Chapter 14: The Hospital
Two weeks later, I awoke from a nap with a start. I was lying on a bed in the abandoned hospital, where we had camped for well over a week. I had dreamed of our first arrival to what remained of Denver, it had reminded me that took Rick nearly an hour to move from where he had rooted himself. He had finally let out the longest and saddest sighs I had ever heard. I probably imagined it, but the sun itself seemed to tremble at the sorrow contained within that simple sound.
I remembered seeing tears as they started to steam across his face and tracing lines down his cheeks and onto the ground. He had finally spoken with a broken and tragic sounding voice that cracked with each syllable. He told us that his family was gone, but that he would find them. He refused to believe that his family wasn’t still alive somewhere. He told us that we couldn’t stay there and to wait would risk everything. Without another word, he left the road to follow the circle around to the east. He later muttered a faint explanation about remembering the location of a hospital.
Bobbi and I followed him in silence. We silently hoped he knew where he was going but said nothing. He seemed determined and focused then, as if reaching our destination was the only purpose remaining to him. He might collapse without such a goal. He lead us for hours through empty suburbs. These buildings seemed modern, unlike that horrid village, but were abandoned. Some storefronts along the way seemed to have been looted, but the windows now lay empty or shattered and the stores gone dark. I could have sworn that I saw movement in an empty building here and there, but a second glance never revealed anything I could see.
So we followed Rick until we finally arrived at the hospital. We found it empty and abandoned hospital, or so it had seemed at first. We had explored the building, which had been ransacked at some point in the recent past. I checked every unlocked room, cabinet and cupboard for supplies that we could use. Most of what would be useful had been taken: bandages, gauze and splints were nowhere to be found. However, the caged door to the pharmacy was still padlocked and barred, thus promising useful medicines. Other locked doors revealed, when forced open, a caches of other useful supplies that had been overlooked by careless or lazy looters. Much to our delight and surprise, much of the kitchen stocks were still untouched, with many cans and boxes of dried food to be found.
We stopped our scavenging long enough to improvise a fire barrel on the fenced loading dock behind the building. Only continuing our search after we had our first warm meal in a seeming eternity. Throughout our exploration, Rick had been very quiet. He spoke when spoken to and would force a smile to accompany his reply. We searched every nook and cranny of the building, looking for anything and everything we could use. The one place we did not explore that day, had been the morgue.
Upon our arrival, the door to the morgue was locked. Only my darkest imaginations could envision what hell that place had become without electricity to cool the room. I thought little of the doors and moved on quickly. Later, after most other doors had either been forced open or keys found, we finally returned to the morgue. None of us desired much to know what was below so we only half-heartedly tried again. Another week passed while we let it sit forgotten. A few days ago, we finally grew bored and frustrated enough with the only door still barred. Rick, Bobbi and I threw all of ourselves into opening that confounded door.
“Why won’t this damned thing budge!?!” Bobbi screamed, throwing her full weight into the door for the thousandth time in an hour. “It’s like it’s made of metal!”
I shot the girl a wry grin. “Bobbi. It is made of metal…” I laughed, a genuine laugh that had become a rarity in recent weeks.
“Well, yeah. But, it doesn’t have to be so rude about it.” She kicked the door spitefully.
I turned to Rick, looking him up and down. He had grown ill-kempt and sullen looking over two weeks. We had rigged a roughshod bathhouse behind the building with the ample water supply from a nearby river, but Rick refused to partake. I had begun to worry deeply about him. His sullenness and silence were very different compared to Tom’s symptoms, but it was still unnerving to see him in such obvious pain. Potential to become some strange creature was actually the least of my concerns.
We had replaced Rick’s makeshift sling with a bright blue sling stolen from a supply closet. Even that had begun to grow disheveled from lack of attention to maintaining it. He still came whenever we asked for assistance and he had taken to this task with a strange, grim determination.
I watched as he threw his weight at the door and noticed that he wasn’t favoring his wounded shoulder as he had even a few weeks previously. I knew he should be healing. Especially once I had reset the bone the best I could without an x-ray machine, but it still seemed to be healing much faster than I had been expecting. I filed that concern away for later and turned instead to the task at hand. For the sake of our curiosity, we needed to get the morgue open.
I sighed and grumbled to my companions. “If only the key for this damned thing had been on that key ring…” I threw a punch against the wall beside the door in frustration.
