The Illness - Short Fiction - Nat Lurie '23
Edgar Meyers, a relatively normal gentleman with a gray, forgettable face, had never loved anything in his life, but now he’d become scared it was finally about to happen to him. He had noticed the symptoms not long ago, when he was making his way down Corridor B-47 towards the best waste compactor on his level. There was a line; Compactor 1.82 was immensely popular among those intelligent enough to notice how well it fed in each trash bag, only the lowest of simpletons seem to ignore the obvious and allow themselves to use something like Compactor 1.89 that had a habit of spitting out little filaments of your recently shredded garbage onto your lower legs from its exhaust vent. So Edgar would rather stand patiently for a little while.
Sometimes he did wonder why everyone seemed to need Compactor 1.82 precisely at the same moment; there is no scheduled waste removal in Community A1114, in fact there was no scheduled anything in Community A1114 or any other A-1 Community for that matter, yet still he found himself pacing behind a crowd of punctual souls, all in need of an empty waste bin.
The reason nothing was done at any specific time or in any specific repetition was because increments used to measure time had waned in popularity until they had faded from use altogether. It had become somewhat of an unorthodox taboo to use time measurement, like an unspoken law created by the masses (one could consider it an impressive display of collective democracy). There were still universal words whose continued use was accepted under the necessity of some timely organization. For instance, Edgar tended to like to wake up early and enter his workplace at Station A-28 a bit later than that and then return home to Unit B-3.476 quite a bit later than that. It had been made sure that earlier and later never developed exact increments associated with them, ensuring their continued allowance and societal acceptance. This system was safe to use, reliable in its simplicity and how ordinary it was. It didn’t arouse suspicion to claim you had an obligation to be on Level B at Station C-34 sometime later; however, it would be universally unusual to orient the appointment in the afternoon, or heaven forbid with numerical indicators. Time does not correspond to such things like location does. Location is static and perpetual in a sense, as it lasts much longer than anything else ever does, but time, while it keeps going on and on and on and somehow doesn't collapse, ends for each individual being in an unpredictable fashion at an unpredictable moment not worth denoting because there wouldn’t be anyone left to remember it soon, as soon is when time would end for all of those folks as well. So why bother.
Therefore, with the preservation of sanity in mind, loving a thing is just as dangerous as keeping track of it.
And that is why it terrified Edgar to identify the indicators of affection as he approached the end of the queue to Compactor 1.82. Love, as it is so perilous, is taught all in the context of purely avoiding it. Naturally each learns about the things that they should fear so as to keep a respectable distance from them when they happen to arise. So noting the symptoms of any sort of attachment is vital to one’s stability and longevity.
The indicators of love were placed on a scale of severity known as the Exponential Compassionate Cranial Response Scale, or the ECCR, as many had come to know it. It functioned as many medical prognoses were developed, starting first with personally diagnosable symptoms that were quite common and likely could be attributed to many other indicative ailments, and then progressed to symptoms much more unique to the condition of affection, whose identification would often lead the subject experiencing the symptoms to seek professional assistance in treating their growing condition before it metastasized and became uncontrollable. (At that stage one would have to be quarantined to prevent the spread of the affection, as one of the unique aspects of the love ailment was the overwhelming need to infect others with it as well.)
It was those first, minor indicators that Edgar found himself experiencing as he busied his mind observing the passing occupants of Corridor B-47. Many of them were simply headed to where he already was, Edgar noted, as the majority carried under an arm or held out in front of them the portable plastic garbage receptacles found in each personal unit. The paths these individuals took were nearly step for step, as they all looped around and filed in behind the growing line of trash-carrying members.
Those passersby with an alternative purpose than to add to the growing number of Compactor 1.82’s already numerous eager applicants were those who captured Edgar’s attention more astutely. A group of feminine persons in identical stride briskly rounded the far curve of the Corridor, elbows locked together as they passed other less motivated walkers almost as a singular being. Edgar passively wondered where they were so punctually off to as the concubine proceeded around the opposite bend. A few moments behind them trailed a fellow toting a rather heavy looking satchel that he swung from shoulder to shoulder at least once during the duration of his trek down the Corridor and off into an adjoining Station. It took some fumbling for him to position the satchel along his back in such a way that it allowed him to bend over and let the Station Precursory System (every Station had one of these, known as an SPS) scan his left eyeball before granting him entry. The bag kept shifting towards the opposite side of his body that he wished it to rest on, even falling forward down his shoulder blades a smidgen before he frustratedly righted himself and flung the stachel to the ground before comfortably presenting his face once more to the SPS.
Each of these intriguing travelers making their way past Edgar’s line of sight were simply welcome entertainment as he took each step incrementally closer to the front of the line, and that was all their purpose should have been. That was all Edgar sought from watching their movements and their mishaps, as did many others in close proximity to him in the line, Edgar assumed. It was natural to inspect others, laugh at them when appropriate, wince when inclined to, tut-tut when necessary. When the man with the bloated satchel had flushed with comical anger as he struggled to present his face to the SPS, Edgar had chuckled; he had heard those around him do so as well, there was no shame in being human.
