The Disease

In the town there is a disease that makes ordinary people commit horrific acts of violence. At first, authorities believed we were witnessing the emergence of a new serial killer on the scene: a 16-year-old girl found bound and suffocated in an alley behind the corner store; the elderly women behind the counter of the jewelry store with her brains bashed out. The newspapers, compelled by journalistic integrity, needed us to know they meant it literally -- her brains really had spilled across the floor, looking very much like a sponge the dog got to. We were glad for the truth. In times like these it makes all the difference to know someone is brave enough to tell you how it is.

By the second week of February anyone with any sense could tell you something was wrong. After the litter of puppies, the suicide by lye, and the suicide by shotgun, three people were found slashed to death in the dumpster beside the park. They were an eight-year-old girl, her mother, and her father. The police were baffled. Newspapers predicted the poor man who first came across their heads tucked under a bench in a white plastic bag would never be the same. As usual, they were right: an off-duty officer witnessed him attempting to set fire to the orphanage not two days later, and ultimately shot him in the chest three times. COP SHOOTS CRAZED HEADHUNTER THREE TIMES, one headline read. We know what they meant.

In editorials journalists sought to make the proper connections: the man had killed the family himself, which was why he called the crime in -- to avoid suspicion. Most likely he had killed the 16-year-old and the old woman as well, and though the details varied between crimes -- murder weapon, age/gender of victim -- the pattern of brutality was the same. Or, as one editorial put it, CASE CLOSED.

By the first of March the killings totaled 37. The mild sense of relief that had taken over the streets a few weeks early had been replaced by palpable fear, like a humidity that left many town residents losing sl e ep as they sweated through their sheets. What was going on? We demanded to know. A town meeting was called and the humidity became a storm: "It is the immigrants!" one mother shouted over the pale-faced mayor, while the Mexicans in the back threw dead stares at her from their white eyes. One man told anyone who would listen about a strange light in the sky, and a low-flying plane he saw back in January. "They are experimenting on us!" he concluded. "They have sprayed us with chemicals recovered fro m the terrorists!" He began passing out gas masks into dozens of reaching hands. The mayor, who had soundly won the last three elections in what the papers called a landslide, implored us: "Please remain calm! Authorities are working round the clock--" No one knows who threw the bottle, but when the mayor went down with blood on his head it was like a switch went off. Several groups spontaneously broke off into fights as men wrestled and threw chairs while women either grabbed their children, or grabbed a chair. The mother who blamed the immigrants had clung piggy-back to a squat Mexican man, pulling his hair until he slammed her backwards into the wall. There were shouts and the sound of children crying when the riot squad let loose the tear gas and hoses on the crowd. The next morning no arrests were reported, though the papers all informed us that after the gas was gone there were 12 dead -- including one infant -- amongst the wet splinters and shards of glass that littered the floor.

After that time passed differently. Less and less people were willing to risk going to work. Public timepieces, like the digital signs at the bus stop or the old clocktower in town square, were increasingly inaccurate. Those who did go outside found the experience of empty streets unbearable; worse still when they spotted someone else hurrying down the block in the distance. Were they a friend, or had they too gone mad? Most residents left the house only for food and news; in fact the papers were the only business that managed to keep its staff from abandoning their duties. It was simply a case of ordinary men and women becoming heroes, not because they sought glory, but because their professional integrity compelled them to serve a public who needed them desperately. They did not fail us: with the collapse of the local government, we had only the papers to let us know that the death count was estimated at 90, 160, 300...

Locked in our houses, with the windows taped and locked as per the journalists' advice, and the shades drawn and the bookshelves and other furniture piled high behind all the front doors and back, we daily committed our only act of bravery: to slip out, to scavenge amongst the torn-up grocery stores and supermarket, grab a paper and fly back t o safety. It is difficult to imagine this kind of living. Perhaps if we were born in another place, with less privileges, we might be able to make comparisons to life during wartime, or famine, or after a catastrophe. Perhaps if we were not from a nation of such luxury, such comfort, we would not need to be so brave. As Americans we needed to be brave. We needed to keep hope alive. Locked in our houses, alone or with our loved ones, we talked quietly of things to come: when Washington would he lp us, when the troops might arrive, what we loved best about our past lives. Slowly time carried us from one day to the next, and the papers kept piling up, and the nights grew longer. Soon winter would be here, but we did our best to put it out of min ds. The newspapers assured us help was on the way as the death toll kept increasing -- probably those who, once outside, were not so lucky as us. In a way, patterns made life bearable; until the day the papers informed us their medical experts had disco vered the truth: that what had taken our town was a disease that makes ordinary people commit horrific acts of violence. Editorials rushed to sketch the implications: NO ONE was safe; not with your family, your friends, your wife, your husband, your children. If they contracted the disease -- experts were still working to understand how it was spread -- it would be your brains smashed on the floor; and one thing the experts were sure of was: there would be no warning.

"For the sake of your children," they implored, "for the sake of your loved ones, we are compelled to ask that you: 1) SEPARATE; 2) ISOLATE; 3) PRAY that we will all be delivered from this nightmare soon. Remember to always stay indoors except when absolutely necessary. We are committed to bringing you up-to-date information as it becomes available, to keep you and yours safe. Please stand by."


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