Author’s Note: I’ve loved the Machine of Death series of short stories since they first came out. This is my first short story involving the Machine of Death. There are two collections of M.O.D. stories available and they’re fantastic. I urge you to check them out.
Nick turned 14 the day the Machine of Death or M.O.D. was first announced to the world. Legislatures everywhere quickly enacted new laws to limit M.O.D. usage to adults, the 18 and over crowd. In the four years since the M.O.D. entered the world and Nick turned 18 it had gone truly mass-market. From doctors offices to corner drugstores to malls the machines were everywhere.
Those long four years also revealed a bevy of tales of queer deaths with each one attributed back to a cryptic message from the M.O.D. The girl that got
MILK and spent time avoiding any milk-based products only to end up crushed by a milk truck in a highway accident. The cousin of a friend of a friend that had reportedly gotten
MACHINE OF DEATH and instantly died from an allergic reaction to the M.O.D. needle. There were no end of strange stories about those block printed letters and the doom they spelled for the unlucky recipients.
Nick’s parents had explicitly forbidden him to use an M.O.D. until he was 18. They also had refused to let him to get a tattoo with their permission when he was 16, but he had lied at the tattoo shop when he visited his sister at college one weekend. His parents hadn’t found out about that one. The more Nick thought about the stories and how disappointed his parents would be if he used an M.O.D. behind their back the less draw any M.O.D. had. What if I get
WATER and have to avoid bathing or drinking water? How do I explain that to my parents? Nick thought. There would be no explaining Nick knew. It would be over and his parents would be furious.
When Nick finally turned 18 he was in the middle of the summer after high school. He had earned early acceptance into the Engineering program at his first choice university. His part-time job in high school had been at an engineering firm and he knew that’s what he wanted to do. He was lucky enough that the small firm wanted him to work full-time over the summer so he’d have some extra money. By the time the summer was over he had forgotten about getting an M.O.D. test until his health form at university asked if he had been tested and what the result was. And just as fast as he skipped over the question the thought of getting a test was forgotten again.
Nick was back home for winter break after his first semester, his mind full of more than he’d even imagined. It was a good time to catch up with high school friends and see how school was going for them. Nick and his friends, Davy, Tun, and Ferdi, all went out for dinner. During the meal the course of conversation turned to the M.O.D.
COCAINE” said Davy. “Can you imagine? At least I know what to stay away from, right?”
Tun piped up “You’ve heard the stories! You’ll never get near the stuff but someone who is high as a kite on it will drive a car off a bridge onto you or something.”
“So what did you get, Tun?” Davy replied. “Nothing that’s got you too terrified I hope.”
OXYGEN. I figure there’s nothing to worry about since there’s no telling what it might be now. I should never have gotten tested just for the peace of mind.”
“HA! Ain’t that the truth” Ferdi quipped. “I did it the day I turned 18. I expected it to be something epic and what do I get?
HEART DISEASE just like my my old man. Of all the luck.”
Davy then turned to Nick, “How about you?”
Nick sat silent for a bit, looking from face to face at the table. They were all waiting for his answer.
“I, uh, you see…” he gulped, “I haven’t gotten a test yet.”
“What‽” Tun and Davy said at the same time.
“How could you not Nick?” Ferdi asked. “It’s all you talked about our senior year. How you thought about going behind your parent’s backs and doing it. Man, I thought you’d have been the first one of us to do it.”
“Me too, but I just got busy with work over the summer and then school.” Nick said while looking down at his plate.
“There’s no need for embarrassment” Tun reassured him.
“Well, now there is” Davy said with a smirk on his face. Nick knew that look, Davy was plotting. “There’s an M.O.D. over at Morrison’s drugstore across the street. Let’s get you tested after we’re done here!”
“I…I…yeah, sure. Let’s do it tonight.” Nick said while his palms started sweating and his throat became parched.
