Drink Plenty of Fluids
I was a busy guy during the first week of my death. Sort of the opposite of what you’d imagine, right? You’d assume it would be quiet, even relaxing, being dead and all. But not in my unlife. There was a lot to do.
For the first few days after the accident, I was seen by every medical expert in the area, even people from the FBI and mysterious others flashing U.S. Government badges. All day long they wandered into my hospital room to marvel at the new patient. They looked at me and frowned, clucked and murmured, and said helpful things like, “Hmmm, interesting, interesting.” I was a fascinating case, a puzzlement. I was tested, probed, poked, prodded, scanned, questioned, measured, charted and MRI’d until, finally, the folks in their white coats shrugged with a mixture of defeat and boredom. After three sleep-interrupted nights of liquids dripping and machines beeping, they told me to go home. Something about insurance costs. There was nothing to be done. After that, I was assigned to the primary care of Dr. Lewis Halpert. He was some hot-shot specialist flown in from who-knows-where. And so we visited his pristine office for regular check-ups at the K & K MediCorp building. As far as I could tell, I was his only patient.
On the day when my bad news got worse, I played with the controls of a leatherette recliner of the type normally found in a dentist’s office. My mother fiddled with her new watch computer, setting up the connection with my Dad who was still deployed at an unspecified location somewhere in the African continent. Dad couldn’t give us details on his work assignments, it was hush-hush, and we’d often go months without a word. Even so, he was supportive about my situation. Dad said he wanted to come home immediately, but, well, the Corporation couldn’t let him go just yet. He was a second lieutenant in a privatized army, outsourced by the government, and Corporate depended on him. The Skype was Dad’s way of being there, a grim-faced, tight-lipped, square-jawed head on a computer screen.
The room was filled with glass surfaces and glittering utensils. I kept catching my reflection staring at the strange surroundings like a startled woodland creature. Chap-lipped, sore-faced, hideous: zombie me. I missed the identity of my dark skin in our mostly white town. I used to be the black kid, but not anymore. Race, religion, politics, “zombie” trumped them all. After another routine examination –- reflexes, none; eyesight, failing; sense of smell, gone; etc. — Doctor Halpert looked at me, mustache drooping, eyes flickering with indecision. He parked heavily on a stool and rolled close to me, leaning in. “Adrian,” he began, raising his palms as a sign of surrender. “As doctors, we like to think we have all the answers. We possess all this expensive equipment, years of scientific research . . .” his voice trailed off, losing steam. He sighed, checked my mother with a glance, looked hopelessly at my father’s image in the laptop. “But there’s so much we don’t know. That’s just a fact.”
I watched him, gave a nod. At least he was honest.
“By every measure we currently employ, medically speaking, you should be dead,” Dr. Halpert said.
My throat felt dry. My tongue seemed to swell. I tried to swallow.
“You don’t have a heartbeat,” Doctor Halpert stated. “Yet here we are. We have tested you in every conceivable manner. And the fact is,” –- he ran his thumb and index finger down his thick mustache –- “the fact is,” –- repeating himself, struggling to find the words –- “we just . . . don’t . . . know . . . diddly.”
“But, Doctor –-“ my mother interjected.
“Oh, we have theories. We could sit around and speculate all day long. It might be this, it might be that. An exotic strain of virus. Ebola this, Superflu that, cancer-causing agents in the water table, the fallout from fracking, too many genetically-engineered foods, a new strain of dengue fever, or just plain bad luck. All I know, Adrian, is that you are –-“
“—- a freak,” I said.
“No, no, no,” Doctor Halpert said, “A miracle! And as a man of science, it kills me to say that. I don’t believe in miracles, Adrian. I believe in facts, hard data, research. We simply don’t understand how you are walking around today, much less why. Talking. Seeing. Thinking. And, seemingly, living. It makes no scientific sense. When it comes to your case, Adrian, we might as well be in the dark ages, applying leeches and burning incense.”
“Is it . . . contagious?” asked my mother, inching ever so slightly away.
“Not at all,” the doctor replied. “It’s certainly not an airborne virus or anything of that nature. Of course, I wouldn’t let him bite you, ha-ha-ha!” He turned to me, smiling broadly. “You’re not going to bite your mother, are you, Adrian? Of course not!”
I joked, “Yeah, no, I just had a big lunch.”
More laughter, ho-ho-ho, even my dad thought it was a laugh riot. Mom, however, didn’t seem amused. Her mouth laughed, but her eyes didn’t get the joke. Mom’s cell buzzed with an incoming message. She checked it, frowned. She was missing work for this appointment.
