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EP331: Devour

By Ferrett Steinmetz
Read by Dave Thompson
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An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Ferrett Steinmetz
All stories read by Dave Thompson
Rated 15 and up for language, brief sexual imagery, brief violent imagery

Devour
By Ferrett Steinmetz

“I want some water,” Sergio says.  The bicycle chains clank as he strains to
put his feet on the floor.

Sergio designed his own restraints.  He had at least fifteen plumbers on his
payroll who could have installed the chains – but Sergio’s never trusted
anything he didn’t build with his own hands.  So he deep-drilled gear mounts
into our guest room’s floral wallpaper, leaving me to string greased roller
chains through the cast-iron curlicues of the canopy bed.

“You’re doing well, Bruce,” he lied, trying to smile – but his lips were
already desiccated, pulled too tight at the edges.  Not his lips at all.

I slowed him down; I had soft lawyer’s hands, more used to keyboards than
Allen wrenches.  Yet we both knew it would be the last time we could touch
each other.  So I asked for help I didn’t need, and he took my hands in his
to guide the chains through what he referred to as “the marionette mounts.”


Then he sat on the bed and held out his wrists while I snapped the manacles
on – the chamois lining was my idea – and we kissed.  It was a long, slow
kiss that needed to summarize thirty-two years of marriage. And it should
have been comforting, but his mouth was a betrayal.  His lips had resorbed
from their lush plumpness.  His tongue had withdrawn to a stub.

His kiss still sent flutters down my spine.

I pressed my hands against his back, moving towards making love, but Sergio
pushed me away.  “We don’t know how transmissible this is,” he said.  Then
he tugged on the chains to verify he could lie down and sit up, but not
leave the bed.

I pressed the keys into his palm, trying to burn the feeling of his skin
into mine forever.  He snipped the keys in half with a bolt-cutter, then
flung it all into the corner.

“That’s that,” he said, and rolled away from me to cry.  My arms ached –
still ache – from not being able to hold him.

Six days later, I’m still here.  And Sergio is still leaving.

“I want some water,” he repeats now.  Louder, more insistent.  Too angry to
be really Sergio.

“You never wanted water before,” I say, keeping a careful distance from the
bed.  “You like orange juice.”

Sergio tries to put his head in his hands.  The chains pull him short.

“For Christ’s sake, Bruce,” he says.  “I’m dying.  There are going to be
changes.”

“Yes,” I say guardedly.  “There are.”

“And it’s apple cider I like.  In a chilled glass.  From the local guao yan,
no, orchard – and not that sugared crap you like.  Don’t try to trick me,
okay?  It’s just insulting to.”

He almost says to us, but then shudders.

“I’m not going to do anything crazy with water,” he begs.  “I can’t turn it
into. what’s the word?  Flamethrowers.  It’s water.  I’m just. thirsty.
I’ll fight with you about the things that matter, but.

“Just get me some damn water!” he barks.  I stare at him, knowing the old
Sergio never yelled, wondering how much is left.

Because I can see the traces of a young Sergio within the thing trapped in
the four-poster right now.  Sergio always had that perfect, youthful mix of
good cheekbones and lean muscle.  Now, his thighs and biceps are swollen
like a hormone-stuffed steer – but aside from that, Sergio would be the envy
of any plastic surgeon.  His crow’s feet have been pulled from his skin, his
collagen replenished.  His hair, once a brilliant mane of salt-and-pepper
curls, has turned a lank black at the roots.  It looks like some horrid dye
job grown out, all that silver dangling from ends of Patient Zero’s flat,
dark strands.

It makes me feel old.  I am old – but even back when we’d first started
dating, my colleagues always mistook me for his father – a constant
humiliation.  Sergio never flinched; instead, he squeezed my ass and asked,
“Have you met my sugar daddy?”

I hated that.  It made him look like a whore, and he wasn’t.  He used the
money from his plumbing company to support me proudly, even though I was a
sucker for pro bono cases that drove him batty.  “I never knew you had such
a soft spot for hookers,” he’d joke.  “It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy,
knowing you love murderers, smack addicts, and me.”

Then he’d look down into his beer bottle, and add: “But if it makes you
happy, I’ll unclog every pipe in the Bronx to keep you funded.”

“Do you even know how to fit a pipe collar?” I ask the Sergio on the bed.

