Collins goes back to the scene of the devastation.
Collins grabbed her collapsible grocery cart and stumbled to the closest super center department store. She fought off urges to apply makeup after Representative Moran’s commentary. Though fewer people were likely to show to her seminar this afternoon, she owed it to them to remain true. However, before any teaching could commence, she needed supplies.
Supplies, she thought. As if I’m prepping for a hurricane or some earth-stopping snow storm. No bread, water, milk, or even canned goods this trip, however. Her trip today meant rations of meat, meat of every sort and cut. Sparks of why these cravings persisted fired off in her head, or through the store loudspeakers, or both.
Over the loudspeaker, messages played from local authorities peppered with giblets of President Somani’s prominent opponents in the looming election. Each encouraged constituents to vote for someone more willing to deal with the current “problem” than the President. Each claimed a better and more humane methodology than the last. President Somani, on the other hand, continued urging caution and compassion, whatever those words meant to whichever ears were honed in.
“Be on the lookout for sloth-like individuals,” spat a local official.
“Keep your children and loved ones away from these dirty things,” another popped in.
“If you’re infected, you’re just as guilty as the terrorists themselves,” shot out an ad for President Somani. The advertisement’s end spun through a litany of indistinguishable syllables Collins assumed was its attempt to separate itself from Somani while at the same time promoting the current President.
“If your current President is not willing to confront this problem of national security head-on, then speak up. Vote for a leader who will lead. Vote for a truly compassionate leader.”
Collins picked up her pace to what felt like jogging to her in hopes of appearing less “sloth-like.” She filled her cart to its brim with meat selections. Even for everyday meat-eaters, her overindulgence had to raise suspicions, and she knew this. To hide her fleshy finds, she detoured to a seasonal aisle for two platters filled with cheeses, assorted sausage slices, and decorative crackers. More meat, yet well hidden by the guise of a neighborhood barbecue or football party, held only a secondary function of hopefully hiding the reality of her situation from onlookers.
Comments trumpeting through the store’s speaker system nudged her toward the cosmetics counter with discomfort in her initial decision not to cover herself. Unclear whether concealer was going to be necessary, she refused to take chances. Thinking that her seminar students—at least those willing to traverse the barrage of negative commentary and likely camera crews asking questions about the stampede—came first, she decided it OK to temporarily hide her identity. This idea sickened her, but with so many people relying on her teaching Sign Language, they outweighed her own want for comfort.
The cosmetics counter unnerved Collins further, were that possible. Years passed since last she stepped foot near said counter, or one like it. What she had, she acquired through years of unwanted gifts.
How can a place so full of beautifying pencils, clarifying creams, and colorful powders make one so hateful of their own skin?
She tucked a tuft of hair behind her right ear. Her face tingled with heat knowing her pale blue features differed from those around her. She looked up to find nobody looking though she still felt their eyes burrowing under her spider-veined flesh. With that, she let her hair fall back across her face in shame.
Collins could afford more makeup but thought it too conspicuous to purchase in large quantities, especially given the already unusually large pile of protein in her cart. Instead, she settled on a few different brands, most in the form of gift sets. They cost more but drew less attention when purchased in groups larger than one. The irony of trying to hide her want of concealer and her need of raw flesh while not hiding her current skin tones did not pass her unnoticed. With that, she pulled her hoodie over her head.
As she meandered to toward the registers at the store’s front, she peered around at other customers. Being midday, few consumers walked about purchasing the week’s needs. There was an old man wearing coveralls with a woman Collins assumed was his wife. He clearly had whatever infection she had. The woman did not appear to be infected. Still they walked hand in hand as they passed Collins. Walking past, their eyes left each other and attached to Collins. In unison, their shaking hands reached up to their mouths and Signed, “Thank you.” They said nothing more and did not acknowledge their comments further. Instead, they continued on their way.
Must have been in the seminar. Clearly they didn’t come yesterday.
Some distance away, a worker, also infected, spoke in Sign Language to a patron who reciprocated in kind. She smiled as her eyes caught his. He smiled. Then his smile leaped up into his eyes. He hissed, trying to speak out of reflex.
“It’s you,” he flicked. He followed this hiss with half a dozen “Thank you” Signs and several tears rolling down his cheeks.
Though she taught the seminar for over a month now, it still caught her off guard when people recognized or thanked her. After all, she only did what anyone else would do in her position. She had no choice. It seemed to be a condition of continued employment placed on her by her Department Chair. And, after the previous day’s tragedy, she hardly felt appreciation in order. She shook her head. This would be the moment her face warmed but she did not feel any warmth move northward. The woman speaking to the worker nodded with head and fist.
