From The Writers' Room Featuring Bookburners

Jane by Margaret Dunlap

Jane was my first ever professionally published short story, and for that reason alone it will always have a place near and dear to my heart. But before Jane was ever a story, she was the subject of a one-page character bio I did for a writing exercise during my first semester in the MFA screenwriting program at USC. I loved the character concept immediately. I then spent the next ten years trying to figure out what her story was. Which proves either that sometimes it can take a long time for an idea to mature, or that I really don’t like to let go of things.  In any event, I hope you enjoy it.

 

Jane

By Margaret Dunlap

 

“–Jane?”

I had heard Rob’s question. It’s just that while I was in the middle of performing CPR in the back of an ambulance on a patient who had been very stable until he had all of a sudden up and crashed, I wasn’t going to stop and answer it. It was a stupid question anyway. Not that that stopped Rob from repeating it.

“You okay back there, Jane?”

Oh, I was great. The ambulance was barreling towards the hospital as fast as L.A. traffic could get out of our way, and I was dead certain we weren’t going to make it.

Pause for accuracy.

The patient wasn’t going to make it. Barring taking a Beemer up the ass, we were going to be just fucking fine. John Doe on the other hand? The best I was going to accomplish with CPR was to give him a few cracked ribs to go with his sudden cardiac arrest. Still, we all do our best. So I stopped to check for a pulse.

Then I checked the machines.

Then I checked my patient again because I do not trust machines to tell me if someone is alive or dead.

“Jane–?”

I didn’t let Rob finish. “I’ve got a rhythm.”

Rob didn’t take his eyes off the road as he called back, “You’ve got what?!?”

“He’s alive,” I said.

And that’s when the asshole sat up and bit me.

#

You will not believe the paperwork you have to fill out when you save someone’s life, and then your ungrateful patient turns around and bites you. The forms that pile up when said patient then spits a glob of your flesh into your partner’s lap, which causes your partner to drive your ambulance into a utility pole are truly staggering.

And then, to add insult to literal injury, after we finally finished the paperwork, they put Rob and me both on leave for thirty days.

#

“I should have just let him die, Gina,” I said. “At least then he wouldn’t have bitten me, and I could still work.”

I hate not working. At least, that was the excuse I gave to Gina. Gina was my last foster mom. We met when I was fourteen and had no interest in having another mother, and even less of a skill-set for being a daughter. But something must have rubbed off because here I was, calling her to not admit that I might have HIV or drug-resistant hepatitis, or that I was scared to death.

A car full of club-kids honked on their way up to Sunset and obscured whatever Gina said in response. Conrad, my bull mastiff who does not–it turns out–like loud noises, peed himself.

“What was that?” asked Gina after the car had passed.

I lied without thinking. “The TV.”

“Uh huh.”

“If I told you I was out, you’d worry.”

A sigh from the other side of the phone. “I worry anyway.”

I could have pointed out there was no point in her asking then, but I’m not a total tool. It wasn’t like I wanted her to worry. “I’m not alone. I’m walking a bull mastiff.”

“Conrad is blind.”

“Muggers don’t know that.”

Well, they wouldn’t have, except Conrad chose that moment to walk into a Westside Rentals sign. I cringed. Even with the day I’d had, I should have seen that for him.

Too cool to admit he hadn’t meant to face-plant the sign, Conrad stopped to sniff at it. It wasn’t fooling anyone, but I didn’t push the issue. We all have our coping strategies, and Conrad’s past–I suspected–rivaled my own. I never asked the nice people at the shelter what exactly they had rescued him from. I have enough trouble sleeping with only my own nightmares to worry about.

“Some of the kids are coming home this weekend,” Gina said.

“Oh?” I asked, even though I knew why.

“We’re going to the cemetery to visit Marissa. But after, we’ll have dinner at the house. You’re welcome if you want to come.”

Notice, Gina didn’t ask me to come. She’s very smart that way. I hadn’t been to her house in nearly three years. For my foster sister’s funeral, she had insisted.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it,” I said. Leaving out that I couldn’t stand cemeteries. I knew she knew that. And I knew she wanted me to know I was welcome anyway. I had come home for Marissa’s funeral. I hadn’t managed the interment.

Finished with the sign, Conrad sniffed the air, no doubt searching for rogue hydrants that might be throwing themselves in his path. I felt, more than heard, the low rumble of Conrad’s growl against my right calf.

