Disclaimer: All characters, etc. are property of Stephanie Meyer.
The Freeze Response: The ["fight or flight"] sequence, originally described by Jeffrey A. Gray, begins with what ethologists call "the freeze response" or "freezing," terms corresponding to what clinicians typically refer to as hypervigilance (being on guard, watchful, or hyper-alert). This initial freeze response is the "stop, look, and listen" response associated with fear. The survival advantage of this response is obvious. Specifically, ethological research has demonstrated that prey that remain "frozen" during a threat are more likely to avoid detection because the visual cortex and the retina of mammalian carnivores primarily detect moving objects rather than color. 
The parking lot was still and quiet in the warm summer night air; the only sounds were the buzzing of the streetlight and the faint sound of a siren, running to or from Harborview's ER I was certain. My future home this fall. I still couldn't believe my luck that my borderline-mediocre MCATs got me into UW's medical school, allowing me to stay in state. I could even stay in my shitty one-bedroom apartment. For most people, medical school meant picking up and moving halfway across the country. I would just have to walk to the other side of campus.
Everything came easily for me: a single child, my parents were still together and happy, I had a good set of friends in Seattle, and although I wasn't seeing anyone seriously it was easy for me to talk to women and get dates. I never had to study too hard; my 3.5 GPA was the result of my intelligence and not any hard work on my part. Medical school was the next logical step – what else was I going to do with my B.S. in biology? So like everything else in my life, my acceptance to med school fell into my lap. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. The older I got, the more apprehensive I became, the more weary and paranoid. Something had to change; things couldn't always be this easy.
I ran my hand through my hair, an old habit, as I took the last drag from my cigarette. I was glad that my one vice had gotten me outside tonight. The warm summer breeze had finally taken off the chill; it was always freezing in the ME's office, and scrubs offered no warmth whatsoever.
I was spending my last summer of freedom before med school working as an autopsy assistant at the King County Medical Examiner's office. Adding on a couple of nightshifts working "security" at time-and-a-half every week would help offset some of my first year costs. The pay wasn't great, but I was getting what every fresh-faced medical student dreamed of – experience. I would not be one of those med students fainting at the first sight of a cadaver.
After only two months on the job I knew there were only a few things that could still turn my stomach. General hospital smells were now ambrosia in comparison to the stench that never seemed to leave the ME's office. I could differentiate between a general decomp and a floater with my eyes closed, based on smell alone. I was hardened; I was prepared. I dropped my cigarette butt to the sidewalk and ground it out with the toe of my sneaker, took a deep breath of the city night air, and headed back in. These extra nightshifts were much easier than I expected. My only real responsibilities were to sign in any bodies brought in between midnight and 6 a.m., or release remains to funeral homes that had to drive the out-of-town dead to funerals that were hours away. I checked toe tags, signed my name, shifted body bags around in the walk-in cooler. Most nights I spent staring at my new first year textbooks, or, more often than not, playing game after game of Minesweeper or solitaire. Charon, I was not.
Tonight I was having serious trouble not falling asleep. I had screwed myself over by working during the day, only getting a few hours of sleep in the early evening before coming back for this night shift. I was also the dumbass who scheduled myself to work the next day as well. At least I was getting practice for the long hours I knew I would have starting in the fall.
I couldn't go out to smoke again so soon after coming in, so I wandered the halls of the office, making a lopsided circle through the administrative offices, the oversized autopsy room with all of the tables shiny and clean for the next day, the long hall to the walk-in and back. I flipped my lighter open and shut, open and shut. The first few nights I was here by myself, I got a little creeped out walking by or going into the walk-in freezer by myself. It was stupid, I know. I've been elbow-deep into dead bodies during autopsies, but it was physiologically different under the harsh florescent lights of the autopsy room surrounded by my coworkers with full PPE separating me from the body.
Nights alone here were different. The dead were more mysterious lined up in body bags in the freezer. I think only the repetition of night after night here had dampened the creep factor. From the end of the hallway, over the soft tones of the classic rock station on the radio, I heard the buzz of the alarm for the bay door, startling me out of my reverie.
I wandered back over to the desk, turned off the radio, and looked at the display from the security camera. I recognized the old van and buzzed Mike in. Mike was the one guy I could depend on seeing regularly during my overnight shifts. He drove a van for Seattle PD, bringing in bodies from crime scenes. He was always cheery considering he was up at some god awful hour carting the dead around.
"Edward, my man! Good to see you here!" Mike hopped out of the driver's seat, slapped me on the back, and walked around to the back of the van.
"Hey, Mike, what's up?" I was glad for the work. It would keep me awake a little longer, although Mike always grated on my nerves. I grabbed the logbook and some gloves.
