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Fiction Contemporary

“Would you rather know when you’re going to die or how you’re going to die?” Cole quizzes me.


He’s white knuckle gripping the steering wheel of his car and staring ahead through the cloudy windshield. He glances sideways at me, green eyes darting in my direction before returning to the road.


The radio’s been off for over an hour. The only thing I hear is the low hum of the engine. The sun is sinking lower in the sky as we make our way downstate. I stare out the window at the passing trees, blurring into one inky green mass, and consider the weight of his question.


We’ve been dating for nearly three months and the entire three months have been filled with these little quizzes.


A testament to Cole’s curious nature, I suppose.


--


“Would you rather detect every lie you hear or get away with every lie you tell?” Cole asked me the night we met.


“Detect every lie,” I answered in a breathless drunken stammer, not used to being accosted with this kind of radical questioning.


“I’d rather get away with every lie I tell,” Cole hiccupped through a drunk smirk as his arm knocked against mine in the crowded kitchen of my two-flat.


Cole showed up as a plus one. My roommate Jesse worked at a restaurant, mainly rolling silverware alongside a guy we called Big Ben. Big Ben’s real name was Hugh. Jesse and I had given him the nickname, not only because he was English but also because his round white face seemed to glow in the night. Cole was Big Ben’s roommate, found through a Craigslist ad, and Ben’s official plus one to our house parties.


--


Cole thought it would be nice for us to take a trip outside the city. He told me his family owned a cabin downstate. He described a place surrounded by thick brush and wild trees, wind running freely, tree limbs creaking overhead, in symphony with the loud drone of cicadas.


Cole’s mop of brown hair is starting to curl over the tips of his ears. He’s curiously winding his hair around a tense index finger at the nape of his neck. I can hear the hairs gently scratching at the collar of his shirt. He hasn’t had a haircut the entire time I’ve known him.


My eyes leave the passenger side window and I look over at Cole.

I shift in my seat to face him. He adjusts his glasses by lifting the right arm of the lenses. Every so often, I catch him pushing them up with a single index finger, sliding the spectacles up the bridge of his nose. This is a new addition to his appearance and I’m not sure if it’s medical or stylistic.


--


“Sweet or sour?” Cole asked me over dinner on what had to be our sixteenth date.


We were at my favorite Korean restaurant on a Monday night. The kind of place that’s small and dark and intimate. The wait staff spoke politely as we took our time in a corner booth, seated side by side.


“Sour,” I said with my face puckered as I swallowed a sampling of kimchi.


“Sweet is clearly the way to go,” He snickered and lifted a red bean pancake to his lips. He gave me a small elbow to the side and smiled with an exposed mouthful of the sweet bean paste.


That same night I invited Cole back up to the kitchen where we had met at Jesse’s birthday party. Without the threat of an appearance from Big Ben or Jesse, Cole pressed his lips to my neck and remarked he thought I’d taste just as sweet.


--


“Well,” I swallow. “I think I’d rather know, when I’m going to die,” I answer with a slight tinge of uneasiness.


Cole lets out a stifled laugh as if he’s in on a joke with himself. Suddenly, I realize the dusky night is turning pitch black.


“Why?” Cole asks, lifting his eyebrows, his voice low.


He never asks why during his little quizzes.


“If I know when I am going to die, I can brace for the impact. Plan the day. Make the most of the life I know I’m guaranteed. Death is inevitable but knowing when I’ll die supplies a better outlook than the pain of knowing how. It gives me time to reckon. If I knew how, but not when, I’d be living in fear,” I reply with cautious fervor.


--


“Would you rather eat a handful of wasps or a handful of poison ivy?” Cole asked one afternoon as he poked the nest that had formed on the threshold of mine and Jesse’s back door.


“Easy,” I said and grimaced at the buzz coming from above our heads. “Poison ivy.”


“I don’t think I’d mind the mouthful of wasps,” Cole said absent-mindedly as the nest thudded against the cement porch landing.


It took a minute before the wasps floated out through the crack in the nest. Cole and I had retreated just beyond the door as they began to dart against the frame, their wings buzzing incessantly. The hollow drone filled my ears as Cole stared out the window at the swarm he had prompted. Finally, Jesse arrived home with Big Ben staggered behind. They cursed as they shouldered their way through the dense wall of insects.


--


“I’d rather know how,” Cole says in his matter-of-fact tone.


I look up and realize there are no more street lights. Instead, the passing headlights are the sole illumination source and they reflect off of Cole’s spectacles, blocking me from seeing the irises of his eyes.


“Would you rather hear a comforting lie or an uncomfortable truth?” Cole asks as he slows and signals a left turn.


“A comforting lie,” my voice is just a whisper over the hum of the idling engine.


The turn signal clicks quickly as the last set of oncoming headlights pass the car.


“It won’t hurt.” He says and turns left down a gravel road. The crunch of the loose rocks under the weight of the tires vibrates my ears.


“What are you talking about?” I ask in a thin voice as I begin to fill with nauseating anxiety.


“Your death.” He says, with a smug smirk, a tinge of arousal lacing his honeyed voice.


February 11, 2022 02:38

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5 comments

Jenna Melancon
21:15 Feb 26, 2022

Hi Sam! Very nice! Your sense of pacing is very good, I was totally drawn in. It's hard to do characterization well in such a short time, and I think you did a really good job with it. I did find the ending a bit abrupt. I would have liked some more insight into the narrator's state of mind and perhaps a hint of what's in store from her aside from death. But Cole does give off a creepy vibe throughout, I like him.

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Sam Wilson
22:57 Feb 26, 2022

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment, Jenna! This is great feedback. I agree that the ending came on abruptly and I love the advice to elaborate more from the view point of the narrator. I really appreciate it!

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Thomas Graham
00:54 Feb 17, 2022

Nicely done! The timing and rhythm are really good - very gradual buildup and subtle clues, and a very high impact final line! The second present-tense section is a little weak to me. I might be missing something, but a lot of it seems like filler - like about his hair and his glasses. But I understand you're trying to give her (and the reader) some time to think, without dialog.

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Sam Wilson
01:51 Feb 17, 2022

Thank you so much for taking time to read and for the honest feedback! I appreciate your insight on that section. I struggled figuring out how to fill out that part of the story. What do you think could have been more productive in that area?

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Thomas Graham
03:25 Feb 17, 2022

It might be too early in the story, but I wonder if you could hint/show more of his contrariness (without dialog), still using his glasses or hair - like throw in that she had once told him she likes his hair short (so the 3 mos without a haircut would mean more), or he's wearing his wire frame glasses despite her having told him she prefers his other ones, or something like that.

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