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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5. The Man in Ward Five

When Leah’s seven o’clock alarm finally cut the morning away from the night, George was covering his eyes with the duvet and doing his best to steady his shaky breathing. He had the night shift that evening, so Leah was going to work alone and, when darkness finally bothered to come again, so was he. Most of George’s lonely days consisted of random naps in random places, but the more he thought about the night before, the less he wanted to sleep.

When Leah leaned over to kiss him before leaving, just like always, George felt his lip starting to twitch. He just wanted to stop pretending to sleep, but she could read him like a bulletin board and she’d spot dread on his face if he even dared to open an eye. He was starting to wonder, though, as she finally gave up on waiting and made her way to the door, whether it’d be easier to just tell her the truth.

George suddenly wanted to tell Leah about the lights he’d been seeing in the sky, the red spark that had crash-landed in the field, and the reason why he’d been awake to see it in the first place. He wanted to laugh as he told her he’d run into a muddy field in his slippers to chase UFOs and cry as he told her he went running through the town almost every night to lose his nightmares in the cold bite of the wind and the dark silence of the empty streets. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t capable of laughing or crying anymore because he’d been drained by sleepless nights, and maybe, just for fun, he’d drop some hints about his gambling habit too. Maybe, once all his secrets were out, he’d finally be able to sleep again.

George had never been the type for dramatic romance, but right then, he wanted to tell Leah that he was lonely all night without her and that she was the only thing stopping him from being lonely all day. In his mind, he opened his eyes, walked up behind her, spun her around and returned her kiss and her smile. In real life, as usual, he was too nervous to even tell her he loved her. He stayed in bed and watched her leave in silence, and even though they hadn’t spoken a word to each other in over ten hours, the house felt a million times emptier without her.

After the front door slammed, George spent a few minutes trying to compensate for the hours of sleep he’d wasted chasing hallucinations through his neighbour’s garden, but it was no use. Tired people were supposed to have to fight to keep their eyes open, but George always needed every ounce of effort to keep his shut. That morning, his efforts were weaker than the light filtering through the curtains. He gave up and heaved his useless mess of a body out of bed.

He showered in cold water without noticing, watched three hours of his least favourite TV programme without a single dumb line of dialogue ever registering, and then lost sixteen pounds to the cards on his screen without realising he’d lost one. He didn’t starve himself on purpose, but his weight wasn’t just an illusion created by his height either. Exhaustion ruined hunger, and he normally didn’t remember he’d forgotten to eat until way too late at night. After a hazy day of doing absolutely nothing and a hazy evening of drifting in and out of hallucinations, it was time to get ready for work.

George never once took his eyes away from the window as he dressed in yesterday’s work clothes, leaving his mud-caked pyjamas bunched up in a mound under the duvet. He once spotted a tiny fleck of scarlet threading its way through the edge of a cloud, but the entire sky was a swirling mess and any traces of light vanished when he blinked. His imagination was playing tricks on him, yet again, and since fifteen hours had passed since the last light, he was starting to hope again that none of it had ever been real.

George raised his middle finger towards the window and turned his back.

His head felt light, but his limbs could have been made of lead. George knew he was insanely tired, possibly more so than he’d ever been before, but his heart was throbbing solidly and for now, adrenaline was keeping his body held upright.

The freezing evening air snapped viciously at his cheeks and fingers when he stepped outside. He vaguely remembered discarding his jacket on the kitchen floor, next to his muddy slippers, but he couldn’t be bothered to unlock the door again to fetch it. Leah had taken the car, the hospital was two miles away, and George’s manic daydreams always made the walk a lot longer than it needed to be.

George realised that he could shorten his route to the next block by cutting diagonally through the field, but this rational thought was irrelevant to the fact that he was already climbing over the gate. After dropping down onto the gravel path, jarring both ankles, and starting his walk through the grass, he saw that it wasn’t nearly as overgrown or tangled as darkness had made it seem at six in the morning. He’d already trodden his path into the grass the night before, but unfortunately, it wasn’t a straight line. His route through the garden bent sporadically in different directions and wove backwards and forwards in a random pattern, doubling back and crossing over itself constantly. George also noticed that the patch of mud where the path ended, still firmly imprinted with the shape of his foot, was actually at the left side of the field rather than the back. Last night he had, quite literally, been running around in circles. Like a bloody headless chicken.

