Two more days passed. Not having spoken to Miller since their last encounter in her office, she texted him requesting they meet at the coffee shop around lunch. Before she placed her phone back in her pocket, a response came through.
“I can be there at 1. Can we meet then?”
She responded with a ‘See you then’, closed her phone and dropped it back in her pocket.
Not able to read her research, she struggled to find an outlet for her awkward feelings and rambling mind. Research meant normalcy. That’s all she really wanted: normalcy. Tearing into a raw chicken neck, she resigned herself to waiting until noon before heading out to see Miller.
Cleaning up after her meal, she stumbled off to shower off yesterday’s concealer. So embarrassed about her complexion, she now wore it to bed. Not even her hands touched her face anymore, at least not without dollops of pasty concealer on them. The game of pretend exhausted her.
The water warmed her cheeks and nose as the concealer melted away in the stream. She slumped down onto the floor of her bathtub and hugged her bare legs, her blue-veined face perched on equally blue knees. Behind closed doors, in a shower, nobody hears or sees the crying face of the silent voice. Or cares.
Satisfied with her replaced mask, she pulled on her coat, being careful to not rub against her face or neck. She locked the door behind her.
Several protest groups gathered at different ends of the same street. Each hollering about the same thing to the same wandering pale passersby. None of the passersby acted violently. It was as if the pale beings did not react to the yelling at all. She wanted more than anything to intervene. To ask these angry people what it was about these infected individuals that angered them so much. Yet none of them understood Sign. Fewer still would see past her own condition. One screaming person would see past her concealer, call her out for what she was, and probably end her worries where she stood with their bats and fists.
Collins walked on as fast as her cold feet took her to ensure she looked as normal as possible. She chose to walk passed trying to pretend she saw no violence, trying to hide from herself that she was the very object of their disdain.
It was not until she came up on the only coffee shop on campus that she even blinked, focusing on moving at a normal rate of speed of an uninfected person.
Lunchtime isn’t even over and already they were outside tormenting their pale prey.
Collins pointed out a small coffee cup to the petite barista and handed her a debit card. With coffee in hand, she found an empty seat at the back of the crowded shop. It felt like no time at all passed before Miller swished over and sat across from Collins.
“Um,” he stumbled into Sign, “Where have you been? I have been worried sick, Helen.” Miller’s fingers darted around so fast her stunted eye moment hardly kept up with him.
“I’m okay,” she replied.
Hand to mouth, finger shaking at Collins’ pale hands, “You. You. You,” Miller stuttered out loud. She took one look at her hands. All this time, it never occurred to her to hide her pale hands. Suddenly her stomach twisted. Gloves. She needed gloves before she went back outside.
Miller was still stuttering the same word when Collins remembered where she was. She was never so glad to know Sign than in that loud coffee shop filled with normal people.
“Oh, my God, Helen. Are you OK? How do you feel? What’s it like? Who have you eaten? How did you get passed CAUZ? What are you going to do? Where are you going to stay? Are you gonna eat me?”
Collins watched with pity as Miller rambled out a million questions, some of concern, most out of pure curiosity but meaning no disrespect, for sure. She knew he was not that sort of person.
“I have not eaten anyone,” she Signed as fast as her cold hands let her. “And I am not going to eat you. Although I am getting hungry.” Miller snapped backward knocking the chair behind him but garnering no response from the person sitting there.
“But the reports. They say, um, the undead, well, um, you, have to eat flesh.”
“Lots of steak.” She tried to smile but the dried on concealer cemented to her face refused to allow it.
“You can’t be seen, Helen. People are scared. I am scared.”
“You said we could meet here.”
“You need some gloves. And maybe, um, a mask.”
From his coat pocket he pulled a ball of masks. A half used tissue fell to the floor.
“Here,” he said aloud, “You’ll want this when you leave here.”
Collins took a sip of her coffee. It tasted so bitter she set it aside.