“If only…” Rick grunted, interrupting his own speech with the sound of his impact.
“Hold on!” Bobbi grabbed both Rick and me by the shoulder and pulled us both back away from the door. “We’ve been bangin’ our heads against this door all day, both literally and not so literally.” She pointed at the slightly warped door latch, the only sign of progress that had been spurring us in our efforts. “But it’s working. Let’s try it all at once again, maybe it’s loose enough that it’ll finally crash down.”
Rick and I glanced at each other, his face an apathetic mask but my own was cautiously optimistic. I turned back to Bobbi with a determined nod. We listened as Bobbi called out numbers, counting down from three. All at once, the three of us threw ourselves at the door, putting as much weight and force behind the effort as possible in hopes the door would finally fly open and fly open it did. The doors flew open violently to reveal the morgue with a bang and a crash.
It was hard to make out any details in the gloom as we tumbled into it. It took a long moment, between the meager sunlight bouncing down the halls and our adjusting eye sight, before I could see through the gloom. As I sat up, my gaze tracing the room, I realized just how close we had been to being in real trouble.
Through the darkness I could make out a large hole in the floor mere inches from where we had landed atop the door. I wasn’t sure if it was the darkness of the room or the depth of the pit, but the depth of that chasm was impossible to guess. I realized this meant the pit may have been inches or miles and I had no idea of where it may fall between these extremes. I let out a sharp gasp. Reacting to my sharp inhalation, Bobbi sat up beside me as she shook her head to clear the daze of striking the concrete floor so suddenly.
“Wha? Wha’s going on? What did ya find?” She peered at me as she lightly rubbed her forehead. It didn’t take medical training to see she was nursing a growing bruise, and it was practically on the same spot as her wound from weeks ago. That was just rotten luck. In response, I merely pointed at the huge hole that we had nearly tumbled into in our haste.
“Whoa!” Bobbi sat up straight, backing away from the edge with a surprising speed. Rick had landed on my other side and he now sat up slowly with only a grunt as he observed the hole. They both regarded the pit with the same combination of curiosity and surprise as I had. How had it gotten here? Where did it go? How long had it been here? It was a mystery.
Slowly, I edged around the pit and inspected it as best I could in the gloom. I saw the hole was roughly circular except for the left and right edges which traced were smooth lines matching the cabinets and walls on either side. On our side of the chasm, it was a rough half-circle which seemed to indicate a natural collapse as the abyss widened toward the door. The gap was just barely more than a person could jump safely.
I found myself wondering how it had gotten there. Nowhere else in the hospital was there any sign of damage, beyond careless looters and natural wear of no human contact in apparent months. Otherwise the building seemed nearly as pristine as it had been when it had last opened for business. Here, though, the floor was collapsed and without obvious cause. I suspected it had been intentional but by whom, and to what purpose, I had no clue.
“Okay, so there’s a huge hole in the ground. I don’t think that comes standard in your typical morgue, I’m guessing?” Bobbi turned to me, a sarcastic and worried expression on her face.
“Not typically, no…” I replied, wondering what was going on. Part of me didn’t want to know the answer. I considered simply leave the room and pulling the broken door shut, maybe barricading it as best we could. Part of me however, couldn’t help but wonder what had caused this. Were there people back there? Hidden around the curves of the freezer cabinets or maybe even within the hole itself? Was there something else here? Something like the creature from that tiny town? Was all this just fevered speculation? I had no way of knowing, but a gnawing corner of my brain demanded to find out. “Rick, could you come with me for a second? Please?”
Rick stood up to follow with barely a word. I led him through the corridors, up the stairs, and back to the main entrance of the building where I spotted what I had been hoping to find. There was a pile of scrap wood and metal, various slabs and doors that had either been broken by looters or removed by us. We had stacked the scrap pieces that we didn’t need where they would be out of the way. As a bonus, we had been using the debris to serve as a barricade across the largest entry point of the building. That had been Bobbi’s idea. Neither Rick nor I believed her cries that zombies were a threat, but she had pointed out it was better safe than sorry. We finally agreed on the principle that even non-undead individuals could prove a threat, given the circumstances and this would at least slow them down.
Now, however, I needed a piece of that barricade for something else. I remembered a particularly large door we had found off its hinges near the back loading dock ages ago. It folded easily, making it a simple matter to move up here, but was still fairly rigid, maintaining its length and its strength no matter its width. It was these that I had Rick with to assist me. It took forever to drag it down the stairs, but eventually we reached the entryway of the morgue. We found Bobbi sitting just around the corner from the door, trying to look nonchalant.
