The Unpeople: Chapter 6

Collins starts to come to terms with her new identity

 
The sun dipped completely out of sight leaving a bloody hue strewn across the landscape when Collins called an end to their first makeshift seminar. She felt as though she accomplished nothing over the long, and she thought unnecessary, applause. In the short time she stood on the front steps of her Department, she showed the mass of people the alphabet and how to count to ten, several times.
She Signed. Durand translated.
“I imagine if I respond to any number of your viral forwarded emails I received in the last few hours, I can send out a copy of the things we practiced today. I presume my responses this evening will find themselves to their appropriate homes with relative ease.”
The crowd erupted. Those who could chant, did. Those who could not, hissed and clapped. Somehow, their hisses sounded less disturbing to her. Perhaps it was the sheer number of them, or perhaps it was the positive emotions they suggested.
“But,” she waited for the crowd to quiet again.
“But, we need to find a more efficient method of speaking.”
The group laughed and hissed.
“Once we figure that out, we will let you all know. See you all tomorrow afternoon.”
Just as quickly as the group emerged, it dispersed into the amber hues of the dying sun.
***
At home, Collins questioned her abilities as a Sign Language instructor. She never felt as if she could not teach before this afternoon. Her condition, coupled with the fact that she received no formal training in Sign, burrowed its way into her brain. One hour a day was insufficient a timeframe to teach an entire language to any person, let alone an entire group as large as the one that presented itself today. Besides, what good would learning to speak with your hands do if this illness passed on like most do.
Maybe their situation would fade into history as the strangest flu season on record. Were this to happen, it would make these little seminar meetings on her Department’s front lawn all for naught. At least she could get back to teaching what she loved, history.
Her thoughts gave in to her hunger pangs. She had not eaten in days because she still could not grapple with what her body wanted. She purchased the necessary foodstuffs days prior, but just could not bring herself to indulge.
Opening the fridge, her body instinctively recoiled at images of raw flesh. Her stomach growled when her eyes panned over a rather large portion of liver covered in plastic wrap. She rolled her eyes, but gave in to her newly found inner urges.
This eating ritual continued for weeks. Her mind made no qualms about the disturbing nature of her new habits. Collins’ gag reflex clicked and ratcheted as she cut into slimy brown organs with a fork and knife. At the same time, however, her stomach screamed, nearly biting into itself in enthusiastic anticipation for the coming meal.
She tried to convince herself she chewed pasta al dente by closing her eyes. Her nose curled till it smelled the raw meat. Then it begged for more of the same scent. Sliding down her throat, an onlooker would swear she just swallowed an insect the size of her finger. A similar reaction did not present itself in her stomach. Instead, it celebrated each soft, fleshy morsel. The emotional and physical juxtaposition tired Collins.
***
The next month continued with little change other than the size of her unofficial afternoon seminar. The larger the group became, the quieter it became. This was in large part due to the inability to speak by many in the group coupled with the ability of those who could still speak to converse in Sign Language.
By week two, her boss, the Department Chair, had thrown his weight against the University in his “request” for a larger classroom. Having involved himself in her unofficial seminar, he remained particularly in tune with size, and the progress, of the teachings.
When she asked why he moved to transport her seminar to a larger venue, he barked, “You can’t hold a proper seminar without the proper tools. Now get out of my sight before I change my mind.”
She no longer prepared her class lectures. Her grateful yet still caustic boss had taken over her two History seminars. She fell into habit with her unofficial Sign Language course. She simply showed up and spoke in short sentences per Durand’s suggestion.
With her extra time, Collins read the local newspaper. Before current situations presented themselves, she read the entire paper in less than ten minutes. Now she struggled to read at all. However, she did notice that the more she read, the easier it became. It was as if she were training her brain to read all over again. As painful as it remained that she could not read her historical texts and that her beloved history seminars were on hiatus, the thought of working toward that end filled her chilled veins with reassurance.
Reading the day’s front page, one particular article caught her attention. Its headline: Phenomenon Stalls.
“According to a Health Department official, ‘the phenomenon known publically as The Hushing Disease or The Hush, appears to have stopped spreading.’ Simply taking a look around the country’s neighborhoods would suggest the same. There have been no recent or new case reports in almost a week’s time.
“Physicians and scientists alike continue to be baffled by this strange phenomenon. However, speaking on record, a local hospital doctor stated that, ‘There appears no worsening of patients’ symptoms, or new cases.’”
Buried further inside the same section of the same paper lay another article about The Hush. More importantly, it referenced fallout from the unknown occurrence.
“Because of a recent upsurge in eating of street vermin and stray animals by hungry infected persons, many local philanthropic groups like Soup Kitchens have opened secondary pantries for infected people. These other kitchens include fresh, raw meats.
