Collins has passed out. What will become of our heroine? Find out during our next episode…which is right now…
Durand’s pudgy face peered down on her. She felt herself smile. As her senses rumbled to life, the cold, hard surface she laid on reminded her of what she hoped was a dream. A terrible dream. Out of habit, she spoke, “What happened?”
Only hissing leaked out. She cringed with realization that none of this was dreamt. Gymnasium rafters came into focus behind her friend’s skull. She woke inside her nightmare.
With shaking hands, she Signed, “The man.”
Durand’s face seemed to melt as his stuttering smile drooped, laying waste to his wrinkled features. She turned away swallowing the tears fighting for release.
Closed, images of faces smacked her senses just behind her eyelids; opened, her eyes fell on deep brown smears on the floor and wall. Her stomach heaved but nothing came up. The room disappeared behind a curtain of darkness again.
Collins woke this time to slight jostling about, her back now against something somewhat softer than the wooden gymnasium flooring where she last found herself. She opened her eyes when Durand told her everything would be OK. His image drifted backward away from her. The smell of fall air infected her nostrils.
Still lying down, she lifted her head up enough to figure out she no longer lay on the ground but on a gurney. A paramedic stood on either side.
“I’m fine,” she hissed before Signing the same.
“That may be true ma’am,” one paramedic said. “But we really should bring you in anyway. Just in case.”
“Seriously, I’m fine. Please. Let me go. I don’t need this.”
She sat up. Dizziness enveloped her skull but it dissipated with relative ease.
“You really should…”
“Do I have to,” she asked.
“Not exactly, ma’am, but…”
“Then I’m going,” she Signed.
As she pulled herself off the gurney, she saw the remnants of what took place earlier. The ambulance set to take her in “just in case” was not the only one in the parking lot. From where she stood shaking, she could see swarms of people huddled together. Only sounds of ambulance doors closing and occasional sirens chirping to life erupted from all around her. No one spoke. Everyone was pale, though few had the translucent skin tone to which she had grown accustomed.
“Sweetie,” Durand interrupted her lifeless thoughts. “Why don’t you go with them?”
She shrugged, “They have enough to worry about.” Turning to the paramedics, “Go help someone that needs it. Please. I’m fine. Really.”
They handed her a small blanket hardly the size of a beach towel and moved on.
“How bad is it,” she asked her friend.
“Depends,” he returned to Signing.
She shot him a look demanding a real answer, which he provided.
“Considering how many people were in that gymnasium, it could have been worse.”
“Meaning?” Anger rushed her throat and escaped through her fingers.
“At least two people were trampled.”
“Oh my,” she hissed. Her hands pulled her towel closer to her chest. Freeing one hand long enough to ask, she inquired about the bloody mess that appeared to start the stampede.
“Far as anyone can tell, it was just a dog.”
“So there was no person in that pile?”
“Not as near as anyone can figure right now.”
Giving her friend another look, he added, “There really wasn’t much left but a few b-b-bones and fur.”
Collins let her head collapse into her chest. The medics blanket provided disturbingly little protection from her surroundings and even less protection from her inner workings.
What the hell happened? Why did they have to do what they did? We’ve all fought these urges for so long. They had to ruin it for everyone. And look what they started. Now two people are dead and at least as many are injured.
“Helen,” a voice screeched. She turned. Running to her was someone she had never seen in person. Just as the person came up on Collins, they turned away toward a camera.
“This is Kim Clarkson with Channel 5 News. We’re standing here live at the sight of the brutal stampede that left two dead and possibly more. Here with me now is Helen, the one who headed the gathering that lead to this terrible tragedy. Helen,” the reporter turned to Collins, “Can you tell us what happened here today?
She shook her head.
“Can you tell us what you think happened, Helen?”
Again she shook her head.
“Helen, could you at least tell us what you saw?”
Irritated with the reporter’s line of questioning, she finally retorted, “It’s Dr. Collins.”
“Wait,” the reporter waved their camera down. Clarkson’s voice soured. “What the hell is she doing?”
Collins paused, confused. Even if the reporter had not come to her seminars, Clarkson must know what she was doing. Particular Signs might be out of reach, but her actions obvious.
“Excuse me,” Collins finally asked in Sign irritated at the reporter’s ignorance.
“Seriously,” Clarkson spat. “Someone call a medic. She’s stroking.”
“I’ll give you a stroke, you…” Collins flicked.
“She’s Signing,” Durand broke in.
“What? Oh, right.”
The reporter sighed as if the weight of the world was just placed on her shoulders.
“Well, translate. Will you?”
Collins and Durand looked at each other. Durand shrugged.
“Doctor Collins,” Durand translated with almost as much emphasis as Collins Signed.
“Well, Doctor. What did you witness?”
“Nothing you didn’t get on camera, I presume,” she Signed before bringing her blanket in close.
“W-w-what she means,” Durand added, “is that you probably have all the information you need from us.”
This satisfied the reporter enough to send the reporter and their camera trotting off for another interview.
“Collins,” barked another voice. “Christ. Thank God you’re all right.”
Her boss was out of breath. Somehow his beard looked more disheveled than usual. She could do nothing but nod.
“What the hell were you thinking, rushing into that mob?”
