“That’s bonkers!” Leo shouted, waiting for Bradly, his editor to flash that big toothy grin, signaling he’d just been subjected to another of the man’s patently unfunny gags, but the man’s mouth didn’t so much as twitch. “You’re putting me on.”

“Not at all,” said the editor. “We need someone to travel to the States and bring us back a record of this insanity.”

“Why do you hate me?”

“I don’t hate you. You’re one of our best reporters.”

“I don’t know if you noticed,” said Leo, taking a step back and spreading his arms, “but I’m black. I’m hardly the ideal choice to cover a Trump rally in North Carolina.”

“We don’t hand out our assignments based on color here,” Bradly huffed. “We have policies against that sort of thing.”

“You’re daft! What about the pandemic? They’ll skewer me twice over, once for being black and again for wearing a mask. I won’t do it.”

Bradly sighed and walked around to sit on the edge of his desk. “The truth is, I plan to retire soon,” he said. “I think you’d be the best man to replace me, but I don’t know if the old man will agree. You know how he is. We need something to put you over, something sensational that even he’ll have to stand up and take notice of.”

“I’m touched. I really am, but couldn’t you just send me to Lewisham?”

“Nonsense! You can take Ian with you, and we’ll get you a face mask that has ‘Trump 2020’ printed across it. Nobody will question that.”

Three days later, Leo sat on a bed across from Ian, staring at the cigarette burns on the carpet.

“Bastard couldn’t even spring for decent lodgings,” Leo said, more to himself than to his companion who was absorbed in his battle with the coffee maker.

“We’re in North Carolina,” Ian responded, watching the water he’d just poured into the top of the machine run out onto the dresser. “You were expecting something along the lines of a suite at the Ritz? Consider yourself fortunate we have hot water.”

“I don’t get what story we’re after,” Leo said. “What’s the tagline: ‘we survived?’”

“It’s not that bad,” Ian said. “I’ve been to the States plenty of times and always made it home with my limbs intact.”

“You’ve been to New York. This is the South. They don’t like outsiders like us—oh God! What if they think we’re gay? An interracial gay couple at a Trump rally! We’re doomed!”

“I am gay,” Ian said, handing Leo his mask. “Just try not to kiss me in front of them and we’ll be fine.”

Leo looped the mask over his ears and stared at his reflection in the mirror. He felt ridiculous, but at least he didn’t look as silly as Ian who stood behind him, modeling a trucker hat emblazoned with a Confederate flag.

“Is that necessary?” Leo asked, trying to show his disgust with only his eyes.

“Got to blend in,” Ian responded.

Half an hour later, they were wading through throngs of bearded men in sleeveless T-shirts and army boots. A woman wearing a shirt with “Trump can grab my” over an arrow pointing down her jeans, scrawled in black marker, blocked their way.

“Nice mask,” the woman said.

“Trump 2020!” Leo responded, hoping it was the code words that would allow him to pass.

“2020 and 2024!” the woman responded. “He gets a third term since the liberal media sabotaged his first one.”

“Why not go for 2028 too?” Leo asked, trying not to let the sarcasm seep through.

“That would be unconstitutional,” the woman said with an air of authority. “We’ll let Ivanka run in 2028.”

Leo’s journalistic instincts failed him. He had no response. He looked around for Ian to save him, but found him talking to a man with a clipboard. Leo’s first thought was their cover had been blown and they were about to be ejected.

“What was that about?” Leo asked as Ian wandered back over.

“They want us to sit right behind Trump when he gives his speech,” Ian responded. “They want the news cameras to show Trump has a diverse base.”

Leo looked around at the sea of pale faces. “Nope! Not happening,” he said, walking toward the parking garage where they’d parked their rental. “I’m not being the token minority in a Trump campaign ad.”

“But you might get a shot at interviewing the man himself,” Ian protested. “The story always comes first.”

“Not this time,” Leo said. “I’m through.”

“Through with what?” asked the bear of a man suddenly appearing to block their way. “You boys ain’t leaving before hearing the President stick it to them libs, are ya?”

“Naw, I gots ta go pick some cotton fo massa,” Leo responded, his anger edging out his trepidation. To his surprise, the man smiled.

“That’s pretty funny,” said the man. “We’re having a get together after the rally over at the ball park. You oughta stop by.”

Leo was about to tell him where he could stick his party when Ian stepped between him and the man.

“Sounds great,” Ian said. “How do we find it?”

“Just take Jackson out to Back Water Road. It’s down about half a mile on the left,” the man said, patting Ian on the back before fading back into the crowd.

“Are you insane?” Leo asked.

