Alanna Li fastened her shoulder length hair into a ponytail before donning a pair of latex-free gloves. Her brown eyes eyed the stack of slides in front of her and she slowly shook her head.
“I’ll never get out of here today,” she muttered, reaching for a slide that she neatly placed under the microscope. As she peered through the observation tube, adjusting the dial to get a clear focus, her left hand was already reaching out for her pen and notepad.
“Okay,” Alanna drawled. “This uterine tissue is normal. That’s good, but let’s get a closer look, just to make sure I’m two hundred percent right.” She rotated the microscope head, to obtain a higher level of magnification. After a few seconds she nodded, raised her head and quickly scribbled her findings on her notepad, making sure the patient’s ID number on the slide corresponded with her notes. After writing for a few moments, she put the slide aside and grabbed another one, determined to finish the stack before the end of her shift. If she could leave at a decent time, she might be able to drop by to visit her brother and sister-in-law and watch their three kids enjoy Halloween. Alanna smiled when she thought about her two nephews and niece. They were a happy bunch, but at Halloween, after a few too many pieces of candy, they turned into little tornados. Helen, her sister-in-law, was pretty good at monitoring their sugar intake, but every now and then the kids were able to sneak in some extra chocolate or some other type of brightly colored sugar bomb. Alanna couldn’t blame them; it was exactly what she and her brother had done when they were kids. And Brian had become a dentist.
Alanna chuckled and straightened her back, glancing at the computer in the corner. As soon as she was done, she had to enter her notes, so the pathologist could have a look at them and sign off on them. Since Alanna was assistant to the autopsy pathologist, there usually wasn’t too much of a rush, but, organized as she was, she’d preferred there be no work left to do when she left for the day.
All of a sudden Alanna noticed the monitor was off. With a frown, she stood up and walked over to the workstation, wondering if the equipment was failing again. The hospital she worked for had upgraded their software and even though it had been a huge improvement, there were still a few glitches to work out. Joseph Landau, the pathologist, had been teasing her about it, accusing her of using the glitches to get the IT tech, Maura to visit.
“As if,” Alanna mumbled, clearly remembering that conversation. She tapped the mouse, but the flat screen did not come to live. Peering behind the monitor, Alanna looked at the clear cube that was supposed to be her connection to the hospital’s network. With a groan she noticed the light was red instead of green.
“How come this thing always manages to get off line when I need it?” she sighed, walking back to the microscope and the stack of slides. “I guess I’d better finish these and then use the workstation in the morgue,” she told herself, not looking forward to that possibility. Alanna didn’t mind the morgue. After all, it was where she spent a lot of time assisting with autopsies, but it meant she would have to pass the pathologist’s office and bear Joseph’s lame jokes again.
It was close to five o’clock in the afternoon when Alanna hurried down the hallway towards the morgue. When she passed her supervisor’s office she unconsciously held her breath, but when a glance through the window showed her the office was empty, she smiled.
“He must have left for the day,” she chuckled, feeling a sense of relief she couldn’t really explain. It wasn’t like Joe never had teased her before. They had a very good working relationship and from Joe’s wife, Hillary, she had learned that the pathologist almost regarded Alanna as one of his daughters.
Alanna rounded the corner, yelping when something dark and furry flew into her face. She jumped back and reflexively swatted at the object, only then realizing her co-workers had decorated the hallway to the morgue with paper bats, skeletons and other Halloween paraphernalia. One of the bats had hit her square in the face.
“Jeez,” Alanna breathed, very aware of her racing heart. “This stuff wasn’t here this morning. Thanks, guys,” she addressed her coworkers who had already left for the day.
She continued down the hallway, carefully opening the door to the morgue. She would not put it past her co-workers to have another surprise in store for her. The lights in the morgue were low, but it wasn’t dark. A quick glance left and right showed Alanna that there were no Halloween related objects waiting for her. The two stainless steel tables reflected the dim, overhead light, as did the heavy steel doors that separated the working area from the area where the cooler was where the remains of the deceased were kept. The doors to that room each had a tiny window that showed there were no lights on in there.
The workstation she wanted to use was in the back corner, as far away from the actual workspace as possible. It was fairly cold in the morgue, but that was something Alanna was used to. Just like the smell of chemicals and disinfectant. When she had first started assisting with autopsies, she had been afraid that she would never grow accustomed to the mixture of potent chemical and bodily odors, but, over time, it had bothered her less and less. Of course, being required to wear a mask during procedures filtered out many of the unpleasant scents.
