Among Others: 2nd Chapter

Nearing end of Day 2 of NaNoWriMo madness and I’m nearing 5k words! Of course, much of that is attributable to my staying home in solidarity of Occupy Oakland‘s General Strike.

Strike does not mean sit on my ass and veg. Well, okay, it does mean sitting on my ass. But I’m being productive in one capacity or another.

“Among Others” Chapter 2 (edited and revised 12/17/11)

Next morning Collins turned on the television for her daily dose of news before attempting to head off to work again. Her head still disallowed any complex thought, something she was not accustomed to. Whether or not she was sick, she had to hash out the rest of her thesis next research project. What is sabbatical for if not to further your projects put on hold by too many tests to grade? But her thesis refused to present itself to her. It chose instead to stand just out of eyesight somewhere offstage.  
Collins half listened to news reporters as she fumbled through the refrigerator searching for something that was not there. She sighed at her soy milk and leftover baked oatmeal.
“The outbreak of an unknown virus or bacteria is sweeping across our nation,” blurted from her television speakers.
Unable to pinpoint what her breakfast pangs demanded, she closed her fridge.
God, I hope it’s not meat again.
“Much is still unknown about this new strain of illness. But what sources are telling us this morning is that it is not influenza. To put it another way: it is not the common flu.”
Really? You had to tell us that? I’m sick and I knew what you were talking about.
Irritated by the newscaster’s pandering or not, this comment of a new strain peaked Collins’ interest. She walked back to her television on her wall only five steps from her fridge. Not much of a television watcher, she hated to splurge for such an extravagant flat panel television; however, in studio apartments, every inch counts.
A studio is all a bachelorette needs. Little space, few belongings, and no other body to fall over. It was perfect in size for Collins and the cheap rent was a welcomed incentive. In studios, space conservation is still key to survival.
Standing in front of her flat panel screen, her foggy head focused as best it could. She chewed air a few times as she tried to pop her ears in hopes of somehow breaking her clouded mind. It did not work.
“Symptoms of this strange strain include but are not limited to the following…”
Then a cheap PowerPoint image replaced the newscaster’s bust. Collins normally read such bullet pointed items faster than than the Bay Shore ditsy news reporter did, but not today. Her fuzzy mind stunted her reading speed. She resigned to listening while staring blankly at the list presented to her.
Work, will you?
“Pale skin, reduced mobility, loss of appetite, and loss of the ability to speak.”
But my appetite is perfectly intact, she thought. That was except for her bizarre cravings for meat, raw meat.
“If you believe you or someone you know is infected, people are being advised to stay in their homes. It is still unknown how the illness is spreading, but, quoting a confidential Department of Health representative who refused speak on camera, ‘Given the speed at which this disease is spreading, we suspect it is transmitted through close contact with an infected person.’ When asked, the representative refused to comment further.”
Collins turned off her television. Like anyone blindsided with a potentially negative life-changing situation, she convinced her clouded mind that she, in fact, suffered from run of the mill flu symptoms and not from any strain of rogue virus or bacterium.
Yesterday’s craving was a fluke. Everyone craves strange things occasionally.
Showered and combing her hair she realized how pale she really did look. Her colorless complexion made her bloodshot eyes stand out even further. With exception to mitigated thought and bizarre cravings for meat, she felt fine. Her red sclera did not burn or itch. She felt her forehead. Nothing. Maybe a little cool. Maybe even a little warm. Moisture from the shower and the fact she used her own hand to test her temperature corrupted her results. Peering into the mirror again, she wondered if she did not actually see a slight blue tinge to her skin tone.
Sighing a heavy sigh, she searched through her medicine cabinet, then a wooden box on her dresser. In one of many plastic bins of forgotten relics in a closet adjacent her bathroom, she found it. A small pouch mistakable for a coin purse or pencil case. Back to the bathroom she stumbled, closing the door behind her. For what reason, she did not know, habitual more than necessary. Were she in any other state of mind, she would have questioned this action. Living alone for decades one tends to lose the courtesies of closed doors or looking appropriate while walking about one’s own home.
Staring back at herself in the mirror, she touched her face with both hands, double checking reality. Still pale, almost blue. Still her face. So she went to work.
Years passed since she last used any amount of makeup. Her fingers refused to do anything requiring fine makeup touch-up motor skills. She struggled to open small containers of powders and pastes matching her more healthy skin tone. Once opened, she proceeded to plaster and brush each on her face.
Probably more than I should.
Since years passed without using such beautifying mechanisms, she could not tell if she actually was using too much or not. The florescent bulb set spotlights on all her mistakes, all the cracks and blotches of concealers of all types. More importantly, though, her pale, almost blue, skin was well hidden behind it all. Well done or not, she assumed it better than people questioning how ill she really was.
Collins took a step back to view her work from a more reasonable distance. She appeared so foreign. Then again, she looked foreign without her new mask. What was important though was hiding her discolored skin. Most people would assume the worst, demanding she lock her infected self in her apartment. But she had books to rifle through and dissertation chapters to edit for a student. Obligations that cannot be put off just because some illness, that will, eventually, pass without incident, tries to override one’s life.

