Among Others: 5th Chapter

No discussion today other than I’m still hard at work typing an average of 2k solid words a day.

among Others: Chapter 5 (edited and revised 12/23/11)

Campus was deadly quiet as she shuffled her way across the concrete University Center. She hated to chance being seen in public but wanted to see Miller, wanted any sort of human contact. Unable to speak, Collins texted Miller informing him of her arrival in her office in the coming hour.

What felt to Collins as instantly, Miller responded, “Teaching in 5. Be there in 1 hr, if it’s OK?” Fearing her response time too muted and her text text would interrupt his class, she did not respond.

Several pale blue individuals stumbled around almost aimlessly. None carried books. No backpacks on their backs. Aimless wandering. Nothing else. They walked at a pace to which Collins was now painfully aware. Plenty of other people walked faster than these aimless wanders. Each wearing cheap imitations of surgeon masks. Collins could not decipher if they actually sprinted from one place to another or if her stunted demeanor made them appear as though they were running at full tilt.

She wondered if any of them could tell she was infected. The caked on concealer convinced her boss at relative close range, but he only found her in sitting positions thus far. Her hobbled gait had not been put to any significant test.

Each step reverberated through her otherwise slow mind, echoing, reminding her of how different she now was from her collegiate counterparts. Attempting to appear normal, or get to her office faster, or both, she power walked as best she could. Awkward at first, it required all her thought to create what she hoped was a persuasive illusion of normalcy. Then again, at this early hour of day, few were conscious enough to recognize much of anything around them. Still, it felt as if all eyes were on her.

Back in her cluttered office, she closed the door. Somewhere near her spine a morsel of her reveled at being able to close a door.  The room disappeared as she fell into her desk chair closing her eyes. Pacing an entire night did not cause fatigue quite like pretending to be someone, or something, else in public. Always scared of what others think. Not sure if what you are infected with is something that will, eventually, kill you. Or worse, if that infection intends on torturing you, forcing you to remain alive. With the situation serious enough to warrant speeches from elected officials not far from election day, and at least one person believing you are an abomination to whatever created you, part of you always hopes for death.
She wanted so badly to cry. However, if she cried, her concealer would run; she brought no back up concealer. She refrained with all her leftover energy.
Where is Miller?
Checking her phone again, Any minute now. What to do till then? My email.
That would take her thoughts off everything. She logged in. Nothing new. Being on sabbatical meant most assumed you were out of office. No classes to prep for, no students to email claiming they were not warned of the test that was clearly stated in the syllabus they threw away weeks before. She dropped her fist down with a thud landing on a book. Birth of the Clinical Institution.
How fitting, she grumbled to herself.
Her interest peeked, its spine crackled as she opened it to one of the first few pages, pages she read not too many weeks ago. She fingered the underlined sentences like a child learning to read for her first time. Its meaning perched right at the tip of her frontal lobe. Still it escaped her. Again and again she read the same two passages. Again and again it almost made sense. Something about lepers and invalids and treatment of both.
Squeezing her eyelids shut she tried to go back to when she first read the passages. She recalled only spurts and sputters. What she did remember was that the author in question wrote about how madness was first viewed in a romantic light. Socrates was likely mad yet people revered him. Then they killed him. Sometime between the death of Socrates and the so called Age of Reason, Western Civilization began seeing madness as a negative attribute. An attribute to be cured of. That is where her thought burped and disappeared. She eyed the page again. This time with less enthusiasm fearful of an inevitable outcome. Frustrated, she shoved Birth of the Clinical Institution off to her left toppling a tower of books in its journey to the floor.
Questions of ‘why’ and ‘why her’ seeped into her conscience. All the usual humanistic questions of destiny and fate floated around inside as did tortures of self pity and other ‘whoa is me’ internal rantings. It was her computer winding down into sleep mode that brought her back from her self pity long enough to realize nothing good came from being here today. If this infection passes, her research would have to wait until then.
Swishing sounds followed by a timid knock at the door alerted Collins to Miller’s arrival. He was wearing an anti-bacterial mask.
“Not you too,” Collins flicked.
“It’s not safe,” Miller returned, “For me or for you.”
“Whatever it is, it’s not contagious. Have you heard of it spreading?”
“Well, um, no. Not exactly.”
“Right. Whatever it is came, did its thing. Now some of us are, well, whatever we are.”
“Um, you really shouldn’t be seen in public. Especially…”
“Especially what? With you,” she asked, irritated at the coming implication. “Worried what your fellow Council members will think if you’re found conspiring with a terrorist?”
Miller’s eyes widened, “You know that’s not what I was going to say.”
“Besides, you’re only the Treasurer. You hardly have any say during those pointless meetings.”
Miller backed away out of her office door frame, bumping into the oak meeting table. Collins felt terrible. She was irritable from lack of human exchange and taking it out only probably the only person alive who would do anything for her, infected or otherwise.
“I’m so sorry,” her eye welled. “It’s just so frustrating.”
“Um, I can’t even imagine.”
Feeling it safe to re-enter her office, Miller came in close, “But you really need to no be here right now.”
Collins saw the fear in his face.
“What do you mean?”
“The department already knows you’re infected. They’re talking about letting go anyone suspected of being ill.”
She jumped out of her chair.
“They can’t,” she flicked with great intensity, “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“I know. But, um, maybe we should meet at the coffee shop around the corner from now on. For your safety.”
“And yours,” she added. This time saying it with sincerity and calm. Miller nodded.
“Please, Helen. Go home. Don’t let them do what they did to Foster.”
“What happened to Foster?”
“Let him go. And, since he earned his degree here too, they stripped him of it.”
“It was a massive public display. I’m surprised you didn’t see it on the news.”
“I’m trying not to watch.”
“Well, you should.” Miller looked at his watch, “I’ve got, um,another class in ten. Get out of here before someone, um, important sees you.” He leaned in and hugged Collins tightly. She froze. He had never hugged her before. Then he shuffled away.

