I suppose this answers the question about the existence of a human soul. By all rights I know I should be gone. At least I hope so. I should have listened to the preacher more closely. Learned what I had to learn so that when I finally pass from this torment, I know my soul is going somewhere.
When I was eight, I had a bout of chicken pox coupled with pneumonia. I was told afterward that I came very close to dying. All I remember was the pain, itching, and feeling like my chest was going to implode every minute of every day for what seemed like years. I was convinced it would never end. I was too young to understand death, so I couldn’t even wish for that. All I had was the feeling of burning and freezing, shivering and sweating, my skin crawling under the warm sheets, and the muffled sounds of people talking. The tone of their voice told me it was serious, but I had no framework to understand what was happening, so all I had was panic and pain.
This, of course, passed. We live in the modern era, for God’s sake. People don’t die of that sort of thing anymore, at least not in Wisconsin. Eventually I got past it all, and though I never mentioned it again, that feeling of eternal suffering stuck with me. No pain in the world matches that feeling you get when you realize there is no end in sight.
I got over wishing I were dead a long time ago. For one thing, I am pretty sure I already am. For another, it doesn’t seem to matter. I could wish for wings and fine Merlot right now and it would make the same difference.
Perhaps I should start over.
I never really understood what was going on. I remember working the night shift riding shotgun for the ambulance company when a call came in about a drunken man who had hurt himself down in Centennial Park. We got there about the same time as the second police car arrived. It was difficult to ascertain the situation because a small crowd had gathered.
Pushing our way through we saw a young police officer struggling to restrain an older Asian fellow who looked like he had been drug behind a bus from Cairo to Lansing. His face was torn to shreds; so much so you could see teeth all the way back to the wisdoms. His clothes looked dirty and torn, and in the dark you could make out brown patches that were probably bloodstains.
The officer called us over quickly and while Tim, my driver, started to hold his legs I tried to get a pupil response. Looking back now, that look of absolute nothingness shouldn’t have scared me as much as it did. The eyes remained fixed and even direct light from my LED didn’t change the size or shape of the dilation. At the time it terrified me that no one was home. I can only hope, knowing what I know now, that I was right. That is about all the wishful thinking I can muster.
In my surprise, I dropped his chin and yelped as I felt rotted, broken teeth sink into the webbing of my hand. Cursing, I shuffled back on my hands and ass as Tim and the two new cops to arrive finally cuffed and subdued the man. While I cleaned up, Tim took the rest of the vitals while the cops strapped the guy to a gurney.
Sitting in the cab on the way to the hospital, I felt like a class-A dumbass. I saw the guy trying to bite and should have been more careful. It’s not like I haven’t seem some crazy shit… I mean stuff… before.
I don’t know what happened to the man after that. I remember stumbling home feeling exhausted and a little warm, but otherwise just shaken.
My roommate, Sam, came into my room the next night. He had just gotten home from his day shift working at the veterinary hospital and heard my alarm going off. Normally I would be up and back at work before he got in, so he figured I must have overslept. First, it was strange he should enter my room. Further evidence something was going on. Second, the fact that we interacted at all was an oddity. Between our work and social lives, we never saw each other. Perfect roommates.
I came to with him shaking my shoulder. I don’t know if I was gone by that point or not. All I can recall is the intense hunger and rage I felt at being disturbed. I lunged for him and before I could even think straight, I had two of his fingers loose in my mouth, blood gushing down my throat. He screamed as I lunged again.
I have lost my temper before. Not often, and not usually sober. But I have been known to throw a punch, kick a guy in the knee, and even once spent a night in lock-up for participating in a bar fight. This was nothing like that. I remember the feelings of anger and pain, but it was like I was watching them on a movie screen. I tried to stop myself from doing the horrible things I did to Sam, but I just couldn’t. I am not even entirely sure I really wanted to.
Suddenly, something clicked off and I was left staring at the bloody, half-eaten mess on the floor at my feet. He had hit his head on the corner of my dresser falling backwards, and I could see chunks of brain slowly pushing past his hair. His neck and face were partially gone; blood ran in deep pools into my carpet and under the door into the hall. I stumbled towards the door, not by choice but as if my impulse to kill had been suddenly replaced by something else.
My hands didn’t seem to work as I bumped them fruitlessly against the thin wooden door into my house. I felt like screaming instructions to my body on how to use a doorknob but to no avail. After what seemed like hours, the smell of old blood and the taste of sour flesh in my mouth, my body began to pound at the flimsy frame until it finally broke from the hinges and I lumbered into the hallway.
To say the pain was unbearable, is unbearable, would be an understatement. You may have heard of “Ghost Leg Syndrome.” They use it a lot in old war movies in hospital scenes where a man has lost a leg or arm. They make a big deal of complaining about how this limb, now gone, hurts with a tingling burning sensation. Then the doctor or nurse consoles the poor man, showing him where his leg was and how the pain was all in his head the guy slumps back to his pillow, seemingly relieved that it was all an illusion.
Imagine that feeling over your entire body. Imagine no nurse to console you. Imagine that if there was a nurse, your body would probably try to kill her and there was jack all you could do about it.
I am no doctor, but 14 years as a paramedic left me with a little bit of medical knowledge from which to draw my conclusions. Not that it really matters, as I can’t share them, but I suppose I have to be my own nurse here. Near as I can figure, the pain is from every nerve cluster rotting away at the same time, like a necrosis. As the rotting expands, more nerve clusters are ‘infected’ and the pain begins to grow. But at a certain point, the nerve rots away and that tiny portion of pain stops.
The pain, it turns out, was partially to thank for what little control I can exert. After what seemed like days in a pain-filled haze, trapped wandering the upstairs of my house, I realized that I was moaning from the discomfort. It seemed to be the first sign that perhaps I was not completely riding shotgun in my own body. Over time, I learned to moan louder or softer, even as the blood from Sam began to decompose, taking more of my flesh with it.
