When I was eight years old and my brother Jamie was nine, our father took us with him on one of his business trips. My father was a salesman, often on the road, and my mother was away that time, visiting a dying aunt in another state. So my father had to take us with him.
For Jamie and me it was an adventure. We sat together in the backseat and sang song and made faces at the cars behind us. For my father it must have been a trial, but he never showed it. We accompanied him to meetings in dreary little offices in business parks where he would take his samples out—potato chips and off-brand soft drinks and mini chocolate bars. Everything you needed to supply the shelves of a vending machine.
Did you ever notice how vending machines are everywhere? My father would always point them out to us as we passed one in a shopping mall or a parking garage, at the doctors, in school. They were always in the background to people’s lives, humming to themselves in some strange, secretive language. Their very purpose was to lure you, and you never really noticed when one hooked you. You put your money in and reached inside the bowels of the beast, grasping for that chocolate bar. You never realised just how many of them there were.
They hid in plain sight.
That night we stayed in a little cheap motel off the highway. The room was musty and the window stuck half-way up. It rained outside and the air was humid. Black cars dotted the parking lot like dead flies.
My father took one bed and me and Jamie shared the other.
There was a vending machine, of course. It crouched in the reception hallway, an old model, dusty on top. I could not see where it was plugged in to the wall. It loomed, humming to itself, flashing red. Candy seemed to swirl inside it in a luring pattern. I had since learned it was called a planogram, the way the products are arranged inside.
Jamie stared at the chocolate bars with hunger.
“No, Jamie,” I said. “Don’t.”
He didn’t take his eyes of them. He was hooked, caught in the machine’s siren song.
“Come on, Jamie,” I said, pulling him by the hand. Our father, oblivious, went to the machine and fed it quarters. When we got to our room he assembled our dinner on the bed. Potato chips and pop tarts and cheese crackers and trail mix, and a can of soda to share.
“All of God’s bounty,” my father said, and spread his arms wide like a proud hunter.
I looked at the food, lying there on the bed in its bright, inviting wrappers. The shape they made resembled the same helix of a pattern from inside the machine, and as it began to dance before my eyes I felt dizzy. I found myself faintly repulsed by the sight.
“I’m not hungry,” I said.
“More for me!” Jamie said, and he scooped up a handful of chips.
“Are you OK, Robbie?” my father said. I could see his concern and forced a smile. I nodded.
“Just my stomach,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
I lay on the bed as they ate, my father slowly and Jamie in a rush. The TV set in the corner showed an old black and white movie but the screen was fuzzy with static.
Before long it was time to brush our teeth and turn out the lights. The room felt different in the dark, and though the blinds were closed now I could hear the rain knocking on the glass like the tap of skeletal fingers
It didn’t affect the others. Soon my father was on his back snoring in the other bed, and me and Jamie lay on our bed and watched television.
The flickering image soon made me drowsy. I was ready to sleep but felt Jamie restless beside me.
“Hey, Robbie,” he said.
“What?” I mumbled.
“I’m still hungry.”
“You’re always hungry,” I said.
“I want chocolate.”
“We don’t have any,” I said.
“The machine has it,” he said, and there was something in the way he said the machine that sent a shiver of fear down my spine, though I could not explain why.
It was his voice, I decided. It sounded different when he said it.
“No, Jamie,” I said. “You can’t.”
But he didn’t listen.
“It’s only right there,” he said. He got out of bed. He was still in his pajamas. He tiptoed to the table and took a handful of coins from our father’s wallet.
“Jamie, don’t!” I said.
“I’ll bring you back one,” he said, and grinned at me, his mouth a mixture of adult teeth and smaller ones, arranged in a planogram that reminded me suddenly of the candy display in the machine. Then he turned his back on me and opened the door, and the light of the corridor framed his small silhouette in that square of light before he shut it behind him and was gone.
I lay unmoving in the bed. Something dragged against the window and I held my pillow tightly, willing it away. The room was dark. My father snored. I wanted desperately to get up but I was scared. We weren’t supposed to leave the room.
I felt so tired then. I had been drowsy before, and the flickering television combined with the noises outside to lull me into sleep.
At last I got up, or thought I had. The room felt different, but only a moment must have passed. I tiptoed out into the corridor. I could hear the machine just behind the corner, humming to itself.
