Among Others: 9th Chapter

Here is Chapter 9 of “among Others” my novel in progress written during NaNoWriMo:

Edited 12/29/11:

Less than two hours before the city Council meeting, Collins still did not know what she wanted to say. That is, if she decided to speak at all. She was scared. But stronger than that fear seemed to be something else percolating deep in the pit of her hungry stomach. A studio apartment is such a small cage for any person. In a state whose nation prides itself on freedoms, choice and equality, it stood between infected peoples and its other population.

Reluctantly, Collins left her television on all the time now. So much had changed even since her last discussion with Miller. She feared missing something deadly important.

Thus far, infected people only wandered around. Some, Collins assumed, must exist self-sufficiently as she does, among the normal population. However, most Wretches, as the ditsy newscaster was so quick to point out, existed on the state’s dime.

The newscaster introduced a clip by an incumbent Congressman losing in the polls.  “Secretaries cannot do secretarial work,” the gray haired, well groomed speaker spat, “if they cannot speak to answer phones. Manual laborers cannot produce at rates of speed accustomed to manual labor if blood flow to the laborer’s body is tempered. Stock brokers and teachers cannot broker or teach if their mental capacity is severely hampered. They each became burdens on society.
“That is why I’ve introduced a bill requiring all Wretches to carry special, state issued identification cards. This great nation deserves the support and protection from those they entrust to protect them. My bill does just that.”
Collins’ heart sputtered. The only inclination of hope came from Collins’ hoping that each infected person’s diminished mental capacity also took with it their ability to come to the discomforting realization that they are now burdens on society. Burdens on a society that appeared to no longer want them, or worse, have use for them. What a burden it must be to remain aware of your lacking capacity to produce in an industrialized society. The young are unaware of their lack of output. We hope the infirm cannot understand. But we do not know in many cases, and asking them only brings attention the burden nobody is willing to acknowledge.

Collins started with a fresh coat of concealer. Then she doubled checked it in her bathroom mirror. She still wondered what was going to happen. Checking her concealer one last time, she put the bottle of concealer in her coat pocket, just in case. She put on her anti-bacterial mask, pulled her gloves on, tucked their ends into her coat sleeves, and turned off her television.

A strange sense of calm came over Collins as she watched several pale wanderers making their way toward unknown destinations. There remained some sense of togetherness she shared with them like two people wearing jerseys from the same sports team, though there was unlikely to be any high fives or cheering. At least not on the part of the spider-veined wanderers.

Coming up on City Hall, a line of normal people were making their way into its double doored main entrance. Collins had not seen this many gather at City Hall since the market crash two years ago. Sure, the economy never, as politicians put it, “fully recovered,” but human nature is fickle. Adapt or die. Rather, adapt or kill.
Aware of her state-created differences from the others around her, she put her gloved hands in her jacket pockets which were almost too tight to allow. She wondered if anyone would notice her. She moved as fast as her starved muscles allowed in hopes of retaining her illusion of normalcy. At the end of the line, she slowed down, following the crowd. Nobody noticed.
Inside, great theater-style seating dipped from the back to a line of occupied tables behind an empty podium. Most seats were occupied by citizens of every race, creed, gender and age. All except one, of course. That is, if one did not include Dr. Collins who took up a seat at the far back corner.  
Squinting at the podium and the narrow tables behind it, she saw Miller. He sat where he always sat, on the end, rubbing his hands together and fidgeting. She watched his nervous face pan the audience, probably searching for her.
Louder than Collins had to deal with in many weeks, her ears rang. She wondered if the ringing was the lack of oxygen to her brain. Slowly dying from inside, what is one to do but sit and watch it happen? She hoped it was the loud noise of the crowd but could not shake the fear that it was her condition, eating her from the inside out.

