BY DR. AGONSON
A nightmare only lasts so long as you’re asleep. But if you wake up and it doesn’t end, your life becomes the nightmare, and you begin to develop patterns. Every morning you say to the sun, “I hate you for not rising today and instead leaving us in this dank existence.” Then, with your distain for the nightmare firmly established, you can enter unto it once more and try to survive. But slowly you begin to realize that you’ve become an interwoven part of the nightmare, since you’ve grown to hate the light that should dispel it.
The cry of the dead
I was a doctor; I knew the benefits of good health and the principles of maintaining a strong, robust body. However, the dogged fact that I hadn’t practiced any of these principles for a good while was becoming all too apparent as hard irregular breathing corresponded with a rhythmically jiggling, unmaintained, belly.
All this, compounded with the ceaseless and growing moaning of the dead masses slowly descending towards us from the lightly wooded rises flanking the road added up to nearly insufferable terror. I’d estimated nearly fifty bodies in total, all of whom awkwardly shambled towards us.
Suddenly there was a pair directly blocking our path up along the road a few yards. The left one’s head hung limp with the chin jutting down, resting on its chest. With each step the head would sway to and fro, from one shoulder to the other, like a grim challenge, as if with each swing it was saying ‘no you will not survive.’ My shot rang out with a hearty crack that was overlaid by a similar crack to my left.
Our pace didn’t lessen as we ran past the collapsing bodies. Replacing the spent shots we hurried along. It had become apparent to me that my companion had continued to shoot a riffle after his beginner’s injury. He utilized impressive—if not daunting—accuracy, never failing to hit the target.
I thought back to that scar, and looked at the grizzled man running next to me. Could I trust him? I might die, would he carry my torch if it became so? Would he respect all confidences? What if he let word out? I can’t let this secret die with me. But if I tell him, and I don’t die…
I asked, “So where are we running to?”
“There’s a,” he wheezed. “A—cough—a stronghold, along the road.” Suddenly his head shot up. “There’s a marker,” He lifted his gun as one jumped from an overhanging tree, and shot its head without slowing, “an old tombstone.”
“A tombstone?” I panted.
The replying sound may have confirmed his last statement or simply have been a ball of phlegm. In either case our conversation was, momentarily, halted; for a growing voice, coming as if from a long way, rang out. “Hhhhhaalt. Maaan-ss. Iyyyyyyy, aa-am here.”
In front of us a shadowy figure was appearing; it was like watching evaporation in reverse. As it materialized the form shimmered and moved slightly with the breeze in a harmless fashion that was somewhat reminiscent of reflections off some calm water. However tranquil its appearance, nothing could allay the terror this new adversary held over me.
“Ghosts,” I observed in a whisper.
“Ghost,” My friend corrected.
There was little known about ghosts. It was known they existed, they killed, and they could pop up nearly whenever or wherever they wanted leaving as their only trace mutilated remains of victims. There were twenty-two confirmed ghost sightings that I was aware of, and of those there was one survivor.
Not only did the ghost’s form grow stronger, but so did its voice, along with its diction. “I have walked the deserts long, suffered and bared were I did not belong, but fate has regarded to place me here, and who am I to say that she is wrong?”
I hated it when I didn’t know the answer to something. “Do you have any ideas?”
“Yeah, no.” he said
“Can we run past it?” I asked
He snorted, “His position is relative to ours. It doesn’t matter how well we run, if we don’t answer him he’ll kill us.” He indicated the ever thickening forest surrounding us in which the quantity of trees was outmatched by the number of murderous undead. “Humph. Or they will.”
“Well think, what doesn’t belong in the desert, or something uncharacteristic to the desert, or…”
He interrupted, “An apple.”
“What? NO!” I said
“Or maybe another type of fruit…”
It was my turn to interrupt, “No fruit!”
“It could be fruit.”
“I don’t think it’s fruit!”
The phantom had moved closer to us, he was now only a yard away. Its arms were outstretched, ready to embrace us, a welcome into his cold death. We automatically backed up—I shot at it—but the distance between us and a very painful trip to the pearly gates did not change.
“Wait!” I screamed. “You answer our riddle first.”
The specter made an annoyed sound, “I have walked the deserts long, suffered and bared were I did not belong, but fate has regarded to place me here, and who am I to say that she is wrong?”
I didn’t know. It came closer. I couldn’t die, there was too much at stake for me to die. It grew closer. What was the answer? I needed to give it the answer. It grew closer. The world was depending on me. It was on us and then there was only…
I thought of my quest, how it all started. Thought of the little table we were all sitting around, the night we heard about Mola.
I came into the room.
“Ah, good to see you, doctor.”
“Doctor,” I replied. In my mind I moved passed the long strain of doctors: ‘doctor, hello doctor, doctor, good evening doctor, doctor, catch the game doctor? doctor.’ Finally we were all seated, and then someone shouted, “Is it true? Is it true!”
We all looked toward the head of the board, a big round Asian man, the one who had called for this emergency meeting.
“Last night I received a call.” The man grinned. “And they… they’ve cured someone!”
“With our samples?” came a voice.
“Then, it’s over?”
“No it’s not.” I said. “Don’t be so eager that you stop thinking. All it takes is some cellular regeneration, or dilating pupils and you think you have a cure. Wake up people, our samples are years away from ever becoming a cure,” I cast my gaze around the room, “and we’ll be old men and women before we see the end of this dark dream.”