“When asked, one local Soup Kitchen volunteer claims the reason for the adjustment is for the ‘safety of those that need our help. Rather than eating any diseased stray creature off the streets, those who can’t afford it can come in and be fed sanitary meats. Many Hushed people are being laid off work since they can’t talk like they need to. We provide services where it’s needed. As we all know, the economy is not getting any better.’”
Thank goodness, I’m tenured, Collins confided.
The number of obviously infected individuals appeared to Collins to stabilize as well. As best she could estimate, at least one-tenth of the population had The Hush.
Blue-mapped faces became as common and as unnoticeable as any other shade of skin color on the University grounds. With no car and no public transportation option, Collins could not attest to the country at large, but reports suggested the same outcome of roughly ten percent of the population infected with whatever The Hush was.
In her seminar, and around the University, Collins noticed fewer and fewer uninfected people staring at their infected brethren. Brethren being most accurate as that was the language used by reporters and discussants around the country.
Couples throughout the University began holding hands again. Those who wore antibacterial masks took them off. Fewer still walked the streets with no seeming place to go.
To Collins, even Durand appeared to come out of his shell shaped like a parka. Sign Language was one of his strong suits. She never sat in on one of his classes, but she assumed she might bear witness to something akin to what she saw during her seminars during these first few weeks, something, she knew, few in his life ever witnessed.
Sure, she stitched together lesson plans quickly and taught the ever-growing group, but Durand’s voice stuttered with less frequency while translating her lectures. More than once, he even interjected, correcting Collins’ rare mistake or misinterpretation of one Sign or phrase. At times, she felt they were a well-oiled machine. A machine she hoped would become antique and outdated soon, when conditions changed.
Not uncommon was the occasional student who walked up to Collins after her seminar ended. Many times they Signed “Thank you.” Then turned and left. Just as frequent were those uninfected with The Hush. They thanked her aloud. Both speaking and unspeaking alike would hug her. Were it not for her sense these students needed the hugs they gave, she would certainly not oblige. Intimate touching almost never happened to her, it was something she tried to keep clear of. Since most verged on crying when they moved in to embrace her, she allowed it. Likewise, her gagging reflexes withered into a quiet background. Her urges for something more, something else, did not.
***
In week four, her boss laid enough pressure on University authorities to allow her access to the auditorium. However, this too seemed to shrink as the number of those wishing to participate continued to grow exponentially. With one final “recommendation” from her boss, University officials buckled further. Attached to her office door, she found a note, signed and dated.
“To whom it may concern:
“Due to circumstances you are of no doubt aware, the History Department has taken liberty of providing much needed public service engaging in free nightly seminars teaching Sign Language to all whom wish to attend. Resultant from unexpected demand, our Department can no longer meet the needs of the influx of pupils attending.
“We have thus far remained appreciative of your accommodations. However, due to continued interest, or rather, need, for this public service, the History Department is henceforth requesting use of the University Gymnasium. This request includes use of the gymnasium on all weeknights irrespective of sporting event schedules.
“The University’s top priority must be the safety and wellbeing of its student and faculty population.”
Collins did not like this idea. Not only was it overdoing it, it also meant trying to teach a visual-laden seminar in a sports arena. But her boss’s willingness to step outside his usual self-indulgence for the betterment of the rest of the university warmed her heart.
Her comfort level increased with her station teaching Sign Language. Durand took a decreasingly central role in her seminar until he did little else but return phone calls she received, which were frequent, and speaking to any newcomers who knew no Sign. At the same time, their intimate visits at the coffee shop continued unabated.
Though the unofficial auditorium seminar brought in well over two hundred students, faculty, and others unaffiliated with the University, somehow the fifteen rows of seated individuals felt eerily silent once Collins stepped in front of her podium. All her years of teaching more than a dozen different courses, never once had an entire room gone as silent as these did. Stranger still was the fact that so many sat and repeated everything in this otherwise dead silent auditorium.
***
Fearing an inability to perform adequately to such a large crowd with the hopes of everyone able to see her, she walked to the gymnasium hours beforehand. As she walked across campus, her mind wandered over possible was to increase visibility.
First she considered teaching from the center of the floor. There she could best be seen by anyone sitting anywhere. This would cut in half the farthest distance any one person had to strain their eyes and necks to see her finger and arm movements. Then she realized that those behind her would be at a huge disadvantage. However, having been to many graduations over her tenure, she knew by standing at either end of the gymnasium meant those at the far end would see little or nothing at all.
This is going to be a disaster, she thought. These buildings are made for sound projection and massive visual playing fields, not watching a solitary person’s fine motor movements.
***
Her muted breath stopped as she brought her hands to her already silenced lips. Entering from the back of the gymnasium, her eyes took in the gravity of what was about to play out.
All the bleachers were unfolded. Row upon row of metal folding chairs stood at attention in symmetrical marching formation from her end of the court reaching the length of the floor. It looked like it did during every graduation with exception of the lack of University spirit color guard flags draped on every rafter available. Instead, it remained a far more sterile version of that same graduation ceremony.
Out of habit, she screamed, “Oh my God.”
