For November, we have my entry to the Machine of Death project’s second volume, catchily entitled This is How You Die. Unfortunately, this one did not make the final cut, so I have obtained permission to post it here for your perusal! Hope you enjoy!
* * *
The moment she opened her mouth, Angelo knew he was in love.
“Excuse me!” she said, enunciating slowly and clearly. “I was told that you speak Eng-lish. Are you the one who speaks Eng-lish?”
Angelo stood there, hands submerged in the gray, sudsy water of the dish sink, utterly thunderstruck. Here was a cartoon-character American woman, dressed head to foot in multi-pocketed leather and khaki, like out of some serial adventure story. Her hiking boots were a bit worn but otherwise pristine, and on her head she wore one of those funny explorer hats, a, what do you call them, a pith helmet, that was the word. Auburn curls tumbled out from underneath the helmet like water from a rock, framing a winsome, freckled face dominated by a pair of half-manic green eyes.
Seconds passed. Angelo stared, his mind utterly blank except for one running phrase: I am going to love this woman until the day I die.
“Drat,” said the American woman, clearly misunderstanding his silence. “Okay, I was told that the one washing the dishes was the educated one. Is there another dishwasher?”
Angelo dropped the dish he had been in the process of scrubbing to the bottom of the sink. His normal brain functions snapped back into place. “No, sorry,” said Angelo, in perfect English. “I am the educated dishwasher. You talked to my father, then?”
“Oh good,” said the American. “And, yes, I believe so. Large man. Claimed not to speak my language. Nonetheless, very keen on talking to me about your education and how much money he wasted on it.”
Angelo shrugged, cracking a tiny smile. “That’s father,” he said. “The only English he knows is how to badmouth me in front of tourists.”
“Unfortunate,” said the woman, clucking her tongue. “Well, at any rate, I’ve found you, so, stellar.” She cleared her throat and continued then, in formal tones. “I am looking,” she announced, “to be struck and killed by one of the giant stone heads, and I’m trying to find one that’s going to fall over soon.”
A number of questions sprang readily to Angelo’s mind, but he settled on his first. “The moai?” he asked.
“Yes! Those!” said the American. “Giant black fellas. Very serious expressions, like you’ve just asked them to work out a story problem. You know them, then?”
“I know the moai,” said Angelo, almost unnecessarily, because of course everybody knew the moai. It was like asking if you were familiar with the Eiffel Tower. The stone heads were tiny Easter Island’s claim to fame on the world stage, and asking an actual resident of the town of Hanga Roa — whose entire raison d’être was to cater to the thousands of foreign tourists who came to visit them each year — if he had maybe ever heard of them struck Angelo a little strange.
Tourism was, it should be noted, booming. The Machine had pricked humanity’s titanic and once-unassailable denial of the reality of death, and suddenly, everybody had a bucket list. And these weren’t the old-model “definitely someday” sort of bucket list, either. People were tearing through their shiny new life goals like gangbusters, adding and crossing off entries like there was no tomorrow, which was, when Angelo thought about it, a surprisingly apt metaphor. And for certain classes of people who found themselves stuck for new goals when their Fatal Auto Accidents didn’t materialize quite on schedule, Easter Island was a big, obvious pop-culture destination. It wasn’t the place you wanted to go; it was the place you thought you should want to go once you’d already been everywhere else.
Whatever the reason, tourism money was flooding into Hanga Roa, and Angelo’s father had decided to ride the swell by converting the family’s modest home into a guest hostel. This made Angelo happy, because now, instead of being a college burnout reduced to living with his parents, he was an employee of the family business. That the family business consisted of serving overpriced food from his mother’s kitchen to foreign tourists took a bit of the shine off, but it was better than nothing. And, all in all, the foreigners were friendly, if a bit bizarre.
This one was different. She was more bizarre than most. And, as mentioned, Angelo was hopelessly in love with her.
“I want one of the stone heads to fall on me and kill me,” the young woman reiterated. “‘Stone’ dead, as it were. Any suggestions?”
Angelo frowned. “You want someone to push one of the moai over on top of you?”
