Saturday, February 10, 2007

PANTS

What follows is the rough draft of my first Machine of Death submission. I just finished it... comments and critiques are always welcome.


Charles Delaney was having a staring contest with the computer, which—despite not having very much in the way of eyes—was beating him soundly.

“You can lower your arm now, Mr. Delaney,” said the nurse. He had been holding his arm above his head with a cotton ball pressed firmly against his inner elbow for what he was fairly sure was three weeks now.

“How long does this take?” he asked.

“A few moments.” She wiped away the last traces of blood on his arm with an antiseptic pad. “It varies from person to person, could be ten seconds, could be ten minutes. And bear in mind,” she added quickly, noting his furrowed brow, “how long the calculation takes is not proportional to how long you have until… the result… er, comes up.”

“How do you know that?”

“Well, I’m not supposed to tell, but one young man waited fifteen minutes to learn he was going to die of a knife wound. Turns out he was stabbed in an alley by a mugger while he was walking home from the hospital.”

Charles nodded somberly, then frowned. “Wait a minute, if it hadn’t taken fifteen minutes, that mugger wouldn’t have—”

“Oh look at that! We’re out of regular bandages! I’m sorry Mr. Delany… would you like happy faces or pink bunnies?”

Charles tried to shake off the thought, and turned a critical eye to the proffered bandages. The happy faces appealed to the bit of him that was insecure of his own masculinity, but the bunnies were damn cute. “Bunnies. All the way.”

The nurse applied the bandage, and an awkward silence descended, offset only by the low hum of the computer. The Machine itself was in another room entirely, the hospital administration having wisely decided that nothing that cost good money should be kept in the room where people were most likely to throw the more violent sort of fit, but it was wired in tandem with this particular (easily replaceable) computer, such that when the Machine reached it’s conclusion, that sliver of paper would be printed out in this room.

Without warning, the hum of the computer dropped an octave, and there was a scratching from the area behind the small slot on the side, as if the world’s tiniest inkjet printer were waking up from a long winter’s nap. Charles restrained himself, with some difficulty, from bounding across the room like unto a hungry puppy.

“Alright, Mr. Delaney, your result is printing out now. I’m going to wait in the hall and give you a little bit of privacy.” The nurse stepped out, shutting the door behind her. It was annoying, but it was hospital policy, ever since ‘AUTOEROTIC ASPHYXIATION’ threatened to sue when his doctor wouldn’t stop laughing at him.

A fraction of a second later, there was a rapping on the door. “Nurse!” came the muffled voice through the wood. “Nurse, come here!”

She opened the door, and Charles thrust a slip of paper in her hands. “What the hell is this?” he said.

“It… it’s a piece of paper that says ‘PANTS’,” she said, accurately enough.

“Pants.”

“Yes, Mr. Delaney.”

“… you’re kidding, right?”

The nurse shook her head and reread the result. It clearly said ‘PANTS’. “No, Mr. Delaney. This is the result the Machine has given you.”

Charles snatched the paper back from her and stared at it. “Are you telling me that I’m going to die of pants?”

“Um… the Machine is telling you that… um, pants will be instrumental in your death, yes.”

He dropped the slip of paper. “… let’s redo the test, shall we?”

The nurse nodded. Ten minutes later, Charles was down another syringe’s worth of blood, and the two were staring awkwardly at the computer in a silence considerably more awkward than the one before. Eventually, it spat out a result.

PANTS.

Charles threw this second slip of paper to the ground with all his furious might. It drifted down gently to join its companion slip of paper, like a snowflake that happened to portend a man’s death.

“Dying of pants. This is what we’ve got here.”

“I wouldn’t put it quite that way, Mr. Delaney, but yes, it seems pants will cause your death.”

“I should go somewhere else.”

“You could, but you will get the same result.”

“What the hell do I do about this?”

“You could try to avoid pants…”

“I wear pants! I’m wearing pants right now!” Charles pointed to his pants, as if to prove that yes, he was wearing pants. Yes, he was wearing pants.

“Yes,” said the nurse, “you are wearing pants.”

Charles yelped. “Oh god, I am! Should I take them off?”

“I would have to call security.”

“But they’ll kill me!”

“Sir, that’s really very unlikely.”

“You don’t know!”

The nurse sighed. “If you’d like, I can fetch a gown and you can change into that.”

“Okay,” said Charles, but immediately followed it up with “NO!”

“No?”

