Death by Chocolate
Reading time: ~5 minutes
From the Editor: I love plot-driven stories, but I do firmly believe that plot is driven by character. Katie Burgess' heroine in this flash fiction work is wry, dry, perpetually self-doubting. I wanted to be near her right from the start, and I hope you'll enjoy her tale of misadventure as much as I do: Everything about this story, from title to last line, makes for a great reading experience.
—Yi Shun Lai, Fiction Editor
It started with the head injury—that’s the only rational explanation I have. I’d taken my blanket to the park for Moonlight Movie Nite, same as every summer Friday. They were showing the original 1968 Herbie the Love Bug. (Look, any movie’s good if you watch it outside with a nice glass of wine.) And I tripped on the steps. I’ve always said those natural stone steps going down to the outdoor amphitheater are hazardous—too uneven. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to fall there, and I probably won’t be the last. Actually, I know I won’t be. Anyway, I hit my head on a step, and once I sat up I could hear when and how everyone around me would die.
(Maybe the full moon was a factor, too. Or the movie? As silly as Herbie is, it has that mystical side to it, you know? With Buddy Hackett talking about the inner life of things and all that.)
I was okay, only shaken, and my forehead was bleeding. This woman rushed over and told me her name was Fran and her husband was a doctor. I looked at her and thought, 64, leukemia.
I didn’t worry about it at first. I felt too dazed, and besides, a person has weird thoughts all the time. But then Fran’s husband appeared, and I thought, 77, skiing accident. It didn’t feel like some idle thought. I knew it, like I knew how my head and neck were sore. Fran’s husband said I was fine, but all night I couldn’t focus on the movie or anything else. All I could hear was this murmuring: 92, pneumonia; 19, overdose; 58, anaphylaxis.
When this sort of thing happens, naturally the first thing you want to do is warn people. You think you’ll just run up and shout, “Cut down on sodium! Don’t go shopping this Black Friday! For God’s sake, don’t keep exotic animals as pets!” A classic mistake. I tried it once I was sure this thing was real and not some chemical imbalance, after I read the obituary for that window washer I’d seen. I stopped a woman in the paint store and said, “Excuse me, I know this sounds strange, but—” My whole body seized up, like the universe crushing me. I couldn’t speak the rest of the day. I’ve tried other methods—postcards, social media posts—with the same result. I know better now.
Of course the worst part was my brother. He showed up unexpectedly, a few weeks after my fall, and before I opened the door, I thought, 28 stroke. And when I saw who it was, I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t tell him why. I said, “I’m so happy to see you,” which must have confused him, seeing as how we saw each other at least every couple of months. How, I wondered, could he be having a stroke within the next year? He rode bikes and ate chia seeds and never smoked. I sank to the floor, trying to catch my breath, and he asked if it was a bad time, and I shook my head, and he put his arms around me. We went to lunch, me holding back tears and thinking of ways to make the most of whatever time we had left. I would call him every day, send him funny little presents.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he said, his mouth full of tempeh.
His girlfriend called me the next day with the news.
At least now there’s no one else—my parents are long gone, and I’ve mostly lost touch with my friends. I work remotely. No other loss can hit me like that. (Whatever it is, it doesn’t tell me my own death, which makes sense. If I knew, I might try to avoid it. Or hurry it along; I’m not sure which.)
What worries me is what happened in the grocery store. I usually get everything online now, but there was some mistake, and I missed a shipment. And I can’t even get pizza delivered to the house I moved to, way out in the boonies. So I went out for a few things, and I waited in line, hearing the usual drone of cancer, heart attack, car crash, cancer, heart attack, car crash, when the voice whispered, death by chocolate. I turned around, and the woman behind me had a package of brownie dough. Then the voice said, 38, listeria.
Death by chocolate, it repeated, as if to say, Get it? And it actually laughed. Did it take pleasure in all this? Somehow I didn’t think so. It was more of a nervous laugh, like how I laugh when I don’t know what else to do. Then did it want someone to make jokes to, as a coping mechanism? Was it tired of knowing theses things all alone?
Tonight I’m back at the amphitheater. There’s no movie and no full moon. But I’m going to try anyway. I stand at the top of the steps and will myself to let it happen. Turns out, it’s hard to make yourself fall on purpose. Your body wants to preserve itself. I can’t think of any other way, though, to make it stop. Like in the cartoons, when a cat hits her head and thinks she’s a dog, and then she hits her head again to go back to being a cat.
I sway back and forth, trying to gain momentum.
Because jokes are the last straw. I will not be all buddy-buddy with that whatever-it-is. I don’t care how lonely it feels.
I topple forward, my hands shooting out automatically to break my fall.
I try again.
Katie Burgess had this to say about "Death By Chocolate":
I think about death a bunch. Sometimes I’ll be in a crowd, and I’ll think about how we’re all dying, and I’ll picture our funerals, which will lead to wondering if we’ll even have funerals, because maybe, for example, we’ll all travel to another planet to try to escape climate change, but we won’t make it, and our bodies will just be floating in space forever. Am I right, ladies? Anyhow, I sat down one day, determined to write something that was not about death, and I failed. This is the story that came from that.
More of Katie’s work can be found at katieburgess.fun.