Nick didn’t finish his meal. He was too nervous and thinking about the walk over to Morrison’s. He hadn’t been this nervous since his first date in high school. The one where he stammered out every other sentence and puked on the side of the road after dropping off Jessica Lundy at her house. In fact he felt like he was going to chuck in the bushes lining the parking lot at Morrison’s.
The four boys walked in the door at Morrison’s. To Nick the air seemed stale and the lights were extra bright. “You’re imagining things Nick” Davy told him. “Come on, it’s back by the pharmacy.”
Indeed, it was right there by the pharmacy window. A stainless steel box with an arrow sign pointing down to it. On the top was a touch screen that said Start Test in big green letters. Nick stood staring at the machine for a moment. Tun reached up and put his hand on Nick’s shoulder “You can do it man, we all did.”
Nick tapped the screen and a the machine came to life. It asked Nick to either fill out a form or swipe his drivers license in the card reader to the right to begin. Nick choose to swipe his license. The machine filled out the form for him and then made him wait while it checked his ID with the proper government bureaucracies.
After a moment the machine continued and asked for the $20 payment. Nick decided to use his debit card and swiped it through the reader. After charging his card the machine displayed the steps to follow on the screen.
- Door below will open.
- Rest finger in opening for blood test.
- Remove finger from opening when instructed.
- Wait for results to appear from slot at left.
And below that was a big green button with the work OK on it.
Nick tapped the OK button and the door popped open startling him. The machine began to chime to alert Nick it was time start the test. Staring at the opening that had appeared Nick felt his heart start to race. He slowly moved his finger to the opening and rested it on the finger shaped indentation. After a moment he felt a slight tingle on his finger and the display changed to an instruction to remove his finger from the opening. As soon as he removed his finger the door snapped shut, startling Nick again. The machine started making noise and the faint smell of disinfectant hit Nick’s nose.
A few minutes went by. “Why is it taking so long?” Nick said to no one in particular.
“Chill Nick, they all take this long, it’s just how it works.” Ferdi said. Just then the slip of paper Nick had been expecting appeared in the slot on the left side of the machine and the screen changed to the words Thank You.
There it is Nick thought how I’m going to die is sitting right there. Only a small part of the slip was sticking out and Nick could just make out the edge of the first letter. It was a curved letter like an O or a G. Nick just kept staring at it. “What is wrong with me?” he asked out loud. “I’ve wanted this for ever and now that it’s done I don’t want to look at it.”
“Nick. Nick. Nick.” Davy started chanting, trying to egg Nick on.
“Nick. Nick. Nick.” Ferdi and Tun joined in.
Mr. Morrison, the owner and pharmacist, poked his head out of the pharmacy window and asked “What’s going on out here?”
“Nothing!” Nick squeaked and grabbed the slip of paper, turning on his heel and heading for the door.
Once outside he stood there looking at the paper clutched in his hand. The boys standing around him, wondering if he was going to be okay.
Nick slowly raised his hand and slid the paper between his thumb and index finger to read it.
The slip of paper read
“Cheese?” Nick puzzled. “Cheese? Why did it have to be cheese?”
Nick’s friends were silent. Nick was, buy their best judgment, a lover of cheese. “Cheese,” Nick had said on more than one occasion “is what makes life worth living.”
“Well, I guess that means no more cheeseburgers, huh?” Nick said suddenly trying to laugh off the situation.
“Maybe you’ll get trapped under a giant cheese wheel!” Ferdi said.
“Dude!” Davy punched Ferdi in the arm “Not cool!”
“No, it’s okay Davy” Nick said. “I…I…guess I have to think about that kind of stuff now. No more cheese. Ever. I’ll never get to goto the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival, but at least I’ll still be alive.”
