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.
Sal Barker rode into town looking for the notorious outlaw Joshua Burke. Stepping into Blind Willie’s saloon he was amazed. Most days, there were only a handful of windswept and dirty men sitting at the bar, but today the room was packed with respectable-looking people, and there were even some women in the crowd.
“What’s goin’ on here?” Sal asked.
“Blind Willie’s bought a crazy new invention,” someone in the crowd told him. “Just got it in from San Francisco last week.”
“New invention?” Sal sneered, “All these people in here for some kinda slot machine?”
“It ain’t no slot machine,” Blind Willie said, hobbling towards Sal and waving his cane in the air, “It tells ya how you’ll die.”
“That so?” Sal asked, “How you gonna die then, Blind Willie?”
“Cordin’ to this machine, a ‘STAMPEDE,'” Willie said, holding out a small piece of tape with the word printed on it.
“Hell of a way to go,” Sal said, patting Willie in the back in mock sympathy, “Had a cousin got caught in a stampede, nothin’ left of him at the end but a stain on the ground. Anyone in here seen that bastard Josh Burke?”
“He was just here,” Willie said, “Even tried out the machine hisself. You oughta give it a try too, Sal.”
The crowd murmured in agreement. Sal was almost a legend around these parts, and not necessarily in a good way. Quite a few people in the room wanted to know how he’d die for reasons besides idle curiosity.
“Sounds like fun,” Sal said, “But right now I gotta find Burke. He say where he was headed?”
“What’sa matter?” a voice from the back of the room shouted, “You yeller?”
The room got quiet. Sal slowly turned around, searching for the man who’d dared insult him. The crowd parted to reveal an obviously drunk man sitting on a bar stool. The drunk’s red face turned white as he realized he’d just done something very stupid.
“Nobody calls me yeller,” Sal said, stepping forward.
“Give ‘im a break, Sal,” someone in the crowd murmured, “He’s from out of state, he don’t know you.”
But Sal’s target wasn’t the man at all. He stepped past the drunk up to the machine that had attracted so much attention. It was an ugly thing, made of metal, with gears sticking out every which way and a single lever, like a slot machine.
“How’s it work?” he asked, staring at it suspiciously.
“Put a coin in the slot, then put your finger in the hole and pull the lever,” Blind Willie said, stepping up behind him and pointing to each part with his cane. “Machine takes a bit of blood, then spits out a piece of paper that tells you how you’re going to die.”
“How’s it know?” Sal asked.
Willie just shrugged. “Alls I know is, it works. The man who invented it got ‘BROKEN NECK’ and what do you know, next month he falls off a cliff.”
“I hear he jumped,” someone said. “Couldn’t bear to face what he brought into the world. Thought it was possessed by the devil or some such nonsense.”
Sal dropped a coin in the slot and stuck his finger in the small hole. As he pulled the lever with his other hand, he felt a small jab from the needle and the gears began to turn. The whole saloon stood in silence as the machine clanked and sputtered for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, it ground to a noisy halt and a small piece of paper slid out of a slot in the front.
Sal tore off the slip and stared at it wordlessly.
It read “OLD AGE.”
A few months after Sal got his prediction, Sheriff Williams visited him to offer him a job.
“I’ll tell ya the same thing I told ya years ago,” Sal said, “Go piss up a pole.”
“Now look,” Williams said, “Things are different now than they were back then. A gunslinger like you can’t die of old age, you know better’n I do that folks’ve been treatin’ you different ever since you got that prediction.”
Sal sighed. “I’ve never run away from a fight in my life, but when people think you’re gonna die of old age, they assume that it means you’re a coward. Even if ya stand and fight, you’re still a coward. You know you’re not gonna die, so even when you’re facing’ a loaded gun, you’re not taking any risk. It’s like killin’ a man with his back turned to you.”
“I know you ain’t a coward,” the sheriff said, “And that’s why I’m here. There ain’t many men as good with a gun as you are, even less who are guaranteed to walk away from a fight alive.”
“That machine don’t mean anything,” Sal said. “It’s just a toy made by some mad scientist out in California.”
