How We Die

Megan Tracy


Part 1- Starvation

This is a whale. This is a whale with inky dark eyes, as if they were a thousand strands of black thread, all stitched together until they slowly start to unravel. He is larger than any other animal, or he will be if he lives to adulthood, though it makes little difference in a sea so large he is barely notable at all. There is so much water, an endless stretch of blue in all directions. The light from a sky that isn’t part of his world, but someone else’s, filters through. He had hoped the sun would mean being able to see something, anything, but there is only blue.

His great mouth, a long and gently curving line, opens to reveal a thick line of teeth that aren’t really teeth at all. He doesn’t know what the not-teeth are called. Perhaps he would have learned to label himself if there were others around to teach him what it meant, but he doesn’t have time to worry about names and labels and things that are just thoughts. He’s too hungry to think of anything else.

He isn’t sure when things went wrong. He remembers the night, the darkness when the sun no longer filtered through the surface. He had listened for his mother, singing to each other and swimming together. He had grown tired as the night wore on, but they couldn’t stop, though he cannot remember why. He had swum until he couldn’t and then suddenly his mother wasn’t there. He called for her until he’d drifted into some sort of state between sleeping and waking. She didn’t come back for him.

He swims now through desolate waters. There are no krill, no fish. It’s too cold here for warm water creatures and too warm for the arctic dwelling fish so many miles away. He had thought the other whales would be here. They should be, though he can’t be sure anymore. His mother had been taking him to the other whales. This had been the right way. This had been where she was going. They have to be here somewhere.

He sings for them, his voice carrying for miles in a vast blue sea that holds so much life but not here. There is no answering call.

He is moving, he knows he is, his tail sweeping up and down, but there are no landmarks to inform him of such motion. He’s alone, alone, and so hungry, but he’s not lonely. The other whales have left him, but he is not lonely. Not lonely. Not lonely. Whales are not lonely. But he is, he is, and he’s so tired of searching for them and so hungry for anything, anything at all. He screams for them, sings for them. They do not answer. His tail stills. His inky dark eyes drift closed.

This is the body of a whale. It sinks slowly downwards until the light filtering down from the surface no longer reaches it. The darkness consumes it, carrying it down to the ocean floor so far below. It sets the whale in the sand, offering it to the thousands of tiny creatures that live here. They will not go hungry for months.


Part 2- Hypoxia 

This is a human. She is hardly recognizable as such, hidden away within a spacesuit, though there is no one else out here to make the mistake of misidentification. She floats against a dark backdrop of faint lights, protected from the vacuum of space around her. She breathes. There are ten minutes of oxygen left. Not enough time for her crew and spaceship to come back and rescue her.

She watches the readout slowly ticking off the time she has left. She watches the spaceship, the only thing that isn’t just a small speck of light, moving steadily away from her. Leaving her here. Leaving her body out here to decay, trapped within her own spacesuit. The bacteria will eat away her flesh. Her bones will be held in the vague shape of the human form by the thick fabric of her suit.

She wonders if she’ll ever be found. She’s certain her body won’t drift forever. The detachment from the shuttle had sent her flying out into space, though there’s no way for her to measure this movement now that the spaceship is gone. She doesn’t know what direction she’s travelling in. Planets and solar systems are always in motion. It is impossible to know where she’ll end up.

The practical part of her acknowledges that she’ll likely drift forever, another drifting object in an infinite universe. Perhaps she’ll attract dust over a few billion years, eventually becoming an asteroid, since she certainly doesn’t have the escape velocity to flee the solar system. Maybe she’ll just keep drifting until she hits something. Being burned up by the sun or Earth’s atmosphere or being crushed by Jupiter’s gravity sound like notable ways for her body to be disposed of.

Her imagination decides that any of those ways are too boring an end. Maybe, once humans become more adept at space travel, they’ll find her body. She’ll be a piece of history, a remnant of a space program that began humankind’s journey to the stars. Or maybe some other civilization will find her someday. They’ll study her, learn about humans. She could be their first contact with extraterrestrial life.

She doesn’t refuse her mind’s wanderings. It is only the beginning of the end. There isn’t much point in spending energy to fight it. She shivers in spite of her herself. It is not cold inside her suit, though outside it is near absolute zero. The spaceship is smaller now. It’ll be a pinprick of light eventually. Nothing more.

