The President speaks…
Long after the sun disappeared from the only window in her tiny apartment, Collins calmed enough to see her surroundings. On what felt like autopilot, she stood idle as her body mechanically made its way to the kitchenette to dump her hardly touched soup down the drain. The bowl, spoon, and pot Durand used to warm her polystyrene dinner took less time to wash than she had hoped. Done, she stared at the sink, half in hope that something more would appear, giving her more time to disengage from the world.
Collins decided to take a shower to try to wash off the day’s happenings.
Once in, she let the water pound at her forehead. It trickled down her face, cascaded along her neck, and warmed her whole body as the waterfall cocooned around her. She ran her fingers through her hair. Dropping her head to let the stream attack her scalp directly, she peered downward to find flecks of deep magenta flow away from her feet.
Her first fear was that the dried blood was her own. Poking and prodding her body she realized the coagulated blood came was not hers.
With a dime-sized dollop of shampoo she scrubbed the day out of her dirty blond hair. For a moment whatever had taken hold of her had never come to be. The loofah seemed to lather itself and start to work on her skin. The rubbing against her skin felt as though it tore off layers of pain, disgust, and memories. Her pale, almost translucent, skin reminded her that not even in her shower could she separate herself from her troubles. Even in the confines of her own home, she was an outsider.
Collins tied a towel around her midsection, shielding much of her body from her vision. She wrapped a smaller towel around her hair.
Padding the short distance to her futon. She picked up History of the Infirmary and cozied up to the futon’s corner for a long night of rereading and hopeful retreat into the pages. Though her reading speed remained stunted, it was markedly improved.
She continued reading until the auburn sun shining in from her only window just over the sink caught her eye. Still understanding little about her condition, she wondered if she would ever sleep again. Her gaze left her lap to fall on a bookshelf.
At least not sleeping has its advantages, too.
But her eyes were tired. Clicking the television to life, she meandered to the fridge to pick at a pound of ground round she purchased before. Her stomach ached for food; her mind ached for news from yesterday’s incident.
More than twelve hours later and the news feed still played the ordeal out on a loop. Newscasters made constant remarks about the poor defenseless dog that was mauled. They commented several times about the animal’s monetary value which exceeded that of the cost of the average new car or truck.
Collins watched an interview with the elderly blind man who the animal belonged to. The man was rightfully upset. He spoke about how “Kiki” had been his only companion for about a decade. He questioned aloud who, or what, could do such a thing to such a harmless creature. The man burst into tears when he mentioned how much he loved Kiki.
The ditsy newscaster switched from Kiki’s demise to a story about a local high school band’s winning accolades before sounding more excited.
“This just in,” he said with joy that only arrives in children on days when they receive mountains of wrapped gifts. “The President is set to speak in just about twenty minutes. We have no word yet about why he’s speaking or what it’s about. But you can bet it has to do with The Hush.”
The camera angle zoomed out providing a view of both reporters anchored behind their glossy desk. He turned to his colleague and asked, “Do you think the President will mention yesterday’s incident with Kiki?”
His colleague responded, “I’m not too sure, but I doubt it. This is the first of such incidents around the country. And, in all honesty, the President probably has bigger fish to fry.”
“I don’t know,” the ditsy man retorted. “Someone died yesterday.”
Then he turned back to his camera.
“We’ll take a short break. But when we return, Dr. Tran, our in-house physician, will talk with us about this pandemic and what it means for you. Then we’ll hear from the President. Be right back.”
The camera cut away to more bloody images of Kiki’s remains slathered across the gymnasium where Collins had taught Sign Language to thousands. Her heart stammered.
There are about a dozen exits in that building, aren’t there? Why did everyone seem to pile out of two sets of doors? One set at the back, another by the stage.
Oh God. That poor man.
As she recalled the old man she attempted CPR on and his screaming wife, sensations of his cracking ribs reverberated through her skeleton. She shuddered.
“Welcome back,” Collins heard just as she gave her full attention back to her television perched at eye level. “Here with us to talk about this outbreak is our own in-house doctor, Philip Tran. Welcome, doctor.”