He shakes his head.  “You put – cement around it.  Screw it into the next
joint, I think.  Can you stop the fucking examination and get me a goddamned
drink?”

Then he adds a muttered “Please,” and I see his humiliation.  Sergio was
infamous among my protestor buddies for his “handouts weaken both the giver
and the receiver” tirades.  Now he’s reduced to begging for water.

So I walk down the spiral stairs to the kitchen, feeling battered by gaiety.
We crammed our summer home with bright colors, festive nooks, sunny windows,
making it the perfect escape from our sedate brownstone in Brooklyn – we
hired caterers to fuel our infamous week-long summer fiestas, attended by
all our friends. Now it seems like a brass band crashing through a
Protestant funeral.

I return and toss him a bottle of Andronico’s Distilled.  He gulps it down
gratefully.

“Give me back the bottle,” I say.

He crushes it into a curl of plastic.  I glance at the chains: Sergio told
me they had a tensile strength of 8,000 pounds.  Is that enough?

“I’m not a child, Bruce,” he snaps.  “You could ask respectfully.  A man
deserves jing yi hsi lao tu!”

“I don’t know what the rules are, Serge,” I apologize.  “I can’t let you
keep anything.  If you. you’re wrong about what’s dangerous for you to have,
and you. and I’m gone, then – then who’s going to handle your calls from the
plumbing company?”

His forehead, ridged with new protective bones, creases into a frown.  It’s
an argument to both sides, so I wait, knowing how many thoughts are in his
brain now; he has to sort through them to figure out which ones are his.

“That’s. reasonable,” he concludes, ashamed.  “Su liao.  My quiet
apologies.”

He licks the bottle.

“The water,” he says.  “It tastes different.”

“It’s distilled, Serge.  There’s nothing to it.”

“I know that.  But. I’m tasting top notes.  Copper and manganese.  And .”
His face reddens.  “When I swallow, it gurgles in different ways – water
sloshing down new pipes.”  He laughs, weakly.  “Can I try one thing?
Please?  I swear, I will give you the bottle after this.”

I nod, hating myself.  I shouldn’t trust him.  But how can I not?  I still
see Sergio.

He grips the crushed plastic in one hand like it’s a microphone on karaoke
night – but instead of bursting into his usual rendition of “I Will
Survive,” he tears the top of the bottle off with sharklike teeth.

The shredded edges dig into his lips.  The plastic makes a horrid crinkling
noise as a fist-sized chunk peristalts down his gullet.

Then he looks at me, his distorted features a muddle of emotions; the
satisfaction of a man who’s just had the meal he’s been longing for, the
horror of knowing what that meal is.

He drools blood and saliva on the shredded bottle.  He slowly pulls it away
from his mouth, then tosses it to me.

“Don’t get near me,” he whimpers.  “Don’t go.”

“I won’t.” Tears sting my eyes.  “I’ll stay until the last of you is. is…”

“Absorbed.”  He lets out a sob, then turns away from me, ashamed, hugging
himself.  He falls asleep instantly, exhausted from the transformation.

“Please be a bad strain,” I whisper.  “Please.  Mutate out of existence.
That’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?”

I lean against the blankets I’ve pushed against the wall and try to sleep.
Mercifully, I dream of Sergio.

#

“You’re serving vegetables at a Living Will party?” said the man with the
centaur tattoo, looking down at the Tupperware tray of broccoli in my hands.
“How morbidly appropriate.”

My dreams are bolt-holes these days; the only way I can get through this is
to keep dredging up my best memories.  And this one’s my finest treasure –
the day I met Sergio.

“If you like, you can do shots through the feeding tubes on the dining
table,” I reply, glancing over; predictably, all the single guys are showing
off by deep-throating the tubes and then pouring buttershots down.  “I
figure that if I have to make the community deal with the realities of a
spreading Gonorrhea-3, an upswell of assaults by fundie Levitikites, and New
York’s chronic inability to acknowledge same-sex partnerships, I might as
well make it fun.”

“It was destined to be fun,” he says, giving me that lush-lipped grin.  “You
come to a party where guys want doctors to pull their plug once they get a
head cold, you know you’re finding men who give up easy.”
He winks.  I let the crowd keep bumping us into each other.  His flannel
shirt-sleeves are rolled down, nearly covering a magnificent Grecian centaur
tattoo – and his smile is purest charm, a swarthy Cary Grant. The banter
makes me feel like Hepburn.

