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Today's Story by Karen S. Cook

Everything just stayed dark.

After Hours

The hospital never closes, but there are times when very little happens here.  Long after the admin offices are dark and locked, when the kitchen is at quarter-staff and only snacks are served in that little area off the main dining room, when the crews come in to mop the floors, that’s when I get to work.

My job is easy. I sit at a desk outside the morgue and process the papers for the people who have died that day, make sure everything is ready for the ones who will die the next day, and listen to a lot of any kind of music that I can sing along with that isn’t the blues. You can forget Mozart, Bach, all the classical musicians, too.  I used to play the violin, but unless it’s bluegrass, I don’t want to hear violins at midnight at the morgue.

It sounds like the place is spooky, but here’s nothing weird about where I work. If you were to take a tour of the hospital at 2 a.m. and saw me sitting in front of those highly polished double stainless steel doors, you’d smile and wouldn’t think a thing about where you were. That’s because there’s no sign that says “morgue” anywhere. People get creeped out by that word, by the idea of death itself, so the fact that people die in our hospital isn’t exactly advertised. As for the dead, they don’t know where they are anyway.

So, no ghosts, spirits — evil or otherwise — nothing woo woo at all. Until yesterday. If you want to be precise, it happened early this morning.  My shift starts at 11 p.m., so I guess it was maybe 3 a.m. when Dr. Sorensen stepped out from behind the double doors.

“Hey, Julie,” he said.

I grabbed my mouse and minimized Dragons of Atlantis. “Hi, Doc. You goin’ for a break?”

“No, no. I’m — this sounds silly, but – um, there’s something strange going on in the — inside.”  He pointed to the morgue entrance with his shoulder.

“Strange? Like zombies or something?”

He didn’t laugh, though it was our usual joke. I’d even lent him that book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was really funny for about six pages. He made it through eight.

“No, nothing like that. But the lights are flickering and there’s a hum that keeps getting louder. I feel a little…uneasy.”

“Where’s Jeff? He usually takes care of the technical stuff.”

“Oh, his sister got married in Tampa on Sunday, and he’s not coming back until tomorrow. Tim is gone, too. Flu, I guess.”  He tapped the top of my desk and said, “Call the shop, would you?”

The shop is what we call maintenance. All the guys — and the one woman — who work there are always talking about tools and wires and currents and stuff. The docs and the rest of the morgue workers — me, included — tease them about it, though I think they actually like the idea of working someplace called ‘the shop.’ I think it reminds them of James Bond or the CIA.

I called and while we waited for one of them to come, the doc said he was going to grab a snack and offered to bring me a coffee and he left. That meant that I was alone, except for the dead people, of course, which didn’t bother me a bit, until I heard that humming that the doc had told me about. It was whisper-quiet, like the sound of a single plane way up and out there. It didn’t seem like it should bother the doc, a barely audible sound like that, so I left my desk and opened the steel doors.

This time, it sounded like an army of airplanes, so much so that I instinctively looked up. Of course there was nothing there, but it did seem like the noise was coming from above. It wasn’t scary, just noisy. I was backing out of the doors when everything got quiet again. Barely there.

Okay, I thought. It sounds just like the window air conditioner in my bedroom when it’s been running all night. When it got loud again, though, I slammed those doors shut and went quickly to my desk.

It took a few minutes for me to calm down, and I went back to my game, trying hard not to hear the low-level hum behind me. When the lights went off, my heart nearly stopped. They didn’t flicker first, which would have alarmed me a little, they just went off as if somebody had thrown a switch. It got so dark that I couldn’t see one single thing, not even my hand right in front of my face. And believe me, I checked.

I waited for the emergency generator to go on, which normally takes about a half a minute, but it didn’t. Everything just stayed dark. Dark and noisy, because the humming got louder the longer the lights were out. That scared the hell out of me. My heart started beating like a metronome on speed and I began to feel queasy. I started to sweat, too.  In college I studied nursing. It was only for a semester, but long enough for me to learn about stress, and I could tell that I was stressing like mad. If I’d been living 10,000 years ago, I’d have taken off running, probably from a saber-toothed tiger or something truly dangerous, but running from darkness doesn’t work very well when you’re smack dab in the middle of it, so I stayed put.

I sat in my chair, relaxed my shoulders, started deep breathing exercises. I even tried inhaling on the word ‘peace’ and exhaling on ‘love.’  Then I did what most terrified people would do under the same circumstances: I slid off my chair into that little womb beneath my desk. Bounded by three steel plates and the wheeled chair legs, I held myself and thought about quitting. I love to read, and my mom always thought I should become a librarian. It’s possible that librarians are a dying breed, but right then, cowering like a 2-year old in the dark, job security didn’t matter very much.

