The Greeks in the basement were elated as only those who knew the embrace of death could be. They danced on the tables, celebrating the withdrawal of Italian forces from their town. Three years of living with defeat after defeat to the fascists fueled the festivities, as the partisans knew they were not simply dancing for themselves.
They danced for their parents, who died before seeing the end of the War. They danced for their companions, gunned down in the streets on the charge of being born Jewish or raised socialist. They danced for their children, their feet drumming up hope that for the first time in twenty years they would see a freer, more liberal society.
The Host walked among them, its black robes reweaving until they became a white cotton shirt and tattered pants akin to those of the partygoers surrounding it. It passed a duo of men, Krystian and Niko, singing two different antifascist hymns while holding one another, each swinging an empty bottle with their free hand. The Host handed them two fresh, full carafes of wine, and the men clanked their flasks together in cheer, stopping only to drink when the claps of their audience carried them through a musical interlude.
An elderly woman keeping the rhythm with her sandaled feet on the floor, Anna, stared at the Host, and it tipped its hat at her. She had lost three of her grandsons in the fighting of the last few weeks, and wore each of the tragedies on her face. Nonetheless, it watched her persevere, flash a slight smile, even as her eyes were stained by tears she shed for the children she knew would never see the fruits of their sacrifice come to bear. After all, martyrs are damned to eternity to languish in the world to which they gave everything to change.
Crossing the room, the Host observed as two young Greeks swayed together, holding each other closely, oblivious to the rest of the festivities. Alexandrios and Adrianna.
Her brother had been one of the first to suffer Il Duce’s might, when he had snuck out with a friend at midnight and set the fascist banner ablaze in the early days of the occupation. The boys had been caught, lined up against a wall, and gunned down like animals, in the first of many reprisals carried out by the jackboots. Adrianna still wore his bloodstained necklace, a reminder every time she loaded her gun on a midnight rooftop, every time she raided a munitions warehouse or disrupted a communications outpost.
Alexandrios, on the other hand, had come back to Corfu once the Italians had invaded Albania. The son of a salt merchant fortunate enough to be able to flee the violence to Geneva, Alexandrios argued with his father about honor when the Swiss newspapers announced the rapid Greek response. He saw that the War had come to their little corner of the continent, and refused to hide away as a coward while his friends and neighbors dealt with Bulgarian thugs and Italian steel.
By mere chance he was here, tonight, celebrating the resistance’s small victory. In the past week he had been assigned a mission by the communists to sink a docked Italian warship. Once the partisans had thrown their grenades, they had fled the responding patrol, but half of the four-man group never reached the rendezvous point. Alexandrios was one of the lucky ones.
The young romance started, as most often do, by train tracks. In this instance, the two were instructed to destroy a vital railway linking the Italian outpost in Epirus to the general Axis command in nearby Macedonia. Faulty intelligence failed to reveal an incoming convoy of soldiers, so the two spent ten hours hidden underneath a carriage with only each other for company. The first of many long wordless nights spent holding each other.
The Host stepped near them and patted them both on the back reassuringly. Neither looked up, lost in their own private world where the horrors of the War could not reach them, but the Host did not need them to. Its watch began flashing, turning a brighter and brighter gold, and it knew it was time to leave. It tapped a few empty bottles on a nearby table when no one was looking, allowing them to refill automatically, and then made its way over to the door and left the basement.
Walking up the creaking stairs of the decaying house with the shattered windows, it forced itself to not think too deeply about the Greek partisans and their futures. Its robes refitted themselves, losing their sleeves to become a neon green tank top and golden party shorts.
The Host stood in front of the door to the room closest to the top of the stairs. It sighed once, then turned the knob and entered. Once inside, it immediately turned to where it knew it would find a young girl in her final year of secondary school, drastically overdressed for the occasion.
Izzy had been to a nightclub or two before, with her friends from school, but not since she had come out. She passed by where the Host had entered and paused, biting her fingernails. Stella, an older girl who made no secret and no apologies of her sexual preferences, had invited her to come. Izzy had snuck out when her parents had fallen asleep, stealing a bottle of vodka that she had finished with no chaser on the way in order to calm her nerves.
She could not see Stella, from where she was, and the Host realized that the other girl could not see her either from her location on the second floor. It glanced at its watch, noting that time was of the utmost essence for these two. Taking advantage of the flashing strobe lights and the luminary cover they provided, it grabbed Izzy’s arm and transported the two of them to the upstairs bar.
