Exhausted, he rested his head on the side of the machine and closed his eyes while stroking the belly of the dog that lay beside him. The light buzz of the machine seemed to calm him. He sat there without moving until the machine shuddered as the compressor shut down to hibernate.
He knew what it meant. The truck would come anytime. The child did not have a watch, so he assumed the time based on the compressor cycles. The machine was right most of the time.
It was the first time since the machine arrived that all the stock was sold out except one can of milk. He never got to rest that day and couldn’t play football as there was always someone who walked up to the machine staring at the various cans in the upper section and cardboard boxes of food in the lower section. Each time someone wished to buy something, he had to keep an eye on the machine and ensure no one harmed it.
And he did his job without fail. He liked his job. He would see rich men and women get out of their big cars to buy stuff from this machine. They always had the warmest and crispiest notes of all kinds of people who frequented the machine. Sometimes working people would run to the machine in a hurry to not miss their bus back home.
Most of them wouldn’t look at him or give him a second glance. It was only the kids in their perfectly pressed clothes who held their parents’ hands that looked the boy’s way. The parents shushed the child when they spoke of the boy telling them to stay away from slum dwellers.
He too was only a child. He never knew why he never had adults who looked after him. All he had was a tent which was nothing but a tarpaulin sheet tied to trees beside the machine.
Some people said they came all the way to this slum from different cities (some people chose to speak out looking at him, but he understood they barely spoke to him) to buy the food the machine offered them. This was a machine like no other. No one would know what kind of drink, chips or cookies the machine chose for them. The machine charged each person a different amount. There were times when people went back dejected after the machine deemed the amount they fed it to be insufficient for the drink or food it chose for them.
He shivered as the cold wind blew bringing with it the stench of hundreds of people who lived under the bridge in tents. But, he didn’t mind the cold. He was used to it. His life was better now after the machine helped him earn money.
The compressor turned back on. The truck was late today. He became worried. The dog lifted her head and looked straight at him, or perhaps looked through him as she tried to decipher what was going through his head. She stretched and yawned. Tired of resting she walked around the machine indulging herself in the huge cocktail of fresh scents of all the new people who came for the machine that day.
It was a year ago that the vending machine appeared under the bridge. There was a crowd that morning inspecting this unexpected machine in their area. The machine had no markings. No brand. No one had enough money to buy something from it. The older people stayed away from it and cribbed about the machine to bring bad luck to the slum, but nothing ever happened.
None of them understood how this machine ended up there overnight, or why someone would place it here. No one saw who placed in there. They saw these machines in railway stations and public places where we used to beg for money and food until the police shooed us away each day. But this wasn’t like them. This was bigger. This was as big as a small bus!
Why would someone bring a machine in a slum under a bridge? He never understood. No one understood. This was just as mysterious as the workings of the machine.
But, the machine solemnly stood there attracting people from the city. As days passed, the crowd who wanted to buy stuff from the machine increased. He liked to see the people who bought stuff from the machine. If not for the machine, no one would know of the world beneath the bridge. The world above the bridge was just as weird as the machine was.
Life around him was slow. He lived peacefully, except for hunger. He sometimes hated the fact that there was food right in front of him, across the glass of the machine in unmarked cans and packages. He stared at the machine every day and counted the contents of the machine. He liked to observe every customer who put in notes inside the machine and the machine greedily accepted them all.
Men weren’t any less greedy. The rich people sometimes hit the machine frustrated with the charges. And sometimes slum-dwellers tried to break the glass and steal the food. The refill man repaired the machine each time something happened to it and refilled the contents of the machine each night.
This continued until one night the refill man called out to him after the moon took refuge behind the buildings on the other side of the bridge across the frozen river. He walked over to the man and the dog followed the boy sniffing a new adventure in the air.
“You know who did this?” he asked the boy pointing at the shattered glass.
He nodded, but he couldn’t tell it was one of the gangsters of the slum. He would be in big trouble for ratting the men out.
“Who did this?”, the man asked, this time sternly.
The boy froze. Could he trust this man? He didn’t know. He decided the better of it. “I cannot tell.”