I froze, listening. I could hear someone—Jamie, I was sure—putting coins into the slot. The machine beeped in what sounded like hungry anticipation as he made his selection.
Something moved deep within the bowels of the machine and fell with a soft thump. I heard Jamie grunting as he must have kneeled down, reached inside the flap to grasp for the bar of chocolate.
An awful fear took hold of me.
“Jamie, don’t—!” I began to say.
There was a terrible sound like a tearing and a sucking all at once, and I was sure I heard a short, sharp scream but it was cut almost immediately.
I ran around the corner.
There was nothing there. The machine stood, contented, burping to itself. Its lights flashed reassuringly. Its inside were laden as before with tempting sweets.
I stared at it. There was no sign of Jamie.
I had been so sure . . .
The machine hummed. I stood frozen. Wouldn’t I like to come to it? the machine seemed to say. Wouldn’t I like to choose a chocolate bar, all to myself, a special, secret treat just between us?
Its lure was so strong at that moment that I found myself unconsciously taking one step towards it and then another.
The lights flashed, the machine hummed. My face was pressed against the glass. I looked inside, and thought I heard a scream from deep within.
I turned and ran.
I woke up to daylight. The blinds were open.
My father was shaking me.
“Where is Jamie?” he said. “Where is Jamie!”
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Policemen with grave faces came and went. A journalist from the local paper took our picture as we stood helpless outside. My father’s face was pinched with worry.
I tried to tell an adult my story but no one listened. We searched everywhere for Jamie but we never found him. The police thought a stranger kidnapped him as he went outside.
A child goes missing in the United States every forty seconds.
I will not relate the next awful, miserable years. My mother never forgave my father for what happened. They’d soon divorced and I felt, in my heart of hearts, that they blamed me for Jamie’s disappearance. If only I had stopped him from going outside that night!
I had been a good student, but my grades soon began to suffer. I had a good group of friends but after that night I fell out with each of them. These were not easy years. The loss of a brother is one thing. But the not knowing, it gnaws at you, it keeps you awake and wondering.
Where did he go? What happened to him?
A child goes missing every forty seconds.
In all that time one constant remained. Wherever I went there they were. Silent, patient, waiting in the shadows. The machines hulked, shining brightly out of their nooks and crannies. They were ever hungry, putting out their lures of sweets and dispensable things, and as I watched I began to discern their secret planograms.
I watched obsessively, for hours, as one person would go past, stop as though puzzled, glance aside, continue on, then falter. Slowly they would return, mesmerised by the sight. Their heads would gradually lower closer to the glass. Their eyes, now glazed, would scan the shelves. At last they would decide, though the object itself, I think, seldom mattered.
It was more the getting, I think. They would reach into their pockets hurriedly then, count out change with impatient fingers. Eagerly they’d drop the coins into the slot, and wait in tense anticipation as the spiral moved, slowly, and the lure was pushed.
Then that hushed anticipation as it went over the edge and fell, fell, fell into the dispensing well, and now they rushed to put their hand through and grab hold of it.
Then, suddenly sated, they’d stand there with a blank look in their eyes as though they weren’t sure now what even happened. They’d walk away still clutching their prize.
They would come back, I knew. They always came back.
I went to college but dropped out after only one year. My father was still in the supply business. He got me a job with one of the firms he worked with, and I now had a route, filling vending machines with stock.
I was grateful for the job. It opened up a secret world to me, filled with a bewildering array of models: Cascades and Melodias and Tangos, Shoppertrons and SuperStacks and SnackMarts. I learned the insides of these creatures, their spacers and expellers, but more than that I was eager to learn their habits. My route took me through malls and taxi stands to hospitals and airports. The machines were ordinary, unremarkable presences, an inescapable part of the urban landscape. But mostly they were peaceful. I could not discern the malevolence I had felt just once before, the night Jamie vanished.
This changed abruptly one late shift. My route took me through an underground car park, where a sole machine stood by the lifts. It was an old model Samba, dispensing an variety of soft drinks and the usual assortment of chips.
I did not like going through the car park. The bare concrete walls were cold, and half the light fixtures were broken, so that the place was always in gloom. Being underground, there were no windows.
Few people parked in this sub-basement level. As I walked I saw only two cars, parked some spaces apart, one of which I was pretty sure was abandoned. I shivered in the cold and wrapped my coat tightly around me. My footsteps echoed eerily in that empty space. The sole square of light was ahead of me, in the small alcove of the lift’s waiting area.
