Jeannie opens the door , and we both sigh a little at the same time. It's always a relief to see you're working with a professional. She gestures for me to follow her and heads down the hall - I follow her quietly while wondering for the millionth time what she looks like when she's not wearing those ever-present red scrubs. The red isn't a fashion choice; it's to keep people from realizing how much blood is everywhere when things go badly. At the end of the hall she turns and opens a bedroom door and that familiar hospital smell wafts out. The bedroom has clearly been fighting a losing battle, being slowly taken over by equipment. There are tubes, wires, monitors. The low dresser is covered by pill bottles and the bed that probably used to match has been swapped out for a hospital bed. The patient is resting, breathing heavily. She's in her eighties at least, and of course she's strapped to the bed.
Jeannie puts a hand on my shoulder as she introduces me to the woman's granddaughter. "Meg, this is Aaron. He's the safety officer who will take your grandmother to be processed after she passes. If you have any questions, anything at all, you can ask him." She gives the shoulder a little squeeze before letting go, and then circles the bed to check everything over again. If I know Jeannie, and after going on about thirty hospice calls where she was the nurse I think I do, then she's not really checking anything. She's making herself busy in order to give the granddaughter the feeling that she's not being watched and eavesdropped on. I do my best, sitting in an overstuffed chair in the corner and being quiet. Neither of us is allowed to actually leave the room at this point, though. The woman turns to look at me, uncertain. "Is it... can I hold her hand?"
"I would recommend putting your hand on her arm," I say softly, "for your own safety. But if that doesn't feel right and you're not worried about hurting your fingers you can still hold her hand." She rests her palm carefully on her grandmother's arm just above the padded wrist strap, and apparently that's enough because she leaves it there.
Somehow Jeannie silently gets my attention and gives me a look. It's time, a matter of seconds. I see her switch the heart monitor off and with the sudden absence of that beep I can hear the two women breathing in synch, one struggling out of sympathy for the other. I stand as quietly as possible and open my bag - I use magnetic plates so that there's no sound from a zipper or velcro. Now only one of them is breathing. Jeannie turns off the rest of the equipment and I'm counting down in my head. Five, six, seven... they almost never make it to ten, and sure enough just as Jeannie is putting an arm around the granddaughter and guiding her away the old woman's eyes snap open. Whatever color they were before they're red now, and rolling wildly in their sockets. The granddaughter can hear the restraints moving and starts to turn, but Jeannie and I block her view.
"She's gone, Meg. She's in a better place now."
Thankfully she nods and leaves the room - all too often they insist on staying and watching, and I can't believe that's ever healthy. I reach into my bag for the injector and hold the zombie's head down. It's strong, but I manage to line the needle up and slide it past the eye into the brain. A quick press of the plunger, and it's done. The thing is still thrashing around, but in a few minutes the grey matter will be nothing but mush. It's funny how anything can become routine after a while. Jeannie made the same comment to me once, not about the zombies but just about hospice in general. She was shocked at how calmly she could watch someone die when she knew it was coming. Fitting the body bag over the still-straining corpse, I quickly undo the straps and flip her over, zipping the bag shut along her back. Jeannie comes in and shuts the door behind her before leaning on it and sighing.
"Thanks, Aaron. Last guy I had answered some questions about zombies in way, way too much detail, and the one before that flipped out the second the old guy turned. I don't know what the process is to hire you guys, but it needs to be revised."
I sit down in the chair again and sigh. "Same goes for you, you know. I had one nurse that had to run out of the room - run - as soon as it happened. The next of kin wasn't amused. Speaking of... she asked for some alone time?"
Jeannie nods, and sits on the edge of the bed next to the flopping black bag. "Yeah, and I knew you would have to wait a bit for the... aftershocks."
This is the only time we really get to talk. Just the two of us, not counting the moaner in the bag. We talk about where we went to school, where we were when the dead started walking, what we like to do on weekends. Finally the groaning and thumping subsides and we both stand. Jeannie helps me carry the body out since it's light enough to not really need a stretcher, and then it's time for our goodbyes again. In the back of the van, leaning over the bag, I find myself looking into her eyes.
"Jeannie, I don't want to just see you on the job. It's too far between, you know?"
"I think it's illegal for me to speed that up, Aaron."
"Cute. So... how about I take you out to dinner some time?"
Instead of answering she leans forward and kisses me - and not just a peck on the cheek. It seems to go on forever, like time itself has stopped. Eyes closed, lost in that eternal moment, I hear a little moan escape her lips. Or at least, I'm pretty sure that was her. Best not to think too much about it.