The boys all shuffled their feet and started moving back to their cars at the restaurant. Nick started to drive home and ended up driving around a bit. He did love his home town. No matter where he went though he started thinking about how he might die with cheese. Would it be a hors d’oeuvre platter at a party? Would he choke to death on a bit of cheese from a sandwich. Would he be allergic to cheese now? Best not to tempt fate on that, no more cheese for me he thought as he pulled into the driveway of his parent’s house.
Nick successfully graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree and landed a job with a large engineering firm across the country. For the rest of his four-and-a-half years in university Nick had avoided cheese. Sure, there were the longing looks at cheeseburgers, but he knew it was best to do without them. There was also an embarrassing dinner party with his girlfriend and her parents at a Swiss restaurant. Nick hadn’t known it was a fondue restaurant and he had never told his girlfriend about the
CHEESE test result. Nick became familiar that night with meat fondue and the boiling oil to cook it in.
Nick had moved up a bit in his company and he got the opportunity to go back to his alma mater on a recruiting trip. His excitement for the trip was palpable. Getting to seeing the young fresh faces and to have a chance to impress on them that his company was the one to come intern for and possibly get a full-time job after graduation was his mission.
A little bit of Nick was also excited to have a break from work and to revisit the old college town haunts. Crossroads Bar, Jake’s BBQ Hut, The All-Niter Diner. Nick’s much loved haunts when he was in school.
The first day had Nick talking with Juniors and Seniors that would be looking for summer internships. After talking in several classes and having an open meet up in the Engineering department Nick grabbed a bite to eat and headed to Crossroads bar. He got a pitcher of beer and grabbed a table. No sooner had he sat down than a group of Engineering students he had talked to walked in. One of them spotted Nick and he waived them over. The group put a few more tables together and Nick bought a round of drinks for them. Why not. I’ll be expensing this anyway and it’s good for the company’s image he thought.
After another round of drinks one of the students, Emily, turned to him and said “We’re going to a house party, want to join?”
Nick thought about it for a second. He hadn’t been to a college house party in years. “Yeah, let’s go!”
At the party there were the usual chips and dips and a keg of cheap beer. Nick found himself getting involved the conversations with the students. Most of them asked what kinds of projects he was working on or if he missed college life at all. The warm spring night and generous drinks had made Nick feel good. He did miss college life a bit, but he knew his career was on the way up. He couldn’t imagine still living in a college town unless he was a professor, but he was far away from that stage of life he felt.
Through the crowd Nick saw someone he did recognize from his days at the university. “Is that Richard George?” Nick asked the group he was with. He thought it might be Richard, but he looked like he’d put on a good 75 pounds since Nick last saw him.
Emily turned to where where Nick was looking and then sighed. “Yeah, he’s on the lifetime plan it seems. And where ever there’s a party you’ll find Richard drinking as much as he can. I’d stay away from him, he’s a rowdy drunk.” Nick didn’t plan on giving Richard any further thought, he was having a good time on the patio in the spring air.
A couple of hours of conversation and drinking passed and Nick was feeling good. He had caught up with Emily again and was about to ask her if she wanted to go hit the All-Niter Diner when there was a commotion on the second floor balcony.
“Richard! Put your clothes back on!” a woman screamed.
“I will fight you!” came the slurred reply from a drunk Richard George. “Call me cheese!” he yelled.
Nick looked up to the balcony. Stunned and a bit drunk he was trying to make sure he heard Richard say to call him ‘cheese.’ As he stood there looking up there was the sound of a scuffle and then it happened. The railing broke on the balcony and a body was flying towards Nick who was standing on the ground floor.
Time dilated for Nick and even though he wanted to scream and run he found himself unable to move. In the air eight-and-a-half feet over Nick and falling towards him was Richard George, naked as could be. Nick had a clear view of Richard’s back and buttocks and on his right butt cheek was a large tattoo of a giant cartoony wedge of yellow cheese with holes in it. That comical image of cheese permanently inked to the man that called himself ‘cheese.’ Nick had but a single thought in the instant before Richard crushed him.
The machine was right.