I wrote this story for Machine of Death, Volume II, a collection of short stories about, basically, a machine that can predict how (but not when) you’re going to die. Unfortunately, they had almost 2000 submissions for 30 possible slots, and this one didn’t get in. I’ve read some the other rejected submissions people have posted and it seems I’m in good company, so I can’t wait to see the stories that actually made the cut.
“Alright,” the group leader said, “Now, to get to know each other a little better, let’s play some icebreakers.”
I groaned inwardly, and several of the other counselors groaned outwardly. I don’t know why we had to play the same stupid games as the campers. For that matter, I’m not sure why we even made the campers play them at all. It’s beyond me exactly how going around the room pairing our names with an adjective (He’s Tim, and he’s Tall. She’s Betty, and she’s Beautiful. That’s Sam, and he’s Smart. I’m Henry and I Hate this game) is supposed to help people connect to each other besides uniting under the belief that the counselors are idiots.
Of course, I had more of a reason to hate these kinds of games. Without fail, they always ended up with the death card guessing game. Ghoulish enough in its own right, of course, but even worse for me because it meant that another group of people was about to find out what my card said, and I was going to have to go through the same embarrassment all over again.
Most of the cards were fairly predictable. A handful of car accidents, a cancer, even an old age. I had a feeling that the poor guy whose card said “Heroin Overdose” (Mike, who claimed to be Musical) wouldn’t be here long. There were only three of us (me, Terrific Tina and poor little Xenophobic Xavier) left by the time my card was drawn. The group leader stared at it for a few seconds, as if he couldn’t believe it was real. Finally, he wordlessly turned the card around.
“Seriously?” a woman asked (Susan, who is Single. That one was a little desperate, if you ask me, but what can you expect from someone doomed to die of STARVATION?).
“Dying of shame?” another giggled (Francine, who is not as Funny as she thinks, and will die of a HEART ATTACK, probably caused when someone finally gets sick of her and pulls a gun on her).
I began to experience the familiar feeling that, apparently, would eventually kill me. My eyes sank and my face turned red.
“Is it yours, Henry?” Rob (who is Rambunctious, and will die in a CAR ACCIDENT) guessed.
I nodded slowly.
It’s amazing how big of an impact these little cards can have on your life, even besides the fact that they tell you how you’re going to die. Five years ago, when the machines had first come out, I was running for Senator, and doing well. All the polls predicted I was going to win by a landslide. Then my opponent, Jack Yarborough, made a huge public spectacle about getting his prediction, which turned out to be OLD AGE. I had to do it too, of course, and publicly. The machines were still new enough that people hadn’t realized quite yet that almost nobody got old age, and so I had just assumed that’d be my result too.
Every major news outlet in the area was there, waiting for the card to print. I stuck my finger in the hole and felt the prick that would change my life. Smiling, I waved the bloody finger at the camera as if to prove it really was my prediction I was about to receive. Three seconds later, a small click announced the fact that the card had printed. Wiping my finger on my handkerchief, I reached for the card. Despite my calm exterior, I was terrified. Everyone claims to want to know, but when it comes down to the moment you first look at your card, you realize you don’t. Once you know how you’re going to die, you can never go back. But by that point it’s too late. And as soon as I looked at the card, I knew it was too late for me, too. I knew that I would never be senator. Smiling, I turned it around and showed the cameras the five big block letters on the other side of the card: SHAME.
Jack, or should I say “Senator Yarborough,” won by a 90% margin that November. The worst part was, later on I found out he had gotten his prediction privately beforehand to make sure it was a “good” one. I always knew that guy was a bastard.
Everyone had seen my prediction, or at least heard about it at some point during the next thousand times it was mentioned on the news or in Jack’s smear campaigns. Having to walk down the street with people recognizing you as the wannabe senator who would die of shame was terrible. It was even, if I may say it, shameful. I looked online to try to find out if anyone else had ever gotten the same prediction. From what I could gather, I was unique. Though I suppose if anyone else had gotten it, they would have tried to keep it pretty quiet. I know I did after I moved across the country to a place nobody had ever heard of me except for, maybe, a couple of people who’d seen the YouTube video of my death card.
Unfortunately, the machine has proven time and time again that you can’t escape from your death, and in my experience you can’t escape from the stigma of your death, either. Most companies these days require you to submit to a test before employment. After the stink with the military refusing to accept people with a prediction of “gunshot,” the Supreme Court ruled that it wasn’t illegal to discriminate against people based on their cause of death if it’s likely that the death could be caused by the job or have a significant effect on the employer. Few precincts would accept police officers with a prediction of MURDER, X-ray technicians weren’t allowed to die of CANCER, fire departments obviously wouldn’t take you if you were fated to die of FIRE, and good luck getting any sort of manufacturing or construction job if your card read INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT.
