Okay, so, I briefly reviewed the first Machine of Death anthology a while ago but what I neglected to mention was that submissions for the second volume were open at the time, and that I'd written a piece to enter. Well, I was informed a few days ago that it didn't get in, so I figured I'd throw it up on here for people to have a look at.
Since most of the stories explained the premise in the last volume, and it got pretty repetitive, you were allowed to assume that readers already knew what was going on - so if you haven't read it, either quickly check out the outline or just download the whole darn thing for free.
Don't worry, I'll wait till you're done.
Okay? Okay. Here it is.
I’d had a lot of time to think about it, by the time I turned 18. If I’d been around in the early days of the machine I probably would have tried to beat it - too idealistic to deal with an unsolvable problem, too arrogant to acknowledge my own limitations. But by the time I was born, it had been around for years, and although I spent my early teens convinced that someone had missed something - that there was some flaw in the experiments - I eventually had to accept that they hadn’t. The damn thing was always right.
So on my 18th birthday, instead of bursting into class with that little slip of paper held high, I walked in calmly and sat down near the heater. A couple of people looked at me out of the corner of their eyes, unsure what to say. None of them were close enough friends with me to have been among those frantically texting that morning, but someone who didn’t yell their CoD at the top of their lungs was quite unsettling. Usually it meant a shameful death - and in a time when POLICE SHOOTOUT or MURDER-SUICIDE could be passed off as cool, it took something really shameful for you to not tell anyone. Like CONSTIPATION or CAT, although the latter has gained some street cred since someone holding it was gutted by a cougar.
But I just never got mine. And people talked, obviously. They thought it was illegal - the government sent you notices when you were 17, reminding you to make an appointment, like they do for registering to vote. But no. Just like there’s no law saying you have to own or carry ID, there’s no law that says you have to use the Machine of Death - there’s just the fact that every time you come into contact with the bureaucracy, it’s an enormous hassle. Not too many banks will lend money to someone who could die at any second, for example.
A lot of people tried to convince me to get tested over the next few weeks. They came up with some pretty convincing arguments, too - the level of ambiguity, the possibility of a “good” one, like OLD AGE or NURSING HOME MISHAP. But I just kept repeating to them the same phrase I’d said to myself a few weeks before my birthday. “Once you learn something, you can never unlearn it.”
It was six years later when I met Cassie. We were at a party, had mutual friends - pretty standard fare, really. She told me her name, I told her mine, she said “I know.”
I knocked the cap off my beer and prepared myself for the spiel. The “I think it’s really interesting/courageous/wise of you” speech was the ranking favourite for semi-drunken randoms, but this one looked like she was going to break out the “You’re not wise, you’re just a coward,” which usually didn’t come out until later in the night.
But no. “James is very disappointed. He set up this party assuming at least two people would have a death in common, but no such luck - the only common ground for anyone is a lack of one.”
I took a sip and raised an eyebrow, and she added “I haven’t been tested either.”
We talked that night like we’d known each other all our lives. And to be honest, the machine barely came up. You know how, in an argument, you’re quite often holding your breath, your reply crouching on your tongue, waiting to pounce the second the other person stops talking? This was one of those rare conversations where you wait on bated breath to agree - to build on what they said, to extend their point. Where it feels like if you don’t immediately express just how perfectly fucking right they are, your chest might explode.
In later years I would tell people how I felt, lying alone in bed that night. Because whenever people would say that it must be scary to not know how I was going to die, I would just laugh, and take them back to that moment. Because I knew, right then, that I was already in love with her, and I had no idea if she felt the same way. And I was fucking terrified.
But over the next few months it became clear that she did. And for a while, life was good. Quiet. The tabloids had given up trying to interview us about our decision, and our friends had stopped introducing us as “the ones who refuse to get tested.” But one day Cassie got a phone call from her father that changed everything.
My parents had never really agreed with my decision to not get tested. They felt that even if I didn’t want to know, they deserved to. Cassie’s parents were different, though - her mother had always strongly supported her decision, because she too had no known CoD, and I guess her father had just always supported his wife. But as it turns out, her mother had been tested at 18, had gotten SUICIDE, and had been too ashamed to even admit she’d been tested. And now, 40 years later, the prophecy had been fulfilled.