I heard a hum emanating from the space that made me hesitate. It sounded different to the machine I was used to, and yet it was peculiarly familiar.
My steps faltered.
As I stood there, hesitating, the lift pinged open and a mother holding a boy’s hand came out. She walked straight on but the boy remained behind, his eyes fixed on something I could not see. I saw his face. I recognised the rapt look in his eyes. A terrible fear took hold of me.
“Well, come along, Joshua!” the woman said.
“Can I . . . can I buy something?” the boy said.
The mother stopped a few feet away. She hadn’t noticed me.
“I don’t have change,” she said.
The boy’s face, at that, changed. It became almost feral. Then it was gone, as quickly as it came, and he followed his mother to the car.
Only when they left, the sound of their engine fading, did I step into the space.
The regular machine stood in its usual alcove. But opposite it stood a second machine, with a familiar red light bathing the floor in front of it.
Now that I could see it, I recognised its planogram as one I knew; had been unconsciously searching for, perhaps, all this time.
I stared at it in horror. The machine stood there, humming to itself. It took no notice of me.
It was not supposed to be there.
“Where is he?” I said. “Where is Jamie!”
The machine burped contentedly, mocking me.
I went to it. I was bigger now. I was not a little boy, I was not . . . scared . . .
I hesitated. The sweets inside called out to me to pick one. Just pick one. My hand rose as of its own accord. I saw now that the stock had changed slightly from when I last saw it. The top left slot had small wrapped figures. I stared at them in fear.
My conscious mind knew they were just chocolates, clothed in wrappers made of gaudy aluminium. But in my primal brain they seemed like shrunk human figures, held there entombed like tiny mummies, forever trapped in foil like a constricting cloth.
I felt an overwhelming need to supplicate the machine. The planogram once again seemed to form a hovering sigil before my eyes. I shut them but still I could see it.
The machine murmured, tempting, sweet. It shook as of some inner turmoil of anticipation.
“Jamie,” I said.
I opened my eyes.
I was not a child anymore.
I reached for the control panel I knew should be just there. As I did, I saw the name of the machine brand, etched in simple lettering on a plaque.
A terrible pain shot through me when I touched the Sirena. I flew back from the machine. Its lights flashed and its hum changed, became angry like a buzzing of bees. My head smashed into the wall and I fell to the floor.
The last thing I saw was the machine looming in the distance, and just before I lost consciousness I thought I heard my brother’s voice, still child-like, screaming from behind the empty glass.
“Are you all right, buddy?”
“You hit your head pretty bad there.”
Two mall security guards stood over me with concerned expressions.
“The machine,” I said. “The machine!”
“What did he say?”
“I think he wants something from the dispenser.”
“You want me to get you a drink, buddy?”
I raised my head. The pain shot through me again but I resisted it.
The usual machine from my route was still there.
But the Sirena was gone.
“Where is it?” I said. “Where did it go?”
“You’re not making much sense, buddy.”
“We better get you to a doctor.”
I pushed them away and rose to my feet. When I touched my head it was sticky with blood.
“I’m fine,” I said thickly. Though of course I was far from fine.
For the next few weeks I continued on my route, obsessively checking the machines each time. But there was no reappearance of the Sirena, and all I saw were dull and dependable machines dispensing pop tarts to kids and their parents.
There had to be more!
I was not a drinker before but after what I witnessed I began to frequent bars, and staying too late, and though I never missed a round there began to be complaints. That I did not shave or that I reeked of booze or that the count was short.
I was let go at last, and drank the last of my quarters in a seedy bar that had a beautiful Rowe cigarette machine in the corner.
It was there that he found me. He slid into my booth, a tall stooped man, very thin, in blue overalls and the smell of booze already on him. He put his packet of Marlboros on the table and looked at me with disconcertingly pale blue eyes.
“You’re Robbie?” he said. “I heard about you.”
“Heard what?” I said.
He nodded at the vending machine instead of answering.
“Can you hear her?” he said. “She plays all night. That clank, clank, clank of quarters dropping, the sudden screeching of the hidden gears. The whisper as a pack of smokes is pushed until it falls, so softly, and then that final tap and the hand in the flap. She goes all night. But you don’t care about an ordinary Rowe, do you?” he said. His eyes were sunken in their sockets.
He stared at me intensely.
“I think you know something of the Ferae Machinae,” he said.
