the overcoats

Everybody wears the overcoats now, since we stopped touching. The overcoats were the right solution at the right time; that’s why they were so successful. They put an end to the shivering we’d been beset with.

For a long time we’d been getting chills, all the time, no matter what the weather did. In fact, the weather was often warmer than it had been when we were children. But you used to see people shivering out in the street, all the time, even in the hottest weather, before they started making the overcoats. Once I saw a man keel right over and die of it. And of course, no one touched him—we were all afraid to, because we were told it was contagious, the shivering.

You never touched strangers anyway: that had been the rule for generations, for longer than anyone could remember. When I was a child, visiting a museum, I remember once being shown a grainy video of ancient people shaking hands; it made me shudder with fear. Strangers touching: how hideous! And yet they were smiling in that scene, but I’ve always felt they were lying. Eventually even such historical images disappeared; the authorities said they disturbed people too much.

Still the shivering kept up, kept spreading, and more people died of it, and special teams were sent out to take them off the streets or out of their houses. There was panic. People who were not strangers were now afraid to touch as well—friends, family. It was terrifying, this shivering disease that no one could identify, spreading everywhere.

The people who ran things tried to put a good face on it. There were posters all over the place; there were advertisements on the telenets. Showing happy people: well-dressed, smiling, not touching. That was thought to be the best thing to do, just not touch one another, but still share a good meal at a fine restaurant, or a shopping trip. People were encouraged to do that. You could still touch things, and another person could touch them and you were all right. Thank goodness. Otherwise, who knows what we would have done?

Then of course, there were drugs offered. For quite a while you saw those advertisements everywhere as well. Many, many people took the drugs. They gave them to their children especially, because seeing the children shaking with cold and not touching them was the hardest of all. But it was too dangerous! And the drugs did stop the shaking, initially. But many of the people who took them, even though they had stopped shivering and looked happy: smiling, just fine on the outside—went out and killed themselves afterwards. Suddenly, unexpectedly. Especially the children. It was terrible to think of. Still, reports said the drugs worked for many people, at least for a period of time; that was what the studies showed. So you couldn’t really take them away—it would have been like taking a life jacket away from a drowning man.

Everything that could be tried was tried; wealthy people had special houses designed, with electronic sensors that monitored your body heat and adjusted the internal environment—raising the temperature, providing soothing sounds and wall-images if it looked like you were going to start shivering. Many of us found that playing soft music helped somewhat, and wore our headsets all the time. But as soon as the music stopped, if you had to listen intently to another person for some reason, the shivering could start up again in seconds. People came to prefer communicating with one another indirectly as a result, sending messages instead of meeting face to face.

It was becoming quite complicated, however, even with all the solutions that were devised. Business was being affected, traffic was being affected, and still the shivering, that plunging sense of cold even on the hottest day, as if you were bathed in ice, kept striking people down. The more you tried to isolate yourself, to keep yourself safe, the worse it became. Terrible days.

There were many companies trying to find the answer. Heroic researchers, working night and day, exposing themselves to all kinds of strange influences in order to come up with something that would end the problem once and for all. Many sought a cure, but a cure was never found. Then, at last, the overcoats were invented!

It was so simple it was almost magical, how well they worked. They could be made all sizes—they could fit tiny infants. They were made of a shimmering, fabulous material, which was constructed of particles so small that there were millions of them in an atom. And, here’s the genius of it—what they did was simple too: they just touched you. All over, even the places where people hadn’t usually touched one another for generations, at least in public. They replaced all the touch that people had become too frightened to perform on one another, and more! It was brilliant.

Now we all wear them. They look pretty too, so pretty, although the more expensive ones are prettier and last longer. Which is important, because of course, you must wear them all the time, all your life long. ‘I wish I’d bought stock in that company!’ You hear people say that all the time. But really it’s the only regret we have. The younger ones don’t even remember the horrible cold, and they’ve never felt that longing to be touched again that used to haunt us older ones. Their eyes are clouded and soft with pleasure; they live in another world from us. Truly Free™ –that’s the brand name of the overcoats. And it’s the right name.

It’s still difficult to conceive a child without touching, of course. More complicated, I should say. But many people had already switched to in vitro during the height of the disease years, and of course sexual pleasure is as available as it ever was even with the overcoat on. They are continually working on improving the settings for that, I hear. Although most people had already started getting their pleasure from things less dangerous and contaminated than other persons anyway. Adaptability, as the scientists say, is the great advantage of our species.

Of course, there are the very poor, those who can’t afford a coat at all. It’s upsetting to see them still huddled there, shivering in the doorways of buildings—but then again, that was always the case, even before the disease. The poor might have been the first to get it, in fact; they might have been responsible for spreading it in the first place. So no one feels much sympathy for them. The overcoats and headsets keep you from any disturbing exposure when you are in the street. And the poor are instantly taken away if they try to touch anyone, of course.

Then, there are a few people for whom it just doesn’t work. They may have attempted to use the overcoats, or they may have refused even to try them for some inexplicable reason. These people tend to stay out of sight too, because they look weird and ugly, without their shimmering coats. There are whispers of strange behavior on the parts of these people. It’s rumored that some of them touch one another. If they do it publicly, they’re also taken away, because of course it’s a public health risk. There’s a great deal of fear that they will kidnap children and recruit them into their so-called ‘no-coats’ cult. They have places where they congregate, but they’re always under surveillance to ensure they do no harm. They do have telenet sites, I understand, where they try to tell people that touching is good, and there never was a disease, or if there was, it came from not touching instead of touching, and the whole thing with the overcoats is a conspiracy. No one believes them of course. I’ve heard one of these sites is called ‘The Emperor’s New Coats.’ That’s rather funny, I suppose.

But the rest of us just go on with our lives, happy that we don’t feel that horrible cold anymore. Personally, the only problem I’ve been having lately is my dreams—I have very troubling dreams. Terribly disturbing sometimes. I don’t know if they are memories, or monsters, or some awful combination of the two. In them sometimes I’m hollow, just a skin over nothingness. I wake up shaking uncontrollably, even inside my overcoat. Once I’m awake I’m fine, but I’m planning to see a doctor about it, because I’m losing sleep. I’m just not sleeping at all well lately. So I really hope the doctor has something that will take care of it. There must be something out there.

Anyway, I’m sure they’re working on it.