Let's Just Call Them Monsters

They’re all human to begin with, but when does their humanity run out? Do they stop being human when their hearts stop beating, or when their minds stop thinking? Is it when their eyes turn white, or when their blood turns black, or when their brains rot in their skulls? He’s asked himself this question countless times, and he still doesn’t know the answer.
All he knows is that he sacrificed his own humanity to get here, and he’s not going to let theirs get in his way.

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6. Gone Again

His head hurt.

It wasn’t the kind of pain that gouged at your head until it tore it in half, but it was the kind that jabbed a million tiny needles into your eyes and made you wince. He would probably have been advised to take some pills and go to bed, but, firstly, George didn’t really know how to sleep and, secondly, he was still at work. It had only been half an hour since Robert Walker woke up, and he was still needed. The pain was mangling his thoughts and making work harder, but it still paled in comparison to the hunger gnawing at his stomach and the exhaustion clawing at his chest.

As soon as he’d called a doctor into ward five, George had taken the opportunity to get the hell out; he wasn’t sure why, and in the state he was in, he didn’t want to think about it too much. He’d only been planning to lean back on the wall for a couple of seconds to gather his composure, but when his eyes cracked open several minutes later, he realised he’d fallen asleep. That was just typical; he could stay awake all day and all night without a whisper of tiredness ever tugging at his mind, but the minute he needed to be the most alert was the moment his body decided to keel the fuck over and knock him out.

“George!”

“Oh- yep?” He was far too exhausted to jump out of his skin, even though Doctor King barked her orders more ferociously than a Rottweiler.

“We need you in here a minute. We think... I’m sorry, but I think we’re about to lose him.”

George froze. “Uh-“

“We don’t know why, but he’s dying from something. God knows what.”

“What? He’s dying?” Even though he’d been a nurse for the best part of six years, George had never managed to numb himself against the idea of death. The fact that he’d only just woken up from what was at least an honourable mention in the most awkward naps of his life didn’t help either. In fact, it took him a few seconds to realise who the hell the doctor was referring to.

“Wait. Who... oh.”

She looked at him like he’d asked her which country they were in, or which century. “Robert Walker, George! Christ! Get in here!”

 “Oh. Oh yeah. Of course.” It had been less than fifteen minutes since he’d spoken to Robert, and the name had all but faded from his mind.

And now, apparently, Robert was fading too.

When George made his slightly dazed reappearance in ward five, he was surprised to see three other nurses and a trainee doctor already standing over the bed; he’d somehow been unconscious long enough to miss four people, and none of them had cared enough to wake him up. Then again, it wasn’t the first time he’d fallen asleep at work. After Doctor King came back to the bedside, she snatched the defibrillator pads from her apprentice and started charging them herself; this obviously wasn’t the type of job that could be fucked up by a rookie mistake. George, meanwhile, had gone into auto-pilot; he’d been in a lot of basically identical situations before and always found it easy to lose himself in the weirdly calm panic that ensued.

His head still hurt, more than ever. His fucking chest hurt too. His brain and heart were being simultaneously compressed by invisible fists, and he wasn’t sure whether his sudden shortness of breath was down to the pain or the panic. Somebody in the room was dying, seconds away from being dead, and it wasn’t only George’s obligation to save his life; it was his job. Every single personal, physical and emotional problem had to be suppressed and internalised until the job was done.

George could always handle whatever his job threw at him; he never planned to make a habit of letting his patients die, and should have felt confident that nothing was about to change. He wasn’t ever confident in himself, though, and besides, there was something about Robert Walker that just felt... weird. Wrong and weird.

The doctors had obviously felt it too; within a few minutes, they were taking blood samples and poking various instruments at the poor guy, trying to figure out what was wrong; why his spit and vomit were black, why his eyes were white, and, of course, who the hell he was and where the hell he’d come from. Pretty quickly, another, more pressing problem had forced all other unanswered questions to the backs of their minds. The fact that his heart had stopped.

Was it all connected? Probably. Did it matter? No.

In the time he’d spent daydreaming, George had managed to walk all the way across the room without noticing. His hands and feet were moving without being told to and his mind, however subconsciously, knew exactly what he needed to do. There was no way he was about to let his patient die.

