This marks a serious turning point in Dr. Collins’ life.
“Among Others” Chapter 8 (edited 12/29/11):
One one day later and Collins already required another meat run.
This is getting ridiculous.
The cravings refused to abate no matter how much she ate or what she ate. She assumed this was what it felt like for dieters who eat countless carrot sticks but never fill because their true cravings are not satisfied. Fears bubbled up inside.
Perhaps it’s true.
Her cravings may be for something else, something less legal, less moral.
No. I will not bow to this urge. I am better than that.
She was living on raw meat. Though the urges remained, her condition did not appear to worsen. Collins resigned to eating raw meats of different cuts. The alternative was just too unthinkable. Reapplying her concealer, she grabbed her collapsible push cart, and headed for the door. Self conscious of her current predicament, she double checked her mask.
Another dollop around the lips.
She put on her gloves and her anti-bacterial mask and left.
Very conscious of her gait, Collins moved quickly in order to appear walking at a normal pace. One benefit to her new condition, if one could call it such, was she did not perspire or lose her breath. Frankly, she rarely felt the urge to breathe. This did not cross her mind until she found herself wondering when or if she needed to stop to catch her breath. Not only did she not need to, she realized breathing was nearly obsolete.
The streets were quiet. Groups of protesters still positioned themselves around the outskirts of campus but none of them were yelling. Few others walked around. Those who did donned masks to protect what everyone assumed was an airborne pathogen. Collins noticed no infected persons meandering. She was the only one in sight. As far as the others were concerned, no infecteds were out and about spreading their infections.
Inside, Collins continued with what was quickly becoming her grocery routine. What once was meandering over fresh produce, smelling and squeezing different fruits and vegetables, was now scooting to the seasonal section for party favors followed by blazing through the meat department throwing large quantities of random cuts of beef and chicken in hopes of not garnering the butcher boy’s attention. Sooner or later, naive and young as he was, purchasing piles of meat on a regular basis was likely to raise suspicions. She succeeded in scurrying away without being asked if she needed assistance.
Only two registers were open. The two employees each checked Collins out in the last two weeks. If she took her cart to either of them, it might look suspicious. If she put everything back to try another day, it would look even more suspicious. She took a deep breath, out of habit rather than necessity, to prepare for whatever may come as she approached the register.
“Helen,” a stuttering and unsure voice echoed from behind, “Is that you?” Collins turned to see Miller holding a small basket of produce and pastries. How she missed vegetables. What she would not do to not only eat but enjoy a huge salad topped with walnut and cranberry. She expected her mouth to salivate. It did not.
Miller scooted in close to her, “What are you doing?” Collins could not help but notice his eyes widen at the sight of so much meat in a vegetarian’s cart.
“I’m up here, Chris,” she said irritated that a long time friend stared at her awkwardness every chance he got in these recent weeks. She hardly cared about Miller’s feelings when he reached to rub his neck instinctively. Perhaps if he would not make her feel uncomfortable, she would not feel obliged to respond in kind.
“How are you,” she asked, hoping to change subjects before his questions started.
“Um, How am I?”
“Yes. How are you? You know, a friendly comment to a friend I have not seen since yesterday.” She was not sure what her shortness grew from but she could not help it.
“Well, um, I am fine. It’s you I am worried about, Helen.”
“As you can see, I am fine, too,” sliding ahead of her cart to cover what he kept looking over at.
“No,” he retorted, “you’re not. You are sick.”
“I am not dead, as you can see.”
“Maybe not. But, um, you will be if you are not careful. They want sick people to stay in their homes.”
“And do what? Sit around waiting for death?”
“Well, no. But…”
“And who will buy my groceries? Put food on my table?”
“Helen, they are letting mobs of people just beat the sick. The Attorney General has even said Wretches are no longer full citizens.”
For the first time since her illness began two weeks ago, Collins felt sick to her stomach. Total loss of control of her health, her life, and, now, her freedom. She knew Miller was right but some piece of her refused to buckle. Then a word Miller used caught her attention.
“Wretch,” she asked with so much force her hands almost slapped Miller.
“Oh,” Miller’s face turned auburn in the face, “I, um, I thought you knew.”
“Wretch? I’m disgusting creature now? Not some sick person to be pitied? Or at least left alone?”
“Oh, Helen. It’s not word. The Attorney General used it in a speech the other night. Since then, well…”
Too angry to respond to her new knowledge, Collins grabbed her cart with a tight gloved fist. With her free hand, “The meeting is still on Saturday, correct?” She did not wait for Miller to answer, “Please be there. Good day.”
Speaking aloud, “Helen.” She swung around. Her mask hid her her curled lip as she bit her tongue. He returned to Sign, “I do not want anything to happen to you, Helen. You are, um, a real good friend.” His heart-felt honesty drew Collins back from her caustic retorts. She slumped over, tired.
“None of this feels right.”
“This,” Collins pointed at them both then around the grocery store, “All of this. What is going on. What they are doing to the infected people. These, these Wretches!” Miller cringed at her anger. “It just feels wrong.”
“I know. It is like a scene out of, well, your research.”
“Yeah. Problem is, eventually the state asserts its power and quarantines all the infected people. Please, just be there Saturday. For me.”
Both remained motionless for a moment. Miller broke first, “I should go.”
“Take care of yourself, will you, Helen? Please? If history is any, um, predictor…”
“And it usually is.”
“Exactly,” he said out loud. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
“If it gets better.”
Collins did not realize what she said until after she said it. With that thought out for them both to contemplate, they let it lay there on the grocery store floor like a writhing worm cut in half.
She picked a register line without considering potential implications of a clerk realizing the unusual nature of someone purchasing so much meat so often. Being preoccupied by his cellphone, the employee never took notice of what he threw across the scanner. She paid and left.