Conrad never growled.

I hung up on Gina.

#

When a pregnant woman is on the verge of dying, it triggers a series of reactions in her body which cause her to miscarry and expel the fetus. It’s simple lizard-brain reasoning. Re-task the resources currently being used by the baby to try to tip the balance and save the mother’s life.   A woman who survives could become pregnant again. An infant with a dead mother would die. In evolutionary math, one dead is always better than two dead.

But then you get the tragic case of a young couple expecting their first child, driving home from a doctor’s appointment when their car French kisses a fully-loaded garbage truck. Father-to-be was decapitated on the spot. Mother-to-be was rushed back to the hospital where she was declared brain dead. And that would have been the end of it. Except some bright bulb of the medical arts had a theory that if you crammed a woman’s blood full of drug A, drug B, and just a touch of hormones X, Y, and Z, you could fool her uterus into thinking that there was still someone at the controls upstairs and maybe it should hang onto the baby a little while longer.

And because they could do it, they did. If anyone wondered if it was a good idea, they kept quiet. And I get that. I mean, I don’t know that I’d have been able to look at a little thing wiggling on an ultrasound and pull the plug on it either. So the tubes stayed connected, the ventilators kept venting, and when the mother’s heart stopped, a machine took over that too. For two months.

Until I was born.

And people act surprised that I was kind of screwed-up from the beginning.

#

Conrad and I reached the intersection just as the light turned, and the car full of club kids raced off with another ear-shattering set of horn blasts. Conrad pulled on my arm, and his growl, already low, dropped to sub-sonic levels.

We crossed the street, carefully, and found an empty lot where a couple of bungalows had been ripped out. A developer had been planning to build an apartment building before the economy tanked. Now, the lots were nothing but a crop of weeds.

Fortunately, the indigent population of the neighborhood was not about to let prime real estate go to waste. It wasn’t hard to find a gap in the fence, and Conrad and I pushed through.

We found it towards the back of the lot.

Pause for accuracy.

We found them.

Hidden from the sidewalk and the neighbors by the fence and high weeds, the lot had become a pretty nice little homeless camp. Half a dozen piles of blankets around a fire pit, an old bucket under a standpipe outlet, even a small TV propped on a milk crate. Well, it had been nice before my very bitey John Doe arrived and ripped the occupants limb from limb. I have a good memory for the faces of people who cause me pain, and there he was, taking a bite out of some poor bastard’s calf, right through his jeans.

I froze. Conrad froze. John Doe looked up from his dinner and saw me.

John Doe opened his mouth. I could see a bit of denim stuck between his teeth. “Jane,” he said.

I am not proud of this, but I screamed like a little girl. Screamed like I hadn’t screamed since I’d found nice Uncle Antonio hanging in the basement when I was five. The cannibalism part was bad enough. What really freaked me out was that I was pretty sure I’d never introduced myself to him. John Doe lurched towards me. I ran. So did Conrad.

Unfortunately, Conrad and I chose different directions.

By the time I realized that, John Doe was tangled in Conrad’s leash, and I was wrenched around right on top of them. I put my hands out to catch my fall and slammed into John Doe’s chest, taking us both to the ground. I could feel his skin rip against the friction of his shirt, and as I scrambled to my feet, my hands came away wet.

I threw up on them.

It was an improvement.

I stood there and looked down at John Doe, unmoving on the ground, lying in a growing pool of bull mastiff urine.

Pause for accuracy.

It might not have been entirely bull mastiff urine.

#

I would like to say that finding a man whose life I had saved eating a homeless guy less than a block from my apartment who dropped dead as soon as I touched him was when my training kicked in and that I proceeded to calmly alert the authorities like the emergency professional that I was.

I did manage to call 911.

When I told the nice paramedic who showed up what happened, he gave me a sedative.

I woke up in the ER with Gina holding my hand.

“Wha — urg…?

That was supposed to be “What are you doing here?” But my mouth was all gluey from whatever they had given me.

Seeing that I was awake, Gina let go of my hand. “You still list me as an emergency contact in your phone. You had a bad reaction to the sedative and started seizing. They almost lost you.”

Gina got up, filled a plastic cup with water, and helped me sit up to drink.

“Conrad?” I asked once my mouth was unglued.

