Things start to get ugly in Collins’ world…
Sensations from standing in front of the packed stadium bordered on overwhelming. Collins Signed through her unofficial seminar but could not feel her hands as they flew ahead of her. After every new Sign, the entire gymnasium raised their arms in unison as if cheering for the scoring home team behind her. Juxtaposed with that image thundered the silence that accompanied. A whispering breeze rolled by each time everyone’s hands dropped back to their sides.
As she convinced the mass of people to turn to their neighbors to practice questions and responses they acquired over the previous weeks, she took a moment to peer upward. What she saw stole what little breath she had. In perfect High Definition on a screen bigger than her studio apartment, her image stared back down at her. Unsure if she should smile, cry, or run, her body chose for her. She smiled.
Another month passed. Collins grew accustomed to her new position as unofficial Sign Language instructor for much of the entire city, not just the University. Her boss pushed for her salary to remain intact “provided she continued her invaluable service to her University and her community.” Appearing to agree, University bureaucrats obliged.
Part of her missed her History lectures and resultant discussions. To quell these urges Collins retreated into her books during overnight hours and most of her mornings. Her reading comprehension had returned to near her normal level.
Whatever caused her voice to be swallowed whole also stole much of her want for sleep. Without the necessity of sleep she plowed through far more new texts than she would have hoped to in the midst of a semester. Things were off kilter but falling into place morsel by morsel. Meals still consisted of raw meats from the local deli; however they too felt more normal as time progressed with no change in condition.
Local news outlets requested videotapes of Collins’ unofficial Sign Language seminar. It added no extra strain to her since cameras already projected her image on screens around the gymnasium. Her last trip to the grocery store even included the clerk Signing a “thank you” to her as she left.
It still made her uncomfortable every time she entered the gymnasium when all hands in the crowd rose and flailed in unison, a Sign Language version of applause. Each time she tucked her hair behind her ear as she made her way to the stage to begin another lecture to most of a waiting cityscape.
On this particular day, the crowd felt unstable to Collins.
“Do you feel that,” she asked her friend and cohort.
Durand shot a look around the cavernous room before answering, “Feel what?”
“Something’s not right. It’s almost like an earthquake is about to hit.”
“You know humans can’t feel such things,” he said with unusual calm.
Then she peered out over the mass of people waiting for her to begin.
“There are too many people here,” she Signed.
“How do you mean?”
She pointed out toward the wall opposite them.
“There’re more people than chairs. People are filling the halls and walkways.”
“You’re popular, Helen,” Durand said aloud as she stared off at the crowd. “You’re not getting jitters now, are you?”
But her “maybe” was far closer to a “yes” but not for reasons Durand suggested, though she could not put her cold finger on those mysterious reasons. Perhaps stage fright was getting the better of her. After all, she had held this same gathering five times weekly for more than two months with no problems thus far.
“Welcome,” Durand translated aloud.
Each meeting began with Durand translating a welcome message in order to grab the crowd’s attention. Three months into the phenomenon known only as The Hush and her lectures had become more complex. Most in the audience, at home and those eager enough to show in person, no longer needed full translation of entire lectures. Instead, Durand remained onsite to assist with any new concepts Collins could not explain and for catching audience attention.
“Thank you, Dr. Durand,” she Signed. “Today we will learn words important to political debate. With elections only a few months away, it is only fitting that everyone be given a chance to make informed decisions on Election Day.”
The room erupted in shaking raised hands of silent applause.
“I thought we might start…”
Collins’ Signs faded into levitating hands as she craned her neck and strained her eyes at something in the back of the gymnasium. Beyond the last row of chairs, where a wall of people gathered to watch her performance, the wall seemed to crack.
As if a rock dropped into a sea of people, a wave of bodies rippled outward from a central point. She watched the wave recoil inward. Then out again. This time, its epicenter remained tight. A moat of space surrounded the tight circle at its center. Only then did the screams reach out, attacking Collins’ eardrums, breaking the silence.
“What’s going on,” she yelled. Only hissing fell out. Looking to Durand, she Signed the same question to him. He shrugged. She pointed out at them. His face reddened when he realized she was not asking him but asking him to ask the mass.
His voice echoed throughout the spacious indoor arena. The masses responded with louder screams. Moving her gaze back to the rippling collective at the back, the outward wave grew in size and distance. Volatility had reached a critical she knew was close at hand. Swallowing hard, she waved at Durand for his attention. When she had it she told him to try to calm everyone.
Sweat beaded around his face and neck.
“P-p-p-please remain calm,” he started. His voice thrown through the speakers seemed to bring much of the group’s attention back to the stage where they stood. Collins tried to recollect eyes on her. She looked up at one of the screens facing in her direction. The camera feed, once pointed at her, was shaking.
As the camera calmed enough to determine its focus, the image sent fear slithering through her veins.
There, in the center of the ripple she witnessed in its early stages, was a mess of moving bodies and blood. Several young men and women, obviously infected, and far too young to be students of the University, were reaching into the center of their tight circle. As their arms reached backward, blood and fleshy scraps glistened on screen.