She shrugged, and then Signed, “I thought someone was in trouble.”
“Yeah. You, you dumb shit.”
For what she assumed was the first time, her boss seemed to run out of things to say. He combed his fingers through his hair a few times while he took in the sights.
“I better get back to my family. I just…”
With that, her boss disappeared into lines of people too shocked to speak to one another.
“Sweetie, you should probably go home and rest.”
“What about the seminar?”
“I think we’ve done enough for one d-d-day.” He placed his arm around her. “Come on. I’ll walk you home.”
Durand opened her futon for her so she could lie down.
“Can I do anything else for you, Sweetie,” he asked in Sign.
“No, thank you.”
“How about some soup?”
“If only,” she Signed. His look let her know he did not follow.
“I’ve only had cravings for raw meat. Soup is, well, not.”
“Maybe a little change is just what you need.”
“Think there’s been enough change for one day, thanks.”
Not paying any attention to her attempts to stop him, he wandered into her kitchenette.
“Do you want meat in your soup?”
His question seemed to echo in her small studio apartment. She was not accustomed to hearing voices in her home, hers or otherwise. A hissed response came out of habit. Peeking his head around the only walled corner, she shook her head. Her face warmed. He smiled and disappeared again to the sound of clanging pans.
“You have no veggies in your fridge.”
“Nope,” she tried to say aloud. Another hiss leaked out.
Frustrated, she dropped back laying on her futon and stared at the ceiling. Images of fleeing faces raced in between stills of the aftermath. Each time her mind jumped to memories of the young group mauling the dog her stomach growled. An emptying feeling pecked its way into her chest.
“A little Black Bean Soup never hurt anyone,” his calming voice echoed from her kitchenette.
Perhaps he’s right. I’m still human. Maybe these urges are just that, urges. Perhaps Black Bean Soup is just what I need.
Collins wanted to tell him what she thought. She wanted to tell him he was a great and loyal friend. After all, they both experienced the same horrific incident. He was the timid one. Why was he taking care of her? She opened her mouth to thank him for his friendship. Knowing her voice would only rebel against her comment, she raised her open hand to her lips and mouthed it instead, “Thank you.” The words withered into nothingness.
The warming stove burner clicked before the scent of black beans filled the apartment. Though it once made her mouth water and her body yearn, the soup’s smell did little to Collins. It did not create hunger or even disgust. It was as if she was walking past a pile of cardboard boxes. Yes, the smell existed, but no emotion came with it.
She sat up when Durand entered the room with a bowl. A tiny strand of steam migrated upward and away from its rim. This gave Collins a chance to thank her friend.
“You’re welcome,” he Signed back.
For nearly two months, she had eaten nothing except raw meat. Not because that’s what was wanted, but because that was what she felt she needed. She stared down at the soup wondering what would happen when the spoon touched her lips.
Would it taste as it once did, good and satisfying? Would she recoil from the flavor? She hoped not since the one who made it sat beside her. She wanted to enjoy it. She stirred the soup with apparent focus. Durand’s hand reached up and rubbed her back as a mother does her ill child.
“Eat up,” he Signed with his free hand. “You’ll feel better.”
Durand looked at his watch as he waited for her to try the soup.
“Thank you so much,” she smiled as best she could. “I know you have an early class tomorrow. Please, go if you need to.”
“I-I-I do have to print a few things for class. Do you mind?”
“No, I insist. I’ll be just fine. You’ve been more than helpful. Thank you, again.”
A chill broke out in her veins as Durand pulled away and stood.
Looking up, she watched Durand look to the door, then the kitchenette. Feeling dirty, she was grateful for his diverted eye contact. He looked to the door and back to the kitchenette again.
“I’ll clean up,” she Signed. “It’ll give me something to focus my attention on.”
“Absolutely. Thank you.”
Rather than look into her eyes, he watched the floor as if waiting for it to tell him something. Then he left. As the door shut behind him, she could not help but feel the world closing in around her. Though she lived there for many years, claustrophobia crept into her shoes.
To pull away from such feelings, she returned her attention to her soup.
Holding her breath, she brought a spoonful of the black bean broth to her nose and sniffed. It still smelled like nothing. She blew on it to ensure a testable, testable temperature. The warmth was inviting. All her mouth receptors danced with joy. So much time had passed since last she indulged in anything warmer than room temperature. Tears threatened to drip down as she slowly chewed the thick broth. Then it happened.
Though the broth felt warm and encouraging on her tongue, flavor was strangely absent. She feared something like this. As long as she did not test her hypothesis, she could continue pretending such things were not possible. Now that she chewed on thick broth with the flavor of polystyrene, hiding was no longer an option.
She felt her cheek muscles tighten, followed by muscles throughout her chest and face. Swallowing to keep from hurting her friend’s feelings, she tried to pretend it was soggy rice. However, soggy rice would have had more flavor and satisfaction attached to it. She let the spoon dip back into the bowl in her lap and could not help but allow the tears to come.
Deep down she now knew whatever had happened to her was not temporary. Whatever it was had changed her inside and out. In the pit of her stomach where she expected to feel the warm synthetic material drop, it felt hollowed, as if a hole was made, perfect for a wandering bird in need of shelter.