Sometimes... they come back.
It’s fairly common for the medics to roll in with a patient that looks like they were recently—or not so recently—dug up from the local cemetery. Think The Crypt Keeper but without all the witty one-liners or the will to live. They’re always from a nursing home, too. Places with cheerful names like Morningside or Reflections that bring to mind spas rather than the cesspool of antibiotic-resistant germs and urine-scented sheets that they actually are.
This patient was no different.
But was completely different.
Full code. Do everything possible to prolong their existence, even if their quality of life was worse than a decomposing cucumber in a grocery store dumpster.
The nursing home staff discovered her during their rounds—pulseless and apneic. She’d been “just fine” an hour ago, which in nursing home lingo meant someone had checked on her within the last week at some point. Naturally, they started CPR and called 911.
She rolled in.
One medic performed chest compressions, riding the poor lady like Seabiscuit. With each thrust of the medic’s hands, brittle bones splintered and cracked as her ribs caved in, fracturing. I winced with each snap.
The other medic rattled off a report, “This is Alice Murio, a 99-year-old female, last known well 30 minutes ago (yeah right, the lady already looked stiffer than a Republican with a bottle of Viagra at a whorehouse), found in bed without a pulse. Full code—have the paperwork right here. Blood sugar in the 90s. Asystole on the monitor. Given three rounds of Epi. We placed an ET tube in the field.” The medic shrugged sheepishly and pulled a face that said sorry, but what can I do?
We transferred the patient to our stretcher and resumed futile compressions, attaching her to the monitor.
“Pulse check,” I called out, and Leighton, the tech, held compressions. I thrust my gloved hand in her wasted groin and to her neck—nothing. Flat line on the monitor. Alice didn’t even offer the barest agonal respiration.
All was quiet.
I glanced at the clock. “Time of death, 0300.” It was criminal to continue coding the woman. 99, cachectic as all get out with frail legs twisted from arthritis, devoid of any muscle. Sometimes mercy means stopping.
Everyone dispersed, off to perform their various tasks: notify the family—assuming she had any that gave a shit, call the coroner and funeral home, and bundle Alice into a black body bag. I returned to my office and started the tedious charting process.
I’d just started on the physical exam section—dead, dead, more dead—when an ear-piercing shriek tore through the ER, followed by a massive thud that rattled my dental fillings. I jumped up, running towards the disturbance and my blood ran cold, freezing to sludge in my veins.
Leighton was crumpled in a heap just inside the sliding glass doors of room 5—Alice’s room. On the ubiquitous sick room green wall, was a massive splatter of fresh blood that looked like a Rorschach test. Underneath this, a sanguine streak ended where Leighton’s ruined head began. A caved in skull revealed a spongy pink brain. Chunks of bone were embedded throughout each visible lobe. From the hole, blood mixed with clotted brain dripped, landing on the linoleum with a squelch that made my stomach lurch.
My mind reeled.
What the fuck happened?!
Someone had pulled the curtain across the doorway, one last way to honor the dead and prevent any lookie-loos from staring at the corpse before bagging and tagging. A pair of bare feet plodded into view. Ashen gray with the barest hints of mottling at the soles, each tendon visible, tight as a guitar string. Yellowed curled toenails burst from each gnarled toe—thick from fungus and neglect—and with each step, they clicked against the floor like an unkempt dog’s claws.
The feet traipsed through the pool of Leighton’s blood, leaving stark red footprints trailing behind.
I gawked, and my mouth fell open.
The feet’s owner stepped into view from behind the curtain.
She’d arrived dressed in a long pink nightgown with a row of buttons down the front. We’d promptly unbuttoned it in order to place the cardiac leads. The fabric drooped on her skeletal frame. Pancake wasted breasts jerked with each step and her sternum was caved in—a souvenir of futile CPR. Liver spots littered her skin, some clearly visible, others harder to see because of the pooled blood with her soft tissues. Lividity, a clear sign of death. Her stick thin legs lurched, impossibly spurning her ever forward. Withered calf muscles bunched and released. Audible creaking of disused tendons and ligaments rang through the ER. The sound reminded me of a coffin’s hinges squeaking open in the midnight hour, unleashing ghouls on the unsuspecting world.
My eyes crawled up her nightgown, along her defiled chest.
To her face.
Without conscious thought, I let loose a scream that would wake the dead.
The dead were already here.