Only voiceless breath slithered out of her mouth. However, Collins was too taken aback by what she saw to take notice the disquieting sound she produced. She walked up the center isle between the two battalions of chairs. Memories flooded back to her graduation more than a decade ago. She did not feel a decade older though. The giant room filled with nothing but her own feet shuffling slowly along the recently waxed wood flooring.
As she came upon the makeshift stage, she noticed the equally thrown together theater screen as its backdrop. She walked up a short flight of stairs for a closer look. Its rig appeared stable, though she knew nothing of such mechanics. Her hands reached out to touch the screen as if doing so was the only way to prove the reality of her surroundings. It was real. Turning and looking upward, she found the projector. That is also when she noticed the screen her hands still touched was not the only one. Awestruck, her hands dropped to her side as she turned.
Dangling from the scoreboard at the stadium’s center facing in all four directions were four more screens about half the size of that which she stood in front of now. Collins’ giggle came out as another hiss as she fell back into one of several folding chairs on stage with her.
“D-d-do you like it,” a familiar voice echoed from somewhere.
Tears fell down her face in response. She nodded.
The stadium melted away behind her wall of tears. Several times she wiped them away but it always returned. A body she assumed to belong to her friend, Durand, came into blurry view handing her something soft. She blew her nose and tried wiping the tears away again to no avail. She resigned to tucking her hair behind her pale ears and embracing the emotion.
“I thought it was a b-b-bit much,” Durand whispered. Somehow, though, his voice traveled the length of the gymnasium and back. A chair squeaked as he dragged one close to Collins and sat beside her.
“What’s wrong?”
She hissed.
Through watery blurs she wondered if she witnessed Durand cringe. Clearing her throat out of habit, she rubbed her eyes one last time with her sleeve, and Signed, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
They sat in silence a while longer before Collins spoke first, “Don’t you think this is a bit much?”
“Maybe,” he Signed back. “But our last room was getting crowded. I suppose this one won’t get too small too quickly.”
He laughed. She hissed her laugh, which killed her smile.
“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, Helen. None of this is your fault.”
“But it’s still so creepy sounding.”
“That’s mostly true.”
She giggled a hissing giggle, stopped, and tucked her straight hair back. Though the urge to do so bubbled up, she did not apologize again.
“And look how many lives you’re changing.”
She swallowed something hard in her throat.
“You said you wanted to make a difference, to do something. Here you go. Can’t ask for much more.”
They continued sitting in silence until a door at the far end broke the quiet. In walked a handful of people Collins could not discern from sheer distance between her and them. Smiling to herself, she realized she could not determine if they were infected and that the distinction did not matter, to her or anyone else.
“Maybe everything will be OK, even if this turns into something longer term.”
“See,” Durand Signed, “That’s the spirit.”
He tossed his arm around Collins and pulled her close. Having never been so close to him before, she wondered what to do. But her head tucked so perfect into his neck that she let it happen. He smelled sweet, like candy. She questioned why she had never noticed that before, but shrugged it off and enjoyed their cozy moment. She let her mind clear as her eyes looked out on the vast space she would be teaching in in less than an hour. It felt so unreal.
Before long another door opened, then another. Soon the doors were propped open. Lines of people streamed in from all directions. Looking at her phone for the time, she watched the bleachers fill up leaving only the floor seats, which were filling quickly.
Collins lifted her head and looked at her friend. Sweat dripped off him.
“What the hell do we do,” she asked.
“Something big.”
Though the room appeared to near capacity, little sound reverberated throughout. Swishing around of feet and sounds of chairs shifting in place whispered everywhere. No voices. No yelling. Everything was calm, quiet.
“Hey,” a voice hollered from just off stage not far from where Collins sat. Finding the owner of the voice, she asked with a nod what they wanted, assuming the owner did not understand Sign.
The owner Signed back, “Where teach?”
Taken aback, Collins stared at the technician asking such an odd question, in Sign. The technician knew Sign Language. Tears welled, threatening to fall again.
“What do you mean,” Collins asked.
“Teach,” the technician Signed with limited vocabulary. “Where stand?”
Still taking in the gravity of what she and Durand had started, she forgot to figure out where she would stand to give the lecture. The very reason she came so early in the first place escaped her till the technician broke her wandering thought process. Looking about, she figured where she sat was as good a place as any other spot and said so.
“OK. I…” the technician stumbled on whatever word they sought.
“Just speak,” Collins assisted. “I’m not deaf. Just mute. But I appreciate the effort.”
She smiled.
“Oh, sorry,” he said while rubbing his fist on his chest. “I’m going to set up the projector based on where you are now, if that’s OK with you, Dr. Collins.”
Could she have blushed in her current state, she would have. As it was, her new condition, permanent or otherwise disallowed any such rush of blood to the surface tissue.
“Yes,” she Signed. “That’ll be fine.”
She turned to her friend, “It’s all going to be OK, I think.”

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