After a critique group beat down, I’m struggling to get back and edit The Unpeople again. But it’s coming along nonetheless.
That’s an odd word, “nonetheless.” It has to be one of the few phrases that actually legitimately morphed into a single German-like word-phrase. Other words I’ve wanted to see go the same direction are “alright” (which I recently learned IS NOT A WORD AT ALL!!!), “eventhough”, “eachother”, and “Awesomesauce.” OK, that last one is only in jest. But seriously, if nonetheless can be a word, why not these other phrases that almost always come together.
Enough about that. The reason for this post is that a newly renovated Chapter 1 of The Unpeople is polished…ish. Here it is:
Collins welcomed the unusually quiet walk across campus to her final lecture of the semester. Her thoughts struggled to gain traction, her gait felt tempered and somehow changed.
Flu symptoms, to be sure, she thought.
She tried to keep her fatigued body moving forward despite its desire to remain motionless. Neither did her muscles ache nor did her throat itch, but something unidentified was clearly in the mail. With an otherwise fast-paced mind, Collins struggled to remain calm about her predicament. Only her absent energy kept her nerves in check.
The orange in her hand smelled less appetizing as her feet dragged through the campus center square. Its pungency, a scent pleasing any other day, repulsed today. She sighed as she tucked tufts of dusty blond hair behind each ear. As her left hand pulled away, the orange’s odor overtook her and she swallowed a bit of bile. All the while, her hands shook.
The halls echoed her shuffling feet.
Where is everyone? Am I late?
Entering her classroom, she peered at the wall clock to see she was two minutes late, which, by professorial standards, was on time. She let her breakfast orange roll across a large central table where stopped at a makeshift podium at its middle.
“OK, class,” she said without turning to them. “Since this is our last day, I thought we’d discuss Default’s concept of power. Default suggests in chapter hsss…”
Taken aback the sudden hiccup in her larynx, she cleared her throat and tried again.
“Excuse me. In chapter two, Default points out that power and dissshhhhh…”
Collins cleared her throat again, this time turning to her class to apologize. Doing so, she noticed she spoke to less than half the average clump of freshmen. Being the last day of lectures, she expected more students clambering for answers to next week’s test. Nervous habit brought Collins to subdue a lock of hair behind her ear.
“Where is everyone,” she asked nobody in particular.
Rather than speak aloud and chance another strange dysfunction of her voice, she pointed at the only, half-raised, hand.
“Are you OK, Professor?”
“Not exactly, but that’s not pertinent at the moment.”
“You really look like Death, Professor.”
“Thank you for that flattering assessment, Miss Gonzalez.” Collins’ smile wavered.
The few that remained in class chuckled.
“Dude,” another student interjected. “Seriously, you look like a corpse.”
“If you want any of those answers you’ve missed over the previous semester, Mr. Erving, I suggest you keep the subject relevant.”
This time, only one student snickered.
“Now, as I was trying to say initially, Default’s categorization of power as a hierarchhhhhhsss.”
Collins swallowed hard, a sense of nausea brimming deep within her. She leaned against the center table clearing her throat hard. It did not hurt, and she felt fine with exception of her somewhat foggy head. That, and the fact that her orange smelled of day old meat rather than the usual citrus sweetness to which she was accustomed. Without looking up she heard her class ruffle around in wait. She cocked her head to one side staring at the hands propping her up.
She was not dizzy, but she knew something was wrong. The table seemed to provide much needed support, if only psychologically. Her students were correct. The back of her hands were pale, almost carrying a blue hue. Straightening, she held her hands out ahead of her examining them.
Without a doubt, they were ashen. Their veins showed through as strange figures behind delicate drapes. Not one to trouble with cosmetics or appearance, she had not looked into her bathroom mirror before leaving for work.
“Are you OK, Teach?”
“Apparently not,” she whispered, not taking her eyes off her hands.
“Look,” she stumbled over what words to use. “Why don’t we call it a day? I’ll email you all a study guiiii…”
The throaty hiss coming from inside made her cringe.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Without providing further explanation, Collins shuffled out of the room. Behind she left her confused students and the orange, its scent lingering on her pale fingers.