“Good lord, what if, when taking off my pants, I trip and fall and wang my head on that, that, that-that THING over there!”

“That’s a chair, sir.”

“It looks pointy!”

“It’s… wooden…”

“Oh god I’m going to die!”

He looked about to burst into tears, so the nurse very gently guided Charles to the wooden chair and sat him down on it. Seating a crying man is a good strategy; there’s a little human contact to comfort him, while getting off his feet reduces his stress a small but significant amount. Plus, it nips at the bud any inclination he may have to cry on one’s shoulder, so one can conveniently nip out the back when his attentions are distracted. “Mr. Delaney, let me assure you this is normal.”

“‘Pants’ is normal?” he asked between ragged breaths.

“Well, no. But your reaction is normal… a little healthy paranoia in the face of an increased awareness of your mortality.”

“My pants will kill me!” he shouted, staring in abject fear at the corduroy death sentence surrounding his lower half.

“Perhaps this paranoia’s a little more than healthy, sir. Look at me Mr. Delaney!” she said, getting all up in his business as one does when one has important things to say (or is merely steppin’). “You don’t know that the pants you have on will kill you. The Machine is accurate but frustratingly vague; maybe you’ll be crushed under a display at a clothing store, maybe you’ll be hit by a delivery truck, maybe you’ll be sought by a serial killer with a damned odd M.O., or maybe you’ll just be beaten up in a bar by a guy named Pants.”

“That’s a strange name…”

“It’s a strange world, Mr. Delaney! What if you visit England? Are you going to have to star being concerned about underwear instead?”

“I hadn’t thought of that!”

“That’s what they pay me for! People think the Machine answers questions, when all it does is make new, creepier questions. But you can’t let these things get to you! I’m going to be mauled by a bear!”

“Really?”

“Yes! But do you think that stops me from taking my son to the zoo? Of course not! Sure, maybe I spend the entire trip crying in the car because I don’t know if this is going to be the time, and then I throw up when we get there, and we don’t even go to see the bears because I pass out when I see a picture of one, but dammit we go to the zoo! Well, we haven’t for a while but we went! Once!”

Charles squinted at the nurse and pursed his lips. “Are… are you going somewhere with this?”

She shook her head. “Yeah, no… I thought I was at first.”

It’s okay, it’s okay.” Charles stood up and looked at the slips of paper on the floor, each screaming ‘PANTS’ up at him; the remnants of a weird, sad little ticker-tape parade. “I’m feeling a little better. Just had to freak out for a minute there. I should probably head off.”

The nurse smiled and grabbed a handful of pamphlets from the desk. “Take these before you go. Standard things: therapists, suicide hotlines, safety colonies.” In response to his questioning look she added, “Mostly Luddite communities for people who’s destiny is ‘CAR CRASH’. Not really applicable.”

“Pants are standard?”

“Pretty much everywhere, Mr. Delaney. It’s a pants-y kind of world we live in.”

“Shame,” he said, tucking the pamphlets in his pocket. He wished the nurse a good day, walked out of the room, paid his bill, drove home, and bought a one-way ticket to Scotland.

Inevitable or not, Chuck Delaney wasn’t gonna take any chances.

5 Comments:

Anonymous AAMF said...

Ed, you are the wind beneath my wings.

2/10/2007 5:12 PM  
Blogger Ford Dent said...

Man, that was about the most awesome thing since awesome came to awesome town.

2/11/2007 5:48 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

God-dammit, Ed, now I am going to have to STRIVE FOR ACHIEVEMENTS.

2/11/2007 10:13 AM  
Anonymous AAMF said...

[gloat]By the way, I totally gave him this idea, so you all can thank me.[/gloat]

2/11/2007 10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked this very much indeed. It maintained a fine comic tone. I admit I saw the ending coming, but perhaps it will be more surprising to someone who knows nothing of the author's love of kilts. Comments being welcome, I offer a few. (1) No need for "very" in first sentence. Death to empty intensifiers. (2) "Wired in tandem" is just wrong, electrically. Would "networked" do? (3) I love "corduroy death sentence" but pants don't surround one's lower half. Would "encase" be better? (I finally made it to Hot Doug's.) (4) About four paragraphs from the end is a "who's" that needs to be "whose".

By going to someplace in the UK, the protagonist has failed to escape the underwear peril, but I guess that's the Twilight Zone twist to the story. Anyway, an excellent story.

2/17/2007 4:40 PM  

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