"Not much, my man! Just enjoying this fine Seattle night! You don't have too much longer here, do you? School starts in a few weeks? Must be pretty exciting, huh? Too smart for me, man! I couldn't wait to get out of school! You think after working here you might be interested in joining the docs at this old place one day?"
I nodded as I tuned Mike out and helped pull the stretcher out the back of the van. Mike asked the same damn questions almost every night, and never seemed to notice that he was carrying on a conversation by himself. I guess when you're alone every evening, it must get kind of lonely.
"What the deal with this guy?" I started unzipping the body bag, looking for personal effects and anything out of the ordinary to note in the log. He was a young guy, younger than me. College age? High school even? He had blond curly hair, was tall, thin, and very clean looking. Most of the bodies brought in from PD rarely looked this nice. It was actually refreshing, and I was overjoyed that it wasn't another decomp. With a blue button-up shirt, dark wash jeans and dark leather shoes, his looked almost too nice for a college kid. There were no noticeable wounds or marks on his body.
"Where did you guys pick him up?"
"Oh, he was lying on one of the benches in Lawton Park? Near the playground, you know? And a cop walking by noticed he wasn't breathing and called it in. Weird, cause it's too warm for hypothermia. Maybe an overdose? But hey! That's what you guys are for, right?" Mike laughed as we started wheeling him away from the truck. Mike signed the body over to me and hopped back into the driver's seat.
"See you around, man! Lemme know when your last week is; me and Eric will take you out!" Eric was the regular night security guard, and although I was flattered I didn't think I really wanted to spend a night in a bar with those two.
As I heard the creaky garage door to the bay start to close, I looked down at the body again. Unless there was obvious trauma, the newly dead don't look noticeably different from the living. Until you get to the stages of lividity, the skin color is the same, and the body temp hasn't cooled down too much. Very different from what you see on TV. This guy looked different, somehow. His skin tone was off – smooth, very pale, none of the telltale bruise-colored signs of lividity, and he was cool. Cold, actually. I wondered how long he'd been out on that park bench.
Usually when I covered nights I only needed to log bodies and put them into the cooler. Sometimes, though, when I knew I was going to stay on in the morning for my regular shift and do the autopsy, I would go ahead and do some preliminary work – check for IDs, take photos, start a chart, and mark any obvious signs of trauma on the body. I rolled the stretcher into the building and out of the garage bay and stopped in the hallway outside of the autopsy room.
I fully unzipped the body bag and pulled it back, completely exposing the body. I grabbed the digital camera off of the shelf and started taking pictures. I got the face and a long shot of the body, then started looking for any signs of trauma. There weren't any recent marks or scratches, but he had scars. Lots of scars. They were faint, pale half-moons, covering his exposed forearms where his sleeves were rolled up and on his neck, even a few on his face and hands. I didn't see them in the weaker light of the garage, but under the bright fluorescent lights in the hallway I could just make them out. They seemed off, somehow, like the rest of him. I stared for a minute, the quiet of the hallway making me wish that Mike had hung around awhile longer.
I leaned in close to his left hand, tracing with my gloved finger one scar that covered his palm. With my face so close to his hand, there was no way that I could miss the fact that his fingers twitched.
I jumped back, my lower back slamming into shelves behind me. The dropped camera clattered on the tiled floor, the back springing open and the batteries rolling under the cabinet. My hands clutched each side of the countertop, and my fingers dug painfully into the surface. I knew that if I weakened my grip at all, my body would take off, chemicals screaming, "FLIGHT! FLIGHT! FLIGHT!" coursing through my bloodstream.
My heart was pounding – tachycardia, I thought randomly. I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths. I must have imagined it, right? After a minute, when I trusted myself to not sprint off, I deliberately pulled each finger of my right hand off of the black countertop, and once my hand was free, I reached forward and gingerly placed my first and second fingers on the body's wrist. Never use the thumb to check for a pulse; the pulse in your own thumb might mask the patient's - random medical knowledge free-associated in my head. I felt nothing on the cold, hard skin. I might as well have been pressing down on marble. I held my fingers there for another minute, making sure I wasn't missing anything.
There were cases, of course, where a living person was taken to a morgue or ME's office. All kinds of crazy stories circulated in the office during the day. But this guy was dead. There was no doubt about that. His chest was still, his body cold. I moved my hand to his neck – if his blood pressure was very low, I might not be able to feel a pulse in the extremities. I brushed his curly hair away from his neck before I pressed down where I guessed his carotid artery was. I had no exposure to live patients; I realized that I didn't even properly know how to take a pulse. Maybe I wasn't so prepared for medical school after all. But there was nothing, no movement, nothing tactile that would show life.
