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Say Zucchini, and Mean It

Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His publications include the novellas "Horn" and "Bleed" from Twelfth Planet Press, and his short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Interfictions II and Apex Magazine. He can be found online at www.petermball.com.
That summer we used to go searching for the lovesick. Someone'd pick a suburb and we'd bus it out there, a gaggle of us watching the suburbs slip by, killing time. Then we'd split up and go searching, trying to find the weirdest case in the weirdest location. That summer you'd find them everywhere. They'd started calling it an epidemic on the news, and the government was paying a bounty to good Samaritans who called a new case in.
That wasn't why we did it. The money was nice, sure, but we were out there chasing a good story. The whole thing started because Alice found this guy sitting under a jacaranda, back before we knew what was happening. He sat there in his wedding suit, purple flowers covering his head and shoulders like dandruff. Alice said his eyes were dead but his jaw kept working, repeating the same words over and over like a mantra: "I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you." He'd been left there by his wife, abandoned in the park, when the sickness hit in the middle of the ceremony. No one knew why she left him. No one knew what was wrong with him.
We used to love hearing that story, before words like epidemic were thrown around. For a long time we were obsessed with finding one of our own, something even better.
I didn't love Alice, but I wanted to love her. There was something reckless about being in love after seeing the lovesick, and I wanted in. "I love you" was dangerous, the last real taboo we had. Some people embraced it despite the danger. With three simple words you could set yourself free.
Malcolm went away in the second year of the epidemic. Alice and I shared the flat after Malcolm left. We'd spend our afternoons on the couch, Alice strumming bar chords on the acoustic guitar Malcolm's family left behind when they packed up his stuff and had him committed. We didn't have a television, so we'd drink a lot, sing, let our voices boom out against the walls.
On Tuesdays we walked down to the hospital and sat by Malcolm's bed. Alice wore black and sang to him, soft and sweet. I'd stand around and watch, pretending I was somewhere else. The entire ward pulsed with the repetition. A hundred people, maybe more, the same words echoing, over and over: "I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you."
Sitting there, listening, I realized what epidemic really meant. I recognized it as more than a word they used on the telly.
I hated the ward. It smelt like bleach. Visitors left with tears in their eyes.
One day we stopped to do laundry on the way home, piling our clothes into vast Laundromat dryers. You could fit people in those dryers, sit them in there and tumble them around once you put in the two-fifty to get 'em running. Alice liked the rhythm, the hum of it, and the way the clothes rolled over, mixing together as they warmed. We sat on plastic seats watching our clothes spin, Alice's dryer containing a dozen different shades of black. She leaned against my shoulder, her hair tickling my cheek.
I split my washing, colors and whites, a lesson learned the hard way just after I left home. It took twice as long to finish two loads, but Alice waited around with me. Later, during the rinse-cycle on my white load, I tried to kiss her. That went about as well as it deserved to given the circumstances.
Before he went away, Malcolm worked for the government department putting together pamphlets about the epidemic. He always said avoiding infection was simple: don't say "I love you." Not if you meant it, not even if you didn't. Only those three words triggered the disease, leaving you emptied out and vacant while the words spilled out of your mouth. Malcolm's department was responsible for layout and production, but soon moved into finding replacement for those three words. The replacements rarely gained traction among the populace. Malcolm said we didn't like alternatives because the rhythm was always off, that nothing really resonated the same way love did. We needed "I love you." We coveted its sound and utility.
Malcolm and Alice were still together the first time we bused out to find ourselves some lovesick. They sat together in the back seat, holding hands, pretending they were some happy couple, the kind that existed in movies. Malcolm was wearing black gloves with the fingertips cut off; Alice wore an army jacket, dull green and two sizes too big. They still had eight months left then, eight months together before Malcolm disappeared into the ward. They loved each other, I think, but it didn't make them happy.
Alice was the first girl to tell me that love wasn't pretty. "It's all about balance," she said. "No one ever loves each other in equal amounts."
She said this when we first moved in, before Malcolm went away, when I was still a housemate.
It started with English, so we stole from others in desperation. Sometimes the epidemic spread. Sometimes it did not. No one knows why je t'aime was lost but wo ai ni remained safe, but the French were less than pleased when the epidemic reached their shores.
I kissed Alice three weeks after that day in the Laundromat. No, actually, she kissed me. It was a Friday afternoon and she tasted of beer and cigarettes. She put her hand on my shoulder, leaned in to kiss me properly. It caught me by surprise. I hadn't pushed, after that first attempt. I initiated nothing, not really.
"Thanks," I said.
Alice didn't say anything. Then: "I'm just, you know, sick of it."
"Sick of what?"
"I don't know." She kissed me again; pulled back, looked away. Then: "Feeling guilty, I guess."
