What would you do if your government told you that you were illegal?
Collins’ hands shook too much to text Durand about the conversation that had just taken place. Given his fear earlier, he probably knew something about what was happening. For the first time in many years she needed to speak to someone, to someone who cared, to Durand. Twice she tried and twice she failed to text even a single word due to the adrenaline coursing through her veins. But she needed to talk to him. Without thinking, she dialed him.
“Helen,” he whispered into his receiver. “What are you doing? Are you OK?”
She breathed into her phone trying to ask if they could meet. Only airy hisses came out.
“Sweetie, why don’t you hang up and text me instead?”
“I can’t,” she attempted with similar results.
Explosions erupted from deep inside, bubbling up to her throat in whimpers and shudders. No part of her body did what it should. Nothing worked as it should. She could not speak. She had but one friend to call out to, and her body refused to allow it. Not since childhood did she feel so painfully alone. Like a dehydrated lost soul in a desert staring at the sea, she was so close to Durand yet so far away. He might as well be a world away. The longer they both listened to each other breathe, the clearer it became to Collins that she was, in fact, in a different world. She tried to speak once again to the same result. With that, frustration thrust her phone across her office. It shattered and rained down onto a computer that no longer belonged to her.
On her way through the University Plaza, the same man standing at the corner yesterday stood in the concrete courtyard now, still holding his sign. Unlike last time, though, he was not alone. The three young men that helped the disheveled man with the three-day beard a month ago stood near him holding their own signs. Anger and fear mixed together and crept up from within. She undid her pulled back hair so it fell across the sides of her face. She could not hide her nose, mouth or eyes, but at least this was something. She shoved her hands in her coat pockets. Hiding them gave no solace as they continued to shake with emotion.
For better or worse, Collins’ mind let her read their accusations. Of course, the bearded one standing center stage held his “PROTECT THE NATION: FINISH THE ABOMINATION.” The well-dressed students flanking both sides held signs of their own: “UNDEAD IS STILL DEAD” and “GOD IS TELLING US SOMETHING. ARE YOU LISTENING?” and “A VOTE FOR MORAN IS A VOTE FOR HUMANITY.”
Collins’ lip quivered.
Infected individuals, students, staff and other citizens alike, meandered around the small group of protesters, seemingly unaware of the chanting. The bearded protester from yesterday yelled obscenities through his anti-bacterial mask at each pale mute that stumbled past.
“You’re an abomination,” he spat into his mask, “Go home. Stay away from us.” The stumbling individual closest to the ranting protester turned and stopped, wavering back and forth like a drunkard considering implications of impending fisticuffs. It was the disheveled man from that fateful day. He no longer held the small whiteboard, but he still wore the jacket given him by one of the flanking protesters.
“We are no worse than you are, boy,” the wavering man Signed slowly.
Surely those kids recognize they helped him not long ago. He’s wearing one of their jackets, for heaven sake.
“This is the face of evil,” the bearded young man continued, pointing at the disheveled man. “This is what our government refuses to protect its citizens from.”
“Where’s your compassion,” the disheveled man asked the group.
“Compassion,” he barked through his mask. “Compassion? Compassion is dying when your time comes. Compassion is not taking jobs away from hardworking citizens.”
“You have it all wrong,” shaking as the man Signed.
“This nation’s normal citizens are left to rot while these killer anti-social creatures, these terrorists, feed off our young and suck our Social Welfare dry. I hope you rot in Hell, you wretch!”
“Dr. Collins,” a voice whispered. Turning, Collins saw the young student who initiated her seminar almost a month prior. He appeared rather pale, though she knew it was not because he was infected, or he would not be speaking. Too upset about her job and the protesters they stood in front of, she did not reply or even smile at him. “Dr. Collins, what are you doing out here?”
Rather than respond, she pointed at the group of protesters. The young student stepped in closer than Collins felt appropriate and was about to push him back fearing further retribution for things she had no control over. Instead he pulled in the direction she would have pushed.
“Put this on,” he said, handing her a balled up mask as he dragged her through the Square. “It’s not safe. Especially for you.”