“I took him back to your apartment.” Gina took the cup of water back and refilled it.

I drank again. “How long?”

“Most of the night.”

I glanced over to the clock beside the bed. It was nearly five AM. I looked back at Gina. She looked terrible. “Sorry to keep you up.”

She shrugged and smiled. “I didn’t have other plans.”

“They going to let me out?”

“The doctor said something about getting a psych consult.”

I was sure he had.

I looked at Gina. “Will you help me sneak out before the shrink gets here?”

“No. I don’t enable stupid decisions.”

I will give Gina this: she doesn’t beat around the bush. And she had certainly raised her share of epically stupid children who made epically stupid decisions. I however, was not one of them.

“Why don’t you get something to eat? I’m awake now, and you look like hell.”

Gina shook her head, then leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead. It was her way of telling me that she loved me even when I was being an idiot. I lay there and let her. That was my way of telling her the same thing. “Call me,” she said, and then she left.

I gave her enough time to let the doctor know I was checking out against medical advice. Then I found my clothes and snuck out by the back stairs.

#

I meant to call Gina. I really did. But, while I’d felt okay when I left the hospital, by the time I stumbled off the bus two blocks from home, I was almost sick enough to consider going back. Except for the fact that I’d promised myself I would never again enter a hospital as a patient under my own power. Luckily, Gina was used to me being the kind of crappy too-old foster daughter who promises to call but never does. I had, after all, given her plenty of opportunities to practice.

Conrad met me at the door as I stumbled in, whining with concern. I let him out to pee, crawled into bed, and we both hid under the covers, waiting for whatever happened next.

The first day, I managed to let Conrad outside twice.

The second day, I let him pee in the bathtub, or at least, near the bathtub.

On the third day, I felt better. I showered, dressed, and was just about to take Conrad out for a walk when someone knocked on the door. Which was odd. No one ever knocked on my door.

“Go away,” I said.

There’s probably a reason why no one knocks on my door.

“…Jane?” It was Rob.

That was surprising enough that I opened the door. Rob and I have a very successful partnership because we don’t bother each other. Before he showed up on my doorstep, I would have sworn he didn’t actually know where I lived. But there he was. I opened the door and he came inside.      Apparently, he didn’t mind the smell of dog pee.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Jane?”

“Yeah…?” I started to ask, and then I realized why he didn’t seem to notice that my apartment reeked of dog piss.

I’m not an expert in these things. But my more than passing knowledge of the nature of human mortality was enough for me to say that the primary reason Rob didn’t notice the stench from the carpet was because he’d been dead for a least a day.

He looked back at me, and even I, with my sub-par people skills at the best of times, could tell that there was no one home.

“Jane…” he said.

I am not exactly proud of what happened next. All I can say in my defense is that when you grow up the way I did, you tend to have indelicate reactions to threats. Even though he was Rob, my partner, the guy who remembered to ask for extra salsa for me when we stopped at Taco Plus, the second I saw those eyes, my fist snapped forward, and I slugged him.

I remember the feel of his flesh against mine. It was warm. Not human warm. Room warm. A second later he collapsed, falling to the floor like a sack of meat. He didn’t move.

I looked at him there, lying on my carpet.

I hit hard for a girl.

I don’t hit that hard.

Three days earlier, I’d been doing CPR on a dead man who woke up and bit me and then spat a glob of my flesh onto my partner. Then I’d gotten sick. Then I’d gotten better. I wondered if Rob had gotten sick too, so sick he died. And then he’d gotten better.

Until I touched him, and he became a pile of flesh on my landlord’s carpet.

I checked the mirror. Skin still pink. Pulse still strong. I got a thermometer from my kit and took my temperature. My apartment was warm in the afternoon sun, but not ninety-eight degrees warm.

I was alive.

I packed a backpack for me and another for Conrad, locked the door, and didn’t look back.

#

I’ve never learned to drive, which is an unusual lifestyle choice for someone who lives in Los Angeles, but not for someone whose parents died in a car accident before she was born. Once again: screwed-up, yes. Stupid, no. When I was traveling on my own, I took the bus. Since Conrad, I’d bought a bike. The sun was sinking towards the Pacific, already silhouetting palm trees over Beverly Hills, so I turned the opposite direction and started riding South and East, Conrad easily loping alongside.