As it turns out, SHAME is vague enough that pretty much any employer could use it as an excuse. And most of them did. In the five years since I’d gotten my prediction, I’d been turned down or let go from more jobs than most people even apply for in their entire lives. Few people want to be associated with someone who is going to do something so terrible in the future that they will die of the shame associated with it. I would certainly never be able to get any kind of high-profile job. The risks would just be too great. I had a hard time understanding, though, how the fact I was going to die of shame meant that I couldn’t wash dishes at a local diner. Did they really expect that I’d die of shame from sending out a plate that I hadn’t cleaned well enough?
My wife had left me not long after I got my prediction (though she claimed that had nothing to do with it), and dating was difficult too, of course. These days, “what’s on your card?” had all but replaced “what’s your sign?” SHAME wasn’t nearly as exciting as a CAR CRASH, SKYDIVING ACCIDENT or even TETANUS, and like everyone else most women I met were afraid that if they associated with me my lethal shame would relate to them somehow.
By this point, I didn’t even know how I was supposed to die from shame. The shame that came as a result of having that prediction had gotten me pretty used to being constantly embarrassed.
I’d applied to be a camp counselor because I’d heard they don’t check your prediction. Officially, that was true, but apparently it was still impossible to avoid everyone finding out what it was. On the way out of the room, the camp director stopped poor Mike and started talking to him with a very apologetic look on his face. I was afraid he’d stop to “have a chat” with me too, so I waited until he was done.
“Hello, Henry,” he said after he was done, “Need something?”
“No sir,” I said. I left the room with a huge, goofy smile on my face.
The following few weeks were the most enjoyable time I’d had in my life for quite some time. Even though we inevitably played that damned icebreaker, the kids were young enough not to care. Most of them didn’t even know what “shame” really was. When I explained to them that it meant being embarrassed, they just laughed and didn’t understand how that could kill someone.
In short, things seemed to be going pretty well for me for once, until one day the camp director called me into his office.
“Take a seat,” he said, visibly uncomfortable. I’d never seen him like this before.
“What is it, sir?” I asked, sitting.
“Well,” he began, “Yesterday I got a troubling call from a parent of one of our campers.”
My heart immediately sank. I could tell by the tone of his voice that this wasn’t going to be good news, and I had a pretty good idea what the problem was.
“It seems that in one of the letters a camper wrote back home, they told their parent about the prediction guessing game, and apparently mentioned your prediction.”
Of course. My eyes began to lower as the familiar feeling took over.
“When they called, the parents brought up a…uh, good point,” he said. “You’re going to die of shame. Shame isn’t normally that big a deal. Lots of people feel ashamed all the time, so it would have to be something pretty terrible for someone to die of it…” he trailed off.
By this point, I wasn’t feeling shame, only anger. This was the worst rejection I’d had yet. “Are you accusing me of molesting campers?”
“No! No! Of course not!” he said, putting on his best “how-could-you-think-that” face. “It’s just that, well, these parents are a little concerned. I of course didn’t think that myself, but parents, you know how parents can be,” he chuckled. “If this gets out, they might not want to send their kids here.”
“What if I refuse to quit?”
“I would hope you’d be more reasonable than that,” he said, furrowing his brow. “But if not, we’ve been going over the budget the past few days. Camp enrollment for this year is quite a bit below what it was last year. It turns out we won’t need as many counselors this year, and so…” he shrugged.
It was a lie, and he knew I knew it was a lie. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do about it.
He sighed. “I’m sorry, Henry, I really am, but there’s nothing I can do. Like I said, enrollment’s down as it is, if people start worrying about our counselors, too…” he shrugged helplessly. “I suggest you start packing. The van will take you back to town in a few days.” He started walking towards the door.
“Sir?” I said, “Can I ask you a question?”
He stopped, and turned his head to face me. “What?”
“What does your card say?”
He paused, thinking, then his face hardened. “That’s none of your business,” he said, turning back around and heading out the door.
On my way back, I realized he was wrong, and that I and everyone I know had been wrong this whole time. There wasn’t going to be one event so shameful that I couldn’t survive it. It was the small, constant indignities that piled up. The burden of having to deal with my prediction was going to wear me down and eventually kill me.
I was so lost in thought that I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. Looking down, I realized I had just stepped in a pile of dog crap. And everyone else in the bunkhouse was going to smell it while I packed to go home. How embarrassing.
We were on our way to see someone Todd called the Eyeball Kid. I don’t know how he found these people. While most of us were cowering in fear at the nightmare we’d seen the world become, Todd seemed to thrive on it. It’s like Freak had only confirmed what he already knew about the world, and now he’d thrown himself full-heartedly into the weirdness.
