Continuation of a very very old story I wrote.
Short Story: Horror
Todd tried to dissuade Will at first. For days he talked of how hard it was, how stressful. It appeared that he was terribly sorry he had ever gone to see Will in the hospital room in the first place, and Will was soon sick of Todd’s eyes giving him that pitying, downcast look every time they spoke. Will was sure Todd was wary of how he would act once in an ambulance again, and on seeing a freshly dead person. Will was wary too. He wasn’t certain if he could handle it, but he knew he had to try. His life was at stake, and he couldn’t let his old fears hold him back.
He had expected training, and lots of it, and he was prepared to wait and work through whatever he needed to learn, but to his surprise all that was required of him was to fill out a pile of paperwork, very little of which he bothered to read. Will was joining them the next night, Todd told him. When Will asked whether he didn’t have to train for the job, Todd only replied, “It’s on-site training here. They’re already dead when we get them. What’s the worst you could do if you messed up?” Will found the idea of “experimenting” on unwilling subjects a bit unsettling, but said nothing.
Perhaps he had been looking forward to the sort of training that involved books and exams rather than being thrown into the task straightaway, because he felt a tightness in his lungs as if they had never been repaired when he considered how soon he would be riding in an ambulance again. He found himself wishing he had been given more time to prepare himself for what he was about to do even if it meant waiting longer to live again. Even so, the next night he was standing outside the hospital, staring at the ambulance, willing himself to walk forward and finding himself unable to do so.
“Give up already?” he heard. Todd was giving him a wry smile that seemed to tell him “I told you so,” until Will realized that Todd had never mentioned his phobia as a job deterrent, at least not out loud.
Will looked around himself for a moment. This was the first time he had been outside the hospital. He stood on a concrete driveway leading from the sliding doors, and he could see a neatly manicured lawn lined by pruned bushes beyond the ambulance. A soft breeze brushed through his hair, striking the cold that constantly gnawed at him, and he shivered despite the sun on his face. This place was just like the outside of any hospital in the…what? Real world?
Todd frowned at him, and he told himself there was nothing to be afraid of. He was one of them now. He took the dead things away. He himself was already dead. Dead men had nothing left to fear. He flashed Todd a grin that was perhaps too wide and rounded the van, pulling himself into the passenger’s side with only a mild grimace of disgust.
Robert, the same driver who had brought Will to his current state, turned out to be a young boy in his early teens. Though he was tall for someone his age, his youth showed in the softness of his face. He didn’t turn to greet Will, and he didn’t seem interested in speaking at all. Todd tried to engage him in conversation but received only sounds of detached acknowledgment in response. Todd gave up with a sigh that said this was a regular practice and stared into the blackness in front of them as he leaned against Will’s seat.
“Where are we?” asked Will, turning around to look at Todd. The trees and pavement around them had quickly faded as the ambulance had moved forward.
“In between,” answered Todd. “Only the drivers know how to navigate this area.”
Will was relieved when Robert finally spoke in response to a call on the two-way radio, which told them they would be picking up a murder victim. Will’s stomach churned.
“How did they go?” asked Robert. His voice was surprisingly deep.
“Not well,” replied the woman over the radio, “probably got some mental trauma to her. Good luck.”
“No, hand her to someone else. We have a new guy. I don’t feel like dealing with two nutcases tonight.”
“Ohhh…” the woman drew out. “Gotcha. Then…here you go – a lady just got hit by a car.” Will tried not to think about how she knew that as she gave the address.
“I can handle this,” Will argued after Robert had hung up the radio.
“Yeah,” said Robert, “I’ve seen you handle it.”
“We’re just breaking you in easy,” Todd interrupted. “Not everyone takes to this too well – take Lucy for example.”
Will suddenly remembered the woman from his first ride. His mind had been so busy recently, he had completely forgotten. “What happened to her?” he asked Todd. “Shouldn’t you be working with her?”
“She left,” Todd frowned. “Couldn’t handle it.”