She breathes. Slowly, steadily. She tries to fight back the tears that form. It’s a waste of oxygen, but she decides it doesn’t matter if she lives five more minutes or just three. No one is coming. The tears fall, trailing down her face. She can’t wipe them away.

She is afraid. Death is a far greater mystery than space travel ever was. Perhaps there really is nothing after, as she had believed for years. She finds herself hoping for something. Anything. She doesn’t want to die. Not like this. Not facing out into a dark void, so far from earth she will likely never return home.

She breathes. She breathes until there’s no oxygen left. She struggles against it, her mind sending out alarms and every distress signal it can think of. Her gloves scrabble uselessly at her helmet. She needs to take it off. She needs to breath. Her lungs burn. Her body twitches and jerks, fighting against the spacesuit containing her. Her eyes flicker closed. Consciousness fades. Her heart stops. The tears dry on her face.


Part 3- Burning

This is a fire. It starts as a spark, a cigarette tossed carelessly from a passing car and onto dead grass. Perhaps they had thought the rain would drown the spark, but the rain has stopped before it could settle into the earth. The spark clings to the grass and slowly peels at its skin. It breathes, slowly at first, but growing in confidence as more grass succumbs to its grasp. There is a gentle breeze, just enough to help it grow, to push oxygen towards it, but not nearly enough to blow it out. It fizzles as it consumes the few drops of water left by the brief shower and turns it to steam. Smoke begins to rise with the steam. It is barely more than a shadow, a slight defect in otherwise clear air, but it is enough.

It grows slowly, snatching up blades of grass and peeling them apart until they are nothing but ash. The ash, like the smoke, is thrown into the sky before falling back to earth as a slow, gentle rain. It keeps moving forward, leaving a dark patch of grass and ash that can no longer burn behind it. It walks, it spreads, forming a line, a division between the ash and the grass not yet burned.

The smoke grows darker and the air becomes thick with ash. It chokes the air from the lungs of anything too slow to run away. The fire begins to run as the wind picks up. It is a breeze strong enough to blow out a spark, but it is not a weak spark anymore. It is a fire, racing across the grass fields. It licks and slithers as the grass trembles before it. 

And then it finds something new. Not grass, not bits of trash or small flowers, but a deer, still breathing, though its lungs are slowly filling with smoke, making the breathing more akin to wheezing. It tries to run on weakened legs, but it is a deer too old to do anything but limp.

The ash reaches the deer after the smoke, coating its fur in a thick blanket. The heat leaves it panting. Eventually the heat becomes too much for the deer to compensate for. It stumbles forward, no longer able to continue limping away.

The fire reaches it, spreading through the grass before beginning to peel and eat away at the deer’s flesh. It peels away the skin before slowly eating through the muscles. The blood and water of the deer’s body slows it down temporarily, but it does not take long for the blood and water to boil. Perhaps the deer screams, but the fire has no ears to hear with. The fire burns on.

In the ashes, there are bones, blackened and charred. The fire cannot consume the bones, so it leaves them. There are the large bones of antelope and the antlers of a deer. There are the small bones of rats and the delicate skull of a snake. The ash blows in the breeze before settling down. The smoke spreads out past the grasslands until it finally dissipates. The fire has burned itself out. 


Part 4- War

This is a field. It is a field that was once green and covered in orderly fences to ensure that everyone know whose land was whose. There were once animals here, grazing on the grass and leaving it patchy in places and completely gone in others. Now, it is a field covered in a thick, dark spiderweb of trenches. The trees that had stood there for decades are now no more than charred sticks stabbing out of the ground, the leaves and branches blown off by artillery shells. Barbed wire sits in spirals between the trenches. Burst open sandbags spill foreign sand into the blood soaked dirt. Bullet casings from machine guns have formed tiny mountains where they fell. Some had been thrown into the trenches below. The once golden metal had become stained by mud and the blood that had settled in pools in trenches filled with men.

These are men that are not quite dead, not quite alive. Their helmets and uniforms, once crisp and pristine, are spattered with mud and torn in places. The helmets protect them from the rocks and dirt the shells kick up, but not from the bullets sent their way. Their bodies line miles of trenches. Their feet are blackened and peeling apart. Some of these bodies have bullets in their chests. Others have blisters in their lungs. Others aren’t dead yet but bleeding out. They’re pinned under the others or too exhausted to move. Sickness lays heavy in the air alongside the pale yellow gas.

