EP143: Flaming Marshmallow and Other Deaths

By Camille Alexa.
Read by Dani Cutler (of Truth Seekers and The Audio Addicts).
Will appear in Machine of Death (TBA).

I look at the calendar
hanging on the wall above my bed. I reach up, lift it
off its nail with one hand and snuggle back under the
covers, taking the calendar with me and running a
finger over all the red Xs marked over all the days
leading up to this one. It’s a little cold out, and
the last thing in the universe I want to do is catch
an effing cold the week of my birthday, so I snuggle
down into the warmth of my flannel sheets even more.
I know there’s going to be parties this weekend, and
I’m going to want to go.

This is what I’ve been waiting for all these months.
All these years, I guess, though before my friends
started getting theirs, it didn’t seem like such a big
deal. We were all No-Knows then.

Tomorrow, I’m finally going to feel like I belong.

Tomorrow, I’m going to find out how I die.

Rated PG. Contains allusions to profanity and some sexual implication.

Referenced Sites:
Metamor City Podcast

Comments (29)

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  1. Kurt says:

    That was a fun story, one of the best in a while. Would I sound to old by sighing and muttering something about youth being wasted on the young? 🙂

  2. Chris Lester says:

    Thanks for running the promo, Steve! I’m glad you’re enjoying Metamor City — Escape Pod was one of the big inspirations for starting my show, and I love seeing what you serve up every week. Keep it on the bright side — unless the story is going someplace darker. 😉

  3. Teaist says:

    I really enjoyed this one! I’ve only been listening a few weeks and this was my favorite so far. I like SF stories that take place in worlds that are only a few short steps away from our own. This story in particular made several funny social commentaries, not the least of which was that the great rite of passage takes place at an impersonal kiosk at a mall.

  4. […] 08 in Uncategorized “Flaming Marshmallow and Other Deaths” is¬†up at Ecape Pod podcast […]

  5. Dani says:

    Who said you can’t be young again? 😉

    I had tons of fun reading this story- thanks as always Steve for inviting me!

  6. And thank you, Dani, for the reading!

  7. Yay! The story was great fun and the reading was pitch perfect. A great match.

    Escape Pod is such a good venue, providing a wide variety of stories by grand masters and new talents.

    -Proud monthly contributor to the best podcast in the world.

  8. Void Munashii says:

    This was a really fun story to listen to, and the read was a perfect annoying sixteen year old girl.

    I found it to be an interesting concept that your cause of death decided what clique you were in instead of your personality type, but then it seemed your COD also had a lot to do with determining your personality.

    The absolutely shallow ending was perfect.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to check out Metamor City; CSI in a Shadowrun type reality? I’m there!

  9. Nora says:

    I’m not too worried about the overwhelming amount of YA fantasy as compared to YA scifi out there– for me, at least, fantasy acted as sort of “gateway drug” into science fiction. I think there are a lot of other ways kids are getting into scifi as well– in my experience, the dystopias we had to read in High School (1984, BNW, and sometimes Fahrenheit 451) were some of the only required reading books we actually liked. I think a lot of kids are going to find their way into scifi via graphic novels and video instead of books, too.

    Oh, I liked the story too 🙂

  10. Jan Bear says:

    Great story, terrific reading by Dani Cutler, thought-provoking premise, funny and painful insights into the pain of adolescence, and slam-bang twist ending. One of your best.

  11. Robber Tom says:

    Ryan North’s idea is genius, I’m glad he put together the open call for short stories following the Machine of Death idea that he came up with in his comic at http://www.qwantz.com/archive/000675.html
    He’s worth checking out, and I can’t wait for the book to be published!

  12. Hot Ape 6 says:

    It may be the teenage angst, it may be my ears, it may be my own cause of death, but can someone please tell me what the heck did say?

    “Millenium, space in trucking…?”
    “…on truffles?”

  13. Capn Trips says:

    New listener here!

    Good story. Surprisingly likeable character despite being a horrible cliche of an angsty teenager. Loved the last line, brought back memories of the stupid things we worry about at that age.

  14. Void Munashii says:

    @Hot Ape 6

    I heard “space entropy”

    I liked how this week’s Escape Pod and Pseudopod both seemed to cover the same subject. Coincidence?

  15. Dani says:

    LOL- I like “space-in-trucking”! 😉

  16. Jenny M says:

    I mostly enjoyed the voice of the narrator – it was consistent to itself and pacy on the whole.

    Maybe I missed the explanation, but I don’t understand how it was known how these people would. Even if machines are organising everything, surely they could still die in a different way, if only by accident?

