The Hotel in Puerto Neuvo Part Two
By: Steve Carr

The street was as it was most mornings. Women sat outside their homes preparing porridge or soup in pots held over small campfires while the children chased the chickens. The men had gone into the jungle at sunrise to gather plantains, papayas, mangoes and oranges and to hunt for wild pigs. They hadn't returned yet. I looked toward the river. The canoes used by the villagers remained tied to the stakes along the riverbank. They had avoided using them even for fishing, believing that the death that they heard had overtaken the world was also carried on the river currents.

I walked to Carmelita's market and ran into Father Kerr as he was coming out. He was always gregarious and smiling, as if his face had been frozen with a smile on it. He had been in Puerto Nuevo longer than Sam and only a small bit of his Scottish accent remained when he spoke. He was holding a small burlap bag filled with sweet potatoes and carrots picked from Carmelita's garden behind her market.

"How's everyone in the hotel doing?" he asked with an unnerving lilt in his voice.

"Pauline has an abscessed tooth and fever," I said. "She needs penicillin."

He shook his head, a gesture of hopelessness, but he continued smiling. "I tried for years to get the church to supply me with pharmaceuticals, but it fell on deaf ears." He shifted the bag causing a carrot to fall on the ground.

I picked it up and handed it to him. "Do you know of any cures for infection?"

"Prayers," he answered.

"Based on what has happened to the world, I think God stopped listening to those," I said.

There was a brief flutter of his lips, as if his smile was about to collapse, and then his grin broadened. "He may not be giving the answer to the prayers that we we're expecting."

"Maybe not," I said and then walked past him and into the market.

It was the only structure other than the hotel in Puerto Nuevo that had a roof made of boards and wood shingles. Inside it looked like a small grocery store, with two aisles of shelves, most of them empty. Coca Cola and tanning lotion signs were hung on one wall. The shutters on the two windows were closed and it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light. Carmelita was standing behind the counter a few feet inside. She was a small woman with leathery brown skin and of indeterminate age. Her dark eyes burned with hostility as she fixed them on me.

"This thing that has happened to the world is your fault," she said.

"Why is it my fault? I had nothing to do with it," I replied defensively. "What has happened? I thought you and I were friends."

She lowered her gaze, stared at her wrinkled hands that were clasped atop the counter, and cleared her throat. "My granddaughter attends a school miles up the river and as it is for everyone else there is no news of what has happened," she said.

"I'm sorry. I didn't know about your granddaughter. If this village has survived it's likely that many other villages and towns along the river have survived also," I said sympathetically, not believing a single word I said. I had no idea why Puerto Nuevo hadn't been struck by the plague, but I thought it was a very uncommon occurrence.

She looked up, a softer expression on her face. "What is it you need that you don't already have at the hotel?"

"Something for an infection and fever. Pauline has an abscessed tooth."

She spat on the floor. "Tortilleras! That one and the one who she came here with should leave Puerto Nuevo just as they came to it."

I hadn't involved myself in whatever animosity there was between Carmelita and the two women, but the simplicity of it almost stunned me. In the time of a universal pandemic there was still room for prejudice. "You can't help?" I asked.

"I won't help."

I left the market and became suddenly aware that the men had returned. They and the women with their children were running to the riverbank, along with Father Kerr. Jaleandro's boat drifted toward the pier. I yelled for everyone to stop, to not go near the boat, but Father Kerr and several men ran onto the pier and jumped into the boat. Minutes later they carried Jaleandro from the boat and laid him on the pier. I ran up only close enough to get a look at him. His face was mustard yellow and there was a bright red rash around his neck.

Jaleandro opened his eyes, reached out and grasped Father Kerr's hand. "Muerte," he stammered, and then he died.

I ran back to the hotel and found Sam and the others, except Pauline, sitting in the parlor, and told them what I had witnessed. I didn't tell them I had gotten close enough to see Jaleandro's face or hear his last dying word, death. We boarded up the front and back doors and closed the first-floor shutters, securing them with wire. Miranda returned to her room to look after Pauline while the rest of us sat in the parlor and drank whiskey or tea.

