Medical Manslaughter

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A short story following the Machine of Death premise

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 1: Act first, think later.

My first dig was for Mom. Hopefully she was glad to be receiving visits still, in her bungalow underground. Even if the dearly departed would have preferred privacy, I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice. I just dug and dug, and I didn’t dare stop, because when my hands stopped, my mind might start working. I worried what an angel on my shoulder would say. I was a little disappointed in myself for not being overcome with remorse. At the same time, I was a little proud that I wasn’t on the couch like an average guy, watching celebrities bare their teeth for reality TV. I focused on mustering up some sadness, to convince myself that I was still a good person.

Mom had been the strongest link between me and the rest of civilization. When I was an infant and my brother was two, my father ran off. Mom used to say that he returned to the zoo. I knew no other relatives. We had started fresh in Los Angeles after the divorce.

The glow from my phone showed me where to pry up the coffin’s lid. The corners of my smile involuntarily twisted upwards towards my ears. Even before this plan had stained my imagination, I had luckily ordered a “green” coffin, not a regular locked-down vault that looked like it was fortified against a zombie invasion. Did I have a devil on one shoulder protecting me but nothing on the other side? Lightheartedness is not an attractive quality in anybody who is kneeling at an open grave, opening a pocket knife. I was greeted by Mom’s ample balding forehead. Hi, Momma. I’m going to help you lose a tiny bit of weight. The next task probably would have been easier with a steak knife.

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 2: Do it for the right reasons.

Mom had been killed at the hospital, pure and simple. No, I couldn’t prove it was the hospital’s fault. It’s impossible to get doctors to brag about their malpractice hijinks. I was acting on a feeling, but it was a strong one—the kind that you follow into a cemetery in the middle of the night.

Mom had euphemistically called the hospital trip a “Club MD,” and she was sweetly reluctant to tell us what she was having done, explaining that her only goal was to end up naked with a doctor. She fell asleep for surgery and then: exit stage heaven. The death certificate declared she was taken by SUNDS, which is the adult flavor of SIDS. I had learned that less than five women per year fall victim. That sounded suspicious. It wasn’t like our family to accept anything so silently. I’d always pictured that she would live to be an ornery ninety, and then one day she’d mix up the gas and the brake, and dive into the YMCA swimming pool without ever leaving her car. Lately I’d been picturing her anesthesiologist, Dr. Palance, daydreaming about a yacht upgrade, carelessly injecting bouncing air bubbles along with Mom’s medication, until the air pressure exploded a heart valve. There was nobody alive who would tell me whether something like that happened, but I had a hunch that a Machine of Death could help. Mom never took the test while she was alive, so I was going to figure out her death prediction however I could. All I was asking for was a little card that said, “MEDICAL MANSLAUGHTER.” I’d wait for the machine to confirm my suspicions before planning what the doctors’ punishment would be.

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 3: You don’t fail until you stop trying.

I had butterflies like on a first date when I carried my baggie of flesh to the Machine of Death booth. I closed the curtains as far as they would go, and then some. When I shoved my spoonful of shoulder meat into the machine, I didn’t get an answer back. There wasn’t enough blood in the sample to get a reading. The machine wasn’t motivated to generate a death prediction for a cocktail of formaldehyde and ethanol.

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 4: Carve a thick steak right off the butt.

I’m indebted to a mortician for that gem. He thought I was a nice guy who was aspiring to study medicine. He thought that my interest in corpses was healthy. He got excited and asked if I wanted to see something interesting, and moments later I was applying denture cream to some bone shards so he could fasten them into the top of a cracked skull. I admit that I fantasized they were the remains of Dr. Palance. (One of his trust fund buddies caught him kicking golf balls off the green, and attacked him with a sand wedge).

