I wake in the middle of the night, freezing cold, as I reach down for my blanket. Ugh! It must have fallen on the floor. Instinctively, my hands reach out; feeling for the soft pile of my bedroom carpet but, instead, I land with a thud on a hard linoleum floor. The sheet that had been draped over my body flutters to the floor like an unfurling ribbon. Where the hell am I? The last thing I can remember was Sarah bringing me soup and some Nyquil. I look around at the stark, white tiles and breathe in the smell of disinfectant. Steel tables draped with sheets surrounded me. Sonofa…I’m gonna kill those guys. This has Chris and Brian’s ridiculous pranks written all over it. EMTs have the sickest sense of humor. I’m in the flipping morgue! I laugh to myself and wonder if Sarah was in on the gag too. Did she slip something in my soup? Maybe it was the tea.
“Ha-ha! Joke’s over. C’mon out here you two twisted butt-heads!”
My voice sounds odd, raspy, like I had a whole pond’s worth of frogs in my throat. I try to clear out Kermit and his pals but I still sound rough. Stupid flu! I’ve sounded like an eighty-year-old smoker for weeks now. Still trying to work the kinks out of my muscles, aggravated by sleeping on a freezing-cold slab, I slowly shuffle my way toward the center of the room. Just then, I catch the scent of something, almost like a glorious buffet of all my favorite foods; my stomach rumbles in hungry anticipation. Enthralled by the mouth-watering aromas, I pause to savor the scent and wipe the drool from my chin. After enduring such a ridiculous prank, I am going to insist that my jerk-ball friends feed me well before I accept their apology. I can’t decide if it’s going to be a bacon-wrapped filet with a side of wings and loaded potato skins or lobster ravioli with a vodka cream sauce, cheesy garlic bread and a Caesar salad but it’s not going to be cheap. Ooh, maybe a buffet… I struggle to get my legs moving so I can find my pals and fill my ravenous belly.
Startling me from my dreams of all-you-can-eat buffets, I turn toward the voice. A bespectacled man, with thinning hair and a protruding beer-gut, gasps. His coffee mug slips from his hand and crashes to the floor, shattering upon impact. He gapes at me, panting, for just a moment before slowly backing away. He fumbles for the phone all hospital personnel are required to carry and raises it slowly to his mouth, never once dropping his gaze from me. He presses the page button and takes a deep breath.
“Code Zed, I repeat, Code Zed. Code Zed in sector twelve. Oh, God, help me. Code ZED!”
Code Zed? I turn to look behind me, terrified. It had only been eighteen months since the last of the zombies had been eliminated, or so I’d thought. We were only just beginning to resume life as it had been before the infection spread like wildfire all over the globe. The mere mention of “the Z-word” was enough to strike fear into the hearts of every human being, regardless of race, religion, creed, or orientation. I look behind me but there is nothing--just the institutional white-tiled walls and a bank of refrigerated drawers for the recently deceased. Bewildered, I look back at the man and wonder if he is part of my friend’s prank. Gotta hand it to them…Chris and Brian really went all-out on this one. Only, the man before me is trembling like a leaf while a growing wet spot is spreading across his crotch and running down his leg. A river of urine mixing into the muddy pool of spilled coffee convinces me that he was not in on the gag.
Panicking, I realize if I can’t get this guy to calm down ASAP I was going to end up with a bullet in my brain. I try to explain that it was just a practical joke but my voice sounds like someone had taken a cheese-grater to my throat. I can barely understand my own words so I can’t even imagine what he must be thinking. As I shuffle toward him, I accidentally trip on the wheels of the Coroner’s tray table. The instruments crash to the floor and the table falls onto my foot. That’s gonna leave a mark. I hold my breath and wait for the pain to hit. Surprisingly, I feel nothing. I look down. A scalpel is sticking straight out of my foot and a dark, viscous fluid is oozing onto the floor but still I feel nothing. I reach down to pull it from my foot and that’s when I notice the band around my wrist. It’s all there: name, date of birth, time of death, organ donor with a little check-mark after it. Hmm, clever touch. Holding my arm out in front of me, I am examining the bracelet when something else catches my eye. A long incision with black sutures stretching down the length of my abdomen looks awfully real but I try to convince myself it is just makeup. It doesn’t really look like makeup but… Okay, they’ve officially freaked me out now!
“C’mon now guys, enough is en-”
My garbled words are cut off midsentence as the overhead page bellows, “Code Zed”. I know the drill; within minutes, men with shotguns will be storming the morgue. Moving as fast as my stiff legs will carry me, I rush for the door. Somewhere in the inner recesses of my mind, a little light bulb illuminates. I realize I am not wearing any clothes. I’m already feeling conspicuous; no need to draw more attention to myself by running around naked. I snatch a lab coat from the back of someone’s chair and a pair of scrubs from the shelf. Thanks for the duds! It seems good ol’ Percy Pissed-his-pants helped me out, after all. My body is stiff, making it nearly impossible to pull the clothing on, especially since I keep toppling over while trying to put my legs into the pants. Gotta hurry up before they turn my brain into Swiss cheese! I swear I can hear the footfalls of boots on linoleum but, as I peer out into the hallway, there is no one there. It’s now or never! I slip into the hallway and proceed as calmly and casually as I can. I pause only for a second to allow a gurney to roll by me. The transporters were too busy chatting to pay any attention to me. One of them must have tucked their lunch out of view because my stomach is rumbling.
