A Case of the Blues

By E. Lillith McDermott

Subway platforms always make me claustrophobic. Don’t know if it’s the being underground, the heat, or the people. Maybe all three.

Clint’s glaring at me. “Martin, stop it! You’re gonna pop a button.”

I look down, confused. My fingers have a mind of their own, twitching up and down my lapel. Damn starch. Years it’s been in my closet and this suit’s still stiff. Clint’s right, a lost button’s just one more thing to worry about. I push my hands into my pockets. Look up at Clint. He nods, approval. Patronizing.

“So Yolanda said you had to interview today, huh?” He knows this of course, just trying to make me talk. Get out of my own head. Probably not a bad idea.

I answer. “Just to keep up my disability.”

Again Clint nods, like he understands. He doesn’t. He’s one of the few of us not getting Federal Aid. Stop – Clint’s the only friend you’ve got. Quit being a dick. After all, the rules and regs of G.O.D. welfare aren’t his fault.

I need to talk. “I don’t know why these case workers insist on making us run this gauntlet of humiliation.” I let my eyes drift across the empty tracks, land on the graffitied-over station sign. I like the new name better – Blue Barrio. Better fit. “It’s not like I’m gonna get hired.”

“I did.” Clint’s voice is small. This is well-worn territory.

“Sort of.” I gesture toward his coveralls and I.D. badge. “But you’re a teacher, not a… Recycling Technician.” Glorified garbage man.

“And I’ll teach again.” As always Clint’s nothing but confident.

“You really believe they’ll open schools for us.” Not a question. Not any more. Clint’s a true believer–his face hardens. He believes, I don’t.

“Of course they will. Every day more kids are born with the Blues. They’re gonna need some schools, and soon. Special schools, just for us. Like the housing.” He nods across the tracks – toward the name of our state sanctioned ghetto. He’s right, of course. Got to keep the infected out of the general population. Schools, hospitals–a whole separate world is slowly materializing.

The 9 train rattles to a stop and the doors swoosh open. A clean-cut young man, maybe about my age, in green scrubs pushes past. He smells strongly of hospital and disinfectant. The smell overwhelms me, and suddenly it’s 6 years ago, in Dr. Polson’s office.

I was back in my clothes, sitting on the crinkly white paper–waiting. My mom was in a chair by the door and my dad couldn’t stop pacing. Dr. Polson had given the diagnosis with about as much feeling as if he’d been
reading a weather report. Glaucous Otteric Deficiency syndrome.

“What happens now?” I asked his shoes.

My mother sobbed.

Polson cleared his throat. “Well, the disease is still new. We’re learning things every day. For now, what you need to know is we don’t believe it’s fatal. This isn’t AIDS2, no matter what the Internet is saying. You’ll probably suffer some hearing loss, which seems to be pretty universal. But other than that, well, the obvious is the pigment change.”

“How long?” I was shocked numb, no feeling, just questions.

“Depends.” The doctor focused on me, ignoring my mom’s increased hysterics. “But given how pale your coloring is, my best guess is you’ll see it pretty fast.”

“What about law school? I just started.” I needed answers.

“No reason you can’t finish, but in all honesty Martin, you should be prepared, you’ll have a full blown case before you graduate.” My mom sobbed, bolted from the room. After a long glare, my dad followed. That glare still burns, even all these years later.

Clint moves forward, stepping onto the train first. I let him. My heart races and my stomach threatens revolt. I’d like to say the first reactions are the worst, but that’d be a lie. They’re all just various degrees of horrible. Clint never gets quite the reactions I do. Not with his ebony skin. He’d probably have been able to go right along in the outside world if the whites of his eyes hadn’t finally given him away. They always do. The last to go. The final straw. But at least he’d had a few more years. Not like me. All Nordic paleness. No more healthy melanin left in my cells.

I take a deep breath. I have a right to get on this train. One foot in front of the next. The reaction is instant. Audible intakes of breath. Nervous movements. The old lady next to the door tries to make her shifting look natural – but I know. They can’t take their eyes off of me. They barely notice Clint. He blends. Not me. If I meet their eyes, they look away. But they can’t look away for long. Curiosity – morbid curiosity. Like driving by wreckage on the interstate. That’s me–road kill blues.

I pretend to look out the window. Let them stare. I watch them in the reflected glass. Try not to see myself. But I can’t help it. I’d stare too, if I were them. My once blond hair is now a dull gray. The disease has eaten up my ivory skin and replaced it with the pale blue seen throughout the Barrio. But it’s my eyes that really freak people out. Once I had the most perfect crystal eyes, little oceans. Only now, the ocean fills my entire socket. Like some possessed sea monster.

The man next to me shifts and re-shifts. Folds and unfolds his paper. But he won’t move. That would be discriminatory – and he’s not that sort of man. I bet if I started coughing he’d run.