“So did you get your Living Will?” I ask.  I don’t quite dare to place my
hand on his shoulder to steer him towards the display.  “There’s a stack of
samples in the corner.”

“As much as I’m longing for you to witness me, I don’t think you have a
contract to fit me.”

“So you’re immortal?  You don’t need a plan for death?”

The room darkens.  His lips shrink a little, revealing jagged teeth.  That’s
just the dream, though, foreshadowing.
“Oh, fuck, I wish.”  He laughs.  “All your wills there end in ‘When things
get bad, cut me off.’  Fuck that.  I don’t care if all that’s left of me is
a pinky finger –  I want that digit hooked up to the best life support
system in the world, with a team of hot male nurses urging that nail to
grow.  There’s no God, nothing but this life, so my damn family can spend
themselves broke – just keep me in the game, guys.  You got a Living Will
like that for me, uh..?”

“Bruce,” I say – and as I juggle the tray to extend my hand, it’s him again,
so beautiful and strong.  “And yes, I both can and should write you a will.
Because your loved ones should know that you’re a selfish jackass who
doesn’t care about the trauma you’ll cause them.”

“So if I asked you to write me one, would that get me your number?”

“Hell,” I smiled, fishing a business card from my vest pocket.  “You had
that the minute you got my joke about the Living Will vegetables.”

He takes the card, letting his hands brush mine in a way that I realized
that this wasn’t simple flirtation, that he actually was going to call me –
and the memory of his fingers on my wrist jars me from sleep.

I awake to Sergio, only feet away and chained on the bed, and I remember his
touch so vividly that I push my face into the blankets so I won’t wake him
up as I cry.

#

My footsteps echo off of terracotta tiles as I pace the downstairs party
areas, the couches as distant as islands in a sea.  Our summer home was
designed for crowds.

I collapse into an overstuffed love seat to stare at our painted centaur
murals.  They’re galloping between Greek arches, dancing under the stars.

Sergio loved centaurs.  He’d pledged at Delta Lambda Phi, and even though
he’d dropped out of college shortly afterwards, the Lambda centaurs had
stayed with him.  “They’re in touch with their nature,” he said, “They can’t
deny they’re beasts.  But they master that to become something greater.”

But as I look at the wilding centaurs, I see them for what they are; full
men, being swallowed by the gullet of a headless equine.

Their smiles have revealed themselves to be terrified rictuses as the fur
creeps up their bellies, gobbling their human skin; their dances are
frenzied contortions as the human torsos wave their arms in vain struggles
to free themselves, the horse-halves galloping madly to befuddle them.  They
thrust their hands high into the air, knowing the infected DNA below their
waist wants to fuse their fingers into hooves.

I flee to my office, where the walls are bedecked with framed newspaper
clippings.  There I am, condemning the bombing of China.  There I am,
leading peace rallies.  There I am, organizing the tenth anniversary
candlelight vigil for the dead of Pittsburgh, Laramie, Tampa.

There I am, an absolute fool in everything I ever did.

I hear Sergio talking upstairs, and as always I unlock the gun safe – I’d
fought against the damn thing, but Sergio needed his protection – and take
the rifle into my hands, trying to envision how I’ll do it.  I’ll slip my
finger into this trigger.  I’ll rest this barrel against his forehead.  I’ll
shoot, when the time is right.

When is the right time to kill your husband?

I put the gun away.  Sergio’s muttering to himself in a glossolalia of
English and Chinese, a smeared mixture of himself and Patient Zero.  And I
ask myself the question that millions of families wondered:

Who is the man devouring my husband?

Damn you, I think.  My husband’s dying, but you?  You’re immortal.  Lurking
in long-abandoned septic tanks for unsuspecting plumbers to find – all you
need is one breath through a cracked HEPA filter, and you’re alive again.

“They should have bombed all of China,” I mutter.

“.Bruce?”

“That’s me.” I force a smile.  “Your ever-lovin’ husband.”

“I forget you when you leave,” he says.  “I can’t remember things.”

“That’s okay, sweetie,” I whisper.  “It’s fine.”

“No.  It’s not.  There’s going to come a point when it’s not me.  I’ll be
gone.  And I don’t know when that is.  And if I spend my last moment in
existence looking at a fucking wall before I wink out and not – not seeing
the man I loved, then – well, it doesn’t matter, really.  It’s so fucking
selfish – I’ll be dead a second later, vanished to nothing, and it’s stupid,
but I don’t want my last sight to be a wall.  I want it to be you.”