There are bodies in the field, mowed down by bullets so quickly they never even had a chance to realize what happened when they had tried to crawl from their trenches on the orders of desperate officers. Some had crumpled into the sand the moment they had lifted their head. Others made it farther, luck on their side, until they had fallen among the maze of barbed wire.

Blood covers the jackets, their uniforms, their hands. Some were shot in the chest and choked on their own blood. Others were hit in the stomach. They fell where they stood and spent the next few hours bleeding out. Others were hit in the arms and legs. They crawled through the barbed wire, over the sandbags, and back to the trenches before laying down to die of infection. Others were hit in the head and neck. They died immediately.

One soldier, a boy who lied about his age, lays among the barbed wire. He lied about his age because they told him it was glorious and honorable. There is no glory here, only a bullet lodged in his stomach and his spine. His legs won’t move, no matter how much he has tried. His efforts to crawl through the barbed wire, over the sandbags, and into the trench only left him exhausted. He doesn’t know where the others went. He hopes they made it back to the trench, where they’re safe from the bullets, but not much else.

His hand rests against the hole in his stomach, no longer trying to stop the bleeding now that he doesn’t have the strength to apply pressure. The blood bubbles up between his fingers before dribbling down into the fields beneath him, soaking the blood stained earth. He tries to breathe. He wishes he had been shot in the head. It is much faster, mercifully so, but no one is going to waste bullets on a dying man.

There are bodies surrounding him, faces turned up to the sky and covered in mud and gunpowder. Their eyes are clear. Blue eyes, brown eyes, green eyes, gray eyes all state into the sky. They do not blink. They do not move. The sky stares back them and wonders why so many humans have been left in fields to rot.


Part 5- Drowning

This is a well. It was built so long ago that no one remembers where it came from, only that it exists somewhere within a forest so large and overgrown no one can find their way there. The stones that line its walls have darkened with age and moss. This moss has spent years slowly crawling up from the ground and onto the rocks. It does not intend on leaving.

The wooden pulley system and the water bucket attached to it have long since rotted away. The wood has fallen into water below. The still and dark water below fills a hole many meters deep. The walls of this well, constructed with stones worn down by age, are slick and smooth with moss and water except in some places were the moss was scratched at until the fingernails had cracked and bled. The blood is still there, still fresh. The water in the well has not yet risen far enough to cleanse it.

A ray of sunlight comes in from above when the sun has risen high into the sky. The light it provides illuminates the surface of the dark water and the few stray leaves that float on top of it, blown in by the wind and the breeze. A few pieces of wood, not quite rotted away, float on the surface. Floating among the wood and the leaves, there is a woman’s body.

Her friends called her Rose, her children called her Mom, and her husband called her Sweetie, or Honey, if he was feeling particularly playful. They live in a grand house two states over with a dog called Rice and a goldfish called Panini. They were told she had gone on a much needed vacation. Her husband had been thrilled to finally have a few nights to himself. The children were excited to have a babysitter that would let them order pizza. Her friends were glad to finally have the chance to complain about her antics, now that she wasn’t here. They didn’t ask where she had gone. They do not know where she ends up.

She floats among the debris, just another source of contamination in a well long abandoned. She had been thrown in, still alive and breathing. She had screamed, and screamed, until her voice was hoarse and she realized no one was around to hear her. She had clawed at the moss covered walls until her nails had broken and bled. She swam in place, waiting for someone to come by. No one came.

She swam, floating at times, until she could no longer keep her head above water. The first gasp of water had set her on edge, reenergizing her for a few hours. The second gasp was another reminder that she couldn’t rest, but her eyes were slipping closed and her limbs were weary and numb. The third breath of water wasn’t met with coughing and spluttering. It was met with a harsh twitch, but nothing more. Her lungs slowly filled with water even as she tried to cough it out, despite not having the strength to do so. She sank beneath the surface.

Her body drifted back to the surface a few days later. She floats face down, blonde hair drifting in the still, dark water. The skin has discolored and started to fall apart. There are no animals or insects here to pick at her flesh. There is only the water in a well so far from anyone that she might never be found.