“No!” she said. “I just want one to fall on me, all by itself. I’m looking for tippy ones.”
The weird logic had to be some sort of Machine thing. Angelo had seen it before, and was able to take the question in stride. He shook his head. “Many of the moai have been standing for a thousand years, ma’am. I don’t know that there are ‘tippy’ ones.” He blinked. “Although…” he said. “Are you terribly orthodox?”
“Not in the slightest,” she said, grinning wickedly. “Ooh, tell me you have a clever idea.”
“Ma’am,” said Angelo, “I believe I have a clever idea.”
“Awesome!” shrieked the American. “We’ll go immediately. Just as soon as you’re done with your dishes and you stop calling me ‘Ma’am’. The name’s Sarah.”
“Angelo,” said Angelo. She reached out and shook his hand. Her palm felt wonderful.
* * *
“Well?” said Sarah, staring up at him from the shadow of the massive but wholly inauthentic stone head rising nearby. “Is it crumbling at all?”
“Sorry,” said Angelo, trying not to stare at her. “What?”
“The base,” she said. “Is it crumbling in the least tiniest bit?”
Angelo crouched down, brushing away an unruly forelock of mousy-black hair as he did so. The gesture was immediately undone by a waft of ocean breeze coming from the nearby beach. “I don’t know,” he said, poking around at the base of the statue with his finger. “Seems pretty solid.”
The American sighed, short and petulant. “All right,” she said, shifting around. “Take a look at the platform thingy, if you please.”
“It’s called an ‘ahu’,” remarked Angelo.
She waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever it is,” she said. “I need to know whether or not it’s structurally sound, damnit.”
Angelo hopped down off the aforementioned ahu and began inspecting the wood for signs of wear. It was a bit more promising — the broad, low pedestal had been constructed of dubious lumber thirty or forty years ago for educational purposes, and the years and the salt air had not been kind to it. A weathered sign nearby explained to anyone who cared (no one) that not all moai had been built on top of stone, that some had been constructed on wooden platforms, and this artificial plaster moai represented what one of those might have looked like. Unfortunately, on inspection, Angelo found that the platform seemed to have a few more good years in it. “It’s a little rotten,” he said, thumping on it, “but I’m pretty sure it’s going to hold.”
“Crap,” said the girl, stretching out on the rocky ground as though trying to work out a kink in her back. “And you’re sure this is the most unstable head on the island?”
“Pretty sure,” said Angelo. “I thought the fake educational moai was our best bet, on account of it having been built by surly teachers from 1970 instead of an ancient and reverent race of monument-builders, but I guess not.”
“Don’t feel bad, Angelo,” said Sarah. “It was a good thought. Better than any I had.”
“I don’t suppose it would have been as good as being crushed by the real thing, anyway.”
“No, it’s fine!” she protested. “I would have been perfectly happy with it.”
“You’re sure you’re not looking for someone to push one over on top of you?” said Angelo, wincing a little, but saying it all the same.
“No!” said Sarah, sitting up. “God, no, Angelo. My thing read ‘Struck by Falling Object’, not ‘Pushed’ or ‘Nudged’ object. And it certainly didn’t read ‘Murdered by Educated Dishwasher’.” She rose to a crouch, brushing the dust off of her khaki trousers and squaring her pith helmet on her head. “Besides,” she added. “You wouldn’t. You’re not that type of person.”
He had to admit that she was right. “It was just a thought,” he said.
“Yes, and it was sweet of you,” said Sarah. “You should know that if I did want anyone to murder me in cold blood by mashing me underneath a giant stone head, you’d be my first choice, because you’re such a dear. But I wouldn’t ask you to violate your principles.”
Angelo nodded, staring out at the ocean. “So… that’s it, then?” he said.
“Halfway across the world, and now you’re leaving?”
“Yep,” said Sarah. “Apparently, the falling object that kills me is not one of the stone heads of Easter Island.” She shrugged, airily, then produced a small steno pad from one of her many pockets. “Ah, well. Tick off another one.”