“So I’ll stay.”

I try to make it sound easy.

“I owned. a plumbing company, right?” he asks.  “There were. watchguards in
my profession.  Government monitors, checking my staff for – for infection.
How much time do we have?”

I stiffen.  A muddled Sergio might ask that. but it’s also the kind of data
the thing he’s becoming would need to know.

Answer no questions, the emergency bulletins had said.  The cancer is a
convincing actor.

“I don’t know,” I say.  “How long do you have?”

He slumps, disappointed.  “Bruce, use your head.  The Chinks didn’t get
James Bond for this – this Patient Zero crap.  He’s just another hick zealot
who volunteered for a, for a suicide mission – I remember watching my, his
buddies breaking out in tumors as they injected them and locked them in
cages, hoping maybe one of this next batch would turn into a biosoldier and
not just a heap of leaking organs.”

“Bruce, it’s okay – you don’t have to -”

“No!  He didn’t fucking eat, eat plastic, he ate turtle casseroles.
Noodles.  They turned him, me, into a fucking monster, this snarl-toothed
hulk that needed to eat recyclables to feed his unbreakable bones, something
where his own wife would have shrieked if she’d seen him.  And once they’d
made him into a killing machine, they fucking killed him, Bruce.  They threw
his body into a blender and made it infectious, but he was dead long before
they figured out how to cancerize him.  And now he has to eat his way out of
people’s brains just to figure out where he is.

“He doesn’t know how long it takes.  He barely understands he’s here, Bruce.
Every time I close my eyes I think I’m still in China, tugging at my cage’s
bars with distorted monster-arms, wondering why the hell they haven’t
shipped me to America.  And then some part of me remembers America won the
war a decade ago and I just want to tear everything apart, and it’s my rage,
my anger.”

I reach out to hold him.

Patient Zero grabs my arm.

It yanks me towards the bed, having lured me in.  But some part of Sergio
rebels: his feet shove against the soft mattress, smashing his forehead into
the cast-iron frame of the four-poster.

Blood spurts.  Patient Zero lets go, cursing in Chinese.

“You’ve got a week at most, you stupid fucker!”  I rub my bruised wrist.
“He was due for his monthly physical last Thursday!  The CDC-P’s probably
got a biohazard team at on our doorstep in Long Island – and then they’ll
come here!  Every agent in the CDC-P is looking for you, and I am going to
see you amputated!”

Patient Zero dissolves back into Sergio, crying low and hard.  Or is it him?

“Baby, please,” I plead.  “Don’t cry.  I’m not yelling at you, I’m yelling
at – it.”

“I know that,” he says.  “I’m losing it, Bruce.  My memories are all slurred
– ”

“I’ll be your memory, Sergio,” I plead.  “Just tell me what you forgot.
I’ll tell you how it was.”

He tugs on the chains so he doesn’t start clawing at his skin.  The canopy
bed creaks under the strain.

“I have all these memories of you,” he whispers, “As a stupid hippie
peacenik.”

I open my mouth, but find no reply.

“But here you are!” Sergio laughs crazily.  “You’re just like me, wanting to
burn China.  But it’s – it’s trying to convince me you’re one of those
asshole protestors.  Why would I have fallen in love with some stupid
moonbat?”

I shiver, thinking of all the fights we’d had over those goddamned peace
rallies.

“It’s changing both of us, sweetie,” I say, sagging against the wall.  “It’s
changing everything.”

#

Sergio is screaming.  He’s thrashing on the bed, chains jangling, flopping
like a fish in a net.

“Cramps!” he gasps, vibrating with anguish.  “Everything’s seizing up,
Jesus, Bruce, it huuuuuuurts – ”

I can’t touch him.

“It’s – it’s growth pains, baby.”  His centaur tattoo is stretching like
taffy.  “All those new muscles – ”
But I know what’s happening: Zero knows I won’t give it plastic.  And so
it’s accelerating the process, daring me to let Sergio die before it’s born.

“I’m on fire, my legs, God, everything’s burning – ” shrieks Sergio, and I’m
running downstairs to grab cans of peaches and TV dinners.  It bites through
frozen peas and tray alike, mashing them between ceramic teeth.
When it’s done, it collapses onto the bed with a cocky smile that’s not
Sergio’s.