Just as Collins reached for her mouth gasping for hope, the wave seemed to explode in an outward shockwave. Screams shot through the air. Thunder of trampling feet rolled through like a wandering spring storm. She watched people flood from bleachers onto the floor. It was clear to Collins that nobody moved to help whoever or whatever it was the group in the back was mangling.
Collins ran down the steps leading to her stage. The onslaught of screaming and hissing bodies pushed against her. She forced herself through one shoulder first. Then she turned and pushed through with her other shoulder. Her heart pounded against her chest.
She wanted to turn to gauge how far she managed to push through. Fearing losing precious ground, she did not turn. The rabble shoved her body from side to side. No matter what, she had to get to where everything started.
Farther and farther she struggled. She screamed for people to move out of her way. Her hissing voice was swallowed whole by the barrage of sound coming from all directions.
Wave after wave of faces pummeled her. Each different but each with the same look of horror, a look she knew only from images of war. A strange tugging sensation attached itself to her left arm.
She looked in its direction to find her boss’ bushy face redder than ever before. The sensation grew as she was pulled against her boss.
“What the fuck are you doing Collins?”
Two hissed words into her attempt at explaining, she forced herself free enough to Sign.
“I have to help.”
“Get the hell out of here.”
As she turned back to fighting the ocean current of people, she was certain she heard her boss scream something else at her. She did not care.
Face after face, she trudged along. Personalities blurred they passed. She looked upward. She had navigated the halfway point. The four way faced screens were just overhead.
All the voices melted together into a solid brick of sound that the rabble seemed to build in the air. As uninfected people pushed against her, their screams pierced her brain. As the infected shoved their way through, their hissing became individually audible for a brief moment before fading again into the wall.
Just as quickly as the wall of bodies attacked her senses, it dissipated. It opened with some distance still between her and the tight circle where everything started. She ran to that circle.
One by one, she wrenched the flailing bodies away from the group. It was clear that all those she pulled from the pile were infected. In its center, she found the reason for the rabble that started the riotous mass.
At its center lay a swath of debris she knew only as body parts covered in buckets of blood. Expecting to recoil from the visual and scent, she found herself intellectually intrigued. At the same time, her stomach growled with hunger. Her mouth salivated.
She tore at the bloody hands trying to save whatever remained of the victim. The first infected person she grabbed turned toward her. He grunted with flesh hanging from his teeth. The second did not notice Collins tugging at her until she pulled so hard that the attacking person fell backward. Seemingly confused by the change of scenery, the drenched woman shook her head. She stood and wandered off as if remembering she had to purchase milk before heading home. Collins returned to the gang.
With a hole in the wall of fury, the victim became clearer. It was not human. Whatever it was had fur, and lots of it. Somehow this did little to quell the fear chilling her bones. It also did little to quiet the hunger within.
Nothing could be done for the poor beast at the gang’s center. Fighting the urge to join in, Collins looked about the gymnasium. Few people remained inside the building. The exits were left open by fleeing crowds. Several infected people stood close by the gang of misfits as if waiting for leftovers to emerge after the others had their fill.
Atop the stage, now little more than a speck at the far end of the room, Collins was certain her friend stared down at the leavens from the hysteria. Her hand went to her chest, both to catch the calm refilling her insides as well as attempting to hold herself back from indulging in urges she could not explain. Through the snapping of bones and tearing of flesh, Collins heard the scream of a woman.
It came from the exit not far from where she stood.
Upon reaching the screaming woman in a pile of her own tears and limp appendages, Collins saw what the woman was so upset about. A man, she assumed to be the woman’s husband, lay on the floor, unresponsive.
His legs and arms were badly broken in several places. A cut to his right temple appeared not to bleed much. Collins thought the worse but could not help from attempting to intervene in his likely path of destiny.
She leaned in. Beginning CPR, the woman fell back watching Collins work. Before she bent over to administer breaths to the pale man, she ordered the woman to call for paramedics. Though crying, she obliged. Collins wondered for a moment if the man whose chest she pumped had been pale skinned before he was trampled.
A rib cracked under her necessary pressure to try to get his heart pumping again. Having never administered emergency services to an actually human being before, her whole body quivered. The break sent shockwaves through her skeleton.
As she leaned in for another collection of breaths to the man, she lifted her gaze to the woman now on the phone. Her free hand appeared to be holding up her head as she screamed gibberish to Dispatch on the other end.
Collins arms grew tired. She felt dizzy.
The world around her seemed to collapse in an instant. What once was towering proof of human nature’s ability to succumb ultimate adversity degraded into absolute chaos. The gymnasium went from being packed full of thousands of intrigued minds to utter disorientation. She wanted with all her being to join the crying woman.
“OK,” a voice said as something tugged on Collins’ shoulder. “We’ll take it from her. Thank you.”
Collins dropped backward, her arm muscles burning.
It was then that Collins noticed how cold the room had become. Her body shivered. If she had the energy to drag herself to the sobbing woman, she would have. Not even the energy to rub her throbbing muscles existed. The dizziness she felt from constant breaths to the dying man took hold. She gave in as the room around her darkened.