Sometimes the plague paralyzes instead of killing.
Leila’s mistake had been letting the child into her house. He had been coughing and shivering as he’d delivered her mail. But she had not thought it was the plague.
She’d looked for the feathered discolorations at his temples, of course.
She’d checked his skin, with a single practiced look, for the roughness that it is the wont of the plague to make.
In sum, Leila succumbed to medical arrogance and diagnosed the boy by eye as safe; and succumbed also to pity, and so she let him in, to shiver himself to sleep upon her couch; and in the morning, he was dead, and she hung a black tile and a white tile on her door, in case it so happened that she should die in turn.
But it was not death that found her.
It was a slow, creeping paralysis and, with it, panicky denial. Her body was slower. Her vision was greyer. And she worked late that night, exhausting herself reading and charting the latest data on the L-C serum, and went to bed thinking, “Well, I am sure it is not the plague, but if it is, at least I shall wake up dead.”
But instead when she wakes her body is stiff, cold, nearly unresponsive to her will, and she thinks of the horror of dying over days in frozen stillness and she fumbles her way out of bed to crawl along the floor, to crack open her door and let the mist in from the streets, to croak something incomprehensible, to drag herself in her gray nightgown along the cobblestones in hopes of finding help or, at least, execution. And when the last of her strength leaves her she is not even looking up, but rather laying there, still, face-down, cobblestones pressing above her eyes.
And she can hear them come.
It is only by the rustling of their clothing that she hears them. They do not walk upon the ground, so their footsteps make no noise. They do not speak as they approach, for the speech of humans hurts their throats. They are quiet in the mist, but not deliberately so, and so she hears their clothing shifting as they move.
One of them keens, softly. This is answered by the keening of the others.
A hand reaches down from above. It rolls her over. She looks up into the face of one of the floating people.
He is smiling. He is human, but also not—in a time when every face is seamed with lines of sorrow, he has the clean innocence of a child on an adult human’s face. He is wearing loose gray clothing. His hair is black. And he is squatting on the tendrils of the mist a foot above her chest.
He chirrs to her, a soft question in the floating people’s tongue.
She cannot answer.
The words rough in his throat, he says, “You are broken. I will heal you.”
She wants to laugh. She wants to laugh because it is her own work that has done this; her own labor that has brought this down upon her; but she is scarcely let to breathe, much less to laugh.
So he reaches down from above and he touches her face and his fingers push and pull and move something inside her—as if he were twisting her brain or her soul around from the outside of her head.
Her breath gasps in and out.
She becomes light.
It is like a madness surging through her. It is like the warmth of a summer’s day or a drowsy winter’s fire. It is like the joy of discovery, of solutions, of first love. And it is somewhat like she imagines opium or cocaine to be, a drug that cuts at the foundations of her reason even as it lifts her up.
“Leila,” she says. “I am Leila.”
It is with the greatest effort that she clings to that and does not let the giddy joy sweep it away.
“I am Leila,” she says, and the words hurt her throat.
The paralysis has receded and her body is incredibly light. She lifts herself to her feet with but a thought and makes a soft noise of dismay as she realizes that they no longer touch the ground.
Murmuring, keening, the floating people press themselves around her.
Welcome, they say, with soft inhuman noises. Welcome.
“No,” she says.
She pushes herself free; springs to the upper place, ten feet above them; crouches there on the mist, shivering.
“I am Kern,” says the one who had wakened her. You are upset, he keens. “It is all right. It is not so bad as foot people imagine.”
Foot people, she giggles. Then she shakes her head.
“I know what this is,” she says. “I helped to make your kind.”
Honorable mother, whisper a few voices. It is more light teasing than it is respect. And one, with a soft whistle, asks, But don’t you love us, mother?
The joy of existence beats upon her sense of self once more. The laughter that she, of all people, should find herself in this position, rises up again. She holds herself tightly to keep from dissolving in the good, clean mirth.
“I have to call my husband,” she says.