Alanna sat down on the stool in front of the computer and tapped the mouse. With a smile she saw the log-in screen appear on the monitor and she quickly typed in her user ID and password. In less than ten seconds, Alanna had accessed the software she needed to enter her notes for the pathology reports. Consulting her notes often, Alanna entered the required fields, making sure she made no mistakes. Joe might be a terrific supervisor, but the only times she had seen him angry was when someone had been inattentive while documenting findings. Fortunately, Alanna had not made those mistakes and she was determined to keep it that way.
After working for about fifteen minutes, Alanna’s subconscious registered a muffled sound, but, focused on her work, she chose to ignore it. The morgue was in the basement of the hospital, adjacent to the workshop of the facilities department. It was not unusual for sounds of hammering, sawing and drilling to permeate the thick walls. That was the reason the autopsy room was separated from the actual morgue by a wall and a set of heavy steel doors.
Another ten minutes later, Alanna noticed the sound had not stopped yet.
“Must be some project they’re working on next door,” she mumbled, turning to the last page of her notes. Quickly entering the last page of her notes, Alanna ignored the sounds, successfully concentrating on her task. As soon as she was finished she stretched, feeling a gentle pull in her shoulders, which told her it was a good time to go home and relax. She would go by Brian and Helen’s for a while, knowing her sister-in-law would certainly feed her and then go to her own house, take a nice warm shower and relax.
“Sounds like a plan,” Alanna yawned, logging out of the system and getting up from the chair. “Hey-ho, hey-ho, out of here we go,” she hummed, turning around and heading for the door. When she was halfway across the autopsy room, she stood still and tilted her head, listening carefully. With a frown she slowly turned around. Alanna’s eyes narrowed, briefly closing in pure concentration. Suddenly they flew open when she realized the sound she heard was not coming from the next door workshop at all.
Alanna sucked in a breath and felt her heart hammer inside her chest. It couldn’t be true. Could it? She took a step closer in the direction of the heavy steel doors and listened again, not aware that she was holding her breath. The rational part of her brain was trying to tell her what the intuitive part had already come to accept; the sound was coming from behind the doors. It was coming from the actual cooler.
All the jokes she had ever heard about people not being dead and pounding on the door of the morgue or lid of the coffin, suddenly mixed with all the horror stories she had ever heard, read or seen in movies.
Alanna’s blood ran cold and her first reaction was to flee into the opposite direction, but somehow her legs did not want to obey the signals they were receiving from her brain. It took a few seconds before Alanna’s body was able to move again, even though it still felt cold and stiff. After a few steps in the direction of the door to the hallway, she halted, sending a nervous look over her shoulder.
What if someone was in trouble? Wasn’t that the most logical explanation? Dead people usually didn’t talk, at least, Alanna had never heard one do so and she worked with deceased people on a daily basis. So, what exactly was the sound and who was making it?
It was as if the calm, logical flow of thought did more to settle her down than anything else could. Alanna’s heart rate slowed down and as did her breathing. In spite of the cool temperature of the room, she could feel her body resume its warmth as well.
“Alright.” Alanna blew out a puff of air, turned around and, after taking a deep breath, she headed for the heavy steel doors, all of a sudden more curious than scared.
Grabbing the door handle and pushing hard, the door silently opened and Alanna was greeted by a gush of colder air. For a few seconds she stood in the doorway, her head tilted, listening. Her muscles were tense, as if, once more, her body was preparing to run.
Alanna’s hand reached out and flipped the light switch. Immediately, the large room was illuminated by a bright, fluorescent light that made her shut her eyes against it for a moment. There was no sound and slightly encouraged by that Alanna stepped inside the morgue, her hand still on the door handle, as if the cold, stainless steel was a warm hand; encouraging and safe.
The room was dead silent. Alanna’s eyes scanned the doors and did a quick count; four tags. That meant there were eight empty body trays, just as there had been during the afternoon.
“Weird,” she mumbled, starting to think the sound she had heard must have come from a different area. With a shrug of her shoulders, Alanna turned around, ready to turn off the light and leave, but she didn’t get far. A muffled sound, clearly coming from behind one of the doors, caught her attention and once again, Alanna’s heart started racing.
“Shit,” she croaked, leaning heavily against the door, because her legs suddenly felt rubbery. She took a deep breath and steadied herself.
To Alanna it sounded like a shout, but in reality her voice was barely a whisper.
“Hello?” she tried again, a little louder this time. “Is anyone here?”
There was a brief silence, but then the sound returned, less muffled this time and to Alanna’s horror she realized it was a voice and although she couldn’t make out the words, she knew the owner of it was responding to her question.