    I have two main beefs – the first is to do with YA science fiction, at least as shown here. I’ve read a lot of YA fiction over the past 40 years or so (but I haven’t seen much modern SF YA), and the best of it is some of the finest writing you’ll find anywhere. The good stuff, basically, shows intelligence – either in the protagonist or by what happens to him/her as set out by the author. Also, the best YA authors are incredibly economic with words – everything counts. However, I didn’t get much intelligence from this story; it was sort of fun but dumb. The main character never really thought about her situation; never struggled to do anything different to what she was always destined to do. And her being ‘saved’ at the end was just luck, as far as I could see.

    Maybe some YA authors don’t push themselves as hard as they could, hiding behind ‘it’s just a bit of fun’. Well, try ‘Fat Kid Rules the World’ by K L Going. This is a YA novel full of intelligence (and fun), often doing what you don’t expect. It also has some truly transcendent moments, where the writing just takes off; and it never just putters along, never settles for okay.

    The other beef I have is with endings. Doesn’t anyone in SF know how to end a story any more? Most of the stories on Escapepod recently have just stopped. This one is no exception: telling us she’s going to live for a long time is not an ending; it’s a beginning if anything. Is it that authors don’t have the nerve to torture their characters and make them go through really testing climaxes, to emerge either beaten or broken? ‘Artifice and Intelligence’ was another example – great build up, interesting group of characters; but it had just got to a point where I thought, “Ah-hah! Now it’s becoming really interesting,” when it suddenly ended.

  17. Void Munashii says:

    @ Jenny M

    “Maybe I missed the explanation, but I don‚Äôt understand how it was known how these people would. Even if machines are organising everything, surely they could still die in a different way, if only by accident?”

    I think the author was going on the idea that your life is already written, like any character in a book. You appear to be making choices, but the results have already occured if you just skip ahead to the end of the book.

    Just because you know your fate does not mean you can change it; in fact, the harder you try to avoid it, the more you will make it happen. You can avoid roasting marshmallows all you want, but that doesn’t mean a flaming marshmallow won’t track you down.

    The two examples that spring to mind for me about this are the Oedipus Cycle, and Arthur Dent in “Mostly Harmless”.

    “The other beef I have is with endings. Doesn‚Äôt anyone in SF know how to end a story any more? Most of the stories on Escapepod recently have just stopped. This one is no exception: “

    I agree with you on this in general, but not really in this story. I really found the end of “Artifice and Intelligence” to be quite jarring, but the end of this felt pretty natural. Where else would the author go with this story after she finds out her CoD? If the author went on, where would be a suitable place to end?

  18. Daniel Cotton says:

    I’m with Jenny on the lack of explanation about the MoDs but maybe that is somewhere else in the anthology. Part of the fun in science fiction is the scientific explanation, without that it becomes just speculative fiction.

    That doesn’t mean it isn’t good, or thought provoking, but it does take away the element of ‘this could be the world we live in in the future’ a bit.

    I, like some of the others, enjoyed the reading ‚Äì the reader’s voice was pitched really well for the character.

    Unlike Void, I thought the ending was good. These are short stories. For them to be entertaining for a longer time requires us to keep thinking about them. If you’re thinking about what might happen next then that aim is achieved. In fact death by Millennium Entropy sounds intriguing and I spent some time thinking about what exactly that might entail (it was also the most SF sounding part of the story).

  19. Jenny M says:

    “I agree with you on this in general, but not really in this story. I really found the end of ‚ÄúArtifice and Intelligence‚Äù to be quite jarring, but the end of this felt pretty natural. Where else would the author go with this story after she finds out her CoD? If the author went on, where would be a suitable place to end?”

    I don’t think the ending was unnatural to the character in general, i.e. she’s not the most questioning of teenagers; more concerned with looking cool than making choices about her life (and death). But then the whole point of fiction, surely, is to read about characters who aren’t predictable and ordinary; or, at least, characters who are ordinary but are thrust into situations where they have to make extraordinary decisions? In fact, the story does appear to set her up for a difficult decision, by introducing the fact there are people who’ve refused to take the slip, and prefer to live unplanned lives. So, I was expecting this to be the climax of the story: that she would have to decide between peer cool or going her own way. But in the event, her journey through this story is a pretty uneventful and obvious straight line. Yes, it’s quite sweet that she sees her dad in a loving light towards the end, but this is not so much a progression of the story set-up as an avoidance of putting her into a morally or spiritually or emotionally torturous situation. Without any shock-point changes to the main character, the best you can say about this story is that it’s a not bad one-time read.