We discussed how a body lies on its back while preservatives are forced into its hidden cavities. The pressure does a pretty complete job of cleaning out the arteries above the waist. Mom wouldn’t have felt guilty about scarfing fast food mystery meats if she had known how quickly an embalmer was going to fix her arterial plaque. But the weight resting on the buttocks usually prevents the cheeks from absorbing a full dose. So if you want to find a drop of real blood, you go check out the behind. Slice off a generous chunk so you don’t come up short like I had the first time.

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 5: Practice makes perfect.

Performing my second dig felt like watching a horror movie that had been remade with a bigger budget. I ordered a dark lantern online. I unfurled a tarp, so that I could remove the dirt without smothering the lawn. I did a stellar job digging. Even if Mom appreciated it, she wore the same impatient look on her face. She smelled like one of her trucker ex-boyfriends. I had to drag her all the way out to the surface this time. Sorry, Momma. Would you forgive me if I took up cooking, like you always hoped I would? I bought a blender the next day. The first recipe was not for eating: Mom’s fat soaked with saline. I noticed for the first time how creepy the sound is that a blender makes. The resulting protein shake contained the blood I needed. Don’t let yourself worry too much about whether I got the blender thoroughly cleaned up because I don’t cook often enough for it to make a difference.

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 6: You’re not alone.

By then I had done a ton of research about postmortem raids, as they were called. The scariest thing about people is how you can always find someone on the Internet who is way more depraved than you. One newsletter catered to professionals who recover death predictions from the dead. At first, I was insulted that the going rate was only $250 per order. Later I wondered whether the spare cash might be worth it.

I found crowds of postmortem paparazzi, especially here in Los Angeles, where the arid climate curbs decay. The online forums reported on Dr. Kevorkian’s death prediction: “CARDIAC ARREST, NO ASSISTANCE NEEDED.” Eartha Kitt’s postmortem read, “HOLIDAY BLOWOUT,” which makes sense when you know that she died on Christmas Day of colon problems. Michael Jackson’s heart was stopped by a combination of drugs, so there were stories that his card said, “DANGEROUS REMIX,” and competing claims that it was, “LACK OF RHYTHM,” but critics warned that these were all hoaxes, because his body was entombed in thick concrete. I noticed that no one had researched Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman yet, so I made a mental note to look for them sometime.

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 7: Fortune favors the bold.

I returned to the Machine of Death, victorious. The machine drank deep from my pink oblations. It spat out a white card. With my fingers shaking, it took me three tries to turn it over without dropping it. Its block letters screamed, “MALPRACTICE DURING ANESTHESIA FOR NEOVAGINAL REJUVENATION.” The machine became my new hero when I discovered the outright blame against Dr. Palance. The card alone wouldn’t hold up in court, but with this running start I could interview experts and amass research. Or maybe I could take a shortcut and hide a venomous spider in his car. I would need to find out what the other words meant. Mom’s shyness about the operation was now explained, since it was related to something sexual.

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 8: Beware the secrets of the dead.

With my fuzzy vision and pounding head, I didn’t dare try to count the beer cans on the bathroom floor next to me. My research had felt like a scavenger hunt in Hell. The bombshell was that a neovagina is different from a natural-born vagina, because a neovagina is surgically constructed during a male-to-female sex reassignment. Years ago, Mom had traded salami for roast beef! I scoured newspaper clippings and old photos to figure out what that meant. The evidence finally convinced me that Mom was my biological father. From the family history that I could piece together, Mom had undergone the sex change either right before or right after my biological mother ran off, (back to the zoo, as Mom used to say). The latest operation was meant to retouch her aging girl parts. I wondered why Mom could confide in me about the time she got sloshed and naked at a Cyndi Lauper concert, but she never talked about her switch. Whenever my eyes were closed, my imagination replayed the moment that I had pried up the coffin lid. This time my attention was arrested by Mom’s comically large mouth and masculine upper lip, not by the black mold spreading across her cheeks.

