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04 August 2014 @ 10:31 am
LJ Idol Season Nine: "If Mortal Breath Could But Awaken"  
If Mortal Breath Could But Awaken
lj idol season nine | week 16 |975 words
A Terrible beauty has been born


At first, everyone thought it was a blessing. We had all lost someone we loved, and then lost our own futures to the endless sorrow from which some do not escape. That the dead could be restored to life seemed like a miracle in a merciless age.

It wasn't until later that we realized those we reclaimed were somehow… wrong.

Senator Bradigan's son, Dylan, was one of the first to come back. He'd been in a car accident and needed several organ transplants, but after surgery he slipped into a vegetative coma. The doctors said Dylan's body was just too traumatized by the damage he'd suffered, and that he might never recover. After months of waiting for Dylan to wake on his own, Bradigan became desperate enough to plead for the experimental drug Lazaryl to be used.

His son came out of his coma within minutes.

There were news reports, articles in scientific journals, and demands to speed up the approval process for the drug. Coma patients of all ages, and even a few people suffering from trauma-induced catatonia, responded well to it. No one heard about the next development until it was already too late.

It was John Stallings, one of the lab scientists working on the Lazaryl test trials. His wife's cold had turned out to be viral meningitis, and she had died almost as soon as their neighbor brought her to the hospital. Stallings was at the lab when the phone call came, and he grabbed a sample of the drug and stuck it in his pocket without even being sure what he intended to do with it.

They left him alone with his wife's body to say his goodbyes. "But just one look at her sweet, beautiful face," Stallings said, "and I just couldn't let her go. I tore the room apart until I find a syringe, and then I injected the Lazaryl into her heart." The scientist was about to try restarting her heart, when she drew breath and opened her eyes. Two days later, the hospital released her and he took her home.

Other cases soon followed.

There were mothers who had died in childbirth, crime victims who had lost too much blood. Often, they just needed a little more time for the doctors to treat their injuries, and given that, the drug could bring them back.

Our own mother would have died last month, when her appendix burst and toxins spread all through her, but the doctors were able to revive her.

We were so grateful for the triumph of science that let us keep her, so relieved she was still with us. Those feelings pushed everything else away so that it was at least two days before we noticed that something about Mama just wasn't quite right.

She still looked and sounded like herself, mostly. She did all the same things she used to do, though she did them more slowly. Still, she ate her meals without any particular interest, and if you happened to meet her eyes, there was a hollowness in them you might expect from a stranger, instead.

"Are you all right, Mama?" I would ask.

"Yes, Lissy, of course," she'd say. But my name was just a label in her mouth, like Minister or Monday.

Or Daughter.

It made me feel empty inside, and forgotten. My brother Jax's name sounded no better.

We thought at first it was just having been so sick (having died, though we didn't either of us say it). But Mama didn't get any better, not in weeks or even months. She became less and less like herself, as if she was forgetting how she used to be, or what Jax and I were to her. She was like a shell that looked every bit like Mama on the outside, but inside there was just… well, it certainly wasn't Mama. It was something cold and unnatural that only knew the patterns of surviving.

We heard rumors about the lab scientist's wife, that she'd gotten strange and had to move away from her family and friends. Nobody felt like they quite knew her anymore, and she didn't seem to care.

I wondered what Mama did all day long, when there was no one there to see?

Jax and I visited her less and less often, and when we did, we always went together. We couldn’t not go—we had a duty—but her obvious indifference to us was disturbing.

"She's not the only one," Jax said to me once. "I hear they've all turned out that way."


"All the people that Lazaryl stuff brought back after they died. They're all different and spooky now, just like her."

"You're talking about our Mama, Jax."

"You and I both know that ain't Mama anymore..."

Jax was right about the drug. They stopped using it for people who'd gone all the way over into death, though nobody said anything official about why. But what was to be done with the people who'd come back? You couldn't kill them—their families would never allow it. There was even the question of whether it was possible for them to die.

