“Is it just me, or is this not the friendliest planet out here,” Susan asked. She swept a strand of sandy blond hair behind her ear as she read the sign again. It was little more than a series of rough cut boards nailed together and whitewashed to make the thick black lettering stand out. Susan squinted as she read as if uncertain of the language it was written in. “What kind of plague do you think they’re talking about? Ebola?”
“Yeah, that’s probably it. Ebola,” said Moira. She pushed the wide brimmed hat off her head and it fell back, held to her neck by a thin strip of leather and leaned against the packmule, exhausted. It snorted at the additional weight “It could be anything. Cholera, AIDS, I don’t know.”
“Moi. If we don’t get food soon, I’m going to eat Betty.”
Moira glanced at the packmule carrying their gear. She was small and young but Moira blanched at the thought, worried the animal might taste like she smelled.
“Maybe you should have thought about that when you were packing,” Moira said.
“They said the towns were close,” Susan cried. “I didn’t know it was going to take us two weeks to get here.”
“Well,” Moira said. “There’s always another possibility.”
“And? What’s that?”
“Baptism wasn’t exactly a welcoming place,” said Moira. “Advertising a plague’s always been a sure way of keeping strangers away.”
“Are you saying they’re faking it,” Susan said, her voice rising into a scream. She ran to the sign and slammed her fist against it. “You dirty motherfuckers!”
“I’m saying they might be faking it,” Moira said.
Susan sighed and dropped to the ground, landing on her ass with a thump. Her trousers were already green from sleeping on the seemingly endless lawn that covered the planet and she couldn’t see the harm in a little more.
“Give me some odds,” she asked with a tired sigh.
“I guess it’s fifty-fifty. They either have a plague or they don’t.”
“We can go around,” Moira said. She rubbed her stomach and felt the same pang of hunger that had been haunting her for two days but knew she could make it a little further before resorting to the mule. “There’s supposed to be another town just a little ways north of here.”
“No way,” Susan said. “Go in there and find out whether they’re faking or not.”
“You’re the doctor!
“I’m also human,” Moira said. She reached into her pockets to find her cigarettes and her long black hair fell over her face. She pushed it over her head and it tumbled back down in cascades. “If I go in there and they do have a plague, then I’m just as likely to get it as they are.”
“Don’t be silly,” Susan said. She fell back in the grass and watched the clouds roll by.
Moira kicked Susan in the side. Reaching down, she grabbed hold of her friend’s arm and began to drag. “If I’m going, then so are you.”
“But, Moi,” Susan whined as she let herself be pulled. “I’m too tired!”
From the top of the gentle hill into the slight valley, the town of Exodus looked much the same as the one they left behind almost three weeks before. It was like an idealized suburban development transplanted, but with ankle deep green grass growing where asphalt and cement should have been. It was as though everyone had decided to build on the lawn of a royal palace. Trees hugged the town from atop hills on three sides, the fourth bordered by a burbling river, churning lazy to the south.
Moira and Susan emerged from the tree line and happened across a man working a small patch of soil. From fifty yards, he was like every other farmer encountered thus far, patched overalls and a wide brimmed hat, muscles straining against a tool working the dirt. Moira and Susan approached, dragging the protesting Betty behind them. The man paused in his work and dipped a ladle into a wooden bucket. But instead from sipping from it, he poured it over his face, snapping at it with ghoulish teeth.
Susan recoiled in horror, tripping over her own feet and falling backward. Moira helped her back up and the two women clung to one another, uncertain of what they saw. Where ears and a nose should have been were exposed holes through the man’s skin. What was left of his nose revealed bone beneath, the cartilage gone. He had no lips, leaving him with a constant skeletal grin, and protective goggles covered wide, unblinking eyes. His vision must have been affected as he nodded with familiarity saying, “Howdy.”
Moira and Susan exchanged nervous glances.
“Uh… Howdy,” Susan said.
“Any news outside,” the farmer enquired. “What did Crucifixion say?”
“We’re not from there,” Susan said. “We’re travelers, visiting Columbus.”
What was left of the farmer’s face turned angry and the grin transformed into a leering sneer.
