THE DEATH MECHANIC
1. The zombies invade overnight.
I should probably mention now that those cursed with the disease are not actually zombies in the typical sense, but may as well be with their moaning and groaning and ghoulish appearance.
The transition isn’t gradual, so much as immediate and shocking. Eyes take on a glazed, foreign quality and skin flakes off in large patches, leaving behind raw and bloody gashes.
The disease starts off like any other: coughing, a slight throbbing behind the eyes, and muscle aches. The fever kicks in some time after that, followed by a loss of feeling in the body, sometimes progressing to partial or total paralysis. Cognitive functions and brain activity deteriorate almost as soon as the disease enters the body, a slow growth that accelerates as the heart slows down. Death usually occurs within hours after the patient is incapable of speech.
The change takes place in the span of 24 hours, varying with the severity of the case and the physical strength of the body. The odd cases, where the disease lives inside the body for days, or weeks at a time before showing any symptoms, have been showing up more frequently the further the virus is tracked, making early detection almost impossible.
Bacteria lives in the air, in bodily fluids, and can stay alive up to a week on most surfaces.
I’ve taken to wearing gloves and a mask everywhere I go.
I’ve mastered the art of holding my breath for long periods of time and relish in the clean oxygen supply from the tanks at home.
I haven’t touched a doorknob or handle in almost a year.
The only thing harder to avoid than the virus is the fear of it.
2. The construction of the new hospital starts almost immediately after the most recent outbreak of the disease. The heavy sounds of jackhammers, full of clanging and hissing and spitting pneumatics, keep me up at night. Work is usually carried on late into the night, with hot white spotlights illuminating the roped off site. An excess of dust and debris form a makeshift carpet across the roads.
The view from the bedroom window takes on an increasingly desolate quality as more concrete and rusted metal pipes are torn up from the ground. I sit by the window for most of the day, unable to tear my eyes away from the wreck the town is becoming.
The steady bang of machinery keeps the house from feeling lonely, the sounds of ruin blending into a warped and constant symphony. I finally move away from the window when people begin pouring out into the streets, collapsing on the ground in a writhing and bloody mess. My anxiety makes it impossible to watch the destructive path of the disease.
It becomes harder to avoid seeing telltale signs of infection as the sun rises higher in the sky: heat speeds up the growth and spread of bacteria, making the outside a living pool of sickness.
I hide in the shadows with constant flow of cool oxygen, not bothering to step outside and risk catching the disease.
3. Dinnertime conversation revolves around recent breakthroughs in the hospital’s labs and debates over the origins of the disease. It is difficult to escape the reality of the situation when thoughts of it are constantly being embedded into my brain. I try not to talk, and instead busy myself inspecting the textures and ingredients of the meal.
“The new hospital had better be coming along soon. I’m not sure how much more room we have to treat patients. We’ve had to start using the maternity wing as a temporary quarantine for unusual instances.” Mom helps herself to the salad sitting on the center of the table, carefully picking her way through the sparse assortment of lettuce and tomatoes.
I pass on the salad when she hands the bowl to me.
“Looks like the frame won’t be finished for at least a month or so,” Dad remarks. My gaze wanders over to the window, to the wooden structure that will soon house the rest of the town. “People are talking about sacrificing some of the lab spaces in order to spread out the patients. The proximity and body heat generated by so many is sure to take its toll sooner or later.”
Dad continues to eat, oblivious to the nausea that is always present upon mention of the disease. I sometimes wonder how he does it: spending all day analyzing the gruesome illness and easily transitioning into the regular routine of our nights. I avoid the topic as much as I can, but it’s becoming harder to carry on with my normal habits while neighbors stumble alone to the hospital, their family members eager to cleanse the house of any germs.
I fold my napkin over to the clean side and wipe my hands. Again: fold, wipe, set down, and try my best to ignore the thousands of germs crawling across my skin. I’m used to this vibrating and pulsing feeling, the one that starts up when I remember how deadly and disgusting the zombies are. The skin on my hands tightens up and my fingertips become numb enough that they feel separate from my body. Shadows mark the crevices and curves of my skin that are most likely to be exposed to germs, and the anxiety comes back full force.
Despite the often occurrences, I am never prepared to face the horrible feeling of losing control to the fear. My mind spins wildly, circling back to the worrisome thoughts and inventing elaborate and irrational outcomes. I can only look back and wonder how I’ve been coaxed into the trap of worry that seems so nonexistent and petty afterwards.
“Everly?” Mom’s voice calls out to me from across the table, sounding miles away when I’m locked inside the labyrinth of my brain. It takes a moment to discern fiction from reality, but I am able to reenter the conversation quickly enough to maintain a façade of sanity.
“There are a few openings for internships down at the hospital,” she continues, thankfully unaware of my temporary mental escape. “You won’t be dealing with any patients, just preparing rooms and sterilizing equipment. The department is mostly nurses, but the doctors walk in from time to time to check on things.” Her fork scrapes against the plate and the sound makes my stomach hurt. “You’ll have plenty of time to make a good impression,” she adds with a smile.
I look to Dad, who smiles as well. He gives a slight nod, motioning for me to thank Mom and accept the Chance of a Lifetime.
I accept after a slight pause, hoping they can’t see through the fear that has already begun its descent upon my body and mind.
4. I don’t notice that I’ve been scratching my arms until I look down notice the red marks. Though thin and already fading, I worry nonetheless about the unconscious habit.
I don’t know if I scratch my arms to somehow rid myself of the germs, or just give my hands an excuse to move at a similar pace to my mind. In a way it’s my form of fidgeting, of dealing with uncomfortable situations and taking focus away from the problem at hand. Scratching even feels like a natural way to swipe off whatever it is bothering me, allowing my hands to operate separately from my mind and give me a sense of relief.