I curl up against the blankets I’ve pushed against the wall, ashamed.  I’m
negotiating with terrorists.  I’m desperate for vengeance.  I’m everything I
ever hated.

“A Republican’s not just a Democrat who got mugged,” I whisper.  I want
Sergio argue like we used to – but he’s too far gone to rise to that old
bait.

We always joked that our best foreplay was arguing.  But he was furious at
me for organizing peace rallies once the war started.

“They watched their mothers’ eyes melt in Pittsburgh,” he said, planting his
finger in the middle of my chest.  “In Laramie, their uncles mutated into
killing machines that ate their children.  And you’re telling them they’re
selfish for wanting revenge?”

My head was bandaged.  They’d flung bottles.

“We’re not without sin here, Serge,” I’d said.  “Our funding of resistance
groups in Hong Kong?  Our economic sanctions that starved their children?
The blockade of Hebei province…?”

“So you’re saying it’s our fault?  Jesus, no wonder they tried to lynch
you.”

“I’m saying it didn’t come from nowhere.  And they failed, Sergio.  They
didn’t win.”

“Tell that to Tampa.”

He walked away, too angry to talk.

Later, he came back and bumped the top his head against my shoulder, our
traditional method of asking for a hug.  I put my arm around him.

“You’ve been reading those dead family blogs again, haven’t you?”

“I swear,” he grumbled, nuzzling me, “I don’t even know why I stay with you
sometimes.”  We made slow, mournful love – our own private vigil.

Conjoined, we mourned separate things.

Sure, I felt that same gut-quivering terror whenever I heard the buzz of a
Chinese drone – but I would not fall prey to fear.  Instead, I organized
candlelight vigils for the dead cities.  And because I refused to be
terrorized, I alone seemed to realize what historians would dutifully tally
later:

China’s bio-invasion hadn’t worked.

Sure, they bombarded American airspace, flying under our missile-shields
with millions of lightwing drones – little more than high-tech bottle
rockets, carrying payloads designed to overwrite people’s DNA.  But aside
from a handful of notorious successes, China’s war was the textbook example
of how unfeasible targeted bioweapons were.

Switching a country to a biowarfare footing is nigh-impossible.  Ask your
average sweatshop T-shirt maker to create weaponized DNA clusters, and that
poor bastard isn’t going to create quality fibrotic nodules.

And the payload was a one-shot, no more transmissible than an actual cancer;
if you didn’t inhale it, the DNA fragmented after twenty minutes in
sunlight.  I had charts that showed if the Chinese had gone in with a
barrage of nukes to overwhelm our shields, it would have led to far greater
loss of life.

Sure, when the clone-cancers worked, they were hideous – literal home-grown
terrorists with Patient Zero’s hatred and the infected’s home-town
knowledge.  They were smart enough to destroy Pittsburgh’s unguarded
chemical plants, to drive fuel trucks into Laramie’s shop.

Yet every success brought a thousand failures.  Though the cancer overwrote
the infected’s DNA with Patient Zero’s, most lay down and died.

Sergio spent hours looking at the photo-blogs devoted to the immobile dead;
he’d spammed the links to everyone on his social networks.

Each blog was the same, done in somber black, lacking commentary; they
didn’t need it.  Each showed families piled on their beds, pictures taken by
CDC-P epidemiologists before they burned the buildings to cauterize any
lingering payloads; a mother’s slack limbs draped protectively around her
daughters, her husband fused to her back.

Mother, daughter, husband, and son had the same face, their features
distorted to match one man: Patient Zero.  China never released his name,
but America knew his features all too well.  They’d seen a thousand corpses
stamped with his black eyes.

I couldn’t look at the tribute sites.  There was something too disturbing
about seeing three children with the skin of their faces tugged askew like
Saran Wrap, piled up on their Buzz Lightyear bedspread.  Their toys were
still on the floor, the curtains burning.

When people threw rocks at us during the peace rallies, they brandished
those photos.  Not the furious mutant murderers who’d truck-bombed Laramie –
just those tumored, unmoving dead.

I tried to tell Sergio that bombs were more efficient; that particular
horror was just tried and tested, is all.  And despite China raining 18% of
its GDP down on America, their biowar killed only a few hundred thousand.

“Only,” Sergio said.