“Damn your eyes,” he spat through his protruding teeth. “Don’t y’all know how to read? There’s a plague in this here town. Now, you ain’t touched nothing or no one yet, so if you just get, then–”
“My friend’s a doctor,” Susan said. She shoved Moira forward despite her friend digging in her heels. “We’d be willing to trade services for food, if you’ve got any.”
“If y’all want’a be fools, then come on in,” the farmer said. There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm. “But we got ourselves healers and they ain’t done shoot.”
Susan pushed Moria forward by the shoulders. Moria shot back a horrified look, her head shaking emphatically in the negative.
“Come on, Moi,” Susan said. “We haven’t eaten in forever.”
“Sue, you know what these people probably have? Look at him! He’s got Hansen’s!”
“Can you get it from food?”
“Then who cares?”
“Jesus, it’s not that simple,” Moira said. “Antibiotics can’t be carried out to the colonies, which means that if we get it, we can’t be cured unless we get back to Earth.”
“Then at least I’ll have a full belly when I start losing body parts.”
“It ain’t the leprosy,” said Bill Dixon as he ladled soup from an iron pot. “That much, I know for sure.”
“See,” Susan said. “I told you we didn’t have anything to worry about.”
“Now, I didn’t say nothing like that,” Bill replied. “There’s something that’s doing it, I’m just stumped for what it is.”
Moira and Susan sat around Bill’s large wooden table and glanced around the cramped single room shack. Larger medical instruments like saws hung from the low rafters, next to the heads from some of the bigger indigenous animals of Columbus. Between were strands of drying herbs, some of which Moira recognized as being from Earth. The table at which they sat had also been used as an operating table, unless the builder had applied red stain with abandon. Bill placed a bowl of soup at every setting before taking a seat himself.
“You seem unaffected,” Moira said. She blew over her bowl.
“So far,” he mumbled. In what must have been a nervous tic he’d since developed, Bill tugged at the lobes of both ears and swiped at his nose and lips with the back of his hand.
“Where did you go to medical school?”
“See, now that’s the thing,” said Bill, cracking wry grin. “Back on Earth, I was what you might call a bus driver. Out here, I’m a country doc. I ain’t bad with holes and broken bones and the like but this shit… it beats me.”
“Christ…,” said Moira. She caught something cross Bill’s face and covered her mouth, realizing what she’d said. “Sorry. I meant no offense.”
“None taken, personally,” Bill said. “I ain’t one of them religious types. They just pay me and house me, such as it is. If it weren’t for a little problem with the law back home, I wouldn’t even out be here.”
“Right,” said Moira, sharing a look with Susan. It wasn’t the first time in the colonies they’d heard as much.
“But some a them holy rollers, now they’d take your skin they heard the lord’s name in vain.”
They ate in silence until first the bowls and then the pot was empty. Bill cleared the bowls and spoons and returned with an ashtray. He held open a case of cigars in cigarette size, inviting them to take one.
“Some of the other less holy grow tobacco in patches outside of town,” he said. “It ain’t bad.”
“Thanks, ” Moira said.
Susan waved them away.
“Don’t smoke,” she said.
“So, no alcohol and no tobacco. What are they, Mormon,” Moira asked.
“Nah,” Bill said, puffing on his cigarillo and creating a cloud of thick smoke that obscured his face. He hacked twice with a smoker’s cough that had been years in the making. “Nothing like that. They’re just folk, Baptist like, who view any vice as being a bad thing.” Shrugging, he said, “T’each their own, I suppose.”
“I saw the church,” Susan said. “It was easily the biggest thing in town.”
“They call Columbus the ‘Planet of Steeples’ on account of all the churches,” Bill said. “A lot’a towns got two now. Exodus was about to build another when the plague struck.”
“Was there a patient zero,” asked Moira.
“Yep,” said Bill. “If you can believe it, it was the congregation’s head reverend. The sad son of a bitch caught it on his way back from some kind of meeting with the other reverends in the town of Matthew. Way up north? By the time he got back, there weren’t nothing left of his ears. Son of a bitch don’t even have a face left ‘cept for bone. It’s like looking at death himself these days.”
“Jesus,” Moria mumbled, adding, “Sorry, Bill.”
Bill dismissed it with a grunt.
“How much of the town’s infected,” Susan asked. Her stomach was full for the first time in a week and the reality of the situation began to dawn on her hearing Bill’s description.
