She fumbles in the descending darkness for the key on the bone-shaped caribiner. The key and the ring were presented to her on her very first day of orientation. She still doesn't feel oriented. This is why she is walking in to the gross anatomy lab long past the time when class is over. What they fail to tell you when you apply is that class is never over. It just mutates into one form or another until it feels like there is never a week, never a day or hour or minute where there is not something scrabbling desperately to destroy your mind.
But that is neither here nor there.
Here, she is at the gross anatomy lab in the darkness, in the overcast and hazy hours of the late evening. Her key sticks in the door. She worries it out, side to side, frustrated before she even enters the lab. Same as every other day. In fact, there is rarely a day in the lab that is any more or less interesting than any other. It's just that tonight, everyone is preparing for the impending test. On Monday, everything from the mandibular salivary gland to the caudal rectal artery is being tested. Tip to tail of a long-dead dog will be laid out on the table. Perfect.
The key comes out, she takes a deep breath, and the door swings open. The smell hits her, but she barely notices it. By this point, everything is second nature. Wiggle key. Inhale. Pull hard. Exhale slowly and give your nose a moment to adjust. She throws down her bag and pulls out yet another pair of ill-fitting latex gloves and a scant dissection kit. She pulls open the door to the lab floor and walks in, grimacing at the sickly glare of fluorescent lighting on stainless steel and laminate flooring. Several heads look up. She waves to her fellow classmates, all busily cramming organs and lobes and pleura and vessels deep into the recesses of their already overflowing minds.
She walks across the room to the cart of carcasses, pulling her own body bag off the shelf and dragging it, squelching formaldehyde, across the pre-moistened floor. She pulls the dog out, lays it on the precariously tilting table, and prepares to dig in.
It is not what she would call a glamorous night.
An hour passes. Using just a pair of scissors and brute force, she has learned four arteries, the six lobes of the lungs, and just what makes her dog female. Another hour goes by, and she learns all the pleura, five nerves, and the turns of the intestine. Another hour. Another hour. Another hour.
The pages of material go by slowly. Her classmates go by slowly. One by one, they trickle out the door, tired and hungry and cold. They are sick of the scent, sick of feeling overwhelmed and undernourished. And so they exit on beat, a human pulse taking the life out with each consecutive slam of the door.
Another hour. Another.
No one is left in the lab but her and the dog. The rest have been placed on the cart and pushed back in to the gaping freezers in the recesses of the walls. Every time the door swings open, that distinctive smell of poorly preserved meats and mildewed remains pours out, tinged with the tang of ice. She shakes her head and pushes her nose closer to abdominal cavity.
She can't take it. She lays her scalpel down and rinses her hands in the sink, wiping the back of her glove across her forehead to assuage the ache that's been building just behind what she can reach. She walks in to the lobby and sits at the table, flipping through the pages of her dissection guide for missed gems of knowledge. She can't remember being this tired in her entire undergraduate career. When she falls asleep, it's with her cheek pressed firmly against a diagram of the canine testicle.
She wakes suddenly, some time later, an icy feeling crawling down her back. She looks around nervously, searching for the cause of her unease. Surely no one is watching her? She's the only one here. It must be the rows of empty eye sockets set in the grinning skulls on top of the cabinet, staring down at her. Her head whips around at the sound of a light tapping.
From the lab? From outside. Surely, from the outside. Is it raining? It must be raining. She reminds herself how stupid she is being. The lab does not contain anything creeping or crawling or terrifying. There is nothing here to make noises. There is nothing here to watch her. Skulls do not stare, and they certainly don't stare at her. Her fear is completely unfounded, she thinks. Those skulls have been there since before I started, and they will certainly be there long after.
It does not occur to her that they used to be facing the door.
She walks back in to the lab floor, and is struck by the unnatural odor. Not the permeating smell of preservative, this, but instead the roiling, unnerving smell of frozen death. The freezer is open, spewing the noxious fumes into the lab like rancid breath. She walks toward the door and reaches slowly for the handle, choking. Obviously someone came in while she was sleeping and hadn't managed to close the door properly after getting a dog out. What kind of moron can't close a freezer?
This is when the lights flicker. It must be a storm.
This is when she hears another quiet
The sound of rain on the wall. The sound of a settling building. The sound of a dripping faucet.
The impossible sound of dead claws on linoleum.
She turns around slowly, heart beating insistently, the cold air of the yawning freezer licking the nape of her neck and making the hair stand on end.
Facing her, erect in a way completely at odds with nature and physics and decency, is the dog. Balancing on one front leg, having lost the other to the previous exam, the dog is a standing and it is looking right at her. The skin hangs off at strange angles, fascia removed carelessly. She is sickened to see the fold of fur that once encircled an elbow, bearing the faint lines of a game of tic-tac-toe. She carved it in with her scalpel during one of the more boring parts of a pre-dissection lecture. It drags slowly across the floor as the dog makes its approach.
The muscles that should have helped it flex its remaining paw have been severed, and so it pushes the pads limply across the ground as it walks. Neither of the back legs have been dissected, and all the grey, decomposing musculature is working as it should.
Rather, she thinks, as it most definitely should not.
The diaphragm has been mangled, but still she sees the ribs push in and out, in and out, as the tongue (congested with latex marking the arteries) lolls from the side of the gaping mouth and the lungs engorge and deflate. The broken and chipped canines catch the overhead lights in much the same way as the stainless steel tools she sees, far from her reach on the other side of three months of research. Unlike her newly reanimated specimen, she finds her legs unable to function. The dog pushes onward, each claw tapping the floor as it shambles toward her. The coils of the intestine, so painstakingly separated and so haphazardly pushed back in to the peritoneal cavity upon the end of the lab day, trail after it.
She cannot breathe. She cannot stop shaking. She is choking on fear and putridity, staring deep into the ravaged eyes of a dead dog. An absurd dead dog, staring straight into her heart through stained cornea. It is working despite the fact that it has nothing left that should be working. Her knees shake. Her legs fail. She sinks slowly to the ground, feet from the corpse she helped to desecrate, who seems intent on nothing so much as returning the favor. A low growl emits from the open wound that is the larynx. She can see it vibrating.
She cannot stop shaking.
The head tilts at an awkward angle, cocked as if it is considering her, weighing all of her transgressions in what is left of its coagulating consciousness. It takes her a moment to realize that this is the only logical way for it to hold its head; the neck was sliced away to reveal the piping and the wiring and all the other insensitive metaphors that spring unbidden to her mind. The irony of the situation, wherein she will be tested on these structures, is lost in the midst of another spasm.
Her eyes close. She wills them open. She cannot cry.
As the impossible breath of the dog crosses her neck, adrenaline finally grants her a moment of freedom from her overwhelming paralysis. She pushes backward, barely registering the cold wetness and slime that crawls up her arm and scrubs. Her back hits something hard and sharp. She looks up to see the corner of the trolley containing all the other corpses. It takes her a moment to realize this is what it is. It takes her just a moment longer to realize that within the bags on the shelves, severed muscles are twitching and other paws are beginning to dig at their caskets. Feeble, she tries to crawl forward, but the dog leaps, a spectacle of sinew and what unholy grace is left to its frame. It crashes its considerable dead weight in to the freezer door, which swings shut readily. In the cold, rotting darkness, she screams.
She screams until her throat aches, until she cannot breathe. Until the sound of scrabbling against plastic is over and there is nothing left but her own silent sobbing gasps and the insistent, searching, impossible
This may be a quest story, but I promise you I think about it every time I glove up. Also, thanks to Gorgonzola, who offered me a title that I played off of rather than used.