My older brother Simon was active in an Apostolic Pentecostal church. He had once even composed a sermon on the sin of cross-dressing. I hadn’t noticed Mom’s reaction, but in retrospect she probably didn’t shout, “Hallelujah, Lord!” I guessed that Mom might not like Simon to ever find out, and anyway, I knew that I didn’t want to be the one to bear the man-mother message. I didn’t plan on ever digging up Mom again, at least in the figurative sense. I dropped the idea of challenging the hospital in court.

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 9: Bury your problems and move on.

There was a different way to take my revenge. I left an envelope on Dr. Palance’s doorstep containing Mom’s death prediction and the demand, “Bring $10,000 cash to Ironhitch Cemetery, Friday at midnight.” I arrived two hours early and for one last time I opened the hole above Mom. Dr. Palance sidled up right on schedule. We didn’t talk, because as soon as he was within reach, I chopped the shovel down on top of him with my full weight. Then I squeezed him into the box with Mom. She finally got to sleep with a doctor. As dirt covered the pair, my chest started feeling heavy. After the earth was replaced, I accidentally paid my last respects by vomiting hot dog onto the grave. Hopefully Dr. Palance didn’t have a roll of money in his jeans because it was too late when I remembered the blackmail. The way I see it now, the money represented my virtue, which was lost to me forever, if it had ever existed in the first place.

Instructions for tomb raiding, number 10: You might as well cash in on your demons.

Regular life was boring after those raw hours in the cemetery. I kept having dreams about being trapped in a stifling traffic jam, until I dug an escape tunnel to the ocean, finding some rolls of cash along the way. My cure for the nightmares and for the boredom was to offer my services in the classifieds. Every week I’d exhume another stranger. Eventually I was established enough to join a trade association, but unfortunately the other members are mostly sickos. We like to say that our business is underground. I even pioneered a method to recover predictions when the deceased is encased in concrete. (I bring a masonry drill bit that’s 500 mm longer than the concrete thickness. Clients don’t need to know what the extra reach is for.)

Are you interested in learning the death prediction of someone you’ve lost, by any chance? Do you have $250? Then you don’t have to get your hands dirty. Here’s my business card: “St. Lazarus Grief Therapy & Gravedigging.” And don’t worry about me. As long as my hands stay busy with a shovel, I can still keep my mind from working.


Published by:

A short story following the Machine of Death premise

“Power corrupts, to a point. Somebody said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But he didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.” Mr. Seher watched his own hands gesticulating. “It’s the desire for more power that corrupts. So once you hold complete, absolute power in your hands, you don’t feel driven by your old appetites for fame or money. Every temptation is beneath you except the need to prepare the world for when you’re gone.” In the dim light, Mr. Seher’s gray hair and the whites of his eyes hovered in his chair. Below them hung a sagging downward smile. Folds of furrowed skin stretched out of his jacket from the collar and cuffs. His eyes were alert to the point of not blinking.

I preferred to steer clear of politics. With some resignation, I asked, “Am I going to find out that you have a messiah complex?”

The energy of those eyes seemed to hold the rest of the pile together. “If I cared what you thought, I would have avoided the subject. The truth is, I have been some people’s messiah. It’s been an enormous burden to me. I know that I’ve done things no one else has done.” His tone dared me to belittle this remark.

Every month I wrote a Community piece in the Courier Times, to celebrate an unsung local citizen. The paper had found someone who was about to turn one hundred and who had willed his property to a Livengrin rehab center. He lived next door to it in an overgrown hermitage. The editors loved to feature people in the sunset of life. I knew that there were only two types of subjects. I volunteered for these jobs because I loved meeting the first type: he would be an affectionate retiree. He would spin tales of true love and true loss. We would grin at each other and feel that Tuesdays with Morrie catharsis. He would offer warm advice, reinforcing the moral that the key to happiness was just to keep living life the way you already were. If the old guy played his part right, you would watch how the years slowly compelled him to recede in on himself, until by the end of the interview you had to remind yourself that this was someone who hadn’t already died peacefully in his sleep.

