Elma set her cigarette on the edge of the soap dish. She examined her thinning hairline in the mirror, examined her ears, left eye, right, lifted each breast, ran her fingers across the skin her husband loved to nuzzle before his death. She put the cigarette back in her mouth and sat bare-assed on the commode to check her feet, between her toes.
There was a tick. Somewhere.
Or bedbugs. Lice. Bot flies. Fleas. Mites. Scabies.
She itched. Not just her skin. Her brain. The sharp, fiberglass splinters of last night’s television, Parasites: Monsters on Your Skin, lodged there, pricking.
She knew it was the show driving her nuts. The new nurse had put it on. “Do you mind?”
She liked the girl. Never in a hurry. Elma’d learned to ask about their days. To offer tea. To keep new ailments to herself or they’d nurse-up the whole night.
On her inspection, she skipped the painful area behind her knee. The one she’d been ignoring. Keeping quiet about. That patch, sore to the touch for a month at least, wriggled and writhed, but she didn’t look.
Instead, she scrubbed ticks from her hair. Mites from her breasts. Scabies off her skin. Even when she nicked the spot with her nail and the beetles tumbled out—again—their hard carapaces clicking against the tile floor, the last one catching, pinching on the way out of the wound, even then, she kept flicking her hair, fingering her scalp, searching, never looking down.
It begins with pustules, like burns bubbling up and out of you. Like God’s fingers poking holes through your skin. Your mother says they are sin leaving your body, and you are grateful for the pain when you remember to be, when you can conjure her reassurance, when the memory of her voice cuts through your mewling.
She is dead one week now.
You call Mission, the number in your heart so you don’t even have to use the app, and pray three times a day. You are considering adding another worship, but each requires talking— God takes no texts—and the blisters in your throat burst if your vocal chords stretch and dance too long.
There is also your dwindling bank account. Your tithing will be weak this month.
You are not prepared for stage two of the disease. The sloughing will come as a shock. Even after seeing the others writhe like snakes. Even though you keep telling yourself it is coming.
You are not prepared.
The sound of an ambulance splits you in half, amplifies the headache that will not leave. You are sure the neighbor girl must have called for it, the one you tried to save. The one you left tracts for. Tracts you drew in the dark when you could no longer print new booklets. The one with thick brown hair and the little scar like a dimple. You are not stupid. You have seen the your small comics in her garbage bin, unbent and speckled with coffee grounds, but still you worry for her. Care.
You lift yourself off the kitchen floor, where it is coolest, where the linoleum is smooth and icy. You wonder if she is already delirious. If she can stand on her own. If you will have to carry her.
You want to help so badly.
The thick padding on your feet that tells—no—told the story of how you love—loved—to run has been replaced by someone else’s skin. Brittle and thin and red. It hurts to walk. “But then everything hurts,” you say to no one, laughing a little. What is one more assault?
Her door is open and she is a puddle on the floor, a wet thing. “No,” she says, and you know she is delirious now. All the sweat. You wonder just how hot she will be to the touch. Your touch. It is as if you can see her fever wilting the air around you both.
The ambulance will have some trouble getting to the building.
Her hair, matted and soaked, is still a pretty chestnut color. The color of a horse, a tree, a bit of pecan. You say something reassuring. A little prayer from your mother. The nice one. You don’t want her to be afraid.
There is a whooping, the call of the ambulance pulsing the alarm. They are at the barrier now. The one you helped build when the news broke. Smallpox. A mutation.
A disease long dead, you’d thought. A disease for ancient people, sepia toned strangers forgotten before you were born.
She may be running out of time.
The couch is heavy and the blisters on your hands leak around their pearl like centers as you try to move it, make a barricade. You will not give her to them. They who rankled and defied Nature until there was nothing left to do but cleanse. “We are noble,” your mother told you, “in these deaths. Lucky to have Him work through us. To set this place right.” Then, as if seeing a twitch, the air itself hesitate, she added, “And don’t you forget it.”
“Have you eaten?” you say to the neighbor girl. What you want to tell her is that she is a beautiful vessel. To be grateful. What you want to do is stroke her blistered face.
The puppets will be slow, trundling dinosaurs in hazmat suits. You have seen them before, but only on television, commentators’ faces twisted in anger as the footage rolled behind them. “CDC goons.” You may not move fast, but they are crawling devils. You have the advantage here, this part of the city so thick with The Word. Pious.
The couch is almost in place. Just a little further and you will be able to leave it, able to lift her up and make her safe.
The neighbors warned her. They knew what sort she was. So did you. You read her bumper stickers. Knew her job. But they showed tolerance for her presence. When the plague broke, one by one, they pulled her aside and twisted their faces in rage and shook their fingers. You even took your own turn, but gentler. You tried.
There is a noise. The building is breached, and you must make a decision. They cannot take you against your will. That right is settled into law, but she will be lost.
She fights (fights you!) and is stronger than you thought she would be. And not as fevered. Her voice is panting but not deluded, not deranged. “Let me— let me go. Let me go. I need medical—”
“Shut up,” you say.
She quietens and you relax, but then she says it, her voice soft and loving, a bit of silk: “They can treat us. They can save us, maybe. Not just me. You, too.”
And your decision is made. You drop her and sit on her chest. She has the devil’s tongue.
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