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Dead but Alive
It all had started with Harrison O’Neil. He was a tall, good-looking man, although well nearing his 50’s and with a head full of sandy-almost-white hair. One could always find him in his spotless white doctor’s coat and black-rimmed glasses, often studying seemingly-illegible writing on cracked pottery and faded paintings in various languages from hundreds of years ago. O’Neil was one of the world’s greatest intellectual thinkers, who had contemplated the most abstract of ideas; he had been famous for uncovering the Truth of the Afterlife in 4006, for his article on the Existence of God in 4023, for his proof on the Meaning of Life in 4048, and for his continual lifelong work on the Meaning of Love. However, he had never gotten the Meaning quite right before August 30, 4056. Until then, his work had been nothing but speculation and guesswork. He had uncovered nothing more than the fact that the Meaning was, in fact, just a single word.
It was August 30, 4056. I had gotten up especially early today to study some promising writing on pottery found from a group faintly recorded as the Nativ Mercans. I was still carrying the lingering feeling of triumph from the uncovering of the singularity of the Meaning several weeks ago and had a good feeling about today. Pouring myself a cup of cold coffee, I sat at my solid-oak office table, adjusting my glasses and staring at the strange writing. It had to have meant something. Reaching deep inside my mind for the Nativ Mercan’s language that I had studied in my youth, I quickly translated the symbols into a language I more easily understood – English.
LOOK INTO YOUR HEART is a rough translation from the beautiful, poetic speech of the Nativ Mercans. Nevertheless, it was frustrating for me as I had been expecting something along the lines of ‘The Meaning of Love is _______’ instead of some pointless quote I already understood.
But that was what it said, so I listened to the writing and looked deep into my heart; I thought about my darling wife, passed away at 47 from breast cancer, rest her soul; I thought about my three children grown up so quickly, the youngest one a senior in high school; I thought about my two grandchildren and the amazement that time can pass so quickly and slowly at the same time, each day dragging by but the years flying. I glanced at the carved symbols on the pot again.
Maybe it was the lingering feeling of triumph. Maybe it was the sudden ache of longing to see my children and my dead wife once more. Maybe it was the sunlight streaming in through the open windows and make the dust motes on the carpet dance.
But nevertheless, without any moment of triumph, I knew. I knew what the Meaning to Love was. I had known it all along. I never needed to look any further than my own heart.
I muttered it to myself; and in that moment, I realized that this word; this Meaning; was perfect in every way. It satisfied all human condition, heart, hunger, mental, physical. In that moment, the sound of that word was literally the most important thing in my world. I repeated the word again; a surge of fear made me anxious when I finally realized that I could not stop even if I had wanted to. That my limbs had frozen in place as if I was losing control of my body. And that while all these dreadful changes occurred, nothing mattered to me but the tranquility the word brought to my life, calmness seeping through my veins while another part of me struggled to even twitch my fingertips.
But there was no use fighting it. I continued to chant.
The Meaning of Love is passed by ear, and it is without a doubt the most contagious plague to ever have scarred the Earth. Neighbors who heard him chanting the word through the open windows immediately realized the Meaning of Love and what it meant for them, immediately felt right with the world, and immediately began reciting the word, knowing that they would never be able to stop. It was more of a nightmare for people on the other side of the globe who faintly knew of what was going on, but knew they could do nothing to stop it. People watching television and who could hear people repeating the Meaning would immediately be caught on. People on phones were the same. Recording machines.
Within five hours, the entire Earth was populated with mindless robots, caught in the act of whatever they were doing, chanting the simple and beautiful Meaning of Love over and over again to other zombies, doing nothing else.
A 15 year old boy with curly brown hair and faded jeans, bending down to tie his shoe: chanting, chanting.
An elderly woman with a messy bun frozen while trying to navigate her wheelchair through a completely-still crowd: chanting, chanting.
A two-week year old newborn with a plaid hat who had not yet spoken one word before August 30th, still appearing to be asleep in its stroller while its mouth moved: chanting, chanting.
Some say that the god or gods who had created Earth smirked as he/she/they twisted the sought-after Meaning of Love into a plague. Some say another world had given the Meaning to him as a token of friendship and it had gone horribly wrong, and some say Harrison O’Neil was just that genius and figured out what had been puzzling mankind for almost all of its past. Some say it doesn’t even matter, and maybe they were right, because regardless of how Harrison O’Neil discovered the Meaning of Love, Earth was never the same.