As she shuffled through the campus square, she wondered what was wrong with her voice. Her throat felt fine. Apart from a somewhat clouded mind, she felt normal. She swallowed hard trying to keep from looking at her pale hands. She had never witnessed her own skin so pale. It was almost translucent.
What is wrong with me? This must be a dream. Wake up, Helen. This is not who you are. You are not some irrational dolt. Think it through. You must be dreaming. Nobody can exist and be this ashen. I’ll get to my office, put my head on my desk, and wake up. This will all be behind me.
While attempting to control her emotions, a man passed her heading the opposite direction. She would not have noticed him were it not for his blank gaze and stumbling gait. He carried no books, did not appear to be a professor, and had no backpack slung over his shoulder. It was as if he had nowhere to go, nowhere to be. He just was.
His skin grabbed his attention next. It held a blue hue usually saved for cadavers and those struggling an inch from death. Then again, contrary to his stuttering gait and macabre complexion, he looked very much alive. After they passed each other, Collins could not help but hold her hands up to eye level. They held the same terrible color, or lack thereof. She begged her body to wake her up from this nightmare before it progressed further.
She considered she might just have the flu. The foggy mind was similar to that of the flu. Perhaps she, and the transient that just strolled past, had a new strain of influenza that took an exceptional toll on skin pigmentation.
Her friend and colleague, Durand, met her at the front door to a small bungalow that had been converted into office spaces for her department. His twitching smile faded as he held the door open for Collins.
“You, um, look like death.”
Thinking of his word choice longer than she wanted to, she eventually answered, “I feel normal.” Her answer was not far from the truth. She added, “It’s most liihhhhhh…”
Her voice refused to allow her to continue. It transitioned to hissing as if her larynx turned off mid-sentence. The same painless frog in the throat from class reemerged. She cleared her throat and tried again with the same result, an unfinished sentence. Frustrated, she coughed and raised her arms to speak in Sign Language, “It’s probably just the flu.”
Durand’s face flushed, adding further contrast to their two complexions before he responded in kind.
“Something,” he Signed, “sure is going around.” His sheepish smile fell into a wrinkled frown.
Inside, the living room converted into a meeting room housed earthy tones that included bookcases, exposed wooden rafters, and plumbing that snaked the walls and ceiling as an obvious afterthought. Where no bookshelves lined the walls, books spilled out of open bedroom doors, the innards of which previous tenants gutted and relined with office furniture. In the meeting room’s center laid an oak conference table too big to fit comfortably any reasonable sized group of professions. Each chair pushed in and against the table provided enough room to scoot by but little else.
Durand and Collins sat opposite each other at the oak table, their chairs butting up against the walls behind each of them.
“What’s wrong with your voice,” Durand asked.
“Not too sure. The most peculiar part is that my throat feels completely normal.”
“And you’re moving rather slow, too.”
Durand produced the altruistic look of concern as his hands fell back to the table. She felt her lips tighten as a smile emerged.
“Things are foggy like I have the flu. I’m sure that’s what you see. No need to worry about me. I’ve been through worse. At least I’m here, right?”
“That’s just it, you don’t have to be here. Go home. Get some rest, Sweetie.”
“And do what, do you propose?”
Her movements turned rigid and faster, or so she thought, though somehow, her actions still felt retarded to a great degree. The balding man slouched away but his gaze remained on Collins.
“I don’t know. You don’t even have classes this semester. Not really. Just, um, go home. You don’t need to be here.”
“Maybe. But it’s too quiet there.”
Durand snickered, then hid it behind the upturned collar of his parka.
“You like it quiet, and you’ve never shirked from alone time.”
“Yes, but I’m still human. I still need some interaction.”
Balding Durand did not respond. Collins wondered if he contemplated his next comment or if she made him too uncomfortable to speak further.
“I like to be left to my own when I’m researching,” she said with more calm. She hoped to bring her friend and colleague back out of his shell.