I bet they’d all run.

How many times a month did I read new rumors about G.O.D. turning airborn? Clint smiles, finishes winding his watch. That’s his thing, says it gives folks a chance to take him in, calm down. He nods at the uncomfortable man to my right. Just like Clint to appreciate even the most half-assed efforts. The train pulls into the next station. Uncomfortable Man is already on his feet. Wonder if this is actually his stop?

He steps out the door and is immediately replaced by a 20-something woman with dirty blond dreadlocks. She scans the car, sees us – lights up. She pushes her way into our little demilitarized zone and drops into a seat, enveloping me in a cloud of patchouli. “You from the Blue Barrio?” she asks way too loudly. She wants to be noticed. She keeps looking around, demanding attention.

“That’s right.” Clint answers. Calm, you’d think he had conversations with uninfected women all the time.

She nods, smiles encouragingly. “I’m a member of the Glaucous Defense league at my university.” Am I supposed to be proud of her? Clint smiles. “We’ve staged a bunch of protests to make people realize that you’re people too!” Once again, she looks around. Bile stings the back of my throat. “Your human rights are being violated!” She just keeps talking. “We’re pushing for legislation. We’re gonna get you protected status.” Protected status. Like a spotted owl? A manatee?

“So what’s it like in the Barrio?” She leans forward, curious. No pause for an answer – not that curious. “I’ve heard conditions are pretty bad. We’re gonna change all that, you know.” She shifts and her backpack knocks Uncomfortable Man’s discarded newspaper to the ground. She grabs at it. “Oh!” She disappears behind the gray pages. A pause. “Look at this!” she commands, pointing to a page. My eyes follow.

Splashed across the front page is an oversized photo of a nondescript ranch-style house surrounded by emergency vehicles. 15 Dead in Blue Cult Mass Suicide. Again, bile. “I know.” The Good Samaritan commiserates, shaking her head. The dreds shake out another cloud of patchouli. My nose tickles. If I sneeze, will she leave? She scans the article. “So disgusting.” Is she still talking to us? I try to ignore her.

“These cults just keep popping up. I mean, come on. The Chosen People? Do you feel like the chosen ones?” She glances between Clint and me. I stay still. Clint shakes his head. I want to kick him. “It’s all because of the name you know.” She turns back to the paper. “Blue bug chasers – too sick.” New term: Blue bug chasers. Haven’t heard that one yet. “Totally muddies the issue.” I wish she’d be quiet. “Accidents happen, but come on! The first thing anyone in the Defense League does is swear to practice the safest sex possible and to get tested after every encounter. I mean the last thing any of us want is to be an example of irresponsibility and get infected.”

She looks up, conversationally. I raise my eyebrows – can’t resist. Red begins to color her cheeks. I hold my face still – but I want to laugh. “Uh…not to say you were acting irresponsibly…I mean…accidents happen…right?” Her blush grows. The train comes to a stop. She looks around, her eyes wild. “Oh, this is… I gotta go.” She bolts. We rattle on. The next stop is fast approaching, my stomach tightens.

“You gonna be okay?” Clint’s worried. I nod. I smile. I lie.

“Uh, thanks. For coming this far. I know the work bus would’ve been easier.” He doesn’t pretend – I’m glad. Just nods and takes off toward his transfer. I slide across the empty seats, putting the mechanic’s closet against my shoulder. I become tiny – inconspicuous. Commuters pile into the car, but not around me. I have my own little pocket of space. I catch a man stealing a glance. We lurch to another stop. One…two…three…four…not many more stops left.

A young mother drags her son onto the car. Her head is bent over her huge purse and she’s fiddling with a cell. She looks up, scans the crowd and pushes her boy toward my open seats. She gestures her son into a seat and then returns to her bag and phone. I push up against the metal of the wall; feel the cold through my blazer.

The boy looks at me. “What’s wrong with you?” I’m not sure what to say, how to respond. I glance over at his mom. She’s still busy – distracted. How will she react? Should I answer? “Well?” The boy presses. He’s young, no more than 7 or 8, maybe younger. Mixed race, adopted? I can’t tell. Definitely darker than his mother, by about 10 shades.

“I caught a virus,” I whisper, try not to be overheard.

“A virus?”

“Like a cold, only instead of making me sneeze, it made me blue.” Again I glance at his mother. Still busy.

“Cool!” The boy smiles and nods.

“You think this is cool?”

“Totally. You look like an alien…or…oh!” His face lights up and he begins to dig in the backpack at this feet. I look past his bent head, but his mom is busy pushing buttons on her phone. The boy pops back up. He holds up a comic book – well worn. He taps the cover. I look. A bright blue man is frozen in a mid-karate kick.