Robert flipped the siren on.
It was not bloody. There were no spectators. There was only the woman lying on the side of the road and the man, panicked, shaking, speaking into his cellphone. Cars passed, but it was dark and the drivers didn’t see the body. The man took no notice of them as they pulled up, lights flashing, siren blinking off. Will jumped out onto the pavement, followed by Todd. He could see the bicycle lying twisted and broken a few feet back, the car trailed by skidmarks a few feet ahead. The man had finished with the cellphone and was sitting in the grass, unable to take his eyes off the woman. The headlights of the passing cars occasionally swept over him.
“Come help me get her in,” said Todd as he pulled the gurney out. Will had almost forgotten that nobody could see him. The man’s blank eyes gazed only at the woman. The passing drivers didn’t slow to stare. He turned to Todd and saw the headlights of the latest car illuminating the ground and the abandoned car ahead, but they did not touch Todd. Though the lights of the ambulance swirled against his face, the headlights seemed to ignore him just as the man was doing. There was not even a shadow cast by Todd’s body; the lights simply swept in an arc over the pavement on which he stood.
Todd frowned and turned away, perhaps giving Will up as lost. He hoisted the woman onto the gurney by himself and loaded her into the ambulance, but Will wasn’t watching. If he ran into the road, would the cars merely pass through him as if through a fog? Would the drivers see even an apparition, the shadow of a man? The wind spurred on by another car whipped against him, and there was that freezing cold inside him again, as if it was winter, though he could hear the insects chirring in the trees and see that the man in the grass was wearing a t-shirt, the dead woman shorts.
“Are you coming?” said Todd, and turning to him again, Will could see pity once again in his face. It was the worst Todd could have shown him.
“No, maybe I’ll stay,” he spat. He didn’t know himself whether this was sarcasm.
“I thought that might be what you wanted. That’s why I tried to talk you out of it. They won’t see you.” Todd gave a slight nod to the roadway and its cars.
“I saw you,” said Will, “when I was a child. I saw you people take someone. An ambulance came and took a man and he was still there when it left. Another ambulance came, but I had seen you.”
Todd gazed at him, taking it in. “So that’s why you were afraid,” he said slowly. Will spun, turning his back to Todd as if to start walking away, but he only stood where he was. He found he could stare into the oncoming headlights without being blinded or having to narrow his eyes.
“You can go,” he heard Todd say, “but there’s nothing here for us now. A kid will see you from time to time. If that will satisfy you, then stay. But we don’t take back the ones who stay.”
“Why not?” asked Will, turning back to him. “Why not give us a choice, let us see what it’s like?”
Todd averted his eyes and seemed to consider whether to answer. Then he said “Those who stay, they change. They lose something. They become obsessed with this world, unresponsive. Perhaps they do move on and only the remains of the body are left to wander. We don’t know. We don’t know much at all. That’s why we’re all in this job. We’re all afraid of where or what we’ll be if we leave. But if you want to find out for yourself, I won’t stop you.”
The police had arrived, their lights red and blue crossing the ground and the people milling about them. Will held his hand up before his eyes but it did not reflect the lights. It was colder than ever. It seemed that just the act of standing in the world he had once lived in froze him more and more the longer he stayed in it. He wanted to grab one of the passing officers to see the effect it would have but they were all swerving around him as if they somehow knew that there was an obstacle in their way and wanted nothing to do with it. He heard Robert say something impatiently from the front of the vehicle. Will was frightened again, this time not of death, not of the ambulance, but of being left in the cold, in loneliness, and it seemed he could suddenly feel his obsession and longing for life clawing at him. It had been clawing at him for days, and he had let it control him.
Todd was still waiting. He had ignored Robert and remained standing outside the doors. Will concentrated his eyes on his feet, and walked to him. As he climbed into the ambulance, he could hear a familiar siren coming closer, and as he glanced to the road one last time he saw policemen gathered around the body of a young woman.