“If I had to put a number to it,” Bill said, looking up at the ceiling. “I don’t know. Maybe eighty-five percent?”
“Nothing’s that virulent,” Moira said.
“Maybe Ebola,” Bill offered with a shrug.
“I told you! Hah!,” Susan shouted, standing up and laughing before realizing what it meant. She sat down again, more somber.
“Almost wish it were,” said Bill. “I seen some beautiful girls disfigured before they died. Some of them by their own hand, regardless of what their daddies said about god and suicide. The rest, well… no skin and infection sets in. That’s what kills most.”
Bill stubbed out his cigarillo and stood, stretching to the ceiling with an animal yawn. Moira and Susan looked politely the other way as his untucked shirt rode up to reveal a hairy belly.
“Well, ladies,” he said. “You must be beat, what with all the walking. There ain’t a hotel or nothing but you’re more than welcome to stay here. I got an extra cot and a hammock that you’re welcome to divvy up between you. I’ll be back later and’ll try to keep my noise down.”
“Thanks, Bill,” Moira said.
“Happy to help.”
He pulled on a light coat and a Stetson, tipping his brim to them. Stepping out onto the wide porch that lined the front of the cabin, he pulled the door shut into its tight frame with a heavy bump of wood on wood, leaving the women alone in the warm little room.
“I want the cot,” Susan said.
Susan’s chainsaw snoring woke Moira early. She pulled herself out of the hammock, landing on the floor with a light thump. Taking a moment to remember where she was, she watched Susan turn over, her hands clawing to bring the blanket over her shoulders. Moira grinned, pulled on a pair of jeans, and began searching through Bill’s kitchen nook for anything resembling coffee. She found some stinking herbs and other dried foods but nothing that fulfilled her deepest wish at the moment.
She let herself out onto the porch and found Bill rocking in a chair holding a cup of liquid steaming in the dewy morning air.
“Morning,” Bill said.
“Coffee,” Moira asked, rubbing fists into her eyes.
Bill drained the cup and refilled it from a thermos hidden behind the chair. He passed it over.
“You have no idea how much I need this,” Moira said, putting it under her nose and taking in the sweet scent. “Thank you.”
“Least I can do.”
Bill rocked back and forth with small squeaks. Moira sat on the step. In the distance the dew sparkled on the grass turning the landscape almost silver when the local rising sun reflected off of it. It stood in stark contrast to the tree line that ringed the town and their heavy green leaves.
Moira fished in her front pocket for a pack of cigarettes and lit one. The smoke disappeared as it drifted away over the silver sheen and was carried up by the soft breeze.
“I was wondering… if I might impose on you,” Bill said. It was awkward, like a bellman waiting for a guest to tip and even more so to see from such a large man.
Moira waited with a smile.
“There are a couple of interesting cases I was hoping you might take a look at.”
Moira scrawled a quick note and pinned it to Susan’s shirt then followed Bill across the small town that was just beginning to wake. Bill pointed out the local sites of interest like a real estate agent. They passed the dry goods store and the stables with Bill explaining the vices of the various business owners, some of which were publicly known but most which weren’t, and what the local politics were. Moira nodded but followed along in silence. Watching Bill speak was more interesting than what he spoke about. He was a big man, both in height and girth, but his obvious excitement at touring her around the settlement made him almost small.
As they paused to let Bill catch his breath, a short man with thinning hair rushed by, eyes drooping and steps uneven. Bill leaned down and whispered in her ear, “Reverend Peavoy, back from another night’s entertainment at the cabaret, I’d reckon.”
“There’s a cabaret in Exodus?” Her interest was piqued by the possibility of a night’s entertainment. Her nightly cribbage games with Susan had become something of a bore during their transit from Earth. In the months since, it had become tedious.
“Well,” said Bill. “It’s called a cabaret but, really, it’s just a shack on the other side of the tree line that serves the thirsty.”
Bill cocked his head to the left and the two continued the tour.
“We don’t talk much about it,” said Bill after a minute. “Call it an unwritten rule but whatever happens there don’t get mentioned here.”
“Ain’t nothing like prostitution or nothing,” Bill added and Moira noted the defensive tone.