“It’s our chance to still get a story,” Ian said. “We show up, get a few comments from these goons on why they support Trump, and we’re back on a plane to London in the morning. Bradly won’t even have to know we bailed on the rally.”

Leo didn’t care for the idea, but he was just enough of an optimist to think Bradly was serious about the story cinching his appointment as the new editor.

“Alright,” he said, yanking off his mask. “I’m not wearing this, though. I’m through being a walking billboard for this rubbish.”

They spent the next few hours fortifying themselves with American whiskey and some greasy burgers picked up on the way back to the hotel. Ian bore it well, but by the time they headed back out, Leo was swatting at the spots swirling around his head.

They rode with the windows down, and by the time they found Back Water Road on their third pass, Leo had decorated the side of the rental with the contents of his stomach and was sober enough to feel a twinge of panic at the sight of men marching down the road with torches.

“You’re taking me to a damn Klan rally!” he shouted. “Turn around!”

“If this is a Klan rally, they must be a fairly progressive lot,” Ian said, pointing to a black couple marching in the procession before he turned into a gravel lot and parked between two pick up trucks.

As they climbed out of the car, Leo saw people of all races and backgrounds hauling folding chairs to supplement the bleachers surrounding the ball diamond. Set up in the center was a hastily-constructed stage composed mostly of wooden pallets.

“We’re gonna burn it all after the ceremony,” said a man in a camouflage jacket. “It’ll be one hell of a fire.”

“I notice there are a lot of people of color here,” Leo said. “Why weren’t they at the rally?”

“We got all kinds,” said the man with a chuckle. “Most of the colored folk keep a low profile so we don’t scare off any voters. Gotta stick to the narrative.”

“I’m confused,” Leo said. “Why would black people support a racist narrative?”

“You gotta do whatever it takes to achieve the greater goal,” the man said. “We even got some Mexicans here tonight.”

Leo was about to ask him what the goal was when he was jolted by a big hand falling on his shoulder and turned to look up at the man who’d invited them to the party.

“Glad you could make it,” the man said, grinning. “We were beginning to think the guest of honor was going to be a no show.”

“Guest of honor?” Leo asked, feeling uneasy.

“Yep,” said the man. “It ain’t often we get foreigners out here. Usually, we have to draw lots to see who gets to light the fire. You being here saved us the trouble.”

“But I don’t…”

“Don’t worry. You’ll do just fine. Now why don’t you and your friend come along and we’ll get you ready.”

Leo looked at Ian, hoping for some direction, but got only a shrug before the crowd parted and they were led across the field. Leo noted everyone was staring at them in silent anticipation as they ascended the stairs and took their places on the stage. What the hell were they expected to do up there?

“I had you pegged for newshounds from the start,” said the big man. “American journalists are all too willing to help the cause, spreading any lie we want if it means a headline. But then I realized you weren’t Americans. We really don’t need the publicity in Australia.”

“Actually, we’re from the U.K.,” Ian said, a little offended.

“Whatever,” said the man. “You sure as hell ain’t Americans. You’ll benefit from our cause just the same, though.”

“And what cause might that be?” Leo asked.

“The end of all mortal strife,” the man said. “The end of hunger and want. The end of pointless wars and racial oppression.”

“You think Donald Trump is going to bring all that about?” Leo scoffed. To his surprise, his question was met with raucous laughter, first from the man, and then from the entire crowd.

“Of course not,” the man said. “Trump is only the tool by which we shall enter the end times. He is merely the herald, ushering in the chaos upon which the Elder Gods will ride into our dimension. We have but to light the path. That’s where you come in. We must make a beacon of blood and fire.”

They hadn’t noticed the men creeping up behind them until it was too late. They grabbed Ian, forced him to his knees, and hacked off his head with a machete to the delight of the cheering crowd.

“We mark the path with blood!” shouted the man, presenting Ian’s head to the congregation.

“We mark the path with blood!” the crowd roared in unison.

“Now we must mark the path with fire,” shouted the man, pointing at Leo.

“No! I won’t tell anyone!” Leo shouted as they pulled his arms behind his back. He felt the ropes cut into his wrists just before he was pushed down onto the stage where they tied his feet.

“You can’t do this! I’m a British citizen! People know I’m here! They’ll come looking for me!”

No one was listening. He was alone on the stage. He could smell the petrol as they emptied their cans at the base of the pyre before hurling their torches at him. One landed next to him, nearly setting his hair on fire before he rolled away from it. He rolled all the way to the edge of the stage, only to roll back as flames shot up the side.

“We mark the path with fire!” they chanted, drowning out the sounds of Leo’s screams.