In the end, thanks to heavy international pressure, America fired only three
retaliatory nuclear strikes – “Only,” I said – one for each of our dead
cities.  We incinerated millions of Chinese, and brought not one American
back from the dead.

Nobody minded.  Because as Sergio’s right-wing blogs loved to remind
everyone, we can’t kill China now.  As long as there’s an unfound biowarfare
cache, forgotten at the bottom of some unnoticed bombing site, at least one
Chinaman can always return.  He is, as they say, infinitely Patient.

I look at my lover, subsumed in our guest bed.  The men who did this to him
are dead.  And still, I want to scoop their ashes from radioactive rivers
and breathe life back into them, just so I can slit their throats.

He opens his eyes, now droplet black, and the horror of Sergio snaps every
nerve in my body to “on.”  I clap my hands over my mouth to muffle my
screams.

Maybe Sergio was right.  Maybe nobody who truly felt this could be rational.

Or maybe, I think, I just need to fucking start practicing what I’ve
preached.

“You didn’t know,” I mutter to Sergio’s infection.  “They made you into a
weapon.  You couldn’t choose not to devour him even if you wanted to.  It’s
not your fault.”

Sergio gives me a cold, curious look: a bird sizing up prey.

“I forgive you,” I say.

Sergio – Patient Zero – narrows his eyes.  Does he understand?  He smiles, a
tight-lipped mockery of Sergio’s sunny grin, then looks hopelessly confused.

It doesn’t matter.  This isn’t a real forgiveness; it’s a proof of concept.
My hands are still eager to grab the rifle.  Yet I promised I would be there
to see the last of Sergio, and oh God I’m too weak to forgive.

If I really wanted to reassure the thing on the bed, I’d tell it that I
lied.  Sure, Sergio missed his Thursday check-in – and in the days after
Laramie, showing up a week late for a screening might have inspired
hysteria.

But it’s been eleven years.

Somewhere, a bureaucrat at the CDC-P is shooting Sergio another email.
They’re threatening him with fines; another week, and they might send a cop
out to knock on our door.

Our only rescue is locked inside the gun cabinet.

#

Days pass.  I curl up in a nest of sweaty blankets and pee-filled plastic
jugs by the doorway, terrified to leave.  What if he cries out for the last
time and I’m not there?

Still, I keep sneaking downstairs to get the rifle from the safe, taking it
out and putting it back.

It’ll get easier as the end approaches, I think.  It must.  Because when I
glimpse Sergio out of the corner of my eye, I don’t even register him as
human; he’s a blistered monkey, a man made from Tinker Toys.  The tattoo
spirals around his arm like a stripe around a barber’s pole.

Then it curls up in the bed, hugging itself, and all I can see is Sergio.

There isn’t much left, though.  Patient Zero stares out most of the time.
It peers at me over and over again, frowning in concentration, as though it
hopes to find some clue that will clarify things.

“Wi yooz to make luuuuve,” it says in a thick accent, flashing me the
disgusted look that Sergio gave me whenever I dragged him to the opera.

“Yes,” I whisper.  “We did.”

“But yaw a man.”  It sniffs in disgust.

“Did it matter?  You know everything we had.  I dare you to tell me it was
wrong.”

I meet its gaze full-on.  It eases back onto the bed.

“A man,” it gurgles, staring at the ceiling, chains rattling as it scratches
Sergio’s thigh.

Sometimes, Sergio emerges in stages, like a cloud blocking the sun.  I can
always tell because when Sergio arises because he jolts awake, then stares
in horror at his spadelike hands.

“It’s my fault,” he sobs.  “I should have, have, changed that filter every
month – I was cutting costs.”

“They were expensive,” I assure him.

“It was one fucking filter.  The war was over.  If I’d known, I would have
bought a thousand filters so you wouldn’t have to – to – ”

“I’m fine,” I lie.  “Don’t worry about me.”

“I’m just so scared, Bruce.  Sometimes I wake up and I remember this
beautiful girl, and she’s kissing me, and she’s married to me – her skin is
all wrong, I don’t like it, but I do.  And then I open my eyes, and, and I
see you, and I don’t know who you are except that I know you love me.  You
love me.  And I realize that I’m already dead  – if I forget you, there’s
nothing to live for.”

“That’s why I’m here, Sergio.  I’ll be here, until, until…”

“Kill me.”

The room’s temperature drops ten degrees.

“What did you say?”

