This is the second in a series of short stories written to music. His Perfect, Little Life was written while listening to Leadbelly’s Absolutely the Best.
Clark’s life was perfect. A harsh sun beat down on Clark’s face just the way he liked. A soothing breeze kept him feeling cool under the sun’s blanket. His beautiful wife brought him a ice cold glass of tea.
A sea of golden crop rolled out like a red carpet in front of Clark’s home. He owned all that he could see. Small, insignificant bodies moved about through his fields. Picking. Planting.
He sipped at his drink letting the ice meet his lips in a lavish ceremony of joy. His wife placed her hand on his shoulder. It was the touch of love.
It was perfect. Clark chuckled to himself because he couldn’t believe it. Clark met Gale when she was fourteen. He’d been seventeen. He’d rarely gone to school in his childhood so he hadn’t know practically anyone outside the plantation.
He met her at a town shindig. The dance was starting and Clark was never a shy one. The way Gale’s eyes pierced his soul like she knew him even before she met him melted his heart the first time they locked eyes. He asked her to dance and after that his heart never healed.
That was a long time ago, and the truth was Clark hardly remembered a time in his life without Gale. Twenty years later and their firstborn was getting married. Beautiful babies grow up the fastest. She’d met the perfect fella. They’d be happy together.
Clark got up from his deck chair and stretched his arms out. His limbs ached with a bitter hope filled anguish. He turned to his wife and smiled.
Nothing needed to be said. He knew she was worried about the wedding. He nodded to her reassuringly. It would all be OK.
Clark walked with her through their swinging doors into their newly painted home and put on a record. He set the needle and a crooning dark voice came on through the phonogram. He closed his eyes and listened to the hum in the background.
The man sung about a woman, and it should have been sad, but records like these never sounded sad. They never sounded happy either. They sounded perfect. Clark swayed lazily from side to side and met his wife in the middle of the room where they took each other’s hands.
They stepped from side to side, partners in a lifelong dance. The way they moved was beyond the music. They knew their steps. They knew the song. The record was a matter of extravagance.
The record spun down and the dance stopped as quickly as it had begun.
“I love you,” said Clark who always felt the need to say it.
Behind Gale’s head, Clark watched the sun begin to set through an open window. There was a hole in the sky. It stretched it’s black tendrils hungrily, and it scared him more than anything in the world. It scared him because he knew what it meant.
“What is it, honey?” asked Gale.
“Nothing,” said Clark pulling Gale close so she wouldn’t be able to look.
He knew she couldn’t see it, but he still couldn’t stand her to look. It would hurt him too much. To see her searching for the one thing they couldn’t share. The one everlasting wedge between them.
A voice interrupted them. Their servant, Lorylenne.
“Ah, Mr. and Ms. Harding. Dinner’s ready,” she said.
“Thank you Lorylenne,” said Clark. “We’ll be to in a few.”
Lorylenne made her retreat.
“Shall we?” said Clark.
Gale swallowed and held up a gloved hand.
“It’s just,” she said. “It’ll be the last dinner at home with Hannah.”
She was so worried; so loving. Clark loved that about her.
“Honey, that just isn’t so. She’ll come back to visit us lots after the wedding. You’ll see.”
“I know. I know. Alright, I suppose we should go.”
Clark took his wife’s arm and lead her through the house to the dining room. Clark stood at the helm of the table while his wife took her spot on the far end of the table as was proper. Soon enough Hannah and Henry found their way in as well. They exchanged pleasantries. Then Andy and Susan, his too younger children arrived at the table too.
“Finally. The scamps arrived,” said Clark.
“Come on, Dad,” said Andy in his high prepubescent voice.
Susan gave him a look. Even without boys around she didn’t want to be made fun of. He supposed she thought it made it more likely to happen when there were boys around. Not that she had anything to worry about. She’d gotten her mother’s genes. Any man would be lucky to so much as look at her.
“Alright. Everyone please sit,” said Clark.
Lorylenne served everyone a small glass of amber liquid.
“What’s this father?” asked Hannah.
“Well, it is a special occasion,” said Gale.
“That’s right…” said Clark. His daughter glowed. “I have something to say…” He raised his glass. “Hannah…”
White light from outside hit his glass and refracted into his eyes. He winced. His body felt heavy. He tried to fight it. He thought if he thought about his family hard enough he’d be allowed to stay. He tried to resist it, but the harder he struggled the more it hurt.
