The Machine

Deborah F. was the first one to hear it, and since she was crazy we ignored her. The previous week she had accused us of stealing from her dog.

“Machine?” we said, looking at each other sidelong. “We didn’t hear anything.”

Then it woke Terry up in the middle of the night.

“Like a bear eating aluminum foil,” he told us. “Or like a snake.”

“What kind of snake?” we asked.

“I can’t describe it.”

Terry seemed shaken up. We let him come into our apartment for a cup of tea. Then all three of us heard it. It was coming from the basement. To Jessica it sounded like iron hands kneading bone into powder. To me it sounded like tooth grinding on tooth in a tube of steel. We all agreed it was mechanical, unalive. We stayed up all that night, and in the morning we put an “Out of Order” sign on the basement door so that no one would get hurt.

That week we kept talking about calling the landlord.

“It’s his responsibility,” Terry said. “It’s disturbing our sleep.”

“I can’t get my writing done,” said Deborah F. “I’m having panic attacks.”

Jessica and I had both started crying for no reason.

But somehow none of us ever called. We started to look unhealthy, pale in the cheeks and dark around the eyes. We moved like squirrels, twitching and starting, crossing rooms at a dead run. We hunched close to our plates at dinnertime, guarding our food. And yet we kept running into one another at the bottom of the stairs, gazing at the “Out of Order”sign.

Sunday night I woke at 3 a.m. The sound was like biting and chomping, and it was like a call. I was careful not to wake up Jessica. I crept downstairs. Terry and Deborah F. already there. Deborah was chewing the sleeve of her nightgown. Terry was peeling off bits of the “Out of Order” sign and pulverizing them in his hands.

“What are you doing here?” I asked them.

They turned their hooded eyes on me and I saw it was a stupid question. I heard Jessica coming down the stairs.

When we all four stood together, our nervous bodies went quiet. Deborah let the nightgown drop from her mouth. Terry scattered his wisps of paper on the floor. Jessica looked at me as she had on our wedding night, expectant and resigned. I opened the basement door.

The sound filled the room like blood fills a vein. It crashed inside our heads. I was aware of an orange light, the glint of polished steel, but my eyes no longer cared what they saw. We all knew what we had to do. We each stepped forward, one by one, and crawled into the mouth of the machine.

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