I shook my head as I let out a shaky breath. I felt stupid. Two months? Two months of spending nights here alone, surrounded by bodies, by death, and I was still getting spooked? I was an adult, a man. This was ridiculous.
I pulled the body bag back up, zipped it closed, and briskly pushed the stretcher down the rest of the hall and into the walk-in freezer. I left the body just inside the door, away from the handful of other bodies farther back in the cooler awaiting pickup. We'd do the autopsy in the morning, only a few hours away. Daytime, and fellow employees, and bright, normal routine. I just had to make it until 6 a.m.
It had been almost thirty minutes since Mike brought in the body. The adrenaline had worn off, and I was getting sleepy again, against my will. I watched the clock switch over to 5:00 a.m., glad I only had one more hour to go until the early-shift people started trickling in. I could expect Angela, sweet, dependable Angela, to get here as early as 5:40 to get an early start on set up and prep for the morning. Angela was the one actual friend I'd made here; she had finished undergrad a few years ago and was working on her R.N. part-time. I had gone out with her and her husband, Ben, the previous weekend. Angela's old college roommate had met up with us. I figured Ben and Angela were trying to set me up with her, but I didn't really mind.
"Edward? This is Bella." I looked up from my conversation with Ben, seeing Angela's slender face hopeful and smiling as she pushed her friend forward. Bella was someone that on paper would seem completely average. The dead center of the bell curve. Medium height, medium build, brown hair, brown eyes. Her face was symmetrical and her skin clear, but her features wouldn't be categorized as beautiful. She smiled shyly and reached out her hand. I slid off my stool as I wiped my palm on my jeans, my hand wet from the condensation of my beer. As I shook her hand I noticed how pink her nails were, and her hand was soft and delicate in my larger one.
"Hi, Bella, nice to meet you." I smiled back, and we stood just a beat too long, smiling at each other.
"How do you know Angela?" Bella broke the silence as she gently pulled back her hand and reached for the back of a free barstool.
"We work together at the M.E.'s office. I'm starting med school in the fall, and wanted to get some practical experience." I winced internally; I usually didn't tell people right away about medical school. I thought it made me sound conceited, an asshole. I knew enough douchey pre-med students like that who I didn't want to emulate.
"That's cool. I could never do something like that. I'm impressed with people who can handle all of the blood and gore. I even faint at the sight of my own blood." Bella had sat on the high barstool and turned to face me. Her nose crinkled when she mentioned blood. I picked up the pitcher of beer and motioned to an empty glass. She nodded, so I started pouring her a drink.
"What do you do?"
"I'm a social worker. I work mainly with the elderly—I'm part of a team that certifies
nursing homes with the state, checking into accusations of abuse and mistreatment, things like that."
"That sounds heavy. What got you into that field?" I was surprised, for someone that appeared to have delicate sensibilities; that was some serious shit.
"I don't know, I guess I've always taken care of the people in my life. I've always wanted to help others." She wrinkled her nose again, looking up at me sheepishly. "That sounds really cheesy, doesn't it?"
I laughed. "Not really, I spent the past year writing medical school admission essays where I had to wax poetic about how much I wanted to help people and change the world. That's mild in comparison to the stuff I wrote."
She smiled and took a sip of her beer. Angela leaned over and started telling funny stories about her and Bella in college, and we all fell into an easy conversation. Close to last call, Bella went to the bathroom, and Angela slid over into her chair.
"So..." She raised her eyebrows expectantly.
"So..." I raised mine right back, smiling.
"Come on! What do you think? Bella's single and could definitely stand to get out more."
"I don't know, with me starting school in less than a month, I would be a shitty boyfriend for the next few years. School's going to be my life. She's really sweet, but I don't know if I want to subject anyone to that." For some reason I didn't want to let Angela know that I really liked Bella. I felt protective of her and my feelings. I didn't want to let Angela and Ben in on that yet.
"You don't have to marry her, just take her out sometime!" Angela laughed as she slid back to her own seat.
"Maybe..." I grinned as I saw Bella shuffle around a group of drunk guys and back to our table. Bella looked up and smiled back. I did ask for her number that night, away from Angela's prying eyes, as I walked her to her car.
I thought about kissing her as we stood there in the warm night, between sedans in the parking lot. I didn't want to seem too forward; I didn't want her to think I wanted to kiss her because we'd been set up, or because I'd been drinking all night. She looked up at me, her skin glowing and slightly flushed, and I settled for pushing a strand of hair behind her ear. It was soft and silky, and I swallowed roughly.