The world shook, and broke apart. He watched as his loved ones were torn into thousands of pieces in front of him. His baby girl, and his wife. His hard working boy. His pride and joy. Everything he’d ever worked for. It all was torn out from under him like his life was just some cheap trick.
Because it was.
Steam hissed out of valves. Lights blasted on overhead. Feeling returned to Clark’s nerves, as the machine powered off.
Where was his family?
The dome that covered his head like a shield lifted revealing a cold, steel, mechanical room.
He was on a spaceship. A truck for a new age. A hunk of metal hurtling through space as close to the speed of light as they could get.
He lifted his arms slowly up from the adhesive pads that had been administrating him drugs. They were heavy, and had swelled to a bright pink.
“Captain,” called the computer. It wore Gale’s voice. That made Clark’s skin crawl. “We’ve arrived at our destination, and I’ve hailed the trader planetside.”
He needed to change the computers voice. There had to be other presets.
Clark was slow to rise. His balance was a little off after having been sedated for five years, but the simulation had kept his mind agile. He knew how to walk, it was just his limbs that needed a little reminding.
Clark stumbled through the room until he regained his composure. It happened pretty fast – after all this wasn’t the first time Clark had woken up from fugue.
A slit in the wall opened on it’s own, and Clark stepped through. The door closed up behind him.
Inside, it was a white padded cell. Four nozzles in different corners turned on and dowsed Clark in warm water from all directions.
He let the water run over his body while he woke up. He briefly thought he was missing his daughters wedding which jolted him awake. Then he remembered where he was, and what was real.
When the water shut off, Clark was wishing for his wife’s slight touch in the mornings. He always woke up a little before Gale, but he liked to stay in bed until she was awake too. He couldn’t remember his real wife’s touch. Real. What was real. He hoped that this was just a bad dream and that he would wake up next to Gale soon.
The smooth blasts of the water were quickly replaced by a much more forceful gale of wind. Clark was dry in a jiffy. Then a compartment extruded from the wall and produced a fresh set of clothes. He shoved the loose fitting, strange clothes onto his body. They were bright and unnecessary in their flair. What was so wrong with denim and cotton?
When he was dressed, the wall opened for him. Clark walked onto the helm of his ship. It was a small black deck with three panels of controls and three accompanying large screens. One screen told him the ships essential readings; one a fully realistically rendered map of the surrounding space; and one simply said, standby.
He hit a button and the monitor displayed an informative pannel of the planet he’d arrived at – Ramses IV. It was a hunk of grey rock like the Earths moon, only thirty times larger. It was a industrial mining planet, and he was here to deliver their supplies. There was no food or water sources on Ramses IV. It was no place for a human to live.
“Clark,” said Gale. No. The computer said it. Gale wouldn’t use that tone. “I’ve prepared the supplies. Are you ready to make planetfall?”
Clark shuddered. He didn’t want to go down there. He hadn’t touched down for ten years. He wasn’t sure he wanted to break that record, least of all here.
“Captain? Captain is something the matter?”
“Shut up! Jesus,” said Clark. “I’ll go down and make the transaction. I just don’t see why I have to.”
“The people of Ramses IV would prefer not to deal with a computer to make the transaction.”
“I know. I just don’t get it.”
“Thanks for making the drop,” said a greasy man in a beat up baseball cap from the twenty second century. Back when cities had teams. Back when America was still great.
“Yeah,” said Clark looking down at his tablet.
He scanned his thumb to sign the transaction. A moment later he received a prompt with a smily face letting him know everything had went through.
“How many more deliveries you got?”
“Don’t know,” said Clark.
“Betcha can’t wait to get home.”
He did want to get back to the ship. He had a wedding to get to. He’d completely forgotten what he was going to say to Hannah. Why hadn’t he written his speech down?
Clark watched the loading bay. Anti gravity carts automatically wheeled the ten thousand tons of supplies from the dropsite into the holding bay.
“You like living here?” said Clark.
The man smiled.
“Now whatta ya mean by that? Course I do. I work on this rock and I’m back on Earth in fifteen years easy.”
Gray stubble. Wrinkles above the cheeks. Soot under finger nails. This man had been here longer than fifteen years. His arms bore the signature pink swelling of the anesthetic Clark had just been released from. How long had he really been here?
“Take it easy,” said Clark.
Clark’s shuttle rumbled. He vibrated in his seat, but straps held him tight.
On the screen in front of him he scrolled through a newsfeed. The Greater German States had marched an army into Siberia. It was just breaking. The war would be over by the time he flew back to Earth. The Greater German States might not exist any more. Some woman named Betty Ross had given birth to a baby. It was eleven pounds. The picture didn’t look real. Why was that news?
