It’s been a while, I know. But, here it is, Chapter 11 of The Unpeople. It’s a longer chapter than usual. But I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Comments are always appreciated!
Collins told those at the vigil that it might be best to put their seminar on hold from then through the weekend. Time off would provide everyone opportunity to ruminate on yesterday’s happenings, on more than a month of congenial atmosphere. However, on Monday they would return to their seminar in the gymnasium. She never mentioned what she surmised about what locked and chained exits might mean, or that she noticed them at all. Everyone agreed. After another quarter hour of hugging and pitying, they group of several dozen infected and affected people turned to mourn their losses in silence.
The weekend found Collins reading through several texts she borrowed from the University library before her current condition overtook like a fog over a harbor. Though her reading speed had still not risen to normal standards, she could feel it heading in that direction. What mattered more to her was the satisfaction felt from filling her belly with knowledge. That was why she taught what she taught. Subconsciously, however, she enjoyed separating from reality. The darkness of texts on original uses of infirmaries could not sour her mood when she dove face first into the depths of their embrace.
On Saturday, Durand sent a text message.
“How are you feeling, sweetie?”
“Fine,” she replied. “My reading comprehension is nearing normal. I think I’m getting better.”
She certainly felt no different than when all this began. Then again, she did not feel terribly different that morning, except for her bizarre cravings and foggy head. Since she focused on reading these last few days, the fog of her head seemed to drift back out to sea. Not having an interest in peeking into her bathroom mirror to know whether her premonition was accurate or not, she could not be certain. But she did feel better.
“Can I bring you something? Something to eat?”
“No. I’m OK.”
“Can I stop by anyway?”
“I’m not exactly proper.”
“Ha! You know I don’t care about that, sweetie.”
Before she could respond, a knock rapped on her door. It was Durand.
“Hey, sweetie,” he said as he hugged her.
Somehow he looked paler that she did. But he could still speak.
“Hi,” she Signed. “Come in.”
“Thanks,” he Signed back. “I won’t stay long. Got a lot of midterms to grade before Monday.”
Mention of tests chiseled something from Collins’ chest. Normally she too would be focused on grading. As it was, her boss was not allowing it.
“That’s OK. I understand.”
“I really just wanted to check up on you.”
“I’m fine. Really.”
“I heard there was a vigil the other night.”
“I know. I was there. I told them all to take the rest of the week off and we would start again on Monday.”
“Are you sure that’s such a great idea, sweetie?”
“Things just feel different.”
“That’s true. But the need still exists, doesn’t it.”
“Yeah, I suppose. I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
“Just be careful, will you?”
“Locked in here, it’s kind of hard not to.”
The two of them managed half-hearted smiles at each other.
“Well,” he said finally. “I should get going. Just glad you’re doing all right.”
“Are you OK?”
He paused but did not answer.
“What’s wrong? You look as pale as I do.”
“It’s just, something’s not right.”
“What’s not right?”
“Not really sure. Have you been watching the news.”
“Yeah, but I try not to.”
“Moran is gaining in popularity. Especially after the incident the other night.”
“Moran? He’s a moron.”
“Just be careful, sweetie. Something’s not right about all this. I’m just worried about you.”
“I’m worried about you, hon.”
She hugged her friend who seemed to need it more than she did. Given his discomfort with whatever was happening, she felt it best not to mention what she noticed about the chained exits to the gymnasium. Perhaps she was overreacting anyway. Maybe the chains came after the stampede. Why worry her friend any further than he was already with incomplete facts. She pulled away.
“Everything will be fine. I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, sweetie.”
She held Durand by both his arms, looked him straight in his beady little eyes, and mouthed, “I promise.”
He produced a smile appearing more full of pain than happiness and nodded.
“I hope so, sweetie,” he said aloud. “I hope so.”