“Wouldn’t bother me if it was,” Moira said. “The place we stayed on Galileo had girls and it was as healthy a workplace as I’ve ever seen.”
“Sure,” said Bill, nodding.
He led Moira to a clean, two-story white house surrounded by a waist-high picket fence. It was much like the others they’d passed except that owners took a kind of conscious pride in its upkeep. Not a picket in the fence, not a shingle on the roof was out of place. And the paint looked as if it was reapplied every other month, just to keep things fresh.
“Now this is John Moore’s place,” Bill said, pausing at the gate. “His wife, son, and little girl have all started to be effected. The strange thing is, he ain’t got so much as a rash.”
“Is that how it manifests?”
“At first,” he said. He dropped his cigarillo and ground it into the grass with his heel. “His wife keeps a clean place–she fears germs see–and their progress is slower than usual, but it’s still progressing.”
“So it might be something environmental?”
“If it were, I’d think John’d be effected, but like I said–”
“Not even a rash.”
“On people with the plague, I’ve found some microscopic beetles that infest the infected skin but I think Missus Moore’s dedication to cleanliness has kept them at bay thus far.”
They climbed the front steps and Bill rapped on the door. It opened a crack and a handsome woman peered out before swinging it wide and greeting them with a smile.
“Hi, Doc,” she said.
“Hey, Anna,” Bill said. “I was wondering if I could maybe take a look at your family, if you got the time.”
Moira noticed that Anna’s straight black hair was down over most of her face in a way that could have looked sloppy had it not been so carefully placed.
“I’d like to introduce you to Moira Cork, a doc from Earth,” said Bill as Anna led them into the living room. “I was hoping she might be able to help us out with this problem of ours?”
“The plague,” Anna said. She laughed bitterly before she could stop herself, a hand shooting up to cover her mouth. Glancing to Bill with embarrassment, he replied with a casual wave that it was nothing and Anna turned to Moira. “It’s a pleasure, Missus Cork.”
“Just Moira,” she replied, ignoring the lack of title. She held out her hand but Anna shied away.
“Should I fetch the children,” Anna asked.
“Won’t be necessary, dear,” Bill said. “If it’s all right, we’d just like to examine you.”
“You should look at the children,” Anna protested. “Let me go get them and I’ll–”
“Anna,” said Moira.
“Missus Moore, please,” Anna snapped.
“Missus Moore,” Moira continued, corrected. “Please, I’d really like to start with you.”
Anna Moore glanced to Bill for support but he nodded for her to take a seat. With great reluctance, she sat on the couch, smoothing the cotton dress she wore over her knees. Moira took up position on one side and Bill on the other.
Moira examined her closely, noting an eczema around her nostrils and lips well hidden beneath a pancake layer of makeup. She pulled Anna’s hair back and saw that much of the lower earlobe was gone, replaced with a jagged scar as though it had been cut away with a dull instrument. She let go of the black hair and Anna clawed at it with her fingers to re-cover her disfigurement.
“This is how it starts?”
“Yes,” said Bill, his voice turning to gravel with concern. “It’s progressed the slowest in this house because, like I said, of Anna’s superb sense of cleanliness.”
Anna smiled, but it was out of politeness.
“And the children are the same.”
“Yep. All the same.”
“Should I fetch them,” Anna asked.
“In a moment, dear,” Bill said, resting his hand on her shoulder. “So, doc, what think you?”
“Mister Moore has none of the symptoms?”
Moira chewed her lip as she eyed Anna and considered.
“Missus Moore, is there anything you do that your husband doesn’t,” she asked. “Or anything that your husband does that you and the children don’t?”
Anna thought for a moment.
“Mister Moore fishes nearly every day,” she said. “That’s where we get most of our food. More fish than beef or hog.”
“Anything else? Anything you can think of?”
“No,” Anna said with a finality. “My husband’s a good man.”
“This would be a lot easier if we had antibiotics to put people on,” Moira said. She and Bill strolled the grassy path between the houses, each with a cigarillo in hand. The dew had burned off and the silvery sheen was gone, replaced by the usual green landscape that pervaded the entire world.
“I tried to get some out here but it’s damn near impossible,” said Bill.
“Wouldn’t matter if you did,” said Moira. “The ambient radiation during space travel kills them anyway. They’re useless more than a week out.”