#

I have seen some strange things in the course of my life. I have done even stranger. I say with confidence that biking through Los Angeles, my blind dog and I quietly killing the walking dead while the rest of the city went on with its Saturday night–still, for the moment, oblivious–tops the list.

A roller-derby girl.

Two guys coming out of Rosco’s.

Three passengers on the number four bus.

A student out walking alone in the wrong part of town.

The victims got more numerous as I passed downtown. I also noticed Conrad became more and more certain of his direction. He even got out ahead of the bike, which he usually doesn’t, what with not being able to see and all. When I caught him stepping around a parking sign on a street I was sure we had never visited, I stopped worrying about it. As long as he didn’t turn around and say my name, it wasn’t my problem. He wanted to take the lead; he could be by guest.

“Jane…”

“Jane…”

“Jane…”

To my relief, the gates at the County Cemetery had long been locked for the night when we arrived: proof against taggers, vandals, and the homeless. I tugged on Conrad’s leash, and when he didn’t move, grabbed his collar. Conrad planted himself and refused to budge.

I listened, but for the first time in hours, I couldn’t hear anyone calling my name.

Then, in the silence… my phone rang.

I checked the caller ID on my cracked screen. It was Gina. I was standing outside the gates of the cemetery where my foster sister was buried. Three years ago that day.

In the dimness beyond the cemetery gate, I saw the glow of a cell phone screen.

I answered the call.

“Jane?”

“Yes?”

“Jane…”

I couldn’t speak. Oh please, for the love of an unloving God, say something else.

“Jane…”

I watched the glow of the phone inside the cemetery. I quietly hung up, and the distant screen flared brighter, then died.

It could have been coincidence. Could have been some other person standing in the middle of a cemetery in the middle of the night, happening to finish a call at the same moment I hung up. Could have been.

I slipped my phone into my pocket. I dropped Conrad’s leash. Then, I grabbed the fence, and began to climb.

There were no lights in the cemetery at night, but the city glow was enough to see where I was going. I could hear the guard dogs in the distance, howling at the invasion of their territory, but too cowardly to get anywhere near what I was approaching.

I pulled a pair of latex gloves out of my pocket and slipped them on. Whatever I was about to see, I didn’t want to touch it.

She was still standing, at least. Looked like she hadn’t been dead very long.

“Jane.”

One word. Four letters. Rhymes with pain, rain, and stain. I’ve never liked it much.

Except that hearing her say it, I could feel my heart cracking open in my chest.

“Jane.”

“I — ”

I tried to answer her. But I couldn’t. She didn’t say my name again. Maybe she was waiting for me to continue. But I couldn’t. So we stood there.

I stood there until I couldn’t stand anymore, and then I sat.

At some point. I started crying.

She just stood there. Waiting.

I don’t know how long I was at the cemetery. Eventually, I think I slept. And woke. And maybe slept again. Around us, the city had realized what was happening and was losing its collective shit, but no one wanted to be anywhere near a cemetery, and so we were left alone.

I remember lying on the ground, looking up at what used to be Gina standing over me. Death and fear and longing looking out at me through her drying eyes.

She had reached out a hand for me. All I had to do was reach back.

#

I don’t know why I’m different. Maybe it has nothing to do with being gestated by machines in the body of a dead woman. When some new bright spark of the medical arts figures out what makes the dead rise, maybe we’ll know. Of course, most people just want to know who this “Jane” person is, and why the dead ask for her. They don’t know that zombies collapse at her touch. Or that when she talks, they listen. Ultimately, I’m not sure that’s the most screwed-up thing about me.

#

Conrad and I caught the first ride leaving the city that would have us. It took us to Detroit. The next one went to Tennessee. I don’t remember the one after that, but there were plenty more.

I was fourteen when I met Gina, and I thought I had everything figured out. I thought it was too late for me to have a mother. I thought I didn’t need one. I thought I didn’t deserve one.

My multiple mothers had raised one more stupid child than I had thought.

But I’m learning. After a particularly hard day, or when I especially hate myself, I’ll call. When I think that no matter how many of the undead I put an end to with my touch, it will never make up for the dozens I may have infected with my still-oozing bite wound as I rode the bus home from the hospital; when I believe that ignorance is not an excuse, I call. Just like I promised I would if she could stay hidden, stay safe.

Sometimes, I just need to hear my mother say my name.

“Jane.”

 

< >