THE LIVING DEAD

By Amra Pajalic


IT’S NOT AS if I went to bed one night and woke up the next morning as the living dead, but that’s how it seemed at the time. It’s only now that I can piece together the clues and see the slow, miniscule changes that transformed me into what I am today.

What can I tell you–I was seventeen with my whole life waiting. If anyone told me then that men’s eyes would slide off me, I would have laughed. I was beautiful. People’s eyes followed me as I walked, their gazes caressing me as I strode ahead. Men, women, it didn’t matter. They all wanted me. Men wanted to fuck me and women wanted to be me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The day that led to the awakening was like any other. I spent the whole day staring at the ceiling. I heard them that night. Leah worked the night shift and she would sneak her boyfriend Dave in. They would shriek with laughter as they wound their way around the nursing home.

Leah led Dave around the ward and told him about all the residents. She didn’t go to the ambulatory ward because she and Sue were feuding. In a forty-bed facility there were supposed to be two nurses with one in charge. Since the third resigned six months ago management hadn’t hired someone else so Sue and Leah split the wards and stayed in their respective corners.

She gave him the tour of the non-ambulatory ward and they walked around my room where the six acquired brain injury patients were, myself included. Most of the patients were brain dead, but the power of hope is an amazing thing.

Old Marge, in the last bed of my ward, has been in a coma for 15 years. Her daughter visits her every Wednesday. She speaks to Marge as if she was still alive, telling her about her life and acting as if her mother talked back.

Old Marge was the exception to the rule. Most of us were the living dead. The ones everyone had forgotten about. Sometimes I wondered how my family spoke about me. Had they already killed me off by telling people I was dead? Or maybe they still thought I might come home and instead had told people I was living overseas?

Sometimes I imagined my fantasy life to pass time. I lived in London and worked as an art gallery guide, a job that wasn’t demanding and allowed me to dress well. Every night I went on dates with different men. On weekends I went to Paris to check out the fashions and hung around cafés while handsome French men flirted with me. With the trust fund from Daddy I’d be able to milk a good living until I found a rich husband.

I hadn’t received any visitors since I was admitted. The first three months I was in hospital my mother came to visit me every couple of weeks. The first time she came with Dr Harmer, our family physician. He talked to the staff about my progress. As they watched my unmoving body he shook his head sadly.

Mum never talked to me the way Marge’s daughter did, as if I was fully functioning and unable to respond. Instead she used sit by the bed and I would listen to her muffled crying.

When she left the last time she leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I heard her whisper, “It’s too hard, too hard,” and then she left. It wasn’t until months later that I realised she meant it was too hard to come and see me.

When I try to recall her face, I can’t see it. I know she has red hair and blue eyes like me, but instead of my mother’s face I see Leah who has the same colouring. As the person I see every day I know her face better than I do mine. In another life we could have been sisters.

When she worked day shift until six months ago Leah conducted physical therapy on me. I watched her as she moved my leg to my chest and behind my buttocks or moved my arms and massaged my fingers.

When Leah worked on me it was my one opportunity to actually see a human being. In the beginning when I managed to catch her eye she would smile at me. In my mind I smiled back, but after two and half years I became just another chore.

It’s been so long since I saw myself that I don’t remember what I look like exactly. My features merged with Leah’s and we became one. When I imagine my fantasy life it is her face and body I imagine.

Since Leah moved to night shift I don’t get physical therapy anymore. The nursing home is understaffed with a constant rotation of temping agency nurses that can barely manage the daily tasks.

I’ve become good at recognising who’s speaking, putting together the story of their lives from the snatches of conversation I hear. That’s the only advantage of being considered the living dead. People talk in front of you as if you don’t exist. Without a voice and functioning limbs you’re a non-human.

That’s how I heard Leah and Dave on the night it started. I recognised her quiet murmur and tinkling laugh as they wound their way through the ward.

“This is Roberta,” Leah told him. “Roberta has been in a coma for three weeks following a car accident. She has no brain activity and we’re expecting the family to turn off life support tomorrow.”