“Who’s that?” I whisper. I can feel more and more eyes turning to our conversation. My stomach tightens and my pulse quickens.

“Only the best crime fighter ever!” Apparently that was supposed to be obvious. “He’s part of this group of mutants that work together to fight evil. They have all sorts of cool powers.” He pauses, his eyes narrow. “Do you have any powers?”

I want to laugh. But his face is so hopeful. I shake my head. His face droops. “At least, not that I know of.” I feel myself smile. Foreign. I shouldn’t be talking to this kid – his mom’s gonna freak.

The boy looks thoughtful, eyes me up and down. “Maybe you’ll get powers. Or maybe,” his eyes sparkle. “Maybe you’re actually an alien.”

I shake my head. “Sorry, no.”

“Maybe you don’t know it. Like a sleeper agent. And then, when the ships land, you’ll wake up or something.” His smile is contagious.

“Maybe.” I shrug.

He keeps talking; his words rush out tripping over each other. “Or what if you’ve been secretly infected by another race of aliens who are trying to protect earth and when the invasion happens, you’ll like turn into some sort of super man and–”

“Joshua, stop bother–” His mother’s mouth hangs opens, her words dead on her lips. She stares at me.

My heart thumps…

Babump…

Babump…

Her face contorts. Panic wars with decorum. She glances around the car. Those nearest go quiet. The train stops. In a flurry of movement she collects their belongings. “Come on Joshua, this is our stop.”

He pulls at her arm. “But Mom–”

“Josh, quiet,” she hisses – teeth clenched. I meet his eyes, nod – one small head bob. They are gone. I wish I was Joshua’s superhero. Then I’d have the power to…

The next stop comes up fast. The ride gets worse. Two punks slip through the doors at the last second. And they’re…blue. Not blue like me, Clint. But really blue. Blue and proud.

The girl’s – amazing. I can’t stop looking. I barely notice him. She’s not remarkable in height or beauty, but she’s so…out. Her hair, it should be gray, but its not. She’d dyed it neon blue. So bright it makes my eyes water. Her clothes- blue, black and purple. Purple lips and midnight eyelids. Even her nails are blue. No shame – she looks around the car meeting eyes and making them look away.

Only now do I even look at him. What she lacks in height he makes up. Sweat beads on my neck. He’s shaved his hair into a Mohawk, bleached white. Torn jeans, lug-soled boots. Metal clinks on his worn leather jacket.

They see me. His face doesn’t move, but she lights up. She walks like she wants people to watch – they do. She drops into the seat next to me, lithe. She leans toward me, too close. My breath catches. She smells like vanilla, and cinnamon. Her companion turns his back on me, scanning the commuters. Like a recon scout. I can’t believe my eyes. The back of his jacket has been spray painted “Beware the GODs”

Blue Girl reaches up and runs a finger through my hair, over my ear. A trail of goose bumps follow her touch. My stomach turns inside out. “Where you going?” she whispers – still too close.

“Yeah.” Her companion turns back, leans over me. “That’s a nice suit.” He smiles. Still scary. Are they being friendly, or making fun?

“Yes.” She runs her finger under my collar. “It is a nice suit, but it doesn’t suit you, does it?” A smile plays around her lips. Full, perfectly painted lips.

She smiles.

I sweat.

I’ve never looked at a blue girl like this before. I want to know more. Her name. Her life. Blue Guy clears his throat. A business-sized card has materialized in his hand. On autopilot, I reach up, take it. “In case you’re curious.” He winks.

“You should call us,” she whispers, her fingers once again play with my hair. “You have questions.”

Blue Guy leans closer, whispering. The car’s completely still, no way he won’t be heard. “We have answers. The world’s changing.”

The train lurches to a stop. My bubble pops. “Excuse me.” I push away. Stand. “This is my stop.” They both smirk. My heart’s beating too hard. I’m surprised it doesn’t echo down the train. I walk to the doors.

“Call me!” Blue Girl yells and the doors hiss shut.

I see the sidelong glances. The double takes, the sudden shifts in movements – but I can ignore them. I can’t get the blue punks out of my head. The card in my pocket is insistent – demanding.

I reach my address. A shiny monument to man’s conquest over nature. I enter the lobby. More looks. Walk toward the elevators. Blue girl walked like she owned the world. I don’t. I need the 7th floor, no sense in walking. The elevator dings open. I enter. Not surprisingly I have a private ride. First floor…second…third. It stops.

The doors open. An overweight man with a pink face does a double take. Glances up and down the hall. No one comes to save him. Steps deliberately onto the elevator. He doesn’t look at me. Later, will he tell his friends of his close encounter and how he barely survived?

Sweat is beading up on his forehead. I feel wicked. I’d like to shout, “Boo!” He’d have a heart attack. I feel a laugh erupting. I squeeze my lips tight. The door opens, floor 6. He gets off. I let go. He hears my laugh. I can tell. The doors close between us.

