This story was inspired by a project called Machine of Death, which I encourage you to read about here. The editors introduced a simple concept: a machine which, upon sampling your blood, can predict your exact cause of death. Sounds grim, but it need not be; if you know you’re going to die choking on a hot dog, there’s little reason to be afraid of bungee jumping. Unless you eat a hot dog before you jump. The openness of the concept led to two crowdsourced short story collections, each of which has a wide range of stories across a variety of genres. I recommend them both wholeheartedly; included in them are one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read and also one of the most touching.
This is my attempt at one of these stories.
The sound of Sara’s foot tapping lit out across the food court, a place of a gleaming linoleum and empty tables. The sun was westering, a heavy yellow orb pendulous in the sky, threatening to bury itself. Sara watched it with bored eyes, the mall’s tinted windows and the late day protecting her from any lasting harm. She checked the watch her mother had gotten her as a going-away present. It had a pink leather strap and a gold-rimmed face and two hands which told her that Madison was about twenty minutes late.
Not for the first time, Sara wondered why she was friends with Madison. The girl was chronically late. Sara had always put up with it through elementary and high school, but now that they were on the cusp of leaving for college, she had begun to realize that some people were just more grown-up than others. Maybe that’s why Madison was staying in town at Western while she was moving away to go to the University of Ottawa.
Sara was considering finding a payphone to call Madison’s home when she finally saw her friend coming out of the corridor that connected the food court with the lane of stores outside Sears. Sara rushed toward Madison and was ready to ask her whether a doctor had diagnosed her with some type of degenerative clock-blindness when she spied the slip of paper in her friend’s hand. There was a bandage around the tip of Madison’s forefinger, and her eyes were red and bleary.
“You didn’t,” said Sara.
“I’m sorry,” said Madison. “I-it was right there when I came into the mall. I didn’t even
know they were in Canada yet! I didn’t even think, I just did it.”
“We agreed we’d never do that. We said it was better not to know, that knowing would scare the shit out of us. What the hell, Madison!?”
“I’m not scared, though. I’m relieved.” The blonde girl wiped her eyes, and a smile grew on her face. “Look, Sara. It’s not bad at all.” She held out the slip, and Sara took it.
There were two words written on the slip in a simple serif typeface. They read OLD AGE.
Sara looked up at her friend, a strange mix of emotions curdling in her gut. “OLD AGE? What the fuck does that even mean? Old people die of cancer, pneumonia, heart attacks. This could just mean you get run down by some geezer in a Honda Civic.”
“Maybe,” said Madison, “but maybe not. Lots of people get OLD AGE. I think they released some statistics a while back to prove the methodology or whatever.”
Sara nodded. She vaguely remembered seeing this on the news a few months back, when the Machine of Death had first been announced for wide public release. The most common results were virtually identical to the most common causes of death reported by the government. This correlation had been a part of the FDA approval for the Machine. Sure, there were instances where the Machine had seemed to have a sense of humour; one high-profile case had concerned a woman who was murdered by her spouse some time after she got a slip reading CANCER. The lawsuit had ultimately been dismissed when it was discovered the murderer’s birthday was July 3rd. Public faith in the Machine rose again after that.
“Well, congrats, I guess.” Sara was pissed. They had promised. Somehow it seemed even more unfair when Madison’s result was considered one of the best ones you could get.
“Are you mad?”
“No,” lied Sara. “I guess I just feel like I’m in kind of a bind. We promised not to do it. Now you know and I don’t. That’s bullshit.”
“You could always take the test, too. It doesn’t hurt that much, and it’s totally safe. There’s a sterilizing agent to clean the needle. It’s right next to the Yogen Früz; we can get a smoothie while we wait.”
Sara checked her watch again. It was getting on towards seven, and college was still two weeks away. She sighed. It’s not like there was anything else to do.
There was a small kiosk for the Machine with a heavy pale blue curtain like one of the photo booths Sara and Madison had shared when they were younger. The girls approached it and Madison nodded at Sara, giving her a sad smile. Then she went across the hall to the neon sign advertising frozen yogurt.