“That ain’t true, Sal, and you know it,” the sheriff said, shaking his head. “You’ve seen the newspapers. Everyone who’s died after usin’ it, it’s been right. Times are changin’. First the railroads, now the death machine. The days of the wild and free gunslinger are comin’ to an end. Sure, everyone knew that kind of life was dangerous, but having to stare at that strip of paper telling you you’re going to get shot and die? Takes a real strong man to keep doin’ it, and ain’t many up to it. Lots of folks are settling down to honest jobs.”
Sal sighed. Williams was right, of course. There wasn’t a lot of work for him even before he stuck his finger in that damned machine, and his fame was all but gone now that everyone thought he was a sham.
“It’s either this or wrangling cattle ’til that prediction comes true,” Williams said, getting up to leave.
“What the hell,” Sal said, “I’ll do it. At least this way I still get to shoot people.” He sighed. “Tell me one thing though, sheriff, what’s yours say?”
Williams smiled.”I never got a prediction myself,” he said, “Guess I’m just too scared to find out.”
“Joshua Burke,” Sal shouted at the outlaw, “You are hereby under arrest for two counts of bank robbery, three counts of horse theft and six counts of murder. Drop your weapons or we’ll shoot!”
“Come and get me, geezer!” Burke cackled. Sal winced. Apparently Burke had heard what his prediction was, too. The outlaw opened fire on the lawmen.
Sal dove into an alley and Williams dropped behind a pile of barrels as Burke’s shots rang out around them.
“Alright,” the sheriff said, “On the count of three.”
Sal shook his head. “You don’t know if he’ll kill you, sheriff. I know I’ll be OK, let me handle this.”
Williams looked at him gravely, and nodded.
Sal jumped out from the alleyway and fired in Burke’s direction. At the same moment, the outlaw finished reloading and started shooting in his direction again. Sal felt a fiery, stinging pain in his leg that knocked him to the ground. Gritting his teeth, he peered through the smoke, noticing Burke had stopped firing too. Gripping his bleeding leg, Sal stood up and limped over to where Burke had been standing.
The outlaw was sitting in a pile of his own blood, a glazed look on his eyes. As Sal reached him, he looked up and grinned wryly.
“Didn’t think you had it in you, old man,” he said, coughing blood. He reached into his coat and took out a scrap of paper. He passed it to Sal, closed his eyes, and was still.
The paper read “GUNSHOT.”
“You did it!” Sheriff Williams said, coming up behind Sal and slapping him on the back. “After all this time, you finally put him down like the dog he is.”
Sal nodded slowly, stuffing the paper into his pocket. The sheriff didn’t notice, as he’d just looked down and seen Sal’s wounded leg.
“That don’t look too good,” he said, “We better get you to a doctor.”
A few minutes later, Sal was sitting up on the doctor’s table, staring at the bullet that the doctor had just pulled from his leg.
“You were lucky,” the doctor said as he bandaged the wound, “The bullet came real close to hitting a major artery. You would’ve bled to death. As it is, you might end up with a limp, but you’ll live.”
But Sal already knew that.
Victoria Falls being the home of so many ghost stories, it stands to reason that its graveyard is an immensely popular tourist attraction. Strangely enough, its most famous occupant isn’t buried here, but is actually a tree! The so-called “Suicide Tree” stands almost in the exact center of the graveyard, a nearby headstone placed almost perfectly to allow someone to climb on it to tie a rope around the tree to hang themselves with. Local legend states that this is exactly what a young widow did on hearing the news that her husband had been killed in World War I.
It’s said that when you stand under the tree’s branches at night, you can hear the poor widow’s sobbing. However, after five teenagers were found dead, hung from the tree the morning after a full moon, the Victoria Falls Police decided to place an officer near the tree at night to dissuade any other potential suicides or vandalism, and do not allow anyone to approach it. They of course deny that you can hear sobbing under the tree. If you ask almost any of the officers though, most will admit that they’ve been too scared to try it for themselves!
“Yuri!” screamed Zed the Collector, “You son of a devil! I know you stole my brand new Elvis stamp last night!”
Whenever anything in town went missing, everyone blamed Yuri the Unvisible Man, even though as far as anyone could remember, he’d never actually ever been found guilty of stealing anything (in fact, half the time the “stolen” item was actually just lost and the owner usually found it a few days later).
“What a shame,” said Eugene the Thief (who accounted for the other half of the missing objects), shaking his head, “He truly is a menace.”