Then they reached me. Leah stood at the end of my bed as she talked but I couldn’t see her. “This is Delia,” she said. “She’s been here for three years. No one knows what’s afflicted her. She lost all mobility and speech and hasn’t regained either, but her brain is active.” I heard her take a step. “I’ll show you something,” she said to Dave.

Her hands were on my face and she turned me. I saw her standing there in her jeans and t-shirt, her hair loose and mussed. The nurses were supposed to wear a uniform of dark blue pants and a white shirt, and have their hair tied back. Over the past six months Leah had slowly broken all the rules.

Leah peered at me with a frown on her face. Dave stood behind her and I could see him over her shoulder. “Hi Delia,” Leah said.

I felt an unfamiliar rush of pleasure at being spoken to.

“Are you having a hard night tonight?” Leah asked.

‘Every night is a hard night,’ I answered in my thoughts.

“Fuck,” Dave said. “It’s almost like she can understand what you’re saying.”

Leah brushed my hair off my face. I couldn’t feel her touch and wasn’t able to describe if it was gentle or tender. I only knew she was doing it because the tendril of hair that lay across my eye disappeared.

“Yes,” Leah said as she turned my head back and I was once again staring at the ceiling. “Although I hope she’s not.” I heard her voice fading as they walked away. “Can you imagine if she was aware of the fact that she couldn’t move or speak? It would be worse than death.”

‘It’s much worse than that,’ I responded.

They came back some time later. I couldn’t tell you how many nights passed. I had no way of keeping track of time or any interest. When you have nowhere to go and nothing to do, time is irrelevant.

“No,” Leah murmured. “I don’t think it’s right.”

“Come on babe,” I heard Dave say. “It will be great.”

They didn’t talk for a little bit, but I heard moaning, the rifling of clothes, a slurping noise and imagined them clutched in each other’s embrace. There were footsteps as someone approached my bed. Dave’s face appeared above me, a little smirk on his lips.

“Move out of the way,” Leah said as she pushed him. “If we’re going to do it, we’d better start.” She lifted the bed until I was sitting up. I wanted to laugh from joy. I hadn’t sat up since coming to hospital.

Dave leaned on the empty bed across from me. As Leah worked on placing pillows around me so I didn’t slide off, he unzipped his fly and took out his cock. It was already engorged and as I watched it became fully erect.

Leah finished and turned to face him. “I see you’ve already started, Big Boy,” she murmured as she approached him. He pushed her down to her knees by pressing on her shoulders. I saw her head bobbing as she gave him head. His eyes stayed on mine the whole time.

I guess you’re probably wondering why I didn’t close my eyes in disgust. If you’d been the living dead for three years you’d understand. The worse thing was the absence of stimulation. I’d spent the last three years staring at a blank ceiling attempting to imagine myself away. Now that there was something to watch, I didn’t want to miss a moment.

Dave pulled Leah up and threw her across the bed on her stomach. He ripped her panties down and shoved himself into her. She squealed and squeezed the bed tighter. He fucked her hard, his hips holding her down so she didn’t fly off the bed. They moaned and squealed as they continued into the night, changing positions, changing rhythms.

When they finished Leah adjusted my bed. As the bed whirred and dropped me onto my back, Dave blew me a kiss. Over the next few (months? years? Eons?) this continued. Until the night he came by himself.

He turned my head. “Hi baby doll,” he said as he leaned down. “Leah’s asleep so it’s just you and me.” He lifted my bed until I was sitting up. He went to stand in front of me and undid his zip.

‘Oh, great,’ I thought. ‘Now he wants me to watch him jerk off.’

Lifting my nightgown he revealed my naked legs. As he pushed it past my hips I toppled slightly forward and stared in wonder at my pale legs. The nurses washed me in the bed and moved me around. Sometimes I would see my hand above my face when they lifted my arm to clean my armpit, but I hadn’t seen anything beyond that for years. My legs looked like stringy overcooked noodles. I remembered they had been lean and muscly.

Dave had managed to push my nightgown up and propped me back against the pillows. He undid the buttons of my nightgown and I saw my breasts. “Beautiful,” he murmured as he touched them.

‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘They are.’ My breasts had been my pride and joy. They looked almost too large on my long, thin frame. I used to cup them when I masturbated late at night, marvelling at the smooth, soft skin. Gravity hadn’t affected them. They were still plump and round.

I saw the top of his head as he bent down and suckled my breast. I couldn’t feel it, but I imagined it. I remembered my boyfriend Tommy and the way he had spent long moments stroking and sucking my breasts. I thought I could recall the sensation of desire that I had felt, but it faded before I could grasp it.

He knelt on the bed and I saw his erection up close. The head was purple, the skin stretched taught. He slipped a condom on and rubbed it with lubricant. He poured some on his hand and it disappeared between my legs. I assumed he was inserting his slick fingers inside me, but I couldn’t feel anything.

Then he awkwardly bent over me and I heard him moan. I was jostled in the bed, my arms flopping around like a demented puppet. I started tipping over to the side. He didn’t notice until my head was hanging over the side, my hair floating around my face.

“Fuck,” he muttered as he pulled me back.

He pulled me to the edge of the bed by the legs and lifted my knees up. I was once again staring at the ceiling as I was pushed across the bed. Suddenly he was kneeling on each side of me, his erection bobbing across my neck. I felt horror as I imagined choking to death, then a moment of relief as I thought of the end. At least I’d have a different view.

Instead I was once again lifted. He’d placed pillows under my back so I was sitting up and could watch him. Typical man. Didn’t matter that he was performing necrophilia, he still needed to an audience to do it. He smiled in satisfaction. He inserted his cock back inside of me and wiped his hand on the sheet. Then he started rocking again.

I watched his face as he fucked me. His pupils were dilated, his face jerking as he moaned. Sweat slithered down his scalp and onto his cheek. It made its way past his gritted teeth, hung for a moment on his chin and then dropped onto me. With one last moan and push, he finished.

He pulled out, holding onto the bed as he heaved in exertion. He took off the condom and wiped me down with a hanky. After he left I stared at the shadowed ceiling and smiled in my thoughts. I know what you’re thinking. I should have felt angry, defiled, outraged.

It’s funny how emotion deserts you when there’s no way of expressing it. Anyway it’s not as if it hurt. I was the living dead, impervious to human touch. He got an orgasm, I got a few minutes of distraction from the ceiling. Everyone won. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time.

They came together a few nights later. I was deeply asleep and the glaring light woke me. “Are you crazy?” Leah shouted. “Look at her,” she demanded. I saw her arm extended towards me. “Do you know all the things that could happen? She could be injured, bruised. Any mark on her body means that I will be fired and unemployable. What about her dying from suffocation? She can’t make any noise if she’s in trouble.”

“Okay, babe,” Dave said. “I was just thinking aloud.”

I heard their footsteps as they walked away. He was soothing her, their murmuring voices whispering down the corridor. I wondered why he’d told her he wanted to fuck me. Did he want her to watch as he got off? As I drifted off to sleep I realised she hadn’t sounded the least bit jealous at sharing him. Her only concern had been about me and losing her job. I felt a quick burst of happiness. At least one person thought of me as human. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

In my dreams that night I was riding a horse along a beach. The horse sped up as he frolicked in the waves and water hit my legs. Then I was running into the surf and the horse had disappeared. I was naked and the waves were rising higher and higher as I walked further in. I bounced up and floated on my back. The sky was bright blue above me. The sun warmed my body. As I moved my hands my hair floated around me and tickled my arms. I was weightless and free.

I lost my buoyancy and sank under the water. I tried to fight, to move my arms and legs and swim back to the surface but a force pulled me down. I held my breath but the pressure built in my chest. My mouth opened and water rushed in. I knew I was drowning, but felt nothing but peace and relief.

They came back a few nights later and worked wordlessly. They lifted me off my bed and placed me on a gynaecological table used by doctors to deliver babies. I watched in fascination as Leah carefully placed my legs in the stirrups. She placed a belt around my waist and on my chest above my breasts, carefully lifting out my arms. She strapped my hands to the side of the bed in restraints used in the psychiatric ward. When they finished she pulled out a syringe and injected me in the hip.

