The plague of sincerity hit everyone at once. It was creepy, the way it started—when the man at the coffee shop ordered a bottomless coffee and said, “Thank you so much! This coffee shop is my favorite one!” in a voice so genuine it momentarily startled the barista, until the plague of sincerity washed over her mere seconds later, and she said, “You are so, so welcome! I love my job!”
They both looked at each other, understandably startled at this extreme show of over-politeness and friendliness, and then the man took his ceramic mug and fled to the nearest corner booth, determined not to meet her eyes the rest of his time there. Pleasantries exchanged with cashiers and strangers were not meant to sound so meaningful. This plague of sincerity then encompassed the whole world, and everywhere it went it kept freaking people out.
At first, the rules were unclear—did the plague of sincerity make all your words heartfelt and genuine upon utterance, or was it that you could simply no longer speaks things untrue? For example, many years ago, in a small college town in a one bedroom apartment, a girl once asked her roommate how she liked her dress. The friend had always hated that dress, yet had said, flippantly, “Oh, it’s lovely, you look really nice,” but that wouldn’t work after the plague hit. If the girl asked now, would the roommate then be compelled to say, “Oh my god, that dress is gorgeous and so are you!” and have it be felt in her heart regardless of her previous thoughts? Or would she simply find her tongue was heavy like lead in her mouth, and she could not lift it to speak words she did not mean? After the plague, the experiment was performed again and again, but the scientists would only say the results were inconclusive.
Doctors, academics, occultists, religious leaders, psychologists, anthropologists, and neurologists the world over came together to study this phenomenon. How binding was this plague, they wondered? What if you said “I love you” to a boy and you really meant it with all of your heart when you said it, but two years later you changed your mind—under this new plague, would that even be allowed? Despite their best efforts, the only thing the doctors, academics, occultists, psychologists, anthropologists, and neurologists would say was that time alone could really tell. Only the religious leaders decided that yes, loving someone now meant loving them forever, but that was not because of the plague.
In many ways, this sudden onset of sincerity felt sort of wonderful. For example, when he promised you his heart, people studying the plague decided, it wasn’t just a line, it wasn’t mindless flirting, it wasn’t only words—he really meant it. (Figuratively, of course; he still didn’t actually give you his heart, this wasn’t the plague of literality—though wouldn’t that be something to see?) Nonetheless, in this new day and age, lovers that had met in a classroom and had never properly defined their relationship held each other in the night and said, “I’m yours. I’m crazy about you, and you’ve got me—hook, line, and sinker,” and they still meant it in the morning. There would never again be a man who should have known better, or a girl with a broken heart who shouldn’t have believed the things he shouldn’t have said.
But before long something strange started to happen. Some of those afflicted with the plague, like the boy graduating university, afraid of commitment and his future in equal measure, suddenly shut down. The girl he’d been seeing—she couldn’t yet be called his girlfriend because they hadn’t discussed it yet—didn’t understand why he had stopped answering her calls, why he wouldn’t speak to her, why he had stopped talking, as it turned out, to everyone. After a few weeks of this, his tongue shriveled up and his lips dried out and he couldn’t even open his mouth. They had to feed him through a tube. Rather than say something that would infect him with the burden of really meaning it, possibly forever, the boy simply never spoke again.
It happened also to the roommate passing judgment on the dress. It happened to the man in the coffee shop. People the world over stopped talking, not even to say hello, not even to order food. After the first reported incident of the muffled mouth, six months after the plague of sincerity had begun, the world became totally silent almost overnight. The doctors, academics, occultists, religious leaders, psychologists, anthropologists, and neurologists were at a loss to explain it. Communicating via sign language (no one knew what affect the plague of sincerity had on the written word, but they judged it must be even more powerful than what you say, so they were all too afraid to try it) and gestures and childish mime, they were able to convey their confusion. Was this silence a further development in the plague of sincerity? Was it a new disease entirely?
It was the academics who figured it out. They recognized, quietly and without telling anyone, that there was not a new plague of silence affecting the population at all, but that the people had, in fact, out of fear of sincerity, done this willingly and entirely to themselves.
Samantha Edmonds is a first year graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, where she studies fiction writing. She’s an alumna of the English department at Miami University, the place she loves most in the world. Some of her flash fiction has previously appeared in the Boston Literary Magazine and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.