“I just wanted to get out of that apartment. Talk to someone. Maybe I will go to the library, take out a few books.”
“Trust me, Helen,” Miller’s face reddened, his combover stood ruffled, “You are not safe here, or, um, anywhere.”
“Fine,” she gave in, “I won’t go to the library. I’ll go straight back and lock myself in that cage of mine. That’s all I am, right? An animal?”
“I do not think that at all,” his eyes welled, “But, um, others will hurt you. People are scared.”
“Are the reports true,” she asked as her Sign softened somewhat, “Is it true infected people have attacked other people?”
“What,” he asked, taken aback from the conversation switch, “Um, I do not know. I have not seen footage. I’m sure they would show it if footage existed.”
“I thought as much.” She leaned back in her chair, relieved.
“Please, Helen. Go home. Stay out of sight. At least until this blows over.”
“Spoken like a true soldier.” Collins did not know what possessed her to say something so biting but she felt no inclination to apologize. As caustic as it was, she meant it. Miller felt an urge to adjust his combover while his face darkened further, beads of sweat gathered. His hands shook. It looked like he wanted to say something but would not or could not.
Collecting her things, Collins said, “Spit it out before I go back to my cage.”
“I may not buck the system. But, um, you’re the one hiding behind that mask, Helen.”
Miller was correct. Neither of them wanted any trouble.
She hoped to shove Miller aside as she worked her way toward the exit, but he swished sideways to let her through. She passed unencumbered. Before she was a full arm’s length away, she spotted a flyer on the coffee shop wall. Collins tore it down with almost normal speed and turned to Miller.
“What is this,” she demanded.
He did not answer at first.
“Answer me, Chris.” Usually she tried not to use his Signed name but felt no pity today, just anger.
“It is, um…”
“Just say it.”
“There is a, um, city council meeting the end of the week.” When not Signing, he was wringing his hands fervently.
“Public outcry. They want government to stop spending money on well, um…”
“You know you want to say it. Undead? Zombies? Abominations?” If her face could change color it certainly would have done so even under that mask.
“No.” Tears flowed down his face. Already looking like a coy balding child, now he just looked pathetic. “I hate those terms. I just do not know what to call them, you, I mean it, or this.”
Her anger washed away by her friend’s sincere good nature. Collins’ body temperature may be significantly lower due to her infection but she still had a warm heart hidden somewhere underneath that blue-veined pale skin.
“Me too,” Miller wiped away tears between sniffles.
“Can anyone speak?”
“I assume so. It is a public meeting. Why?”
“And it is at six?”
“Saturday night? And today is what?”
“Um, Tuesday. Why do you keep asking?” Then like a light bulb popped in his eyes, “Wait. You are not considering? No.”
“You can’t even talk. And nobody on the Council speaks Sign. You know that.”
“But you do.”
The light bulb in Miller’s eyes went dim again.
“You’re going to translate. Hell, you’re on the damn Council!”
As Miller interjected, Collins waved at him, “See you there at six on Saturday.”
She walked toward the exit.
“Helen,” Miller yelled aloud. When she turned back, he pointed at his mouth, then back to her. Flustered she had yet another mask to wear, she swung back toward the door and stormed out.
In the campus courtyard, the same protesters stood with the same angry signs, but now there were more of them. What was once three had now become more than a dozen. She remembered who she was, tucked a tuft of hair behind her ear, ducked into her jacket collar, and buried her hands in her pockets. It was cold. Perhaps the protesters believed her ruse. Looking around, there were no pale bodies wandering around the courtyard. Her mind wandered to the beatings she witnessed previously. Had they rid the town of all of them?
Then she realized she that meant she was the only infected person in view. She doubled her pace to appear normal.
Please don’t notice me. Don’t see me. Just let me get home.
She did. For whatever reason, her ruse or their interest in seeking out more obvious prey, they left her alone. Locking her studio apartment door behind her, she dropped to the hardwood floor bursting into an uncontrollable flood of silent tears.