“Yes,” she Signed. “Yes. You do lots.”
Collins knew she meant so much more than her limited Sign Language provided.
“But yesterday,” Collins Signed. “Yesterday. All those people. That poor dog. That poor man.”
“Shit happens,” the woman said aloud, obviously unable to find Signs to express her true feelings. “But you’re still teaching tonight, right?”
“I don’t know if that’s quite an appropriate response to yesterday.”
“Nonsense,” she said aloud again, bringing an odd amount of audio into the store. “We still need you.”
She did not know how to respond. She wanted tonight to happen. Not hearing from Durand made her believe everything was still on. But fewer people were likely to show. As it appeared now, however, enthusiasm for her seminar remained high. A certain something warm seemed to bubble up from somewhere deep inside her.
Register lines stretched further than she hoped. Waiting in line with rather conspicuous items and concealing creams put the fear of death into Collins. She did not sweat though. Hoodie, heavy pants, and jittery nerves, any normal person would sweat blood. Perhaps it was the slowed heartbeat keeping her pores clogged. Perhaps the temperature in the store hovered low enough to justify lack of perspiration. Collins convinced herself of the latter. The former implied circumstances she did not yet want to entertain. Besides, she had no idea why she would be nervous. Representative Moran’s comments were disturbing, and the store loud speaker filled with local talking heads echoing Moran’s sentiment, but the people, the ones that mattered most, the majority, seemed willing to let the tragedy stand as it was, a simple tragedy.
Several more people she did not recognize walked up to her or past her and simply Signed “Thank you” and continued on their path of consumerism. She wondered if anybody listened to the intercom spewing negativity about people in their position. Perhaps nobody cared. She taught to infected and uninfected people alike and witnessed nothing but good nature and positive interactions. Today was proof that many of her students believed in the power of her seminar.
She only bumped into an occasional student in all her years of teaching. Today, more than a dozen students she did not know personally both recognized her and thanked her for her service. Discomfort over her apparent celebrity status breathed onto her face overriding any disquiet from her appearance.
Walking home with her pull-cart of meat and cosmetic gift sets, she passed the south end of campus where a young man stood holding a sign that stopped Collins dead in her track:
PROTECT THE NATION, FINISH THE ABOMINATION.
For the first time since she lived under her parents’ roof, fear flowed through her tempered veins. This man hated her but did not even know her. She was not dead, or even undead. A pulse like any other human being pumped blood through her body the way it flowed through this man’s body. Not as fast, to be certain, but highly active people have slower than average pulse rates. Nobody accused them of being against nature, or worse, against God, or worse still, against the State. He appeared to suggest she was guilty of all three.
“The end is nigh,” he barked from across the street.
Collins could not help but jostle even faster toward her apartment. Of course her run appeared as an awkward wobbly walk to any unaffected person. However, as irrational as it was, enough fear coursed through her chilled veins to push her to appear normal. Nothing could be done about her face. That remained visible for all to see. But as she walked past, she pretended to find something on the north side of the street, opposite the young man, very appealing.
Back home, Collins cried her way through two raw cube steaks. Yet, somehow, the two steaks could not quell her thirst for more. Nor could it quell the pain pecking at her innards. She feared her craving might actually be for human flesh as some had suggested. Like a heroin addict at a methadone clinic, her hands shook. Her bones demanded something more, something else. She realized cube steaks, as disgusting as their raw concept was to her little more than a month prior, they remained far better than any unthinkable alternative rotting in the back of her navel.
Though not deeply religious, thoughts of being considered an abomination dug into her conscience and ate at her brain matter. None of this happened by choice. Were it up to its host, Collins would happily choose to follow the majority. What she would not give to crave and enjoy something as simple as baked oatmeal. Minorities never fare well in society, no matter the advancement that that society claimed.
A quick glance at her phone let her know time had come to leave for her seminar. Whatever was left of the gymnasium, she had obligations to those brave enough to show up. During her walk across campus the crackle of gravel underfoot reminded her of the man’s ribs giving way to her chest compressions. Sadness leaked into a hole in her stomach. Guilt filled up inside with each breath she inhaled, none came out with each exhale. She wondered if it was appropriate to hold any sort of meeting given what happened. But what she saw took what little breath she had away.
The gymnasium still stood. As much as she knew logically that the building itself had not fallen as a result of the stampede, it took her by surprise to see it standing quietly in wait. In front of it, on a patch of grass that reached between two sets of double doors to the parking lot, a large group of people congregated. No sound emanated from them, so Collins assumed them all infected. She wondered why they stood outside rather than waiting inside for their teachings to begin. Her answer presented itself in the form of yellow tape on one set of doors guarded by two University security officers. One infected, one not. Neither spoke.
