Monsters are not always the aggressive ones. Sometimes, the monsters are the victim.
Here’s chapter 2 of The Unpeople, when the zombie is the victim.
Two days later, Collins turned on her television for a dose of news before attempting to head off to class again. Concern that she had forgotten to hand out her syllabus before shuffling out of the classroom the other day nibbled at her brainstem. Her students were already a class period behind schedule. She never needed to miss a session before, let alone leave mid-lecture for any illness or emergency.
Her head still disallowed any complex thoughts in or out, a feeling she was not accustomed to. Simple spurts of guilt for reneging on her work duties the other day, coupled with hunger pangs she still could not quell, she sat in silence in her apartment. Several times, she picked up a book she intended to teach again this semester. Though she read and studied this text countless times under equally countless pretexts, nothing on its pages made sense. Assuming she just was not in the mood, or that the flu was clouding her cognitive abilities, she tossed the book aside, hoping all would subside soon.
Collins half listened to the news anchors while she fumbled through the refrigerator, searching for something that was not there. She hated twenty-four hour news programming. She usually purchased a newspaper after her last class of the day. Her current condition left her too light-headed and too secluded to consider such frivolities.
She sighed at her soymilk and leftover baked oatmeal. Any other day, these would have made her salivate. Whatever was taking hold of her had other plans.
“The outbreak of an unidentified virus or bacteria is sweeping across our nation,” blurted from her television speakers. Her ears perked.
Unable to pinpoint what her breakfast hunger demanded, she closed the fridge.
God, I hope it’s not meat again.
“Much is still unknown about this new illness. But what sources are telling 5 News this morning is that it is not the latest strain of influenza. Or, to put it another way, it is not this year’s flu. This is something entirely new.”
Really? You had to tell us that? I’m sick, and I knew what you were talking about. That’s why nobody takes you seriously.
Though irritated by the newscaster’s pandering, this idea of a new strain piqued Collins’ interest. She, after all, might have it.
She walked back to her television mounted on her wall only five steps from her fridge. Not much of a television viewer, she hated to splurge on such an extravagant flat panel. However, in studio apartments, each piece of real estate is precious.
Her foggy head tried to focus as best it could. She chewed air a few times, trying to pop her ears in hopes of snapping loose the tendons holding her thoughts from emerging clearly. It did not work.
“Symptoms of this strange strain include but are not limited to the following.”
A cheap PowerPoint image replaced the newscaster’s bust. Normally reading such bullet points to herself faster than any presenter could for her, she struggled to even make out the words. Certainly, she could read it faster than the Bay Shore ditsy newscaster could. Not today, however.
“Pale skin, reduced mobility, loss of appetite, and loss of the ability to speak.”
But my appetite is perfectly intact. Well, almost. And, “the ability to speak.” Don’t they mean “sore throat?”
She rubbed her throat with one hand. It neither felt raw nor sore or swollen. She opened her mouth.
“Testing,” she attempted. Her voice was fine. Perhaps yesterday’s speech problems were mere flukes.
“If you believe,” the newscaster continued, “that you or someone you know has these symptoms, people are being advised to stay in their homes. Quoting a confidential Department of Health representative who refused to speak on camera, ‘Given the speed at which this situation is spreading thus far, we suspect close contact with an affected person is best avoided.’ When pushed, the representative refused to comment further.”
Collins turned off the television.
Like anyone blindsided with a potentially negative, life-changing situation, she convinced her clouded mind that she, in fact, suffered from yet another strain of the common flu. It was not any strain of rogue virus or bacterium. Not her.
Clearing her throat again and rubbing her neck, she fell back into her futon. It made no sense. Her throat felt fine.
Yesterday’s craving was a fluke. Everyone craves strange things occasionally. Could be pregnant. Yeah, right. She smiled to her empty apartment. I’m just sick. Nobody wants the same old, same old when they’re sick.
Showered and combing her hair she realized in her reflection just how pale she appeared. Her colorless complexion made her bloodshot eyes stand out even further. With exception to her tempered thoughts and bizarre craving for meat yesterday, she felt normal. Nothing logical explained her condition.
Her red sclera did not burn or itch. She felt her forehead. There was nothing out of place.