“What’s that for?” Dave asked.

I’d been diagnosed as a diabetic from a young age and was used to being prodded with needles, but I’d already received my daily shot of insulin that morning.

“It’s a three month contraceptive,” Leah rubbed a cotton ball on my skin. “If she gets pregnant we’re fucked.” When she finished she started to follow Dave out of the room before turning back. “I read your charts,” she said without looking at me. “You can’t feel anything that is done to you so this won’t be a problem.” She met my gaze. “I pray you don’t understand what’s going on,” she whispered, her hand touching my arm before she rushed out.

When Dave returned he had a man with him. Seeing the man’s hungry eyes as he stared at my nude body I didn’t feel any trepidation or anger that Dave had escalated his sexual deviancy by sharing me. I was happy that something was happening to diverge from my routine of staring at the ceiling.

“Remember the rules,” Dave told the man. “You can’t grip her, slap her, pinch her, or move her around.” The man nodded without looking at him. He already had an erection and was touching himself through the fly of his jeans.

‘At least this will be quick,’ I thought.

The man dropped his pants and pushed himself inside. With all the restraints in place I didn’t have to worry about falling off the table. The man thrust inside me a few times, his hand gripping the bed, before his eyes rolled back. He started to collapse on me but Dave appeared in my line of vision and pulled him up.

“Okay, let’s go,” Dave said.

“But I only had one poke,” the man whinged as he pulled up his pants.

“One poke is all you get for $50,” Dave answered as the door closed behind him. Before I could blink Dave was back, another man following him. “Remember the rules,” he said.

I still didn’t get it, or maybe I didn’t want to. I looked at Dave for help, but he was counting the money. He looked over and checked the john’s hands before meeting my eyes. He smiled, flicking the wad of money in his hand.

An endless scream filled my head. The walls crumbled and the ceiling collapsed under the force it. Dust and mortar covered me, grinding me into dust.

“Open your eyes,” a rough voice called as my eyelids were peeled back. The man thrust inside of me, his eyes sweeping over me as his hands held tightly onto the bed.

I tried to escape to the world I had created in my mind, but everywhere I turned there were grunting, sweaty men leering at me as they showed me their cocks. Mercifully I would slip away in my mind only to return as their hoarse bellows and moans called me back.

Dave returned alone carrying a basin of water and a washcloth. I didn’t dare believe it was the end until he started bathing me. As he rubbed the cloth over my genitals I thought I felt its damp coolness on my skin. He turned me onto my stomach and I started drifting off to sleep, wanting to escape into oblivion.

“Hey,” Dave said. I opened my eyes to see him tapping his finger next to my face. “It’s my turn,” he said, unzipping his pants. He disappeared from view. “I’ve still got a special place that’s all mine.”

I knew he was entering me anally. I wanted to kick, scream, punch, bite. Instead I could only lie there as he used me. When he finished he carried me back to the bed. “Good night, princess,” he said kissing my cheek. As he stared into my eyes I mastered all my hate and rage. He stepped away from me before laughing nervously. “It’s a good thing you can’t move.”

After that night I didn’t have any trouble telling the time. Leah worked the night shift on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and each night was a repeat of the first. While it was happening I was able to disappear for longer and longer stretches until I wasn’t present the whole night. I spent so much of my time out of my body, it was by accident I realised that the change was happening.

Each night Dave took me anally while I lay on my stomach. I had been gone for the whole night and came back to a piercing pain in my anal passage. “Ow,” I whispered, but wasn’t audible over Dave’s grunting. The pain was stronger and stronger and I almost couldn’t breathe from it. I felt every crease of the sheet bunched up under me. I saw my hands beside my head and felt my eyes widen in surprise as they clenched. With one last groan Dave finished.

“That was wonderful,” he said and I felt him press a kiss to my cheek. He turned me over and washed me. “Now, now,” he said playfully flicking my nose when he saw my stare. “Let’s be nice.”

After he left I continued clenching and unclenching my muscles. Each night while they fucked me, rubbing their sweat-streaked bodies against mine, I stealthily moved, re-learning how to give commands to my body and have it obey. They were so consumed with their pleasure they never noticed my movements.