Instead, I was stuck for two hours with the other type. That’s the kind of person who rekindles my disdain for the forgotten outcasts of society. He’s a dinosaur who manages to get more outspoken every year, even though his opinions get less appealing. He doesn’t bother to protect the feelings of the younger generations. He stretches the truth to get attention. I was going to spend the interview trying to figure out why I was so eager to disregard this man, and trying to convince myself that it wasn’t because I was looking at the spitting image of my future self.

Practice had taught me that the best policy was to ignore the stuff I didn’t want to hear. I could stick to the script until my host took the hint. “Our readers are going to be thrilled to hear your history. Why don’t you tell me a story about something that changed your life?”

Mr. Seher grimaced at my posing but then chuckled as a memory emerged. He was resting in a high back, overstuffed armchair. Its psychedelic paisley upholstery was well past its prime. With every tremor it creaked like it held the weight of the world. The boxy room was heavily draped in powerful red hues, although in the twilight everything had turned to black. The walls further hid behind shelves and then stacks of crumbling books and newspapers. He reminisced, “When I was a young man, I had an overpowering fear of fire. I lived in a prairie home where the wildfires could be dangerous. In the summer of 1954, during a heavy drought, the fields started burning. Everything we owned was vulnerable. My family tried to light small fires all around our house, to create a scorched barrier that the larger fire wouldn’t cross. It should have terrified me, but the close contact with the fires restored my confidence. By working with back-fires I conquered my fear that day.

“That was also the last day that I was afraid I would die. Soon I had acquired the perfect means to learn about my death. I knew what the future held for all my friends too.” I caught him getting confused in his story. The first Death Machines were introduced only ten years ago. Mr. Seher didn’t learn how he would die until he was elderly.

“Not long afterwards, I took a friend aside with some news. I encouraged him to be especially alert the following day. He was fated to meet the love of his life. He took my advice to heart. I later learned that anxiety kept him up the entire night. The next day he was both alert and miserable. His expectations were his worst enemy. When he met his future wife, he froze stone cold, so she mocked him, and then he returned insults. Cruelest of all was the irony, because they despised each other initially. It would have been a cherished memory if I had never been involved.

“I wish that were the only time I spoiled an auspicious occasion. Whether I tried to meddle with love or sickness or chance, I was thwarted by the intervention of cunning Irony.” He spoke of Irony as if referring to a houseguest. I could imagine how it had appeared to him in palpable form, first in nightmares and eventually every day.

A sympathetic smile was my response to Mr. Seher’s odd confession. Unfortunately, he took that to mean that he could get away with spouting more philosophy. “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have God’s job?” Maybe I had put ideas into his head by mentioning a messiah complex. At a hundred years old, I guess I couldn’t expect him to stay focused like an adult. “You might have the desire to help everybody in the world, and you would even have the means, but it would be horribly complicated to get right. People make it ridiculously hard to give them help. It’s as if someone constructs mazes to protect their weaknesses. If I hadn’t tried to improve on my friend’s relationship, then he and his wife would have been more satisfied.”

I thought I could frame the discussion by observing, “You’re tackling the problem of religion: to explain why God exists but he can’t fix our problems in the obvious ways we expect. So tell me what you think God would do.”

“Well, speaking for myself again, I knew it was tricky to interfere with fate. But there was one problem that I couldn’t ignore. Finding a solution was worth navigating the maze.” A normal person could never have taken himself this seriously. “The future was a time of fear. I saw it growing like a disease until the whole race, all our children’s children, eked out their stunted lives. And the Death Machine was the antidote.”

A smarter man than I would admit that my script had unraveled, but I didn’t give up. “Interesting! Can you share your death prediction?”

“I can show you where the first Death Machine came from.” Unbidden, he pointed to a silver jewelry box on his side table. It had the curious aspect of an artifact that belonged in either the distant past or the distant future.

“So it came from your pill box,” I ventured, hoping desperately that he wasn’t going to describe how the box was a gift from a big green comic book character.