Maybe a bit cool. Maybe even a little warm.
Humidity from the shower and the fact she used her own hand to test her temperature corrupted her results, and she knew it, but she did not have a thermometer or an objective third party participant. Knowing when she was sick negated a need for such things. Peering into the mirror again, she wondered if she did not catch a slight blue tinge to her skin tone.
Any other day, she hated looking into the mirror and her colleagues commented regularly on her lack of “public preparation” as her crass boss once put it. She never wore makeup. With naturally straight hair, she found no reason to attend to it either except for an occasional comb-though to dislodge the rare tangle. However, even she now realized the disturbing nature of her ashen appearance. She sighed and wondered if she still had the compact of foundation she received as a gift several years back.
She searched through her medicine cabinet, then a wooden box on her dresser, and finally through her closet jammed to the ceiling with plastic storage bins of forgotten relics. There she found it. A small pouch mistakable for a coin purse or pencil case, inside which she found several unused pencils she only vaguely knew what to do with and the foundation she sought.
Back to the bathroom, she stumbled, closing the door behind her. For whatever reason, she did not know. It was habitual more than necessary. Were she in any other state of mind, she would have questioned this action. Living alone for more than a decade, she lost the courtesies of closed doors or looking appropriate while walking about her home.
Staring back at herself, she touched her face with both colorless hands, double checking reality. She remained pale, almost blue, but it was still her face.
She went to work.
Her fingers refused to do anything requiring fine touch-up motor skills. She struggled to open the small container that matched her once, more healthy skin tone.
Collins took a step back to view her work from a more reasonable distance, her ankle cracked into the closed bathroom door. A vision she could not identify flashed onto the mirror and disappeared just as quickly. Her stomach growled like a creature dislocated from civility.
After class, Helen, she thought. After class you can eat.
The image in her mind, or on the mirror, happened to quickly to determine what it included. However, she deduced it was socially unacceptable. Whatever it was, it was not pleasant. The pang in her stomach told her that both the image and her hunger were inexplicably linked. But she did not know how.
With her attention back on her reflection, she appeared so foreign. Then again, she looked foreign without her new mask. What was important though, was hiding her discolored flesh. Most would assume the worst, demanding she lock her infected self in her apartment. But she had books to rifle through and dissertation chapters to edit for a graduate student, and a class to teach. Obligations that could not be put off just because some illness tried to override her life, which would, eventually, pass without incident.
Or so she thought.
The walk through campus was even quieter than two days prior. Plenty of people shuffled about, nearly enough to consider it a normal day, except for how quiet everybody remained and how quick they darted from one destination to another. This is, except for the obviously infected.
A number of pale bodies meandered around the University Square. The only sounds in the area came from them. They hissed and groaned.
Collins knew the hiss. It was the same hiss her voice made before she ran out of her class two days ago. Even if she had this illness, she did not have it as bad as they did, she could still speak, if only most of the time.
One group of hissing and ashen students looked up briefly as Collins walked past. Students commonly congregated in the University Square to study or just hang out. She stammered backward, however, when she realized their faces were bloodied and spotted with patches of short hairs.
Better judgment told her to run. Whatever they were eating could not be something she wanted to witness. Out of sheer curiosity though, her body lurched forward to examine.
There, lying between the three young students covered in hair and blood twitched a mangled mess. She tried to look away in disgust, but the pang in her stomach demanded otherwise. Upon further inspection, she judged the puddle of body parts and coagulated liquid to be that of at least two squirrels.
She breathed in deep through her nose without thought. Her eyes fell shut as scented euphoria overtook her. When her knees buckled, the three infected students hissed and growled like cats and dogs. The hunger pangs for the mess in front of her made her recoil more than their hissing rejection of her interruption.
They turned and continued devouring the small creatures.
What the hell is happening to me? Is this what I’m becoming? Some beast destined to feed off animals? They acted like a pack of dogs. Why aren’t others doing the same? Why am I not doing what they’re doing? And why the hell did I enjoy the scent of that blood so much?
Entering her classroom it hit her. She was late again.
“My apologies for being late again, class,” she started as she dropped a pile of syllabi on the table at the head of the room.