  20. Void Munashii says:

    @Jenny M

    The main character’s progression through the story is a fairly straight line, but then she is a fairly shallow girl (I suspect a walk through the pool of her depth would barely dampen the soles of your feet). To her, getting her CoD was like getting your driver license, there was no question about it, it was a forgone conclusion that she would do it so she could be in a clique.

    I liked that the author introduced the idea that getting your CoD is not a foregone conclusion for everyone. I would be interested to learn more about that if there are any more stories set in that reality. I just don’t see the choice being something that our main character ever even really dwelled on.

    My first thought about the scenes with her father was that it was an attempt to add some depth to the character, but then I realized that wasn’t it. The point was to make us see that her dad was nervous for her. He clearly had put thought into her getting her CoD that she had not.

    The only thing I can really think to compare it to in our reality is a father giving his daughter away at her wedding. He has to deal with the concept that she’s not his little girl anymore, she’s a grown up now. The whole situation was clearly a lot more emotionally torturous to him than to her. This was resolved by showing his joy that she would live for centuries, and her dissapointment at not knowing exactly who she would be at school now (I would guess she ended up sitting with the older-agers).

    I’m not sure if I would give it a second read (or listen), but then there are few books which I do read over and over again. I would be interested in a greater fleshing out of her universe though. What are the cultural implications of people knowing how they die? What phobias would this create in some people? How would you ever cope with getting in a car if you knew you were to die in a car crash eventually? How reckless would you be with your life if you knew you were destined to die of old age?

  21. […] podcast Escape Pod has long been the standard-bearer for excellence in audio science fiction. In Episode 143 Mr. Eley aired the Metamor City promotional spot and waxed eloquent about the joys of our beloved […]

  22. Jenny M says:

    @ Void Munashii

    Good answer; I go along with that. Without extending this too far beyond what is probably the remit of this thread, I know as a writer that I have to push myself to take a thought further, or a feeling deeper, in a story. And I think this is harder to do in these times of instant everything, where mediocrity is unfortunately given mass support via the internet.

  23. Greg says:

    Hi Steve-

    I had bad highschool experiences and well just that coution about flashbacks to that time was scary but the story was cool. Somehow it made me think of the movie Rushmore in the kind of tone it was told in and that was a good thing.

    The whole click thing really rang true – I think in most places in life you will find those groupings of the in people and the no nos…even at 40 I’m still finding these kinds of teenish attitudes and am not so much annoyed but shocked and amused at the consistency of the human condition.

    The end was really true to heart – the narrator gets what is a mind expanding/challenging revelation about the nature and length of her life and is only concerned with the next day…truly laugh out loud funny if it was not so true to life…

  24. peter says:

    I don’t want to know how the machines of death work. That’s just some (meta?) physical tinkering. What must have been really exciting is the battle between the various insurance companies to either suppress or refine this type of tech.

  25. Jay Jay says:

    Brilliant more please

  26. Harris says:

    Great social satire

  27. Janni says:

    I’ve been behind on my Escape Pod listening, and am not catching up–what a great story to come back to. It’s been a little while since I enjoyed one this much.

    As for YA SF … I think there’s more out there than you think, only it’s not packaged to look like the SF of 40 years ago. We are beyond the age of the Heinlein juvenile, not because kids don’t care about the future, but because Heinlein reads as terribly dated to them. But I can name a half-dozen top-notch YA SF books without half trying.

    Though I will take issue with the notion that it’s only SF that cares about possible futures for this world. There are lots of ways of doing that, and the metaphor fantasy employs is as powerful a tool toward this end as any SF novel.

    Fantasy isn’t about wishing for a less rational world, as so many SF readers seem to think–it’s about finding out how adding things that don’t exist in our world affects us as human beings–much as science fiction is, actually.

  28. JW image says:

    Here My submission:Death By Annuity
    Author Jerry W Lennon

    “Yeah, it was time.” I said to myself to justify falling in to queue up behind those few who wanted to know how they were going to die. My mind drifted back to the fanfare when the machines were first put in operation. The announcement drew huge brave crowds of people who would stand for hours to learn their fate.

    The promoters of the death machine said they were going to change our lives and make life worth living because then we would really know what we could do and what we had to avoid. After ten years of service and without so much as a single miss, the crowds had died down to a trickle. It’s a real giggle to see myself where I am today. No way would I have ever imagined myself lined up to consult the “Death Diagnostor,” as it is called in polite circles.

    I could care less about knowing how I was to meet my demise, especially from a machine. I liked stumbling through my world not knowing what was next. I avoided the death machine like it was the plague. I never trusted in chance, I didn’t even buy lottery tickets. I became instantly skeptical of a machine that gave one-word responses that could be interpreted many different ways and I was not proven wrong. There was no surprise when the majority of people came around to my point of view. Yes sure it had changed the way we looked at life, but we all knew we were going to die even before these things became as common as Starbucks. However, a few years later when the reality set in and these predictors were never wrong, people lost all zest for life.