Sadness, whisper the voices of the floating people. And Kern is up before her and he gently touches her face, wondering, perhaps, if he has done a poor job on making her light; but then he shrugs, and says, “Then go.”
So she stumbles through the air back to her house. She lifts her hand to the open door and goes irrationally still for a moment, seeing the black tile hanging on it; and then she laughs at herself, because the floating people may enter even where there is plague.
She goes in.
She places an international call.
“Christopher,” she says.
Somewhere in the Americas he is rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He is holding up the phone. He is saying, “Hm?”
He does not complain at her waking him, this time, because of the pain within her voice.
“Christopher,” she says. “I am infected.”
And then, overcome by the unfairness of it, she says, “They made me light.”
And she realizes that she is sitting in the air above her desk, the phone cord stretching down, as if she were sitting in her most comfortable chair; and she drags herself awkwardly down to sit upon the desk’s hard wood edges.
The silence on the other end stretches.
Then Christopher says softly, “Oh, my love.”
“We can fix it,” she says.
“I remember,” he says, “that Derek was reluctant to build the sense of joy and purpose into the floating people.”
She can touch that joy and purpose, inside her, like a person with a broken tooth can touch it with their tongue.
“He said that it would be better to let them realize that they are dead; that the plague inexorable eliminates the chemical basis for their humanity; that they are a garbage collection scheme for us, to get the corpses from the streets.”
“Oh,” she says.
Despite the fierceness of her clinging to her sense of self, she had let herself forget the reasons she should do so.
“But we thought—I and my wife—that it was better that they had an illusion.”
He is crying. It is the choice, however deliberate, to divide the person speaking to him from his wife that has broken him down.
She interrupts: “We can fix it. We—I know we’ve had other priorities, but we can fix it. I’m not gone, Christopher.”
And he says, “I will believe you if you tell me again that that is true.”
She feels so incredibly light. She feels so much joy. It is as if the plague-ridden world is Heaven and all the things of it her toys.
She tells herself again how important it is to remain herself. To cling to herself. To remain human.
It is one of those distant senses of importance, like that of a child who likes the sinuous music of a pornography channel but knows that something about it is apparently forbidden; like that of an apathet who knows that they really should engage in social activism someday; like that of anyone who feels that they really shouldn’t be enjoying the crunchy fried grasshopper, sex, bad movie, or trashy book that they are currently enjoying.
“I—” she says.
She keens, I feel so light.
“If you need anything,” he says. “If you ever need anything. Even though you’re dead. You can call.”
It is ridiculous to imagine that she should need something.
“Thank you,” he says, “for saying goodbye.”
And he fumbles the phone onto its hook and she is listening to the deadness of the line as if it were his tears.
So she floats from the desk and walks the moping walk along the air and she looks down at the corpse of the boy, which has aged enough to smell most wonderfully of death. And there are insects in him but more than that she sees that there is something wrong.
He is broken, the boy.
He is in pain.
His life— perhaps, his life. Perhaps his death—
Something has broken him.
So she takes him outside. He is astonishingly heavy, dozens of times heavier than her clothing at least.
She lays him out on the ground.
The others are there. She knows why. She helped build their kind, and she knows there is a reflex to tend to new members of the flock. But she ignores them.
She whispers to the boy, whose name she doesn’t even know, “I will fix you.”
She moves her hands upon his face and cleans away the darkness in his soul. She soothes the wounds that life had brought to him and she makes him light.
The boy is dead.
He is dead still.
So when the lightness takes him, he does not join the floating people.
Instead he lifts, lifts, lifts, into the sky; and if the birds did not find him and devour him, then he is rising still.
It’s so good! she says.
The others smile with her.
There is a time of silence, and then—
Did you really help make us? Kern asks.
Life is too hard, Leila says. The plague has taken so much from us. We could not care for the bodies of our dead.
And he laughs, and she laughs, because it is such a strange and funny image—
The Earth under its veil of mist and scattered with the plague-dead.