“It’s just been such a weird daaaahhhh…”
Instant nausea filled her gut. She tested her voice this morning. It was fine. She was fine. But she had forgotten to speak more than a single word. Whatever was happening to others on campus was happening to her too, whether she entertained the thought or not.
Though she knew the futility of it, she rubbed her neck and cleared her throat. She leaned against the table, facing her students. Most had looks of genuine concern. Some, she could tell, were trying hard not to smile. She tried again.
“Whatever is going around issssshhhh…”
Tears collected but none escaped. She swallowed hard.
Taking in a deep breath, “OK, students, I’m just going to hand outsssshhh…”
“Oh, what the fusssshhh…”
She threw her hands up and turned to the whiteboard behind her.
With shaking hands, she wrote on the board:
NO CLASS AGAIN. YOUR SYLLABUS IS UP HERE. READ CHAPTERS 1 & 2 OF HISTORY OF THE INFIRMARY. BE PREPARED TO DISCUSS NEXT WEEK. IRRESPECTIVE OF MY HEALTH.
Not turning to her students, she threw the dry erase marker at the white board’s tray and left.
It required all her energy not to hold her head in her hands the whole walk from her classroom to her department building. She did not want to disturb her concealer.
Few complicated thoughts entered Collins’ head. Where she usually contemplated historical significances of Windows of Opportunity, she worried about her mask. Where she considered history’s cyclical nature, she worried if she was going to die.
Sitting in her office chair, she picked up the book she assigned to her class. Thumbing through to a group of underlined passages she intended to point out next week and read them.
This occurred several more times.
Either whatever is happening to me is arresting my capability to read, or my eyes are just tired.
She tried again.
Each word by itself made sense. Small strings of short words made sense. Each phrase taken alone, became understandable after reading more than once. However, many longer words, words outside the realm of average readers, felt outside her grasp. Her eyes strained to force her brain to comply, but its engine simply refused to turn over.
She tossed the book aside and texted Durand.
“Something is wrong with me.”
In an instant, he replied, “One of my students just told me you tried to teach class again.”
Before she set her phone down, “Are you in your office? Stay there. I’m coming.”
As she hit the send button, Durand knocked.
Not wanting to attempt speech again, she Signed, “How did you get here so fast?”
“Fast,” he Signed back, still standing in the meeting room her office adjoined. “Fast? Your texts came nearly fifteen minutes apart. But hey, at least you look better.”
“Why would I joke about such things?”
Still in disbelief, she checked her text history for the time stamp. Sure enough, her texts took much longer than she thought to type. Durand waving caught her attention.
“You’re moving really rather slow, Helen. Are you sure you’re OK? You look better.”
With that Collins rubbed a single finger across her jawline holding it up to her friend to examine.
She twitched a half-smile.
“Something’s wrong with me, Nelson.”
Durand rubbed his neck at the sight of his name Sign that referenced his double chin. Collins felt terrible the moment she saw him reach for his chin.
“I feel all right, but something is wrong.”
“I know, Sweetie. The Sickness is affecting lots of people. Can you talk?”
“Only a few words here and there. What’s wrong with me?”
“I don’t know but they say it’s bad. You shouldn’t be here. What if…”
Then the “if” Durand was about to refer to broke the silence of their conversation.
“If that’s you, Collins, go home. We don’t want whatever the hell it is you have.”
The gruff beast of a man dropped his large head between the door jam and Durand, which made Durand cower backward a step into the oak meeting table.
“Jesus H, it is you.”
Collins slunk into her chair. All too aware of her makeup-caked face, her fingers begged to cover it from her boss. Just as they reached their destination, “Well, you actually don’t look so bad. Well, no worse than usual.”
Changing course, both hands tucked tufts of her dusty blond hair behind her ear in embarrassment, both for the makeup wearing and for her boss commenting on any of her features in anything close to resembling positive feedback. She watched balding Durand give the back of the beast’s head a look of confusion.
He Signed, “Of course she’s still ill.”
Though only behind his back, this defiance was still quite unlike Durand, making Collins smile.
“Still,” the gruff man continued. “You probably shouldn’t be here if you don’t have to be. And you.”
The large head turned to Durand who somehow managed to cower further into his parka like a turtle under attack.
