“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
– Edgar Allan Poe
That’s the first thing he feels when he awakens. Why is he awake? He shouldn’t be awake. He starts to feel an overwhelming sense of wrongness. He blinks a few times slowly and then realizes that it makes no difference whether his eyes are opened or closed because all there is is darkness, a darkness so complete that he feels anxiety and panic start to claw mercilessly at his chest. He needs to get out.
He tries to sit up, but his head hits something hard, blocking his attempts to move from his current lying position. His hands scrabble along the edges of his confinement, trying to find some way of escape. He pushes and pushes and pushes, and finally, against all odds, the top of his confinement gives way ever so slightly.
He’s filled with the knowledge that the only way out is up. He doesn’t know how he knows this, but he does. It’s instinctual.
He begins pushing, the weight sitting on the top pushing back twice as hard, making the task almost impossible to surmount, but he keeps going. He has to keep going.
As he pushes, his arms shaking with effort, the lid begins to open. Dirt slides through the opening, raining down on him, but still he keeps going until the lid is all the way open. He’s completely buried with dirt now, but it doesn’t matter. He starts to climb and crawl his way out. The dirt blocks his vision, fills his lungs, but he won’t be stopped. Something has started to take over him, more demanding than the fear and the panic, but he cannot put a name to it yet.
After what could be hours, days, weeks, he doesn’t know, he finally surfaces. He coughs, expelling the dirt from his lungs, and groans. He looks around and sees others like him, bodies escaping their underground confines. It’s still dark outside, but he sees lights in the distance. He starts to move, shuffling slowly towards them, along with the others.
The sensation taking him over increases, clawing at his insides desperately, and he lets out a long, guttural groan, seemingly incapable of much else. Just then, he realizes what this insatiable, raw need that demands to be satisfied is.
Castiel opens his eyes, breathing hard. He sits up in his small white bed, surveying his room, reminding himself that he’s not trapped in a coffin, nor will he ever be again. The room is what you’d expect of a hospital, clean, clinical, and devoid of personality. There’s no various knick-knacks or posters of any kind that would normally identify a boy of eighteen. Its furnishings are sparse, with only a bed, a dresser with an attached mirror, a chair by the window, and a cross on the wall (Castiel almost wants to laugh at the irony of that).
Just then, a nurse comes in.
“Ah, good! You’re already up! So–“, a quick consult of her clipboard, “–Castiel, ready for the big day?” she asks, giving him a bright smile. Castiel tries to return it, but can only manage what probably looks more like a grimace than a smile.
“As I’ll ever be,” he says quietly.
“Good to hear it! Now up and at ‘em, it’s time for your medication!” she replies, before thankfully taking her leave.
During his stay here, Castiel has discovered that there are two types of nurses; the first, ones who are grumpy and cold and who are clearly just in it for a paycheck, and the second, overly chipper and perky busybodies full of false smiles. He hasn’t really decided which is worse, but he’s leaning towards the latter.
Castiel swings his legs over the side of the bed, and stands up, making his way out into the hallway. He walks along slowly and joins the rest of the crowd. He doesn’t like walking in big groups like this. It’s depressing, everyone’s heads looking down, not one person with an ounce of spring in their step. As he walks, he takes deep breaths, trying to prepare himself for today. The big day.
The day he gets to leave the Kansas Treatment Centre for Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferers.
Even now, he rolls his eyes at the ridiculous name. The centre doesn’t encourage words like “zombie”, or “rotter” as some have taken to calling them. “PDS sufferers” is now the politically correct term. Castiel personally prefers the term “undead”. It lacks some of the negative connotations of the other unsavory options, but it’s not sugar coated either. Although, he supposes he can understand why the government would want to use their term. It sounds manageable.
And manageable is exactly what they need as they rehabilitate the undead back into living society.
Castiel continues to shuffle along, the crowd naturally forming a line as they come to an eventual halt outside one of the many rooms, each waiting for their daily dose of neurotriptyline to be administered. Without it, they would revert back to their original rabidity, or as the doctor’s prefer to call it, their “untreated state”. If they miss even one day of medication… Castiel shudders at the mere thought of it. He never wants to be like that again. All those innocent people… What he did to them...
Castiel cuts off that train of thought immediately.
He continues to wait in the incredibly long line, inching forward every few minutes at each monotone call of “next”, until it’s finally his turn.
The doctor asks him a few routine questions – which Castiel answers with as few words as possible – before picking up what can only be described as a medication gun. The doctor inserts a vial of neurotriptyline into the device and gets behind Castiel. The device is then inserted into a small, grotesque hole located under the back of his neck, right between the first and second vertebrae. He knows the injection is coming, but he still squeezes his eyes shut and hisses as the doctor pulls the trigger. It’s not necessarily with pain – he doesn’t feel pain anymore – but more the brief onslaught of emotions and the sudden jolt of memories he doesn’t want to remember.