The younger girl appeared dazed for a moment, as she looked around to surroundings with which she was not familiar, but the Host’s objective was successful. Stella came over behind Izzy, and whispered in her ear. When Izzy turned around, she nodded, a smile stricken with either infatuation or vodka plastered on her face. Stella dragged her over to the bar, where the bartender, a middle-aged man named Marcus who had served as a shaved-head trailblazer for the community two decades earlier, poured them each a duo of shots.
The Host watched the two girls laugh as Marcus mockingly demanded identification following their downing of the drinks. It made its way over to where the DJ, a medical school student named Autumn who had been kicked out of her home upon coming out to her parents six years ago, was setting up the queue for the next few songs. The Host thumbed through the playlist, recognizing one as a crowd favorite and moving it up while Autumn was distracted.
Its watch began glowing its vibrant gold once more, and the Host transported back to the doorway which had led it into the nightclub. It took a final glance at Marcus, who was proudly showing off his muscle definition to a crowd of his customers, and to Autumn, who was throwing back her fourth Red Bull of the night, dreading her rotation the following morning. Finally, it looked back over to the young couple, Stella and Izzy, who were dancing like fools on the balcony. They looked content, and the Host wondered, as it often did, whether happiness was the default state of humanity, a state that was later besieged by malevolence, or whether temporary bliss was but an antidote to the human condition. It wished it knew.
Exiting the nightclub, it reentered the hallway of the house with the shattered windows, with its decaying wood and creaking stairs. It reset its watch and selected a hallway door at random. As it entered the doorway, and its nightclub attire rewove into the garments of antiquity, it found itself outside, in the terrace of a Roman noble’s home.
The servants brought out the fourth course of the feast as Atticus Gaius Porcius regaled his guests with tales of his conquests in Cyrenaica as commander of the finest legion of the Empire. The odor of seasoned flamingo tongue and liquamen wafted through the air, and Flavia, Atticus’s wife and companion of many seasons, observed the banquet guests from behind her husband’s shoulder.
The Host followed her gaze. Slaves by the door bathed the hands of arriving guests in perfumed rosewater, while the eldest children dutifully listened to the stories being told at the table. The Host looked to the towering mountain in the distance before turning back to the Roman citizens in the terrace, in particular two adolescent boys who were standing at the entrance to the gardens in which the aristocratic family housed its famous grapes.
In the decade they had been friends, since the day that Atticus Gaius Porcius had adopted the young slave boy into his home in order to help his son socialize, Aebutius and Lucretius had always committed to one day being the greatest exploring duo in the world. Now on the cusp of manhood, they remained staunchly serious of their future endeavors – proof that the ambitions of one’s youth need not dissipate in maturation. Away from the prying eyes of the adults at the feast, Aebutius showed Lucretius an intricate hand-drawn map of Africa Proconsularis his father had gifted him. He pointed to the southeast corner of the map, where the plains of Egypt met the Red Sea, and declared that they would be the first Romans to cross the sea, to see what lied beyond Arabia Felix and the shores of India. Lucretius simply nodded, smiling.
The Host snapped its fingers, and observed the friends as they realized the map had changed, revealing now in the southeast corner the lands of East Asia and Oceania. They exclaimed and turned further away from the adults to pour over the map in its every detail.
The Host’s watch began flashing, and it began its return to the doorway which had led it to this terrace. It looked once more to the mountain in the distance, from which smoke had begun to rise, and to the two young explorers who were occupied with the mapping of the routes their eventual grand fleet would take. It looked once more to Atticus Gaius Porcius, one of the finest generals in all of the Empire, as he balanced the arts of storytelling and gluttony.
Before it walked through the doorway, it caught the eyes of Flavia, a woman who had risen from humble beginnings to see herself join one of the leading families of the region. Flavia, who as a young girl had seen bandits slit her parents’ throats, and who had overcome the traumas of her youth to live a comfortable life. Though she watched the Host with neither suspicion nor curiosity, it found itself desiring to go spend a few moments with her, to speak with her.
This desire did not melt away as the Host entered the doorway and once more reemerged in the hallway of the house with the shattered windows.
Its watch was lulling quietly now, a slight hum that indicated the passage of time quite like the calm before the storm. The Host reset it, and entered the doorway across the hall from where it stood, noting not the way in which its tunic retailored itself, melding into a fluorescent V-neck shirt and khaki shorts.