Masses of deep wrinkles marked her thin face, jowls drooped from sharp cheekbones. Her mouth was held open in a perfect O, paper thin lips wrapped around the ET tube the medics had inserted in the field. As if sensing my gaze, her lips curled upwards in a rictus grin, bringing to mind photos of patients afflicted with tetanus who twisted their bodies so violently that they fractured bones. Arthritis riddled fingers with knobby joints reached up and seized the tube, yanking it out with unnerving strength and speed.
Grayish pink tissue clung to the plastic and at the tip of the tube that had been nestled in her trachea, pearly cartilage rings caught the overhead lights. Fuck, she ripped out part of her trachea, my mind moaned. Long, congealed clots of blood dribbled from her mouth, some hitting the floor and splattering. She peered at the tube as if puzzled, then grinned, exposing yellowed teeth blackened at the roots. Her gums were dingy gray, like dirty mop water. She tossed her head back and laughed, revealing sloughing tissue hanging down from her hard palate.
Guttural, full of crunching gravel. But thick… as if she'd aspirated vanilla pudding during her last supper.
She flung the ET tube away—trachea and all—and it struck the wall with a dull smack.
My feet were firmly rooted to the floor, each muscle paralyzed in my shock and fear. Adrenaline hummed through my body, but I couldn’t make use of it, couldn’t rip myself away from the unholy spectacle. In my peripheral vision, I saw the nurses gaping in stupefaction, their faces a mirror of mine.
Alice bent down to Leighton—who had to be dead, who I hoped was dead—curled her bony fingers and buried them deep within her delicate brain matter, scooping it out as if she were a child readying a Jack-o'-lantern for Halloween, removing the sticky seeds and orange ooze.
Ruined tissue jiggled in her hand and she slurped it up, smacking her lips and letting out a reedy giggle. Acidic bile rose in my throat. Sour spit filled my mouth and with a struggle, I won the fight against spewing my guts everywhere, swallowing it down. Alice munched on my tech’s brain, chewing through neurons that once played silly practical jokes and dreamed one day of going to medical school. Once she’d consumed her fill, she tossed her head back and let out a belch.
Her head swiveled and her eyes rested on me. Milky white, filmed over from cataracts. Rather than appearing dull, they glittered with a horrid ferocity that was intelligent and cunning. Clumps of brain dripped from her mouth, rolling onto her nightgown where they clung, looking every bit like congealed oatmeal. She lowered her head, exposing flesh dappled with age spots. Whisper thin white hair shook with the movement.
Those eyes sharpened, and she bared her blood-stained teeth, letting out a faint growl that was bestial.
Distantly, I felt my bladder let go. The crotch of my scrubs grew warm. Dimly I registered that I’d pissed myself but felt no shame. Terror dominated my body, changing my DNA at a fundamental level. My flesh tightened, crawling like skittering spiders fresh from an egg sac, and the fine hairs on my arms prickled up.
With unnatural speed, she crouched and leapt from the edge of room 5, launching herself like an Olympic long jumper at the closest nurse, Seb. He let out a high-pitched shriek, sounding like a terrified toddler as she fell on him. Her hands hooked into claws and she raked them across his neck, opening his skin with a garish flourish. Arterial blood spurted from his neck; his carotid artery tore into pieces. His scream became wet, the cries of a drowning swimmer inhaling lungfuls of water. Then, the scream cut off. His eyes rolled back, and he slumped to the floor. His head struck the linoleum with a crack, echoing off the walls with sickening clarity.
Mercifully, his body stilled.
Death claimed him.
All quieted. The only sound was a slow, steady drip of Leighton’s brains hitting the floor.
Then… Seb’s limbs jerked—tonic, clonic—like a seizure patient. His torso wrenched up, like Frankenstein’s monster coming to life. His eyes, once so vibrant and kind, bore into me with a hungry cast.
My paralysis broke then.
I lurched backwards, landing on my ass. Scrambling to my feet with a galloping heart, I did the only thing I could do.
I ran like hell.
“RUN!” I screamed, hoping the shell-shocked nurses would follow. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t stop and pry them out of their panicked stupors, but what was I to do?
An actual fucking zombie or whatever the fuck Alice and Seb had become had materialized before my very eyes!
The only thing to do was run!
My heartbeat roared in my ears. I thanked my lucky stars that I’d kept up running after my high school track days, my legs churned frantically, carrying me away from those abominations. A chorus of wails and sounds like reminded me of wet laundry ripping assaulted my ears and I gritted my teeth until my molars squeaked together. My friends, my coworkers, were being ripped apart behind me. Would they become whatever Alice and Seb were? Or were they just prey?
Were we food?