Alanna’s mind was working overtime. Part of her brain was trying to process the fact that someone had been put inside the cooler while still alive, while the other part was trying to recall who was behind which door and why.
There were three elderly people, one male and two females. Alanna had seen them and she knew for sure they had passed away. The fourth one she didn’t know, but according to Joe Landau the inhabitant of that tray was a victim of a one-sided motorcycle accident. Alanna wrinkled her nose. She had no desire at all to open any of the doors to peek inside, but deep down inside she knew she had no choice. It wasn’t as if she could call security and tell them she was hearing noises inside the cooler. If she was mistaken about that, or if this was someone’s idea of a joke, she would never live it down. No, it was best to just check and make sure that all the deceased present were just that, deceased.
“Okay, here goes,” Alanna took a deep breath and grabbed the handle of one of the doors, number eight. She opened the door, grabbed the tray and slowly pulled it toward her. A small, sheet covered body came into view and Alanna quickly put her hand on the cotton covered arm. Cold. Just to make sure, she grabbed the sheet and lifted it high enough so she could peek at the person’s face.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Anderson,” she muttered, carefully putting the sheet back into place and gently patting the deceased woman’s shoulder, before pushing the tray back in again and closing the door.
“Here. I’m in here.” Startled, Alanna jumped back, painfully colliding with the side of a stainless steel gurney that was parked behind her, against the wall. Rubbing her lower back, she stared at the area where the voice had come from. Inside Alanna’s head a multitude of emotions fought for instant recognition; surprise, fear, anger, curiosity. It was a swirling mass of feelings that was so overpowering, all that Alanna could do was stare, until reality set in and she stepped away from the gurney and walked to one of the doors in the middle of the cooler that was not labeled and was supposed to be empty. She reached out a trembling hand, grabbed the handle of the door, yanked it open, immediately stepping away from the tray, ready to bolt.
While still moving in the direction of the door, Alanna’s eyes were glued to a stark, white sheet that had started moving the moment the door was pulled open.
“Crud, crud, crud,” a voice muttered, struggling to get away from the sheet. A face appeared and Alanna froze. Wild, blond hair framed a pale face from which vivid blue eyes stood out.
“Hi, Alanna!” a familiar voice spoke, while its owner raked stiff fingers through her hair in order to look less disheveled. “Could you please slide this thing out of here?”
“What…the…hell…are …you…doing…in…there?” Alanna’s voice was clipped, almost as cold as the surrounding temperature. The woman on the tray flinched visibly.
“Would you help me out and down? It’s a little cramped in here,” Maura Landau asked, grunting when she braced her hands against the inside wall and started pushing the tray out herself, realizing she wouldn’t get any help from Alanna. With a groan she threw her stiff jean-clad legs over the edge.
“I should push you back in and walk out,” Alanna said angrily, not moving from the place she was standing. All her fear and trepidation had been evaporated by the anger that was racing through her body.
“Please, don’t,” Maura answered with a shiver. “There’s lousy cell phone reception in there. Trust me, I know.” Maura’s eyes took in the angry form of Alanna and she let out an inaudible sigh. Fine. She could get down herself. With more determination than grace, she let herself slide off the cold, metal bed. As soon as her legs touched the ground, she had to grab the open door for support. Her legs were so cold and numb they could barely hold her up. Weakly stamping her feet, Maura tried to kick-start her circulation.
“Whew, it’s cold in there,” she muttered.
“Really? How odd, seeing we keep dead people in there.” Alanna responded sarcastically. An eyebrow arched over a brown eye in a silent question.
“I guess you’re wondering what I’m doing here?” Maura asked, jumping from one foot to the other, while rubbing her hands together.
“Surprisingly enough, yes, I am wondering.”
“You’re never going to believe me.”
“Try me,” Alanna responded in a cool voice, leaning against the door with her arms crossed in front of her chest. She was a picture of contained anger mixed with contempt.
“My dad doesn’t know about this,” Maura started glad to feel her toes had started coming back to life.
“No surprise there,” Alanna mumbled.
Maura sighed and took a few steps toward the door. Her legs were still so stiff she felt she could topple over at any given moment.
“Can we go someplace warmer?” she asked and there was so much genuine discomfort in her voice that Alanna stepped away from the door and walked back through the lab, heading for the staff lounge where Maura could get something warm to drink. The uneven stumbling behind her told her Maura was following. For a brief moment she hesitated and almost turned around to see if the other woman was in need of help, but the anger still burning inside kept her walking forward. Alanna was already seated at the table in the dimly lit break room when Maura walked in and gingerly sank in a chair.