Sara was alone. A sick feeling rose in her stomach, close to her throat. She had never told anyone, not even Madison, but she was terrified of dying. How could you not be? Life was full of sensation, of joy and pain and pleasure and experience; everything that ever mattered to you happened when you were alive. When you were dead, none of that happened. It was a silence beyond vacuum, beyond description. And it was forever.
Sara stepped into the booth. There was a pleasant chime when she sat on the small stool opposite the Machine. There was the outline of a handprint on the panel in front of her. She saw a dark hole, smaller than a dime, at the tip of the forefinger. She knew what waited there.
A thought occurred to Sara – maybe she could fake this. She pulled back the curtain and peeked out. Madison was outside Yogen Früz, pointing at something on the menu. The teenager behind the counter looked like he’d gotten BORED TO DEATH from his slip.
Sara’s mind raced. Maybe she could tell Madison she got ANEURYSM or CAR CRASH or KICKED BY A HORSE, but that the surprise was too much for her and she had to get rid of it. Yes, that could work. Couldn’t it? Sara ran through the scenario in her mind, but found herself unable to imagine Madison allowing that to happen. The girl was always persistent, and she had shown Sara her card. She would want proof.
With no other options available to her, Sara laid her hand on the console. Some sensor in the Machine activated in response to her touch. There was a brief flash of pain, then a chime. The machine whirred with the sound of a fan, then it spat out a single Band-Aid. Sara took it with an odd feeling of gratitude. The instructions on the console said that the Machine took a couple of minutes to produce the results.
“How’d it go?” Madison poked her head through the curtain. Some kind of green drink was in her hand. She sucked on the straw noisily.
“Jesus, Maddy, you scared the shit out of me!”
“Easy, Sara, I didn’t mean to. Here, I got you strawberry.” She held out the cup. Sara took it, nodding gratefully.
“Sorry. It’s just – had to hype myself up a little.”
“It’s alright, I get it. I remember wondering what I’d do if I got like DROWNING or something. Would I keep going to synchro practice? Would I never swim again? But obviously I would, somehow, since I was supposed to drown. It messes with your head if you think about it too much.”
Sara was about to say something else when the Machine stopped making sounds. Another slot opened. A single strip of paper slid out, face-down. Sara looked to Madison. Something must have shown on her face, because Madison just put a hand on her shoulder, then slipped out of the booth.
Sara took the strip of paper. It was no bigger than what you got in a fortune cookie. Only she knew this fortune would come true. She turned it, hands trembling. One word was written on it.
“Well, what the fuck does that mean?” cried Madison.
Ten minutes later. The girls were outside now, sitting on the edge of the stone garden. The sun had almost disappeared and was slinging out a few last desperate beams of light. A late August coolness was beginning to descend. A single bus drifted past them, only a few passengers aboard.
“I think it’s pretty fucking clear,” said Sara. “I’m gonna die tomorrow.”
“But how? The Machine doesn’t usually give a date.”
“I’m incredibly honoured to hear it made an exception for me.” She sighed. It wouldn’t help to
be sarcastic. Her mind was already filled with jumbled thoughts; a tapestry of events she’d never get to experience. School, a career, parties, weddings, children, adventures; even things like books and movies she wanted to read and watch were no longer a possibility, no longer options. She had twenty-nine hours, give or take. All of life’s experiences had to fit within that window.
“I’m gonna get wasted,” said Sara. “My dad has a bottle of bourbon. He doesn’t lock it up because I’ve been such a good kid.” She laughed. “His words, not mine. He and mom are visiting my aunt in Toronto and won’t be home until Sunday.” She shrugged. “Wanna come with?”
Madison looked at her as if she wanted to say something.
“Please,” said Sara. “I need this.” A wave of guilt passed through her. Ninety minutes ago, she’d been wondering what mistakes she’d made to end up with a friend as ditzy as Madison. She’d been looking forward to separating.
“Of course,” said Madison. She wiped her eyes. “Let’s do this!”