“If ever Man was given a gift from God, that was it,” he pronounced, while he looked on the case as affectionately as if it were a boon companion. I made a mental note about the frailty of the human condition, and how the tiniest mental imbalance could mean the difference between sanity and hysteria. “It may not be much to look at. But I spend all my time savoring its influence. That’s the Oracle.

“The Oracle reveals the future and it reveals the past. I’ve immersed myself in it so deeply that I’m intimately familiar with the whole timeline of humanity. You know, humans haven’t changed much over the past 10,000 years, much less the past 500. But do you know the one thing that made all of us different from our ancestors?

“In contrast to ancient times, modern man harbored an unhealthy attitude towards death. This only changed with the Death Machines. If you plucked a Neolithic man from his surroundings and transplanted him here, you could teach him to read or use the telephone. But he would never have understood our former inability to accept death. It’s the reason we kept our armies of psychologists so busy. You saw our morbidity in video games. You also saw it in the heroic measures that doctors took to preserve life. And juxtapose that with the abysmal quality of life that some of those patients experienced afterwards. The hospital was a place of survival more than a place of wellness. Meanwhile, lawmakers wasted fortunes on protecting people from themselves. You saw yourself how, up until ten years ago, those priorities had become a canker, worse than any physical maladies.” I thought about how much our idea of health had changed since the Death Machines appeared. Within that short period, society had recovered from the cancers cataloged by Mr. Seher. It was surprising that I hadn’t noticed it earlier. The human obsession with death, once taken for granted, now felt unmistakably disturbing. “I saw the future myself. We were destined to become paralyzed by extreme caution. Our existences were shadows of what we were capable of. Our trajectory was so misguided that we faced a self-inflicted extinction.”

As Mr. Seher’s ideas filled up the room, the walls looked unreasonably cozy around us. The house had an air of being grateful to shelter this passionate man. I had stopped keeping track of whether we were talking about psychology, politics or religion. Out of generosity, I reminded myself that his rants still made sense to him, if not to me. Besides, I caught the glimmer of a method in this madness.

Mr. Seher continued, “You would think that if one prophesied of great opportunities for people, then they would live better and happier than before. But I observed how that fox, Irony, ensured that the opposite was true. The more natural reaction was to cling harder to life, and appreciate it less. We are a morbid species.

“So the only solution, however improbable, was the opposite. You had to put people face to face with Death. You had to dress him up as a clown, so to speak, and trot him out onstage. Ironically, that showed the foolishness of attempting to beat Death at games. A person holding a death prediction had the chance to defy his neurosis. That’s how we rediscovered the resiliency that makes us so proud. That insight became my masterwork. The inevitability of death was the cause of our sickness, and so it became our vaccination.”

I was unsure whether this argument was a paradox or a hoax. My overactive imagination painted a picture of Mr. Seher as he portrayed himself. He was standing sentry outside his hermitage. Tall black flames raged in all directions, representing the destiny of the world. Mr. Seher took fire in his own hands, and laid it down in a protective ring. “You’re telling me that the Death Machines ward off the fear of death? So if they ever got banned, the result would be a catastrophic regression of our maturity.”

“The machines were only needed as provisional therapy. They could stop working now, and their effect would never diminish. We have had a successful turning point. This is the generation when humanity learned how to confront Death.”

The only thing that would have been more enjoyable is if I had been certain who was laughing at whom. “So to get your plan to work, you remote-controlled machines that could disseminate all the predictions. You ran a kind of perverted factory that supplied Death to the consumer.” At the risk of harassing an innocent man who was trying to spin tales, I challenged him about the technicalities. “Everyone has been trying to figure out how the machines are controlled.”