“What?” My voice rose. People turned their heads, then looked away.
“What?” I said, more quietly. The words sent a terrible fear through me though I did not know what he meant at first.
“Sirenas,” he said. He watched me. I said nothing but he could see the expression on my face and he nodded, as though I had confirmed his suspicions.
“Let me buy you a drink,” he said.
His name was Billy Nagle. He was a vending machine repairman, he said. His face was heavily etched with deep lines and his hands shook sometimes when he thought I didn’t notice. Much of what he told me sounded wild, the ravings of a lunatic.
“I can see it on you,” he said. “It’s in your eyes. I won’t ask you what it was.” There was raw pain in his voice. It was clear he didn’t want to speak of his own experience, just as it was clear it had affected him profoundly.
“The first dispensers appeared in the 1850s,” he said. “Self-acting machines, they used to call them. Think about that.”
There was something sinister in the way he pronounced it and though the bar was warm I felt cold suddenly.
“They were cast-iron monsters,” Nagle said, “painted red—like blood. They spread out from Yorkshire in England, multiplying in their hundreds of thousands.” He tapped a cigarette out of his nearly empty pack with unsteady fingers. His nails were bitten down to the skin.
“Silent Salesmen, that was another name for them,” he said. “You never hear them until they’d crept up on you and then it’s too late. Bam!”
I jumped and he laughed, coughing out smoke.
“Now they’re everywhere,” he said. “Always in the background, watching, waiting! But you know that.”
“But they’re just machines,” I said, and he coughed out a laugh again, a bitter, joyless sound.
“Yes,” he said, “most of them are peaceful now, or at least domesticated. But amidst the herd hide predators.”
I thought again of Jamie’s disappearance and of the Sirena. Of seeing it again in that underground car park. My hand tightened on the beer bottle until I feared I would smash the glass.
“There have been reports of people going missing near these things for decades,” Nagle said. “The knowledge is dangerous but when you’re in the trade, sooner or later you hear the stories. Boston ’62 to ’64. A Sirena was observed in different locations around the city, linked to a series of disappearances there. There is a photo of the inside of the Tate house taken just before the Manson murders. If you look just right you can see a Medusa model in the shadows. San Francisco, ’68 and ’69, with two confirmed sightings of a Lamia brand.” He lowered his voice. “Chicago in ’29. Dallas in ’63. I could go on.”
I felt sick. The room swayed. I could hear someone at the cigarette machine, the drip-drip-drip of coins, the sudden purr of gears, the drop and the wrinkling of cellophane. I staggered outside and was violently ill against the wall.
The mortar had chipped off between the bricks of the old building. I stared at the cracks that were exposed and saw a hidden life there. Moss grew, and tiny ants crawled and vanished into holes in the stone. What seemed from a distance like a smooth-worn, whole wall was revealed to me now as a broken façade, crawling with secret organisms.
I thought of the Ferae Machinae. There were things in nature that mimicked other organisms in order to prey on them. How the katydids resembled ants, or how some species of spider weave colourful flower-like webs to lure bees into a trap.
Perhaps it was this way with the Sirena, too. There had always been stories of creatures who preyed on humanity. Maybe, I thought, they had always been there, in the shadows, watching, waiting . . . hungry. And with the coming of modernity they had adapted and taken new forms.
I took a deep breath of air and returned to the bar, but when I went to the booth Billy Nagle was gone.
I looked around me in confusion. An empty packet of cigarettes still remained on the table.
“Did anyone see the old man who was just here?” I said. I got some looks but no replies. People avoided me.
It was then that I heard it again. The hum of the machine in the corner had changed, I realised. It was purring contentedly to itself, and fear once again took hold of the pit of my stomach and twisted like a knife.
I made myself rise.
The machine was in the shadow. Its red light shone, and when I approached it I saw the same planogram of soft drinks and candy that was etched in my mind forever.
I made myself face it.
I had been given a glimpse of what lies behind the shiny façade of the world. Of the cogs that clutch, the gears that bite. The Sirena faced me silently, burping to itself. Its red light bathed my face gently.
I stared at the lures stacked up behind the glass.
Almost without realising it, I had coins in my hand.
The machine purred, waiting.
I fed quarters, one by one, into the slot.
Soon, I knew, the lure would drop, and the machine would crouch, ready to spring; and I would reach inside its hungry maw and be devoured.