What was not natural, irrevocably so, was the diseased reaction Edgar felt himself manifesting as a final pair of persons rounded the far corner and made their way down the Corridor past the Compactor 1.82 queue. His first warning sign was the mere interest Edgar exhibited towards them. There was nothing emphatically unusual about the way they made their way, nor their appearances, nor even their destination. One of them carried the regulation white plastic trash receptacle in two hands out in front of them, clearly indicating their intention to file in behind the rest of them. Yet Edgar found his head swiveling upon his neck to track their path as they passed him by.
Perhaps it was the slightly original manner with which these two people were associated. Among them, there was only one echo of footsteps, as only one of them was walking. This person, an unusually tall woman with a long face and even longer auburn hair, was the one lugging the garbage bin. The second person, a rather small one, Edgar noted, was seated atop the lid of the receptacle, jolting in tandem with each step the larger person took. Edgar could tell that the woman was straining slightly under the load of the trash and the little one, but there was still a taut smile plastered on her face as if to serve as an indignant precipitator of happiness, as though the person was showing off their merriment, persistent even in the face of aching muscles, to each of the woefully indifferent waiters already in line. Edgar considered himself one of these, perhaps in an unconscious, naive attempt to smother his brain into submission, even as it was captivated.
The little person had his pudgy, diminutive limbs dangling off of the lid where his rump rested, swinging back and forth, back and forth, as his plump fingers clutched the rim of the lid in order to keep himself steady as the combined momentum of his swaying feet and the sway of his seat as the woman continued along made him waver.
It was upon this little boy that Edgar fixated, though for what reason he could not fathom. There were many young children to be found wandering amiably around Community A1114, representing a small subset of ages from infancy to early adolescence. Edgar supposed those in infancy would not be wandering amiably, especially on their lonesome, rather they would be carted around and displayed by their parents, but the concept remained the same: childhood was not a rarity among humanity. In fact, it represented yet another acceptable measure of time observable in the long term. Of course, the literal age of these young ones was not actually kept record of; that would be utterly intolerable, yet the gradual development of a child was trackable, at least, to a keen eye. It was impossible to ignore the biological patterns such development followed, thus it was impossible to ignore the obvious association it bore with the passage of time. Edgar found that it was especially useful for the adult members of Community A1114, whose own development had slowed and ceased quite a while ago, leaving them with no way to personally gauge their own longevity. Children were useful benchmarks in that respect.
And previously that was the sole context with which Edgar had perceived children. He had a neighbor, three units down, who had mothered a child some time ago. Edgar had been present alongside her partner when she returned home from the Birthing Station to welcome the new life and assist in the maintenance of their unit while the infant was in its swaddling stage. For a while he had carried both his trash and theirs to Compactor 1.82; it was only the neighborly thing to do, and once the child had matured enough to make trouble of its own, in their gratitude the couple had granted Edgar the privilege of visiting the young thing every so often. Eventually, their boy grew taller than Edgar was, and that was a source of pride both for him and the couple. Pride for them that they had done their duty as parents, and pride for Edgar that he had been granted the luck to meander on as long as the kid had been breathing.
Then the kid had died and the couple moved away to Community A1125 and Edgar got on with his life.
You see, it was not an uncommon occurrence for a young person to find themselves existing only temporarily. It was the young and the old who were the most susceptible to disease, so there weren’t many expectations held too closely. It had been quite a long time since Edgar had seen a very old person; they had all been shriveled one by one in quick succession a while ago before the Communities were even established. Edgar remembered crowding around a hospital bed much too large for the creature inside, watching the dehydrated wafer of flesh shudder up and down and lay still. Such expirations had served as the incentive needed for people to finally acknowledge that congregating in the industrial cavernous hives of human storage that the Communities so often seemed to be was the most sanitary and logical option. It was objectively safer within them, where the insidious wisps of illness that poisoned the open world had fewer tendrils.
Of course, it still managed to creep inside and take hold, and that was where the children found themselves at risk. Young bodies born within the Communities had never been polluted before, thus their tolerance for such toxins was hopelessly low. As a result, society had been broken into two facets: a populous rabble of the middle aged, schlepping their way from waking to sleeping in prescribed numbness; and the fragile youngsters, unaware of their inevitable evolution, either into anthropoidal ash, or—in the rarest cases—yet another member of the rabble once the threshold of adulthood was cleared and the vulnerability of childhood toughened with grime. One of these would be the fate of the little boy riding atop the garbage receptacle.
Edgar was well aware of the futility in speculating about this child, even more so of the danger of granting him an oversized portion of his awareness, but to his horror, Edgar found himself unable to stop it. As the woman and the little boy passed him by, Edgar craned his neck to watch them. They were moving slowly, slowly enough to transform Edgar’s innocent spectating into the rudeness of staring. Edgar felt his cheeks warm in shame, yet his eyes remained glued to the bumbling body of the little boy.