“An electronic uplink from the machines to the Oracle would have been too obvious. I required something mysterious. If you reverse-engineer a Death Machine, you’ll see that it apparently chooses each word of each message at random.” That much was true. The Death Machines had been dissected down to their smallest components in search of the ghost in the machine. Mr. Seher’s skeletal fingers fumbled for something in his chest pocket. “But probability works in my favor. I’m going to flip this coin. You would say that there’s a 50% chance it will land heads. I, on the other hand, already checked my future, so I say that there’s a 100% chance that it will land heads.” He tossed a penny towards me. Forgive me, but at that moment I surrendered to the delusion that I was conversing with the true creator of the Death Machines. In my fantasy, Mr. Seher’s fingertips were present in every molecule in the air. They manipulated the spinning coin, guiding it to its destiny. When the coin stopped, I studied its face as if it were the key to my future. Heads!

Mr. Seher explained, “Someone who knows all outcomes can see through the probability clouds. When I manufacture a Death Machine, I know its future, including all its test subjects. I can tell whether a machine’s configuration is going to randomly produce all the correct messages. Then I only keep the ones that come up heads exactly when they are supposed to. The failures get recycled. I’m like the zookeeper trying to train an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters. At least one monkey is going to write the script I’m looking for. I handpick that one from among the limitless possibilities. Those choice selections represent the only Death Machines that ever appeared in public.”

I appreciated the fact that it wasn’t necessary to draw blood for the test, so the red spot on your finger only served to remind you of your mortality. But trying to harness a torrent of random chaos was preposterous. “That’s too many interdependent coin flips being done over and over. You can’t get every one right for a machine’s entire future, can you?”

Mr. Seher looked bored with this rebuttal. “The success rate is vanishingly small, I’ll grant. But an average computer can peruse the work of a trillion monkeys per second. Frankly, I’m surprised you think that’s the hard part about constructing a Death Machine.” I knew he was right. My grasp on the distinction between technology and magic was increasingly tenuous.

Mr. Seher treated me to some history. I had noticed that he liked the sound of his own voice. “It’s a modernized interpretation of the age-old practice of consulting the Fates by casting lots. Even the priests in the Old Testament carried two mystical stones. When they needed an answer to a prayer, they picked a stone blindly. The white stone is what we would call heads and the black stone meant tails. You could say it was random, but you could just as soon say that the system assured the correct outcome. One of my private eccentricities is that I consider myself to be an Israelite priest of the digital order.” I imagined Mr. Seher surrounded by roaring fires again, only this time he was wearing a black sacerdotal robe inlaid with blinking lights. From his chest pocket he produced a magical sheet of paper covered with macabre monkeys and coins. He found the coin he wanted and kissed it. The coin danced off the sheet, skyward, where it wound the smoke into a kaleidoscope of colored knots. The fire obeyed the coin and the coin obeyed Mr. Seher. Mr. Seher signed a blessing, transforming the innermost ring of flames into soft-smelling incense.

I reeled my thoughts back down into the room. Mr. Seher warned, “I have all the luxuries of foresight. I can be intensely deliberate. Even this unexceptional-looking house was chosen because of a special future that suits my needs perfectly.

“It’s no accident that the death predictions were vague. If they described the specific circumstances of the future as I saw them, it would only encourage a false sense of control. The ambiguous predictions reminded everyone that Death could visit at any moment. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death—captured it and made Irony my servant, in fact. The stronger Irony’s influence was felt in the death predictions, the more extensive was the healing. The time was over for that fox to sabotage my efforts to improve the future.” I sensed Death and Irony’s spectral forms listening at the keyholes of this haunted house. Only the Oracle’s protective strength kept us safe.

“How do you keep up with writing all the prophecies?”

“I was able to start that job decades before I made the Death Machines public. The first ones were the most important because they made the largest impact. But I was no perfectionist. I put far less effort into the last million messages. Whenever someone wasted my time by trying to test a cow, I just wrote it off as, ‘MADE INTO DELICIOUS CHEESEBURGER.'” I knew that wasn’t really true, but he sounded capable of it. Mr. Seher laughed unabashedly. I saw him making zero effort to rein in his merriment. It prompted me to consider whether a prophet should be allowed to joke.