The walk through campus was even quieter than yesterday. Plenty of people shuffled about, almost enough bodies to consider it a normal day, except for how quiet everybody remained and how quickly they darted from one destination to another.
Those who power walked in every direction wore cloth antibacterial masks over their mouths and noses. They walked alone in most cases. Nobody played Frisbee golf. No students huddled over school books or rode their loud skateboards through campus. One young couple walked together but with speed to rival marathon joggers. No holding hands. No kissing through their masks.
Then there were others who walked at a more tempered, normal pace, their gait stuttered but their speed normal. Each of these other people stared off into something far beyond where their eyes suggested. Bloodshot eyes gave their pale skin a shade of curdled milk.
God, did I look that bad this morning?
Walking into her department that, from the outside and from the inside, resembled the house of a hoarder than a university History Department building. She found it unoccupied. Strange, she thought, for no one to be here this early. Collins figured many stayed home either ill from this new contagion or fearful of contracting it. Fumbling past the oak meeting table to her office at its far end, she made her way through the forest of books and edited but abandoned final papers from last semester to drop into her desk chair.
Strangely fatigued from her walk even though she had taken it for several years made her wonder about her health again, but only briefly. Research does not do itself, she muttered in an incomprehending hiss that made her cringe. .

Too fatigued to walk back across campus to the university’s library for books she had on hold, Collins picked up an old text she began several days ago on the history of the Infirmary. She laughed internally. Even when her voice worked, her laughs remained internal. Laughing out loud made her uncomfortable. Negative reinforcement from deaf parents to a hearing child, Collins learned early that speaking with one’s mouth was dirty. This is not to suggest deaf parents are somehow of less parenting quality than those of hearing adults or parents with different conditions, or, this case, simply different languages. Contrarily, all parents instill their own beliefs, strengths and weaknesses alike, into their children, whether they intend to do so or not. But, of course, not being a parent herself, Collins would not know the intricacies of such parent to child transference.
She opened the book to the scrap of torn paper holding her place and read a sentence.
Then read it again.
And again.
This occurred several more times.
Either this illness arrested one’s capability to read or her fatigue affected her vision.
She tried again.
Each word by itself made sense. Small strings of short words made sense. Each phrase taken alone, remained understandable. However, many longer words, words outside the realm of average readers felt outside her grasp. Her eyes strained to force her brain to comply, but its engine simply refused to turn over.
Each word looked familiar. Some definitions even sat at the tip of her tongue. She flopped back in her chair giving the book a toss at the only empty desk space. Right before her hands reached her face to rub the fatigue away from her eyes and slap the fog out of her skull she remembered her makeup mask. Instead, she resigned to allowing her arms to fall to her side. Her hands swayed aimlessly.
What the Hell is wrong with me? I must have picked up the wrong book by mistake. Maybe someone is playing a trick. But who?
When one is alone long enough, and up against stressful situations, the mind reaches for explanation irrespective of that explanation’s rationality. An obvious explanation fell on the infection plaguing the city. But those sorts of things only happen to other people.
Reading the cover from where she sat, its title made sense: History of Madness. Even though she read three quarters of it thus far, she could not recall the crux of the author’s argument. Then her experimental mind kicked into gear, though at a reserved rate of speed she was not familiar with previously.
What if this foggy head is more than just a foggy head? Perhaps something more is playing out.
Her mind went blank. Frustration overtook her. What once was a mind that strung massively complex theses together befuddling even some of her more astute colleagues, now could not hold a simple thought long enough to finish elementary paragraphs in the mind. Then her mind popped back into relative focus, Try reading something simple, she thought, Lets just check my email.
With History of Madness brushed aside, she logged into her account. Her password was long and complex but was, by now, second nature to even her ill self. Her inbox filled with read and unread messages. All subject lines made sense. Meeting today at 11 a.m. Announcements. Something about penile enlargement.
Collins opened a new tab and clicked the bookmark to her digital news paper of choice. Most of it made sense. She was not illiterate.
Thank God.
Collins read through her email happy to be capable of such simple actions. Reading was paramount to her being. It gave her an out. It gave her an in. It gave her something to do. It gave her a paycheck.
Meeting at 11 a.m. she read and reread.
Usually others started collecting back at their offices long before meetings began. Yet, here she was, alone, this early in the morning. No movement from anyone. No small conversations about nothing before an equally meaningless meeting.  
