Process

 

I push the button again. The familiar rumble of scraping metal and grinding gears doesn’t follow, and the grimey silver slot below remains empty. My gut drops. I remember that I have to wait.

The first few thousand times, the machine would respond as soon as I released my finger from the red switch. I would press it, the machine would groan and creak from within, and the chrome slot would fill up; I would be rewarded in an instant. That was forever ago. Now, the machine takes its time dispensing my prize. Now, I have to wait.

 

I can do that. I can wait.

 

I squeeze my eyes shut and hide the machine from my sight, as if hiding would pass the time. As if time had meaning in a place like this.

 

Waiting is hard when there’s only one thing on your mind. It’s even harder when the world as you know it is taken from you and replaced with a room, cold and bright, with no roommate but this terrible contraption. This is no science experiment or alien abduction. This is hell.

 

An inch from the button, my hand hovers like a dog waits near a kitchen countertop. Maybe I didn’t push hard enough. Until the machine decides to answer the button press, the meager gray space stays empty, just like I do. Other than the button, that gray vacancy is the only part of the machine I can stand looking at. It’s not black and endless like the rest of the machine. It doesn’t steal my breath away when I steal a glance at it.

 

I should push the button again. But what if it gets jammed? Then what would I have? I’ve been here forever, there isn’t anything else. Just me and this room and this fucking machine.

 

It’s in the dead center of the room. If I turn away, the mirrored walls make more machines everywhere I look. In the reflections, everything is smudged with my grit and grime except for the machine. Even that filth can’t cut through its darkness.

 

In the infinite reflections, a pale skeleton draped with dirty skin and sunken eyes watches me. He stands shadowed next to a great ebon slab of metal, wider than he is tall, stretched all the way to the ceiling. There’s a red button the size of his shriveled head jutting out from the middle of the steel devil beside him. From my room, I search past him into the void of carbon copies. I see him stare, too, behind me at another man in another room in another mirror, these the same as his, his the same as mine. This other man, nude and sniveling, cowers from his machine the same way that I do, the same way the other men in the other millions of mirrors do. On and on, men and machines. As we all watch ourselves, the machine watches us too.

 

I peel my eyes away from the walls and stare up into the gaze of a man in the ceiling. Upside down, he meets my stare and both us of try to outlast the other. A staring contest! I remember those. I used have them with my friends in school – I used to win every time. But this man in the ceiling, he’s had practice. Over and over, our contests always end in a tie.

 

A pang in my stomach reminds me of the button and that wonderful silver slot below it. Just like the button set in the middle of the machine, the machine stands in the middle of the room and floats in the center of my clouded thoughts. I can’t get away from it. Every time I try to forget about the machine, I think of other things. Things that are out of here — that I wasn’t always in here, that I used to be someone other than this man I am now, weak and empty. But then I would forget I was trying to forget and I would remember that I forgot.

I grab myself tight and try to fixate on the new girl I’ve been developing. She has red hair and big tits. I like her a lot. She’s different from the rest. She doesn’t try to get to fucking, at least not as quick as all my others girls do. She likes to take it slow. She likes me, she says. But I can’t take it slow. I can’t help myself. She’s so good I want to kiss and lick and taste and bite and need to have her now I — I — am ashamed I can’t help myself. I wipe my hands on the mirrored wall, adding to the rest of the scum just as another man does the same on the other side. He must
have been watching.

 

I stand up and step toward the back of the machine. It has been enough time. I know, it doesn’t always take the same time after pushing the button, but the last time I pushed it was hours ago, wasn’t it? It doesn’t matter how long. Time has no meaning in a place like this. It’s going to be there — it has to be. That chrome slot is ready, the button above will have finally given up and eased the machine’s terrible grasp on the only thing I want or need.

 

I am done waiting. I prove my patience by taking slow steps as I round the back of the machine to the side and from the side to the front. I hold my eyes shut and promise I will count to five before opening them back up. I can do that. I can wait.

 

One.

 

I like to surprise myself. It helps to pass the time until I push the button again.

 

Two.

 

I know I have to push the button again even if my prize isn’t there. It’s something that I always do, even if I tell myself not to. Even if I tell myself I won’t touch what comes out from the machine, even if it’s something different this time. But it’s never different. It’s always the same.

 

Three.

 

The same size, the same feel. The same smell — rich and smokey. And warm. Oh, so warm! Warm and wet and wonderful, just like the girl with red hair. And big tits, can’t forget those. Just like my new girl, it’s everything I want, it’s everything I could ever want to need.

 

Four.