Floor 7. Showtime. I open the firm’s big glass doors and march purposefully toward the receptionist. She
looks up. Drops her plastic smile. “I have a 9 am with Ms. Peterson.”

Silence.

The smile returns – forced. “Of course, and your name?”

“Martin Dover.”

“Just have a seat and I’ll let her know you’re here.” Wonder how long I’ll have to wait? How long should I wait? Yolanda should be more specific in her requirements. I pick a seat directly facing the large glass doors. Perhaps that will hurry this along.

“Martin Dover?” Crisp, direct. I stand. The severe woman doesn’t flinch. Did the receptionist warn her?

“Ms. Peterson?” I step forward.

She spins on one sharp heel. “Let’s head over to my office, why don’t we?” She gestures me forward. I follow her down a hall into a room full of cubicles and chatter. I walk past the first row of cubicles and slowly the noise dies. Like ripples echoing from a stone in a pond. I focus my eyes on Ms. Peterson’s slate gray jacket.

Her glass-walled office sits on the far side of the cubicle bay. I have no doubt her mere presence behind that glass goes a long way to keep behavior in check. “Please shut the door behind you, Mr. Dover.” I do as ordered. She sits with admirable posture. My chair is stiff, almost painful. Her tiny brown eyes inspect me, top to bottom. She flips open a file on her desk, but never takes her eyes off me. “Interesting resume Mr. Dover. Impressive school credentials, but then absolutely no job experience. Nothing at all. Not just in Law, nothing. Should I assume you’ve been spending your time doing…” She gestures toward all of me.

No beating around the bush for Ms. Peterson. Honesty. I tell the truth. “Pretty much. That’s why I’m applying for the internship program. I wouldn’t be qualified for anything else.”

She raises an eyebrow but skips no beats. “True. Of course our internship program usually applies to more recent law school graduates.”

“Once again, my extenuating circumstances.”

“Yes, that.” Her eyebrows crease. “You failed to mention your infection status on your application.”

Shock. No one’s ever been this direct. My brain buzzes. Blank. Yolanda’s voice from far off coaching sessions fills my mouth with words. “I wasn’t aware that I was required to disclose my health status.”

Her face is a mask of calm. But I’ve touched a nerve. Her fingers twitch on the desk and her eyes flash. “That’s in some debate, now isn’t it?” Her voice is ice.

My chest tightens. I sit up straighter. “You do advertise as an equal opportunity employer.” Are these my words? From my mouth? We sit across the table, our own little standoff.

Beep!

We both jump. Ms. Peterson hits a button on her phone. The receptionist’s perky voice fills the room. “Ms. Peterson, Mr. Singh would like to have a word with you in his office.”

“Excuse me.” She stands. Back ramrod straight. Alone. In a fishbowl of an office. My back is to the door. She must have left it open; I can hear little snippets of conversation.

“–give him a job?”

“Not possible…”

“…environmental safety?”

Deep breath. Tune it out. Turn it into just so much chicken coop chatter. Singh. Might be the managing partner. Wonder if it’s about me?

The wall clock ticks. My hands are sweaty. I rub them along the side of my hip. Feel the business card stashed in my pocket. I pull it out. On one side; a number. On the other, “Got a bad case of the blues?” I swear I can still smell that sugary cinnamon.

My heart begins to speed.

Why am I here?

What am I doing?

I can hear my pulse in my ears. It’s not like they’re gonna give me a job anyway. I stand up. I’m halfway through the cubicles before they notice me. Words die on their lips. They look sick, shocked. But I don’t care. I’m gone.

Out the door.

Into the elevator – empty. I smile.

I press the card in my pocket. Think. My apartment. Quiet. I have a lot to decide. My phone.

The lobby has become crowded. Too crowded. I’ve spent enough time on the periphery of the barrio to recognize concern. The low drone of chatter is growing in volume and tenor. They cluster around the plate glass walls, too agitated at first to notice me pushing through. Some of them step aside, but most only glance in my direction, caught up in the chaos. I am not the biggest threat.

Too curious to hold back, I shove my way to the doors. I cannot believe my eyes. Outside it’s raining. Obese droplets coat the now deserted street. Covering cars, sidewalk, and street in a steady sheen of blue. Not the blue of water, the ocean.

The blue of me.

I push through the doors. The rain soaks my hair, runs down my face, drips off my nose. The city has gone still. The murmur of the rain is parted by a familiar voice. “Do you like it?” Blue Girl stands alone on the pavement, palms upturned to the blue droplets. I nod.

“Come.” She holds out a hand. “The revolution’s just beginning.”

I take her hand, lift my face to the rain, lick my lips. I taste sugar and cinnamon.

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