She hissed as she attempted to ask what he meant. When he looked back he reiterated his initial request, “Doctor, put that on. Please.” She did so with one hand. Her other hand was being pulled along. Once behind the library, away from prying eyes, they stopped.
“Explain yourself,” she flicked. “What the hell is your problem?”
“It’s not safe for any of you,” he said looking from one end of the building wall to the other and back. “You’re too important,” he said, transitioning to Sign Language for further secrecy.
“What do you mean not safe?”
“A law passed both Houses this morning.”
“Not Moran’s law.”
“Yes. The same.”
“But that ass only introduced that bill yesterday.”
“I only know what’s happened so far, Doctor. And you…Well, you’re you.”
Even through her anger and confusion she felt her face warm.
“I’ll escort you home,” he Signed, peering up and down the corridor again.
“You’ll do no such thing,” she flicked back.
“Just please, Doctor. Let me.”
“Not a chance. I’m fully capable. Besides, if it’s as dangerous as everyone keeps yelling, why are you here right now, with me?”
He sighed heavily, looked at his shoes, to each end of the building, then up at Collins again. Looking around as if he had lost something, he spoke “Not everyone’s gone crazy. Just a few. Frankly, it’s probably all that A-hole Moran’s fear tactics. You’re the face of the good side. I hope.”
Before she wondered what his “I hope” meant, the yelling from the protesters went quiet in the background. Silence turned to scuffling. From the scuffling, ear piercing hissing reverberated through campus and through Collins’ bones. The sound of wooden bats on what she hoped was wood but feared something fleshier knocked several times. Before any reaction was possible, the hissing ceased. The sounds of the bat did not. Something inside Collins froze and shattered before freezing over again.
The young man grabbed Collins by the arm and dragged her further away. “Where do you live?”
She pointed in the general direction. There seemed to be no one, protester, infected or otherwise, separating them from her complex.
Everything felt as if it happened all at once. Days before, she was fronting a national effort to teach everyone to work together, to speak to one another. Today, she lost her job and a student dragged her away from an angry mob. Her whole body jostled about keeping her from thinking anything further than that. When they veered off course, she pointed again. He obliged. At her complex front door, he let her go. He gasped for air.
“Thank you,” she Signed. “I think.”
“No, Doctor,” he said aloud. “Thank you.”
As he sprinted off, he skidded to a stop. “Do you have any makeup, Doctor?”
“Yes, I do. Why?”
“Good,” he Signed. “Stay safe,” he said aloud, turned, and ran back onto campus.
Inside she collapsed into her futon unsure of what else to do. Her head was foggier than it had been thus far. Her illness, if that was what it was, seemed to take so much from her. Between her, Durand, and her boss, they managed to take it back, not only for her but for many others around the country. However, those tides turned when political candidates churned civilians into fearful voters. Then, acting as collateral damage, the service animal and the man Collins tried to save died for the benefit of further fears. Now she struggled to keep her job and could not go outside alone as an infected person.
Collins told herself over and over that what she heard from the protesters was not bats against flesh but something else entirely. But the truth lingered below the surface. She sat facing her blank wall, frozen and numb.
A knock rapped against her door.
She assumed it to be Durand, but she wanted no part of the outside world as of late, friend or otherwise. She wanted silence, she wanted solace, she wanted her old life back. After another couple rappings on her door, the knocking ceased. She heard Durand’s parka swish into quiet. Few things hurt more than ignoring her one true close friend, but she could not engage anyone. Not now. She needed her time. For what she did not know.
The world went blank as she stared off into nothingness. Crying seemed like a viable option but something in her chest would not allow it. The room began to spin as emotions twisted from anger to fear to depression and back around again. She let the room go dark, shutting her eyes, hoping without success to fall asleep.
She did not budge for two days. By Wednesday, she convinced herself that Durand taught the seminar and that things could not possibly have digressed as bad as she originally thought. Her boss and the young student had overreacted.
The hunger inside refused to abate. Eating prepackaged raw meats kept her from starving, but her stomach continued to growl. It was as if she really wanted chocolate cake every single meal of every single day, but only ate rice cakes. At mealtime, her mind focused on what it truly wanted. What that want was, Collins pushed far enough out of her consciousness to make it a mere irritation of subconscious thought.