“Thanks for having me on again.”
“We only have a second before the President speaks, but what are your feelings about yesterday’s events?”
“Yesterday’s events are classic symptoms of this ailment.”
“Give us a sense of what this outbreak is. Should we be worried?”
“For starters, we really aren’t sure what exactly is causing this phenomenon.”
“Should we be worried? I mean, look what happened yesterday. Poor Kiki.”
“To be frank, I think so. What little we do know is quite troubling. Yesterday is proof of what these symptoms can actually cause if left untreated. But it’s important to remember that we don’t know all the details of yesterday’s tragedy. But as for the illness, it’s as if…”
“Some people have used the term ‘zombie’. Would you agree with that assessment, doctor?”
“That term is so ‘sci-fi’ or horror movie,” Dr. Tran said with a look of disdain. “But the term is not far off. You see, what we do know is that in most cases, the body ceases to circulate blood.”
“What? How can this be? Have you tested this?”
“That is precisely the response from most of us in the medical field as well. Now, this loss of blood flow causes a significant decrease in mental capacity.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“Meaning, yesterday may not be an isolated incident. Meaning, if this illness continues and more people continue to congregate with infecteds, we are likely to see more attacks like this.
“To put it plainly: those who find themselves with this condition tend to see decreases in their IQ at a range of ten to twenty points. Rather than simply dying, as one would expect would happen when the blood stops flowing, the brain is starved for oxygen while the body refuses to stop functioning…”
That certainly explains a lot, Collins thought. Then she could not decide if her newfound knowledge came with relief or further concern. Then again, I’m gaining back some of my reading comprehension. Maybe I’m getting better. And I do have a pulse.
“What evidence do we have of all this? I mean, besides yesterday’s tragedy.”
“Any reliable studies are still a ways off since this situation is still so new. But, just look at them.”
“So how can we protect ourselves?”
“As of right now, all I can suggest to your viewers,” the younger-than-probable physician turned his perfectly manipulated smile to the studio audience and those at home, “is that those unaffected steer clear of those infected. Health Department officials not willing to speak publically are suggesting those unaffected not associate with infecteds. Don’t even acknowledge them. Many have lost much of their mental capacity. They will likely not engage you unless you engage them first. They have either forgotten how to speak, or have chosen not to speak. If you don’t engage them, they are prone to leave you alone as well. Besides, if they’re mental capacity is diminished and they break the law, what’s to stop them from getting away with it in court. The Twinkie defense all over again.”
That’s not fair at all! Or true! We get along just fine.
“How can we know who’s infected?”
Turning back to the ditsy blond, “Their skin tone.”
“Their skin tone,” the newscaster asked, as if this information came at him for the first time. “You mean the color of their skin?”
“Precisely. Those infected have no blood flowing through their veins, as you can clearly see in their faces. Therefore, their skin turns the color of a cadaver. More simply put, a dead person. Usually pale white or powdery blue.”
“Before we go on,” the newscaster stepped in. “The hearts and thoughts of everyone here goes out to Lizzy Rinehart, one of our tech engineers, and Kyle Cordair, our Executive Producer, who are out caring for family members who are sick with this…well, whatever it is. This Hush. We hope for their speedy recovery.” However, the newscaster’s smile suggested otherwise.
Turning attention back to Dr. Tran, “Now I have to ask,” the ditsy newscaster paused for dramatic effect, then continued, “there have been reports of their urges for consuming human flesh. And, yesterday…”
“Yes, well,” Dr. Tran chortled. “What happened yesterday is clearly tragic. But we only know infecteds have an appetite for raw or fresh meat. Human flesh might be a bit of a stretch. Those reports you’re referring to are unconfirmed by any serious medical association.”
“But yesterday was a major eye opener for us all. My suspicions are that if these are actually the living dead, they will have to feed on something eventually. And loss of any sense of real appetite is a common side effect. In order to remain even partially alive by any standards in Western Civilization, their bodies will have to consume something, human or otherwise.”
You’re wrong. My appetite is perfectly healthy.