As she approached the group of at least three dozen standing bodies, she saw they held candles. All their attention focused at their feet, or beyond them.
Her body shifted from sadness and fear to happiness and optimism and back again. Collins’ lips wavered in the calm fall air.
Nobody spoke. They did not have to. They each knew why they showed up. Each knew tomorrow was another day, except for the man and the dog that died yesterday. For them, there would be no today, no tomorrow. Collins stopped when she saw at the head of the vigil stood a woman in black. She could tell from her silhouette that it was the woman of the man she tried in vain to save. Better judgment and etiquette told her to talk to her, to give her heartfelt apologies for not being able to do more. For whatever reasons—most selfish, and she knew it—she could not bring herself to take another step toward the woman. She forced her gaze away from the woman to focus on nothing in particular off to her right.
From where she stood, she noticed the other set of double doors had no yellow tape. Rather than ask anyone why they did not enter through these doors, she left the vigil and walked over to the unmarked doors. Though they were not taped off or guarded by security, their handles had been chained together.
Images of yesterday immediately flooded into her mind. Waves of people ebbed toward the gymnasium’s back. Like waves of the sea, each wave pushed back by the shore was thrust forward again by yet another wave. They found tiny relief in a single hole in the back wall, to her right from her position on stage.
These doors were locked yesterday before everything happened.
Something heavier than lead found its way into her skull and her gut. Unwilling to make assumptions, though her body seemed more inclined, she strolled around the gymnasium’s massive exterior. There were six total double doors leading in and out of its vast interior. However, only two sets of double doors, one by where the vigil stood in prayer and one by the stage, remained marked with yellow caution tape and guards. Four other entrances, or in the case of yesterday, the exits, were chained and locked by their handles.
Collins covered her cold mouth with both hands. Standing in the same silence as those huddled around in remembrance, she considered the past, present, and future. Triggered by the simple visual of chain wrapped door handles, tears came before thoughts told her why. She did not weep or shudder. Tears fell with no other indication of her emotions. They came quietly. They came in streams. Time trickled on without her.
How long she stood staring at a set of double doors chained and locked, she did not know. Before her body gave her a chance to acknowledge, someone placed a hand on her shoulder. Her body did not respond. The placement transitioned to a tap. Reluctantly, she obliged in turning in the hand’s direction. The hand belonged to yesterday’s wailing woman, whose husband she could not save. Something in her chest grabbed her heart and squeezed it in its talons. With what energy her body provided, she reached up and rubbed her fist in a circle across her chest and hissed, “I’m so sorry.”
“No,” she said aloud and in Sign. “Thank you.”
Collins could not comprehend. Every replay allowed her had this woman screaming over a dead man, a man Collins tried in vain to save, a man who, today, was more dead than she was. What did this woman receive from her that warranted gratitude? Because of her and because of her seminar, this woman no longer had a loved one to go home to. She seemed to read Collins’ mind.
“Because of you,” she started, her voice cracking, hours upon hours of emotion caked to her face. She cleared her throat quietly. “Because of you, my husband and I spoke more over these last few weeks than in the twenty years since we married. You gave us our marriage back.”
“But I…” She did not know what she was. “But I…but he’s…” she Signed.
“He’s in a better place.”
“Was he…” but again Collins did not know exactly what she wanted to ask.
“Was he infected? Yes.”
In her hand, the woman rubbed a shirt between a thumb and forefinger. It looked familiar. Collins wondered if it was not the very shirt her husband died in.
“But nothing, Dr. Collins.”
The woman reached for Collins’ pale, cold hands, which rung at each other with nerves. She felt her neck muscles tighten and her lip quiver. What is she doing, she asked herself. I lost nobody. She’s the one need consoling.
“What you’ve done is amazing. What you tried to do was selfless. Paramedics said he died before he hit the floor. He felt nothing.”
“I know, hon.” The woman’s eyes swelled further, were such a thing possible. She pulled in and embraced Collins. Without thought Collins reached up, reciprocating the woman’s hug. The two of them cried. Their heaves rolling in unison. Collins could not explain why this woman felt anything but pure hatred for her, but she could not help but accept it. Their embrace was so enveloping that neither noticed the rest of the vigil gathering around them. As the sun set over distant hills just outside the city limits, the amber hue floated overhead. Candlelight mixed with deeper shades of purple before only candlelight remained.