He’d been assuming that the high-pitched screeching noise stabbing his ears was coming from inside his head, but the more he listened, the more he realised that he was actually listening to the heart monitor, beating in time to a still heart. Now that he’d finally noticed the sound, it was deafening. He was good at his job and yet, he still managed to be less observant than a brick wall.

Pay attention. One wrong move and there’s blood on your hands.

“Clear!” yelled the trainee doctor, whose name George couldn’t remember or muster the energy to care about. Jamie had called him Pavel earlier, now that he thought about it. Doctor King pressed the pads to Robert’s chest and there was a jolting THUNK as the electric shock arched his back, but it still didn’t stop the solid whining of the heart monitor.

All George could do now was lean against the window and hope for the best. The cold sheet of glass pressed to his back seared through his shirt and onto his skin, but the feeling chased away the sleepy grey fog in his mind. His headache had subsided for the moment, but just as he thought it was gone, another needle of chilly pain stabbed into his brain. He squeezed his eyes shut and winced, trying to get rid of the agony through willpower, but all that happened was that he became so absorbed in his thoughts that he started to mutter out loud.

“Bugger off.”

“Piss off-OW!”

“Fuck OFF, pain!”

Everyone else in the room was too preoccupied to notice him.

“Clear!”

THUNK.

Nothing.

“Recharging.”

George had always hated the electronic squealing noise the pads made when they rubbed together. It reminded him of the sound effects from the stupid sci-fi movies he watched with Leah.

“Clear!”

THUNK.

Nothing.

Ten more minutes passed, and George had involuntarily settled quite comfortably into the repetitive rhythm of shouts and sounds, but the shrill moaning of the heart monitor was still extremely annoying. Every sound he heard pierced his mind and twisted the knives of pain behind his eyes, but that wasn’t why his head was reeling. Each shout meant another second of death; every cycle of Clear, Thunk, Nothing meant they’d taken one more step away from saving Robert. He’d only been awake for a few minutes and nobody knew who he was yet, or where he’d come from, but that wasn’t supposed to matter. Nobody in the entire hospital even knew what the hell he was dying from, but it was everybody’s problem now.

Then, after a few more seconds or minutes or hours of a bewildering blur, it was all over. George suddenly found himself gripping the windowsill for support, glaring at the bright white wall of the corridor in a fruitless attempt to convince his head that he was standing still. The shrill whining of the heart monitor was blurring his thoughts and tightening the screws of his headache.

Whatever was killing Robert had been winning, and then, it won. Now, the patient was dead and the doctors were clearing up the mess. George, meanwhile, was in the corridor, with no memory of how he got there.

The questions spinning in his head prevented Doctor King’s words from getting through for the second time in an hour.

“George.”

“George!”

ANGEL!”

George jumped away from the wall; his world lurched sideways in a moment of light-headedness and he almost lost his balance completely.

“W-What?”

“Angel, go home. You look dreadful.”

“Y-yeah, sure. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Jesus, George, your eyes are so mad that I’d accuse you of being drunk, but you did a great job in there, so if you are drunk, keep it up. I couldn’t have done better myself.”

She sighed and wiped a hand across her forehead, letting her eyes soften with exhaustion.

“It’s just a shame we weren’t good enough.”

As she turned her back and started to walk away, George called after her.

“Are-are you serious? Should I actually go? You sure you don’t need me to stay?”

“I need you to go home and get some rest.” She turned back. “You look like you haven’t slept in a bloody month.”

“Um... okay. See you.”

“See you, George.”

George was too overcome to protest; ordinarily, he’d rather die than have to leave work early, but as the pang in his chest grew more and more acidic, he realised that he might actually die. He didn’t believe in co-dependence, even on his girlfriend, which was why he made the slightly dumb decision to walk home instead of calling Leah to pick him up. The disorientation caused by his headache stretched every kerb into a mountain, every puddle into an ocean and every street into a twenty-lane motorway. He was overwhelmed by a confusing sense of shock when he managed to make it to his front door, without passing out or getting run over, and as he crumpled into a sitting position on the stairs he couldn’t help feeling entitled to a round of applause.