"I had a really good time tonight."
"I did too."
We paused for another long minute, smiling at each other, before I pushed my body off the car opposite hers, and walked off into the summer night.
I pulled out my cell phone and scrolled through my contacts until I saw her number. I would call Bella later today, maybe. My finger hovered over the send button. I'd ask Angela this morning if she knew Bella's schedule and when she might be free. I put my phone back on the table and laid my head on my left arm, eyes level with the keyboard of the computer and the telephone. I could see the security monitors farther back, slightly out of focus.
I ran scales up and down the desktop with my right hand, mentally working my way through the circle of fifths. Maybe I could take Bella to one of the student concerts in the music department at UW this fall, a good cheap date. Show her I wasn't a cocky asshole med student. I started in on some finger exercises when I thought I saw movement on one of the security monitors. I lifted my head and blinked heavily. My eyes were starting to feel scratchy from being up all night. I rolled the desk chair over the series of monitors. The second monitor, the one that was aimed down the main hallway of the building, was where I thought I saw something. Looking closely, I realized that the door to the walk-in freezer was ajar. I blinked again, shook my head. No way. This was getting ridiculous. I was sleep deprived, seeing things.
My mind started rapidly backtracking, thinking maybe I hadn't closed the heavy refrigerator door all of the way when I left the stretcher there. I felt slightly nauseated. I laughed, high pitched and sounding weak in the silence of the building. I picked up my cell phone and walked out of the office. There was nothing to fear; I was being paranoid and stupid.
Even from the other side of the hallway I could see that the door to the walk-in was ajar. I woodenly started walking the length of the hallway, ears attuned to the hum of the lights and my footsteps. Once I was within arm's length of the door, I stopped. Everything part of me was screaming to turn away, walk out of the building, leave leave leave. I couldn't though. This was my job, I was an adult, and there was nothing logically to be scared of. I opened the door the rest of way.
The stretcher in front of me was empty.
A foreign feeling permeated every inch of my body, like I was being submerged in cold water. I was always a brave kid, never afraid of scary movies or monsters under the bed. I was never scared of tests, never nervous about my future, never feared public speaking. I had never known fear in my safe, charmed life. This, this fear, this terror, was completely new. I didn't feel like my body was my own. I felt like I was watching myself from a distance; I felt disassociated from my body. I was completely frozen. I didn't even flinch when I felt a cool, firm hand on my shoulder.
My body was being turned, and my limbs were heavy and useless as I rotated around. The blond body – no, now he was a man again - was my height, and we were eye level. Standing, he looked different. His face was now animated, but still off? Somehow? He looked at me wearily, as if he was the one shocked to see me here, rather than the other way around.
"Calm down." His voice was smooth and quiet, barely above a whisper. I realized, as my mind seemed to reconnect with my body, that I was taking shallow, quick breaths (hyperventilation, too little CO2, self-correcting if the patient faints, and my brain was back to random medical facts). Instead of the fight-or-flight response that I had earlier in the hallway, I felt calmer, almost drugged or drunk. My mind started to feel as heavy as my limbs.
The man pushed me backwards, a hand on each shoulder. His hands felt heavy, as if they were adding to wooden feeling of my arms. My lower back hit the stretcher in the walk-in, an echo of my back hitting the countertop hours earlier. I wondered briefly if I was going to be bruised later. The man stood there, hands still on my shoulders, looking at me as he tilted his head. He looked around the room thoughtfully, and I could tell he was trying to figure something out, or decide something.
"What are you?" My voice was hoarse, as if I hadn't spoken in a long time. I felt like I could barely get the words out; I felt like I was underwater. Unlike the freezing cold of terror from a few minutes earlier, now I was submerged in something warm and heavy (natural and semi-synthetic opiates - morphine, codeine, hydrocordone, oxycodone; side effects include drowsiness, constriction of pupils, depressed respirations).
He looked back at me sharply, as if my question had answered his. He sighed and narrowed his eyes. I hadn't noticed before that his eyes were a very light, pale brown, almost the color of honey, with very large pupils (at least he wasn't under the influence of narcotics). He removed his right hand from my shoulder and reached into the front pocket of his jeans. He pulled out a cell phone and flipped it open, dialing with his thumb. The banality of his actions seemed unreal, and hysterical laughter tried to bubble up through the heavy fog in my mind. Who was he calling? Creepy dead guy hotline?
"What's my best option?" Was he talking about me? Option for what? I kept feeling like I should be afraid, like my fear was there, underneath the surface, fighting against the warm heaviness pushing down in my mind. His left hand squeezed my shoulder, and the fear dissipated, cold particles of dread being absorbed into the warmth. His left hand kept squeezing as he listened to whomever he had called.