Campus was deadly quiet as she shuffled her way across the concrete University Center Monday afternoon. It caught her attention that fewer infected people wandered the campus grounds than usual. Collins concluded that many infected or otherwise affected chose to stay away longer than she told the relatively small vigil last week. Little else explained the lack of pale skinned students and staff. Unable to speak, Collins texted Durand informing him of her arrival to the gymnasium in the coming hour. For some reason, Collins felt uncomfortable with the silence and lack of bodies walking about.
What felt to Collins as instantaneous, Durand responded, “Teaching. Be there in 1 hr, if that’s OK?”
Fearing her response time too muted that her text would interrupt his class, she did not respond.
Several pale blue individuals stumbled around almost aimlessly. None carried books. They had no backpacks on their backs. They simply wandered aimless, nothing else. They walked at a pace to which Collins was not painfully aware. One thanked her as she walked by. Two other people walked faster than these aimless wanderers, each wearing cheap imitation surgeon’s masks, neither as pale as the infected. Collins could not decipher if they actually sprinted from one place to another or if her stunted demeanor made them appear as though they were running at full tilt.
Then she realized, of all the seminars she held with infected and affected people present, she rarely watched them move about the room. At least not until that last night, but that night everyone ran quite fast, even infected persons. Prior to that fateful night, most already waited for their teacher when she arrived. The seminar always ended with bottlenecks of people at the exits. She always hung back answering questions and speaking to those who wanted to be spoken to. Of course, the bottlenecks leading up to that night last week were of no serious comparison to that night.
Each step reverberated through her otherwise slow mind, echoing, reminding her of how different she now was from her collegiate counterparts. For whatever reason, the comments from Congressman Moran stuck with her. His word choice ate at her innards. No single word replayed in her mind. Instead, she felt the effects in her inability to feel normal. These last few weeks Collins had begun to feel that, though her predicament was in no way status quo, she was no different from anyone else. She was simply stricken with an illness, a disease, some unknown affliction.
As she came upon the gymnasium she noticed a news truck in the ahead of it. The seminar did not begin for another two hours, but the crew was already setting up cameras. A newscaster Collins knew well was fixing his hair and practicing opening lines. Hoping to get past them without incident, she lowered her head and picked up her pace.
“Dr. Collins,” a familiar voice echoed. “Do you have a moment.”
His question came without an expected upward inflection. Looking up, the ditsy newscaster came at her full tilt with a microphone in hand. Her whole body sighed as he approached.
“We were wondering if you would like to say a few words, maybe clear your name.”
“Say a few words,” she Signed. “Say?”
“Damn it,” he snapped back waving someone from his van to join. “That’s right. Translate for us.” The ditsy newscaster took his attention away from Collins to plaster it upon his viewing audience. Collins did not know if they were live, but did not want to ask in the event that they were.
“I’m here with Dr. Helen Collins, the founder of the seminar this great city has used to enable people to speak with one another. Dr. Collins, what possessed you to start what is quickly becoming a national phenomenon?”
As she Signed, the translator spoke into the microphone.
“I did what anyone else in my position would do. Necessity arose, I obliged. There is nothing more to it.”
“Very admirable,” though his tone suggested he thought otherwise. “Our viewers are curious what your take on last week’s tragic events that left the now famous service dog, Kiki, dead, and dozens more injured.”
“That service animal,” she started.
“Yes,” she stood confused before continuing. “Kiki was a tragedy. However, what you and your viewership do not seem to know is that a man died that night as well as a result to the stampede.”
“Are you suggesting our viewers are not smart enough to know what’s important.”
Again his question came without inflection.
“Not in the least.”
“Then what are you suggesting Dr. Helen Collins.”
“I’m suggesting the media is not focusing on what’s important.”
“Kiki was valued at over fifty thousand.”
“I assume the man who lost his life was somehow less valuable?”
“Perhaps you’d like a chance to defend your role in the riot that evening.”
“I caused no such thing,” she felt her face flush, though she wondered if any color actually meandered to her facial tissue.
“But your seminar lead to the death of a very expensive service animal.”