I thought I had made real progress. I even started to think of ways to get help for me and, in my delusional state, for Sam. Then that stupid fuc… that silly squirrel ran past the hall window and my progress, like my body, went falling back to Hell. The impulse was so strong. It was like hunger, sort of. It was more like an emptiness that had to be filled. And fresh meat seemed the only remedy. I instinctually dove out of the window and remember hearing my skull fracture as I slammed onto the flagstones in the alley next to my house.
Strangely, it didn’t hurt. It was the opposite in fact. As my face slammed into the harsh stone from two stories up, I remember feeling my head stop hurting. I must have destroyed a lot of half-rotted nerve clusters with the fall. Best of all, I also smashed my nose in my face-first dive. The smell of rotting flesh, my own I assume, vanished along with the strange smell of fresh blood that had set me off in the first place. I cannot describe to you the relief I felt to lose this burden.
Slowly, I pulled myself to my feet. My eyes had begun to cloud; I can only guess the humors were drying up and my ears had a steady ringing, as if every hair in the canal had been dying simultaneously. Then I saw her.
I suppose the closest description I can give you is that panic set in. But it wasn’t really. Panic, you see, is an autonomic response as adrenaline is pumped into the brain to facilitate a flight or fight response in emergency situations. None of that happened. There was no adrenaline to pump, and theoretically, nowhere to pump it to. Instead, it was more like precognitive guilt. I wanted to scream for her to run before my body, this mad killing machine, noticed she was there.
This, however, turned out not to be a problem. At first I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t attack her. If my body was so willing to fill its void with fresh squirrel and roommate, why not some random stranger it met on the street? I was able to muster a moan loud enough that the girl turned around, and I knew why I hadn’t attacked.
She must have been fifteen or sixteen, her playboy belly shirt and Capri pants hung loosely to her underfed frame. Blond hair, just barely showing the dyed brown roots, hung loose over her face. Her eyes were milky white and old teeth marks scraped down her face, barely concealed by her blood-crusted bangs. Her hands, like her face, were caked in blood, but clearly not her own. Bits of fur still stuck to old clots on her forearms, presumably from the family dog, which was hopefully spared the fate of its master.
Now it made sense. Looking beyond her I saw another half dozen of us wandering loose in the streets. Aimless, shambling, as if exhausted or drunk and far from home. None of them reacting to the others in any discernable way.
That is when I heard the gun shot.
I immediately wanted to find out who it was. Perhaps to get help for me, perhaps to help them. I urged my body to follow the sound, which it begrudgingly did. I, again, would like to think it was my direction that moved my otherwise unresponsive corpse. I doubt it. I could see the others headed in the same direction. I desperately hoped to get there before these monsters, but feared what my body would do if I succeeded.
Less then a block away we heard another shot. Then another. Slowly, carefully, we moved towards the sounds. It was a townhouse with what looked like boarded up windows and a broken front door. Through this there must have been two or three dozen of us scrambling to get inside. I pushed and reached to get past them, but no luck. Inside, I heard screaming and more gunshots. Ahead of me, a large man who looked more mummified then rotted pushed his way into the hallway and second later collapsed as his head exploded. Another moment of epiphany, this time on two fronts.
It occurred to me later that at least I was rotting, which, while painful, had a predictable end. Eventually all muscle and brain would vanish and maybe then I would be free. Being mummified, by heat or circumstance, would mean eternally trapped in this form. That, my friend, is a scary thought.
The other revelation was that there was an end to all of this. Either through falling to pieces by natural forces or being shot in the brain, I could die. My struggle renewed itself to get through the sea of people trying to get at the survivor in the house. Sadly, I never made it in. By the time the screaming stopped, whatever sense my body used to detect meat had clicked off and I found myself wandering yet again down the dusty streets.
Over the course of the next few weeks or months, I believe I am now able to exert small controls. The pain of rotting has gotten worse as it invades my internal organs. One ear has ceased to ring, or receive any sounds at all, and I left ambivalent about my future senses vanishing one at a time. On the one hand, my ability to attack the living may subside once I am completely shut off. On the other, an eternity trapped in this body with nothing but the dark to keep me company is about as close to the pits of Damnation as I can imagine.
Watching the others, I am beginning to see patterns. Some of us just slump over, stirring only at the sound or smell of fresh meat. Others wander aimlessly, hoping to catch a meal, or like me, to find release in accident or survivor’s bullet. I would like to think that is what most of us are doing. That we do have some small control, if only enough to get us finished off once and for all.
So this is why I should have listened to my preacher a little better. He once said that Hell was not fire and brimstone, but instead eternal torment and separation from God. I believe him now. I don’t know if it was Original Sin, or some transgression, but here I am, trapped in a killing machine with no awareness of the pain it is causing me.
I have had a lot of time to think about my plight. My body never sleeps, and though my eyes are fading and the rot of my teeth and putrid flesh in what is left of my stomach has left me has left me nearly senseless, my mind still works. This illness makes no sense biologically. My muscles shouldn’t work without bioelectric impulses. My senses should have been the first to go when I stopped breathing and my heart slowed.
I can barely feel the warm asphalt under my feet but I can hear something in the distance. It takes me a moment to realize that it is three sounds combined, filtered through my one good ear, and colored by what I can only hope is more than a desperate need for it to be true.
Echoing through the city streets, over the soft moans of wind and wanderer comes the first few notes of Wagner, the shouts of survivors, and a third sound, the slow rumble of what I can only guess are tank treads. I nudge my body to follow the sounds, marking my path by the shuffling around me of my fellow victims. This is my chance; I just hope I get there before they run out of bullets.