We pulled up to an apartment complex. A pretty shitty one, too. Todd led me to room 27 and knocked on the door, which opened immediately, still on the chain.
“Who is it?” a voice called out.
“It’s me, Todd,” he said, smiling.
The door shut, then reopened, revealing a haggard-looking young woman, early twenties at most. Her sunken, tired eyes told me that she, too, was a Freak user. She glanced at me suspiciously.
“It’s alright,” Todd said. He pulled a bottle of pills out of his pocket and handed them to her.
“He’s in the den,” she said, wearily, stepping back into the shadows to let us pass.
“What was that?” I hissed at Todd. “Did you just give her Freak?”
“No,” he said, “There’s no way she’ll ever take Freak again after what happened to her kid. They’re sleeping pills. She has a hard time sleeping, understandably.”
“What happened to her…” I began, then stopped, gasping. We’d entered the den. Sitting at the table was a young boy, about 6 years old. What shocked me was his eyes. They were too big for his face, bulging out so far his eyelids couldn’t even completely shut around them when he blinked.
“Hey Teddy,” Todd said, pulling a piece of paper and a box of crayons from his pocket. “It’s me, Todd. You remember me, right? Want to draw a picture for me?”
The kid nodded, grasping blindly in the air in front of him until Todd put the crayons and paper into his hands.
“Don’t worry,” Todd said, stepping back and standing next to me, “They’re fake eyes.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“His mom used Freak when she was pregnant. He was born without eyes. Just empty sockets.”
“And you wouldn’t believe how expensive kid-sized glass eyes are,” Todd said, shaking his head, “You have to get ’em custom made.”
“Why are we here, Todd?” I asked.
“Turns out Freak’s got some literary sensibilities,” he grinned bitterly. “It took the kid’s eyes, but he can see the future. And if you bring him a piece of paper and some crayons he’ll draw it for you.”
“Todd,” I said, “If he was born without eyes, how does he know what a nod means?”
“I try not to think about it,” he said.
By now, the kid had finished drawing. He waved the paper in the air to get our attention. Todd stepped forward to take it.
“Thanks, Teddy,” he said. “You can keep the crayons.”
The kid smiled at him, showing a full mouth of very sharp teeth.
Todd stepped back and glanced at the picture. I craned my neck to see, but he held it away from me.
“Come on,” he said, “What if I’m having sex in it or something?”
It would have had to have been some really messed up sex, though, because as he looked over the picture, all the color drained from Todd’s face. Wordlessly, he passed it to me, and I could immediately see why.
In Sunnyville, every day was exactly the same. Every family would wake up at 7:00 AM sharp. The parents prepared breakfast, took the kids to school, and headed to work. At 12:00 PM came lunch break. Everyone in the town stopped what they were doing to open their brown paper bags to remove their perfectly cut pastrami sandwich. At 3:00 PM the children got home from school, and at 5:00 PM the parents came home from work, in time for dinner at 6:00 PM, after which the children went right upstairs to do their homework. At 9:15 PM the children would be tucked into bed. The mother or father would read a simple story out of the book on the nightstand, each story taking exactly 15 minutes, so the lights could be off by 9:30 PM. Afterwards, the parents rejoined each other on the couch in the den to watch a sitcom before the 10 o’clock news came on. The news anchors would report that everything was perfect, that everything was going along exactly as it should, just as it had yesterday, the day before that, the day before that, and so on and so on as long as anyone could remember.
There was very little excitement in anyone’s life, but they were secure, and they were happy. Or at least content, which is, when it comes down to it, good enough.
One day, by chance, the Trickster happened to come to Sunnyville. He stood on the hill overlooking the city and watched the industrious citizens go about their daily lives. He sat on the hill for days, watching, waiting for something to change, but of course, nothing ever did.
“This is disgusting,” he said to himself, “I can’t bear to look at a land so orderly and controlled. I’ve got to do something.”
The Trickster sat and thought to himself, trying to figure out the best way to disrupt Sunnyville. He brooded and he pondered, he dreamed and he imagined, he schemed and he planned. Finally, he realized that sewing chaos here would be simple indeed, so simple that he laughed at himself for not realizing it earlier.
Early the next morning, the Trickster awoke at 7:00 AM, just like all the other inhabitants of the town. Unlike them, though, he did not fetch the morning paper, pour himself a cup of coffee, feed the dog or scramble eggs. Instead, he walked straight to the central square of the city and stood right in the middle of the intersection.
Soon, the cars began to pour out of the driveways of Sunnyville, and for the first time in their lives, the people experienced a traffic jam.
It wasn’t like any traffic jam you or I have ever seen, however. The pleasant people of Sunnyville had never in their lives been held up like this before. Rather than getting angry or frustrated, like those of us who don’t live in perfect worlds, they were simply confused.
