Saturday, February 9, 2013

3 - 02-09-13 We Ate Without Question...

"Six weeks had passed since the surviving director locked the doors to the hospital. No one knew exactly what was going on outside.  The city was noisy for a long time, but now the wind seemed to be the only thing living outside the barred doors of the hospital.

As a volunteer nurse, I hadn't known what to expect.  I remember my father telling me that if I ever wanted to run for a political office, having a little volunteer work under my belt was never a bad thing.  It all seemed like an easy decision at the time.  When the director pushed the waiver forms in front of me all they received was the scrawl of my half-hearted signature.  I didn't even read the fine print. 

Of course, that was before everything went to hell.  I was an idealist.  I admit that.  I believed in the system; in something greater than myself.  Every time I looked in on a patient, whether they had cancer or the common cold, I treated them warmly.  It was all about duty.  That is until things fell apart.

First, the bodies were being shoved into the hospital at an alarming rate.  We were full within less than a week.  All of the cases were similar: a terrible fever than burned through the victims like a violent storm.  Antibiotics were useless, antivirals were marginally useful but only for the freshly infected.  Those who came in at the latter stages of development were too far gone to do anything but give them large amounts of morphine until they slipped away.  That was the worst part.  People died and we couldn't do anything to stop it.  We were powerless. At maximum capacity, the director barred and shut the doors.  Employees could go home, but no new patients were allowed inside.

The hospital population had literally died down to a fraction of people who were not infected by the terrible disease, but few were suffering from other ailments.  Many of us were at first so dedicated that we didn't want to leave.  Eventually that dedication turned into fear.  We didn't want the disease to find its way back into our locked-away part of the world. 

It had been a while since anything other than the wind and the occasional gunshot was heard out from the city.  There were no lumbering dead like one might expect from a supposed zombie apocalypse.  There was no overwhelming force of courageous military groups to swoop in and save us.  We just sat around amid the dead and dying waiting for instructions.  Instructions never came. The television stopped working after four weeks.  The power was there but nothing was being broadcast.

Then the survival instincts kicked in.  Those of us who had managed to stay alive this long without being infected assumed we were simply immune to the disease somehow.  But we weren't immune to starvation.  With the vending machine completely empty by the sixth week or so, I remember seeing two doctors scrabbling over the last Snickers bar.  I was appalled.  These were highly educated men fighting like school boys over a scrap of candy.  Then it hit me.  We were all going to need food soon.  It was only a matter of time.

Water was easy to come by.  The hospital had tanks full of sterilized water for medical use, and it made for excellent drinking water.  Tasteless, but it did the job.  One afternoon, or was it still morning, the days just seem to blur together as we all sat around waiting for something to happen.  I saw some orderlies pushing a gurney down a side hallway with a body on it.  The body was covered and was not moving.  Out of curiosity, I followed them at a distance, careful not to arouse suspicion.  The orderlies themselves seemed like they were trying very hard to appear inconspicuous, and failing miserably.  Their desperate eyes alert, and glancing down every dark hallway.  They never did see me.

I ducked behind a medical supply tray when they rounded another corner and I heard a door open and close.  Carefully, I slipped down the hall and peeked around the corner.  I saw the door they had entered.  It was some sort of access door leading to the underground maintenance tunnel.  Sliding up to the door, I slowly lifted my eyes just above the bottom of the window in the door.  I could barely force back a gasp of horror.  There were the two orderlies with a makeshift fire pit.  They had rigged some sort of metal spit or harness, and had impaled the dead body of the patient across it.  They were cooking her.

The smoke billowed out through an exhaust hatch high above the tunnel.  I shrank down below the door windows quickly, still trying to shake off the terrible act I had just witnessed.  My first thought was to run and tell the director.  He had to know what atrocities were being committed.

Running down the hallways, racing around corners, I reached the director's office winded and gasping for air.  I took a moment to compose myself, and then knocked on the door.  'Come in.' replied a dry voice from behind the door.  As I opened the door, I saw the director sitting calmly at his desk as though nothing had happened to the world.  His demeanor was unfazed.  'What can I do for you?'

'Director.  I think there is something you should know.' He held his hand up to stop me as if he already knew.  Then he motioned me to sit down.  I sat pensively, unsure of what would come next.  Would I be exiled from the hospital like some sort of traitor?  Or worse, would I be on tomorrow's menu?

The director folded his hands in front of him and leveled his gaze at mine.  'After some consideration, a group of our managerial team have made some tough decisions.  We don't know when or even if help will arrive.  We don't know the current state of things outside the hospital.  What we do know is that those of us who are still alive are immune to the disease.  We have tested this on several volunteers, and no one has contracted the disease thus far.  Our facility is overrun with the dead and dying.  Those who have died have been placed in cold storage.  We have enough, well, supply to keep the rest of us fed for months if necessary, at least until we can come up with a plan to move out of the hospital and find out what happened to the world.'

He could tell I wasn't taking any of this well at all.  I imagined the shocked look of disgust broke him from his purely clinical rationale.  'Look, goddammit!'  I recoiled at his outburst.  He calmed his voice but it was no less stern.  'We have people out there who are starving.  We don't have any other options.  If you want to go out there and jump on some moral soap box, be my guest.  But you just remember that, when people start dying from starvation, they will forget all about your sense of ethics and do whatever it takes to survive.

We're doing our best to keep it low key.  I have instructed the cooks to present the meals as being something we had in storage.  No one is being told what they are eating, and we think it's better they not know.  Telling them will only incite the kind of moral dilemma that you seemed to be stuck in right now, and will not do well.  I urge you to keep this to yourself.  We will be feeding staff and patients soon so I suggest you make your decision to get with the program or get out of my hospital.'

With that, the director pointed me toward his door.  Hanging my head, I turned and walked out, careful to close the door gently as I left.  A part of me knew he was right.  Even if I resisted now, soon I would join in with the rest of them.  At least most of the others were ignorant as to the source of the meat.  They would only be happy that they were being fed, and that had to be enough.  My father told me that sacrifice was the only way to make a difference.  'You have to make some hard choices in life' he would say.  Hard choices, but necessary.

Plodding along toward the cafeteria, I bumped into Kennedy, another volunteer.  She had a look of bright excitement on her face despite the sunken features.  'They have food!' she said.  'I can't believe it, but they said they found some emergency rations.  Isn't this wonderful?'  Kennedy turned and half-ran to the cafeteria where the announcement came that food was being served.  As I pushed my way into the cafeteria, I saw two different types of faces in the crowd.  Most of the faces were beaming with joy and hope.  There were some, like me, that looked sad and defeated.  Those were the ones who knew what we were actually doing. We were cannibals.

As I crossed to the line forming in front of the serving station, I grabbed a tray from the stack.  My hands were shaking.  As I reached the orderly who was serving the food, he looked at my face and instantly knew that I was aware.  'We're doing this for the good of everyone' he said, sounding more like he was trying to convince himself more than me.  He handed me a plate.  I looked at the cooked meat on the plate for a long, awkward moment, and then turned to find a corner table; preferably somewhere dark.

Those of us that knew all seemed to prefer eating in the dark, alone.  I saw several bleak faces choking down the meat in a mixture of revulsion and satisfaction.  It was an odd combination.  Most of the others were joined together.  I heard laughter and happiness for the first time in many weeks.  Ignorance was indeed blissfulness. The rest of us, well, despite our own misgivings, we ate without question."