On her way back through the University Plaza, the same man standing at the corner yesterday stood in the concrete courtyard now still holding his sign. Unlike last time, though, he was not alone. The three young men that helped the disheveled man with the three day beard stood near him hold their own signs. For better or worse, Collins’ mind let her read their accusations. Of course, the bearded one standing center stage held his “Protect the Nation: Finish the Abomination”. The well-dressed students flanking both sides holding signs of their own: “Undead is still dead” and “God is telling us something but nobody is listening.” Collins’ lip quivered.
Infected individuals, students, staff and other citizens alike, meandered around the small group of protesters, seemingly unaware of the chanting. The bearded protester from yesterday yelled obscenities through his anti-bacterial mask as each pale mute stumbled past.
“You’re an abomination,” he spat into his mask, “Go home. Stay away from us.” The stumbling individual closest to the ranting protester turned and stopped, wavering back and forth like a drunkard considering implications of impending fisticuffs. It was the disheveled man from the other day.
Surely those kids recognize they helped him not long ago.
“This is the face of evil,” the bearded man continued, pointing at the disheveled man. “This is what our government refuses to protect its citizens from. This nation’s normal citizens are left to rot while these killer anti-social creatures, these terrorists, feed off our young and suck our Social Welfare funding dry.”
The small group gathered around their pale audience of one. The other three protesters started chanting “Hear Hear” and “Amen” and “Abomination” and “death to the already dead”. They each fed off the others’ energy like feral male mutts circling a bitch in heat.
Collins doubled her pace to try to appear normal while keeping her gaze on the group of screaming protesters. Broad daylight and nobody interrupted their taunts. Finding the excuse of fearing what might happen if she intervened, she too did nothing but walk away. As she made it through the concrete court yard to the null between campus and her apartment, loud scuffling replaced screams.

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