I don't know what it was. Some sort of weird delusion, a culmination of stress from days of little sleep and caffeine-spiked semi-consciousness? I can get pretty addicted to caffeine. But I'm not even sure what really happened last night, that moment when I left that conference building in Manhattan. Still, I remember everything. Sometimes I wake up at night with that warm, bitter taste in my mouth again, and I'm not sure whether it's some sort of recurring dream. But it keeps happening, and I know I've been going back for more. It's been more than ten times a month now, since it started two months ago.
“You sure you have a ride?”
I rolled my eyes. “Dude, just leave already.”
My colleague retorted, “It's half past midnight, kid, and this is NYC. Pretty shady stuff can happen in the city.”
I tapped my watch. “Julie will be here in fifteen minutes, and my sis is always on time. I'll be fine.”
He got into his cab, flashing me an annoyed look. “Alright, try not to get mugged out here. See you later, kid.”
“Whatever, Chad.” I watched his taxi maneuver around the parking lot, and then screech down the street.
Then it was just me, alone in a deserted parking lot. Everyone had already left. There weren't any public benches of any sort, and I soon got bored standing and waiting. First I played Candy Crush, but my phone shut off somehow after five minutes, though I remember I charging it full that morning. With nothing else to do I started looking around.
Just ten feet away, I noticed a large, blue and lime green vending machine that I hadn't seen before – must not have paid attention—and thought that since there was nothing else to do, I'd waste a dollar buying some overpriced snack just to pass the time. Julie was taking a long freaking time to get here, anyway.
It was a really weirdly designed machine, with all these carnival lights and little kid button things like a clown-themed Nintendo game on crack, like it was marketed to six year olds who liked tie-dye and an overdose of colors. Across the top, it said, “THE ALL-NEW IMPROVED UNIVERSAL BEVERAGE AND SNACK MACHINE”, in large, bold capital font. On the right side, it looked normal, with a bunch of letter buttons, a coin slot and the place where you get the change from. There was a compartment that the cups and drinks probably came out of, and a push in safety door thing you'd see on most snack vending machines.
On the left, it got pretty confusing. What the heck did USAM stand for, anyway? Or BRI and CADA for that matter? It was just a weird menu list in varying colors and fonts, and there were columns and columns of stuff and I still have no idea what they meant. I'm guessing they all stood for some shit and whoever designed the stupid machine just needed more space.
Whoever designed the thing must have been a raging sociopath too, because everything was extremely overpriced. Apparently, USAM cost $21,000—I thought I had miscounted the zeros or something, but I checked it a few times and that's exactly what it said. Is stuff seriously more expensive in the city, or has inflation suddenly gone up when I wasn't paying attention? RUSA was $10,000 and well, CINA was cheaper, about $1,000 and IDA was $500. I looked through the list and found one I could actually pay for. KNYA, $5.
I unfolded the paper bill from my wallet and shoved it up in the dollar slot. The machine bzzzzzzed for a second, and then the screen blinked, flashing out, "/PAYMENT ACCEPTED/". I pushed out the letter buttons to spell KNYA and hesitated. I was probably just wasting money. Out of boredom, too, which makes doing all of this pretty pointless. Julie was probably going to be here any minute now.
But I already stuck with it so far, and who knows if the shitty machine would give my money back, so I pressed the bottom marked CONFIRM.
I'm not making this part up, I swear. I heard a gunshot, and a child screaming and screaming and screaming. I stood there in shock, my hand still on the button, and the machine started to move, vibrating and grinding and churning and gurgling like a washing machine with a brick thrown into it.
Thunk. A paper cup dropped into the cup compartment. And the screaming didn't stop, just screaming and pleading and never ending screaming. There were choking sounds, and suddenly, there was red, so much red, like cherry soda, but thicker and redder as it poured out in gallons and gallons into the cup and overflowed and kept going, frothing down the side of the machine and pooling around my shoes, red liquid that smelled like blood. It didn't seem like it was going to stop. I just stood there and shut my eyes and tried to stop hearing as well, but the screaming just wouldn't stop and kept going and going.
There was a gasping sound, and then there was nothing but the trickling of the machine. Drip, drip, drip. Then silence.
I opened my eyes. I was standing in a pool of blood, in front of that vending machine, my hand on the bloodied cardboard cup still in its compartment. On its side, in slanted, orange bubbly writing it said, "KENYA – EXOTIC NEW TASTES, AT THE GREATEST PRICES, BROUGHT TO YOU FRESH", with cartoons of trees and animals and stick figures.
I felt like I was going to vomit.
There was a rattle, and I heard the thud-thud-thud-thud of other parts dropping down within the bottom of the vending machine, probably against the snack door. I didn't even need to look to know what they were.
The machine shuddered again, a belated, final groan. Plop. A small splash, and a few drops dripped out of the cup and ran down the sides and my hands. I picked up the cup.
Floating on the surface, staring back at me before it sunk down, was a human eye.
Forty-five minutes later, I was in the front seat of Julie's car. “Sorry about being late, little bro. There was a weird power outage and the streetlights and traffic lights stopped working. I would've called, but my phone's not working.” I stayed silent.
“I know you're pissed, but I got here as fast as I could.” She glanced at me, then made a turn. I stared forward dispassionately.
“So, are you gonna finish that coffee, or what?”