Death by Death

by Jo Withers

Rumours circulated that it started in the Marleston city hospital. They said there was a teenager, the head surgeon’s son. They said he had a motorbike accident, was almost torn in two. They said they tried to revive him too many times, had brought him back and flatlined him more than you could count. Rumour said you shouldn’t mess with things like that, that only Jesus and the divine beasts held court over life and death.

Others said it started in the sewer system, within the pipes and tunnels of intertwined decay hidden beneath Marleston’s city streets. They said something congealed and nasty had backed up into the drinking water. The truth was no one knew why it happened in the city of Marleston or why it started when it did.

The city had always had its fair share of death. On average, Marleston, with a population around twenty-six thousand, lost two people a week. On the day the incidents started, Marleston recorded five hundred and sixty deaths. The industrial town of Marleston, famous for its bridges and fountains, suddenly became notable for all the wrong reasons. For on that scorching day in mid-June, death itself became contagious.

The slightest touch of a living hand to a deceased body caused the last breath to be viciously sucked from the unfortunate individual. It was a surprising, instant death, the kind of affliction that left the corpse with an almost comedic expression—slumped with raised eyebrows and an incredulous wide mouth. Witnesses said the victims seemed to suffer a few seconds of agonising pain, then violent spasms, as though they’d licked an electric fence.

The death plague unravelled rapidly and malevolently across the city even as authorities scrambled to contain it. A paramedic and a twenty-strong crowd of bystanders at a road traffic accident were one of the first groups reported as they waded in one-by-one to give CPR. An unfortunate incident at the city aquatic park resulted in thirty more deaths when a freak accident broke the neck of one fun-seeker on the water slides. His bent-up body stayed wedged within the twisted tubes while every other person in the queue slid down unsuspectingly on top, leaving corpses stacked inside like meats in a sandwich. Meanwhile, at Marleston City Prison, an argument in the lunch line resulted in a fifty-man pile-up when an inmate was stabbed in the neck with a fork over the last baked potato.

Like some sick joke, the affliction seemed to lose its power at the town’s borders right next to the ‘Welcome to Marleston – City of the Brave’ sign. Outside Marleston’s perimeter, men, women, and children continued to die solitary deaths in the traditional fashion.

Within the city, it was chaos. Undertakers died tending clients in their coffins; carers died in nursing homes; receptionists, cleaners, and porters died on cancer wards.

We’re not proud of it, but we started to bury people alive. Doctors in the city hospitals and general practices had buttons under their desks for patients they thought were SDR (Sudden Death Risk). If they took your pulse or listened to your chest and thought you wouldn’t make it through the week, they pressed the button and the guards showed up. The patients were hauled away screaming and thrown into pre-dug graves at the city cemetery.

There were benefits to our predicament. Crime was at an all-time low. It was safe to walk the city streets at night, basking in the neon glow of apartment lights and bar signs. There was no murder because murder was now suicide and no muggings because no one was really threatened by violence—no mugger was dumb enough to risk killing someone then dying themselves for a few dollars.

People began to move from the city in droves. Young families went first, delirious in their mission to escape—what if a teacher had a heart attack in class and wiped out the whole school? What if a child choked at playgroup while their baby was close by? The city became a ghost town as schools and playgrounds were abandoned.

But, what many failed to anticipate was the influx of people who began moving into the area. Within weeks, every single resident of the city of Marleston held a certain demographic profile. Behind the windows of every house were the slow shuffling frames of geriatric couples taking tea, doing crosswords, watching reruns of Tony Curtis movies. Couples who’d spent a lifetime together. Couples who needed to know that when their partner died, all they had to do was take their hand to be instantly transported into eternity with them.

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