Dr. Johnson Karol adjusted his black fedora as he opened the door to the agency, plastering on a practiced smile as the customer came into view. As he saw who it was, though, the cheerful façade dropped from his face like a curtain. He sighed, extensively. “What is it this time, Erik?”
The tall thin man before him had a gaunt face, with pale skin that stretched over the cheekbones. His bright red hair was at odds with his looks, and a dull rainbow of freckles splashed across his pointed nose. His dark eyes darted, nervously, to the left, behind Karol. “Hello, doctor,” he said a little too loudly, pushing his way past into the office. Everything that Erik did was odd—his movements, his speech—though whether it was because of anxiety or energy no one could tell. He always carried a twitchy, careless feeling about with him, which tended to put others off.
The doctor looked at him, doubtfully. “Erik, what do you want? Tell me quick, because I have a client coming in” —he glanced at the clock—“in half an hour.”
“I know, Doctor, and this will be quick, I promise. I just want to see my death certificate again.”
“Erik, we talked about this last week. Does your wife know you’re here?”
“No, but—this is important. I really…” He took a breath to collect his thoughts. “I really need to see it.”
“You really needed to see it last time. And the time before, and the time before that…”
Dr. Karol held up a hand. “I know. I’m legally obliged to show you anyway.” He turned on his heel and disappeared briefly into the curtained back half of the room. When he returned, he was carrying a graying slip of paper, crumpled and ragged from handling. He thrust it at Erik. “Here. Look all you need.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“You’re welcome. As always.”
Dr. Karol watched Erik carefully as the man scrutinized the paper for the hundredth time, examining it for a loophole, a mistake–anything that might prevent its cold prediction. The doctor knew it by heart by now. Erik Palaski. Falling object.
The Machine was never wrong. Dr. Karol knew that. Not once had it made a false statement about anyone’s demise. But sometimes it was better not to know. When Erik had first visited, he had been an optimistic man, tanned and well off. Then he had asked for his prediction. So the good doctor had taken a blood sample and swept grandly behind the curtain, returning with the paper, the typed words then crisp and clear.
Erik hadn’t been the same since. He avoided bookshelves, ducked when the warplanes flew overhead. He was happiest in a room of pillows, with no light fixtures— nothing that could possibly come flying down from the sky to thump him irredeemably on the head.
Dr. Karol hadn’t taken his own blood to the Machine yet. He wanted to, oh God he wanted to. The temptation was right there, every time he went behind that curtain. His curiosity, his need to know, nearly drove him mad with longing. But he had seen what happened to his patients who asked, and that was the best deterrent he knew of.
He held out his hand, fingers wiggling impatiently. “Erik. Come on now. You’ve looked long enough.”
Erik handed the paper back reluctantly, eyes as sad and anxious as a beaten puppy’s.
The doctor felt himself soften involuntarily. “Erik, your time will come someday. We can’t change that. But you can change how you take that news. You should live your life. Don’t hide forever.”
Erik just looked at him for a long moment, then left, closing the door gently behind him.
Dr. Karol sighed and leaned against the door. Erik was a hopeless case, who should never have been shown his death. It hovered behind him like a ghost—always invisible, always there, fluttering its crabby little wings on occasion to remind him of its presence.
The doorbell buzzed. The doctor rolled his eyes, fixed his hat, and opened the door, smiling broadly.
Later that evening, long after the door was locked and the streetlights lit, Dr. Karol was once more alone with the Machine. He looked at it longingly. Before he realized what he was doing, he reached out to touch it gently. The Machine was cold steel beneath his fingertips. It purred suddenly, inexplicably hostile, and he jerked back. Shaking his head, he walked briskly up the stairs to his bed without a backwards glance.
He couldn’t sleep. The Machine called to him from its place behind the curtain, as it had every night since he came to work with the wretched beast of a thing. His thoughts shifted to the glass plates used for collecting blood samples for it, and the needles safe in their drawer…
Erik’s piercing eyes came into view, and he sat bolt upright, sweat slicking his forehead. He looked about the room, ascertaining that he was alone, then got out of bed trembling. He intended to go downstairs for water, but felt himself pulled, as though by an invisible puppet string, towards the dark curtain. He brushed it aside and reached like a man possessed towards the drawer of needles. Selecting the most slender of them, he swabbed the soft place on the inside of his elbow with the packaged alcohol swab before jabbing the needle into his arm, stiffening as it slid into his vein. A dab of sweat rolled down a wrinkle in his cheek, filling it like a riverbed.
The syringe was half full of red now. He pulled it out, without bothering with bandages, and squeezed a single drop onto a glass plate. He stared at it blankly, his thoughts like sluggish molasses. In this tiny bubble of blood lay his future. Did he really want to know what it was?
He shook off any doubts and shoved it into the disturbingly mouth-like aharp-toothed black slot. The Machine gobbled it greedily. Whirring coldly, it spat out a thin slip of paper.
Then Dr. Karol seemed to wake up. He stared at his arm, then at the Machine, in mounting horror. He turned and ran.
The next day, the Machine oozed through the cracks in his mind, overflowed the levees. It sat sullenly and refused to leave. In all the four years he had been working here, never had the pull of his curiosity been so strong. The puppet strings tugged constantly.
Every time he brushed away the curtain, he found himself staring at the wastebasket, remembering how the crisp sheet had crackled as he crumpled it into his palm. He should have ripped it up, shredded it, but he dared not pull it out now for fear of the temptation.
But as the day once again drew to a close and night dropped over the clinic, the puppet strings tugged him inescapably toward the curtain. He kicked the Machine savagely as he shuffled past it, cursing it beneath his breath. Marionette-like, he reached to the trashcan and pulled out the paper, shuddering uncontrollably. He slowly unrolled it, dreading what he might see.
It was blank.
He reeled back and vomited as he realized that he would be forever forced to be the harbinger of death knowing how, when, where, and why other people would die but never being allowed that privilege himself.