chapter 5 of The Unpeople. A short one
Four-thirty fast approached. Collins still had no idea how to start her seminar. Unlike teaching history, Sign Language was something she learned from birth.
On her way back to her department to ensure punctuality for the seminar set to begin shortly, she received a text. The only texts she received were from occasional graduate students explaining why they could not attend class on the day a major paper was due, and Durand. Since the semester had only begun, and her boss was teaching her courses for the time being, she assumed Durand wanted to provide a last minute pep talk.
It was not Durand, or one of her graduate students.
The text came in the form of a forwarded message from one of her students. The message was brief, mentioning only that Sign Language lessons were available to all, student or not, in the History Department Common Room just off Constitution Avenue on the north side of campus. It went on to claim no experience necessary and mentioned the four-thirty start time. She flushed with flattery that her student had thought of her on an occasion other than academic self-preservation and that someone thought her off-the-cuff seminar was worth mentioning to everyone in someone’s contact list.
As she arrived at her office, several more texts from different sources chimed. Each text bore the same message as the first. Giving up on trying to build any sort of lesson plan for the coming seminar, she dropped into her chair staring at the ceiling.
A rapping tapped at her office door. It was Durand.
“Did you get any of the emails,” he asked, his face red.
“Didn’t check. Why,” she Signed.
“Uh, no reason.” He stumbled over his Signing.
“A few texts though.”
“Me too. You still up for this?”
She shrugged, “Why not?” She wondered if she asked her friend or if she asked herself for assurance. Noticing Durand’s discomfort she added, “I promise not to make you do anything except translate for me.”
Though she knew she lied, he did not. Not lying might have led to Durand dropping cold and dead where he stood.
“You know,” Durand said aloud. “Half my students stay home. I assume they’re, um, sick.”
Neither knew how to react to Durand’s terminology. His comment simply writhed on the office floor like a dying snake.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“What? All the hype?”
“Yeah,” he continued in Sign. “That, but all my students that do show up are taking notes for everyone else who can’t make it. They ask me for extra copies of handouts. Sure, I get one or two occasionally willing to take notes for close friends.”
“So, students are still befriending peers. Not really news.”
“These are freshmen. Hardly any of them spoke to each other on day one. Don’t think most of them are friends.”
“Right,” she flicked back. “Neither of us was born yesterday. College students don’t just act altruistic. They’re probably charging. Capitalism at work.”
Durand seemed lost in some important thought just out of reach. Collins wondered if she had the same look when she reached for epiphanies just out outside arm’s length.
“Maybe,” his hands stumbled over the words, “Maybe this will all turn out to be a good thing. People are really coming together in this…well, this…”
“Just say it.”
“Well, this crisis.”
“So it’s a positive that I’m scratching at Death’s door?”
“No, of course not, Helen,” his head retracted into his parka somewhat. “It’s just really weird that people are pulling together through all this.”
“Anyway,” she looked at her computer screen for the time hoping for a topic changer, “It’s already four-thirty. Nobody’s here.”
“Do you know what you’re going to talk about?”
They both smiled at his slip of the proverbial tongue.
“Not a clue. It’s like trying to figure out how to breathe or chew food. I don’t know where to start.”
“How about the basics. Alphabet and numbers.”
“See. That’s why you should teach this.”
“I don’t know,” he blushed. “I think others in your same, um, position, might like to hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
They smiled again.
“I need to stop doing that.”
Together they left her office. Nobody waited in the Department’s Common Room. Collins wondered if the texts were just hype. Perhaps nobody really had an interest in any such seminar, free or otherwise. After all, she had not thought of it herself till her boss broke down in her presence. Perhaps she was not the only one who had not really cared. Then the front door opened and a single student came in but did not release the door. It was as if he hoped to leave again at his first opportunity.
Collins assumed he saw her and became disgusted. She was not wearing her mask after all, and he did not appear infected.
“Hey Dr. Durand,” he said in a crisp voice. “Is this Dr. Collins?”
“Y-y-yes, it is,” he spoke.
Collins Signed to the young student but he appeared not to understand. Whatever language class he took from Durand, it was not Sign Language. After a moment, he spoke again.
“Dr. Collins, are you still going to teach us?”
To Collins he sounded quite discouraged, as if he had waited there an hour and feared she played a cruel joke.
She raised her right hand in a fist to say “yes” but caught herself and nodded. Confused as to why the student spoke in plurality since he stood alone, she nudged Durand for him to ask where everyone was. But Durand did not have to ask, the young student’s face brightened.
“Excellent.” He stood back away from the door, holding his open hand out for Collins. “After you, Doctor.”
She strolled to the open door to find a mass of people, healthy and infected, stretching a dozen bodies back and twice as many from left to right. If it were not already absent, she would have gone speechless. Instead, she stood, cold, frozen in place.
“Everybody,” the young student yelled from beside Collins, startling her. Those in the rabble that could speak and were, fell silent.
“Everybody,” he repeated. “This is Dr. Collins. She’s gonna teach us to speak to each other.”
The mass of people erupted into applause. Collins had no idea how to respond or where to start. The young student beside her held out his hand. She peered down at it, confused.
He’s not infected. What does he think he’s doing? He’ll catch whatever I have.
Looking up at the young man’s face again, she saw no makeup smudges. Then she realized he spoke. She raised her hand to Sign that she probably should not touch him and chance infecting him. That is when he grabbed her hand in both of his.
“Thank you, Dr. Collins,” he said just loud enough for her to hear over the crowd still clapping. A tear collected in his uninfected, not-bloodshot, left eye. “You have no idea how much my grandfather appreciates this, how much I appreciate this. Thank you.”
He backed away and stepped into the crowd to join in the voiceless clapping. Continuing her gaze past the grateful student, most of the faces she did not recognize. A few she wondered if she would remember if their skin were not translucent. As she panned the group, however, in the back behind a particularly tall group of people, she thought she found her boss.