In the house where Jax and I grew up, someone dressed in Mama's clothes and used her things, and looked for all the world like it felt right at home. It was a terrible lie, a lie that wore our Mama's smile, those rare times when it remembered.

We had no sense of what to do about it, or whether there was really anything that could be done. All we had left were questions without answers, sadness with no foreseeable end.

How did something that had seemed so wonderful turn out so badly?

How did you mourn someone who wasn't entirely gone? And how could you ever manage to stop?


If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.

A Karmic Sandbox: Camo Teddykarmasoup on August 4th, 2014 07:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, what a fabulous commentary on life, living, and living with loss... lifeless living, living without life. Some things are just part of the cycle that IS life, and if we can't learn to accept that, we meddle in affairs that may not respond well to our interference. Great philosophical quandary.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 4th, 2014 11:49 pm (UTC)
Some of the worst situations humans have gotten ourselves into have come from trying to avoid the sorrows of life itself.

You can understand the desperation that drives it, but the results can be terribly different from what was intended. :(
bleodsweanbleodswean on August 4th, 2014 08:27 pm (UTC)
Suitably uneasy with a strong build-up to an emotional, rather than physical, crescendo.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 5th, 2014 12:40 am (UTC)
You can understand why people would want to bring back those they had lost--it's the most terrible thing in the world when someone you love dies.

But there may be nothing TO bring back. That is a unique awfulness born of what seemed like a wonderful idea... at the time.
(no subject) - bleodswean on August 5th, 2014 12:43 am (UTC) (Expand)
favoritebeanfavoritebean on August 4th, 2014 09:52 pm (UTC)
I particularly like the nod you gave to the Lazarus story for this. Great work, as usual.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 5th, 2014 12:41 am (UTC)
Thank you! Finding the spelling for this invented drug (and several other rejected ones) was tricky-- two were World of Warcraft characters, apparently, and others... were existing supplements or medications. :(
tonithegreattonithegreat on August 5th, 2014 04:00 am (UTC)
How creepy and sad! It really leaves me wondering if they die eventually or not.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 5th, 2014 04:59 pm (UTC)
That question really arises from the uncomfortable fact that it is now difficult for people to have these reminders of loved ones they've lost still roaming the world, and yet not at all being the person they want and remember. It's bad enough that it happened, but worse that the anti-'Mama' or whoever still remains. :(
cindytsuki_no_bara on August 5th, 2014 04:15 am (UTC)
this is really fabulous and creepy and sad, and a nifty way to write what's essentially a zombie story without having actual zombies.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 5th, 2014 05:01 pm (UTC)
Yes-- it's exactly that! The reclaimed are technically zombies, but still very much alive and human. It's the emotional aspect of them that is just completely gone, as if they've been replaced by android versions of themselves. But for the people who loved them, it's so much more awful. :(
i_17bingoi_17bingo on August 5th, 2014 11:23 am (UTC)
But my name was just a label in her mouth, like Minister or Monday.

One of my oldest, closest friends in the world has had two massive heart attacks before his fortieth birthday, and he may or may not die this summer from complications. Last winter, after his second one, he slipped into a coma we hadn't expected to awaken from, during which he had a number of micro-strokes. I mourned him while he was comatose, when I believed he was gone for good. But now that he is still here, the fates deciding what to do with him, his body ravaged and deprived of his favorite things (alcohol, marijuana, coffee, and acrobatic sex, for example), his memory like Swiss cheese... It hurts so much worse than when I thought he was dead.

This piece really stung me, because it brought all of that into sharp focus. That means it's really well done.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 5th, 2014 05:05 pm (UTC)
I'm so sorry for the pain, though I very much appreciate your words.

For people who have friends or relatives with dementia or other mental impairments, the situation is very much like this. There is that constant reminder of potential and "was," without the person being able to return to that. And as much as you grieve for them, I think you can't help mourning for what they themselves have lost. Even if they have no awareness of it, you know. And loving them means that you'll ache for that as well.