They left that place then. Sara felt herself filled with a muted sense of liminality, though she did not know the word. She felt as though that place, that mall, was now gone. It was impossible to imagine it existing when she would not. The feeling followed her home, where the neighbourhood seemed suffused with an ancient and quiet beauty. Crickets in the grass singing nightsongs. Golden lights projecting across neat lawns and families beyond, swimming in those lights, listening to music or watching television, completely unaware of the beauty of the moment in which they lived and would continue to live.
The first thing Sara did when she got home was throw up. As she stood up, wiping her face, she found herself thinking about her parents. She was oddly relieved to not have to see them before she went. She didn’t think she could handle it. The memories were enough. She was grateful for all they had done, and she saw no reason to hurt them now with the knowledge of what they could not change.
Madison was waiting in the kitchen for her when she came out of the bathroom. She had pulled two glasses out of the cabinet. A cube of ice waited in each. Sara raised an eyebrow when she saw this.
“Rob told me,” said Madison, and Sara understood. Rob was Madison’s ex, but they were still friends. His parents were big hippies, more interested in being friends with their son than they were in being parents. It was no surprise that they’d taught Rob how to drink.
Sara picked up the glass, then plucked the ice out. She tossed it into the sink, where it clattered and then went still. She turned and pulled the bourbon from the cabinet. It seemed to shimmer with some hidden flame. She poured a couple of fingers for Madison, then a whole hand for herself. She caught Madison looking at her. She stared right back. “What?” she asked. “It’s my funeral.”
Sara tossed back the drink, letting her body be filled with fire.
When Sara woke the next day, she was not dead. Her head pounded with a blinding fury. She scratched at the corner of her mouth and crusted drool like dandruff floated down to the bedsheet. Across the room, Madison slept on an air mattress. Sara let her sleep. She got up, wandering through the house. She took the stairs slowly. Each step sent a jolt of pain through her head, hammer against anvil.
“Ow,” she muttered to nobody.
In the kitchen, Sara made herself a cup of coffee, which she almost never drank but had seen hungover people drink in movies to feel better. It filled the air in the kitchen with a rich toffee scent. She pulled a mug from the cupboard in the grey morning light, the cups clinking painfully against one another. Sara had completely forgotten the why of why she was hungover. She didn’t remember until she turned around and saw the empty bourbon bottle.
Then there was reality, naked and unbearable.
Emotion came crashing in. The thought that this was the day of her death repeated in Sara’s head, over and over, interrupted only by the panicked thought that she’d have to explain to her father why his straight-A daughter downed a bottle of Wild Turkey with her friend, but then that thought was interrupted with the knowledge that he wouldn’t be back until Sunday, and that by then she wouldn’t have to explain anything at all ever again.
This was all too much. Sara rushed up the stairs, taking them two at a time, not caring if she woke Madison up or even if she saw what she was going to do next. She opened the door to her parents’ bedroom, shuffling aside the omnipresent museum quality that place seemed to hold in their absence, then dove into her mother’s closet where she kept the crumpled pack of Marlboros her mother pretended nobody knew about. She grabbed a couple and then stopped and grabbed the whole pack, taking it downstairs. She found a lighter in the kitchen and then opened the patio door out to the back stoop where the sun was now dawning on her last day and she lit a light, an orange-and-scarlet flame that wavered in the cool air. She brought the cigarette to it, watching the smoke rise from the tip, somehow both romantic and revolting. Then she smoked it. The smoke filled her mouth and tasted awful, but she didn’t feel anything. She looked at the cigarette and frowned and then realized she wasn’t inhaling, so she tried again and filled her lungs and they were shot through instantly with a cloudy kind of agony. An almost comically stereotypical hacking cough wracked her body, but she didn’t care, she knew this was supposed to be good, and so she dragged on the dart again and again until her throat and chest were sore, but the pain had been replaced with a kind of foggy ebullient pleasure in her head and besides it didn’t matter, nothing mattered anymore, so long as her head was clear and she felt good as she faced this, her last day.
She sat on the porch and smoked for a while. She didn’t even know if she liked it, but it was something to do other than just waiting. Eventually, Madison woke up and came out and though she seemed kind of freaked out by the cigarettes and the general attitude of her friend, she was willing to excuse it in light of the situation. Together they spoke for a time about many things, none of which were terribly important to anyone but them.