And he was not the only one to pick up on this shift. Just as the pair meandered past the point where Edgar would need to turn not only his head but his entire body to continue tracking their progress, the wide, watery eyes of the kid snapped to Edgar’s. His gaze was frighteningly potent; it transversed the cavity of the Corridor separating the two of them and pinched Edgar’s eyes open. No matter how hard he strained to turn away he was locked. It was as though their irises were physically touching, pupil to pupil in a wide-eyed, sickeningly personal connection.
It was the little boy who blinked first. Nothing more than a haphazard flutter of the eyelids, but it severed their intimate interaction so severely that Edgar felt his consciousness rocket back into his own head with such force it pounded against the back of his skull and bounced around the orb of his brain as it lost momentum. It did so in a rhythm, pulsing at his temples like a heartbeat and filling his ears. This was, in fact, the heavy patter of Edgar’s heart, but how was he to know, he simply stood there in whiplashed shock, blinking at empty air.
From behind Edgar there came a loud cough as the man impatiently hauling his garbage through the line noticed the person in front of him had yet to take a step forward in what had become too long of a time. The man had been gracious enough to keep to himself when he noticed the people in front of Edgar had made their way a few folks forward without eliciting movement from Edgar himself, but as the front of the line gaped gradually further and further away, he had exhausted his patience.
Edgar heard the cough and had little time to prepare before the man patted his shoulder slightly. He didn’t need to turn much around to face the person behind him, having already been twisted halfway around himself to watch the woman and the little boy.
Edgar nodded to the man, who returned a slightly confused frown.
“Ought you to move a bit forward?” he said. “It’s nearly your turn at the Compactor and we’re still an even twenty yards away, wouldn’t you say?” He tapped the ball of his foot up and down and resisted the urge to roll his eyes as Edgar looked back up the front of the line and turned back to him, face taut.
“Oh, yes, I think you’re right,” Edgar mumbled. He hefted his trash up in his arms and ashamedly paced across the gap between him and the remaining few people in line before him. A collective sigh of impatient relief rose from the queue as Edgar led them onward finally.
Edgar made sure to keep his eyes on the floor as he shuffled up to the Compactor, dumped his garbage, and began the journey back down the Corridor. Thankfully his unit was further north in Community A1114, the same direction the line was facing, thereby saving him the crippling embarrassment of having to walk back down past the irritated line of trash carrying individuals. He wouldn't have blamed them if, had he been forced to do so, they pelted him with their garbage as acceptable punishment for having stalled the use of Compactor 1.82 for each and every one of them. Time wasn’t kept track of in the Communities, but nevertheless precious enough one wouldn’t dare to waste it.
This was another symptom, Edgar realized with a seize of fright as he made his way back home. Careless disregard for societal structures leading inevitably to stifling embarrassment. That was what the ailment did, it made you forget yourself in the worst way possible. And Edgar had done just that, made a fool of himself in front of the neighborly types who had previously respected him, of whom all had now seen him lose his grasp of himself over a pudgy, ruddy cheeked child barely past the toddler stage, seated atop the lid of a garbage can.
And yet he had this power over Edgar. It shouldn’t be so, Edgar knew, but the little boy had him raptured completely. There had been similar cases in the past, epidemics that spread with chilling speed, all traced back to small children, the infamous patient zero who infected a sector of the Community without even showing symptoms. Transmission was possible that way, from asymptomatic objects of affection to the one loving them. Emotion worked in inverses that way, with the receiver of the affectionate symptoms manifested by the infected being not in and of themselves sick, while the afflicted received nothing of the sort in return. Yet it could also work in tandem with such displays of contagious love, that was another reason it was so viral, it mutated from person to person.
And children carried one of the most potent and deadly variants. They seemed to be immune themselves, but they marched around like walking petri dishes, wafting spores into unsuspecting adults. That was what Edgar found himself victim to.
He was close to tears as he leaned down in front of the SPS associated with his personal unit; it could hardly read his retinas. He wiped his eyes furiously and hustled inside before he could allow himself to break down in full view of the hallway. It seemed terribly cruel to have fallen ill, him of all people, and in such a passing interaction. The boy would likely die of disease in a short while, or age out of the mysterious inoculation all children had against love to become just another host for it. It didn’t matter at all, nothing was left to care about; that’s what was taught at least, that’s what allowed the human body to treat affection as another sickness, when unanimously it was decided that nothing was worth the trouble anymore.
As always, Edgar recalled, with illness came the attempted resistance of it, a resistance that had been painfully ineffective in the case of love even as time had passed and passed and passed. The only reasonably reliable treatment wasn’t even for oneself, it was a tactic of prevention requiring a certain selflessness only found within those who contracted the very thing they gave themselves up to prevent. That was what Edgar realized he ought to do the next morning. He should turn himself into the Quarantine Station before he dared to let his neighbors suffer as he had. He knew it would likely seal his fate, for whatever else his miserable life was to be, they would keep him comfortably isolated until he rotted. For everything in the world, even terminal illness, seemed impermanent. All except for the ailment of love, and that was the unfairness of it all.