by Laura Kocherhans
After a heavy workload over the Holidays, we felt it was time for us to hold a work party. While a few of us had offered our homes as an optional party site, we ultimately agreed that the employee breakroom would be the easiest place for everyone to attend. Some of us arrived late, some early, as was characteristic of each of our personalities to do.
Josie was the first to greet the snack table, waddling over to gather up a plateful of chips, cookies, and a carrot or two to “make up for” the calories, as she joked. Marly and Jason, whom we all knew had a thing for each other though they wouldn’t dare admit it, sat side-by-side chatting about school. Natalie S.—the one with blonde hair and heavy lipstick—took on the role of party host, making sure to warmly welcome each of us as we came through the door.
As retail workers, we were a conglomeration of ages, backgrounds, and styles—normally these affected little as far as work was concerned—but tonight we found that we had a very un-unified sense of taste, particularly when it came to music. Those of us who were older were content to stand and talk away the evening hours, while those younger felt that the party was incomplete without music and dance.
The party went on while a handful of us worked to set up a DJ on one end of the room, plugging a cell phone into a Bluetooth player that Jim always kept in his car, for “emergencies” like this. We bickered over Oldies versus Pop, or Rock versus Country. We somehow settled on Billy Joel, playing him just loud enough to satisfy both the old and the young.
Something equivalent to a bark erupted by the food table. Those closest to notice turned to see Josie seizing the table with one white-knuckled hand for stability, while the other hand floundered around her throat. She was choking. She grunted again, but the food lodged in her throat prevented any normal exit of air. As her spluttering continued, more and more of us began to gather around her. The party fell silent, with the exception of the most recent Billy Joel song playing over the speakers, in tune with the unsoundly chokes of our coworker.
We stood frozen in place, our limbs stiff, all memory of motion forgotten. Only Josie remained animated, a crude dancer on center-stage. Her motions started gently: first, a back-and-forth swaying of her body, with one free hand cascading the air, pulsing in conjunction with each cough. Then, her body and limbs swelled into frantic writhing, the free hand grabbing at emptiness, her hips twisting this way and that. She held us—her audience—captive with her performance, the star of the show with no competitor for attention. Only she could move freely about the stage. And yet, she held herself back, limited from the fulness of dance and motion by the single hand that clung to the table edge. Her coughs grew more violent, and our bodies trembled in sync with each cough.
But you are still a victim
Of the accidents you leave,
As sure as I’m a victim of desire.
A suddenness of desperation surged her forward, unchaining her hand from the table, and at last she was free. At the climax of song, her deadly dance climaxed with a fluidity of thrashing and airless screams. Her knees caved-in beneath her. She crumpled to the floor, her fall graceful and slow. With near-professional deliberation, her shoulders folded inward, the rhythmic pulsing of chokes slowing one by one, until her head caressed the floor. Her eyes bulged, then closed, and the color slowly drained from her face to white, into which seeped a pale purple. In the fullness of emotion, our breath caught with hers, our hearts beat as one with the mesmerizing artistic touch that only death can capture.
Then it was over.
The spell on our limbs faded, and we could breathe again. Josie’s eyes had closed, her body was still and peaceful, like a ballerina poised as the spotlight fades to darkness.
Natalie was the first to break the silence. “My god,” she breathed. “She’s dead.”
Cassie bolted for the trash can, urgently shoving us aside, and emptied her stomach into the plastic-lined cylinder. Soon after hearing the squishy sounds of vomit, Marly separated herself from the rest of us to join Cassie.
Nathan approached Josie first, kneeling down beside her to check for a pulse. A grim trembling pulled at the edges of his lips. He brushed her cheek, slowly rose to a stand, and looked at the rest of us. “We should call the police,” he said. One of us started sobbing, we think it was Louis, though he would never confess to it in future weeks. With unsteady feet and swirling heads, we each took a seat, openly wept, vomited, stared at the white-tiled floor, or simply stood in place, gazing upon the serene face of our coworker, still grasping at this foreign realm we had entered. And so it goes, and so it goes. And so will you soon I suppose.
The police arrived, covered and removed our shameful reminder from the room. They took some of the others’ testimonies, leaving the rest of our witnesses to remain our own. We departed for home that night in empty discord. A knot welled up in each throat, tearing at the inner skin and stealing the breath from our lungs.
Before leaving, Natalie suddenly froze, turning toward us furiously, and cried out in anguish, “Oh god, oh god. Why didn’t you do something?”
Having been an avid reader and writer since childhood, Laura Kocherhans now pursues a major in English, with a double minor in professional writing and rhetoric, and theoretical and applied ethics. In her writing, she prefers to explore the depths of human psychology and social interaction. She combats depression in her daily life, and from these experiences she draws out the ugliness and beauty of personal suffering and discovery. In 2013, she submitted a piece to the Snow College creative writing journal Weeds and won first place in the short story division. She has since written dozens of poems, short stories, and reflections on the aforementioned subjects and interests. She and her husband have been happily married for two years and are soon expecting their first child.