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Ten Wretched Things About Influenza Siderius

Rachael Jones lives in Athens, Georgia with her husband. She is a research assistant specializing in literacy in elementary-aged children, and is pursuing a second degree in Speech-Language Pathology.

10. Influenza siderius begins as a general malaise. That is always the first symptom. Perhaps you wish to doze on the sofa, but your husband suggests a little fresh air instead.
You do feel better after the walk, but by the next morning the listlessness has returned tenfold. Your husband complains when you order takeout instead of making the pot roast, but you feel too tired to care.
9. Next you feel pinprick pain all around the eye sockets. The ache radiates downward along your spine as the disease spreads through your nervous system. If you lie very still, the pain goes away. The soreness coupled with the lethargy will cause you to doze throughout the day, first briefly and then at length as the illness progresses.
8. Over-the-counter cold and flu medicines fail to relieve the symptoms. You buy little red pseudoephedrine pills and chase them down with grape-flavored phenylephrine syrup. When those don't work, you try a nasal spray with oxymetazoline. For the aches you take two aspirin, then four, then eight, then sixteen, then finish the whole bottle, but nothing changes.
7. Next goes your sense of balance. Vertigo makes housekeeping and yard work impossible, and your husband snaps at you when you forget to iron his shirts for his court date in the morning. You stumble out of bed at 5 A.M. to starch the collars, stopping every few moments to steady yourself against the wall.
6. Once your balance is shot, nausea sets in. Your stomach cramps up like you are about to retch, but somehow you never do, even when you kneel over the toilet and stick a finger down your throat. You think if you could just vomit, you would feel like yourself again.
5. Doctors cannot treat your flu. When you make an appointment with the doctor, and arrive in the waiting room after an expensive cab ride (for you no longer trust yourself to drive, and your husband refuses to take time off from work)--when you are finally in that horrid paper gown, seated on the cold steel examination table, and you've finished explaining your illness, the doctor throws back his head and roars.
"Is this some kind of joke?" he asks between gasps. You do not know how to answer a question like that, so you swallow back your tears and say no, this is not a joke, that your illness has gone on for two weeks now, and you need some relief.
He wipes his flushed cheeks and tells you that you have influenza siderius, the iron flu, and that you need to see a specialist immediately. He scribbles down an address and dismisses you. You are not completely out of earshot when he dissolves into cackles again.
4. The specialist's clinic is not like most doctor's offices. Instead of antiseptic, it smells of rust and gasoline. Instead of an examination table, there is a greasy workbench piled with tangled wires and bent screws. Instead of the paper gown, you are given nakedness to wear. You cover yourself with your hands as best you can when the specialist opens the door. She draws a cruel, pointed awl from the pocket of her oil-spattered coveralls and covers her eyes with magnifying goggles. "Let's unscrew your head and take a look inside, shall we?"
"No," you cry out, horrified, "no, don't touch me!" You snatch up your clothes and shove past her into the hallway, choking back sobs as you flee down a corridor crowded with decapitated mannequins and false human limbs arranged like bouquets in buckets. And when you round the corner, you see your own grinning face on a poster peeling off the back of the exit door. The slogan reads, Android Housewives, Next Gen Series. Get A Gal Who's Always On!
The shock brings you to your knees. Then slowly, because you don't want to believe it, you place your hands on either side of your head and twist it like a jar lid, just to see how far it will go.
3. Your husband will never catch the flu from you. Your flu is not contagious. He will never suffer in sympathy alongside you. You will not nurse him back to health.
When you confront him about the poster, he turns deep red and punches some numbers into his cell phone. You hear your husband arguing with your manufacturers. He calls you defective. He calls you cheap Chinese shit. He demands to return you, to exchange you. Whatever they tell him only makes him redder.
When he hangs up, he ignores you for a full hour despite your pleas. You promise him you will be a good wife. You promise to iron his shirts. You promise to cook and clean every day despite the nausea. You promise to give him spectacular sex despite the vertigo. You promise to rub his feet and sing to him and perform limber stripteases, even though every motion hurts. You promise you won't complain anymore. He tells you to hush, and to demonstrate your obedience, you do.
In the silence that follows, you look up from your perfect hands into the eyes of the man you can't help but love. "You're out of warranty," he says at last. "I can't return you. I guess we'd better talk."
That's when you realize he is not your husband anymore. He is your owner.
2. You cannot cure your flu. You can only endure it. A return trip to the mechanic confirms that you are permanently broken.
Surprisingly, your husband treats you more gently now. Sometimes he finishes the ironing while you sleep in. When you struggle up the stairs to bed, he coaxes you with soft encouragements: "C'mon, Baby, you can do it. Don't give up on me."
One day when you are riding together in his secondhand sedan, the engine struggles to turn over, and you hear him repeat the same words to the car.
1. Before you fell ill, no one told you you were an android. Now they never let you forget it. You are a machine. A broken, defective machine.
At night, you long for silence, but you can't fall asleep. Your husband snores beside you, loud and arrhythmic. You close your eyes, straining your ears to catch your own heartbeat. Instead you hear the metallic drone of thousands of tiny gears churning inside your chest. You realize you are waiting for them to stop.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Author Comments

I was quite sick with the flu when I wrote this story. So were the other members of my online writing support group. Since we live in separate states, I joked that we must be catching the flu from each other electronically, because obviously, we were all secretly androids.

Illness is wretched, but there is a certain comfort in the universality of sickness. We catch the flu from each other. We experience each other's suffering. I think it would be pretty awful to find out you were an android, but the real horror would be in discovering who wasn't one. The sickness unmasks the androids, yes, but it also exposes their owners. It separates the users from the used.

But that is the trouble with dehumanization of any kind, isn't it? It treats a person as the sum of her useful functions and the ability to perform her designated role well, and if she fails, the problem lies with her. She's an android. She was made to be useful. The most wretched thing about influenza siderius is not learning you are an android--it's discovering that your androidness trumps everything else about you, even your pain.

- Rachael K. Jones
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