I wrote this short story last week. It isn’t a horror story. It’s just a story. About the choices we make. And how luck and faith and blindness and so many other things, all prevent us from seeing what we are really choosing.
The Happiness Machine
Just like everybody else, Jeremy and Roger had heard about the Happiness Machine for the first time when they were niners.
It was a machine able to make sure you would never experience sadness or any other such uninspiring feelings. You just had to tell the man who operated it what you wanted. In fact, the saying went, you had to choose between being forever happy or being forever free.
Jeremy had heard someone had chosen to be free. And Roger too. But those were surely all tall tales. Stories made up just for the sake of it. To create confusion and attract the people’s attention. After all, what was the point of being free if you were to never be happy?
When they reached the top of the mountain they saw the sign. To the machine, it said. Nothing more. They went ahead and less than five minutes later they found themselves in a courtyard. This was shaped like a triangle. Wide on the side they had come, and narrow on the opposite one. Here stood a building with a heavy wooden door. It was unadorned and plain. More like a plank than a proper door.
Jeremy knocked. They waited there for a while. A couple of minutes passed and nobody came, and Jeremy knocked again. When he did a voice coming from behind the door made them start.
“Coming!” The door swung open in a swoosh.
“I was waiting for you. You’re late.”
Those words came from an old man with a long and white beard. He was lean, almost skinny, and wore a tunic that looked like it was made of silver. In the morning sun it sparkled and made it difficult for Jeremy and Roger to look directly at it without continuously blinking.
“Good morning,” Jeremy said. “We’re here–“
“For the machine, of course you are.” The old man produced a crooked smile.
“Everbody shows up for the machine. They can’t help it.”
“Everbody?” Jeremy asked. “You must mean everybody,”
The old man smiled at Jeremy. But he didn’t heed his words. “My name’s Beltron,” he said instead, extending his hand.
First Jeremy and then Roger shook hands with the old man and said their names.
“This way,” the old man said turning on his heels and retracing his steps inside the building.
“The Wisdom Machine is this way.”
“The Wisdom Machine? You mean the Happiness machine,” Jeremy said.
The old man shrugged. “A rose by any other name… You can call it any way you want. In the end it doesn’t really matter. The machine works always the same.”
“The Happiness Machine. I like it best,” Jeremy said.
The old man said nothing and the three of them walked down a long aisle. The air in there was stifling. And hanging on the walls were many paintings portraying people neither Jeremy nor Roger could recognize. This was strange. Because judging from the their pose, those people in the portraits had to have been important personages.
“Who are they?” Roger asked after a while.
The old man turned. He alternatively stared at Jeremy and at the paintings. His lips moved, but no intelligible words came from his mouth. “It doesn’t really matter who they were,” he said. “We call them The Ones Who Never Were,” he added with an echo of sadness in his voice.
At those words, a line creased Roger’s forehead.
“What does that mean?”
The old man shrugged. “Bad choices. They made bad choices.”
At this Jeremy broke out laughing. I bet they chose freedom over happiness.”
The old man said nothing. But from the stiff posture of his body it was apparent he was refraining himself from speaking out lout his thoughts.
The rest of the way they went in silence.
There were two doors. The first was small and made of steel, and in it opened a window as small and round as a porthole. Above the entrance, a single word was etched on a plaque embedded in the wall: Happiness.
The other door was just as small as the first, but it was made of rotten wood. It stood barely up on rusty hinges, and in it didn’t open any porthole. Above it there was no plaque. Instead, etched directly in the wall with what looked like a nail, someone had scratched the word Freedom.
“Here we are,” the old man said. “This is The Wisd– The Happiness machine. Who goes in first?”
The question was still ringing in the air when Jeremy took a step forward.
“I’ll go first,” he said. “I can’t wait.”
The old man nodded. Then he turned to Roger.
“The procedure requires that you look at your friend through the porthole when he enters the machine.”
Roger raised his eyebrows. “Why?”
The old man shook his head slowly. “I can’t say anything about the hows and whys of the procedure. I’m bound by an oath of secrecy. But this is what you must do. And this is why the machine accepts people only two at a time. When the first goes in the second always looks on.”