“Well,” Bill mumbled. “That explains a lot.”
“Is there anything you can tell me about him?”
“Nothing to tell,” Bill shrugged. “I ain’t never seen him at the cabaret. He’s pretty much as advertised. A right, good man.”
“You’re not making this easy,” said Moira with a smile.
“If it was easy, we wouldn’t need you, now would we?”
The two medicos climbed the step to Bill’s porch, Moira patting her mule’s inquisitive head on the way up, and let themselves into his shanty. They found Susan inside, a small spread of sandwich condiments spread out on the table before her and nothing but crumbs on her plate. She looked up and grinned.
“Hey, guys,” she said. “Where’ve you been?”
“Out,” Moira answered. “You going to go do some of your exploring today?”
“Exploring,” Bill asked with a crooked smile.
“Susan imagines herself a modern day explorer,” said Moira.
“I’m searching for new life,” Susan said. “We’re going to visit all fifteen worlds of the colonies and we’re documenting everything.”
“Well,” said Bill with a chuckle. “Good luck with that.”
“Anyway,” Susan said. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I was going to go out. Starting with a dip in the river. I itch like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Mosquitoes get you,” Moira asked.
“Ain’t no mosquitoes on Columbus,” Bill said. “Best thing about this place.”
“Whatever,” said Susan. “Maybe I just need a bath.”
“I’ll go with,” Moira said. She looked over to Bill. “Maybe later tonight you could take us to the cabaret. I could really use a drink.”
“Works for me,” said Bill. “It’s where I went last night. No skin of my nose to take you, too.”
He paused, realizing what he said, and shook his head.
“That didn’t really come out the way I meant it.”
The cabaret was as Bill described, little more than a large shack built against a stout tree on the other side of the tree line from Exodus. Smoke billowed out of a pair of stone chimneys, sound and light pouring out of every crack in the uneven planks that made the walls. It wasn’t much larger than Bill’s cabin but the noise inside that people had packed themselves in nonetheless. Just beyond, lit with stray rays of lantern light, was a field of tobacco, ominous where the light couldn’t penetrate.
Bill led the two women in through a rickety door and pushed through to the bar, behind which stood three men who could have been brothers.
“This is crazy,” Moira shouted over the din.
“Only place around here that serves,” Bill replied. “Hence the prices.”
Moira followed his hand and saw a chalkboard hanging precariously from the wall. It listed only three things: gin, whiskey, and vodka. But next to each was a complex matrix of prices for various currencies. It was a miniscule version of a foreign exchange desk, translating Nigerian naira’s and American and Canadian dollars into the new Colonial Dollar issued on Athena. And regardless of the exchange rate, it was expensive. A shot of whiskey was the equivalent of fifty dollars back in the United States. Even Moira and Susan, who were used to standard thirty-dollar martini in New York, were taken aback.
“I guess it’s a drink apiece then,” Moira screamed in Susan’s ear. “What do you want?”
“Gin,” Susan called. She began scratching at her face again, as she had been all day.
“Gin and whiskey,” Moira shouted to the bartender. He poured the shots from two dirty glass mason jars and pushed them over after Moira surrendered a pair of fifty-dollar coins.
Susan took her drink, clinked it against Moira’s, and poured it down her throat, grinning as it warmed her stomach. Moira sniffed at hers with suspicion and sipped with even more care.
She glanced around the bar, appreciating the almost medieval tavern atmosphere of it and grinned. It wasn’t the Welshman & The Wop on Galileo but there was something more celebratory in the air. People shouted and drank and smoked. And everyone still had their ears, lips, and noses.
“Everyone in here looks fine,” Moira shouted at Bill.
“Yeah,” he replied, his booming voice cutting through the din. His face bunched up in concern, as if he hadn’t noticed before. “What do you think that’s about?”
“You’re taking the cot tonight, Moi,” Susan said, coming out of Bill’s cabin on their fifth day in Exodus.
Moira and Bill glanced up from their coffee and cigarillos and watched Susan stumble outside still half asleep. Her hands scratched at her head and down the side of her face, rubbing the lobes of her ears over and over again. Bill gave Moira a significant look, though Moira avoided seeing it.