Angelo craned his neck a little for a better view of the pad, and when she didn’t outright hit him or bite him or anything, he crouched down next to her.
“What is this?” asked Angelo, who suspected he already knew the answer.
“My list of things I would like to be struck and killed by,” Sarah said, holding it up for him to see. The words were decorated with a number of little hearts and stars, drawn in various hues of purple.
“‘The Leaning Tower of Piza’,” said Angelo, reading the next entry.
“Well, yes!” replied Sarah. “I figured it’s about due, right? Thing’s been trying to fall over since it was built, practically. Or at least that’s what my extremely hazy grasp of European history says, and if there’s one thing in this world I trust, it’s my hazy grasps.”
“The Leaning Tower is a ‘falling object’?”
“It’s an object,” said Sarah, “and, yes, if it works out that way, it’ll be falling. Q.E.D.” She frowned. “Of course, with my luck, the damn thing’s probably going to stay standing for another couple hundred years.” She shrugged again. “Good excuse to visit Italy, anyway.”
Angelo had meanwhile turned his attention back to the list. “‘Penny dropped from Empire State Building’,” he read.
“Always wanted to know if that one was really true,” she said. “I might get a few seconds of self-satisfied cognizance if it works. It’ll all depend on whether or not there’s a miscreant above that day.”
“‘The cure for cancer’?” said Angelo, screwing his face up.
“Hey, swing for the railings, says I. I’d love to go down in history as the first casualty of the cancer cure.”
“How would that even work?”
“What if they just discovered it, and they were shipping it by air, and it fell out?”
“They’d be transporting their brand-new experimental cancer cure in an open cargo plane?”
“It’s possible,” said Sarah, defensively.
“Even if,” said Angelo, warming to the discussion, “they were that careless with their new discovery, it would all depend on how heavy the cure for cancer is. If it’s a bunch of big glass beakers in a reinforced case, it might be fatal. But what if it’s just a couple of tiny little rare rain forest nuts?”
“I am fully prepared to cack on even the slightest impact,” said Sarah. “I don’t want to miss my chance to get offed by something really cool just because it’s got insufficient terminal velocity. Here, let me show you something.” She removed the pith helmet and flipped it over. “You see this?” she said. “I call this an ‘unsafety helmet’.”
Angelo peered into the questionable depths of the pith helmet. It seemed to contain more things than a helmet properly should. “What is all this?” he asked.
“What you see in here is a cunning mechanical contraption that will transfer the force of even a moderate impact to my cranium to these two little bottles of chloroform I’ve got nestled here in the crown. It’s a brilliant little invention, if I do say so myself.”
“Wait,” said Angelo, “you invented a poison hat and now you’re walking around with it on?”
“Yep!” said Sarah, cheerfully. “I read somewhere on the Internet that chloroform has an LD50 of about thirty-six milliliters. So I’ve got two of those in here, which should take me to LD100, which is to say, a one hundred percent lethal dose. If I’ve done the math right.”
Angelo stared at her.
“What?” said Sarah, replacing her utterly fatal headgear. “Did I not do the math right? I can’t imagine I didn’t do the math right. It’s just thirty-six times two.”
He burst out in a laugh, then. “Miss,” he said, “you are a crazy woman.”
“Everybody says that!” said Sarah. “I prefer to think of myself as well-prepared.” She made a motion to stand. Angelo offered, and she accepted, his hand. “I won’t lie to you,” she said, rising to her feet. “I got terribly despondent about it at first. I mean, ‘Struck by Falling Object’? The whole thing just reeks of sudden unpredictable death, bam, right out of the blue. I was afraid to leave my house. I uninstalled all my ceiling lights. I moved everything out of the pantry onto the floor. It got very difficult to walk around the place for a while, and I would just sit there, night after night, amidst piles of canned fruit, cursing the damn Machine for not being a smidge more specific about what exactly I was supposed to be looking out for. After a while of living like this, though, I had a thought that changed everything. You know what that was?”
“No,” said Angelo.