The day dragged on. Sara and Madison went inside. They ordered Chinese food. While they waited, they spoke more about their dreams and their hopes but never too deeply, never too honestly. To acknowledge that truth would be to acknowledge a different truth; one they were working so hard to deny. So instead they ate and watched movies and each moment Sara wondered if it would be her last.
Day turned to evening. It was simultaneously fast and impossibly slow. But the night came as it always did.
Sara woke the next morning, feeling a bit bloated. She swallowed. Her throat was dry and raw and the effort triggered a few wheezing coughs. She groaned and then laid back in bed. The windowblind was open and beyond in the blue dawn street a woman walked between pools of lamplight with her dog, some type of hound that loped along beside her. Sara watched her for a minute before she remembered.
The realization that she was alive triggered a wash of confusing emotions throughout her entire being. Relief and joy turned to confusion and then to panic when she remembered the bottle of bourbon and the pack of cigarettes. She looked over at the air mattress where Madison still slept. In that moment, her love for her friend pushed everything out. All was quiet, and it was thanks to this girl who had stayed with her through the entire ordeal.
Why had the Machine failed to predict correctly? Could somebody’s slip have been caught in the device? Some other fluke? Questions raced through Sara’s mind.
“Madison.” Sara prodded her friend’s shoulder. Her friend groaned and rolled over. Sara poked her again. “Madison, please wake up.”
Madison made a noise that sounded something like unghhh.
“I’m not dead, Maddy.”
There was a pause, then a mumbling voice. “Then why are you talking instead of sleeping?”
“Because I need to know why the Machine got it wrong.”
Madison rolled over to look at Sara. Her blonde hair fell across her face, her eyes barely parted. “We can take another test this morning if you want.”
“Do you think Rob would take one, too?”
“What? Maybe, but why?”
“I’ll take another one to be sure, but it’s like Mr. Cooper taught us in biology. We need a control. I don’t want to use you because we got ours done at the same time. Maybe that messed with the Machine somehow. I want somebody new.”
Madison sighed. “Yeah, okay. I’ll tell Rob to meet us at the mall.”
“You know,” said Madison. “You seem really unhappy for someone who just realized she’s not gonna die.”
“I just want to make sure,” said Sara.
Two hours later, they were all at the mall. The place was nearly deserted; the shopfronts closed with great metallic gates and the hallways filled only with the squeaking echoes of seniors’ shoes, morning mallwakers patrolling in packs.
Rob was waiting for them when they arrived. He was the kind of tall that lends to gauntness. His hair cascaded, long and brown, to his shoulders. He sat on a bench just beyond the Machine. It was carved out of the frame for the mall’s centerpiece fountain, which encircled the escalators to create an artificial moat. Flowerbeds alongside it were filled with lost tropical plants. The fountain was shut off at this early hour and pennies gleamed under the still surface of the water.
“Thanks for doing this,” said Sara as they approached.
“No problem,” said Rob. “We doing this thing?”
“Sara seems really keen on it,” said Madison.
“I get it,” said Rob, smiling. “Once you explained the situation, anyway. I’d want to know, too.”
“Thanks,” smiled Sara. It felt good to know that she wasn’t being insane.
They walked over to the Machine, which stood sentinel against the wall. Sara knew it had only been two days since she’d last seen it, but as she approached it then she felt certain that the Machine had been there far longer, that it had stood there for eons as the world changed around it.
Rob pulled open the curtain and stepped inside. The girls watched as he laid his hand on the sensor. There was a sharp intake of breath, and then another Band-Aid. They waited for a long minute while the results were processed. At last the slip jutted out. Rob took it.
“I haven’t done this before,” said Rob. “My parents didn’t want me too. You know how they are. They keep telling me to ‘live in the moment.’” He made a fist around the paper. “It’s a lot harder than it sounds. I hope this helps me do it.”
He turned the paper over. He frowned, then he looked at it again. He handed it wordlessly to Madison and then walked away.
“Rob!” cried Sara. “Rob!” She turned to Madison. “What the hell does it say? Why is he so upset?”
Madison didn’t say anything. Her eyes were red and shimmering. She just handed Sara the slip, then turned to follow Rob. Confused, Sara looked at the slip and finally understood.
