Sirens – Part I

by Steppen Sawicki

At some point in college I took a creative writing course, where I had an amazing professor and learned that writing is awesome.  I hadn’t written since middle school, when I wrote a short story about a cat that could go through walls and other materials and was out for revenge on the man who had tried to kill it.  Sirens was the first story I wrote seriously for that creative writing class; it was based on a dream I had!  I’m not going to reread it, just gonna post it here in all its early writing crumminess.  It’s going to be posted in two parts.

Short Story: Horror

He was too young, and he shouldn’t have seen the wreckage.  But he had run away from his mother and she was at that moment on the other side of the crowd, screaming his name.  He paid her no mind and slipped between the onlookers, the gawkers flown to the scene to stare at the wonder.  He wanted to see what they were staring at, what they were standing on their toes to witness, peering over and between each others’ heads.  He could smell smoke and hear sirens, but he couldn’t see.  He had to see.  The sirens grew closer and he pushed his way in, muscling his way between the people as best he could until he finally broke out at the edge of the crowd.

Blazing against the dullness of the street lamps and windows and the gray night sky stood the fire.  It took his eyes a moment to find its source because it was enveloped in a thick layer of smoke.  The car was overturned.  His child’s mind could barely take in the excitement, and his mouth formed a silent “o” of amazement.  The fire trucks arrived, but too late, as an explosion jolted the air and he felt the pavement rumble under his feet.  As he turned his face aside to avert the hot air rushing past him, he saw what the ambulance had found.

It was only a ragged dark form at first, but as his eyes adjusted once again to the darkness he saw that the black splotches covering it were not shadows, but blood.  He saw then that the shape lying on the street should have resembled a man, it was once a man, but it now formed only a bloody mass of flesh.  Then the paramedics were leaning over the thing, and it was momentarily hidden from his view.  They didn’t speak, and they didn’t pause to note the futility of their arrival.  They only bent as one and lifted the thing to the gurney, walked it to the back of the ambulance, gingerly lifted it in.  Something was wrong.  He could tell by their stony silence and slow, smooth movements.  The upturned car and the golden fire held no more interest.  He only saw that these people shouldn’t be taking that thing, that man.  They had to be stopped.  He had to scream, in alarm or caution or terror, but he was frozen, unable to move even his lips to say “Stop them…stop them…”

His mother had grabbed him then and shaken him, gripping his shoulders tightly.  He looked into her eyes for one moment too long, and when his gaze returned to the road he saw no ambulance, for no ambulance had come.  He could still hear the sirens approaching, not receding, and the bloody lifeless thing was once again lying sprawled on the street.

******

Years later, Will awoke to the same drilling siren piercing his ears.  He groggily tried to put his thoughts in order, but found he couldn’t quite manage.  A dull fog swirled his mind into eddies and tangles.  A chill permeated his body; it twisted through him, unable to settle as some force gently rocked him to and fro.  It took him a moment to realize that he was riding in a vehicle of some sort, only he was lying down.  Voices spoke around him, but his eyes shared the fog in his head and he couldn’t distinguish the sources, which formed only into blurred shapes of color and nothing more.  The siren cut off suddenly, and in the ringing silence that followed he could finally distinguish a voice, which was then quite clear.

“Thanks Rob.”

“Thanks for what? He runs that thing for as long as he can.  Don’t know who he thinks he’s impressing out there.”

“I was just being civil.  Get that mask off him now, he’s come ’round.”

Will felt a slight pressure lift from around his nose and mouth and fresh air replaced the staleness in his lungs.  His chest felt stiff and heavy as he breathed in, as if there were a crushing weight on it.  His vision clearing, he could begin to distinguish the figures moving closely around him.  One was a man, perhaps only a little older than himself, in his early 20’s.  He had a messy crop of reddish-brown hair and, despite the trained urgency with which he busied his hands, he wore a soft natural smile.  The other, a woman, was slightly older and had her brown hair combed back into a tight ponytail, and as she leaned over him he could see streaks of gray in it even though the lines on her face were not deep enough to warrant them.  She was not smiling.

“Aren’t you with us yet?” she asked him a touch impatiently.

He still couldn’t gather himself sufficiently enough to respond, and so he chose to ignore her, lolling his head to the side so that he could check his surroundings and get the glare of the overhead lamps out of his eyes.

Hard, angular lines surrounded him.  Cold blue and silver counters and cabinets held trays filled with small medical instruments: needles, syringes, gauze, bottles of medicines.  Some of these same materials were strewn across the counter, among them a stethoscope and several tiny pairs of curved scissors.  Their gleaming metal surfaces were dotted with blood.  Yet it wasn’t until he turned his head to his right and saw neat columns of blankets and pillows stacked behind glass doors that he connected the sights with the rocking motion of a van and realization came, and with it a terror that drove the chill in his insides even deeper.

He was in an ambulance.

His paralysis broke, and he tried to sit upright, but restraints stopped him, one cutting across his chest, causing a sharp tearing pain to explode in his ribs that spread to his arm when he tried to support himself.  He let out a cry of hurt and terror and fell back.  The young man, who had been busying himself with something out of sight, turned back with a nondescript shout and leaned over, pushing down alongside the restraints to make sure Will wouldn’t jump up again.  There was no need however; the pain in his arm and chest now kept him down.