"Seriously? Are you kidding me, Alice?" He narrowed his eyes further. "There isn't a better option?" A pause. "What are they even doing in Seattle right now? The timing could not be worse."
He paused again, looking from me to the door to the walk-in and back, as if he wanted to leave but couldn't. "Did you want me to bring him back to Carlisle? He won't be pleased, I'm sure."
"What happens if I just leave him?" Another long pause, and the man looked more and more angry. My fear started to push back up, pushing harder and harder against the thick weight in my head. I started to breathe deeper, as if I had been unintentionally holding my breath and just now remembered to breathe.
My muscles started to clench up, and I wondered if I could push past him and get through the door of the walk-in. The hand on my shoulder felt like a lead weight. I shifted my weight to my left foot, about to move, when his brown eyes found mine again. My muscles relaxed, and my mind sank back underwater, warm and numb again.
"Well, no, we wouldn't want that. Shit. Are you sure we can't wait until Carlisle gets back?" There was a pause. "I really don't want to have to do this again. I don't know how well I can anymore..." Another long pause. I could barely make out a voice on the other end of the cell phone. It sounded like a girl's voice, but I couldn't make out any of the words.
"You have too much faith in me sometimes." The man smiled tightly as he looked off into the distance. "Okay, I'll meet you in the back parking lot within the next ten minutes. See you then."
He closed the phone and looked down at it for a minute. He put it back into his pocket, then returned his right hand to my shoulder. He looked into my eyes, and his expression had changed – he looked sad, remorseful. That look was too much, pushing my fear and terror back up to the surface. I was almost vibrating in my skin, the warring emotions fighting each other.
"I'm sorry." He slid his left hand up to my neck, gently pulling it to the side. My barely contained fear exploded through the haze; my hands shot up and grabbed his wrists, trying to yank them away. My sneakers started slipping on the linoleum as I pushed back against the stretcher; I couldn't find purchase on anything. I realized that I still had my cell phone in my right hand, and I was almost crushing it between my palm and his wrist. His arms were immovable, steel against me.
He moved in closer, until we were pressed against each other. I felt trapped, like an animal. I was sweating, hyperventilating again, my heavy breaths the only sound besides the hum of the refrigerator. He tilted his head, and I felt his lips against my neck, cool against my sweaty skin. A new wave of fear swept over me, a new terror that brought tears to my eyes as my stomach clenched. He paused, and then I felt a familiar pain.
The first week on the job I had cut my left thumb with the scalpel. It was deep and ended up requiring three stitches. However, since the blade was so sharp at first I hadn't felt anything at all besides the warmth of my own blood under my glove. My neck was warm, and wet, then I felt the sharp sting. I couldn't reconcile what was going on. I wondered where the scalpel was. Then there was more of the stinging, and it was spreading, and soon it gave way to burning.
In my peripheral vision I saw blond curls; then, somehow, I was moving. I saw the flicker of the overhead florescent lights in the hallway, then the ceiling of the garage bay, but everything seemed fuzzy and far away. The pain was spreading throughout my body, and my muscles started clenching up. I was still squeezing my cell phone, and I heard it beep as I pushed a button.
The warm air of the summer night was barely perceptible and did nothing to cool the burning. Though my vision was now blurring I could see the lightening of the night sky, changing from deep, dark bluish-black to a gray haze. I could see Venus, the only star still visible in the sky. I could still hear the buzz of the overhead lights, and now bird songs in the distance joined in.
Faintly, in the distance, I could hear a siren. I heard a car pull into the parking lot as I watched the sky continue to lighten. Venus got dimmer and dimmer, and eventually winked out. I heard voices quietly talking, but I could not make out what they were saying. Then, as I was being picked up again, I heard my cell phone:
"Edward? Is that you? It's Bella. Are you there?"
 Bracha, H. Stefan, Ralston, Tyler C., Matsukawa, Jennifer M., Williams, Andrew E., Bracha, Adam S. Does "Fight or Flight" Need Updating? Psychosomatics 2004 45: 448-449
Thank you for reading! This was my first story, and the wonderful Feisty Y. Beden was totally my inspiration to write. I apologize for any inaccuracies with regards to the location, layout or shift schedule of the King County Medical Examiner's office. I have never been to Seattle and I've based this off of my own experiences working with the ME's office of my own mid-sized city.
Lividity, or livor mortis, is the discoloration caused by pooling of blood post-mortem. It doesn't happen right away, and can be used as an indicator for the time of death.
PPE is personal protective equipment - gloves, gowns, masks, etc. used to protect health care workers from bloodborne pathogens.