Sara truly believed that there was no good way to go, but she was positive that some were better than others. The thought of getting eaten by something, of your entire existence being boiled down to fuel for another animal–she understood why he felt the way he did. But a selfish part of her still insisted on answers. Rob’s slip proved the Machine was giving different answers. Now she needed to know if it would give her the same.
Sara slid inside. She sat on the stool and placed her left hand on the console this time, not wanting to reopen the shallow wound. She winced at the lance of pain again, then waited, ignoring the Band-Aid.
The slip came out. She took it.
The phone was ringing. The phone was ringing and nobody was answering it. Sara slowly opened her eyes. The sound reverberated through her skull. Something stank. She groaned and raised her head from the bed and looked around the apartment. Clothes sprawled across the floor. A clouded bong half-filled with scumwater stood tall on the shelf. The air was a mix of marijuana stink and old pizza, the box half-opened at the foot of the bed. Scrawled on the lid in a barely-legible script was SORRY I HAD TO GO THANKS. Sara snorted when she saw this and pushed the box off the bed with her foot.
The phone was still ringing. Sara wondered why it hadn’t gone to voicemail. She fumbled for the smartphone and picked it up and saw a name she hadn’t seen in years, as well as four voicemail notifications. Something inside her sank. She accepted the call.
“Sara?” said Madison.
This was a question for which Sara had no answer, or at least none that would satisfy this forgotten friend. So she lied: “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Okay. Glad to hear it. Look, I’m sorry to call you up out of the blue like this, but I have to tell you – Rob’s dead.”
The question was stupid, and Sara knew it. In the last fifteen years, the accuracy of the Machine had proved unimpeachable. Nobody escaped their fate.
Nobody but her.
“Rob was always careful,” said Madison. “He never went to the beach. Even when he went to the lake, he would look up tributaries and sources so he could be sure there wasn’t anything connecting to the ocean. He wanted to live as long as he could.” There was a deep intake of breath on the other line. Sara thought that Madison might have been trying not to cry. “I-I guess he owed some people some money. They came after him and–”
“I get it,” said Sara. Loan sharks. The Machine always had a sense of humour.
“Will you come to the funeral? I know it’s not close, but I could really use you there.”
Sarah hesitated. Looking around the apartment, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to find fifty bucks for the bus. She supposed she could always text her dealer; sometimes he spotted her an advance so long as she helped his customers when he was out of town. Maybe he’d be willing to do the same for some actual money instead of weed.
“Yeah,” said Sara. “I can make that work.”
“Great,” said Madison. “It’s at this Buddhist temple on Riverside at 10AM. Do you know the place?”
“Buddhist. Right, the hippie parents. I didn’t know if Rob believed in that shit himself.”
“I don’t think he did.”
“Then how–sorry, this is none of my business. It’s been forever. I shouldn’t be prying into your shit.”
“No, it’s fine. We should catch up after the service. It’d be good to hear about what happened to you after Ottawa. Are you on Facebook yet? I have this cousin, he’s fifteen, he says it’s really cool. I was thinking of checking it out.”
“Nah,” said Sara. “Not my thing. But we can definitely hang out.” What else could she say? People wanted to hear about how good you were doing when they caught up with you. They didn’t want to hear about shitty apartments and shitty jobs and part-time pot dealing. They didn’t want to hear about the string of exes or the cavities in your mouth or the debt you owed. They didn’t want to hear that your most recent vacation was to a dive bar with a bathroom door that locked. They didn’t want to hear anything that might suggest that you’re anything other than somebody whose life turned out exactly as predicted, because saying anything else might frighten them into believing their own predictions were just as fragile.
Sara said none of this, of course. It was important to keep up appearances.
Sara would later admit to being a little disappointed when she walked into the temple. It wasn’t half of what she had expected; she had conjured an image of golden pillars and conical roofs and smiling monks. The building looked like an abandoned school, and the people filing in dressed like they did at any other funeral. Even the service itself only had minor elements that she took to be of the Buddhist tradition; incense was lit, and a few minutes of meditation were deserved. Some of the speeches, especially those by Rob’s parents, spoke of impermanence, but most told stories with the strange blend of wistfulness, joy, and sorrow reserved for such events.