My Crocs slapped the floor, speed pouring from my legs as my arms pumped. I called on all my athletic prowess to carry me away from the Hell on Earth. I ran blindly, with no actual plan other than to get the fuck away.
The long hallway spit me out in an unfamiliar area. Cautiously, I glanced behind me—nothing. Everything was quiet, other than my frantic breathing and hammering heart. I slowed to a walk and peered around me. To my left was a sign—pathology.
And to the right—
My blood ran cold.
As if sensing my presence, the metal door creaked open and a necrotic hand darted out. Black fabric hung from the fingers, darkened pits where the fingernails ought to be. The body bag… our body bags were black. Acting on pure instinct, I leapt to the side and the tips of the ragged fingers whispered along my scrubs, but didn’t gain any purchase. Without looking back, I resumed my frantic sprint.
Shuffling sounds echoed off the hallway walls, and the noise grew, doubling, tripling. Not because the thing was growing closer, but because more bodies joined the hunt as the morgue emptied behind me.
“Fuck, fuck, FUCK,” I panted, churning my arms harder. I wracked my brain, trying to remember the hospital layout. Of course, I knew little about the damn place. Working mostly nights ensured I knew where the ER was, the locations of the vending machines, and where the elevator that carried me up to the floors where I responded to codes was. Otherwise, I knew diddly squat about the fucking place.
A flash of red caught my eye, and I slowed.
Could it be?!
A sign that read, “Break in Case of Fire” and below that… a handheld ax encased in glass. Unbelievably old-school, but a godsend. No doubt a leftover from the hospital’s infancy when people were trusted not to break the glass and use the implement to threaten doctors when they didn’t give them narcotics.
“Thank you,” I whispered reverently. Exactly who I was thanking… I did not know. God? Lady Luck? Who knew?
Hurriedly, I took off my thin black jacket and wrapped it around my fist.
Glass splintered at my feet and shards tumbled from the jacket when I shook it out. I examined my hand. Unscathed. With a trembling hand, I reached in and grasped the wooden handle.
Now, at least I had a weapon.
My frenetic flight continued.
The hallway sharply inclined. My lungs burned and sweat poured off of me, soaking the nape of my neck. I always wore my hair pulled back—no use in marinating my locks in germs and blood—and the thin hairs at my nape were curling into a rat’s nest. Not that it mattered. I’d brush out the tangles when I got home.
If… I got home.
I came to a heavy door. A sign decreed, “EMERGENCY EXIT: ALARM WILL SOUND”. Internally I debated, should I push the door? Would the alarm bring the zombies to me, clanging like a dinner bell, announcing me as the main course?
Unworldly groans sounded distant, coming from the hallway I’d just run down. Shambling, clumsy footsteps and dragging feet.
Coming ever closer.
What other choice did I have?
I pushed the door open, wincing at the promised ear-splitting bell.
And jumped from the frying pan, into the fire.
A pair of eyes. Easily recognizable, I’d seen them many times, just minutes ago in the ER.
One of my veteran nurses, Judy. Instead of her normal merry eyes that shone with good humor, a dull, bovine look radiated outwards. Then… her gaze sharpened and became ravenous. Tattered skin hung in strips from her cheeks and her neck was torn open. Glossy cartilage winked and wet muscle bellies shined. Involuntarily, I thought of my medical school anatomy lab, where we painstakingly dissected cadavers, identifying all the structures and labeling them.
Judy’s mouth opened and her teeth snapped shut mere inches from my face. Unmistakable rot rolled out with a faint undertone of pennies. Reflexively, I swung the ax and buried the blade in her skull with a dull THWACK. Part of me marveled at how easily it embedded itself in the bone. The light went out of her eyes and they rolled up, revealing bloodshot conjunctiva, and down she went.
And she stayed down.
I wrenched the ax out of her skull, cringing at the accompanying schloop it made.
Past the darkened gift shop that sold overpriced candy and balloons that said, “Get Well Soon!” that deflated the second they left the shop. I spied the vending machines and rejoiced. Having visited these many times for a sugary pick-me-up, I finally had my bearings. I turned left.
Freedom was but a few steps away.
Only one set of double doors. Then the lobby and the great outdoors beyond. My car was in the parking lot just outside and I’d long developed the habit of carrying my keys after a meth-head swiped a nurse’s keys from her locker and plowed her car into the McDonald’s PlayPlace down the road. No kids in the ball pit that day because of a very inopportune—or opportune depending on one’s view—turd discovered amongst the colored balls earlier.