Part 6- Sickness

This is a tile floor. It is the floor of a bathroom in a house on the end of a street. It is a nice house, though it is not nearly as nice as it used to be. Rain has damaged the façade. It leaves dark streaks down the walls and on the stone pillars. Moss and ivy have begun a slow crawl up the walls, though they are still hidden by the slightly overgrown bushes bearing small flowers among the green leaves. The gardener that usually cuts them hasn’t come in a few weeks. The windows are no longer clear, though most of them are blocked by curtains that never open.

On this tile floor, hidden within a house surrounded by overgrown bushes, a man lays on the floor. The heated skin of his cheek is pressed into the chilly tile. Beneath his skull, the ceramic tile is cracked from when he fell so many hours before. Blood had trickled through his hair then spread through the cracks before forming a small pool. Urine trails down his legs, his muscles no longer under his control. Saliva drips from his mouth and onto the tile floor. He tries to swallow, but he cannot. He breathes slowly, critically close to not breathing at all. His arm is crushed beneath his body, growing numb under the pressure. His body is chilled, the skin tinged blue. His heart beats slowly, no longer capable of pushing blood through his veins. Tears dribble down from eyes that cannot even blink.

He’s spent the day and most of the night on this floor, unable to move, unable to call for help. No one came looking for him after the first seizures and spasms all those hours ago that had left him here. He came in here because he needed to breathe, to step away from his family and friends who had been camping out at his house the moment the doctors had diagnosed him with cancer a few weeks back. Their presence had become suffocating, overbearing to the point where he couldn’t even breath. He had retreated to the bathroom, in hopes of a few minutes alone. He hadn’t noticed the sweat on his brow or his too fast heart until he collapsed. 

He’d woken up on the tile floor without knowing if any time had passed at all. He had tried to call for someone, but he couldn’t speak. He had tried to move, to get up, but his body had refused. He couldn’t even blink. Couldn’t swallow. Couldn’t even twitch a finger. Couldn’t make a sound.

No one has come. They haven’t come for him, despite their claims of how much they cared for him, of how much they wanted to support him. They must have forgotten.

There is only the tile now. It’s cold, like his skin, like his tongue. He’s hungry now, thirsty too. He doesn’t know if they can help. He doesn’t know how much longer it will take for them to find him. He doesn’t know how much longer he can stay awake. He doesn’t know why he should keep trying. It’s easier to die when no one is watching.


Part 7- Hypothermia

This is a road. It is a mountain pass through the Rockies, without cell service, and with few other travelers. Snow has been falling here for hours, a thick blanket on the grey asphalt, which has been worn down from years of travel and the occasional road salting. There was no salt this year. Budget cuts had prevented the workers from reaching so isolated a patch of road.

There is a car on this road, once in motion, but now flipped upside down, wheels spinning uselessly in the frigid air. The roof has caved in, shattering the windows, the glass of which is now scattered on the snow covered road. Its headlights flicker occasionally.

A hand, covered in small cuts, emerges from the driver’s side window. An arm follows, then a head and shoulders. A woman crawls onto the asphalt over the shattered glass. She cries and groans as she frees her waist and then her legs. Both legs trail uselessly behind her. The glass shards tear through the fabric of her shirt and pants then into her skin and muscles. It clings to her even as she continues to drag herself forward. The pain of the glass is nothing compared to her crushed and broken legs.

She crawls until she is free from the glass. She rolls onto her back in the freezing snow. The car’s engine still runs, loud in the silence of the surrounding mountain, but still muffled by the falling snow. She can’t see anything beyond the car’s lights. They’re too bright, preventing her eyes from adjusting to the darkness. She can’t see the stars; can’t see the trees she knows are there. There is only the car, the snow, the glass, and broken legs.

She lays there until the pain fades to numbness, a process assisted by shock and the snow. Her body trembles with the cold. Small puffs of water vapor form with each breath before the vapor fades entirely. She tries to curl up, to preserve the heat she knows she’s losing, but the snow is so cold, and her body has grown stiff.

Her jacket is still in the car. She wants to get it, but her legs won’t help. She manages a slow crawl, propelled by her weakening arms until she can reach back through the window. The glass is back, tearing at her already broken and bloody skin. Her fingers, numb and turning blue, can’t grasp her jacket as reaches for it. She pulls herself forward until she can wrap her arms around it and pull it out. She rolls back into the snow, not quite far enough away to escape the glass, but she’s too tired to make it further.

The shivering has stopped. Her fingers and arms are too numb to do anything except throw the jacket over her body. It isn’t enough to prevent her body from slowly freezing.