Breakfast pangs raged inside. As her left hand passed by her face, she inhaled the scent of orange. The scent wormed its way into her nostrils. Grinding hunger in her stomach juxtaposed with nausea from the citrus in the air made her cringe.
“I’m still human,” she Signed again, though she could not determine if she said it for her friend’s benefit or her own.
“Why the hell is it always Sign Language,” a voice bellowed from the far side of the table. The voice pulled her attention away from the foul odor of remnants of her breakfast on her fingers.
Collins did not turn to acknowledge the rough voice. It was bad enough she had to hear her boss. She could not understand, but his voice was so deep as to rattle her bones. His demeanor was even more caustic than the average professor and director.
When her boss leaned in between the balding Durand and Collins, his eyes widened and his voice cracked.
“Dear God. Durand, why the hell didn’t you tell us you went and offed Collins here?”
Durand retreated further into his parka.
“And why the hell didn’t you hide the body? For Christ’s sake, she looks wretched.”
Collins’ attention left Durand and the wafting citrus residue to laser in on the man standing over them. His full beard matched his gruff voice well. Over the years, she came to believe his rough exterior to be a front, but it worked. All his students—and half the faculty—feared him. Collins simply disliked him.
Her glare fell on his back as her boss turned away from them and he made his way to his office to her left.
How disrespectful,she thought.
She was used to his caustic nature, but it still bit at her innards when he turned away from them while he clearly had not finished speaking with her.
Waving at Durand, she redirected his attention back to their interrupted conversation.
“How was the last day of classes for you?”
“Um, almost nobody there,” looking at Collins again. “Come to think of it, there was one young man in particular who…”
“Who what,” she asked with a cocked eyebrow.
“Now that I’m thinking about it, He asked a question about the final.”
“There’s nothing abnormal about that. Freshmen always want all the answers handed to them.”
Durand did not bubble with his usual sheepish giggle.
“That’s not it. He had incredibly pale skin, too.” At this, Collins pulled her hands back from the table and tucked her hair behind her ears. “Midway through his question, he lost his voice. And it stayed gone.”
“See, I’m not dying. I’ve got the flu like everyone…”
“Really,” barked the gruff man as he emerged from his cave of books piled in every direct imaginable. Collins only adjusted her eyes to see him, not turning to meet him with full attention. Durand turned around like a child wearing a winter coat, tiny arms swishing and neck craned. He would pass for a child from behind were it not for his poorly hidden combover.
Waiting until everyone’s attention fell on him, he continued.
“Neither of you are deaf. Why must you insist on resorting to keeping the entirety of the world out of your conversations?”
Collins’ lip curled and twitched. Her brow furrowed.
“Christ. It’s like vast conspiracies are being drafted within these very walls every time you two go at it.”
Changing her facial tone to one of a proud artisan presenting a great work, her boss turned back into his paper caverns. As his door slammed behind him, he added, “Besides, when you Sign like that, you look like two epileptics having sex.”
With Durand’s child-like attention returning to her, she tried to erupt into mock seizures where she sat. Her slow-paced movements brought something more akin to a wobbling wooden board jolted to one side with a hammer. Durand giggled behind a half-covered hand. Collins turned to the man’s closed door and provided a Sign no citizen, deaf or otherwise, would fail to interpret properly.
“Sweetie,” Durand’s face pulled with concern. “Go home. Sleep this off. You might not feel it much now, but you look terrible. Rest is key with most of these viruses.”
Reaching across the table like a mother does to her daughter after a long discussion, he patted her hand resting on the table. He jerked back.
“Oh my, Helen,” he chirped aloud. “You’re cold as ice.”
“Am I? I feel relatively normal. Certainly no chills or fever.”
She cocked her head, “Except for this foggy feeling and the occasional frog in my throat. And damn it if I’m not hungry. Yet I couldn’t convince myself to eat the orange I brought this morning.”
“No, Helen. You’re unnaturally cold. Wait,” Durand looked confused. “You didn’t bring any breakfast with you.”
“I left it in my first class this morning. Left in a hurry when my voice kept giving out on me. I can still smell that damn orange on my fingers. It’s making me nauseous.”