“And that of an innocent human being. A fact you cannot seem to wrap your skull around.”
“So you have no comment on the riot your seminar caused.”
She thought a moment, unsure what piece of the puzzle the newscaster missed. Then images of chained doors came to her mind.
“As a matter of fact,” she Signed. “I would like to comment rather poignantly on that very subject.”
“Excellent. Juan, get a close up on Helen here as she tells her story. Go ahead, Dr. Helen Collins.”
“For the record, the man who died, and the dozens injured, might not have been so unlucky were it not for the blocked exits.”
“You mean there were too many people inside your gymnasium.”
“I mean most of the exits were chained shut.”
“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting Doctor.”
“That’s hard to say. You seem to be incapable of following my comments.”
“Collins,” a gruff voice barked from behind. Her boss barreled at them with impressive speed she until now not seen from him. “Dr. Collins has nothing further to say to you or anyone else.”
“Who are you?” The newscaster added a definite upward inflection to his question.
“You’re supposed to be the reporter. Do some digging. We’re done here.” He turned to Collins. “Come on. Let’s get you inside.”
The newscaster’s voice faded into the background as her boss dragged him by her arm.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing talking to those vultures?”
“He asked. Besides, he seems to hung up on that damn dog. What about the poor man who was trampled?”
“Son of bitch, Collins,” his face turning beet red. “You of all people should know who writes history and who reports it.”
“Don’t tell me what I do and don’t know. I also know those doors,” she pointed at the still chained doors, “were chained before that stampede.”
His face went slack. “Excuse me?” Taking notice of what Collins pointed at, she could tell he needed no explanation. “Christ, Mary, and Joseph. And you think it was wise to share this with an unassuming public at this juncture?”
“No less so than telling that same public that a human being died that night.”
“Collins,” he breathed in and out several times. “Let’s get something straight. You do what you came here to do. I’ll take care of all this. You are the voice. I’m your representative.”
His face returned to neon colors behind his beard. He looked about, noticed the newscaster peering over at them, and leaned in toward Collins whispering, “It’s not about your capability, you dumb fuck. It’s about their inability. Let the fire poker stab me. You have an obligation to this city. I don’t. Let them come after me.”
Severity in his voice kept her from responding.
“Look,” he sighed and calmed somewhat. “I don’t like this situation any more than you do. And I hate to put it to you this way, but if you value your position at this university, you’ll do well to follow my directives. I’ve bent over backward for this all to happen, and you’ve done wonders, but I can only protect you if you stay silent.”
Collins did not know what to say. As he spoke the newscaster waited just out of earshot like a dog waiting for his command. A few bodies trickled into the gymnasium through the only open doors.
“I’m sorry about this Collins,” his voice sounded much more muted. “But you have to believe I’m doing everything in my powers to keep this thing alive.”
Before she could respond, a camera shoved its way between them. Her boss began speaking in his authoritative tones she knew so well. She took this as an opening and left for the gymnasium.
Durand already waited for her at the front. Chairs were lined up as last time. The floor where the service animal was mauled appeared markedly cleaner than the floor surrounding it. They hugged hello and prepared for the day’s lesson. With only five minutes before start time, half the chairs remained empty. Though more people showed than she expected, such an empty room still bothered her.
The seminar finished without further incident. Those who showed were far more reserved and quiet than usual. News crews peppered the audience with questions afterward. Rather than encourage engagement with reporters, Collins and Durand snuck out a back door she knew as unlocked. They only spoke in small talk. Neither one wanted to acknowledge last week’s death nor did they want to seem insensitive.
Another week passed. The seminar grew in size somewhat but never filled like before. News crews dwindled as well. That night, Collins flicked on her television for any updates available on the upcoming election, about the economy, or about her condition. What presented itself was a public announcement by Congressman Moran.