I'm sorry about your friend. :(
Rebeccabeeker121 on August 5th, 2014 07:15 pm (UTC)
The idea that these people might never die, might always exist as these shadows of who they were, feels creepy but so very quickly becomes bone-deep sadness. This is a piece to make one think.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 5th, 2014 07:21 pm (UTC)
That's good to hear! I was really aiming for the sadness with this one, because the creepiness is obvious to outsiders but knowing the person who is now there but "not there" is very different. It would just be haunting.
Jemima Paulerjem0000000 on August 6th, 2014 04:10 am (UTC)
*hugs* It's hard to mourn people when they're gone but not dead, but there's not a lot else you can do, once they get that far gone.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 6th, 2014 04:29 pm (UTC)
Yes-- I think everyone with a loved one who is comatose, or who has lost themselves through dementia or other brain damage, knows what that's like. And it's just terrible.
uncawes on August 6th, 2014 11:54 am (UTC)
Maybe the Lazaryl brought back the flesh, but not the spirit?
Once the spirit has gone, it doesn't come back. So, the ones who weren't quite dead could be saved but the ones who'd crossed over were continuing their journey.
That's how I read your story. And loved it
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 6th, 2014 04:32 pm (UTC)
So, the ones who weren't quite dead could be saved but the ones who'd crossed over were continuing their journey.
Yes, that's exactly how I intended it. You can resuscitate people whose hearts have stopped, and if it's quick enough, they'll be fine. They haven't really gone 'very far.' But if you were to try to revive someone who had been gone too long... in our present, they'd suffer brain damage, and with a miracle drug, you might get all the synapses to fire... but personality is a unique and special thing (the soul, for those who believe that), and it cannot be so easily restored.

I'm glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for reading!
shimmerdreamshimmerdream on August 6th, 2014 01:24 pm (UTC)
This was a great zombie-type story. I loved the way it concentrated on the emotional (rather than horror) aspects.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 6th, 2014 04:33 pm (UTC)
The emotional is actually the most interesting part of zombie stories to me (which are not really my genre!), and this setting is a much more focused look at what it is like to lose a person who should still know and love you as you do them... and yet, you might as well be a stranger or a piece of furniture to them. :(
lriG rorriMlrig_rorrim on August 6th, 2014 05:49 pm (UTC)
*applauds* Another awesome story, and I love it. The emotional elements in here are like a kick to the gut.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 6th, 2014 08:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you! This is an idea that could easily be all about "Grrr! Argh!", but having it be about feelings was much more interesting to me, as a writer. :D
mamas_minionmamas_minion on August 6th, 2014 07:12 pm (UTC)
This blew me away, at first I was expecting zombies (glad you did not go there) but this was emotionally worse than zombies would be. this was truly a great piece and I love how you explored loss in this.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 6th, 2014 08:30 pm (UTC)
I'm glad people realized that these were potentially zombie-like creations, though this form is much worse. Something that looks dead and like a raving monster is still painful, if it was someone you knew. But that they look the same, and are just as dead to you inside, is so much harder.

When hope, or the suggestion of it, finally leaves, it hurts us so much more than the straight path to awfulness ever could.
Kellykajel on August 6th, 2014 07:21 pm (UTC)
To lose someone, then do it all over again, but still have them there, would be horrifying. This was really great.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 6th, 2014 08:31 pm (UTC)
It shows that there are worse things than having someone you love die, even though you couldn't possibly imagine that ever being true. Unless you're unfortunate enough to be faced with it. :(
suesniffsgluesuesniffsglue on August 6th, 2014 07:36 pm (UTC)
This is beautiful
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 6th, 2014 08:31 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad that element of it came out, at the end. :)
Hillaryxlovebecomesher on August 6th, 2014 08:38 pm (UTC)
It hit home for me especially as my mother is dealing with dementia and it's hard watching her change into someone I don't entirely recognize anymore :/ This is beautifully written.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on August 7th, 2014 06:32 pm (UTC)
I'm so sorry about your mom. Dementia was one of the things I thougth about here, because to the forgotten loved ones, it would feel so much like this. There are probably isolated moments where she remembers you, but all the times she doesn't... it would be so terribly painful. :(