“Don’t you have your own department to lounge around in?”
A growling stomach loud enough to wake the dead echoed from Collins.
“Miss lunch, did we,” her boss asked with mock interest.
She shrugged. This was enough to quell the large man’s interest. His head disappeared.
“Look, Collins,” the man sighed out of her line of vision. “I don’t care if you have classes. This illness is disturbingly aggressive. However, so far, it doesn’t appear fatal. Either make yourself useful or get the hell out of here before we all end up with your germs. I mean it, Collins.”
His office door slammed.
“Did you eat lunch,” Durand Signed.
“Lunch? I didn’t even eat breakfast.”
“Nothing looked appetizing this morning. Not to mention the even less appetizing visual I stumbled upon on my way over here.”
Collins paused to swallow something solid in her throat before continuing.
“Last night I ate hamburger.”
“How was it?”
“That’s just it. It was amazing.”
Durand produced the childish smile Collins loved so much. He always could make her feel like a real human.
“The thing is though, I didn’t cook it.”
“You mean you ate out somewhere?”
“Not even remotely. I bought a half-pound of ground beef, brought it home, and devoured it.”
“You ate it raw,” he asked before shuttering underneath his parka as if he just walked in from a deadly blizzard.
“That’s more than weird, Helen. That’s disturbing.”
Durand’s face turned three shades of serious as blood coursed through his skull, “Please promise me one thing.”
She did not respond but waited for his request.
“Don’t tell anyone you’re still sick.”
“It’s just the flu.”
“No, it isn’t. People are talking. There are rumors.”
“Rumors? What rumors? You mean reports that it’s spreading to other countries? Those are unconfirmed, at best. You should know better than anybody how easily this twenty-four hour news cycle can preemptively disclose information only to find out it’s inaccurate. Hell, they projected you lost the Treasurer position three times over now.”
“It’s worse than that, Helen. Remember how when you presented that paper asking about the implications of a pandemic on democracies?”
“I’m not going to die. I’m not some leper.”
“That’s just it. They’re talking about something strange. Something new. Something bizarre.”
“What could they be possibly suggesting?”
Either Durand’s interpretation of a zombie or the absurd suggestion of a virus causing an outbreak of undead beings, or the notion that she herself was a zombie, made Collins laugh aloud a voiceless laugh that hissed and groaned like the final breath of an old woman.
Neither spoke for a time. She did not know how to react to her strange replacement voice. It was clear to her that Durand did not know what to say at all. Eventually, he Signed.
“It’s not funny.”
“It’s absurd. Not to mention childish and theoretically improbable.”
“Absurd or not, you said so yourself last month, it doesn’t matter what the intellectuals think or what is really happening. Does it?”
That was when it slapped Collins in her touched-up face.
Infirmaries and the plague.
She popped up, grabbed History of Madness, and flicked through to a dog-eared page. She tried to read the underlined sentence several times. She knew what it said but could not understand the complexity of the sentence structure for a more intricately detailed understanding. Its meaning dangled on the tip of her cold tongue. Then it appeared in her slowed mind in fits and spurts like drops of blood on an empty canvas.
Before people understood where the plague originated, people were just locked away from the general population.
Her mind felt sluggish. Though, the harder she struggled through her memories, the seemingly easier it became. It was as if she was retraining her brain to think.
Citizens were separated from the rest of the population. It mattered more what people thought than what was factual. Actually, it mattered more what the state believed, or explained to its citizens as factual.
Oh, my God. If people start getting scared, this is really going to get ugly. Luckily, thus far, the government has remained silent. I hope it stays that way.
“I, um, have a class starting soon. So…” Durand tried to matte down his combover as he let his sentence drop where it came out. It landed on the floor as a writhing worm in the sunlight.
He turned and disappeared beyond her office wall. Collins listened to his squeaking parka as he left. As usual, he closed the heavy front door so quietly she never heard it. Left to stew over Durand’s comment, only her complaining stomach kept any company.
It gnawed at her innards demanding attention, and fulfillment. What it wanted, she did not want to indulge. More than anything, she wanted not to want meat. The thought of it disturbed her, but that was exactly what her aching digestive system requested.
Reluctantly, she obliged.