Cassie was inconsolable for weeks. Those first few days, you couldn’t even get a coherent word out of her. It was just tears and blubbering, punctuated by stretches of silence where she would just stare at the wall. Most people aren’t hit as hard by their loved ones’ deaths these days, there’s just less shock involved, and I had absolutely no idea what to do for her.
I remember sitting there on the couch, holding her in my arms as she sobbed. I told myself that if I could just hold her tight enough, that if I were smart enough, that if we loved each other enough, I would be able to make her feel better. I felt like screaming, I was so angry - at the universe, at the machine, at Cassie’s mum, at myself. At least screaming would have felt like I was acting, instead of being a passenger to her grief.
A week or so later, she pushed away the bowl of soup I’d made her, barely having touched it, and said “I know the stupid fucking thing is always right. But I can’t stop thinking that maybe if we’d known, maybe we could have done something about it. Helped her. Put it off for a few years.”
She wouldn’t look me in the eye. She just stared at the soup, and repeated “I should have done something.”
She slowly dealt with it over the next few months. It came in waves - she’d be fine for a week, then a photo or an ad on TV would set her off again. But mostly we started to get back to our lives, and if I was lucky, on a good day I’d see that smile again.
About a year and a half later she came into the lounge, floating like she was in a daze. She sat down next to me, eyes straight ahead. She sat in silence for a few moments, as I muted the TV. Eventually she turned to face me. She looked terrified.
“Wow. Holy shit.”
In retrospect, that seems like kind of a stupid thing to say, but I just didn’t have the words. On one level I was happy - I’d always wanted kids, and now seemed as good a time as any. But at the same time, I didn’t know how happy Cassie would be, and that look in her eye was more than your standard pregnancy-jitters. As gently as I could, I said “You don’t exactly seem over the moon about it.”
She blinked and arranged her face into a smile. “I am. Just…thinking about the future, I guess.”
The next night in bed, she was staring at the ceiling as I read.
“Come on. Out with it.”
She turned to look at me. “Out with what?”
I smiled at her and waited.
She turned back to the ceiling, silent for a moment. “It’s different now. It was one thing when it was just me - I didn’t want to know, and it was nobody else’s business. And even with you it was okay, because you understood. You’d weighed it up and come to the same conclusion as me. But it’s not just us any more.”
She turned back to me and grabbed my hand. “I can’t just impose that decision on our child. What if it’s something like my mum’s? What if I have that time bomb ticking away inside me, waiting to ruin their life? I don’t want that. I don’t want my mother’s legacy.”
She hesitated for a moment. “I think I want to get tested.”
I waited outside, in the parking lot. A misty rain was falling, but I couldn’t stand sitting in that waiting room, or even sitting in the car. They were both too confining, too stuffy. Like trying to breathe cottonballs.
I was still on edge. Every time the doors opened, I’d jump like someone had popped a balloon in my face, then lean back onto the car, with only the sound of my thoughts and the steady, cyclical whooshing of cars on a wet road.
Finally she came out. “They were backed up, I had to wait a while.”
I stared at her. My stomach was churning and I was sweating underneath my jacket, despite the cold. “Do you know?”
She pulled an envelope from her bag. “No. I haven’t opened it yet. Are you sure you want to know? I could keep it to myself.”
We’d been over this. “I’d get the gist from your reaction. I might as well know for sure.” I forced a twisted smile. “Maybe I can help you put it off, right?”
She smiled sadly back. “Okay.”
She slid her finger under the flap, as I put my right arm around her. Hands trembling slightly, she pulled out the little slip of paper and we looked at it together.
She looked up at me, a few tears in her eyes but a nervous laugh escaping from her mouth. “Diabetes.”
I kissed her and we smiled at each other for a few moments, before she looked down at her belly, the bump barely noticeable beneath her clothes.
“Diabetes, but not any time soon.”