“There are some serious bedbugs in that thing,” Susan said. She plopped down next to her friend and stole the coffee out of her hand. “Or maybe we should just move on. There’s nothing interesting here.”
“Sue,” Moira said. “Stop scratching for a sec and let me see your face.”
Susan put her hands down and under her bare legs to keep them away and pushed her face out for Moira to examine. Moira turned Susan’s chin from side to side. She pushed Susan’s hair away from her ears and checked her earlobes. Their bottoms were slightly scabbed and an eczema appeared to be spreading around Susan’s lips and nose.
“Christ,” Moira mumbled.
“What,” asked Susan.
“How fast does it usually spread, Bill?”
“From the first indication,” asked Bill in thought. He got out of his rocking chair and performed his own examination. “The earlobes are usually gone in about two weeks.”
“What,” asked Susan, eyes flashing with panic.
“Would you say this is fast or slow,” asked Moira.
“Five days? Slow side.”
“Guys,” Susan shouted, pushing Bill and Moira away. She stood up and backed against the outside wall of the cabin. “Are you saying I’ve got the plague?”
Moira avoided her eyes, focusing instead on the burning end of the cigarillo and the smoke the drifted into the air.
“Come on, guys,” Susan screamed. She couldn’t resist scratching her face but as she did so, tears began to roll down her cheeks. “Come on, be serious.”
Moira stood up and hugged her friend, wrapping her arms tight around Susan.
“Nothing’s certain yet, Sue,” Moira said. “We’re going to find a cure, okay?”
“I don’t want to look like that farmer,” Susan cried, choking on tears. “Don’t let me end up like the farmer.”
Bill put his arm around Susan and began to lead her inside.
“Come on,” said Bill. “I’ve got some ointment that’ll help the itching.”
Moira followed them and watched as Bill sat Susan on dining chair. She leaned against the doorframe, chewing on her lip, thinking.
“Bill,” Moira said, contemplating her next words. “Sue itched less after our night at the cabaret….”
“Yeah,” he asked. He looked up from his mortar and pestle, pausing his work as he waited to see where she was headed.
“And,” she continued. “No one there had any symptoms…”
“How often are they there?”
“Almost every night.”
“And how often are you there?”
“Me,” asked Bill. “I don’t know. Once or twice a week?”
“Are they the only ones,” asked Moira. “I mean, are they the only ones without symptoms?”
“I told you before, John Moore is fine even though his family’s infected,” said Bill. He began grinding, putting his whole body weight into it. “I don’t see what this has to do with nothing. I already know it ain’t the alcohol. John don’t drink.”
“Yeah,” Moira said. “But there’s twenty percent that aren’t infected, right? What’s in common?”
“Nothing,” Bill said. He voice was becoming testy, the mortar and pestle receiving the brunt of it.
“I want to meet Mister Moore,” said Moira.
“Who is she, doc,” John Moore asked frowning at Moira. He had the burly, sun drenched look of a fisherman but was dressed in a white linen shirt and tan slacks as if it were recreational sailing. Anna sat by his side, scowling as if her husband’s brusque demeanor had infected her by proxy.
“This is Moira Cork,” said Bill. Moira noticed that it was with less confidence than the introduction to Anna. “She’s a doc from Earth, passing through.”
“Look,” said Moira. “I don’t want to know about your sex life or kinky predilections. I just need to know if you ever go to the cabaret outside of town.”
“Mister Moore would never visit such a place,” Anna protested.
John nodded, chin high as his frown turning to contempt. Moira looked away in thought as Bill’s leg shook, nervous tap-taps as it pounded the floor. She traced the outline of her lips with her long fingers, tapping under her nose and smelling what remained of the cigarillo on them. She paused and looked at her fingers, the inside edge colored a faint yellow from the nicotine. Glancing at John Moore, she looked for the same but couldn’t tell his his rough hands.
“Do you smoke,” Moira asked.
“Of course he doesn’t,” Anna squealed. “It’s terrible for you!”
“Yeah,” said Moira. “I know. They mentioned that in med school. But when you’re out on the boat, away from the wife, do you ever have a cigarette? A cigar?”
“Bill,” Anna shouted, standing up with indignation. “How dare you bring someone in my house who makes such accusations?”
