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Toxic People

Jeff is an assistant professor of English at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. He often reflects on the words in songs, television dialogue, and conversation with friends, playing around with the literal and figurative meanings until something interesting or amusing arises. In his spare time, he plays board games and finds other ways of procrastinating from writing.

"What are you doing here?" She looks at me with watery, toad eyes. She is gray. I don't mean her skin. I mean everything else. Gray slacks. Gray sweater. Gray hair. Only her words carry the bite of a sharper pigment.
She is the first contact I've had with a live person in over two years.
The CDC says all of us are infected, but the disease is dormant in our temporal lobes. It can be triggered through words uttered in casual conversation. They say the catalyst lingers at the semantic level of the signifier.
For our protection and oversight, the government has moved us into dormitories where we live and work. We have four simple rules: stay in your room until your assigned break; contact others only via email or voice recordings where malware can catch strains of the virus before it spreads; never gather in groups; always carry a portable combustible device, or PCD.
This device is no larger than a roll of quarter with a red button at the end; one push can vaporize anyone within a five-meter radius.
Self-sacrifice is the key to stopping this deadly contagion, the government tells us.
My twin sister, Morgan, once wandered accidentally into an anti-government rally. If those people had only kept their mouths shut, my sister would still be alive. Instead, she activated her PCD.
The government called her a patriot.
Morgan was my roommate and best friend. I often wonder why she activated her device when she could have just turned away and submitted herself to the CDC for examination and clearance.
The PCD carries the weight of my loss in my hand as I enter the break room alone. An empty water dispenser sits in the corner, its dry blue bottle turning tan from accumulated minerals. Sheets cover the couches and tables, except for the one where the gray woman stares me down.
I shouldn't answer her. Protocol forbids it, but it seems rude not to say something.
"Lunch." The single syllable hurts my throat.
I retrieve my frozen burrito, but the microwave, reeking of popcorn and the moldy explosions of leftovers, is unplugged. I crawl under the cabinet, reaching into the dark, hoping I will not accidentally touch the red button on my PCD.
"It's broken," the gray woman says. "Didn't you read the sign?"
Despite her accusing tone, her voice is richer than the carefully modulated ones screened and cleaned by our anti-virus software.
I bump my head trying to extract myself from the cabinet. Sure enough, the microwave has a sign on it that reads, "Out of order."
My stomach growls in reply.
"Who are you?" her next question assaults me.
"Madison. I'm in accounts receivable."
I don't know why I volunteered the last bit. The first symptom of the disease is oversharing, but this information seems harmless, almost like I'm commenting on the weather.
Emotion blotches her pale skin, but her tightly pressed lips makes it hard to interpret what she is feeling. Is she angry? Embarrassed by being caught breaching protocol? Infected?
I hold the PCD behind my back where she can't see it. She consults her watch. I cannot see her PCD, but that doesn't mean it isn't trapped beneath her chunky fingers.
"The last break was over twenty minutes ago. This room is supposed to be empty now."
The minute hand on my watch is not moving. I have no idea what time it is apart from the way my stomach insists it needs that frozen burrito to survive an afternoon of spreadsheets and reports.
Even worse, disorientation is another symptom of the disease. So, is illogical behavior. I replay all my actions up until this point like a private movie in my mind. I see myself from her perspective: a woman on her knees, rummaging in an empty cabinet below a broken appliance, not following the schedule, answering questions that a healthy person should ignore.
Just when I'm convinced the gray woman will press her PCD, she unfolds the wax paper around her sandwich. There is no sign of her device, which would make me feel safe if she wasn't exhibiting all the signs of infection.
"It's okay, Madison." She smiles warmly. Her heavy eyelids lift, revealing generous blue eyes. The red blotches have disappeared from her face. She looks relaxed, almost at peace. Maybe she hasn't seen another person in several years, either.
Before I can ask her this, several voices overlap in the hall. Rich baritone, soft tenors, and a high soprano blend together in in a chorus of words punctuated with easy laughter. The melodious sound moves me in the same way puppies in state-sanctioned commercials or vocally-sanitized Hallmark movies do.
Everyone goes silent the moment they see me. None of them carry a PCD, and all of them are gray except for their faces. I've never seen so many smiles in my life. I can't even think of a word to describe this moment.
"Madison." The ways the toad-eyed woman says my name soothes a hidden wound. "Would you like to join us for lunch? You look so lonely. Wouldn't you like some human interaction?"
"Quarantine." The word is gritty in my mouth.
"There is no disease." She holds back the group with one hand. Their faces register alarm but also compassion. "The government has been lying to us."
That can't be true. If the government has been lying, then my sister died for no reason. She is a martyr in someone else's twisted narrative. Morgan was always smarter than me. She would have seen through the deception.
I have trouble seeing them through the tears in my eyes. They distort into a large gray mass of uncertain smiles. They look so caring. They don't even know they've been infected. God only knows what ideas they've already passed among themselves.
"Please join us," she repeats.
"I will," I sigh.
I think of Morgan as I push the red button.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 25th, 2019

Author Comments

The story "Toxic People" is the result of some recent criticism I received. After becoming the unintended recipient of a message clearly meant for someone else, I was thinking about the power of words. Language is one of our oldest technologies with symbols and sounds allowing us to communicate thoughts with one another over vast distances. Part of what makes language possible is society generally agrees on how each word is defined, and we subconsciously assume that communication is cooperative. Like many of our technologies, language is neutral, yet it can be used for devastating effects. At its worst, language becomes a means of controlling or wounding others. This story arose from the following questions: How do we know if we are abusing language for our own means? What happens when our sense of cooperation works against us?

- Jeff Gard
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