“Do you want some coffee or tea?” Alanna asked, inwardly sighing because the question felt like she was being too nice to Maura.
“Anything, as long as it’s warm,” Maura answered and Alanna could see her shiver.
Silently, the dark-haired woman got up and grabbed a ceramic cup out of one of the cupboards. She quickly filled it with coffee from the machine and added cream and sugar.
“Thanks, ‘Lanna,” Maura muttered, wishing she would stop the shivering.
“So,” Alanna started when she was seated again, watching Maura sip the hot beverage. “Care to tell me what you were doing in there?”
“Like I have a choice,” Maura mumbled.
“You know that, if your dad ever finds out, he’ll kill you.”
“Probably,” Maura nodded. “After he draws and quarters me first.”
Maura took another sip of hot coffee, enjoying the warmth that spread through her stomach and the rest of her body.
“If I hadn’t been around, you could have died, you know that? Right?” Alanna sighed, taking out her ponytail and raking her fingers through her thick, black hair.
“Does that mean you saved my life?” Maura perked up. “You know that in some cultures that means you’re responsible for me from now on.”
“That’s way too much work,” Alanna said with a soft snort. “When do you plan on growing up, Maura? Babysitting two year old triplets is easier than keeping an eye on you.”
“I’m not that bad,” Maura protested, but there was a twinkle in her eyes.
“Yes, actually, you are,” Alanna answered. “I heard the stories from when you were small and, as far as I can tell, nothing has changed. But, you are avoiding my question; what were you doing in the morgue? That was an insane thing to do. And who helped you?”
“Helped?” Maura asked, her blue eyes a little too innocent.
“Maura, there is no way you could have climbed onto that tray all by yourself, without at least using a stepping stool or a chair. There was nothing there, so, someone must have taken that away.” Alanna’s already dark eyes turned almost black with anger. “Don’t treat me like I’m stupid and don’t lie to me,” she said quietly. Maura thought she detected sadness underneath the anger in the other woman’s voice.
“I don’t,” Maura answered softly. “I never would.” She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with your observation skills. You’ll make a great pathologist one day.”
“It’s not exactly rocket science,” Alanna mumbled. “But thanks.”
Maura took another deep breath and tried to settle a little bit more comfortably in the straight-backed chair. She stole a glance at Alanna, who was looking at her with curiosity and Maura was happy to notice the anger she had noted before was nearly gone. She almost recognized the Alanna she knew; serious, curious, calm and collected and always very patient. For a brief moment, Maura wondered if she should make up a story, avoiding the conversation that would put her in a very vulnerable position, but she quickly decided against it. She needed to do this right, no matter what the outcome.
“I wanted to ask you out on a date,” Maura blurted out, so unexpectedly that Alanna could only sit in her chair across the table and stare at the blonde, who was leaning back in her chair with an expression on her face that was a mixture of relief, embarrassment and fear. For a few moments it was so quiet in the room that the rhythmic ticking of the cheap, plastic clock on the wall sounded loud.
Twice, Alanna took a breath and opened her mouth to respond to the bluntly delivered statement, but just as many times she closed it again, shaking her head, clearly lost for words.
“A date?” she finally asked quietly. “You locked yourself up in a…no, let me rephrase that, you had yourself locked into morgue cooler, because you wanted to ask me out on a date?”
Maura slowly nodded and there was a shadow of a smile on her face.
“It’s sounds really crazy when you put it that way.”
“No, it doesn’t sound crazy,” Alanna answered. “It is crazy. It’s insane. What were you thinking?”
“Well I thought it could be a good Halloween prank as well and…,” seeing the narrowing of Alanna’s eyes, Maura sighed. “You’re right, I admit it; it was stupid. It probably was the most stupid, non-thinking, idiotic things I’ve ever done. And it was also a lot colder than I had expected,” she added with a scowl, using her index finger to draw invisible shapes on the smooth surface of the table. Had she had the courage to look up, she would have seen the beginnings of amusement in Alanna’s eyes, but Maura wasn’t ready to see possible contempt and irritation on the other woman’s face. What had seemed like a good idea at the time, had completely backfired and she wondered if she’d ever felt so mortified in her entire life. Probably not.
“I won’t ask who your accomplice was, although I can guess,” Alanna’s voice sounded soft and calm. “But I’ll make sure to kick Caleb in the shins the next time I see him.”
“I asked him to help,” Maura mumbled. “You know Caleb, he loves a good joke.”