The gate was in the bottom-left corner of the field and the fence rejoined the road leading to the hospital in the top-right. Glancing over his shoulder to confirm that he was still alone, George stretched his arms out and began to force his way through the weeds. He was still trying to convince himself he wasn’t searching, but couldn’t help feeling bitterly disappointed when he reached the other side without finding anything. The field sloped downwards severely from the front fence, so it proved a lot harder to climb out than it had been to climb in. His muscles were almost crying by the time he was standing back on the pavement, and he still had a two-mile walk to look forward to.

What the fuck was the point of that?

“You looking for UFOs?”

George jerked his head upwards at the sound of someone else’s voice. The woman standing over him had insanely untidy brown hair and was leaning lazily against the fence, wiping clots of mud from her hands onto her jeans. His face burned with shame as he recognised her as his neighbour, the owner of the field. Up close, she was obviously older than he’d thought. Scarier, too.

He’d heard her question, but had no idea how to answer.

“The-the what?”

She grinned in an innocently mocking sense, her dark green eyes widening and the Cockney twang deepening in her voice. “Well, I can’t imagine why else you’d be running blindly through my garden. You’ve been seeing all the lights, huh?”

Is she being serious? “N-No. Course not. I just, uh... I was lost. Sorry.”

“Right. Sure. Whatever.” The woman’s smile dropped from her face and she looked down to pick at one of her fingernails. “If you say so. I just thought maybe I wasn’t the only one, that’s all.”

Ignoring her stare as she obnoxiously tilted her head to one side, George turned and began to hurry down the road away from her. He wasn’t sure what had shaken him more- the fact that he hadn’t been hallucinating last night, or the fact that his neighbour had caught him scrambling around on her land like a lost and bewildered dog. By the time he arrived at the hospital, which stood out like a white diamond against the dismal black and orange street, he was having trouble keeping his thoughts under control.

As soon as he’d walked in, George closed his eyes and attempted to drown his thoughts in the clinical smell, imagining, as always, that he was flushing some kind of infection from his brain. Just as he was about to sign himself in and begin work as if this was just another normal night, which, of course, it was, the door to the break room opened and Jamie stuck his head out.

“George!” He spluttered with laughter. “Oh, man, you’ve got to come see this chart me and the guys made. It’s mad!

From inside the room, George could hear a couple more grown men giggling. He managed to stop himself from rolling his eyes.

“What chart?”

“Just come and see,” Jamie replied.

George sighed in secret exasperation at his co-workers’ lack of maturity, but he followed Jamie into the room anyway. He was used to playing along with the silliness between some of the other doctors and nurses, since failing to hide contempt had cost him an awful lot of friends in the past.

The chart on the wall, as it turned out, related to the betting-pool on the name of the man in ward five.

“Oh my god, Jamie.”

“What?” Jamie’s innocent eyes glittered gold as he gazed up at his glorious creation.

“I just, you... Really?

“Hell yeah.”

The chart was massive. George could see that Jamie had, yet again, let a casual joke spiral out of control, and now even one of the hospital’s senior neurosurgeons had placed a bet. Amongst at least twenty generic names, George spotted “Tupac”, “Melchior”, “Odysseus” and, for some reason, “Beyonce”. He couldn’t help cracking a smile.

Jamie nudged him. “I know, right? I stuck with Harry, but we stuck yours in as well- look. Bert.”

“I still think it’s Algernon!” yelled someone from the back of the room. “You guys are all gonna lose!”

“Shut up, Pavel!” Jamie called back.

“Nah, I’m gonna win!” someone shouted back. “A tenner on ‘I dunno, I’ve got a concussion.’ Money’s mine!”