Each time the thought swayed into focus, it disappeared just as quickly as if she were a bystander turning around out of boredom as the body stopped struggling. Then the arguments between that part of her and her rational side erupted. It begged for human flesh. She would punch it back into its deep, dark foxhole. The rest of the day, she managed to keep such thoughts out of her head though hunger pangs still rattled her bones and gnawed at her innards.
Before her other voice had time to complain it was not getting what it wanted, she realized she needed to head to her office to meet Durand before their seminar started. Solitude and denial can push one into refusing to believe the most basic realities.
That meant leaving the apartment. As much as she convinced herself that her fears were unwarranted, a shard of doubt remained. Peering outside to quell any leftover fears before embarking was impossible. The apartment had but one window. Over the kitchen sink, a small window peered out against the wall of the adjacent building.
Nothing to get excited about, she reassured.
A studio apartment with no windows meant cheap rent, which, in turn, meant she could take time off to travel, see the world, and not worry about finances. Now, under differing circumstances it allowed Collins to live on borrowed time. Provided neighbors’ curiosity never piqued, she could hold up for several months, even longer if she reigned in her appetite and stayed out of sight. But she could not stay out of sight. She had a seminar to front, to get back to. Her time for self-pity needed to end.
With makeup caked onto her face, she stared at her front door wondering if what she geared up to do might place her in danger. Though she decided it would, she felt her potential sacrifice worth the gamble. She locked the door behind her and proceeded through her complex to its main entrance. Sitting on the stoop was Durand, huddled up in his parka. He popped out up when he saw who approached him.
“Oh, Helen,” he gasped as he hugged her hard. “You’re OK.”
“Of course I am,” she tried to speak. Only hisses emerged. Neither of them seemed to mind this once creepy sound. Their embrace lasted far longer than Collins thought possible. She usually did not like to be touched, but something about his hug at this moment felt different.
“What are you doing sitting here,” she asked as they separated.
“Waiting for you,” he Signed back. “It’s not safe.”
“But we have a seminar to teach.”
“No, we don’t.”
“What do you mean, ‘we don’t’?”
“They, um, cancelled it. Didn’t you get the email?”
“No,” she Signed as her thoughts returned to the gravity of her situation. “They deleted my account.”
Empathy filled Durand’s eyes. Collins lowered her gaze to his hands to ward off her own watery emotions from overflowing.
“What happens now?”
Through his silent sobs, “You get back inside where it’s safe.”
“They can, Sweetie. And they are.”
He walked her back to her apartment. Numbness lacquered her body. She could not speak. She could not feel. Now she could not walk amongst the living without fear of reprisal.
What’s happening, she wondered. Though her studies told her rational side exactly what was happening, her emotive half could not comprehend the situation.
Once inside he sat her down on her futon.
“Do you have enough food, Sweetie,” Durand said aloud as he shuffled off to her kitchenette.
She nodded. Not because she had enough food but because she did not know how else to respond. A few cupboard squeaks later he reemerged in front of her, though her gaze remained on his torso and focused on something far beyond.
“I have to go,” he said aloud. Collins did not respond.
“Please text me if you need anything. OK, Sweetie.”
His voice trailed off as emotions overcame her. Before he could lean over to hug her again, she pulled the remnants of her cell phone from her pocket and handed them to Durand. She heard him gulp. The tears cascading down her cheeks felt as if they disappeared as they reached her heavy makeup. They reemerged as they dripped onto her hands in her lap, filled with chunks of her mask in tow. As they did, something in the pit of her stomach hollowed out.
“What the hell am I supposed to do,” she asked.
“Just stay out of sight,” he said aloud. “Maybe this will all blow over after the election.”
He knelt down to her level so their faces leveled, “I’ll come by later in the week with some food. Do you need anything else?”
Collins shook her head though she did not know if what she conveyed was accurate.
“I’m so sorry, Sweetie.”
He kissed her on top of her head at the part and sneaked out without the door making a sound.