A little past noon, when the men of the village came to play dominoes and smoke cigars, they pounded on the sealed doors, demanding to be let in, something we all agreed that for our own safety we couldn't do.

#

As the day wore on and eventually night fell, the beating on the front door continued. I was certain that the plague had been let loose on the village, with those who had touched Jaleandro or being the closest to him coming down with it first, but its speed of transmission and the onset of the first symptoms of extreme thirst and nausea varied widely. I went into my room while everyone except Miranda and Pauline were in the parlor and downed a half dozen Tylenol, knowing they were useless against the plague, and then went back downstairs and entered the parlor.

"We're all scared," Mr. Reynolds snapped at his wife. He pulled his arm away from her grip, stood up and went into the kitchen. It was the first time I had heard him raise his voice to her or show any other emotion toward her other than affection.

She sat perfectly still, stunned, as if she had been slapped.

Sam held Beelzebub in his arms, rubbing its fur. "We can't hole ourselves up in here while the village dies around us," he said.

"What do you suggest?" I asked, sitting back down in the chair I had sat in for most of the day.

"We can escape into the jungle," he said.

As if on cue, Miranda walked into the parlor. "And then what?" she asked. "Spend the rest of our lives like savages?"

"How's Pauline, dear?" Mrs. Reynolds interjected, softly.

"I can't wake her up," Miranda replied. "Her pulse is weak, and her breathing is labored. The cool towels I've kept on her have done nothing to bring her fever down. She's on fire."

"Better to die from a toothache, then the plague," Antonio said off-handedly.

"Fuck you," Miranda replied heatedly. She turned to me. "You're the only one among us who saw the worst of it in the outside world. What do you suggest we do?"

I didn't want to tell her what was on my mind, to decide on an epitaph. "Try to get a good night's sleep. We can decide in the morning."

#

A little past midnight I came down the stairs to get water from the kitchen and found Antonio prying open the front door with the claw of a hammer. I wrested the hammer from his hands. "What are you doing?"

He pulled a small pistol from his jacket pocket and aimed it at me. "I've been here too long already," he said. "You don't know the guys who want to kill me. They won't let a plague stop them. Now, give me the hammer and let me out of here or I'll be forced to shoot you."

"Are you crazy?" I replied. "They're probably dead just like everyone else."

"It's this village, and everyone in this hotel, that will be dead by the time they reach here, but by that time I'll be far down river."

I handed him the hammer. "Suit yourself," I said. I had never grown to like him and if he was going to die, I was willing to let him do it the way he wanted. I stood by and watched as he pulled the board far enough from the doorframe for him to squeeze through. After he went out, I quietly nailed the board back into place and went and got the water.

#

Later, in the middle of the night I stood at an upstairs window in one of the unused rooms watching Father Kerr. He was sitting in front of one of the nearby huts rocking a child in his arms. In the bright moonlight I could see the mustard yellow tint of the child's skin. For the young, elderly or those already ill with something, the plague's virulence was strong and fast. The sound of wailing coming from other huts answered the question about why he hadn't gathered everyone in the church. He too would become sick very soon if he wasn't already. I turned from the window when I heard footsteps behind me. It was Sam. He was wearing a backpack.

"Come with me," he whispered.

"With you? Where?"

"I'm going out the back way and into the jungle. I have no intention of dying in this hotel, which is what will happen if we stick around."

"As Miranda said, and then what?"

He shifted the backpack. "We can deal with that when the time comes."

At least Antonio had the balls at least to go out the front door, I thought. "I'm taking my chances here," I said. "Good luck, my friend." I hugged him tight and gave him a kiss on both cheeks.

"Take care of Beelzebub for me," he said, and then went down the stairs, turned at the bottom, and disappeared in the darkness.

I leaned against the window frame and watched Father Kerr. I pulled down the collar of my shirt. The rash around my neck felt like thousands of red-hot needles were piercing my skin.

THE END

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