Roger shrugged. “If this is the way it has to be done, fine” he said.
Jeremy beamed at Roger. “See you on the other side.”
Roger nodded but didn’t look at him for long. He felt uneasy and confused. And he didn’t know why he felt that way. And that not knowing made him even more uneasy and confused. He slowly shook his head and let out a barely perceptible sigh.
Thrilled and oblivious of his friends misgivings, Jeremy opened the door and took a step inside the machine. The he turned and closed the door behind himself. He remained where he was, looking back at Roger with a smile plastered on his face, waving his hand in an exaggerated goodbye gesture.
Roger looked on. At first he noticed nothing strange. So he began to relax and sighed with relief. But then a hum filled the air and a shadow that wasn’t really a shadow passed over his friend’s face.
The light in Jeremy’s eyes went off. His eyes remained open and lively, but they lost any resemblance of self-awareness and intelligence.
He began to chuckle and giggle, covering his mouth with a hand and laughing. The wrinkles in his skin flattened away and his face turned into the glowing-pink parody of an infant’s.
When the transformation was complete Roger realized he was staring at a sort of doll. A doll made of flesh and bones, and as happy as a clam, but a doll, or a puppet, nonetheless.
“It’s your turn,” the old man said. “Happiness or Freedom?”
Roger panicked at the idea of turning into a sort of idiotically laughing doll. Yet the idea of forfeiting happiness altogether troubled him beyond words.
“If you don’t make your choice, you’ll be fed to the machine anyway,” The old man warned him.
“Through which door?”
“At random,” the old man said. But something in the tone of his voice suggested he knew perfectly well the answer. “You have one minute,” the old man went on. “From now.”
Roger had promised his friend he would go in after him, through the same door. But that had been before. When he knew nothing of what waited them on the mountain. When he knew nothing of that machine.
His friend was happy, he told himself. And that was what mattered most after all. But if Jeremy was really so happy, how was it Roger felt like he had just seen his best friend die? Shouldn’t he too be happy for him? Happy. Again that word. All of a sudden it began to taste sourly on his tongue.
“Time’s almost up,” The old man said in a dusty voice.
“I’ve made up my mind,” Roger said in a rush.
“And that would be?”
“Freedom,” Roger said feeling like a traitor and yet unable to choose otherwise.
The old man looked sternly at him. “That’s something,” he said opening a rotting door that screeched on ancient hinges.
Roger went in. Gingerly, he took a first step. Then a second and a third. Haze and steam engulfed him in a sort of stifling cloud. For a few moments nothing happened. Then he felt like his head was filled with all the worries and injustices of the world. He had the impression of being a balloon which someone was inflating with too much gas. A balloon that would soon explode.
His shoulders ached and his back too. For a moment he felt like he was a million years old. And had lived all those years in a labor camp. Following that obscene gospel which went by the name of Mein Kampf.
He was sure he died.
Yet, dead people are sure of nothing. Their thoughts vanish into nothingness. Instead, Roger kept experiencing a robust sensation of being himself. Or rather, of getting back to being again himself.
When the process ended he heard a screech. It was the rusty door, he realized. In fact, through the steam and the haze he saw a blade of light cut through from the outside.
He moved toward the door. On the doorstep he stopped.
“Come out,” it was the voice of the old man.
Roger went out and looked around. The world was pretty much the same. But his fears were gone. And he hadn’t felt so serene in years. He turned to look inquisitively at the old man. This shrugged.
“You don’t get it, do you? But that’s normal. After all you were borderline. But don’t worry. In less than a month you’ll be on par with everybody else.”
“What do you mean? What happened?”
The old man didn’t really answer. “When you’re willing to forfeit happiness for something else that is equally important—that is when you are really ready.”
“Really ready for what?”
The old man nodded to himself. Then he snapped his fingers. “One last thing,” he said. ”Try not to forget this conversation.”
So saying he pulled a nearby lever. A trapdoor opened under Roger’s feet, and he disappeared with a scream in a dark tunnel.
The nurse took the infant and examined it. “Here he is,” she said handing it to his mother. “A wonderful and healthy boy.”
Hope you liked it. And if you feel like, do leave a comment! For more free short stories have a look at my other free stuff.