And just as quickly as it started, it’s over, and he’s sent on his way.
Next up in the routine is group therapy, which is about as exciting as it sounds, that is to say, not at all. Castiel loathes group therapy. Even before he died, he was a bit of an introvert, never talking much, but now he barely speaks at all if he can help it.
He makes his way to the large hall where the group therapy is held, picking a random empty chair amongst the many groups, about six or seven per. The discussion leader waits a few minutes as more people file in, and then starts up.
“So. How are we all feeling today? Excited? Nervous?” he says, rubbing his hands together, like he’s eager to get started.
A redhead seated beside Castiel timidly raises her hand, introducing herself as Anna, and talks about how she’s looking forward to seeing her parents again while the discussion leader nods sympathetically, like he knows exactly what she’s feeling (though anyone with a beating heart couldn’t possibly have any idea). It continues on like that for a while, everyone taking turns around the circle until the only one who hasn’t yet spoken is Castiel.
“How about you?” the discussion leader asks expectantly and it takes a moment for Castiel to realize it’s him who’s being addressed.
“Oh, um, hello, my name is Castiel and I am a PDS sufferer,” he says, going through the standard introduction, the group intoning the typical “Hi, Castiel” in response.
“And how are you feeling about today, Castiel?” the discussion leader asks. Castiel shrugs, but everyone keeps waiting for him to open up more so he takes a breath and speaks.
“I feel nervous, I suppose. And a bit sad maybe,” he says.
“And why is that?”
“Nervous because the thought of going back into society seems daunting and I’m afraid I’m not going to know how to live ‘a normal life’ anymore.”
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of, Castiel. It will take some getting used to, but just give it time and I’m sure it’ll feel just as it did before.” The discussion leader pauses a moment before continuing, “You also mentioned something about feeling sad…?”
“Sad because… because I have no one to go home to,” Castiel replies slowly, keeping his eyes downcast.
“Oh… I’m sorry to hear that. Well, look on the bright side, maybe you’ll make some new friends.”
Castiel has to fight back the urge to snort in disbelief. He nods instead, pretending to look hopeful so the discussion leader will move on to his next victim (which he thankfully does).
After a while, the group therapy session is over and they depart. Castiel is grateful that at the end of a session they don’t have to say anything like “living our best second life today”, or some other equally stupid phrase.
Normally, this would be the time where Castiel would go back to his room and pass the time by counting ceiling tiles and mentally reciting poems and quotes that he’s memorized until he eventually falls asleep, but today is different. He once more follows the crowd to their new destination.
In another one of the large halls, everyone lines up again. However, this time, it isn’t a doctor who awaits them, but a man at a desk.
“Blue, green, or brown?” the bored sounding man asks Castiel when it’s his turn.
“Sorry?” Castiel asks, confused. The man rolls his eyes.
“Your eyes. What colour were your eyes before you died?” the man replies, seemingly annoyed.
“Oh, blue. They were blue,” Castiel says, before he’s handed two small boxes.
“Contacts and cover-up. Next!”
Castiel makes his way back to his room and flops down on his bed, breathing a sigh of relief. He picks up the packages and opens them, tossing the empty boxes aside. He toys with them, glancing at his dresser with its adjoining mirror, before getting up and slowly making his way towards it. He closes his eyes tightly as he turns to face the mirror directly. He tries to avoid the mirror whenever possible, but he can’t put on his cover-up without it. He slowly starts to open his eyes.
And comes face to face with the monster staring back at him.
His skin is a sickly gray, his dark hair in greasy disarray, but it’s his eyes that really make him cringe. His once blue irises are replaced with a milky white colour, making them blend in with the rest of his eye. His pupils are still black, but they’re not round anymore; they have jagged, pointed edges to them so that they look more like some kind of star shape.
Just for the hell of it, Castiel tries out one of the many affirmations the centre had taught them.
“I am a partially deceased syndrome sufferer and anything I did in my untreated state was not my fault,” he says, and immediately feels ridiculous. Saying the words doesn’t make it true, and it certainly doesn’t make the crippling guilt go away.
Not wanting to drag this process out any further, Castiel exhales a shaky breath and begins his transformation.
He puts the contacts in first. They succeed in rounding out his pupils and making his eyes blue, but they’re only a dull imitation of what they once were. He then starts on the cover-up. It doesn’t go on as smoothly as he’d hoped and, being unaccustomed to putting on make-up, it’s chalky and uneven. It gets rid of the gray colour of his skin, replacing it with an orange tint. After a few minutes, his transformation having been complete, he surveys himself. He’s still very unnatural looking, but he supposes it’s certainly some kind of improvement.
Castiel doesn’t look alive, but he looks a little less dead.
He hears the clack of practical heels coming down the hall and the same nurse from this morning walks in, holding a large plastic bag.
“Well, now don’t you look handsome?” she says, giving him a grin. Castiel can’t even bring himself to offer up a pretend smile. Undeterred, the nurse hands him the plastic bag containing all the belongings he was found with when he came to the treatment centre.