Clark shut off the news feed. He closed his eyes and focused on the sound of his shuttle’s engines. Only a few more minutes until he was back on his ship. Then a new destination, and he would be plugged back in.
“Captain,” cooed the computer. “You have an incoming transmission.”
Clark’s eyes snapped open. A transmission request had appeared on the shuttles monitor. It was Sam Gabel, his boss.
Clark opened the transmission, and a garbled display of Sam opened on the screen. His face was cut up bad. It was the static. Deep space gamma ray interference, chopped up young Sam’s well kept, perfectly smooth face. His hair was tipped black. It looked like shit.
“Clark, I have good news,” said Sam.
Clark’s stomach tensed nervously.
“Your tour is over. You can come home now.”
Clark always knew he’d have to return to Earth. That was the dream they gave you. But Earth wasn’t home.
“It’s time,” said Sam.
A robotic arm extended a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Clark waved it away. He wasn’t hungry.
He leaned on his fist, sitting in his padded black chair on the bridge. The course was set for Earth. It would be another three years. He still had plenty of time to spend with his family before he had to say goodbye.
The thought made Clark feel clammy and sick. What would happen to them when he left? His blood was soaked in sorrow. His heart did a good enough job pumping it.
He sat there. Hour after hour. The computer tried to cheer him up. Tried to get him to eat. After a few minutes he changed the computers voice. He couldn’t stand to hear Gale. Not now. Not like that. A few minutes after that he turned off the computers voice entirely. He had to bypass a security precaution.
It was for the best. Clark had always known. It had to end. Even if it was perfect. There were real people waiting for him somewhere. He had no idea if they’d even remember him. If they’d have a face to put to his name. Surely his family would be notified of his return? Maybe not for a few years.
Clark opened up the computer and searched Jeff Lawson. Clark picked the top result. It was matched with his personal information for the most accurate search possible.
Jeff Lawson, 21 years old. Son of Clark Lawson, and Jean Lawson. Currently in training for corporate handling at the BHU school of thought. Spouse, none. Children, one. Unconfirmed. Criminal Record: One count of Libel
Next to the text, a picture of a light skinned boy with red dyed hair posed next to a cherry tree. The picture was three years old.
Clark scowled. This was his son. This was what he was going back to. He was grown up and Clark had no idea who he was. This wasn’t his son. He wished his name wasn’t on the page so he could deny it. This new age fuck with his red hair and his nylon reflective shirt. What did they even have in common?
Clark closed the page, angry that he’d even looked at all. Clark stood up.
Clark knew what was real. His vows to Gale twenty years ago had been real. They’d stuck together through those twenty years. They’d been happy, those twenty years. He wouldn’t be happy on Earth.
He had a wedding to go to. His daughter who loved him needed him there and here he was moping around.
The computer seemed to catch on. It was already dialing Sam.
Sam answered, smoothing back his hair.
“Did you run into a problem?” said Sam. He sounded annoyed. Smug fuck.
“I’m not ready to go back yet,” said Clark, his chest rising as he spoke.
“Oh? Are you sure that’s a good idea. You’ve been alone for a long time.”
“I want to keep working,” said Clark. His skin tingled in relief. “I’ve got to support my family back on Earth.”
Sam nodded understandingly as if he’d ever had to truly worry about money in his life. Someone walked into Sam’s room and handed him a thin folder.
“Surprisingly, we have just the route for you,” said Sam. “We’ll just need you to sign another ten year contract. No need to worry about it now. We’ll send it along after we finish the call. You’ll be picking up a package at Orbiter VI. You won’t even have to get out of the ship.”
Clark smiled. Sam smiled back.
“You’ll let them know,” said Clark.
“You’re family has already been notified. They thank you, as do we, for your service.”
He felt elated. His muscles felt light and fluffy like southern Alabama clouds on a hot summers day.
Clark sank back into the machine, feeling its warm caress. A large steel helmet lowered down over his face. Clark closed his eyes.
Small, painless needles raised up into Clark’s arm giving him a familiar buzz. Any minute now. He could feel his arms numbing. Then his legs.
Clark began to think about the speech he was going to give at dinner for Hannah. It was the last dinner they’d have together as a family. It had to be something special. She would remember it for the rest of her life. Clark’s eyelids grew heavy.
Piece by piece his life came together around him. He was still standing at the head of his family. His home. His perfect, little life.