“Wait a minute.” George frowned. “How the hell’s his name still a mystery? Whoever that guy is, has nobody come in looking for him? No police?”

“Nope. No missing person reports in this entire half of the country match that guy’s description. Weird, huh?”

George shrugged.

“Your shift’s on his floor tonight, right?” Jamie asked. “Now, if he wakes up and one of us got it right, you’ve got to tell us. Look, Doctor Jenkins legitimately bet seventy quid.”

“What name?”

“Uh…” Jamie scoured the chart and suddenly snorted. “Ricardo.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”

George left the break room with his mood lifted, but he was deadpan again by the time he’d finished his check of ward five. He stayed in the room for at least fifteen minutes, drawing out his work for as long as he could in the thin hope the patient would wake up. Eventually, though, he decided enough was enough and got ready to move on. He was just about to leave when a red flash at the window caught his eye.

Oh, no. Not again.

He walked closer to the window and bent down to look outside, squinting slightly at the white smears of reflection against the night sky. Trying to stay rational proved fruitless and, as he waited, he felt his heartbeat slowly gathering energy.

It wasn’t until the red dot clicked on and off again, in exactly the same place as before, that he realised he’d been looking at the reflection of a light on the heart monitor. The sigh he scattered onto the glass was more one of anger than relief.

It’s nothing. This shit is all nothing.

As he became transfixed on the flashing of the tiny light, he couldn’t help being reminded of the woman at the gate of the field. She’d been so casual it was almost too casual, but her offhanded manner could have been mockery or inquiry. She’d spoken to him as though weird lights in the sky over her back garden were a totally normal event. Maybe, for her, they were. Her thick London accent ground through his thoughts again before he could stop it.

“Oh, hi there, potentially dangerous trespasser. I’m a crazy farmer. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting seriously bored of all these alien spaceships. I’m ready for the zombie apocalypse!”

George had been staring blankly out of the window for at least two minutes and, in that time, become sufficiently absorbed in his thoughts to forget all about the unconscious man less than a foot away. When he heard a noise from behind him, the jerk back to reality was so savage he could have sworn it gave him whiplash.

“Oh, god,” George muttered, turning his back to the window at the sound of a sharp intake of breath from the bed. The man’s lips parted enough to allow a low-pitched moan to escape, but no other part of his body even twitched. George took a step closer. Then, the moan turned into a yell, the eyes snapped open and George jumped back in shock as he shot bolt upright in the bed. An arm flailed sideways in the confusion and, after the spasm, the man’s hand ended up on George’s chest, fingertips brushing the spot above his heart. George barely had time to register a cold, thin sensation seeping through his flesh and the ice-blue colour of the man’s eyes before the arm dropped away and he laid himself, trembling, back onto the pillow.

“I- I’m... sorry.” His words were slurred and rasped like a drunk’s. “W-where...”

“You’re in the hospital, sir.” George shoved away the simultaneous feelings of heartburn and brainfreeze, struggling to follow protocol. “You’ve been in a coma for at least three days, and we don’t know why.”

No reaction. The man’s eyes lost focus, diluted irises rolling lazily sideways. His skin was filmy and grey, glistening with a sheen in the dull light of the bulb above them. Dark saliva smeared his lips and beaded in his beard, which was brown and wild like his hair, and he was making no effort to wipe it away. When he blinked, he did it with a painfully rigid effort, and when he breathed, the sound at the back of his throat was like nails on a blackboard.

“Uh...” George struggled for words. “Do you know your name?”

Among a whole host of other things, George was beginning to suspect amnesia, remembering the chart on the wall and trying not to feel disappointed. Then, he got a reply.

“Br- Bert...”

“Bert?” You’ve got to be kidding me.

“R-Robert.”

“Robert? Your name’s Robert?”

Robert’s frozen eyes snapped back into focus, fixing themselves firmly on George’s. A single darkened vein was pulsing lividly on his forehead, as if it was trying to force its way out of his skin.

“Yeah. My name- My name’s Robert Walker.”

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