It wasn’t life. I had given up on life a long time ago. It was existence—barely. I took no notice of my gray, pallid, flaking skin, my putrefied face and hair, my black nails or the thick, black fluid that oozed from the sores that covered my thin body. I was only dimly aware of the shops that I passed as I shuffled down the ash-filled city streets along with all of the other shapes that had once been human.
I was resigned to what I was, only dimly aware that once I had a choice. I could have chosen what to wear each day, what to eat, even who to talk to. Now I only knew that those memories were far, far below my consciousness. I was a spectre, a shape without consciousness. I was a zombie.
And so it was that I hardly noticed when the big deuce and a half U.S. Army truck drove up and the scientists in their yellow plastic hazmat suits jumped out. A few took out rifles and began shooting the other shapes around me. And I waited for the shot to come for me, a bullet to rip through my skull and brain and turn me into the pile of garbage that I knew I already was.
Instead, a shape that looked somehow familiar stood in the back of the truck, scanning the street until the shape saw me. I looked through the clear plastic faceplate and saw the soft eyes of a woman. She stared at me for what seemed like a long time, until I began to shuffle toward her, my arms reaching out to somehow capture the life that she represented. She pointed at me, and nodded to the others.
“That one,” she said simply.
In response, two men threw a heavy cargo net over me. The weight of it dragged me to the ground and I collapsed. I moaned and grunted, trying to push the net out of the way and stand up. Instead, a man stepped up and jabbed a needle into my shoulder.
They loaded the cargo net with me in it into the back of the big truck. I drifted in and out of consciousness as they left the city streets and followed the road back into the mountains. The truck bounced along the rough road, and I saw another truck carrying the scientists following behind. I looked up at two big men in the hazmat suits on either side of me, preventing me from rising, and the woman sat right behind the cab of the truck. She continued to stare at me as if I were someone she knew, and I stared right back at her, although in my state, my thoughts were more about food than about fellowship.
We entered a dark tunnel with a sign arching above the tunnel. I could no longer read, so I had no idea what the sign said. All I knew was that the trucks entered the tunnel and the darkness that came with it. And then lights came on overhead. I lay in the bottom of the trucks and stared at the fluorescent lights that ran by, each panel that we passed taking us from light to darkness and back to light.
Finally I heard brakes squeal and the trucks stopped. The woman jumped down from the back of the truck and I felt the springs lift as her weight disappeared. I saw that I was in a large room made specifically for storing vehicles. Hands reached on either side of me, and before I knew what was happening, metal clamps locked around my upper arms, just below my armpits. The netting lifted off of me, and I found myself free, with the exception of the metal clamps. The two strong men who had watched over me up to this point held the end of inch thick metal rods attached to the clamps. Together they encouraged me to stand up and then half fall/half jump from the back of the truck.
Even though I was drugged, I jerked and pulled against the clamps, hoping to pull free, even if it meant losing an arm in the process. Injuries meant nothing to me and others like me, for with the pale existence that we lived came painlessness. I could tear my arm out of its socket and never feel anything. Several others I had been around had done that very thing. There was some drippy oozing of the black fluid that replaced blood, but that didn’t seem to stop or even slow down those who did it.
I stood facing the crowd of people that had gathered there, my back to the big green truck, strong men holding me in place with clamps. As I stared at the crowd and gnashed my teeth, threatening them with the only weapon I still had available to me, I felt someone else come up behind me. I couldn’t see them, but could smell them standing there. Frustrated, I tried to twist and turn to get at them, but felt a cold metal rod glide across my back, clicking into place between the two arm clamps. The woman stared at the man I knew stood behind me.
“Is that absolutely necessary?” she asked.
“It is if you want him to remain in one piece,” I heard a deep voice behind me say. “These vermin will pull their arms out of their sockets as simple as pie. This will protect him—and us.”
After the rod was added, the two man walked me through a set of double doors, down a hall, and into another room. They clamped the rings around my arms to a large metal table that was standing on its end. I felt my arms and legs clamp to the table, then other belts and clamps went around my chest and my hips. All the while I watched the two men, waiting for one of them to get close enough for me to rip his throat out, or at least to sink my teeth into him and share my misery. But both were careful and I never got the chance.
When I was locked down, they brought out shears and cut the rags that used to be clothing from my body. I stood naked against the metal table, helpless yet defiant.
The woman I had seen in the truck came into the room, now changed out of her yellow hazmat suit into a white lab coat. She was joined by a smaller man with glasses and a white lab coat as well. For a long while they inspected my body. Finally they stood back and looked at me, talking.
“No broken bones, only minor contusions, and that one nasty bump on the back of his head. He’s in remarkably good shape, considering,” said the man.
The woman smiled faintly. “He’s got good genes.”
The man shook his head. “We’ll have to do some blood tests, CAT scan and other lab work. Regardless, I think your plan is futile. It will take a miracle to do what you want to do.”
The woman stared at me for a long time. “I’ve always believed in miracles, haven’t you? After all, we are here, still alive, even though the rest of the world has gone into the toilet. Isn’t that a miracle?”
The man took off his glasses and pretended to clean them. “Yes, well, I guess you could call that a miracle. But what you are asking….”
“What I am asking is only what I must ask. Nothing more,” she said. “I am not just looking for a miracle. I am looking for an answer.”
“We are all looking for an answer,” he said.
“Then that should settle the matter,” she said, turning and leaving the room.