Rob himself was at the front of the room, seven pounds of ash in a plain pine box.
After the service ended, Rob’s parents waited at the door, thanking each mourner in turn. They handed every guest some kind of pamphlet. Most took one look at it, then put it in their pocket. Sara looked for an exit and couldn’t find one. The line pressed her forward. She didn’t want to talk to these people; she had no place here. She had spent the service watching everything with detachment; a person catching a glimpse into a life she had thought lost. Speaking to Rob’s parents threatened to bring it all back – threatened to remind her of TOMORROW. But when she passed, there was no glimmer of recognition in their eyes. She shuffled by after muttering her sympathies, taking the pamphlet without even looking.
Across the parking lot and on to the bus stop. After that, finding a place to crash. She didn’t know if her parents would let her in. She couldn’t remember when they had last spoken. But there had to be a place, if only for a night.
Shit. “Madison! I didn’t see you at the service! I thought maybe it had been too much, maybe you didn’t decide to come.”
“You could have texted me.”
“I didn’t want to bug you on a day like today.” This was a lame excuse, one that sounded worse even as she said it. But Madison wasn’t paying attention. She was looking at Sara. It was a look Sara recognized. A look that proved that she hadn’t managed to hide what she’d become.
“-Come with me for coffee, okay? If you want to go after that, then go. I won’t stop you. But don’t push me away forever just to save forty-five minutes.”
With few other options, Sara acquiesced.
“So what are you up to?” asked Madison, lifting the cup to her mouth. A cloud of steam curled up and under her nose.
Sara had braced herself for this question, yet still found herself without an answer. “I guess you could say I’m between jobs.”
“Was school good? How did Ottawa work out?”
Silence stretched between them. It had started off fine. The coffeeshop was cozy and quiet and they sat on plush cushions coloured like stained orange peels. They had spoken of Madison and her fiancé and the work they each did and the vacation to Greece they were planning in the new year. The conversation was easy and pleasant. It was only once they had turned to her that that changed.
“Look,” said Madison. “You can be honest with me. I’ve spoken to your mom and dad. They haven’t heard from you in forever. You don’t have to tell me what it is exactly–please know I’d never judge–but I don’t want you to just disappear. We were important to each other, once.”
“I’ve been busy, I guess.”
“Is this about the Machine?”
The question was so bold that it took Sara a second to parse it. That second was enough.
“I think it fucked up Rob, too. We spoke about it sometimes. You know we tried to work things out? It was the winter after you moved away. It didn’t work. Some people are just better as friends, I think. Less pressure to be anyone but yourself, you know?”
Sara didn’t know if she was supposed to respond to this question, but Madison pressed on before she could decide: “You asked me about whether Rob believed in Buddhism. We talked about it a little over the years. He told me he never really believed in the spiritual side, like in the concept of the Dharma or anything, but that the mental stuff, the guidance on how to live–it really helped him.”
Madison shrugged. “I don’t really know. I was never as into it, but he said that it allowed him to ‘live in the moment,’ rather than always thinking about how a guy who never went in the water would be killed by a shark.”
“But he still never went back in the water.”
“No, he didn’t. But I think it gave him more peace on land.”
Sara thought about this for a second, but then the thought drifted away. Their conversation turned to other things, but nothing important. They agreed that they needed to see one another again and that they should stay in touch, even though neither of them really believed it would happen.
Then Madison left, and Sara was alone. She shifted in her seat and tried to pull the last embers of warmth from her tea. The sound of paper crinkling. She leaned to the side so she could pull it from her back pocket.
The image of a lotus was printed across the front. She opened it and inside were a few steps on how to breathe, something Sara was fairly confident she already knew how to do. As she read on, she learned that breathing was necessary to allow oneself to achieve mindfulness, which in turn would allow one to appreciate the present moment without fear of the future and the suffering it might bring.
“You’ve already tried everything else,” whispered Sara to nobody.
She started by breathing in.
Tomorrow came. It always does. But it didn’t come as soon as she expected.