Her breath slows, her heart rate falls. She’s tired now, no longer cold, just numb. Her fingers won’t move. There’s no pain in her legs or in the numerous cuts on her arms, her chest, her back, and face. No pain. Just a gentle warmth until it’s too warm and she has to throw the jacket off. She tries to stand up but falls back down. She tries again, growing increasingly frustrated and much too warm. Too warm, verging on hot. She tries to pull off the rest of her clothing, to expose her bare skin to snow she knows should be enough to cool her down. It snags on the glass shards embedded in her skin and sticks to frozen blood. It’s too hot. Why is it so hot?

Her arms and head fall back into the snow. She just needs to rest for a few minutes. Maybe a quick nap, just enough time to recover, to get her energy back. Just a few minutes.

Her body freezes and is slowly buried by the falling snow.


Part 8- Dehydration

This is a desert. The red sand of the earth is dotted by small shrubs and tall cactus. On the horizon, buttes, formed by centuries of erosion, stand hundreds of feet tall. A woman walks towards them, her eyes trained on them because they are something new, something different in this land of endless sand and so little water.

She stumbles onwards. She was left here by a friend that wanted her dead but didn’t have the courage to finish the job. She follows the tracks of the ATV he had used to bring her out here, but she knows there are miles to cover before she is even within view of the nearest town. Perhaps there is hiker out here, though a rock climber on the distant buttes is more likely. They could save her if she reached them.

Thirst arrives quickly as the heat makes her sweat. She hadn’t had a chance to drink before her friend had dragged her from her bed and carried her out here. She had fought until her head had been slammed into the sidewalk, leaving her dazed and with blood dripping into her eyes. The blood has dried in trails. Her lips have become chapped. Her tongue darts out to lick them, but it’s a waste of what little saliva is left.

Sunburn follows. It steals the water from her skin, leaving it red and far too warm. Her arms and face succumb first. Her shoulders are burning despite the thin fabric of her pajamas covering them. It is starting to blister and sting terribly. The blisters will only grow, the redness will only spread. And with them, comes pain, a slow burning sensation that alleviates temporarily when she decides to waste a lick of saliva to offer the skin a bit of moisture. It’s not enough to alleviate the slow deterioration.

Sweat had coated her skin as her body tried to cool down. She doesn’t sweat anymore, now that her body has run out of water to spare. She’s breathing faster. Too fast to be comfortable, but she can’t bring it back under control.

Dizziness follows, trying to make her fall. Her bare feet are burning and blistering on the hot sand. The rocks in the sand dig painfully into the tough skin, eventually breaking through. Her footprints are bloody now. She tries to remember which way she’s supposed to walk. The path she was following is gone, lost in the rockier terrain. Her head aches as much as her skin and throat.

Finally, she stumbles. She tries to get up but falls and falls again. The ground burns. The sun burns. Everything burns. She collapses when she can go no further. She tries to lick her dry lips, but her tongue is swollen and useless. There’s too much ground to cover. Too far to go. The sun is too bright, the ground too hot. This is the end.


Part 9- Age 

This is you. And this is the end of your life. How long you have lived no longer matters. What you are dying of means little compared to the great darkness you are facing. There is only you. You have spent your whole life not living at all, drifting somewhere in between waking and sleeping, a buoy in the ocean, half submerged and barely able to move more than a few inches from one side to another. Perhaps you had once been terrified of this, of being stuck somewhere and unwilling to break your own chains. Your cage is comfortable and known. You do not need to leave.

You are no more than flesh and blood.

You are flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood.

You lay in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors and nurses that don’t know your name. The sheets are not soft. The blanket is too thin to be warm. You try to speak to them, to make them listen. You tell them about the monsters, but they do not fear them as they should. They pity you. They pity you because they are certain you have lost your mind. And perhaps you have, but it doesn’t matter much now. You’re dying, your life slipping away. Your mind is already lost in a maze of far more interesting things than the deterioration of your own body. But you aren’t ready to go yet.

Why can’t you stay, you had asked them. They had shaken their heads, told you that they had other patients to see. They couldn’t be there when it was time to go. You had let them go, let them leave you in a hospital bed.

They do not return when you call again.

You have been left to die.




Megan Tracy is a writer from California currently attending the University of Notre Dame and studying political science.