I’m Charlotte A. Smith – a regular 16 year old teenage girl who went to Amity High School, going into junior year. And I’m deaf, by the way.
The date was August 30, 4056.
It had been a blindingly bright morning; people jostled my backpack with rough excitement on the first day of school. It was all in eerie silence. Their mouths opened and closed, widened and thinned in teenage zeal, discussing grades and teachers, gossiping over hook-ups and relationships; I couldn’t make out a single sound. I’ve been deaf since I was born. Longing blossomed in my stomach, as it had for as long as I could remember.
Without a warning, a sudden change rippled over the swarming crowds. They all became still, freezing like they were playing some widespread, bizarre game of freeze tag, except everyone had been tagged.
Then their mouths began opening and closing, widening and thinning once more like before, chanting something in amazement. They all seemed to be completely at peace – not completely dead, for chests still moved in synchronization in steady breaths and eyelids still blinked over eyes glazed with delight – but besides the subtle movement, they resembled nothing more than corpses.
I didn’t move, muscles aching from exertion as I clenched them in my fear, my eyes darting from frozen figure to frozen figure. Eventually I made my way through the unnaturally still crowd with cautious steps and looked out onto the street block. Everybody was the same.
I was so scared and so worried that I felt nauseous, like the time I had devoured eight peanut butter sandwiches. I wanted to run home, to be safe, but I knew what I would find at what had once been a home to me: four living statues of my parents and siblings, frozen in their happiness as they chanted who-knows-what over and over again, oblivious to their one deaf daughter who had escaped the onslaught.
There I sat, on the sidewalk in front of Amity High School and the crowd of teenage zombies, until the sky grew dark and I grew hungry enough to stand. I made my way to the local grocery store, attempting not to see the pair of short women frozen in the act of checking out; they had bought three packages of cinnamon cookies and a singing birthday card. For I second I wondered who they were for.
As I explored the Snacks aisle of the grocery store, somebody moved. I tensed, thinking a body had come to life and was going to eat my brains or something, when I realized it was just Mark – the only other deaf kid in the town – who was very much alive, as he was pointing an extremely large kitchen knife from the grocery store at my chest, the handle still wrapped in plastic foil. When he saw the sharp movement in my automatic step backwards, he lowered the blade. We gave each other tentative, sad smiles and sat down in the aisle, eating Poptarts and chips.
Over the next few years – or it might have been a month or two – or it might have been several days – Mark and I lived in the grocery store, slowly devouring everything starting from the unhealthiest junk foods and working our way up to the broccoli. Sometimes we sat on the one unoccupied bench in the park and watched sunsets, trying not to look at the other benches. We wrote stories together and drew pictures to keep each other company during the rainstorms, trying not to think about the frozen zombies outside. Trying not to remember our parents, our siblings, our friends, our teachers, everyone we knew. Trying not to consider their fates.
Trying not to go insane.
We didn’t understand why we had been exceptions. Why the thing, or the person, or the divine being or natural disaster who had caused the destruction of the Earth in the least humane way possible had exempted the deaf kids. Perhaps it was a complete accident. Maybe they thought they’d be a little nice and let the deaf kids continue to live surrounded by the still-living statues of their loved ones. I guess it didn’t matter anyways. We were alive whether we liked it or not. And we’d never find out either, so why think about it.
One day I woke up and Mark was next to me, frozen in the middle of reaching for a box of Mac&Cheese. His eyes were glassy, but they seemed very slightly surprised and somewhat rueful. His mouth opened like all the other frozen ones in the grocery store, like all the people outside in the rain, and for all I knew, like every other living soul on this planet. Guess he had looked too closely at their mouths and had seen exactly what they were saying.
I stared at his mouth and saw him forming the word. It was just one word? The same motions with his mouth. One word to shatter one world. I concentrated on his lips – and I knew what the word was, or what it was supposed to mean for me. I leaned closer, and then I kissed his moving lips, moving my lips in synchronization with his. I closed my eyes and pretended that the frozen zombie of the deaf boy I had grown to love as we forgot the nightmare of the living, dead world was kissing me back.
The Meaning of Love? The Meaning of Love – I felt no burst of happiness, no connection to the world around me, no joy whatsoever. Just an overwhelming ocean of sorrow.
Because it’s hard to ever consider love again when everyone you’ve ever loved is frozen for all of eternity, mouthing that so-called Meaning of Love.
Then I reached out and found the kitchen knife Mark owned that I had only seen once before on the day we met. Its blade gleamed mockingly; I stabbed myself in the heart.
I thought I heard myself scream.