The Silva family had not been together for a Carnaval celebration in three full years, due to Renato having gone off to university in Salvador. As a result, Helena insisted on planning the bloco for this year. As she sat with her first granddaughter on her knees, she observed the fruits of her labor with a caipirinha in her hand, bobbing her head to the music being blasted out of the speakers her neighbor Luiz had put in the back of his truck.
The Host appeared in a door at the entrance of the alleyway where Helena’s ancient house met the next-door apartment building, one of many that peppered the Goiania skyline by the late twentieth century. It stood behind where João Pedro and Marlon were debating whether that summer Brazil would be defending its football title against the Argentines or the Germans. A group of young boys played their own scrimmage match in the street, cheered on by Renato and Laisa, his Bahia-born girlfriend who he met in his biology courses in Salvador, and supervised by the men of the neighborhood, beers, and Guaranas in hand.
Beginning its work, the Host took note of the table of food perched behind Helena, light in quantity for the celebration at hand and for the number of people. When it was sure none of the Brazilians were looking, it duplicated the table, savoring the aroma of the freshly-prepared meat, rice, and beans. It stealthily drained Renato’s glass of cachaça, as he had inherited from Helena a poor relationship with alcohol. As it continued its work, changing slight elements of the Carnaval celebration with miniscule waves of its hands and snaps of its fingers, it felt a tug on its shorts. It looked down to see one of the young boys who had been playing football in the street.
Enrico. A boy of six years who dreamed to grow to be the football player being discussed by the adult men around him. Born to a father whose alcoholism put both Helena and Renato to shame and to a mother who would sneak out during her lunch break to meet a lover who knew not her name, Enrico lived, breathed, and dreamed football. He did well in school, in part because he had no friends who could distract him, and in part because he knew his father would respond to low marks with violent anger.
He was a boy who consisted entirely of dreams– one of the many humans the Host had met who were driven by a passion for the possibilities of the future, their present and past having disappointed too often.
Enrico pointed to the street match, to where two construction cones served as goalposts. The other team had a goalkeeper, and Enrico clearly insisted on the Host resolving the inequality. The Host checked its watch for a moment before obliging, following Enrico to the street, where the other boys cheered at the arrival of an older, larger player.
It played passively for ten minutes, allowing some shots to enter the goal and blocking others. For each save Enrico would grin to himself and his teammates, two boys who squatted in the apartment building overlooking the street, would cheer and hug each other like family. Then the Host’s watch began shining its vibrant gold once more. It ignored the steadily-brightening light for a second, keeping its eyes on the football game before it, but then felt the watch begin to vibrate and burn into its skin, refusing to be ignored.
The Host walked off the street as Enrico scored a final goal on the opponents’ goalkeeper. Hearing the cheers from Renato and Laisa for the football match that to some young boys counted more than any World Cup ever could, it reentered the doorway in the alley from which it had entered.
Back in the house with the rotting wood and the shattered windows, the Host began walking to another door, leaving Helena and Marlon and all of the others at the Brazilian street party in the back of its mind. As it neared a door leading to another celebration, it paused, feeling a strange, foreign presence in the hallway. It turned around to see one of the humans from the last room standing at the doorway’s entrance with wide eyes.
The boy, Enrico.
The Host stared at Enrico, who turned to look back at his new friend with mild confusion. A human had never entered the House before – the Host was always very careful to disappear without a trace. For a moment, neither moved.
Then Enrico ran over to the Host and grabbed its hand. He began pulling it back to the open doorway from which they had both come, insistent on not losing his goalkeeper before the match’s end. When they got to the doorway, Enrico ran through, but waited on the other side, the child not taking a moment to doubt the impossible scenery he had just witnessed.
The Host knew it should close the door, disrupting the passageway between the House and the Brazilian street. It had other celebrations to attend, other festivities in which to assist prior to the end of the hour.
However, the giddiness in young Enrico’s face beckoned to it. The boy with the dreams who never considered the present was adamant on continuing play with his new friend.
When the Host walked back through the doorway, its watch began to vibrate, unused to the splintering of repetition. It ignored the sensation, following Enrico back to the street. Helena exclaimed in delight when she discovered the additional food, as João Pedro and Marlon filled their plates, the rest of the boys from the football match waiting in line. Renato and Laisa danced to the music emerging from Luiz’s truck, and the remaining members of the neighborhood watched as Enrico, the small, strange boy who would wait for the others to have finished eating before asking for a morsel, indicated for the Host to return to the goal. He began firing successive penalty shots, and his new friend continued to allow them to go in for the most part, dutifully returning the ball to him each and every time.