“My fellow Countrymen,” he said like speaking as a Caesar. “Today I introduced legislation to help fight the plague that confronts us. This legislation will make it illegal to work while infected. If passed, this will boost unemployment numbers, get hard-working citizens in working positions, and rid the workplace of these infectious things that refuse to die.
“If passed, this bill would take effect immediately. Your president has refused to deal with these problems. It is because of your current president that your economy is crashing as we speak. It is because many around you refuse to die when Death comes knocking that you have no jobs. If I’m elected, more legislation like this will be introduced. If elected president, you will have jobs, and you will be safe. I will protect citizens from these abominations, these terrorists. Good evening. And God bless this amazing State.”
Fear filled up inside Collins. The chances of such legislation passing was slim, but Moran garnered some support, or he would not have made headlines. And Collins knew this. Still she found her way to her bathroom and applied enough makeup to conceal her complexion. Perhaps what her boss said was right, she had to tread lightly. Maybe what she was doing was more important than who she was or what she looked like.
Back at her cluttered office a couple hours before her seminar began, she closed her door. Somewhere near her spine a morsel of her reveled at being able to close a door. The room disappeared as she fell into her desk chair closing her eyes. Pacing an entire night did not cause fatigue quite like pretending to be someone, or something, else in public. Always scared of what others think. Not sure if your infection is something that will, eventually, kill you, or worse, if that infection intends on torturing you, forcing you to remain alive. With the situation serious enough to warrant speeches and introduction of legislation barring people like her from employment this close to election day, and at least one person believing she was an abomination to whatever created her, part of her hoped for death.
She wanted to badly to cry. However, if she cried, her mask would run; she brought no back up paint with her. She refrained with all her leftover energy.
Where is Durand?
Checking her phone again, Any minute now, I’m sure. He said he had something to talk to me about. What to do till then? My email.
That would take her thoughts off everything. She logged in, or tried to, at least. The computer chimed in, “Your username and/or password is incorrect. Please try again.”
Thinking nothing of it, she did. Again, the same message popped up. She tried one more time, meticulously staring at each keystroke as she pieced together the same username and password she used for years. The same message appeared. She fell back into her chair, grunting to herself.
What? Now I can’t even type my own username and password?
She dropped her fist down with a thud landing on a book. Birth of the Clinical Institution.
How fitting, she grumbled to herself.
Her interest piqued, its spine crackled as she opened it to one of the first few pages, pages she read not too many months ago. She fingered the underlined sentences like a child learning to read for her first time. Its meaning perched right at the tip of her frontal lobe. Still it escaped her. Repeatedly she read the same two passages. Repeatedly it almost made sense. Something about lepers, invalids, and treatment of both danced just out of reach.
What she would not do hide inside her books again like she could not two months ago. Though life remained somewhat stable given her current status, whatever that was, she still needed her retreat. She needed some release, some ability to reboot her mental system.
Squeezing her eyelids shut she tried to remember when she first read the passages. She recalled only spurts and sputters. What she did recall was that the author in question wrote about how madness was first viewed in a romantic light. Socrates was likely mad, yet people revered him. Then they killed him, but not because he was insane. No, Socrates died because he disagreed with the state.
She opened her eyes and read again. The words made sense, and the sentences began coming together. She hoped her reading skills would come back to their former glory sooner rather than later.
“Sometime between the death of Socrates and the so called Age of Reason, Western Civilization began seeing madness as a negative attribute, an attribute to be cured of.”
This is where her ability to read burped and disappeared. She eyed the page again, this time with less enthusiasm, fearful of an inevitable failing outcome. Frustrated, she shoved Birth of the Clinical Institution off to her left toppling a tower of books in its journey to the floor.
Questions of “why” and “why her” seeped into her conscience like black ink spreading in a shirt pocket. All the usual humanistic questions of destiny and fate floated around inside as did tortures of self-pity and other “woe is me” internal ranting. It was her computer winding down into sleep mode that brought her back from her self-pity long enough to realize nothing good came from being there today. Her research would have to wait until after the infection passed, should that time arise.