Former students, fellow University faculty, neighbors she saw frequently before her infection but never spoke to and who never spoke to her, all shuffled through the double doors. Nearly twenty minutes passed before anything started at the bleacher seating base where the empty podium no longer stood alone. Another twenty minutes passed as each local elected official spoke about themselves while pretending to speak about, or to, their listening constituents. Miller refrained from speaking.
An angry heckle came from the audience, something about getting on with it.
The already angry to be alive graying man at the podium changed his tone using the heckle to his advantage, “Quite right, sir.”
The podium speaker turned to his esteemed colleagues as he called them, “We have come into grave times.”
He turned back toward his broader audience, “You have all come to hear, to understand what your government intends to do about this serious predicament our community was thrust into not more than a month ago.”
His audience fell motionless, silent with exception of frequent Here Here’s and sudden bursts of clapping.
“As Council leader, I am here to tell you all that this problem will not go unabated.” Roar of clapping. “Our highest priority is public safety.” More clapping. “To ensure this public safety, it is important that we know who all these Wretches are and what their intentions are. As we have all seen in news reports coming from all around our great country, Wretches cannot be trusted to live without proper authority standing over them.” Too much energy erupted for anyone but Miller and Collins to sit still. Everyone leaped out of their seats clapping for what seemed like hours to Collins. The Council leader’s wave to his audience begged them to sit back down in silence, his beaming toothy smile suggested otherwise.
“We, as your elected officials, are in talks with national lawmakers to get legislation passed making it illegal for Wretches to garner our wages and take our hard earned money simply because they refuse to die.”
His crowd erupted all over again. Clapping and chanting of the Council leader’s name lasted longer than his speech thus far. He waved his hand again, there was still more he wished to say.
“The nation has stood idly by as these abominations, as that is what they are, act against God and act against the state. They take money they never legitimately earned. These Wretches remain leaches on the system. They all have the choice of life. They believe themselves above the law. They feel no pain. They do not think. Wretches simply exist.”
The Councilman paused to enjoy his applause before continuing, “Reports are coming across the wire on an almost constant basis of attacks against citizens, families, by these vicious creatures who would just as soon rip into your neck as wave a ‘Good Day’ to you.”
Then the Councilman changed his tone to something more irritated, “It is customary that the Council open to discussion this request to our national counterparts for financial and legislative assistance in fighting this new threat to the sanctity of family life. Though,” he added rather smartly, “I doubt many here would disagree with this Council’s actions.”
The floor opened to what the Councilman courteously called discussion. Many in the crowd took turns speaking their two minutes rehashing similar sentiments in what quickly became a rally cry for the group. To Collins, it became tiresome banter.

