Michael put the knife and fork down on his plate and looked over the table. Sally was already on her phone, texting.

“Is she coming?” he asked.

“Yep,” she replied. “Going to be late, though.”

“Well, so long as you know where you’re going to meet her.”

He stood up, took the plates and placed them in the dishwasher.

“Udo not around?” she asked, looking up from the phone.

“Don’t know where he’s got to recently,” Michael shook his head. “Not really speaking to him much.”

“Oh dear.”

“Yep,” he nodded. “Thinking I may need to find another flatmate. He owes me three months of his half of the rent already.”

“I didn’t know he was so far behind,” Sally replied. “There’s a house share I know of, couple of guys from work, they need a third, if you want me to ask. They even have decent broadband.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” he said, pressing buttons on the dishwasher. “Thanks sis.”

“No worries,” she said, standing up. “Thanks for dinner. Shall we go?”

“Yes,” Michael replied, the dishwasher beeping as he pressed the start button. “Let’s move.”

They walked out the apartment block and down to the street. Sally checked her car, to make sure it was locked. A futile gesture, because she knew it was locked already, Michael thought, but it was habit. He tutted, but only for show; he was used to it.

Heading towards the fairground, they heard the sounds of the fair long before they could see it, the familiar smells of candy floss and popcorn drifting on the wind to meet them.

“Where are you going to meet Shauna?” he asked.

“Oh Shauna’s coming later,” Sally replied. “Nazreen and Kim are meeting me in about half an hour, over by the other gate.”

They strolled towards the other side of the park, taking in the rides as they did: the big wheel, the waltzer, the Crazy Kangaroo that Sally said was great fun last year, but that Michael hadn’t dared to try. And then Michael noticed a box in one corner.

“Hey look at this,” he said, pointing. “This is weird.”

Sally looked in the direction he was pointing and saw what appeared to be one of the classic “oracle” machines, popular in the early 1900s. In the more modern ones, the fake guru was made of fibreglass, but this one looked old enough to be painted wood, a small crack running up through its head lending it a distressed quality. In big painted letters, the cabinet below read three words:

Your death, foretold.

“That’s creepy,” Sally said.

“Very,” Michael laughed, fishing in his pocket for coins. “I’m going to do it.”

“There’s a notice here,” Sally pointed.

“I don’t care,” Michael shrugged. “It looks like it’s working to me.”

He put the coin in the slot and the machine started whirring and clanking. A few seconds later, a ticket popped out:

Tonight, 11:35 pm

Michael looked at the ticket, stopped still for a moment, and forced a smile.

“What does it say?” Sally asked.

She went to grab the ticket, but Michael instinctively whisked his hand away, trying to avoid her grasp. She stared at him, arching an eyebrow.

“It’s nonsense,” he said. “Really.”

She stretched out her hand, palm open, and opened and closed the fingers in a “give me” gesture. Michael sighed, knowing he wasn’t going to win this one, and placed the ticket in her hand. Sally looked at it and snorted.

“Back luck bro,” she smiled. “But look, the thing here says -”

Michael’s phone rang in his pocket. He shrugged, pulled it out and answered.

They started walking again as he talked. He hung up as they reached the far gate.

“Donna’s bailed on me,” he said. “Again.”

“Oh well,” Sally said. “You could always come round with me and the girls, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”

“Nah,” he shook his head. “That silly machine thing’s put me off a bit. I think I’ll go drive a few laps round Monaco or something, just get out my annoyance with Donna.”

“She’s always doing this, isn’t she?” Sally asked, waving to two women who were approaching.

“Yeah,” Michael replied. “I keep thinking of ending it with her.”

“Well, Nazreen fancies you, if that helps.”

“Too soon,” Michael shook his head. “Besides which, I’m not keen on that sleeve tattoo of hers.”

Sally laughed. Michael turned to walk away.

“Shall I pop in on the way back when I come for the car?”

“I wouldn’t bother,” he shook his head. “I’ll probably be asleep by then.”

“OK,” Sally said, giving him a thumbs up.

He walked off, slouching down, his good mood evaporating. The sky was getting overcast and the heat of the day was dissipating. He stopped off at one of the beer tents and had a couple of pints, but it didn’t help. All it did was make him a little bit drunk and a little more tired, without easing any of the annoyance at Donna or some stupid machine that printed random numbers on a card and…

And I should stop thinking about it, he thought. This is not a movie, this is not a magic machine. It was actually plugged in and working, there’s nothing special or spooky about it. Well, except the fact that people used to actually find that sort of thing amusing.