“So these creatures could attack us at any moment?”
Collins wished she witnessed true fear in that ditsy newscaster’s eyes but what she saw flickered of excitement. A hunger stronger than that gnawing at her stomach fed from behind his eyes.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call them creatures. They are still human beings, of course.”
“But if they’re dead, how…Oh, I’ve just received word that President Somani is about to speak. We’ll take you live to the podium where Somani is set to speak in mere moments.”
While waiting for President Somani to speak, Collins became acutely aware of herself Her face itched. Death was something beyond where she existed currently. She felt her skin crawling along her body like waves of snakes clamoring for whatever morsels of food they could find.
She thought. She breathed. She even held conversation with her friend Durand and her boss. She ate, though her palate could only be satisfied with raw meat. Even then she felt a longing just behind her navel for something else. She even taught a daily seminar that turned into a mass production including video podcasts. She remained just as alive as those on her television screen. Then she placed two fingers against her neck.
For all its diminished value, she felt a pulse. It remained slower than she hoped or expected. Then again, she did not know what she truly expected.
Creatures, she asked no one in particular to an empty apartment. They’re dead wrong. She suddenly wished she was wearing her concealer again, though nobody else was around to see her ugly face.
President Somani spoke.
“My fellow Countrymen, recent events have changed the course of this great nation. The economy is not what it once was. Our global influence is receding. And, over the past month, an outbreak of unknown origin spread across our entire country. Rest assured, your government is working diligently to ascertain the cause of, and solution for, this grave situation.
“Today, after much discussion and deliberation, my administration has determined that the situation we find our nation in, is an attack [R1] on this country’s sovereignty. Those responsible will be brought to justice. Actions against the stability of our economy when it is so fragile, and actions against our people when they are so vulnerable, cannot and will not be tolerated in a democratic society. And these actions will not be tolerated by this administration.
“The stability of free societies rests on the understanding that civil society is unshakable. Once shaken, the economy falters. Without an economy that retains a reliable upward trajectory, commerce suffers. When commerce suffers, the people at large suffer. This administration will not stand for such occurrences.
“Many have asked what they can do for their nation. To them I say this: Keep the economy moving. It is of the utmost importance that normal citizens continue to go about their lives. If normal citizens are too afraid to conduct business, the economy crumbles, and the terrorists win.
“Until the cause of this phenomenon is ascertained, this administration strongly urges all citizens to remain calm, not to overreact, and treat those infected in our families and inner circles with tenderness and care. There is no evidence suggesting this outbreak is spreadable beyond its current limits. Many infected are frightened, and reasonably so. They deserve our compassion, not our repulsion.
“Now more recently, you may have heard of the incident on the University campus. Our sources believe this incident to be isolated. The work done by that University to bridge gaps between infecteds and unaffected should be commended. The families struck by this tragedy deserve our prayers and our help. I’ve commissioned a fund to aid those in need. If you wish to assist, call the number on your screen and ask how you can help. But let me be perfectly clear here. The best way to move our nation forward, is to not let those outside our borders dictate how we act within our borders. For the benefit of all, do not stop commerce. The best thing we can do right now is to continue to spend.
“Thank you, and God bless this great nation.”
President Somani walked off and to the left as the camera followed.
“You heard it here first,” the newscaster belted in. “President Somani is urging calm and compassion.” The camera then panned slowly out and to the newscaster’s right. “Joining us now is President Somani’s most prominent opposition in the coming election. Welcome, Representative Moran.”
“Thank you for having me.”
The Congressman’s hair was perfectly feathered. Wearing a lapel pin of the state flag, the Representative sat so straight, it hurt Collins just watching.
“What did you think of President Somani’s speech just now? Did you know it was a terrorist attack? You serve on the Security Affairs Committee. Do you agree with the President’s assessment of the current situation as it is currently?”
Representative Moran coughed loose some phlegm, then spoke, staring directly to his audience, “What we heard tonight is absolute bunk. This President has lied to the people of this great nation.”
“Lying is a rather strong accusation, Representative Moran. Do you have any facts to back this up?”