Swishing sounds followed by a timid knock at the door alerted Collins to Durand’s arrival. He was wearing an anti-bacterial mask.
“Not you too,” Collins flicked.
“It’s not safe anymore,” Durand returned. “For me or for you.”
“Whatever it is, it’s not contagious. We’ve been through this. We’ve worked together for almost two months. You’re still OK.”
“Well, that’s not exactly it. People are getting scared.”
“Why? Whatever it is came, did its thing. Now some of us are, well, whatever we are.”
“Um, you really shouldn’t be seen in public. Especially…”
“Especially what? With you,” she asked, irritated at the coming implication. “Worried what your fellow Council members will think if you’re found conspiring with a terrorist?”
Durand’s eyes widened, “You know that’s not what I was going to say.”
“Besides, you’re only the Treasurer. You hardly have any say during those pointless meetings.”
Durand backed away out of her office doorframe, bumping into the oak meeting table. Collins felt terrible. She was irritable from lack of human exchange, from losing her escape, from comments made by a Congressman who thought of her as an abomination and a terrorist. Now she took it out on the only person alive who would do anything for her, infected or otherwise.
“I’m so sorry,” her eyes welled. “It’s just so frustrating.”
“Um, I can’t even imagine.”
Durand looked sheepish while judging the safety of his return to her office entrance. He came in close, “But you really need to not be here right now.”
Collins saw the fear in his face.
“What do you mean?”
“The department already knows you’re infected. Frankly, the whole world does. There’s talk of letting go anyone suspected of being ill.”
She jumped out of her chair.
“They can’t,” she flicked with great intensity. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m a professor. You can’t just fire a professor.”
“That may have been true before all this.” His face paled, bordering on being infected, “But I think emotions are shifting.”
“Durand,” a voice barked from out of sight. “Get the hell out of here.”
He gave a look of horror to Collins before scooting off, his swishing parka the only sound he made. In return, Collins’ boss stomped into her office.
“Can I help you,” she asked rather irritated to have her conversation cut short. Noticing he too wore a mask, “You too?” But her boss moved in close enough to shut her office door behind him. Now he stood tall over Collins.
“Cut the shit, Collins,” he whispered loudly.
“Excuse me,” she stood. Staring him square in his beady eyes, Collins felt a deepening urge to bite the man’s face off where he stood. Her nose and upper lip twitched as she held herself back. But what Collins saw in his eyes was not fear or anger.
“Did you check your email?”
“Did you. Check your. Email.”
Confused, “I tried, but…”
“It’s been deleted, Collins.”
“What do you mean, ‘deleted’,” she flicked at him.
“You know exactly what the fuck I mean,” he continued to whisper with force. “I’m doing everything I can to keep you employed here.”
“I’m a professor. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Listen, woman. You’re preaching to the choir here. They’ve already let two others go.”
“But…” she felt her legs go weak, but remained standing.
“Before they gave official notices yesterday, I put in a request for your sabbatical. You’re still on the roster, but only just.”
“You’re also what Moran is so aptly calling a terrorist.”
Collins’ entire face twitched.
“Look, I think I convinced the Board to put you on sabbatical because of your national stature now with your Sign Language seminar. Trust me when I say, though, that they’re generosity is far from overflowing on this subject.”
“What of the seminar,” she asked as she flopped back into her chair.
“You’ll do well to pretend that never happened.”
All she could do is look at her boss. His face showed signs of age she did not notice a few weeks ago.
“Durand is showing up tonight in case anyone else does. But given the current tides, I don’t suspect many to risk it.”
“How can they?”
“It’s not about how, Collins. You of all people should know that. They just do. Now, I’ve solidified your pay and managed a temporary stay of your position here, but my protection ends there. You’ll do well not to return to this office for the foreseeable future.”
He turned to leave but stopped, “I’m sorry, Collins. My hands are tied. If you enter this building again, I am required to report it to University authorities.”