Yuri, fearing yet another attempted lynching, immediately took off his clothes and ran, bringing Zed’s chase to a halt. Zed spat on the unvisible man’s clothes and cursed.
“A man like that is nothing but trouble,” Zed said, “And not just because he’s a thief — no offense meant to your self, sir.”
Everyone in the village knew that Eugene was a thief, but nobody could ever prove it. And everyone liked him too much to try.
“Not just because he’s a thief,” Zed continued, “But also because I have a daughter. I’m worried what sort of mischief an unvisible man can get up to with the women in town!”
His daughter, Yulia, smiled to herself as she walked home from school with the other girls, because she knew first hand just what sort of mischief Yuri did get up to with the women in town, or at least one woman in particular.
“It’s unholy,” agreed the thief, “A man no one can see has too much to hide.” Secretly, he was just jealous of Yuri’s transparency and thought that he could put it to much better use.
Yulia made her way through the forest to the river bank where she knew Yuri went to sulk whenever he was blamed for a crime. She knew that he was there because of the twin indentations in the ground marking the resting place of the unvisible man’s buttocks.
“What can I do?” Yuri moaned, “I’ll never be accepted, wherever I go! Nobody trusts an unvisible man. Your father will never let us marry!”
“You need to show them that having an unvisible man in the village is a good thing,” Yulia said, “You need to do something good that no visible man could ever do.”
“I’ve got it!” Yuri shouted, snapping his fingers (or so Yulia assumed, he could have been cracking his neck for all she knew). “I’ll finally catch Eugene in the act! That way, I’ll clear my name and also help the village at the same time!”
“That’s wonderful!” Yulia exclaimed, leaning over to try and kiss him, but falling flat on her face because she was three feet too far to the left.
So, for the next few nights, Yuri sat on the roof of his house watching for Eugene. It was difficult work. The nights in this part of the country could be bitterly cold, and of course he had to sit through the whole night entirely naked. Some nights, Yulia would sneak out and bring him warm borscht, which made it slightly more bearable.
It seemed as though Eugene was living easy off the profits he had made from selling Zed’s prized Elvis stamp, because the village was free of any larceny for two weeks (though Yuri was still blamed when the widow Ivanova’s cat batted her favorite necklace under the dresser). The cold, sleepless nights began to wear on Yuri’s resolve, and he feared that he’d missed his chance.
However, a stroke of luck came into his life when a famous merchant came through town. The people in the town were so pleased to see a foreigner, they insisted he stay the night free of charge in Nikolai’s inn. Yuri knew that Eugene wouldn’t be able to resist the call of the merchant’s many riches, and late that night, his suspicions were confirmed as he spied Eugene sneaking towards the inn.
“Stop, thief!” he shouted, leaping off of the roof and landing on Eugene, knocking him unconscious. He shouted “Thief!” until a crowd began to gather.
“What’s the matter?” shouted Ivan the Sheriff, running up to the scene, wearing his uniform over his nightclothes.
“Yuri’s attacked Eugene!” shouted Zed.
“He’s too dangerous,” Ivan said, shaking his head. “Back when he was just a simple thief, we could let him roam free. But a violent unvisible man is too dangerous to have in town. There’s nothing left to do but to throw him in jail.”
So they did.
Angels poured out of the rip in the sky in a never-ending stream. The blinding white light shone down from the hole almost metaphorically, as if it were illuminating the spiritual darkness of the city below. And still the angels poured out of heaven, landing in heaps in the streets of Las Vegas.
And this had to happen on the day I’m assigned to take the new guy around, Officer Jarvis sighed to himself.
The kid stared at the sky, his fresh face glowing in wonder and fear.
“Has this ever happened before?” the rookie asked, gasping.
“New one on me,” Jarvis grunted.
By now people were beginning to notice the tear between heaven and earth. Some screamed, some sunk to their knees and cried, some tried to run away.
“But what does it mean?” the kid asked.
“What does it mean?” Jarvis said, surprised the kid didn’t get it. “It means I’m not going to make it home in time to watch Survivor tonight.”
Dorothy stepped out of the house and looked around in amazement. The twister had dropped her in the strangest land she’d ever seen. Everything was bright and colorful. The houses, the candy apparently growing from the ground, even the road was bright yellow. She noticed a few strange, very short people looking at her and smiled at them in what she hoped was a disarming way.