A plaque on the wall shows an arrow pointing left for the “staff exit” and I have to suppress the urge to run for it. I just want to put this whole mess behind me and get back to normal. Sadly, I suspect that it will take more than a long, hot shower before I feel like my old self again. Again, the air is rich with a smorgasbord of succulent treats and my stomach roars its protest.
No, sir, the morgue is all clear. Nothing except the dead. We are expanding our search to include the entire floor, sir….Understood.”
I’m nearly jumping out of my skin. A buff man with combat boots and a massive shotgun storms by me while shouting into his cell phone. I keep my head down, silently praying he won’t notice me or my bare feet. Three others, strongly resembling the first man, breeze down the hall with their guns ready for the next uprising of zombies. Damn, Chris and Brian are going to be in serious trouble when the hospital officials report this to the police. I have no time to worry about my friends. Right now, I need to get as far away from the hospital as possible. Finally, my wandering ends and I find the employee exit. “Thank God”, freezes on my lips when the door flings open and a mountain of a man steps inside. From the top of his crew-cut hair to the tip of his combat boots he’s wearing black. Even the lenses of his sunglasses appear black. The terror-filled voice inside my head screams, “Oh great, his black rifle has a matching bayonet attachment”. Certain that I am going to meet my maker in the next few seconds I say a silent goodbye to my beloved, Sarah and my belly rumbles in agreement.
“Oh, sorry, Dr. Hamilton. Here, let me hold the door for you.”
I grunt a barely intelligible “Uh-huh” and stroll through the door. Clearly, the dark lenses of his sunglasses teaming with his switch from the bright sunshine outside to the darker, florescent lights of the hallway prevented him from seeing me clearly but I am not complaining. The nametag hanging from my borrowed lab coat has a picture of Dr. A. Hamilton and I look absolutely nothing like him so fortune smiled on me for the first time since I woke up in the morgue. Once I am safely on the opposite side of the door, my fear abates. I owe one to the good doctor for my escape; my only regret is that I cannot seem to run once I am through the parking lot. I make my way through the wooded trails behind the hospital and head for home.
Ah, home. The sight of my house fills my heart with longing. I may never speak with Brian or Chris again and, right now, I do not care. I just want to hold Sarah in my arms and forget about everything else. I cut through the alley to get home faster. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window of my neighbor’s dilapidated pickup truck and I look like death warmed over. I shake my head at my whey-faced reflection; if I wasn’t so sore I probably would have flipped it the bird. It takes me by surprise but the grass in my backyard is wildly overgrown. I know it’s been raining a lot lately but, man, this is crazy. Wasn’t the lawn guy just here the other day?
“Loki! C’mere boy!”
My golden lab comes barreling out through the doggy-door but he freezes on the spot, growling. Assuming there must be someone behind me, I turn around but there’s no one. Crazy animal! I am calling him, assuring him that daddy is home but he won’t come near me. He even nips my hand as I try to pet him.
“Loki? What’s wrong, baby?”
Sarah opens the door and Loki tears inside, nearly knocking her over.
“I’m sorry about that. I don’t know what’s gotten into-”
Sarah cuts off mid-sentence and shrieks like a crazed banshee. I can hear footsteps from inside the house rushing to her aid. I really wish they’d cut the crap already. There is such a thing as taking a joke too far. I can see a protective arm wrapping around Sarah’s shoulders.
“Mom? I didn’t know you were coming for a visit.”
There’s no way she could possibly hear me over Sarah’s screaming and the dog’s barking. I can tell she’s been cooking; the aromas coming from inside the house are heavenly. My stomach grumbles eagerly. Mom’s face pales and she runs away sobbing. Angry now, I go inside. Our living room looks like a damned florist shop. Only then, when I notice the “With Sympathy” cards on the flowers and my brother calling 911 do I realize what has happened. Apparently, I’d died and now I came back.
I am torn, do I allow the cops to show up and put a bullet in my head so that my family can move on or do I run? I’m not even thirty years old; yet, it’s hard to imagine willfully waiting for my own execution. I did what any rational man would do…I ran. More like, I got out of there as fast as my atrophying legs would take me but I was long gone before the police showed up. I have no idea how long I walked. The sun had gone down but, still, I walk on, untiring. By the time the sun rose again, I was far from the city limits, forsaking the streets for greener pastures- literally. The wildflowers and weeds grew waist-high as I shuffled toward the tree line.
There is a certain peacefulness, being at one with nature, and far from the delectable scent of living, human flesh. Here, in the woods, I will live out my final days- alone. Squirrels are leaping gracefully from tree to tree while all sorts of wildlife scurry about their business. I envy them their sense of purpose. Other wildlife is scampering across the forest floor, most do not even notice my presence.
“It’s just you and me Mr. Bunny…we’re on our own out here.”
Just then, a twig snaps and I feel fear rising up inside of me. Surely, whoever is behind me will put me out of my misery once they find out I am a monster. Perhaps it is for the best. Without Sarah and my family, what’s the point? I feel a comforting hand cup my shoulder.
I am not alone. There are others, just like me, seeking safety--far away from the living. Like all living things, viruses evolve. Once mankind learns to eradicate one strain, another rears its ugly head, seeking to overtake the world. This time, we are not mindless eating machines. We think. We remember. Even worse, we have no way to let them know we mean them no harm. This time, the hunters have become the hunted.