I developed a routine and every night after Dave left me I spent the hours before the morning round lifting my limbs, forcing circulation back into them. I worked up to getting out of bed and then taking my first step, until the night I could walk all the way down the corridor and back.

All the nights I’d had the ward to myself I’d used the internet to research how to bring about my revenge and I’d found my salvation. I’d found out how and why I’d ended up the way I did, and who had done this to me.

I continued listening. I heard Leah had handed in her resignation and was leaving in a month, while Dave warned his clients that he would be moving interstate. I learned that the night they were leaving they were throwing a special farewell party for their customers.

On the night Leah came in beforehand to strap me down. I kept my arm close to my side, the syringe hidden in the sheets until she bent to strap my waist in. I thrust the syringe in her neck. She looked at me with her eyes full of surprise. I gave her the smile that I’d been giving her in my head for the past three years. I must have forgotten how to smile, because her eyes filled with fear.

I’d given her the concoction that she’d been injecting me with, unknowingly off course, but the result was the same. She was immobile the way I used to be. I stripped off Leah’s clothes and put them on before strapping her down. “You can’t feel anything that is done to you so this won’t be a problem,” I said as I patted her hand.

Dave had his back to me when I exited the room. “Everything set?” he asked as he turned.

I stabbed him in the arm with a fresh syringe. I caught him before he hit the ground and dragged him to the bed next to Leah. “I’m going to give your customers a special treat,” I told him as I lay him on his stomach and removed his clothes. “A very special treat,” I patted his buttocks and strapped him to the bed.

When his customers arrived they were happy to be getting two pokes for the price of one. I’d transformed Dave into a coma patient by shaving his head and bandaging his face, leaving two holes for him to breath through his mouth and nose. I didn’t worry that anyone would recognise Leah. After so many months of being poked by Dave’s clients, I knew that they thought of the woman under them as a piece of meat.

When Dave’s customers had finished for the night I washed Leah and returned her to my bed. A tear dripped down her cheek. “Shhh,” I murmured as I smoothed her hair. “I won’t hurt you. You’re going to know exactly what it’s like to live my life and I’m going to know what it’s like to live yours.” With all the staff changes no one would realise the switch between Leah and me.

“I have another special treat for you,” I told Dave as I pushed the trolley down the corridor.

The nursing home was a former hospital and it had its own morgue and incinerator. I managed to cut off his hands and his left arm, before he bled out.

I washed myself and took one last walk through the nursing home. I didn’t want to forget what had happened to me. I had lost three years of my life and had a lot of living to make up for.

I recognised their car in the car park by the luggage stacked up against the back windows. I put the keys in the ignition and drove carefully. There was one more errand to run.

“Hello Mum,” I whispered as I knelt above her bed with a pillow in my hands. I gave her one moment to wake up and see me before smothering her. Afterwards I trashed the house and cleared the safe. There wasn’t much money left. She’d gone through my inheritance.

While conducting my nocturnal runs in the hospital I’d checked my charts and realised what had happened. Dr Harmer had colluded with Mum and my insulin had been spiked with medication to paralyse my muscles. After I’d been admitted to the hospital the staff had kept injecting me with the medication Dr Harmer had prescribed. When Leah injected me with the contraception she’d blocked the spiked insulin thus ending my paralysis.

I drove to the airport. I’d found Leah’s passport among her papers. Even with Mum’s spendthrift ways there was enough for a one-way ticket to London. The john’s money would help set me up when I landed. I was going to live my imaginary life.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I have placed in short story competitions, been published in magazines, journals and in anthologies. My short stories Siege and Fuck Me Eyes have appeared in the 2004 and 2005 Best Australian Stories. Siege has received review mentions in Australian Book Review “a powerful and moving story of family dissolution and the suffering, deprivation and terror of war,” and in Bulletin “Amra Pajalic’s Bosnian Diary is a masterpiece of broken elegy.” Fuck Me Eyes has also received a review mention in Australian Book Review as “briskly narrated” and “interesting and original writing.” My blog is http://amrapajalic.blogspot.com/


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