 

It’s killing me. I can’t stand it. I can’t wait.

 

Five.

 

I open my eyes.

 

It’s just a piece of meat, but it’s mine. Once it’s free from the machine, it belongs to me. I can do whatever I want with it. I can hug it to my cheek or kiss it, dance around with it and sing to it, I can toss it up and catch it, I can show it off to the men in the mirrors. Sometimes I feel like doing all of that, I’m so happy. But then I remember that’s not what meat is meant for. Meat must be eaten. And this was my meat, so I must eat it.

 

It always tastes like I remember it — salty and steaming and seasoned with unknowable spices. Dripping with savory juices, it almost melts away like butter before I can get two or three good chews into it.

 

I know I’ll still be hungry even when I’m done. I’m always hungry, meat or no meat. This time, I need to eat it. But next time, I promise I won’t.

 

Next time, I will let myself die in this room and become master of the machine. It’s the only way out. Next time. I promise.

 

I eat the meat and I push the button again.

 

*****

 

The machine still holds me under its will as I pace around the edge the room with my hand outstretched and dragging across the cold reflection of dirty yellowed glass. My stomach eats away at me, but I remember the promise that I made however long ago. Hours, weeks, years, eternities — as if time had meaning in a place like this.

 

I must not eat the meat. I must keep my promise. I must not forget.

 

I can do that.

 

I hurry to distract myself from the machine by walking laps around the room. I trace the line of dirt and sweat on the walls. Each time around, I follow the steps of my former self.

 

I must not eat the meat, I remind myself. I walk faster, thinking of anything I can to take my thoughts away from the machine and the meat inside it.

 

Ahead of me, my favorite distraction runs backwards, her face hidden by the red hair streaming across it like fire. Her big, beautiful breasts sway up and down, beating against her tight skin like a drum, setting the pace as I march double time now. I must keep my promise.

 

Behind her, another man closes in on her. Not a man from the mirrors, but one here, in the room with me. He looks familiar — like me almost, but his skin doesn’t cling to his ribs. Instead, it bulges around his belly and fills his arms and legs. He is bigger, stronger than me, than any of the men reflected in the walls. His jaws churn up and down as flecks of meat dribble down his chin. As he runs, he eats and eats.

 

Before I can warn the red-haired woman, he catches up to her. He grabs her around the waist and they tumble together toward the center of the room. They roll into the machine with a clang and the woman lies still, her neck snapped and turned away from me. The stronger man stares at me, kneeling on top of her, challenging me to intervene. But I keep running with my hand sliding along the mirrored walls to keep me on track. I must not forget.

 

The stronger man clutches her breasts and lowers his head to the woman’s broken neck, kissing and licking it. Biting it. Still watching me, he raises his head from her body, his figure framed by the machine. His mouth is full of meat.

I tear my gaze away from his and run. Faster and faster until my dragging hand becomes raw and my feet blister and pus. I sense a dark shape to my side where the stronger man eats at the foot of the machine, but I don’t dare a glance.

A voice from the center of the room whispers. I can’t understand without stopping, but each time I pass around it, the voice grows louder. Whether it’s the man or the machine doesn’t matter. I must not forget.

I run until my lungs wilt and my legs wither. But I still run. I’m moving too fast to see into the mirrors. The room blurs.

The whisper has grown into a growl, metallic and booming. I can finally make out the words.

You are not m

I run forever and then over again. I must not forget.

I must not stop. My legs burn in agony, screaming at me to end their suffering. I must not stop. My limp hand drags behind me, streaking the walls with blood. I must not stop. I am blood on the mirror. I am bone, broken. I am flesh, torn, ripped apart and chewed in the maw of a monster.

I am not man. I am meat.

I run and I run and I run and I feel and I see and I don’t and I run and I smell and I bite and I snap and I fall and I bleed and I crawl and I scream and I cry and I sleep and I die. And I rise.

And I eat the meat.

 

*****

 

I wake up and wipe grease out of my eyes. Even so, the room is still blurry. I don’t know how long I’ve been sleeping, but that doesn’t matter. As if time had meaning in a place like this. My stomach growls. My eyes focus and flit to the machine, black and solemn in the middle of it all. I don’t have to look around to know the men in the mirrors watch it too.

The invisible hole in my stomach remembers something. A promise? Yes, a promise. That everything I could ever want lay in the belly of that machine, and that all I had to do was push the button to have it.

I push the button again. The familiar rumble of scraping metal and grinding gears doesn’t follow, and the grimey silver slot below remains empty. My gut drops. I remember that I have to wait.