“Facts? Who needs facts! Look around you. People are choosing not to die. It’s little more than that. You can’t get that from any terror attack. There is no external threat against our this great country. Our current threat comes from within.”
Representative Moran’s face reddened as he continued.
“When people decide to take God’s work into their own hands, they cause what you are seeing today. People are choosing life when they shouldn’t. Look at them. Even their bodies are trying to die. They are absolute affronts to humanity, nature, and God. And because their bodies are giving up on them but they refuse to die, they are asking for handouts from us hardworking citizens.
“They’ve chosen to war against God and against this great nation. If I’m elected President, I will make sure that something is done about this problem. This administration has decided to sit on its hands. Being part of the appropriate Committees, I’ve seen the evidence. I know the President is lying. I know what this great state needs. I can provide that need.”
“What exactly would your administration do if elected, Representative Moran?”
“For one, we need to figure out who started this trend. Hunt them down, and bring them to justice.”
“President Somani stated it was not clear what caused this phenomenon. What say you to that?”
“Somani also stated it was a terror attack. This I know to be a falsehood. The facts are clear, I’m the best choice here.”
“What of the compassion President Somani recommended for infecteds?”
Enough blood rushed to Representative Moran’s face, he appeared ready to stroke out. “What of the compassion for this great nation?” Representative Moran leaned in close to the newscaster, spitting as he spoke, “Listen. Walking around seeking pity and free handouts is not showing compassion for their fellow Man. Giving money to someone just because they refuse to die is not compassion. We are dealing with the living dead. They are an affront to nature. The President forgets about the constituents. Citizens of this great nation, citizens who pay taxes and work, need our compassion and the President is not providing it. I will.”
“Our time is just about up, Representative,” the newscaster smiled. “But I want to give you about five seconds to explain exactly how you would provide such “compassion” as you put it.”
“By administering true compassion,” Representative Moran said as he sat up straight again. Some blood drained back into his starving body. His toothy grin bit into Collins’ brainstem.
“You heard it here first, everyone.”
The ditsy newscaster turned toward his audience. The camera panned inward.
“President Somani says it’s terrorism. Congressman Moran says it’s unethical living. The election just a month away, I’m sure we all have an opinion on this topic and we’ll be able to voice that opinion as we perform our patriotic duty, as we do every few years, and vote for the candidate we think best serves our interests. I mean, the interests of this great nation. Until tomorrow, good night and good luck.”
She wondered what Representative Moran meant by “true compassion.” What she witnessed these last weeks showed her what she believed was true compassion.
Yes, tragedy struck yesterday. But that could have happened in any arena. It’s not uncommon for any large collective of people to erupt into riotous frenzies after someone yells “fire” in a crowd. That poor man.
But those weeks leading up to yesterday are what is true compassion, Representative. I’ve looked into their eyes. I’ve seen human nature at its best, and it wasn’t because you legislated it. It happened because that is human nature.
What the hell am I worried about anyway? Moran has been a firecracker since he was elected two terms ago. Nobody likes him. Nobody believes him as far as he be thrown. There’s no way Somani can lose to anyone with his terrible popularity ratings. He’s just trying to gain footing in the polls.
She was correct.
Then there was the reporter.
That ditsy newscaster retained the IQ of a dish rag but his concerns and potentially damaging comments were broadcast across national airwaves. His fears less mimicked those of his viewers than instigated them.
Why would he call infected people “creatures?” And Moran, I just can’t get him out of my head. What are “normal” citizens? I feel fine. With exception to these odd hunger pangs and this retarded reaction time, I’m fine.
Why can’t there be any real reporters anymore? One political leader claims terrorism, another claims social change. One has to be right and one has to be wrong, don’t they?
Her mind drifted to the busker and the group of men who helped him. Then it wandered to her and Durand’s seminar that stretched over more than a month. She smiled. Nothing in all these memories suggested negative outcomes, nothing at an individual level anyway. Opinion by the public at large had already been decided. Learning to speak to one another was a clear symptom of that decision.
Congressman Moran is speaking to deaf ears.