“Hi.” Leah greeted him with confusion as she emerged from the living-room, still wearing her uniform. The clock on the mantelpiece told him it was past midnight, and George was surprised she was still awake.

“What are you doing home so early, babe?”

“I...” he struggled to spit out the words, holding his temples with two fingers from each hand as if physically trying to squeeze the pain out of his head. “I got sent home early. Didn’t... didn’t feel well.”

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry.” Leah sat down next to him and took his hand, but as she studied his face her concerned expression melted back into perplexity. “Are you sure that’s all? It’s not just that, is it?”

He didn’t respond.

“George?”

“Y-yeah.”

“There’s something else wrong, isn’t there? Tell me.”

“Yeah, something else. We... we lost him.”

“What? Who?”

“We lost the guy in ward five. I mean- Robert.”

“You found out his name.”

“Yeah.”

“So he woke up?”

“Yeah.”

“And then he-“

“Yep.” George’s head had been wracked with brainfreeze just a moment ago, but now, it was burning. “Look, Lee, I’m sorry, but I really don’t want to talk about it right now.”

Her face fell and she got to her feet. “Right. No, that’s fine. I get it. You’re ill, babe. You should go to bed-”

“No, it’s not that!” the outburst had come from nowhere, but he suddenly just wanted to be left alone. Leah wasn’t waiting for an answer any more, but eventually he managed to find one.

“I... I was supposed to be looking after him, and I bloody failed. He woke up, and I was the last person he talked to before... before it all ended. Unless you count the doctors, bombarding him with questions until his heart just gave up. The poor guy must’ve been totally bewildered. I thought... I don’t know, I guess I thought the worst was over. I thought he was safe. I was wrong. I’m a fucking idiot.”

“It’s not your fault.” Leah rested a hand on his shoulder.

“Life and death don’t follow rules, you know. They don’t follow a plan. You can’t predict when someone’s going to just...” She paused. “Stop breathing. We just have to do our best, but sometimes even that’s not good enough.”

George frowned. “I guess it’s not just that he’s dead. I mean, I deal with death all the time, right?” He tried to smile. “It’s that now, we might never know why he died. We still had no idea what happened to him, and now we’ll never know. They questioned him after he woke up, obviously, but apart from his name he couldn’t remember shit about the night he went missing. I mean, it’s not like he fell out of the fucking sky! Even when they were charging the defibrillator and trying to save his life, nobody knew what we were saving him from. And now... well, he’s-”

George was cut short by an irritating sound from his phone; at first he thought he’d just forgotten to dismiss an alarm, but when he pulled it out of his pocket the screen lit up with a phone number. Someone was calling him. At midnight. Then, he recognised the number.

The hospital was calling him.

“One minute,” George said to Leah, turning his back on her and answering the call. “Hello?”

“Um, George? Hello?” The voice on the other end was definitely Doctor King’s, but she was letting a lot of emotion leak through her words. She sounded oddly scared, but mostly, she just sounded bewildered.

“George, we... um, could you, well, um... possibly come back? No, never mind. Don’t come back.”

His spine froze and his head stopped burning. “What? Why?”

“Well, um… You know what? Screw it, I have no idea what the hell just happened, or how, or why, so I’m just going to spell it right out for you and you can tell me I’m going mad.”

“What? Tell me what happened!” George got to his feet and hurried upstairs into the bedroom, leaving Leah behind. She got up to follow him.

“Well...” George heard a crackle of interference at the other end and the muffled sounds of Doctor King yelling instructions at somebody else. After a few seconds, she came back to the phone, which was lucky, because his headache had now returned with such ferocity that he wondered whether the suspense was literally killing him.

“George, you’re not going to believe me, and God knows I wouldn’t believe it either, but, um... Robert Walker is awake.”

For a moment, there was silence.

“Wh- What? But... What?”

“He’s alive. But he’s dead. Maybe the fucking monitor’s broken, I don’t know. I don’t know! He’s awake, George.”

George had no time to say anything legible before she hung the phone up at the other end, but even as the commotion of a panicking ward of doctors dissolved into empty silence, he could have sworn he still heard the shrill whining of the heart monitor.

Then, a wave of nausea rippled out from a final stab of agony in his head, the floor tilted sideways to catch him, and everything went black.

Typical.

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