“We should go,” Bill said to Moira, quiet but urgent as if she’d crossed a line. He picked his hat off his knee and began to stand.
Moira stayed. She stared at John Moore, waiting for him to answer. John Moore stared back. Then blinked.
“I don’t smoke more than four or five a day,” he said.
“What,” Anna shrieked.
“Thank you,” sighed Moira, standing at last. She and Bill headed for the front door where she paused and turned. “If you don’t want Missus Moore to lose any more of her ears, I’d either share your tobacco or start smoking it indoors. Doctor’s orders.”
“You want me to what,” Susan asked.
The ointment had done its job and she no longer scratched at her face though it was still red with irration. Moira held out a cigarillo and Susan scowled at it.
“I want you to smoke this,” Moira said, waving the stick of tobacco under Susan’s nose.
“Are you crazy?”
“I feel like it sometimes, but no. This’ll cure you.”
“How will lung cancer cure me?”
“It’ll cure you of the beetles,” Bill said. He lit a cigarillo of his own and inhaled with a new satisfaction.
“What beetles,” asked Susan. “What the hell? Since when is smoking good for you?”
“Since beetles are the cause of the plague,” Moira said. “The plague is beetles. They must eat the cartilage and soft tissues. But it seems as though they have an aversion to tobacco. Probably the nicotine.”
Susan reluctantly snatched the cigarillo from Moira’s hand and puffed on the flame offered to her by Bill.
“You were progressing slowly because Bill and I had the occasional smoke indoors and the residue on your skin kept them away,” said Moira.
“And because nicotine can leech through the skin,” Moira explained from the pulpit of the town church. “Every time John Moore hugged his wife and kids, he was giving them enough of an antidote to keep their infestations at bay.”
She looked over the entire population of the town and grinned, pleased with herself. She shuffled her presentation, prepared onto note cards, and waited through the silence for inevitable questions.
“So, doc,” asked a member in a middle pew. “Are you saying we should smoke?”
“Obviously smoking has its downsides,” said Moira. “So burning it in your houses should be enough. Or no more than four or five a day if you prefer to smoke it. Either way, I’d still suggest planting it in a ring around the town.”
The congregation sat in stunned, disbelieving silence.
“It’s not a new thing. People have used tobacco as a pesticide since it was discovered. This is just, well, a new pest.” Moira said, wondering herself how mad she must have sounded. Recommending people smoke? She understood their reluctance. The question was, what was more important, losing the skin on their bodies or the possibility of cancer down the road?
Moira patted Betty’s head as she looked over the packs to make sure nothing was forgotten. If anything, the mule overloaded, the result of gifts from every family that had been saved from the plague. Its back was slightly bowed but Betty wasn’t complaining, so Moira let her be.
“Sue,” Moira called. “It’s time to go.”
“Right, right, right,” Susan said, coming out of Bill’s cabin with her hiker’s pack over one shoulder and a cigarillo clamped firmly between her teeth. Bill followed with his hat in hand.
“Where you ladies headed,” he asked, leaning against the doorframe.
“Where the hell are we going,” asked Moira.
Susan rushed past to strap a few extra items onto Betty, a small purse and two jars of bathtub gin much to the mule’s dismay. Susan heaved her pack onto the other shoulder, shaking it into place. Glancing between the mule and Moria, she shrugged.
“”North. To Matthew,” she said. “That’s where the plague started, right?”
“Right,” said Bill.
“Yeah,” said Susan. “I guess we’ll make sure they’re okay then head off to the river region in the west to look for life.”
“One of these days,” Moira said. “We’re going to Athena. Or so she promises.”
“After the river region,” said Susan.
“Yeah, after that,” Moira said. “And then, who knows where.”
“Well,” said Bill, coming off his porch and hugging them in turns. “Take care of yourselves. Be good.”
“You too, Bill,” said Moira.
Moira and Susan led Betty away, through town and past the cabaret. They walked through the old tobacco fields and, as they climbed a gentle hill, Moira turned to see new fields being planted, ringing the town outside the line of trees. She laughed at the sight and shook her head. Catching up with Susan and the mule, she walked beside her friend.
“This was a great idea, Sue,” she said.
“It’s had its ups and downs, that’s for sure.”
“Yeah, but it was still a great idea.”
“I’m glad you think so.”