As the crowd appeared to lose energy, Collins joined the end of the line, each waiting their turn to speak. The line shrunk quicker than she hoped. Drawing closer to the microphone at the base of the seating, Miller’s eyes locked with Collins’. His eyes widened to the point of struggling to remain embedded. Hiding his slack jaw, Miller’s anti-bacterial mask made him look all the more scared.
“Helen,” he Signed from little more than twenty feet away, “You can’t. They won’t understand you. They will eat you alive.”
Collins smiled at his choice of phrase. Her concealer was so thick her smile took the shape of a quivering smirk. It was the first time Collins felt happy since the beginning. That happiness drained away when she realized what she considered doing.
“Well, um, what I meant was…”
“You meant what you said. Now, over here. I need you to translate.”
“Absolutely not,” Miller flicked.
“You can either sit there and watch me Sign to a bunch of ignorants, or your can translate for me. Those are your only two options.”
Collins hoped she put enough fear into Miller. She hated to put him in such a position, but, given the circumstance, she had little choice. Someone needed to translate. Miller knew her Sign better than anyone else among the crowd.
Waiting her turn returned her thought to her concealer. Was the concealer noticeable? She never considered if she smelled of death.
Maybe I smell dead. They don’t really smell not dead. But I live with me. I could smell.
Never taking her gaze off Miller, he finally Signed, “You’re out of your mind, Helen.” She thought he was probably correct. He stood and made his way to the center podium.
Collins stood beside the lectern where so many before her pontificated, not knowing exactly what she was about to say or what, if any, reaction it might garner. Miller grabbed the podium. Half a dozen feet separated them.  Both Miller’s hands trembled wildly.
Like a first time speaker, he moved in close, tapping the microphone. It made an awful squeal gaining more attention than either Miller or Collins wanted at that moment. Collins nodded at Miller, he gulped and attempted a return nod. She Signed. He translated.
“Um, hello. I am Dr. Helen Collins, Associate Professor of the esteemed University adjacent to where we stand now.”
As if one of Miller’s worst nightmares came true, all fell silent except his voice. Others simply spoke of what angered them. Miller, or to put it correctly, Collins was first to lay her name, title, and authority on the proverbial table for all to examine. Unsure how to respond to this new theatrics of a waving woman and a bumbling sweat box of a man controlling the lectern and main podium, the Council leader who opened the floor spoke into his own microphone waving his arms in all directions like two windmills arguing, “What is all this about?”
“Uh, uh, well,” Miller turned gelatinous. Collins never took her eyes off the Councilman sitting not ten feet away from her. Miller’s attention fell on the Council leader leaving Collins with nobody to translate. She banged on the empty microphone she stood beside. It squawked. Miller turned. She continued. Begrudgingly, so did Miller.
“Let me repeat myself. My name is Dr. Helen Collins, Associated Professor of History at the esteemed University which we stand next to today. Speaking is Dr. Christopher Miller, Professor of Languages and Linguistics of the same university. I, Dr. Collins, am mostly deaf and cannot speak. My cohort, Dr. Miller is interpreting for me. I wish to speak here tonight on the subject which brought us together this evening.
“It is my understanding that the cause of the ailment you so crassly call the abomination has yet been determined.” Before Collins began another sentence the same Councilman asked what her point was.
“Please, Councilman. Provide me my two minutes and I shall answer any questions you have.” The Councilman rolled his eyes falling back into his chair away from his mic.
“It is also my understand that witnesses to these allegations of attacks on civilians by infected persons have not come forth. No proof exists of these attacks. Yet, each day, as I pass from home to my office and back, attacks against infected persons occur regularly, in broad daylight, and with, if not approval, a certain air of selective vision.”
“How dare you,” one audience member interjected, making Collins question if the next moment would not include a bat to her already spinning and cloudy head. Realizing it impossible to engage an entire mob already energized with hate, she continued speaking directly to the Councilman.
“Thus far I have stood idle, hastening my involvement in the angry mobs I watch attack infected passersby simply for being who they are. Since nobody has come forth in any of those beatings, and no single witness has come forth in the brutal attacks against families in their homes by infected persons, allow me, Dr. Helen Collins, to put forth my name as a witness to violence against the nation you claim to protect. Not violence toward the family or toward God, but violence toward everything that makes a civil society civil.”
Collins stopped moving briefly. Peering over at Miller, she noticed the buckets of sweat that flowed down his forehead. His mask was a darker shade of blue as it was already saturated. She Signed a “Sorry” which he did not translate. Then she continued.   
“Thank you, Councilman. I will now answer any questions you may have. By the color of your face, I assume you have much to add.”
Collins produced her half smirking smile again. Whatever weight dropped on her shoulders over the course of previous weeks fell away.
“Well, then, Helen,” the Councilman began.
“Dr. Collins, if you don’t mind, Councilman. I afford you the courtesy due your title, I wish the same. I am not just some doctor’s wife.”
The Councilman managed several unknown shades of red bordering on florescent like someone strangled him under his already tight collar.
“Well, then, Dr. Collins. Are you suggesting we not protect our children from outside threats?”
“The opposite is true, Councilman. I am suggesting you do what you were elected to do. Protect all your citizens. Not only ones that suit your electoral benefit. If my memory serves me correctly, there is an election coming up. Is there not?”
This elicited a response any onlooker might expect. The offended Councilman jumped out of his chair speaking with what composure he could, “Your insinuation is insulting, woman.”
“I am sorry, Councilman,” Miller sputtered as he turned just as red as the Councilman he refused to look directly at. Then Miller obediently continued translating.
“I merely meant to state fact. Your insinuation was probably a product of guilt.”
Collins wanted to stop. She had no idea what possessed her to say such things or to continue on the same path, but she felt no regret.
It appeared the Councilman might faint from lack of oxygen or die of a stroke. Miller appeared on the same cusp. That was when the Councilman walked around his elected colleagues leaving nothing but thin air between him and Collins.
“Is that make up you’re wearing, lady?” His inquisitive look mimicked that of Collins’. Miller spoke on his own behalf for the first time since he stood at the lectern, “Helen, please.” This far into the engagement neither he nor Collins knew what it was Miller pleaded for. She turned to Miller begging him to continue just a little longer as a friend begs another to accompany them to a funeral. He sighed as he wiped his brow.
“Yes, Councilman. I am a woman. A fact you refuse to set aside.”
“And gloves?”
Collins now realized what direction the Councilman’s line of question was headed but did not know how to abort her position with rows of enthusiastic sheep behind her and the accusative Councilman in front of her. She stood her ground for no other reason than lack of options.
“It is cold outside.”
“In a building of more than two hundred people? It must be getting toasty in here. Why don’t you take your gloves off and stay awhile?”
“That will not be necessary, Councilman. I am just leaving.”
“You’re one of them aren’t you?”
Collins had turned to leave but turned back, “Excuse me, Councilman?” She shook as hard as Miller. The Councilman entered a state of sublime calm before the storm.
“If not, you won’t mind my checking your pulse, my dear.”
“As a matter of fact, Councilman, I owe you no explanation. Do not touch me.” She stepped back once as the Councilman glided forward. Miller jumped between them, an action confusing all three participants. Collins chose to turn. She walked up the stairs passed dozens of questioning, angry faces.
Heckling ensued. She pretended to be the deaf doctor she claimed to be, hoping with every ounce of her existence that they allowed her to exit. They did.
Outside, she ran out of fright. Run, for Collins, looked more like a wobbly jog to any onlooker. No part of her thought of whether or not she appeared normal. Survival was all that mattered.

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