Smallpox Ate the Americas Once
by Leon Perniciaro
Will and Santos attacked the farmhouse door with hatchets as Marco coughed blood and clutched his chest behind them. A few miles northeast, both Twofer ships jutted from Lincoln Woods State Park like massive lawn darts.
“I’ve never seen anybody survive a Twofer infection this bad,” Will said, flecks of sweat in his patchy new-growth beard. He’d been a student at Brown before the end. Now he carried a pistol and slept in their looted Humvee.
“Just get the door down,” Santos answered.
Once inside, Marco staggered to the kitchen to refill his canteen, but the pipes clunked and nothing came out. Santos padded behind him, shining her flashlight through darkened doorways like a doctor checking throats. “Flo said this was the place. It’s got to be here somewhere.”
“We’ve all seen it,” Will said. “They start coughing and never stop.” At first, every death had been a tragedy. Now the world held only strangers, and in crossing that threshold of acquaintance, each of them had crossed a line within themselves. Those that remained had gathered at Fox Point, in downtown Providence.
In the kitchen, Santos checked the larder, but its shelves were bare. “Food, water, medicine. It should be here.”
Marco moaned, his chest bulging where the Twofer had softened his ribs, his face shading to eggplant. He pushed into the larder to see for himself.
Will rattled his own empty canteen. “I’m not saying this to be cruel, Marco. You need to be prepared.”
“Maybe there’s something upstairs,” Santos offered, pounding Marco’s back. “We can search—”
A boom echoed across the hilltop and they each recoiled, but Marco stumbled into the larder shelves, which swung to reveal hidden concrete steps leading down.
His momentum carried him on, and he tumbled backwards into darkness and disappeared.
When first the ships arrived, the world went crazy. The things inside looked like neotenous sheep sewn back-to-back and made to walk on their hind legs. The TV called it rachipagus: conjoined twins with fused spines, the double-skull allowing for bigger brains. They climbed down to the earth, but so did their germs, and when people started dying, they sealed themselves away again.
Jets of gray-white steam were billowing now from one of the ships. After months of nothing, they were opening back up.
“We have to get away from here!”
“We can’t leave Marco. He’ll die!”
“Marco’s a late-bloomer, Santos. But now that he’s caught it, he’ll die and get us killed doing it.” Will pointed at the window. “That could be Twofer Part Two. You want to be here for that?”
Marco’s coughing slowed, and Santos hovered in the doorway. “Marco? You okay down there?”
A bitter laugh, cut off. “Peachy, except—I can’t catch—my breath and—there’s a door. Flo said—” The rest was lost to coughing.
“A door?” Santos could feel the ships inching closer, but when she glanced past her shoulder, they were still where they’d landed. She made up her mind then.
“I’m coming down!” She ripped out her flashlight and descended as Will chewed his fingers in the larder.
At the bottom, a shadowed recess framed a mottled green-red door among stacked bricks left over from construction. Santos tried the handle. It was locked.
“This must be it. Right?”
Wincing, Marco tried to sit up. “No idea.”
“You sound better.”
“I don’t feel better.”
Santos hefted one of the unsecured stones. “Tápate los oídos,” she said and smashed it against the door’s spotted handle.
“What’s going on down there?” Will’s voice echoed, hysterical.
Santos smashed the handle again, and this time it cracked and fell away.
Beyond it stretched a cavernous room, boxes stacked, machinery glinting. Supplies enough to last them years. Santos clapped her hands and whooped.
She beamed at Marco, but the little man was pulling at his throat, another wave of Twofer seizing him.
“There must be medicine! We can fix this!” Santos threw herself at a caduceus-stamped crate, but the top was nailed shut and there was nothing at hand to open it.
“The brick—” Marco choked, and Santos snatched it back up and smashed it into the box, broken supplies and equipment scattering everywhere. She dug till she found a pristine syringe and tiny bottle of corticosteroids, then flipped Marco onto his stomach to stab his hip. Afterwards, the old man crawled away, but the shiver of his chest lessened and he sucked down a full breath. Bloodshot eyes hung in his purple face above a faucet nose. He licked his lips and mouthed Gracias.
A clamber echoed from the stairwell, and Santos turned in time to see Will stumble through the broken door.
“Flo was right! There’s so much here that we’ll need a big rig to move it all! It’s enough to last us years!” A laugh bubbled from Santos’s throat. Years! This was their deliverance.
Will stepped forward and the smile died on Santos’s face. The young man had his pistol drawn. Santos’s own hung from her belt.
“Didn’t you hear me? There’s medicine and food. Even Marco is doing better.”
Will shook his head. “Marco’s dying.” The old man wheezed nearby, eyes closed.
“I gave him prednisone. It’s working.”
“If he’s got the Twofer this bad, nothing can stop it. You’ll just prolong his suffering and eat up our supplies. They need this stuff at Fox Point.”
“I had to smash the crate. But there’s plenty left.”
“He’ll die, and then we’ll die. Better that we accept it. Better for Marco to go with dignity. Let nature run its course.”
“Aliens came, Will. One of them sneezed on some General and their germs ate through us like acid. Does that sound natural to you?”
“Horribly natural. Smallpox ate the Americas once. You think those people didn’t make hard choices? We can survive this. We just have to be strong. Marco understands.”
Marco unfolded his arms and lifted a middle finger. Will smiled sheepishly. “Look at him. You’ve seen people with the Twofer before. Do you really think Marco will recover?”
Santos looked at Marco, really looked at him. The basket of his chest was misshapen, his collar bones like furrowed eyebrows above a sinking sternum.
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. What good is it to gain the world but lose your soul?”
The corners of Will’s lips twitched. “Except we’ve lost the world too, haven’t we?” He rolled his shoulders. “It’s better this way. We won’t have to watch him die. I wish I’d had the courage to do this for my mom and dad. Did it help them to live another week? I hardly remember them as they were. Only the end. It’ll be better.”
Another boom echoed across the hills and reverberated down the stairwell, and Will wheeled to face the threat but it was only the other ship, the Twofers coming down at last. In that moment of distraction, Santos picked up the loose brick and whipped it at Will, who turned back in time to catch it between the eyes.
He fell with terminal velocity, pistol skidding, face erupting red.
Santos cried out and launched herself forward to staunch the wound as Will writhed and sucked his tongue. Santos hadn’t meant to, had only wanted to knock the boy down, because Will was a boy, was barely 20 years old, and he was one of the few who’d lived. Will was right that Marco would die, and now Santos had crushed one more soul from this world.
She sprinted to the open supply box and dug out saline, gauze, and tape. She patched Will’s face as best she could, and when Marco had another fit, she gave him an injection and the coughing passed. Santos willed herself to believe that she might just pull it off, might just save them both.
But Will died the next day.
She wrapped him in blankets and buried him beside the house. A few days later she carried Marco up and dug again. When she searched the place, she found the farmers tucked in bed. Their skin had peeled, their sternums softened. She’d seen it before.
Gathering what supplies she could, she drove south, back to Flo at Fox Point.
To the north, in Lincoln Woods State Park, pill-shaped dinghies ferried grotesque figures down to solid ground and back.