“It was ‘You Know What, Screw This Noise’,” said Sarah. “So, I liquidated my entire inheritance, and now I’m blowing the whole wad on seeing the wonders of the world, hoping that I can finesse destiny into giving me a really memorable off-bumping. The kind of death people remember, one that they tell their kids about.” Sarah got a little misty-eyed. “The kind of death,” she finished, “that inspires people to write your name into the Wikipedia entry for ‘List of Unusual Deaths’.”
“Okay, wait,” said Angelo. “The Machine already knows how you’re going to die. You can’t ‘finesse’ it.”
“See, you’re just like everyone else,” said Sarah, punching him on the arm surprisingly hard. “Just like I used to be. Everybody thinks of the Machine as this taciturn oracle, some kind of grouchy old prophet who knows everything about the moment of your death but just chooses to be damnably cryptic about it.”
“It kind of is,” said Angelo.
“WRONG!” cried Sarah. “The Machine isn’t being cryptic. It’s giving us a choice. The Machine is freedom, Angelo.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Of course you don’t. Okay, here’s what I’m saying: say something. Anything.”
“Hello?” hazarded Angelo.
“Say something that’s not a simple greeting.”
Angelo’s jaw worked for a few seconds. “You can’t do it!” crowed Sarah.
“No, wait, just one moment—” said Angelo.
“Too late, exercise one is over. Exercise two! Tell me your favorite Beatles song.”
“Rocky Raccoon,” said Angelo, instantly.
“You see?” said Sarah. “See? By limiting–”
She stopped, then. “Really?” she said. “Rocky Raccoon?”
“It’s catchy,” said Angelo.
“Oh, well, no accounting for taste,” muttered Sarah. “Okay, but, you see my point, now? There used to be too many ways to die. Without anything to narrow the field down, the possibilities were overwhelming! But having that little slip of paper in your hand is like me limiting you to talking about Beatles. Strip away enough possibilities, and bam, suddenly you’re free to speak! Free to act! Free to be yourself!”
“Free,” said Angelo, “to get killed by any old thing that hits you on the head.”
“Not just any old thing. Any awesome thing. But, I can see the message isn’t sinking in, so let’s find us another object lesson. What’s your Machine thing, Angelo?”
Angelo sighed. He knew it was going to come to this eventually. “Listen, I don’t –”
“Don’t? Don’t what? Please tell me you’re not one of those boring super-religious people that think the Machine is a tool of Hell.”
“It’s not that,” said Angelo. “I just don’t think mine gives me the freedom yours does.”
“I bet it does,” scolded Sarah. “I bet you’re just not thinking of it right. I bet I could come up with twenty-eight different possible interpretations of your Machine scrip, all of them great.”
“I don’t think so,” said Angelo.
“I bet you fifty dollars I can,” said Sarah. “Cash. Lay it on me.”
“Fine,” said Angelo. He took a deep breath. “‘Ischemic-type cerebrovascular accident’,” he said, “’caused by a malignant clot-throwing colorectal tumor (your own), one day after your ninety-sixth birthday, 8:57:06 P.M, Broadlawns Hospital, Des Moines, Iowa, United States of America’.”
“Wow,” said Sarah, putting her hand to her chin.
“I know,” said Angelo. “I ran the Machine out of paper the first two times I tried it. We had to order a new roll from Santiago.”
“Okay okay wait,” said Sarah. “I can do this. Maybe you’re… hit by a brick wrapped in a piece of paper that has those words on it.” She snap-pointed. “Did you keep either of your Machine slips? Maybe the brick is wrapped in your own Machine slip!”
“I threw them away,” admitted Angelo. “They took up a lot of space.”
“Poo,” said Sarah, fishing around in one of her many pockets and eventually emerging with a couple rumpled bills. “Here,” she said. “And ten extra for your advice on the moai. And, hell, I’m feeling generous, how about a complete around-the-world package, including room and board, for tagging along behind me and telling me what’s what.”
Angelo looked at the offered bills. “I’m… sorry?” said Angelo.