One such time, the Host realized that the face of its watch had become a stark red. It prepared for the shot, before blocking it rapidly, so that the ball returned to Enrico. For his part, the boy recovered swiftly, beginning to jog down the street towards the Host with light taps to the ball between his feet.
He made his final shot, a few meters away, just as the face of the Host’s watch turned a muted black. The Host made a show of attempting to stop the goal, but allowed it to enter, just as it heard the sounds of the incoming trucks.
When the two pickup trucks roared down the street, the first to see them was Helena, perched in her seat with her first granddaughter on her knees. She exclaimed in horror, and the rest of the partygoers turned to face the trucks just as the shooting began.
Renato and Laisa, the young lovebirds who met in biology courses in Salvador, were hit first, gunned down as they danced their final samba. Renato’s mother Helena cried out as she attempted to get up, but was mowed down in a hail of gunfire that also killed the baby she was holding and her old friend Luiz behind her. They were followed swiftly by João Pedro and Marlon, the most passionate of football aficionados in the state, and the boys who were standing in line for the food.
The remainder of the partygoers attempted to flee the carnage wrought by the criminal soldados who were sending the first message in a gang war that would consume the decade. All the while, Enrico, the young boy who came to the street party alone and uninvited as his parents spent the Carnaval festivities consumed with their own passions and vices, ran to the Host.
He hid behind it, a child still young enough to not have learned how to mistrust, and the Host kneeled down to be at face level with it. It held Enrico close to it, aware of the exact moment that the bullet would leave the gun.
As it held the boy, it willed all of its energy and all of its power to soothe him, to provide the young human with a last moment of calm in a world that had given him nothing, not a childhood nor even his dreams.
The Host felt the bullet pass through it. An instant later, it felt the splash of Enrico’s blood as the bullet crashed into his skull.
A second bullet hit the boy’s cheekbone, and the Host stared up at the sky as it felt Enrico, a young Brazilian boy who would never be able to once again escape his present by thinking of his future, die in its arms.
The men in the trucks sped down the street, their message delivered and no witnesses they could see still standing. As it heard the sound of the sirens approaching, the Host laid Enrico on the sidewalk, as alone in death as he was in life. It crossed the street where just seconds earlier it had blocked the shots of the young boy, where Renato and Laisa were dancing while Helena watched.
The Host passed all of their corpses on its walk back to the doorway in the alley from which it had entered. It emerged in the hallway of the House shaking, and not needing to look at its watch to know that the face was black, that the hour was finished.
It sank to the floor in front of the closed door that had led to the bloco, hearing the horrors it had always known were inevitable.
It felt the shaking of the floor as the Greeks in the basement, from Anna to Krystian and Niko to Alexandrios and Adrianna, were engulfed in a hellish explosion, as the Luftwaffe completed its firebombing of the town’s main bar.
It heard the screams of horror as the nightclub in which Izzy and Stella had marked their first and final date was bombed, the building collapsing in on itself and killing both of them alongside Marcus and Alexis in the process.
When it closed its eyes, it was still acutely aware of the instant that the Roman citizens, from the noble couple Atticus and Flavia to the potentially greatest explorers of the Empire, Aebutius and Lucretius, perished, as Mons Vesuvius detonated and the resulting heat surge boiled their blood and melted their lungs.
The Host could hear the havoc and death from the other rooms as well, rooms it had visited early in the hour or rooms it had yet to visit. The Ukrainian Bar Mitzvah that culminated in a pogrom that left no survivors of the town’s Jewish community. The high school prom dance, interrupted by a mentally ill gunman’s massacre of his classmates. The Manggarai family who drowned during their Christmas dinner as their home was destroyed by severe flooding.
For many moments, the Host stayed in this position, hearing the carnage and the destruction claim the lives of so many humans, forced to ponder as always whether it had done enough to make their final moments enjoyable. Whether they had died, their fates unstoppable even by a being of its powers, with some semblance of the happiness it so hoped was intrinsic to their existence.
Alone but for the ghosts and the memories that joined it in the hallway, the Host wept into its bloodstained hands, chained to the wish that it had made their final moments bearable. When its watch began shining bright gold once more, marking the beginnings of a new hour, it rose, and walked with mournful steps to the next rooms in the hallway of the decaying house with the shattered windows.