I tried to locate the fine line between genius and madness. Mr. Seher probably wasn’t as lucid as when he was young. Maybe that was even advantageous. In many languages the words for prophesying and raving were the same. The Delphic oracle didn’t attempt predictions until she had inhaled a sufficient amount of the temple’s hallucinogenic vapors. Mr. Seher presumably had access to a pill box full of medications that could serve the same purpose. Great men and women were expected to act crazy, not sober. I saw that my job was not to question, but rather to absorb the unique ideas wafting through the room.

“Did you ever choose a word to describe your own death?”

Mr. Seher slowly massaged his temples. “Everywhere I look, I see the results of my own influence. The future of the world is covered with my fingerprints. Seeing my handiwork in every direction eventually started to repulse me. I want to escape it. And I’m so tired. I’d love to know that life will continue noisily on after I have felt Death’s gentle embrace. My prediction describes exactly how I want to die: ‘FORGOTTEN.'” Mr. Seher commanded such a large, heavy presence that there was barely enough room for both of us, as if I were sharing his coffin, his fate.

He was a mentor who made it possible to look forward to being forgotten. “If I print a news story about you, it will be a poor way to fulfill that wish.”

“You can publish the story if you want. I summoned you for a different reason though.” Had I been summoned? I could no longer recall what brought me here. Mr. Seher reached for the jewelry box on his side table. His fingers faltered when he tried to grasp it. I leaned in and picked it up. It was far lighter than he had made it appear. Mr. Seher strained to lift his arm back into his lap. “I’d like your help. It’s about the twenty-five-year time capsule that your newspaper is sponsoring. I’d like you to please take the Oracle to be included. It still has valuable lessons for you. I guess that succession is the last thing on my bucket list.”

The box felt ordinary against my skin. I studied the ornamental filigree. Engraved in Gothic script was the melodious incantation, “Doctrina et Veritas.” My hand obeyed a subconscious desire to dart forward and open the lid, ignoring all decorum. Inside the box I expected to find the portal to a world untouched by time. Even when I lowered my expectations, I hoped to see an intractable digital device with colored blinking lights. The true contents prompted the pit of my stomach to sink back to earth. An everyday penny lay on a bed of LSD blotters. The only means Mr. Seher had of telling the future was to get high and flip a coin. His grand truths were vulgar drug-induced ravings. He never created anything as noteworthy as a Death Machine. The sudden difference between us was that his mind was addled enough to believe his own story. My cheeks flushed with shame for his misspent, lonely life.

Meanwhile, the magical power that had filled the room was receding. In my peripheral vision I saw the walls acquire an unfamiliar spaciousness. When I noticed Mr. Seher again, I knew instinctively that he was dead. There was nothing in his chair that suggested anything other than peaceful rest. Death and Irony had prevailed, and the hermitage wouldn’t be rid of those spirits without a fiery double exorcism. In the stillness I mourned that Mr. Seher’s tantalizing explanations were not realistic enough to be credible. The curtain had been pulled back on the Death Machines, revealing their inner workings. Then the curtain was pulled back too far, and the conjurer proved to be an entertaining charlatan.

The following day was MOD-Day—the day all the Machines of Death unexpectedly stopped. The news was dominated by speculations why. Pundits briefly debated whether the existing predictions were still valid. My lingering resentment was appeased when I learned that Mr. Seher’s hermitage was destroyed on the same day. It succeeded in getting struck by two bolts of lightning. The firetrap consumed the old man’s entire estate in its metamorphosis from wood to ashes.

I couldn’t condone sending Mr. Seher’s cache of drugs to the future, but part of me still wanted to accommodate his dying request. I decided on a gesture of which I knew he would approve. I resolved to borrow the coin from the box and flip for it: heads to entomb it in the time capsule, tails to dispose of it.

In the chaos of those weeks, my story on Mr. Seher never ran. I guess it would have been possible to resurrect it on a slow news day later on. But life kept interfering. In the end I admit I forgot. Within a few years I was no longer reminded of Mr. Seher at all, even when I reread my own death prediction: “FORGOTTEN.”