“Kill me.  Please.  I’m just making it worse for you.  That’s not – love –
just end me.  I’ll go.  It’s okay.  I’ll be – well, I won’t be fine, I’ll be
nothing, but maybe that’s better.”

“Sergio, if you’re not -”

“Don’t draw it out, goddammit!” he yells, rubbing clawlike knuckles against
wet cheeks.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but. I want to live.  I’m terrified of
being nothing, but hurting you is worse than nothing.  Just do it while I’m
still me.”

I go downstairs to the gun cabinet for the last time.  My hands are numb.
They shake as I load it.

I look around; the centaurs still have their hands in the air.  But now
they’re holding them up in surrender, giving way to the man with the gun.

When I return, Sergio has braced himself against the canopy, holding himself
in place for an easy shot.

“Look at me when you do it,” he pleads.  “Let you. be the last thing I
see..”

The rifle has the weight of thirty years.  At the end of the barrel, Sergio
gives me a brave smile that quivers with fear.

“It’s all right,” he whispers.  “I love you.”

There’s strength in those words.  Such strength.

I put down the gun.

“Bruce – no.”

I climb into the bed.  He tries to shove me away, but he doesn’t mean it; he
could tear me in half if he wanted.  Instead, I crawl across the stained
blankets to the greatest love of my life, and I bump my head against his
shoulder.

“I can’t hold him back forever, Bruce – please, shoot me – ”

But I slide my arms underneath his, feeling my palms bump over the knurls on
his spine, and pull him close.  He hugs me back with love, such ineffable
love.

“Take your time,” I say.

I bury my face in the hollows of his throat.  Patient Zero’s vinegary stench
fills my nostrils – but I nuzzle him closer and smell flannel shirts, New
York apartments with broken air conditioners.

He rubs my back, foreign hands with a familiar touch.

“I can’t,” he apologizes, his grip weakening.  “I can’t hold him.”

“Sssh,” I say, kissing his neck.  “Let go.”

He does.

#

I keep my cheek pressed against Sergio’s forehead, stroking his black hair.
His scent is gone.

I should call the CDC-P and let the professionals handle this.  But I
promised I wouldn’t leave.  So I will spend my last moments whispering in
this thing’s ear in the hopes that Sergio will not spend his last moment in
the universe alone. and then Patient Zero will tear me to ribbons.

It stirs, an anxious child waking from a nightmare.  I tense.  I pray he’ll
be quick.

“It should have been someone else,” Sergio says, his voice thick with a
regret that is not Sergio’s at all.
Patient Zero clamps me against its chest.

“A million times,” it says in accented English, rocking back and forth.  “A
million failures.  If I’d been stronger, I would have destroyed you all, my
wife would be alive.”

“I don’t.”  But as it drags me back down to the bed, I realize:

It’s hugging me.

“I knew how bad Americans were,” it says, its thin lips brushing against my
ear as it tells me its secret.  “I heard the cries of the starving young in
Zhanjiang.  Make me a cancer to devour those soulless bastards, I said.
Break me into the smallest parts you can; I will eat my way out of them,
then feast on their children.”

It coughs, spraying out red mist.  I can feel its body shutting itself down,
just as it sped itself up.

“They wanted me to have Sergio’s memories.”  Vinegar tears dot alien eyes.
“They wanted me to have the combination to his gun safe, his customers’
addresses.  But I got you, too.  And how could I kill you then?  How could I
kill anyone?

“I saw his memories.”  It closes its eyes, sinking into the bed.  “Those
families, dying.  That’s me, lying down, me in each of them and giving up.
I can’t fight all the love in the world, I just can’t.”

Patient Zero brings up one hand to claw at his eyes, grimacing in
self-hatred – but already, he’s too weak to move.

“Go,” he says bitterly, releasing me.

I look at what used to be Sergio, and is now something else; a ghost in
stolen skin, a hunter doomed to love his prey.  A secret the United States
burned whole towns to hide.  Its resemblance to Sergio is faint, nothing
more than an interpretive sketch – but even the parts that aren’t Sergio now
seem beautiful.

I nestle in to the arms of the man who devoured my husband, offering
forgiveness.

“I said go,” he barks.

Instead, I hug him.  He crumples into me.

The failed weapon cries, pressing his face to my chest as he laments
everything he never was.

I hold him until he’s gone.

#

Later on, I bury Sergio and Zero in the back yard.

I’m okay that they share a grave.

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