    Paranoid became the watchword. Caution spread like wildfire. Wars stopped. People avoided any and all possibilities connected to their death predictions hoping to avoid by any means their fate. Life literally slowed to a crawl. If the answer from the machine spewed out the word “car” as their fatal prophecy, people avoided anything remotely associated with the word. But very quickly people learned that the machine, like the devil, covered all contingencies. After a few years of seeing the futility of trying to avoid the prediction, people just gave up. After a while, people accepted their mortality and stayed away from the death predictors. It was best to be kept in the dark and enjoy life and let one’s life take its natural course.

    But curiosity got the better of some people and they wanted to know what was in store for them regardless of the consequences. It was this inquisitiveness that kept the money rolling in and the machines in business. Soon the gruesomeness of death wore off. People began to use the machines before undertaking any risky endeavor. Consulting the death machine became as common as going to an ATM machine. The insurance industry lobbied in vain to put a stop to the predictors because people insured themselves only when it was a sure thing. The parasitic industry could not beat the odds and wound up as a footnote in history.

    I was brought back to reality when I heard, “Hey guy, keep moving! It’s your turn next,” said a voice somewhere behind me, but the reason why I was in line was forgotten as I stepped across the threshold of the doorway.

    I supposedly knew what to expect. However, reading and being told what to expect from the process was not the same and going through it. I was not ready for the sterile look of the place. No voice, no attendant to welcome you, just a screen set in a wall that read, “To begin the process, hold your Global ID card, data side to window that has yellow border.” I did just as the sign instructed. Nothing activated. No sound, just the click of the door locking behind me. I turned and the door had turned into a one-way mirror and I could see the others waiting in line outside. At least they gave people their privacy while not feeling isolated during this process.

    The text on the monitor in front of me flashed, “Accepted Mr. Fred Harper,” along with my familiar public ID string of numbers that was assigned to me at birth. The room blinked a bit brighter blue as the huge blue neon glowing letters instructed, “To verify DNA code, place your hand in the slot of the blue box below display screen. Hold your hand in position until you are instructed to remove your hand.” I placed my right hand in the slot and rested it against the pad inside. I was aware that I should feel a sticky, numbing mist that was to coat the underside of my index finger. I knew it was to take the sting out of the needle stick. I tensed my hand anyway waiting to feel a slight stab or something. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, I counted. I still had not felt anything until the pad under my hand silently retreated into the recesses of the blue glowing box. The monitor’s screen filled the tiny room with a blood red text that read, “Remove your hand and squeeze a drop of blood in the orange circle on the glass tray until it is covered. When the glass tray turns green, wave your hand in front of the screen. When the green arrow appears, step to where the green arrow points and wait for the results. When you see a flashing green box, touch it to print your results. Thank you for using the services of DDI.” I watched the tray recede into the box and the door closed as if it were never there.

    “Well it was done,” I thought as I slid over and punched the screen for the results. Of course, I already knew the results. I wondered how the machine would word my death. I said to myself, “Cancer, organ failure, liver?” I really didn’t care how it was worded. I already knew the “how” I was to die, but that was not why I was here. I just wanted a second opinion. What would be novel is how much time I had left, but that was wishful thinking because the Predictor had not yet evolved or been programmed to give that information. So I waited for the wording of my death. And I waited. “Come on, how long does this take? It’s not like I’m the only one facing this type of death.”

    I began to wonder if the program had crashed. I grew more impatient as I willed the screen to print the results. Just as I was about to lose it and bang on the front panel text appeared in stark white letters across the screen. “You will be contacted with details at a later date. Confirm your contact information by touching the screen.” I hesitated before confirming my information and then touched the glowing green “yes” box. The door behind me clicked open and the room became dark but for the light from the monitor still displaying, “You will be contacted.” I looked to the slot below the screen, but nothing came out. I felt cheated. As if the machine could read my mind the screen displayed, “There will be no charge at this time. Your account has been credited in full.” Then the screen went blank and so did my mind as I stepped threw the doorway. A woman was next. She stood near the doorway waiting for me to leave the room. She averted her head downward so as not to look at me directly. I rapidly walked past her without paying any attention to her quick darting looks as she tried to read my face. I sensed she was looking for a hint of what to expect.

    I moved by instinct. As I rounded the corner, I found myself in a mall devoted to mental health providers. Some were in white coats; some in tweed suits, trying to look like caring, insightful physiatrists all touting their specialty and ability to help me cope with my death session. I ignored all of the various pitches and faces that jumbled together as one chaotic kaleidoscope of color and sound.