Some alternatives Malcolm's department suggested in their flyers during the early years of the epidemic: "I heart you"; "I adore you"; "I am charmed by you"; "I live for you"; "zucchini."
That last one was a joke, something Malcom slipped past the editor and never got around to fixing. We tried them all, Alice and I. None were satisfactory replacements.
Actually, I take that back. Alice liked "zucchini." She said it's because the words never really mattered, so there's nothing lost with replacing it with something really random. Alice thought we used "love" too freely, for too many things, and that's why the epidemic started. We relied too much on the moment to carry meaning, so love found a way to strike back. "You ever noticed how insincere it is, hearing it repeated like that? You say it once, now, and everyone notices."
I told Alice I zucchini her and felt like a liar.
She said she zucchini me too.
Malcolm loved Alice. He'd told her so, one day, not long after the epidemic started. It came as a surprise to everyone, especially him, but he survived the experience okay.
The second time he said it, when the epidemic actually got him, he should have known better than to try.
Things got awkward when Alice moved back into Malcolm's room. It made sense for her to be there: his room caught the breeze, making it the coolest place to spend summer; his parents had left behind a real bed, with real sheets, when they took him away to the ward. My room remained stifling in summer. I had a sleeping bag thrown over a mattress.
Alice spent the nights crying on Malcolm's bed. I didn't know what to do, so I offered her cups of tea. Three in the morning I'd hear her crying and knock on the door, telling her I'd make tea if she wanted one. Alice came out wearing one of Malcolm's t-shirts. "With honey?" she asked, and I said, "Sure."
"Right, then," she'd tell me, and try giving me a wobbly smile. We both pretended she hadn't been crying. Alice wasn't a crier. She drank the tea and went back to bed. Sometimes it stopped the tears, sometimes it didn't.
"You're a good guy," she told me. "I'm glad you're around."
I wasn't a good guy. No one should be fooled by that. I stopped going with her on Tuesdays when she went to visit Malcolm. She stopped going not long after.
"What's the point?" she said. "He's not getting better."
I walked a lot, getting out. I listened to my sandshoes splotch on the pavement and the streetlights ticking in the muggy night air. I fell into a rhythm, started chanting it as I walked, "I love you, I love you," but the rhythm never stuck. I was always there, behind the words, forcing them out of my mouth. Sometimes I'd turn a corner and a real case would be there, abandoned on the sidewalk with the words tumbling out. It always made me feel stupid, seeing them like that, but I called the ambulance anyway.
The ambulance drivers told me that three in the morning was a high-traffic period for calls. The same conversation, over and over, every time I called one in. Apparently people said "zucchini" a lot after midnight.
"It's easy to mean it when you're only half-awake," a blonde ambo said once. "It's easy to forget and fall back on old habits."
I started it, I guess. I said something about feeling guilty, about Malcolm being a friend.
"It's okay," Alice said. "It's not about him anymore. I think, you know, I love you."
I didn't hear her, not really. I panicked a little anyway. "Um. What?"
"I love you," Alice said. "I love you. I love you. I love you."
I don't kid myself about what happened. It had nothing to do with me. Sometimes the person who's there isn't the person you're talking too. Alice isn't the only one who has slipped away like that.
Alice cried the first time we slept together. We both knew she didn't love me. We pretended it was okay, that I was filling in for Malcolm until he came back. Malcolm wasn't coming back. I didn't know what to do about that. "Zucchini," I told her. "Really, zucchini."
I don't think it helped.
The last time I went to the ward there was a nurse working her way down the beds, checking details against a chart and making sure the IVs were still secure. Its how you feed them, the lovesick, how you keep them alive while they repeat themselves. I sat on the edge of Alice's bed, smoothing the wrinkles in her blanket. The nurse paused when she saw me. She was broad-shouldered, built for trouble, tall and formidable. "You family?"
I shook my head. "Just a flatmate."
The nurse checked the chart. "Long time to keep a room open," she said, then she gave me a hard look. "We're only supposed to let family in here."
I stood up, pulled on my jacket. I'm not really much of a fighter when it comes to things like that. The Nurse walked me out, keeping pace to make sure I actually left. "Does it get to you?" I asked. "Working here, listening to all that. Doesn't it do your head in?"
The Nurse shrugged. "I deal with it. You don't notice it, eventually. It all just turns into noise."
We reached the double doors to the ward. She pushed one open, held it there to usher me through. I stood there, looking back, listening to the whispered repetition from the ward. "Don't you think that's kinda sad? Losing a whole word like that?"
"It's just a word," the Nurse said. "There are plenty of others."
"But, I love you," I said. "Come on, don't you miss it?"
She shook her head. I tried repeating myself, just in case: "I love you, I love you, I love you."
It didn't take. There was no reason it should, with a woman I didn't know, but it was always worth a try.
"Get out," she said, and I left.
The nurse closed the door behind me.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

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