Standing at just over six feet, the grey object looked like a vending machine but with some differences. It had a coin slot and an area for dispensing items; however, the front was not a glass window but an opaque, grey surface, just like the sides. There were no markings anywhere to serve as clues as to the object’s function. Only a low hum and a dim glow coming from somewhere inside indicated anything remarkable about it.
A man walked into the alley where the machine sat. He lit a cigarette and leaned back against a brick wall. On the other side of that wall, the man’s wife lay dying in a hospital bed. The alley was far enough from the hospital’s entrance so he could smoke.
As he was lighting a second cigarette from the butt of the first one, he noticed the hum. Maybe it was the quiet of the night, but the machine sounded louder than it did when he first stepped into the alley. Walking to the front of it, green lights had appeared which spelled out: MAKE A WISH.
Was this a collection box for that charity? It looked more like one of those smart refrigerators, but there didn’t seem to be any way to open it. Noticing the coin slot, he fished around his pockets for any loose change. In his back left pocket, which he never used, he found a quarter. Feeling lucky, he put the coin into the slot.
Immediately, there was a rattle in the change tray. Sure enough, the quarter was there. The front of the machine began flashing: YOU MUST FIRST MAKE A WISH.
This felt like a cruel joke. Who would put a machine like this near a hospital? Trying to profit off of getting people’s hopes up. But he didn’t think he had anything to lose. There was really only one thing he wished for: he didn’t want his wife to die.
When that thought crossed his mind, the words changed: HOW MUCH IS IT WORTH TO YOU?
His wife meant everything to him; he would give all that he had to save her life.
The letters changed once more: PLEASE DEPOSIT A QUARTER.
Again, he put the quarter into the coin slot.
* * *
A small item fell into the dispensing area. Pulling it out, he discovered it was a small box containing a single pill. Very small letters on the package read: Give to patient with water.
A different alley. A different time.
A woman, who looked to be in her early thirties, peered into the dimness and caught sight of the grey machine. She stood in front of it, and, after hesitating, she reached out and gently brushed it. As she did, the front sprang to life, spelling out in green letters: MAKE A WISH.
“You’re real. You’re really real.” She backed up against the wall behind her and slid down until she was sitting on the pavement. “Of course, you had to be real. I know that. I just find it hard to believe I finally found you. I’ve been looking for so long.”
If the machine understood her, there was no indication. It’s front continued to show the same message.
“I’ve wondered if you know what you’re doing or just following some program. Do you care what happens to those who do make a wish?”
MAKE A WISH.
“So either you aren’t sentient, or you’re not going to tell me. Even if you were sentient, I wonder if you would know who I am.”
For years, she had thought about what she wanted to say if this moment ever came. Now that the machine was in front of her, she had to confront the possibility that her words didn’t matter. Still, even if it was only for herself, she pushed on.
“My husband found you many, many years ago. I think I’ve lost track of how much time has passed. Has it already been a century? He made a wish at your prompting.”
The words changed: NO REFUNDS.
“Does that mean you do understand? I wonder. But no, I’m not looking for a refund. I just want you to know what happened.”
She paused to take a few deep breaths.
“The pill you gave my husband worked, obviously. Everyone said it was a miracle, and it was, for a time. I was supposed to die; instead, my husband and I got to stay together. It was a mixed blessing, however.
“Soon after I recovered, he lost his job. Then the bank foreclosed on our home. All of our worldly possessions were gone. We lived for a time in a van I had gotten before we met. I would like to say we had each other and that was enough, but it’s not true. After several years of struggling, he gave up.
“Instead of me dying and leaving him, our positions were reversed.”
A few tears welled up in her eyes. As if they offended her, she angrily wiped them away.
“Don’t know why I would cry now. All of this happened so long ago.”
After taking another minute to compose herself, she continued.
“Before he died, he told me all about his wish and the details of the machine that had saved my life. In his suicide letter to me, he apologized for saving me only to subject me to a miserable existence.
“It was stupid of him. I never saw our additional time together as miserable, but he couldn’t stop seeing himself as a failure.”
She took a few more breaths trying to keep the tears at bay. During the silence, the words changed again: APOLOGIES.
“I’m not looking for an apology. You gave him what he asked for, and he paid the price he said he would. I don’t blame him or you. Neither of you could know how he would fare under the pressure of the price he set. What he never knew, what I only learned after his death, was that his wish – that I not die – seems to be permanent. I have spent decades looking for you because I am trapped. Immortality, especially without him, is a dismal prospect. I was hoping you could help.”
Green lights danced on the machine for a moment, and then spelled out: MAKE A WISH.
“Thank you. I wish you had never granted his wish.”
ARE YOU CERTAIN?
“I have never been more sure of anything.”
HOW MUCH IS IT WORTH TO YOU?
“My life. It is worth my life.” Maybe that was cheating, but it was also true.
The lights flashed longer than they had before. Finally: PLEASE DEPOSIT A QUARTER.
Letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, she placed a coin in the slot.
* * *
MAKE A WISH.
He fished around his pockets looking for a coin. Unsurprisingly, he came up empty. When was the last time he had carried any cash? His second cigarette at its end, instead of lighting a third, he decided to go back and spend what time she had left by her side.