This story is by Jess Gardner and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Covid was devastating the health and psyche of America. No disease had ever been so disruptive or so frightening. Suffocation was its signature, and its seal of death was to drown in one’s own phlegm but William Eadburg, the ageless, aristocratic, and insufferable monarch of the hedge fund realm, was undaunted. When the world was crashing in the days before the vaccine, he summoned to his presence The Filthy Fifty of which he was the patron saint of the arrogant ultra-wealth. He was their lodestar. Their prophet of social stratification that assigned their status in society. To most in the business world he was simply an asshole. But the filthiest of the filthy rich of the sycophant ruling class decamped with him to the deep seclusion of their gated and guarded beachfront community in the Hamptons with complete self-satisfaction regarding their social superiority.
Gloating and laughing as they deplaned, they dropped their masks into the red trash bag awaiting them and ducked into the black limousines. All had been tested. All were safe. All exhaled their fear. The guards closed the gates behind the parade of armored limos returning from the airport and welded them shut leaving no means of entrance nor exit. Their refuge was amply provisioned for an indefinite stay. With such precautions, these elites bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. There was Drink, Decadence and Disdain. All these and security within. Without was Covid.
It was towards the close of the fifth or sixth month, and while the pestilence raged, and their collective net worth ballooned into the trillions, that Eadburg proposed an outrageous celebration. It was to be a voluptuous affair that they called The Unmasquerade Ball and was to be held at their crown jewel. The Club. The clubhouse in their insular community was perched on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic at what was once considered the most exclusive golf and country club in the country. The community had acquired the gem after the 2008 financial crisis. The obscene purchase price of $850 million was a treasured weapon that they used to shame the mere stinking rich. There was a majestic ballroom as its centerpiece with French doors on two sides that opened onto large balconies with spectacular views. One balcony faced westward where upon a rise stood an abandoned stone lighthouse. A symbol of vigilance that promised protection.
The party was deep into its revelry when the 10th hour of the evening arrived. Then there came the mournful wail of an air raid siren from the township outside of the gated community. The musicians paused in their performance, to listen, and the dancers froze like Medusa’s victims while the siren played its terrible song. All had a countenance of fear. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly. The crowd shrugged nervously as if the alarm was sounded in error.
At the 11th hour, there came yet another moan of the siren, and the raucous crowd stopped dead. A whisper raced through the crowd. “What could it be? Is it war? Is it a riot of the masses?” No matter. They were safe inside their gates and the sexy and magnificent revel roared on. The decadence was grotesque, the women were beautiful, the men disgusting, and all were bizarre. There was much glare and glitter and glamour, however; concern grew on the faces of the celebrants as the room began to warm as if in a collective fever. And to those who noticed, and there were few, a faint letter C, began to appear on the foreheads of the some of the revelers.
The ballroom was crowded, and in it flailed the heart of life. And the revel went on, until at length the 12th hour arrived, and the air raid siren played its dreadful dirge. The music ceased, and the mania of the dancers stopped. There was a frightening stillness, and a putrid odor began to seep into the room. To their dismay the howling of the siren intensified and drew nearer. And thus too, it happened, that the crowd was compelled, beyond their control, to the western balcony and with shock and a deepening fear they beheld a light blazing in the long dead lighthouse. Where to the great consternation of the observers a shadow roamed on the parapet and the letter C glowed in the darkness. And then, the rumor of a new presence spread; there arose a buzz, or murmur, of surprise and then, of terror, of horror when they saw a woman dressed in black, whose eyes glowed a molten red, standing in command of the balcony. In an assembly such as this, nothing could surprise nor diminish the decadence. But the figure in question had outdone Herodias and gone beyond the bounds of infamy by materializing on the balcony wearing a blood red masque adorned with the black letter C. A whisper raced through the troupe. “Who is she? Where did she come from? What is the meaning of the red masque?
When the eyes of Eadburg, the elites’ infallible monarch, fell upon this spectral image, who stalked the gathering like a ravenous lioness, he was convulsed, with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next moment, his brow reddened with rage.
“How dare you,” he screamed, “insult us with this blasphemous mockery and enter this sacred space without invitation? Seize her and unmask her that we may see whom we have to hang, at sunrise, from the balcony!”
Eadburg stood in the ballroom, with all his disciples by his side. No one moved as he spoke. It was then, however, that he, maddening with rage, rushed forward. He bore aloft a pistol and had approached to within a meter of the figure, when the latter turned, and confronted her pursuer. She removed her mask and, as if blowing a kiss, coughed. There was a sharp cry and the weapon dropped gleaming upon the carpet, upon which, instantly, their king fell prostrate in death. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, the revelers threw themselves onto the balcony, and, seizing the phantom, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the black gossamer shroud empty of any tangible form or body.
And now was acknowledged the presence of Covid. She had come like a thief in the night. And one by one, the revelers in the ballroom struggled to breathe, and each languished in the despairing posture of their eventual collapse. And as the night passed into dawn the breath of life departed the last of the partiers, the lighthouse flickered and was extinguished. And Darkness and Decay and Covid held illimitable dominion over all the land forevermore.