“The truck is waiting outside, it’ll be leaving in about five minutes,” the nurse informs him before taking her leave.
Castiel looks inside the bag. There’s nothing in there other than the clothes he was buried in. It looks like they’ve been washed and repaired for the occasion. Trying not to think too hard about all the unspeakable things he did while wearing those same clothes, he shrugs off his white hospital garbs and changes, careful not to look at the deep lacerations adorning his torso (stitched up, but never to heal).
Before he leaves, he takes one last look in the mirror and almost doesn’t recognize the person staring back. He’s wearing black pants and shoes, a white dress shirt that he doesn’t bother to tuck in, a dark blue tie that he hasn’t done up properly, a black suit jacket, and his beloved beige trenchcoat. He touches the lapel of the coat and smiles slightly, fondly remembering how his mother always hated it, saying it was too big and that she had no idea what he was thinking when he bought it. Castiel wore it everywhere, and his mom complained, but he could tell that although she may not have liked the coat, she liked how it made Castiel feel. Bizarrely, it makes him feel safer somehow.
So, he’s happy to have it as he marches toward the army-style truck waiting out front, nervous about entering this brave new world.
He takes a seat in the back of the truck with several other PDS sufferers. A quick roll call is taken, and then they’re on their way.
The ride back to Lawrence is silent and filled with near palpable tension, everyone having severe mixed emotions about going back to their hometown. On the way, they pass buildings with things painted on them like “Beware rotters” and “God bless the HVF”. One of the reasons Castiel is worried about going back is having to face the HVF, the Human Volunteer Force. During the Rising, the government’s resources were spread very thin, leaving some places (including Lawrence, Kansas) to fend for themselves. So, HVF groups were formed. City folk turned militia men, protecting the living from the dead.
Castiel has heard that most HVF groups have disbanded at the government’s behest, but some of the more dedicated groups still operate. However much the treatment centre and the government encourages everyone to go back and live their lives like they used to, Castiel knows that disgust and hostility are most likely what awaits him.
They arrive in the late evening, the sun almost entirely hidden beneath the horizon. He sees some people looking disapprovingly out their window at them, and Castiel is glad that most people are inside at this time of day. They start dropping people off at their houses and then they pull up to a modest looking house seated atop a small hill in one of the more rural parts of Lawrence.
“Castiel Novak?” one of the guards calls out, reading the name off a clipboard. Castiel gets up and makes his way off the truck.
He stands at the end of his driveway, watching the truck pull away. He continues standing there even after the truck has disappeared from view.
Castiel doesn’t want to go inside his house. No comfort awaits him there, only painful memories of what once was. There will be no warm welcome from his family. He won’t hear his mother asking how his day was, or smell whatever delicious concoction she’s making in the kitchen. He won’t hear the soft strains of classical music as his father reads in the study, or smell the leftover scent from his cigars that he’s forced to smoke outside (thanks to Castiel’s mother). He won’t hear his brothers bickering, and he won’t have to stop Gabriel from doing something ridiculous to Samandriel like feeding him a dog biscuit as he did that one time (where Gabriel got the biscuit from Castiel doesn’t know, they don’t even have a dog). All that will greet him when he opens that door is an empty house, dusty with disuse.
He stands on the front step, his hand frozen on the doorknob. He takes a deep breath, bracing himself, and steps inside.
The air smells stale and the rooms look eerie. It’s like someone took a snapshot of their life here and it got frozen in time. Castiel sees one of his mother’s grocery lists on the fridge, some of Samandriel’s toys and Gabriel’s magic set strewn about, one of his father’s large mystery novels open and face down on the coffee table where he’d left off. It’s not long before Castiel marches up the stairs towards his room, keeping his eyes firmly fixed to the floor because seeing any more right now would be unbearable. He’s not ready.
He gets to his bedroom and shuts the door firmly behind him. He leans against the door for a moment with his eyes closed in an attempt to collect himself, before straightening up, shucking off his coat, jacket, and tie, and heading towards his bed. He flops down on it, his eyes taking in the familiar sight of band posters, his rather impressive record collection, and the collage of quotes he’d taped to the wall nearest his bedside. His gaze at last settles upon a framed picture he keeps on his nightstand from the time he and his family vacationed to Maine. Castiel reaches out and traces the edge of the picture with his finger, remembering how much he loved that trip, how free he felt in Maine. The picture was taken when they visited a nearby lighthouse, stationed by the Atlantic Ocean. He stares at his family’s smiling faces, including his own, flushed from the walk there and hair windswept. Happy, healthy, alive.
If Castiel were capable of crying, he would be doing it now. His face contorts slightly and he feels the telltale lump in his throat, but no tears come (his body now unable to produce them).
He keeps his eyes fixed on the picture until he can no longer keep them open, and falls into a deep sleep.