“I’m very bad at this, Angelo,” said Sarah, pathetically, waggling the money. “Just because you have this brilliant idea to travel around the world standing underneath famous landmarks and hoping they’ll fall on top of you doesn’t give you the knowledge or skill to be a really top-notch world traveler. I need someone to steer me correctly when I’m in a restaurant and I have to choose between the bathroom labeled ‘Boomers’ and the one labeled ‘Flyers’.”
“You’re a ‘Flyer’,” said Angelo, automatically.
“See?” said Sarah, waggling the money even more ferociously. “See? That would have saved me from a very unpleasant encounter with a number of Australian gentlemen.”
“Australia?” said Angelo.
“Sydney Opera House. Very structurally stable, it turns out. Come on, Angelo. I’ve got money to burn.”
“As a single female traveler,” said Angelo, “you should probably not go around telling random strangers that you have lots of money.”
“There! There! Again! That’s excellent advice. I need someone like you, Angelo.”
Angelo laughed nervously. “This is all… very…”
“Very what?” said Sarah. “Very sudden? Sudden is the new normal, Angelo! You have to seize the freaking day! You could die tomorrow!”
“Not technically true,” said Angelo, glancing upward, against the sun. Something caught his eye. He couldn’t quite make it out, but maybe…
“It’s still possible,” insisted Sarah, oblivious to Angelo’s distraction. “If there’s one thing I’m absolutely convinced of, it’s that no matter what the Machine says, death will always find a way to surprise–”
Angelo tackled Sarah to the ground.
Sarah yelped. Her absolutely one hundred percent lethal pith helmet missed the edge of the ahu by mere centimeters. Nearby, in the space that had formerly contained Sarah, there came a sad little ‘plop’ noise. And then all was quiet, but for the wind blowing in off the sea.
“What the—” said Sarah.
Angelo stepped back over to where he had tackled Sarah and fished something out of the grass. Sarah could just barely catch a glimpse of a pinkish, rubbery flesh. “A squid,” said Richard. “Probably dropped by an albatross.”
Sarah struggled to sit up. “Is it alive?”
“Improbably, yes,” said Angelo, already in motion. “But not for long, so please excuse.” He covered the distance between the educational site and the beach in a dozen long-legged strides, and then waded out into the ocean until he was fully chest-deep, to give the poor creature a chance to escape the pounding surf. All the while, the squid stared up at him with one pearly gray eye. To Angelo, the expression was clear: What the living hell, the squid was wondering, is going on?
“I hear you,” said Angelo to the squid, as it curled around his finger with one of its tiny tentacles. “I know what you mean.” And then he shook it loose and watched it swim away into the blue-green Pacific.
He returned to shore, to the educational site, and thence to Sarah, his shoes squishing terribly with every step. There was a moment of silence as the two stared at each other, a silence punctuated only by the sound of Angelo’s dripping. The artificial plaster moai gazed impassively down upon the scene.
“Well,” said Angelo.
“Mm,” said Sarah. “Interesting. ‘Squid dropped by low-flying albatross’.”
“It would seem that way,” said Angelo.
Sarah thought about it for a moment. Then she nodded, briskly.
“Not bad,” she said. “Unique. Certainly quirky. But I think I can do better.”
She threw her arms wide and cried out to the endless, squid-producing blue sky. “DO YOU HEAR ME?” she shouted. “YOU’LL HAVE TO DO BETTER THAN THAT!”
Sarah sagged from her outburst, grinning. Angelo laughed, then, and she joined him. She has a beautiful laugh, thought Angelo.
“Please come with me,” said Sarah. “Your talents are wasted on dishwashing.”
“Okay,” said Angelo, who had always, before today, wondered about the Iowa thing.
“Good,” said Sarah. “But in the future, please go easy on the vigorous tackling. If you had hit me just a little harder, I might have struck my head on that ahu thing. Then it would have been you instead of the squid.” She smiled. “You could have been my falling object, Angelo.”
“I think I may be falling,” said Angelo, who decided to leave it at that.
“You and me both,” said Sarah. “Everybody, in fact. We’re all falling. It’s just a question of what we hit on the way down.”
“Amen,” said Angelo.
They walked, together, back to Hanga Roa.