“No.” said the board head. “This time,” he paused as a little grin spread across his face, “this time it’s different.” He gestured for the lights to be dimed while a projector started humming above us.
The video started in some dark and cement-walled room, where the air of military fortitude hung heavy from the bare walls and small, bolted down, bunks like a foreign memory of man’s greatness now passed. I could see around three bunks in the picture which were all neatly made with a blue blanket tucked well into the sides. There was one bunk though, a forth one, that was different from the others. A small boy lay there, tended to by Doctor Mola. The child rested in an unnaturally motionless state upon his back. He had no hair, and his eyes gazed upward to the ceiling as if he were a doll someone had placed there and not a piece of flesh and blood. The voices came.
“How old are you?” said the doctor.
Without stirring any part of himself, say what was necessary for speech, he parted his lips and let a small stream of words seep out at a volume barely audible. “I don’t remember,” came the juvenile’s rasping reply.
“Do you remember anything?”
“No,” a pause came wherein his eyes finally moved—the first none responsive movement we had seen from him—to the doctor, and then directly at the camera. His eyes resembled an unnaturally calm and bottomless body of water. Transparent and deep, they hid nothing and revealed nothing. “What’s wrong with me?”
The clip then cut to a report by the doctor.
“Hello my name is Doctor Mola Jobvert. The young boy you just saw was a captive mortem failure phase one.” The screen showed a clip of a small zombie child which looked very much like the young boy, except for the decaying flesh.
I interrupted. “Oh please. Film the boy when he’s alive, kill him and film him two months later after he’s had time to decay a little.” The video was paused.
“He’s right you know.”
“Why would somebody do something so horrible?”
“What could anyone gain by doing that?”
“Wealth,” I replied, “fame, the usual friends man keeps. Show it to us and then put the video into public circulation. Do you know how many people keep loved ones after…well you know, after? So we send them more samples and they start selling a quack treatment, asking for money in advance of course.”
The board head interjected, “Doctors please.” He glared at me, “I think if you’ll just watch.”
He started the video a few seconds behind, and I watched the little wheel spin at the center of the screen. Maybe that’s what it means when history repeats itself, just going round and round like a buffering phase before something completely different.
“…the young boy you just saw was a captive mortem failure phase one. He was being held in the town’s local morgue about to be cremated. But after your treatment…” Her voice faded and the clip continued.
The dead child lay tethered to a stone platform surrounded by three men. This was obviously the same child as before, but were he had first seemed reticent to the point of sever exhaustion he now thrashed and twisted against his bounds in a mad, energetic, rage. I wish I could have seen if his eyes had changed, but he moved around so constantly that any study I tried to make was thwarted. Two uniformed officers stood rigidly by each of his sides, their heads turned down onto the grim spectacle. The remaining man, a white beard roughly cut as if by the sheers of an overzealous gardener, sat on a stool a few paces off, lazily picking at his nails. As doctor Jobvert approached the dead thing, this old fellow cackled, “Hurry up I can’t keep the furnace going all day.” Doctor Mola sighed and injected a full syringe into the little child’s shoulder. Doctor Jobvert turned around.
“Here, you’ll see that I placed the maximum volume that the syringe could contain, contrary to your instructed dosage, 2cc’s. The expiration dates on your samples were quickly approaching, and the under-keeper had given me some trouble prior. Without local authorities’ support I would never have been let in to test the serum, so it was doubtful that I would get another chance before the serum became ineffectual.”
What she was saying was all very interesting, in a scientific way, but her words were lost on us. For something truly fascinating was on the screen, all of our hopes and dreams were forming into a wonderful reality. Rapid cellular regeneration: healthy, living, pink skin spread out across the child’s body from the injection site. Life was returning.
Our room was enveloped in silence while our mouths hung open unable to close. The Board head smiled at us all as the video played on, showing the two officers standing transfixed by this unparalleled achievement. The picture started cutting up in still frames, depicting day to day updates of the child for the next three days until we saw the living boy from the first picture.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Mola’s voice cut back in, “the cure worked so quickly. I think it annoyed the under-keeper. The child is now fully recovered. Except for a total loss of memory, he’s as healthy as any other boy in this town. Please, send us more samples; tell everyone, we have a cure.” The screen blacked out and in the few moments before the lights flickered on our room was already a mass of confused babble.
“Quiet everyone!” Bellowed the little man.
“It’s…” I stammered.
“It’s over,” smiled the board head.
“It’s over…”came another.
“It’s over!” someone said.
“We’re saved,” cried a voice.
“It’s over,” came the final decision. “We’ve done it!”
“No, not yet.” I said slowly.
“What’s the problem now?” retorted an irate doctor.
I looked around. “We still need to confirm this, take samples of the boy’s tissue.”
“We have proof!”
“We have a video,” was my retort. “And in this dark time, nothing, especially the decency of man, can be counted on!”
“Then what, what should we do?”
Who hasn’t been asked that question: “Then what?” It’s one thing to be all smart and see what’s not to be done, but it’s a completely different matter when you’re asked what to do instead. What to do?
So I told them I would go. But death, in collaboration with wicked fate, has put a stop to my journey. It’s all over.