The man looked at him. For the first time, the boy felt someone actually looked at him. As a fellow human. Someone sees and acknowledged his existence. The man’s look wasn’t uncomfortable. The boy felt warm in the man’s presence. The dog sniffed the man and wagged her tail to show the boy that the man could be trusted.
“You want a job?”, the man said after some consideration.
“Yes.” the boy jumped in excitement. He answered without waiting to think. A job meant he no longer needed to search for food in the dump upstream. He could eat at the government food centre for the poor.
“Good. I give you twenty rupees every night. You and your dog”, he said as he began to pet the dog, “ensure nothing happens to the machine. “
That was an easy job. And he did it with dedication. In the five months that he shifted his tent beside the machine, he kept a watchful eye on the machine. How much ever he saved, the machine always asked for more money than he had at any time.
Sometimes, the protectors never tasted the fruits of the land they protected. He never understood why the machine never considered his protection worth its contents.
He once asked the refill man why the machine was the way it was. Why was it so mysterious. The man looked at him and said, “Because, that’s how it is.”
The matter was closed.
The days were monotonous until a month back when a news lady came to the machine with multiple trucks with antennae and satellite dishes on top of them. She was talking about the magic machine in a language he didn’t understand. But he understood what she was doing as she kept talking to the camera while pointing at the machine. After a while, she bought a can of juice and the cameraman followed every movement of hers.
The woman later looked at him standing by his tent looking intently at her. She called him and asked him what he did in his tongue and he proudly said he protected the machine. She smiled kindly. She pressed a five hundred rupee note into his hands as she left.
His eyes lit up with the money at hand. He could perhaps finally buy something. The machine had never asked him more than 500! He pushed the note inside the machine. The machine whirred for a while, considering this new note. The machine pushed out the note and the speaker spoke out: INSUFFICIENT CASH.
He kicked the machine frustrated and later regretted his decision. He did not accept his daily money as he confessed in tears that he tried to harm the machine and did not deserve the money that day. The kind man did not scold him. He smiled, said he was proud of the boy and left.
The compressor shut down again, the truck was late by two cycles this night. He saw a man in the distance, walking up to the machine. The man seemed he was in a hurry. Most of the people were afraid of walking into the slum at night. The privileged people scared fast. He chuckled to himself.
The man came up to the machine. He looked at the boy and smiled. “You the boy in the video that came out yesterday?” he asked.
“What video?”, the boy said confused. It was rare for someone to stop to acknowledge him and even rare for someone to talk to him.
“Hmmm, there’s only one here.” The man said, ignoring the boy’s question.
The man put a few notes into the machine. The machine kept asking for more. The man kept feeding it notes. The machine, finally satisfied with the amount the man had given him accepted the cash.
“What do you think I’ll get?”
“I don’t know. I never know. The machine never lets me to taste anything.”
“Which video?”, the boy asked again. He had nothing to lose. The man would anyway walk away after taking his drink.
The man took his phone out and showed the boy the clip where he beamed proudly as he spoke about how he protected the machine.
People know him now. People around the world can see him. He was happy. His eyes were moist with joy as he thought of how people would know he existed.
The machine pushed the can to the man and pushed out money with it.
“Weird machine this is.” The man said, clearly happy the machine gave back most of the money he fed it.
The man put his phone in his pocket, grabbed the can and walked back.
The boy saw the man walking away. After a few steps, he turned back.
“Kid. You never tasted this?”, the man said with a smile. He rolled the can to him. “Now you can.”
The boy picked up the drink. He looked at the place the man stood, but there was no one around. The buy shivered in excitement. No one had been so kind. He opened the can.
He put the can to his mouth and sipped the liquid that brought him pure joy. The liquid tingled the insides of his mouth warming it instantly. It tasted like something new. He closed his eyes as he relished the drink while the dog excited, ran around in circles begging for attention and wanting a taste of the drink he enjoyed.
A pair of headlights appeared in the distance. The boy had a new story to share with the refill man.
I’d love it if you could let me know what you felt about the story! Please do comment!
Would appreciate a little feedback as well!
Also, if you’ve read any good stories or have written any, direct me to them! I’d love to give them a read too!
More Power to you!