“But you love fruit.”
“I know,” she leaned back into her chair. “Some reason I want something meaty this morning. Maybe some bacon.”
At this mention, Collins salivated.
Durand came out of his parka shell slightly, “But you’re a vegetarian.”
“Haven’t had a bite of animal since I left my parents’ house more than a dozen years ago. Can’t even recall the flavor. Yet, an unexplainable pang begs for it. I can’t quell this craving.”
Durand just peered back at her with empathy.
“I’m fine. Really.”
“Please,” Durand almost sounded confident as he spoke aloud. “For me. Go home. Sleep it off. Take a little time off.”
“It’s the beginning of the semester. I cannot just take time off. Besides, we just came back from break. I need some interaction[R1]
“What you need is rest, sweetie.”
She rose to her feet with the stiffness of a robot standing for its first time after being powered on and spoke aloud, “Maybe you’re ri…” Her voice trailed off into a throaty hiss again. Snapping her lips together, she shook her head and Signed.
The gruff voice echoed from behind a door cracked open, “Go take a warm bath. Find some chicken soup.” His attempt at compassion took Collins by surprise. “Maybe your girlfriend here will make it for you. And Durand, get started on that soup, and get the hell out of my department. And for Christ’s sake, Collins. Get the hell out of here before you get us all sick.”
His office door slammed shut again. Beyond it, she heard the mutterings of something about a “dumb bitch.”
Collins hated that phrase. She worked her whole life to divert that phrase from her ears. Her father called her mother that on a regular basis. She knew her mother was not dumb then. She knew she was not dumb now. “Bitch” just felt like icing on the subservient cake, but no good ever came from confronting that phrase or the man who owned it. She chose her battles. She chose to hear “dumb bitch” rather than “feminist bitch.” Somehow, the first sounded less genuine than the second did. Somehow, the second came with more force, though it came with equally lacking footing.
Rubbing her throat in hopes of dislodging whatever built a nest there, she Signed with disappointment, “I’ll see you later then.”
“Maybe you need a solid breakfast, sweetie. Like, uh, eggs and bacon.”
They smiled at each other, though no happiness remained in that small meeting room. She licked her lips as she left.
Why was the world moving so fast around her? How could her voice just give up when her throat did not itch at all? Every year she got the flu. However, this was the first year she felt so normal but so slowed by the illness and, frankly, she thought, dumb. It was normal walk about clouded over, fatigued, and even drunk. This year she sensed something different. Thoughts came and went, though it remained less cogent.
As she walked across campus, she thought, Why is everyone running around me?
On her way home that morning, she stopped by a grocery store just off campus. Being vegetarian, there was no meat in the apartment to quench this odd thirst. She stood over meat of every shape and sort, something she had not done since her early years in high school, as best she could recall.
A butcher, or what passed as one, asked if she needed help. His curled lip and stutter over “help” let her know her face was paler than even she originally hoped.
She did not know what her body wanted. Everything looked like candy. Saliva collected as if she were sitting down to her last meal.
What to eat? What to eat?
She left with a half-pound of ground round. Its scent wafted upward as she walked home making her knees even weaker.
What an odd flu symptom.
That was about all she though. Collins sat at her kitchenette table staring at her purchase. As she dropped the meat into a warming skillet, the sizzling meat made her nearly as nauseous as her orange had earlier. She pulled the pan off the burner and plopped the red flesh back onto its paper wrapping.
Sitting at her table, she watched the meat in hopes of something else coming to mind. Nothing came.
It started with one nervous bite, then another. Each time the ground round touched her tongue, her taste buds exploded as if she were enjoying a German Chocolate Cake for the first time.
She sat and ate all half-pound fresh out of its wrapping like popcorn from a bag.
It was the sweetest, most satisfying flavor to pass her palate as far back as she could remember. She closed her eyes, thought nothing, and just enjoyed that ground round like an alcoholic sipping their first drink in twenty years. Guilt and shame and all that comes with the reasons one picks up the drink first off: to quell hunger for something else entirely.
Must change intro to her trying to hand out a syllabus rather than answers to the final.