    I was lost in a daze recalling the last few weeks hoping to come up with a reason why I was denied the results of my session. I know less now than I did before I entered the Death Evaluator. Suddenly it hit me. Thinking back to the form I filled out weeks ago, my mind locked on the last part of the questionnaire. “Is there any reason you feel you are going to die? Have you been diagnosed with a terminal or fatal illness?” I answered “no” which was true at that time. I did not perjure myself because I was waiting for the results of the doctor’s tests when I filled out the form for an appointment. I just had a feeling I was terminal, but no real positive when I signed and sent the forms in for an appointment. Nothing out of the ordinary from the session arrangers that lead me to believe that they knew I had recently consulted a doctor. Just the standard recorded message left on my mobile telling me the date of my session and that I could go to any D.D.I. station of my choice. This eased my feeling of guilt a bit, but I still wondered why no results. I forced myself to let that wait until I got home.

    As I stepped off the curb, I was rudely made aware of where I was when a car nearly ruined the rest of my day. “Fred, keep your mind on the task at hand. Just hold it together until you get home. There has to be answer. Remember these things never miss.” I was feeling just about my old self as I closed the door to my flat. “Ah, sanctuary,” as I felt the day’s events start to slip away as my thoughts of food became my main focus. As I turned toward the kitchen, the living room monitor blinked an alert of an e-mail that required my response ASAP. My craving for food disappeared as my anxiety level heightened. Did the Predictor’s results arrive this quickly? Had they found out I was trying to scam the system? Did they know that I knew I was going to die before I asked for a session? I know they frown upon that sort of thing. All thinking and speculation stopped as I stepped into the living room. The monitor was flashing bright yellow text, “ID Code required Fred Harper. For your eyes only.”

    “What? Who would send an e-mail for my eyes only?” I said out loud as I touched in my code. The screen flashed, “Place Global ID to the yellow box to verify addressee.” I dropped my wallet fumbling to get my ID card out. I left it on the floor in the event my response was time sensitive and I would be locked out for taking too long to respond. The only other sound in the room besides my heartbeat was the snap of my card as it hit the yellow-bordered box on the screen. “Verified.” And the screen filled with bluish text.
    “Dear Mr. Fred Harper: The results of your Death Diagnostic, Inc. report was held back due to the uniqueness and timing of your session.”

    “Oh no, I’ve been found out.” I groaned out loud and read on with dread wondering what would be the consequences of my actions.

    “During the past 15 years of operation, D.D.I. has been improving the process of its services. Thanks to a major grant from the Insurance Providers, D.D.I. has entered into Beta testing for the Time of Terminality program. The timing of your request for a D.D.I. makes you an ideal candidate. Reason being, you were just recently diagnosed with your imminent death — major organ failure (liver). The Time of Terminality program tentatively predicts time of terminality in the year 2023, sometime between 01/01/2023 and 12/31/2023. D.D.I. expresses its condolences to you and yours.

    Of course, there will be a waiver of any and all fees due to your participation in this preliminary Beta project. In addition, all costs and expenses for the rest of your life will be borne by D.D.I. Again, thanks to a generous grant by Insurance Providers. This agreement will cease one day after 01/01/2024.

    D.D.I. takes pride that is programs have never given a faulty reading and to continue in that record, so as not to cause any false positives that could jeopardize the test results, D.D.I. requests that you remain under D.D.I. supervision and be fitted with a location chip to monitor your whereabouts. You will, of course, be free to come and go as you please. However, you must clear all activities and movements before hand and always be accompanied by a minder. Details of this Beta test and all answers to all of your questions will be explained in the near future. In interest of national security, all of these precautions are authorized by the government.*

    You will be pleased to know that you are participating in a historic event that will benefit all Global citizens and future generations. When the Beta testing is complete in the year 2023, a mandatory program will be set up for the general population in order to assure that people will live to their full projected Terminal Date. Health care providers will be able to plan and allocate resources where most needed and in the most cost efficient manner. You may also take comfort in knowing that your participation will aid Insurance Providers in establishing new actuary norms and providing services at reasonable fees.

    We at D.D.I. thank you for your vital contribution to a program that will make the world a better place.

    Death Diagnostic, Inc
    * Secrets Act Sec. 56,87607 pertains to all documents and any communications you have been made privy. You will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for any breach of this Act. Details of this Act can be downloaded and reviewed at http://www.secretsact.organdgovglobal”

                The End
  29. Mari Mitchell says:

    I really enjoyed this one.