By Mykle Hansen
Illustrations by Ezra Butt
Death has a thing for a beautiful Yoga/Pilates instructor named Brenda. Death wants to run away with her to the valley below. He wants her to perish poignantly before her golden years, because she is so hot. Death has never felt quite this way about a woman before. He is also somewhat concerned about his abs.
At the movement studio, Death feels stupid in spandex. Warm, flexible women surround him. Steam rises from them like fresh-baked bread. They open their chakras, they work their cores. But Death has no core—only stiff bones, dusty ligaments, and an ominous cloud of doom. It looms in the far corner, hovering over his street clothes, threatening rain. The women ignore it, and him, and breathe.
At the forefront of the room is Brenda, hot. She does the plank, the pigeon, the dead Frenchman, the laughing cow. She divides her abs into eight separate regions and works each of them in turn—then again, counterclockwise. Warmly and confidently she directs the steamy roomful of women to spread their legs and ululate. Watching all this, Death gets a hernia.
Eleven worried women ride with him in the ambulance. Their names are Kimberly, Anna, Michelle, Gwen, Laisha, Shanna, Meg, Mary, Donna, Beth, and Kimberly. Laisha strokes his hair. Meg massages his calves. The women are largely single, but none of them are Brenda.
At the Urgent Care Center Death gets a chilly reception. He’s used to this. Doctors fear him, nurses loathe him. Hospitals make any excuse to keep him out. Suddenly there are no beds available in the hernia ward; they have all been taken by identical 99-year-old men named Test. “An epidemic of hernias,” the receptionist snips, tapping her keys and scrutinizing her screens. She invites Death to wait forever in a hard plastic chair.
Fortunately, Laisha is a registered naturopath and her apartment is nearby. Under her care Death makes a speedy recovery. One thing leads to another, and soon Laisha is dying of malignant ennui.
It’s fun, at first. Laisha is wise and understanding—the circle of life, the eternity of spirit, and all that—but later, when the ennui spreads to her knees and elbows, she grows moody and despondent, succumbs to moments of pettiness, finds fault with his cloud of doom. And even while he holds her hand by her bedside, Death continues to dream, guiltily, of Brenda in her striped stockings and pink headband, perched on her flying carpet in Eagle Pose, soaring alongside him over the river Styx.
Finally the day comes when Death must row Laisha across the dark waters to the eerie shores beyond. “I’ll call you,” she says. Maybe, thinks Death. Maybe not. He waves goodbye, to their mutual relief.
Death is looking forward to bachelorhood: loneliness, sadness, the microwave oven… But there at the funeral is Brenda. Brenda all over again, hot as the sun in her mourning gear: black leotard, black leg warmers, long black woolen scarf wrapped around her body like a furry, fortunate python. Their eyes meet during the eulogy and they both blush.
Afterwards she approaches, asks about his abs. How are they coping? He learns that she has moved to a larger studio, a Yoga/Pilates promotion. They exchange smiles, condolences. Telephone numbers enter the conversation in an innocent way. Brenda’s number is full of curvaceous eights and sleek sevens. Death’s number is mostly zeroes.
Death walks through the park in wintertime, visits the bony trees, the slimy stones. Brenda’s number is warm in his pocket. He takes it out to gaze at it, puts it back, wanders some more. He doesn’t call.
Death goes home, changes into his evening cloak, checks the voicemail: various people are in a hurry to die. He microwaves some spanakopita and sits on the couch, inches from the softly blinking telephone. He doesn’t call.
Why doesn’t he call? He wanders through the pet cemetery at three a.m., tossing astral Snausages to the ghosts of dachshunds past. Is it too soon? Is he afraid? Death knows why women like him: it’s the mystique, the danger, and he’s tall. But a woman like Brenda can see through all that. He wonders what he has to offer besides oblivion and a good canoe. He wonders if Brenda’s immense hotness would singe him, burn away his shroud, reveal the empty dust inside.
“I think you wonder too much,” Brenda tells him, picking at her wild rice and spirulina with a single chopstick. Death has called, Death has invited her to dinner, Death has ordered the veal. Death is très chic in an all-black Nehru jacket and matching scimitar, but he is eclipsed by Brenda. She radiates like a brush fire with artfully tousled hair and an orange sun dress over her exposed, muscular shoulders. Tiny wisps of smoke curl fetchingly from her ears. Nearby diners burst into flames.
“Life’s too short,” she says, “to argue with your own happiness.” She gazes across the table into the face of Death, into the abyss.
“All you see is all there is,” he says. “I am a simple guy.”
They talk of this, they talk of that. Brenda is a Pisces. Death has been to Venice. Certain films are terrible. Politics mean nothing. Yoga is very healthful, as is sex. People generally ought to have lots and lots of sex. Tango lessons are also appealing. As they talk, Death feels the outer layers of his eternal nullity boiling away into space, one after the other in discrete poofs, and he wonders how much radiation he can withstand.
Later that evening: lots and lots of sex. The sun collapses into a black hole, the earth explodes in flames, the universe heaves and squirts. Everybody alive is killed and reborn. Mountains crash into the sea, zombies rise up, outer space turns tungsten white, volcanoes spew frost, flowers bloom like fireworks, explosions explode, time and space intertwine their limbs and later share a cigarette.
“How do you want to die?” asks Death.
“Pretty slowly,” replies Brenda.
Death decides he can live with that.
An earlier version of this story appeared in Hansen’s 2011 short story collection Hooray For Death! which is available on the author’s website.