Dr. Halpert looked at me, waited. I didn’t know what to say. I rarely did. My thoughts refused to organize themselves; the words wouldn’t cohere. My mind was a buzz, a beehive, a blur, a whirr. I stared at him, blinking, thinking, coming up empty.
My father broke the silence. “Well, that’s not a very satisfactory answer, is it, doctor?”
Dr. Halpert shook his head. “No, it isn’t,” he admitted.
“So what now?”
Doctor Halpert glanced at me, and back to the computer image of his inquisitor. “Summer’s almost gone. School starts in another week or so. Middle school, I guess.”
“You think he can go to school?” my mother chimed in, shock registering in her voice. “You think it’s all right?”
“Life goes on,” the doctor replied. He scratched his cheek with nervous fingers, tugged at his white lab coat. Perhaps Doctor Halpert recognized the irony of his own words –- this crazy situation -– so he quickly added, “I mean, Mr. and Mrs. Lazarus, I don’t see the harm in it. Admittedly, Adrian’s is an unusual case. Bizarre, truly. No one has an explanation for what’s happened to your son. By everything we know, there’s simply no way on earth your boy should be sitting in my office having this conversation. There’s no heartbeat! He’s dried up, blood doesn’t course through his arteries. He’s a zom . . .”
The doctor stopped himself, embarrassed or unwilling to finish the word; so it hung in the air unspoken like a bubble on the verge of bursting. Zombie. I felt a twitch in my stomach. If I had anything to hurl, I would have upchucked right there on the floor.
The thought of going back to middle school, seventh grade, was sickening.
My mother sat staring at me, the downward sickle of a frown on her lips. She made a dabbing gesture on her face, as if applying phantom makeup. “Is there anything we can do to –-“
“Ah, yes! I almost forgot,” Dr. Halpert said, jumping out of his seat cheerfully. He pulled open a cabinet door, then another, reached for bottles, pushed others aside, scanned labels. By the time he was finished, the counter was cluttered with all sorts of medicines and potions. “The good news is, there’s some very simple things we can do to stave off the symptoms.”
The doctor read the question in my eyes.
“I don’t think we can cure you, Adrian –- this is uncharted territory for all of us — but there’s a lot we can do to keep the, urm, illness from progressing. You know, just by using standard over-the-counter products such as creams, lotions, eye-drops, salves, and whatnot. Chap stick, for example, works wonders,” Dr. Halpert said. “And drinking plenty of fluids will help, too.”
My mother listened intently, obviously interested. She finally had something to latch onto after days of helpless hoping. They weren’t going to try to cure my condition. Nope, they just wanted to conceal it.
“Essentially, Adrian, you’ve lost your vital secretions. You’re body is drying up, no juices, and we can’t have that.”
“I see,” my mother murmured, grasping the concept. She said, “It’s like putting on hand moisturizer. I do that every night before bed, Adrian.” She raised her smooth, well-moisturized hands as if they were exhibits in a legal proceeding.
I smiled weakly.
“Exactly,” Dr. Halpert chirped. “We’ve got to keep him . . . squishy.”
Both of them chuckled over the word. Squishy. Ho-ho. Meanwhile, I scratched at the skin on my dry, flaking knees. “Doctor,” I spoke up. “I don’t have a heart beat. My face is falling apart –- my face! Are you seriously telling me to drink lots of water?”
He shook his head. “No, no, no. I mean, yes . . . and no. The truth is, Adrian, water will help. Lots of it. A gallon a day, maybe two in your case. But I have something else in mind, too.” He plucked a pink pad from his front coat pocket, scribbled on it, tore off the top sheet, and handed it to my mother.
She scanned it and read, “Formaldehyde smoothies?”
“Formaldehyde is a common embalming agent,” Doctor Halpert explained. “It’s frequently used in, urm,” he gestured with his hand, pulled again on his thick mustache, and said in a muffled voice, “funeral homes and whatnot.” Cough-cough.
“On dead bodies?” I interrupted.
My mother gaped at me, neck stretched forward, as if to say: Don’t be rude. I felt pressure behind my eyes, a welling up, but no tears came. Not squishy enough, I guess. No juices. Real zombies don’t cry.
The doctor continued, “Formaldehyde helps preserve dead tissue –- though it’s most often used as a fixative for microscopy and histology, but nevermind that. The point is, Adrian, if you drink one of these smoothies every morning, I believe it will help keep you looking better, feeling better, and, urm, smelling fresher.”
He stood to open a window.
For a moment I thought about jumping out of it. But what would be the point?
Dead was bad. Middle school would be worse.