart plummeting into a dark, ugly feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“They helped me so much. With food and shelter first, sure. But also with purpose. They showed what was going to happen to the world. Told us of the sacrifices we would have to do. And of his purpose. To fling the light of humanity and make it endure past the end of the world. And… I was in awe! That someone like me? That someone like me could still be useful to the world? That garbage like me could still make a difference in this world?”
And she sobbed once, then restrained her emotion, wiping her face as her smile widened. She blinked tears as she looked at me for the first time.
“I was so happy.” She sobbed once, still smiling. “My life was not in vain, even after all that happened. If I die for this, for the sake of this grand dream, then my life was not meaningless. It was not all in vain.”
Her eyes were wet as she smiled at me. Tears of joy. Those were tears of joy.
“You asked why I joined the cult. Now you know why,” she said.
She looked away again, staring intently past me at a spot on the floor. I frowned, considering my words and how to best approach what I wanted to say.
“You’re ok with killing yourself, just so the Grandmaster can live?”
“He will do more than live,” she asserted, firmly. “He will make the world a better place.”
“How can you know that’s true? What if it’s a lie?” I said.
“... Why do you think that?” She asked, after a moment of hesitation.
“Your goddess is treating you as nothing but food. That’s all you mean to her. I know that. I know the gods.”
“I know!” I spoke firmly, raising my voice slightly. The trucker glanced our way and I lowered my voice. “Trust me, I know,” I repeated.
“But she will still ascend our Grandmaster in exchange for our lives?” Asked the waitress.
“I… I guess so,” I admitted, uncomfortable.
“Good,” she said, back to being confident.
“You don’t care that he’s sacrificing your life for his?” I spoke low, but still angry, clenching my fists.
“It’s my choice,” she replied.
“Even if your death your death is painful? At the hands of a monster?”
“Good,” she repeated. Resolute.
“Good?” I scoffed. “How is dying painfully good in any way?”
“The people who live through the end of the world… They will die painfully too, won’t they?” She said, staring down at the booth table, blinking.
“I, well… Maybe.”
“I felt kind of guilty that we would get off easy compared to them. We know our deaths have purpose and if we went fast and painless while they.... I feel bad for them,” her eyes flicked at me again, before going back to the table. “You say it’s going to be painful for us? Good. Makes me feel less guilty.”
“But your life is still worth living!” I insisted.
“Even if I am going to die anyways?” She asked back, bluntly.
“Well, yes...” I tried to find the right words, to tell her that, somehow, it would be alright. That it was worth it. But the words died in my mouth, crumbling into ashes before they could be voiced. I shut my mouth again, uncertain.
“Why are you so concerned whether I kill myself or not?” She asked, not angry. Curious. Distant. Still not looking at me.
“Because you remind me of myself.” I spoke those words without thinking, out of frustration. And it was only in the silence that followed did I realize they were true. She looked at me and our eyes met, she looked surprised for the first time in this conversation.
“What do you mean by that?” She asked quietly, her eyes looking back down.
I fidgeted on my seat, drumming the tabletop with my fingers, before speaking.
“I went through something like what you did,” I said. “Well… Maybe not exactly. My family never abandoned me… Although we’ve become pretty estranged after I started using drugs heavily. I… I don’t think they ever forgave me for what I did. And I did a lot of shit to them. I… I did a lot of things I regret. My father is dead now. Car accident. My face is only tolerated in small doses at my brother’s home, and as for my mother...” I scrunched up my face in a painful smile and looked away, fumbling awkwardly for my words. “Yeah, she still hates my guts. Can’t say I blame her.”
“Your family sounds pretty different from mine,” said the waitress quietly.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I admitted. “And maybe I’m wrong or out of line. It’s just… I went through some of what you experienced. I know what it feels like to have nothing to look forward to. To look at your future and see nothing but dull work, with moments of pain here and there. To see no hope at all, no way of making things better. I understand what it feels like.”
The waitress glanced another quick look at me before staring back down. “Huh. Hard to believe it when I look at you.”
“It’s true,” I replied firmly, staring at her. She nodded wordlessly.
“I believe you,” she said. “But even so, what does that have to do with me?”
“Do I deserve to die too?” I asked her in a low voice, but without any shying or flinching. I did not even blink.
“What? I never said that.” She backed away a bit in her chair, looking confused and hurt. I pressed on.
“I’ve went through a shitty period in my life, like you. I’ve felt hopeless and without direction, no power to change my fate. Hell, I STILL feel like that now! I still feel like my life has no worth! So, should I join you in death then? Do I deserve to die?”
There was total silence in the diner and I caught the trucker actually looking at me, although he quickly glanced away. So much for me keeping my conversation quiet. I looked back at the waitress, who locked uncertain, eyes darting back and forth, but never looking at me.
“It’s… my choice,” she replied, finally. “I can’t choose how you should live your life. All I can do is choose mine. And I choose to die, so that the world may have a brighter future.”
“Brighter future,” I repeated those words in a low, bitter tone, as if the phrase had left a bad taste in my mouth as it slithered out of my throat and was spoken aloud.
She touched my hands lightly, which surprised me enough I almost jumped. Carefully, and looking at my hands intently as she still avoided looking at me directly, she wrapped her hands around mine as gently as possible.
“Do you want to join us?”
My hands balled into fists when she said those words, but her hands still remained on mine, warm and gentle. I could have easily pulled them away if I wanted to. I did not.
“If you want, it’s not too late,” she said, her voice low but full of sincerity. Overflowing with kindness. “You can join us in giving your life for a higher cause. Nobody will shun you for joining late, and you won’t have to feel worthless anymore. It’s your choice.”
Silence. A car roared as it drove past the highway, getting fainter and fainter as it was swallowed by the darkness of the road. Her hand remained on mine and she stole another quick glance at me, longer than any previous stare. She almost smiled when she did so. When I broke the silence and spoke to her, my words came slowly, as if each word pained me as it was spoken.
“If… I knew, for certain, it would help make a better world… Then I would give my life. Without hesitation...” I swallowed nervously.
“There’s a ‘but’ coming after that sentence, isn’t there?” She asked, without any anger, still smiling.
“But…” I paused again, before pressing on. “I don’t trust that your Grandmaster will really do that. Maybe I’m wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But… I don’t trust him.”
“I do.” Was her reply, filled with such quiet certainty that I knew then: she would not be persuaded. There was nothing I could say or do that would change her mind.
There was nothing I could do.
She smiled calmly at me, and though her eyes were downcast, they were also at peace. “You were right, we aren’t so different after all,” she said, her hands still holding mine gently. “Just our methods are different, that’s all. We both want the same thing in the end.”
I pulled my hands away from her, slowly and gently, but firmly. “Sorry for wasting your time,” I muttered.
She shook her head. “I know you were only trying to help me.”
Her eyes met mine, and, though visible effort on her part, she did not look away. She looked nervous and uncertain, but she still smiled at me. I smiled back, with no humor in my expression.
“Guess I suck at helping people,” I said, shrugging.
“Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” she replied.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling again. But this time there was real emotion into that smile. And she smiled back. That lasted only a brief moment before we both looked away, flustered and awkward.
Thats last smile helped the rest of the painful conversation go down, like a bittersweet pill, but the uneasiness in my stomach was still there. And I knew it would only get worse as we got closer to her last day.