The hum was suddenly replaced by the sound of banging. I thought I’d die, but it wasn’t zombies, it was just Melissa, the shop-girl mechanic.

“Hey, Julie?  You here?”  I opened my eyes and saw the beam of her flashlight move back and forth against the shiny steel of the morgue doors and pushed my chair back so I could get out of my hidey-hole.

“Thank god you’re here!” I said, trying not to sound as panicky as I felt. “What’s going on? Why aren’t the emergency lights working?”

She found me with the beam and came toward me. “Oh, who knows. The whole place is going crazy. Nobody has lights, except for the OR, because they have two emergency generators. Somebody’s ass is gonna be fried over this, you can bet on it!”  She shone the light on the doors again and said, “What’s that noise?”

I laughed, and it sounded maniacal. “That’s a humming. If you open the doors, it gets really loud. I have no idea what it is, but I’d really like to get out of here, like now!”

She shone the light on my face and I felt her concern for my psychological well-being. “It’s just that the noise makes me feel kind of jumpy,” I said.

She stopped and I imagined her closing her eyes and turning her ear to the sound. After a very long minute, she said, “Yeah, me, too.”  That actually made me feel better, because she’s pretty tough. Has to be, working with all those guys all the time.

Even though  I was totally into the flight response and could think of nothing better than to go home for the rest of the night, I said, “So what do we do? Wait?”

“I guess so. They might need us if they have to evacuate.”

“Evacuate? Oh, jeez, I never thought of that. They will need us, then. Maybe we should go now and offer our help.”

Melissa flicked the flashlight beam to the door she had come in. “I think somebody needs to stay here. I mean, there are weirdos all over who’d love to steal a corpse or something. But I’ll keep that door open and bring you a flashlight. In the meantime, use your cellphone for light, okay?”

“Not okay,” I said, moving closer to her light. I’d forgotten all about my cell, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. A beam of light with nobody but myself attached to it would have only caused me to imagine things.  “I’ll go with you to get a flashlight and then come back. The morgue will just have to be by itself for a few minutes. They can steal all the corpses they want!”  I fumbled around for my purse in the bottom drawer of the desk and said, “Okay, let’s get out of here.”

I followed the bouncing beam out the door, into the pitch-black corridor that was normally lit by overhead fluorescents. In the daytime, doors stood open and there was laughter and conversation from my co-workers’ individual offices. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much I missed the people sounds that normal employees hear in their jobs. Even though I had my iPod plugged in most of the time, I missed that camaraderie.

In a few minutes we were at the elevators, which weren’t working, of course. “Shit!” Melissa said.  “I’ll have to walk down to the shop. What a bitch if they do have to evacuate. Everyone will have to go down the stairwells, and they’re pretty tight for stretchers. And what are they going to do with all the wheelchairs?”

I shrugged my shoulders, forgetting that she couldn’t see. Stretchers and wheelchairs were not my personal issue. When we came to the lobby, there was the noise of people heading for the exit, and I relaxed for the first time since the generator failure. “I’ll wait here in front of the windows,” I said, happy to see the head and taillights of cars streaming in and out of the parking lot.

“Sure. I’ll  run down and bring you up a light. Don’t go away.”

“I’ll be here.” Where would I go? Not back to the morgue. I wasn’t afraid of the dead, just the noise and the dark. And the morgue — with no windows and no people to lighten up the dark — was just too dead. No pun intended.

The generator kicked on — or maybe it was the main electrical line, I don’t know — a couple of minutes before Melissa reappeared. “Boy, that was something,” she said, and handed me the flashlight. “You may as well keep this. Never know when something like that’ll happen again.”

I took it with a thank you and walked back to my desk. I stopped to listen before I sat down, but there was no hum. Not even the faintest, teeniest whisper of one. Doc Sorenson came in right after I did and handed me a cup of cold coffee. He patted my shoulder and said, “Did you do okay in the dark?”

“Oh, sure, no problem,” I said. “It’s just the absence of light, right?”

He glanced at the morgue doors. “Well, that’s one way of looking at it. L is for living and light, D is for death and darkness.  Hang on to that flashlight.”

The doors closed and I picked up one of the folders on my desk.  ‘Alice Markington,’ it said. ‘Age 47. Blunt force trauma. Next of kin Benjamin Markington. Two live births.’ I put it down and picked up the next one, and then I heard the hum again. Or did I? I stared at the file for a minute, then googled ‘jobs in Phoenix.’

I’ve had enough of the D’s.


Karen Cook has had four short stories, a poem, and over 50 articles published. After writing, and her family, her great love is traveling.


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