He walked home, looking around the sides until he left the fairground, but didn’t see the machine again. He checked his watch: half past eight. So he had just about three hours and five minutes left to live, if that nonsense could be believed.

He stopped at a lamppost, pulled out the ticket, tore it into as many pieces as he could, and dumped the bits in the bin attached to the side of the light.

Good, he thought. It’s gone.

He breathed out, feeling lighter, adrenaline seeping away. He closed his eyes, smelled the night air, and started walking again.

He turned the key to the flat and entered.

Udo was stretched on the sofa, watching a movie.

“Hey man, you’re early.”

“Donna stood me up,” Michael replied. “What are you watching?”

“Something off Netflix,” Udo said. “It’s not very good.”

“Uh huh.”

Michael picked up the remote control and turned off the TV.

“Hey,” Udo said. “I was watching that.”

“I’ll turn it back on when you start paying me the rent you owe me,” Michael said.

Udo held his hands in the air, and started to rise off the sofa.

“Look,” he said. “It won’t be forever, I’ve got a plan -”

Michael threw the remote control at him, hitting Udo in the ribs. He winced, and held a hand to his side.

“Ah, I’m going to bed,” Michael said, turning his back. “Do what you want.”

“I’ve got a job interview,” Udo said to his retreating back. “Tomorrow. It’s going to be fine.”

Michael slammed the bedroom door and threw himself onto the bed.

 

He slept fitfully, visions of death making him toss and turn. At one point he envisioned a bulldozer crashing through the wall of the house, and realised that he’d seen that in a movie. He finally woke up around ten.

“Hey,” Udo said as he approached the kitchen. “Still mad with me?”

“Do we have an axe?”

“A what now?” he started up from the sofa. “I didn’t realise you were that mad.”

Michael dismissively waved a hand at him. “Never mind,” he said, rooting under the sink.

“What the hell man?” Udo asked, standing up now. He moved into a defensive pose, covering organs, ready to fight.

Something in his hand, Michael headed for the door.

“Don’t wait up,” he said, walking past. “I’ve got a curse to break”

The walk back to the fairground took only a few minutes, Michael striding along quickly, swinging the hammer in his hand. The noises sounded less inviting this time, the smells less savoury, but for the first time since that ticket came out of the machine, he felt good. Excited, even. He had a purpose. He slipped the hammer under his jacket.

He entered the fairground again, the crowds more dense than they were a few hours ago. He tried to retrace his steps, and walked straight forward again, replaying the earlier conversation with Sally in his mind. And then he saw the machine.

“Your Death, Foretold” he read out, under his breath.

He allowed himself a small, acid grimace and headed toward the machine, the hand underneath his coat gripping the handle of the hammer tight enough to turn the knuckles chalk white.

 

“What happened?” the paramedic asked.

“He just started smashing,” the man said. “He had a hammer. He just kept smashing it.”

“It’s a weird machine, mate,” someone said and the man turned to him.

“It’s an old thing,” the man said, his eastern European accent seeming to get thicker with the stress. “It’s old but I keep because some people like to see it. I put it on the website, some people come just to see it.”

“What’s his name, does anyone know?” the paramedic asked.

“Oh my God,” a woman screamed, starting to move her way through the crowd. “Michael!”

“Michael,” the paramedic said. “Michael, stay with me, okay?”

“He slipped,” a woman said. “He was hammering and he slipped, cut himself on the glass.”

“It’s true,” said the owner. “You can see on the glass there with the big blood streak.”

The paramedic leaned over, cleared Michael’s airway and started artificial respiration.

“Stay with me,” she said.

“I’m his sister,” Sally said, finally managing to make her way through to the front.

“Can you move back again, please? Give him some space, let him breathe!” the other paramedic shouted, before turning to Sally. “Is he allergic to anything, do you know?”

“Nothing that I know of,” Sally said. She was conscious, as she bent down, that her legs were getting wet. She didn’t want to look down in case she was kneeling in blood.

The second paramedic finished working, looked up at the first, and shook her head.

The first stopped, leaned back and sighed.

“What time is it?” the first asked.

The second looked at her watch and replied “twenty-five to midnight.”

For the first time in her life, Sally fainted.

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