“You killed her,” one of them whispered.
“You killed her!” he repeated, “You killed the Wicked Witch of the East! The horrible woman who enslaved us and mistreated us! She took all the food we grew, took our children and turned them into hideous misshapen flying monsters, kicked our dogs…but now she’s dead!”
“Oh,” said Dorothy, “Well it was an accident, but I suppose…”
“Murderer!” the man shouted.
“What?” Dorothy said, taken aback.
“Murderer!” he repeated, pointing at her accusingly.
“But I thought you hated the witch, I thought you were glad to see her dead!”
“Don’t get me wrong,” the man explained, “The witch was horrible and we are glad to see her dead. But killing someone is a crime, no matter what a monster that person was.”
“OK,” said Dorothy, “this is ridiculous. I’m just going to take her ruby slippers and get out of here.”
“Oh God,” groaned the man, “Now you’re defiling the dead? Police, help!”
Officer Munchkin was on the scene right away and he took the young murderer to jail where she lived out the rest of her days.
Remember kids, crime doesn’t pay.
blow job, the door of the stall said, flash lights three times. How the hell does that one work? Some whore hangs around this rest stop all day every day waiting for someone to catch her message and flash their lights? Bullshit. If anyone’s hanging around waiting for someone to flash their lights they’re not gonna give you a blow job. That’s for sure.
I step out of the stall door and walk over to the sink and squeeze some god-knows-what chemical mix they call soap out into my hand. I’m struck with dread as no water comes out of the faucet when I turn it on. My worst fear is squeezing soap into my hand and then finding out the water’s been cut off. What the hell are you supposed to do then?
Outside the restroom are a pair of asian men, babbling to each other in some unintelligible language. I always hate being around people who speak a different language. You can never tell when they’re talking about you.
“Jesus Christ,” Stevens mutters as I slip into the passenger seat, “What the hell are they standing around for? Why the hell would anyone stand around at some goddamn rest stop?”
“Flash your lights three times,” I tell him.
“Why?” he asks, but does it anyway.
The asians stop talking and look at us.
“Well shit,” I muse, “It just might work.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he asks suspiciously as he watches the asians get into their car and drive off. “Look at that, they weren’t even waiting for anyone. What the fuck were they doing?”
“What the fuck are we doing?” I ask as a police cruiser exits the highway and drives towards us. “Damn pigs saw us flash the signal. They’re after us now.”
He starts up the car and starts to drive away.
“Act casual,” I warn him.
Detective Marvis lifted the yellow crime scene tape and entered the area, stepping over the prone body of their victim, a Mister Robert Clayton, aged 26 from North Brookhaven. The lead investigator gestured him over.
“We got a couple of suspects detective, but I don’t think they’re going to be charged.” Marvis studied the man for a few seconds before responding. “What do you mean?”
“Well uh… see, looks like Mr. Clayton was eating breakfast you see, and then he starts choking you know? On his cereal?”
Detective Marvis nodded.
“So the guy tries to give himself the Heimlich maneuver and ends up falling out his window. SPLAT. Just like that. Poor guy probably didn’t even see it coming.”
The detective thought to himself for a few moments, but the cop wasn’t finished.
“Here’s the crazy thing though. The medical examiner already came out, took a look at the guy you know? Guess what did him in. The cereal. Clayton was dead before he hit the ground.”
And then a light-bulb went off in Marvis’ head.
“Which floor is his apartment on?” he asked.
“Uh, top floor. Hell of a fall you know?” answered the cop.
“No, not really” said Marvis as he went in the back door.
He quickly scaled the five story staircase and easily located the victim’s apartment, covered as it was with crime scene tape and investigators. The detective stepped in, returning the few gestures of recognition the other investigators gave him. A white box on the kitchen table caught his eye. Then he got close enough to read the lettering on the box. Chuckling to himself, he asked one of the investigators to secure the box in an evidence bag. With it, he returned to the alleyway and the talkative traffic cop.
“Hey detective, what’s that?” he asked.
Marvis just handed him the bag as the cop’s eyes lit up with the spark of recognition.
“LIFE cereal? Wait a sec. You mean to tell me this guy choked to death on LIFE?”
Detective Marvis was laughing too hard to respond.