“I know,” Alanna nodded. “But where is he now? What would have happened if I hadn’t come down here to use the computer? I…oh, wait a minute,” Alanna said, suddenly sitting up straight. “You guys tampered with my computer, so I had to come down here. That’s why it wasn’t working. Am I right?”
Maura stared at the empty coffee mug in her hands and nodded.
“Do you know that your dad thinks it’s me who keeps messing up the computer so I can call IT and have you come down to fix it? I bet he has no clue whatsoever that it’s probably you who’s been sabotaging it all this time.”
“I only did that once,” Maura quickly answered, looking up with minimal guilt in her blue eyes, Alanna almost felt sorry for her. “Only today, I swear. All the other times really were glitches because of the new system.”
“So, where’s Caleb now? Did the two of you have a backup plan, just in case I hadn’t ended up here?”
“He’s around,” Maura nodded. “If he had seen you leave without me, he would have come back and let me out.”
“And in the meantime you could have died of hypothermia.”
“I thought it would have been easier to get your attention. It took you a while to figure out someone was in here,” Maura stated.
“I heard the sounds, but I thought they were doing something in the maintenance workshop,” Alanna explained. “I bet you and Caleb forgot about the shop being there while planning this little set-up, didn’t you?” Alanna teased and for the first time she laughed. “Maura, I know you’re smart. Heaven knows your dad talks about you all of the time and there must be a reason they made you IT manager in this place, but still, this was not a smart thing to do.”
“I know,” Maura admitted with a sigh. “I really couldn’t bang the walls that well. It’s so cramped in there.”
“Because dead people don’t need to wiggle around to stay warm,” was Alanna’s dry reply. “And they really don’t need to bang the walls.”
“Point taken,” Maura muttered, rubbing her hands together. She was slowly, but surely getting warmer and felt almost human again.
Alanna leaned back in the chair and studied the woman who was sitting across from her. Maura was everything she wasn’t: fairly tall, blond and blue eyed. Right now her face was still a little pale, but that wasn’t the norm. Her cheeks usually held some rosy color, complimentary to her fair skin.
Alanna suppressed a smile. Contrary to the signals she had been sending the other woman, she really liked Maura, but she was her supervisor’s daughter and the last thing Alanna wanted, or needed, were complications at work. That’s why she had ignored Maura’s efforts to flirt with her, declined her invitations to go out for dinner after work and basically made sure she never visited Joe and his wife when she knew Maura would be there. Although, curiously, the blonde had often showed up at those times anyway. At his moment, Alanna wondered if, perhaps, her boss had a hand in this plan also.
“Are you getting warmer?” Alanna asked, not unfriendly.
“I am, thanks,” Maura nodded, pushing back her chair and stiffly getting to her feet. “I’d better get going and let Caleb know I’m still alive. Since he hasn’t been back in to check up on me, he must have faith in you.”
“Like I said; I’ll kick him in the shins, next time I see him,” Alanna promised, making Maura chuckle. She also got to her feet and followed the blonde to the door, but when Maura grabbed the handle to open it, Alanna stopped her.
“I always pictured you as the tenacious, persevering kind,” she said, putting a hand on Maura’s arm.
“I am,” Maura nodded with a half-smile. “But parts of me are still frozen and I think my stubbornness has not thawed yet.”
“I have no doubt it will, though,” Alanna smiled. “But, since I do feel a little pity for you, I’ll help you along.” Alanna took a deep breath, deciding that sometimes, some things were worth taking risks for. “Ask me again,” she encouraged softly.
Maura’s blue eyes widened and a glimmer of hope appeared on her face.
“Are you sure?” she asked, the surprise and excitement making her a little breathless.
Alanna nodded, her dark eyes never leaving Maura’s.
“Will you, please, go out on a date with me?
Alanna looked up at the taller woman and smiled.
“Yes, I’d love to. When?”
“How about right now?” Maura quickly answered; afraid the other woman might change her mind if she’d give her a few days to reconsider.
“Right now sounds good,” Alanna nodded, feeling excitement bubble up inside her.
Maura laughed and the smaller woman noticed the blonde’s eyes turned a few shades bluer.
“Wow, who knew that crazy stunt was actually worth it?” Maura said, opening the door so she could let Alanna step passed her into the hallway.
“You could have just asked me, you know,” Alanna replied with a chuckle.
“Would you have said ‘yes’?”
“I just did,” Alanna replied in a dry voice.
Maura shook her head and closed the door to the staff lounge behind her, following the other woman down the long hallway. Neither of them were aware of the barely audible, but insistent scratching behind door number ten of the cooler.