“What? I can’t be nervous around a giant hole that I can’t see the bottom of?”
I merely shrugged without comment and requested her help position the piece so it would tumble across the chasm, making a simple but workable bridge. Before dropping it, we folded the metal pieces to make it three thick, in hopes it would prove sturdy enough to bear our weight. Our bridge finally in place, we stopped and stared at each other, almost daring ourselves to be the first to attempt crossing our unsteady bridge.
Finally Rick stood with a sigh and walked slowly across. Bobbi and I watched as he teetered halfway, before righting himself and completing his journey. Once his foot touched the other side of the hole I quietly held my breath, half expecting the architect of the gap to leap from nowhere and grab Rick for his impudence. Rick seemed to wait with an intensity that implied he feared some reaction as well. He relaxed a moment later and I exhaled with relief just in time to notice Bobbi had apparently been holding her as well.
“I’m depressed and suicidal, what’s your excuse?” Rick grinned, his tone macabre and thick with dark humor. Still, it was the closest to a joke we had heard from him in ages, which was encouraging. One at a time, Bobbi first and me shortly thereafter, we made it across to join Rick.
“Okay, so now what?” Bobbi was staring down the corridor, hoping that I would have some answer to her question. I didn’t, but I pretended I did.
“This way.” I gestured vaguely towards the darkness ahead. “There’s usually examining rooms in this directino, maybe there’s something worthwhile in one of those.” As I walked, I couldn’t shake the sense something was something wrong.
Something was missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I tried to hide my concern from my comrades, but I think they felt the tension. When we turned the corner and found a body laying neglected on an examining table, my companions nearly jumped from their skins. I will not deny that I was somewhat startled, but I had often enough seen dead bodies in my studies. I doubt either of them had based on their reactions.
I stepped forward, but both Bobbi and Rick hung back and let me proceed take the lead. As I inched closer to the body, I finally realized what had bothered me since we first arrived in this place. There was no smell.
Sure, there was the smell of a stale basement room which hadn’t been opened in weeks or months. There was the smell of chemicals, particularly the acrid odor of alcohol which permeated the entire hospital. There was not smell of death however, no smell of decay. The realization unnerved me. I remembered the smell vividly from my last visit to a morgue. The smell had lurked just below the surface the entire time. It was a natural scent, no matter how repulsing, to find in a morgue. This morgue? It had no smell of death. None.
This fact only seemed all the more vivid as I approached the body on the slab. It had presumably lain here since this hospital had been abandoned, whenever that was in this land of eternal day. It showed little sign of decomposition though, only a slight depression of the cheeks and a deathly pallor indicated that this human being had ceased to live. There was no odor and there was no sign that any normal decay had occurred to this body in the time it had laid abandoned. I lightly pulled back the sheet and examined the body. I considered the possibility that time had simply been kind to the young man’s face since death, but I could clearly see it was nothing so mundane. The body was in roughly the same shape as his face and it had barely begun to break down either.
I slowly lowered the sheet to cover the deceased young man and turned to face Bobbi and Rick. They looked at me with their own mixed expressions of curiosity. I shrugged. “Just another dead body in a morgue.” I glanced at the young man again before turning back to my companions. “Weird thing is… He doesn’t look to have been dead long, but he’s probably been down here for a while. At least since we found the building. How else couldl he have gotten here?”
I had to eat my words a moment later. Like some sort of Hollywood Horror movie cliché, almost as soon as the words left my mouth I watched my companions’ eyes go wide and Bobbi’s arm lifted to point at the space behind me. I turned to look. I released an exasperated sigh and half expected to see nothing, and Bobbi was simply messing with me. Or at least, if this were some bad movie, to see find a horrible undead monstrosity waiting behind me to choke the life from my bones. Instead I was greeted with was the dead body, lack of pulse and all, slowly and jerkily trying to sit up.
My sigh quickly turned to a gasp. I watched with shocked horror as the body lurched into a sitting position. It groaned as its joints creaked in protest as decaying cartilage was forced to move once more. Its eyes slowly dragged themselves open and looked directly at me. The mouth opened wide in an unholy attempt to speak, and finally a creaking and breaking voice wrenched itself from beyond the grave.
“Oh, hello. You must be new here, aren’t you?”