“Hey, we don’t have you fully fixed up yet,” he said, trying to sound lighthearted, but then his tone slackened a bit.  “Shit, he popped the stitches.  Lucy, I thought you said you knew how to do this.”

The woman had been staring at the commotion in shock, but came back to life at the mention of her name.  “Well they’re not expected to be jumping around all over the place are they?”  She scowled, as if this had all been very inappropriate behavior.

“Doesn’t mean we can get away with doing a mediocre job.”  Despite his rough words, he sounded more concerned than angry.  After a momentary rummaging in the cabinets the man produced a small bottle, into which he stuck a syringe.

And with that, pain became irrelevant.  Adrenaline replaced it, and Will began to fight against the woman, who had stepped forward to hold him down.  He finally found his voice, and it was high and strained and full of baseless pleading.  “No!  No, let me go!  I can’t be here!  Don’t take me!  I’m still alive!”

The pair were both shocked into stillness, and above the screams the woman asked “How does he know?”  Will took their lapse as an opportunity to reach to the strap across his chest to loosen it, but the man saw this and before Will could struggle away the needle was in his arm.  Panic faded to fear, and fear to a quiet blankness, and then there was nothing.

******

He awoke to the disinfected smell and dull gray walls of a hospital room.  Though there was a general clatter from the hall outside the door, he was alone in the room.  He no longer felt any pain and his lungs were no longer tight, but the icy chill in his bones that he had felt in the ambulance remained.  At this thought, the faces of the man and the woman inched back into his mind, and his cheeks grew warm.  Lying here in a safe hospital room, he could see how ridiculous he had been to become so terrified.  He closed his eyes and laid his head back, trying to ignore the nagging shame of his actions, but there was also the continuous memory of the needle in his arm and the pounding of thick blood in his head.  In the horror of the ambulance, it had all told him that maybe, just maybe, he might wake up in Hell.

He heard a shuffling noise beside him, and he opened his eyes.  He saw to his further embarrassment the young man from the ambulance taking a seat in the chair beside his bed.  He was munching on something.

“Oh,” he said in surprise, “you’re awake.”  He held out a bag of potato chips.  “Chip?”

Will shook his head, mostly in refusal of the chips but partly in disbelief.  “Why are you here?” he asked.

“Well after what happened bringing you in I wanted to check up on you myself,” the man said.  “You remember that right?  Sometimes people can’t hold onto it.”

Blood rushing to his face, Will said “Yeah, I’m sorry about that.  I was…just…”

“No, no, I’m not here for an apology.  It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.  But how–”

A small, dark-skinned woman in a lab coat appeared in the doorway and said something in a language Will couldn’t understand.  Next to him, the man lifted his hands and gave a confused shrug.  The woman left without another word.

“Sorry, there’s a bit of a communication problem here.  Oh I’m Todd.”  He held his hand out to Will, who shook it in exasperation.  Todd seemed to have no interest in what Will’s name was, because he continued.  “I was wondering about what you said in the ambulance,” he said around a mouthful of chips.  “How did you–”

This time Will interrupted him.  “Look, I don’t know if you part-time as a psychiatrist or this is just your hobby, but I’m not crazy.  I found myself in an ambulance and freaked out.  That’s all.  I’m fine now.”

“No, you don’t understand me,” Todd responded.  “You see, it’s not really our job to tell you guys this, I mean us, the paramedics, but you are dead.  And you seemed to know this.  And…” he paused, “I’ve never seen anyone react the way you did.  Sure we get the occasional ‘Am I dead?’ or such, but never with conviction.  No one ever knows who we really are or what we’re truly doing, but you did.  And,” he paused again, studying Will’s expression, “You know now that I’m telling you the truth.”

Will couldn’t speak.  He had been right all along.  He had only deluded himself here in this room.  He searched Todd’s face for a moment, but then he felt again that cold, clammy emptiness inside of himself, and knew that this was the truth.  He was dead.  He was only waiting here for some final verdict.

“How did you know?” Todd pressed on.

Will stared out the window, which showed only a bright whiteness he took to be sky.  He was no longer panicked as he had been earlier, but he had only accepted the confirmation of his death as something he could put aside to deal with at a later date.  “I didn’t know,” he replied automatically.

“Then–”

“I’m afraid of ambulances.”

Todd stared at Will for a moment before bursting out laughing.  Will was still looking out the window, trying to find some stability in the pure white that lay outside it, but the laughter bore into his head and he had to shut his eyes against it.  “What happens now?” he said, quietly.

“Now?” said Todd with a shrug.  “Now you move on.”

“To where?  Heaven?  Hell?”

“Don’t know.”  And then, at Will’s expression, he threw up a hand and added “Hey, I just work here.  We put the dead back together, we release them, they’re never seen again.  No judgment.  No fire and brimstone or choir of angels.  We don’t know what happens to them.”

“Then…”  Will was trying to take this all in, bringing his mind back from the white oblivion outside the window, “how are you here instead of there?”

“I volunteered.”

At these words, Will’s mind reeled.  The fear he had been staving off through the whole strange conversation broke upon him completely, but with it came a trace of hope.  If he could stay, if he could work, then he wouldn’t truly be dead, would he?  These people move in the world of the living.  If he stayed with them, he could go back.  If he could hide his intentions, he might even find a chance to run away from this.  Perhaps, he thought, there’s a way out.  He finally turned back to Todd, looking him in the eyes for the first time.

“How do you volunteer?”