What followed were several weeks of tests, more tests, and even more tests. I was prodded, poked and stuck. I had every manner of tissue and fluid removed from my body. I had doctors and scientists stand in front of me, chatting with each other as if I wasn’t there. Because for all of them, I was only another lab rat. There was no sense of desperation, hope of even optimism. They were going through the motions; that was all.
It was only the woman who dared to try to communicate with me. Every morning, she would come into the room where they had me shackled and would talk to me. I didn’t understand a lot of what she was saying, but I enjoyed the tone of her voice. Sometimes I would hear her use a name: Johnny. She would repeat it as if it was supposed to mean something to me. And once in a while I would see tears gather in her eyes. I didn’t understand what they were, but somehow they moved me. The woman was the only one who showed me kindness. I swore than when I broke free, she would be the last one that I would kill.
One morning, several weeks into the tests, the two strong men appeared again. They injected me with something that made me sleepy, and then they unlocked me from the table. They walked me into the next room, and then walked me up a set of stairs and into a large glass tank. I had no idea what it was for, and decided to not fight them.
The clamps fit into place on either side on the inside of the tank. When I was bolted into place, I suddenly felt strong hands grip the sides of my face and a mask slipped over my face. That was when I started to panic. The mask had taken away the only weapon I had; my teeth.
While I struggled in place, the tank began filling with a bright green fluid. I continued to fight as it rose to my knees, my waist, and then over my face. Soon I was covered by the fluid with only the mask to allow me to breathe.
I remained in the tank for several days. Again, only the man with glasses and the woman came to visit me, and then only the woman talked to me. There was an intercom system on the outside of the tank, and surprisingly I could hear her as she continued to call to me, “Johnny. Johnny. Johnny.”
It was the third day in the tank before I realized that I was Johnny. What had been my existence began to change into more of a nightmare. I began to remember that I had a life before my time on the street, before my skin had turned gray and my mind had gone blank.
And I began to try to communicate with the woman. She couldn’t hear my voice behind the mask and beneath all of the green slime. But somehow she recognized that my struggles had turned from a being who only wanted to destroy into someone who could be reasoned with.
A day later, they drained the tank and attached wires to me and tubes to my left and right arm. As I hung there suspended, I watched black fluid pump out of one arm and red fluid—blood—pump into the other. My skin began to change color. I watched the scientists come and gather, staring at me through the glass as if they were truly watching a miracle.
And then the disaster came. I was becoming more and more human, until one day I felt a searing pain run through my chest and down my left arm. I cried out and the man with the glasses came running. He looked at the monitor that was hooked to me and began to frown.
“It’s not going to work,” he said over his shoulder as the woman stepped up behind him.
“But we’re so close!” the woman said.
“We were never close,” he said. “You’re not being reasonable.”
“Reasonable?” she echoed. “We’re close. This could be the breakthrough we are looking for. Just tell me what we need for him. Tell me.”
The man took his glasses off and cleaned them, his eyes never leaving me. He spoke so that I couldn’t hear his words, spoke low so that only the woman could hear.
Her face turned white. And then she nodded.
He turned a dial and suddenly I was asleep.
I woke up in a bed. I had photos of the countryside on the wall across from me. It wasn’t the countryside that existed now, a land of the undead. It was a countryside filled with green grass and cows and sheep and fluffy clouds. It was from somewhere in my memory, somewhere in the distant past—or the distant future.
I looked down at my pale, thin arm lying atop the sheet and realized it was the arm of a man, not a zombie. I looked over at the other one, then felt my own face. There was no loose, dry skin. It was firm and young. As far as I could tell, I was a healthy young man.
As my eyes gathered focus, the man with the glasses came in.
“Ah, you’re awake,” he said, more to himself than to me. “How are you feeling?”
“I feel–,” I started to say, and the voice came out hoarse. I hesitated.
He waved at me as if dismissing the problem.
“Oh, that’s just a combination of the anesthetic and the fact that you haven’t spoken human words in over a year. So, what’s it like to come back from the dead?”
I stared at him, not knowing how to respond. He chuckled to himself.
“Well, there will be plenty of time to answer rhetorical questions like that in days to come. You know you are a miracle, don’t you? The first success story of many—we hope.”
“The woman–,” I whispered.
“Do you remember your name?” he asked, not bothering to respond to my question.
“Johnny. The woman said my name was Johnny.”
“Yes. John Blackthorne to be exact. Do you remember your life before? Oh, never mind, the memories will come soon enough.”
“Where is the woman?” I asked again.
The man with the glasses paused and blushed, as if caught doing something distasteful.
“Well you see, John. The tests and the procedure we did on you was almost a total success. Almost. What we didn’t count on was the fact that you had a congenital heart condition. If you had had a healthy heart, it wouldn’t have been a problem. And we have high hopes for the others who follow.”
He reached down and pulled back my sheets and I saw that a fresh scar ran from between my two collarbones straight down my breastbone almost to my navel.
“What happened?” I said, staring at the scar.
“Your heart gave up from the stress of the procedure,” he said. “We needed a replacement for you to live. With the population as low as it is, it was impossible for us to cross match and find some stranger who fit your profile. The next best thing was to find a close relative.”
“Close relative?” I repeated.
“In this case, your mother,” he said, not daring to look up at me. Instead, he reached beneath the bed and pulled out a framed photo. In it was a likeness of the woman who had talked to me as I spent my time in the tank.
“Dr. Marta Blackthorne. She gave you life—twice. And she will be known from this day forth as the woman who saved countless souls from a unthinkable destiny.”
I stared at the photo and then at the man in the glasses.
And then a wail broke free from my lips. It was the cry of a lost child who had been found, only to lose the one most precious to him.