20 January 2012 in 20 Minute Stories

* Although this story will be placed in the 20 Minute Stories category, in the interest of full disclosure it DID take me a little longer than 20 minutes to write.

Additionally, the inspiration for this story came from the Machine Of Death collection of short stories.  Go HERE to read the back story first or none of this will make sense, then continue on to the jumbled mess of verbs, adverbs, adjectives and nouns I’ve assembled below.  Enjoy!

Chuck had always maintained that the idea was ridiculous.  “You’re not supposed to know how you die.  No creature on Earth should be burdened with that knowledge.  Do you think a gazelle would want to go on living knowing that it’s going to be eaten by a lion?”

“Of course it knows it’s going to be eaten by a lion.  Gazelles spend their whole lives eating, crapping, and running away from lions. You do have a point, you just need to make it.”

Trixie, his wife and high school sweetheart, always had a way of making him feel both smart and stupid at the same time.  She had the test done five years ago when the machines first started popping up in doctor’s offices.  Her card said TOAST.  It didn’t phase her at all though.  People who got bizarre cards usually had these life-altering moments.  Epiphanies, he supposed, where they decide they’re going to turn their lives around in some effort to cheat death.  Ten years and millions of cards with millions of accurately predicted deaths around the world proved that not only was the machine abundantly right, but also that it was abundantly weird.  Far too vague and ironic with its predictions for Chucks unsettled mind.

“You’ve been stressing about these damned machines for years.  Complaining, protesting … how many more sleepless nights do you need to go through?  How much more money do you need to waste on therapy?”

Again, she was entirely right.  For years, Chuck had been as obsessed with the Machines of Death, as he liked to call them, as his mother was with collecting ceramic Virgin Marys.  And anyone who had seen what Chuck’s mother had done with his room after he moved out would realize just how bad things had gotten for him.

That night was no different than most others.  Trixie fell asleep watching repeats of “Golden Girls” while Chuck stared at the stucco on the ceiling.  He found that by studying the subtle differences in the little stucco bits, he could start to lose himself in the seemingly infinite combination of shapes rather than wonder if the reason Betty White was still alive was because she was the only one who didn’t get the test.

As the TV shut itself off, Chuck’s attention turned to the clock.  There would be no sleep tonight, just counting the minutes as they ticked past.  Every change of the time was a new possible prediction of his demise.

“What if it says CANCER, and I have nothing worthwhile to be stressing about?”

“What if it says COCAINE OVERDOSE?  I’ve never done it before and don’t have any intention of doing it?”

“What if it says WATER BALLOON FIGHT?  How the crap am I supposed to figure that one out?  I’ll go crazy with that one.  More so.”

Four hundred and seventy five scenarios later, Chuck hauled himself out of bed.  Even if he did manage to find sleep, his hyper active obsessive compulsive brain dragged him out of bed at five minutes to six every single day.

“I would die EVERY MORNING if that stupid card said COFFEE.”

The wittiest remark he would make all day was followed by the sound of crickets chirping.  Which reminded him that he needed to feed the iguana later on.

He glanced at the now-empty pot of coffee, then up at the clock – 7:05 am.  He was getting worse.  It used to be that he at least felt awake by seven o’clock; lately he was just debating a second pot of coffee by seven.  If the stress of worrying about the Machine wasn’t going to kill him, it would surely be a caffeine overdose that did him in.  He was pretty sure that he consumed so much of it every day that he probably smelled like a Tim Horton’s most of the time.

That was it.  He called into his boss’s office phone and turned on his best sick voice.  It wasn’t too difficult for him considering he hadn’t slept more than two hours in the last 72.

Chuck chose the Wal-Mart on the far side of town.  When they’d enacted the bill to privatize health care, the machines started popping up everywhere.  Wal-Mart had the best price (of course), being nearly five dollars cheaper than anywhere else, but you had the line-ups to deal with.  Most important was the “other side of town” part.  Chuck, being the type to dwell on the worst of outcomes, was hoping that if he ended up making a scene, that at least nobody would recognize him.

The line-up was more torture than Chuck was expecting.  The woman in front of him smelled like she had spent the last week sitting on an open package of bacon in a poorly ventilated house while smoking the second least expensive cigarettes on the market.  She kept exclaiming to everyone and nobody in particular that she’d been here four effing times and even though she’d cut back to ten smokes a day the effing thing kept telling her LUNG CANCER.

Sixteen minutes and four horribly irritating people later, it was Chuck’s turn.  He could feel the stares of the people in line behind him while he himself stared at the machine in disbelief.  There was no turning back now, although he was REALLY regretting not calling his therapist before coming here.  It wasn’t until he dropped his credit card on the floor that he realized his hands were shaking terribly.  University acceptance letters and his first job interview didn’t hold a candle to how he felt now.  Sweating, sleepless, unshaven and disheveled … the thought of how he’d probably end up on the People of Wal-Mart web site distracted his anxiety long enough for him to swipe his credit card and stick his hand in the receptacle of the machine.

Chuck didn’t even notice the pin prick had happened, or that the blood test was in progress until the tell-tale “DING” went off and his card popped out of the slot.  In recent years, the machines had been designed to spit the card out upside down to give you the last-minute opportunity to put your tail between your legs and run away without seeing it.

One last deep breath and a moment of calm warmed over Chuck.  It was as if the sun had come up on a warm summer day and he had just awoken to the sweet smell of cinnamon buns baking.  He grabbed the card, flipped it over and glanced at what was printed on it.

The baking cinnamon buns were gone.  The clouds rolled in.

Chuck’s smile disappeared as quickly as it came; his face went as grey as the sky was that morning.  He simply dropped the card to the ground and stiffly walked away.

Elvis, or so he preferred to be called, was next in line.  At six foot eight and well over three hundred pounds, he always figured he could end up in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Largest Elvis Impersonator if he had a little more time to work on his singing voice.

He picked up Chuck’s card off of the floor and walked off with it thinking to himself, “What a dummy. Now I get his card and I don’t even have to pay!”

He flipped it over and read it.  WATER BALLOON FIGHT.  Man, he couldn’t wait for the guys at Dominic’s Forklift and Spoons Warehouse to hear about this.

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20 January 2012 20 Minute Stories