The Trickster stood staring at the central clock for exactly ten minutes. And then, he simply stepped off the street and left Sunnyville forever.
The people, still confused, tried to salvage the rest of the day as much as they could. While nothing went seriously wrong, they felt as though their whole day was thrown off.
The next morning, though, they felt much better. Most of them woke up at 7:00 AM sharp, exactly like every other day.
But some of them woke up at 6:59. And some of them woke up at 7:01.
“Got any spare change?” asked the Bum as the Truck Driver pushed passed him into the bar.
“The usual?” asked the Bartender as he entered.
“What else?” grunted the Truck Driver, sliding onto the stool. “I don’t know why you work in this dump,” he said, shaking his head.
“We all have to pay the rent somehow,” shrugged the Bartender, mixing up the drink.
“Tell me about it,” sighed the Truck Driver, “But you could do so much more! You’re the Wise Old Man for God’s sake! Couldn’t you have been a professor or a therapist or something?”
“I was self-taught,” sighed the Bartender, “No degree, no fancy title. But hey, you’re not exactly the Playboy Millionaire either!”
“Maybe not,” admitted the Truck Driver, “The Fool got there first, somehow.”
“I heard it was the Trickster,” said the Bartender. “He decided to become a Con Man, then he and the Fool worked together, did some embezzling and fraud, made millions. Of course, then he got arrested and the Fool got to keep all the money. Been living it up ever since, doesn’t give two shits about anything.”
“Hell, man,” laughed the Truck Driver, “why couldn’t that have been us? Ah well, at least I’m still doing what I was meant to. Driving a truck is sort of like being a Wanderer. I get to travel a lot, anyway.”
“Things sure have changed,” sighed the Bartender. “Have you seen the Mother and the Child recently? Now that’s sad.”
The Truck Driver nodded. Back when humanity was young, the Child was all sweetness and light, instead of the snotty little shit he was today. One could almost forgive the Mother for turning from the strong, supportive parent she once was to the henpecking, controlling woman she had become.
“What we need is a Hero to come along and set things right,” the Truck Driver sighed.
The Bartender smiled wistfully. “Every day I wish it more and more. It’s such a shame he was killed back in World War II.”
(I originally wrote this story in German. I took some liberties with the translation [which you have to do with German anyway], but if any of the phrasing is awkward we’ll blame it on that.)
The children called him the eyeless man. Because he was blind, he always wore big dark sunglasses and nobody had ever seen him without them. Actually, that’s not true. No adults had ever seen him without them. Every kid knew a friend of a friend who had seen under the sunglasses. The story was always the same; he had no eyes.
The children also had other stories about the eyeless man. They said he could see the future. It only makes sense that when someone can’t see normally, they must see other things instead. This is the logic of children and it’s usually right.
But this time it wasn’t right. It was true that the eyeless man had no eyes. It was true that he could see strange things. But he couldn’t see the future. He could only see what was coming in over the television waves. And that’s not nearly as interesting.
How are things at the North Pole? Based on what General Patterson’s been teaching us, I’d imagine that there wouldn’t be many “strategic targets” up there (unless your workshop is one? I would think it’d be pretty important) so I hope you’re doing well. Things down here aren’t that great. A couple of people got dragged away by some crazy cult. We can hear ’em shouting and singing their crazy mutant songs all night. It’s really scary.
Is it snowing up there? It’s snowing down here, too. Since I’ve lived in Florida all my life I’ve never seen snow but it snowed this year. Mom wouldn’t let me go play in it though. She said that the snow was actually something called fallout and I should stay inside. But I saw Billy and Bobby outside having a snowball fight and they were just fine! Mom can be so mean sometimes.
I don’t really want that much for Christmas. It’d be nice if everyone could be happy for once. I’ve heard Mom and Dad fighting and yelling about lots of stuff. A couple of people are saying that the water purifier’s close to breaking down and pretty soon we’ll all be drinking something called rads. I don’t know what rads is but it sounds pretty bad and all the grown-ups are kind of upset about it.
But I know that world peace and happiness and stuff like that isn’t really what you do, you’re more for the real presents. Well, I guess I’d like a BB Gun for Christmas. That way I could help all the grown-ups protect the shelter. A BB Gun’s not very powerful but I think it would help keep the giant rats away at least. They’re pretty scared of stuff, even though they’re really scary too.
Anyway Santa, I know there’s lots of other girls and boys writing letters to you so I’d better finish this up (also I’m running out of paper and I had to steal this sheet from the commissary. Can you believe they wouldn’t give me even one piece of paper? I hope that’s OK, I know stealing’s wrong, but otherwise there would have been no way! Please forgive me, Santa). Hope Mrs. Claus and the Elves are well. We don’t have any cookies but I’ll try and leave some canned pears out. They’re the closest thing we have.