I burst through the doors, my heart leaping in my throat with elation. I was going to make it!
Shambling bodies greeted me, their backs to me. At least ten, if not more.
I skidded to a stop, nearly pitching forward on my face, but recovered my balance. The doors slammed behind me and each head swiveled towards the noise.
The undead saw me.
One corpse had remnants of a black body bag hanging from his torso, looking absurdly like a poncho. His abdomen was blown apart, dusky sausage linked intestines swinging from the massive hole. Small pinpoint wounds peppered the surrounding skin. I remembered. A shot gun wound. EMS brought him in days before and he’d died an agonizing death on the stretcher immediately after arrival. Blood poured out of his demolished aorta and I glimpsed the massive vessel, now empty. It had a ragged, moth-eaten appearance. Seeing me, he extended his arms out, his fingertips wrinkled and black.
Most of them appeared relatively fresh with their flesh more or less intact, save for those torn apart by the undead prior to their re-animation. Their skin and sinew hung down, exposing pearly bone and other structures only seen in the OR and anatomy lab.
Collectively, the hoard let out an undulating moan. Jaws snapped open and shut, anticipating what a lovely meal I’d make.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to get past the creatures. They were spaced out just enough that one could easily thrust out an arm and grab me. Then they’d pile on, like maggots on a necrotic wound, teeth gnashing, tearing apart my body while I remained fiendishly aware.
Back through the doors then!
More zombies pounding down the hallway.
Straight towards me.
Frantically, I scanned the hallway and spied a supply closet. I could just make it. I raced to the door, praying, please be unlocked, please be unlocked!
Cold metal kissed my hand, and the knob turned easily.
I hurtled inside and pulled down the first row of shelves within reach, blocking the doorway from swinging inwards. The fuckers would have to push like hell to get the damn thing open.
The threat was contained—for the time being—and I deflated. Adrenaline completely spent. Nerves frayed. The gravity of the situation cascaded over me and a sense of hopelessness gripped me, wrapping poisonous tendrils around my heart. I sat down, hugging my knees to my chest, and sobbed. My body shook as I rocked back and forth.
I was doomed.
What was I going to do?
According to my ailing Fitbit with 5% battery left, I’ve been in the supply closet for about a day. Someone left a stash of Funsize candy bars in here which provided much needed calories and in the corner, there’s a corroded sink that luckily works, even if it takes a few minutes for the water to clear. I can hear the moans of the undead, now further away. And screams of the unfortunate living that cut off abruptly, followed by the sounds of chewing. Early on, sirens filled the air, but now?
It’s oddly quiet.
I’ve decided to make a break for it. What other choice is there? Wait for help that will probably never come? Starve to death and probably re-animate like the automatons outside my door?
I grab my scavenged tools: my trusty ax, a paint-stained hammer, and the remnants of a broken IV pole I found under a pile of dusty linens. Its end is nice and sharp and should be able to impale most things… especially decomposed flesh.
And if it all fails? I’ve found a scalpel that’ll do the trick. One solid thrust into my tender eye with enough force will send its sharp tip into my delicate brain. I keep returning to Leighton’s caved in skull and her brains smeared on the floor like a grisly watercolor. She didn’t come back and I certainly don’t intend on it either.
I’ll only use the scalpel if I have to, though.
I grip my ax in my moist right palm and the unsheathed scalpel in my left.
Out through the barricade and I slip out the door.
Author's Note: I spend probably too much time worrying about what to do if a zombie apocalypse happens... especially since a hospital would be the first place shit would go down. I'd like to think I'd be this brave but I'd probably get eaten within seconds.
About the Creator
Howdy! I’m an ER doc who loves horror, especially with a medical bent. Voted most witty in high school so I’m like, super funny. First novel coming out in Fall 2023! Follow me on Twitter @DrSpooky_ER.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
LOVED IT!! I loved the gore and the cliffhanger!
Awesome, I loved the text.
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gave me chills
Excellent description and simile, humorous and relatable. Hooks you immediately and the pace escalates well, it's driven and reads like how a rational person might handle an undead incursion. Best I've read in a while! Hope you write more stories in the future, well done.
Remind me not to read this while eating. As always, well done.
Thanks for sharing 😊 It was a great read. All the best and happy writing.
Oooh, that made my skin crawl! You have a gift for the creepy/vivid writing style.
Very vivid and tense! I also love the little bits of humor (the ball pit!) and the sardonic overall tone. I'd love to see what happens when she escapes!
Fantastic read. Loved it. I look forward to reading more of your stuff.
That was fucking intense.