How much time passed between that thought and Miller knocking on her open office door could not be gaged. She looked up. He waved, a look of compassion thawing from his reddened face.
“Are you alright,” he asked in Sign.
“Of course,” she Signed back, “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You have been, um, staring at that screen saver for the last minute or so. And, um, you were not at the meeting this morning. You never miss meetings.”
“It’s not eleven in the morning yet. Is it?”
“It’s almost four in the afternoon.”
Confused, Collins did not respond.
“You are less pale today. Um, are you feeling any better?”
Rather than respond in kind, she brushed her face lightly with one figure and showed it to Miller.
She twitched a half smile.
“You should not even be here. They are saying this thing is bad. And contagious. What if…”
Then the ‘if’ Miller was about to refer to broke the silence of their conversation, “If that’s you Collins, go home. We don’t want whatever the Hell it is you have.” The gruff beast of a man popped his large head between the door jam and Miller which made Miller cower backward a step into the oak meeting table.
“Jesus H, it is you.” Collins slunk into her chair. All too aware of her makeup caked face, her fingers begged to cover it from her boss. Just as they reached their destination, “Well, you actually don’t look so bad.”
Changing course, both hands tucked a tuft of her dusty blond hair behind each ear in embarrassment, both for the makeup wearing and for her boss commenting on any of her features in anything close to resembling positive feedback. Balding Miller gave the back of the beast’s head a look of confusion. Signing, “Of course she is still ill.” Though it was behind his back, this defiance was still unlike Miller, making Collins smile wider.
“Still,” the gruff man continued, “You probably shouldn’t be here if you don’t have to be. And you.” The large head turned to Miller who somehow cowered further into his parka like a turtle under attack.
“Don’t you have your own department to lounge around in?”
Miller could not speak. Collins would have spoken on Miller’s behalf but no voice forced her to remain silent while the big head was turned away from her. She picked up the book she could no longer read and pretended to throw it at the floating head. Miller’s smile remained hidden in his parka’s upturned collar. Then a growling hunger loud enough to wake the dead echoed from Collins’ stomach.
“Miss lunch, did we?”
She shrugged. This was enough to quell the large man’s interest. His head disappeared again followed shortly by a door slamming.
“Did you eat lunch yet,” ask Miller as he popped his head out, his signing making squeaking noises with his coat.
“Lunch? I did not even eat breakfast.”
“Why not?”
“Nothing looked good this morning.”
Collins paused briefly, swallowed something solid in her throat, then continued.
“Last night I ate hamburger.”
“How was it?”
“That is just it. It was amazing.”
Miller smiled the childish smile Collins loved so much.
“The thing is though. I did not cook it.”
“You mean you ate out somewhere,” he asked.
“No. I bought a pound of ground beef. Brought it home.”
“You ate it raw,” he asked before shuttering underneath his parka like he just walked in from a blizzard.
“Weird, right?”
“Um, that is more than weird, Helen.” Then Miller’s face turned three shades of serious. “Please promise me one thing.”
She did not respond but waited for his request.
“Do not tell anyone you are still sick.”
This confused Collins, “What do you mean, do not tell anyone. It is just the flu.”
“No, it is not. People are talking. There are rumors.”
“Rumors? What rumors?”
“Remember how when you started your research and asked about the implications of a pandemic?”
“I am not going to die. I am not some leper, Chris.” The sign for Chris’ name referenced his double chin. When Collins Signed his name, Miller scratched at his chin subconsciously. She immediately felt awful for using it.
“That is just it. They are talking about something strange. Something new. Something bizarre.”
“What are they suggesting?” Collins cocked her head and raised one eyebrow.
Either Chris’ interpretation of a zombie or the absurd suggestion of a virus causing an outbreak of zombies made Collins laugh a soundless laugh that hissed like a screaming tea pot.
“It is not funny, Helen.”
“Yes it is. It is absurd.”
“Absurd or not, it does not matter what we think.”
That was when it slapped Collins in her touched-up face.
Infirmaries and the plague.
She popped up and grabbed the book she tossed earlier, flicked through the pages to a dogeared page. She tried to read the underlined sentence several times. She knew what it said but could not understand the complex sentence for an intricate detail that dangled on her tongue. Then it appeared in her slowed mind in fits and spurts.
Before people understood where the plague originated, people were just locked away from the general population, she recalled. It mattered more what people thought than what was factual.
Her fearful look up at Chris let him know his point got across to her.
“I, um, have a class starting soon. So,” Chris tried to matte down his combover as he let his sentence drop where it came out. He turned and disappeared beyond her office wall. Collins listened to his squeaking parka as he left. As usual, he closed the heavy front door so quietly she never heard it. Left to stew over Chris’ comment, alone, only her complaining stomach kept any company. It gnawed at her innards demanding being heard and fed, meat. More than anything she wanted to not want meat. It disturbed her. But that was exactly what her watering mouth requested. Reluctantly she obliged.

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