This story is by Stewart Ducklow and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
DEATH was hovering over Mr Ketchum’s left shoulder but as usual, he wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy parsing his computer code, looking for the missing semicolon or unpaired bracket which had suddenly brought his client’s website to its digital knees right in the middle of a progress meeting.
Picture him now in a dingy office in a neglected industrial park, the headquarters of Ketchum Computing and Web Design. He is a plump, fussy man with a permanent squint from peering at computer screens, the remains of a chocolate Boston cream donut on his bristly mustache. Death would not long for Mr. Ketchum, and, though a pathologist might try to slap on the cause as heart failure, he would not be able to explain that beautific smile on the corpse’s fat face.
Mr. Ketchum, it appears, had a secret life — so secret he didn’t know it himself. But he was about to discover it as he pondered his code and licked at the traces of Boston cream.
“Aha!” said Ketchum, eyes widening at the screen.
“Figured it out?” asked a man sitting on a couch littered with the wrappings of cheeseburgers and paper coffee cups. The man was his client, a mortgage broker who had grown weary of Ketchum’s endless tinkerings. He had descended, unbidden, into the office that very morning and threatened to wait, arms folded, until it was finished.
“I think so,” said Ketchum, typing a semicolon at the end of a line.
Ketchum may have looked like a mild-mannered programmer, but his heart burned with the spirit of a code warrior.
In his hands the web site had blossomed with Java rollovers, a PHP counter, search engine, animated intro, SEO optimization and streaming video. It had been hundreds of hours but Ketchum was finished at last. With a few keystrokes he instructed the server to reveal his creation to the world. The mortgage broker beamed. “Send me your bill,” he said and headed towards the door where practical, tidy people lived their lives on schedules.
Ketchum opened a drawer in his desk and gathered a handful of jellybeans. His friends, if he’d had any, would have been concerned, not with the jellybeans but with the fixation on computer code that had taken over his life. His marriage had broken up and he rarely saw his family. To save money he lived in his office, ate cheeseburgers and slept on his couch. Showers could be had at the local swimming pool, not that Mr Ketchum was concerned with hygiene or exercise. His business was conducted almost entirely by email and, as previously mentioned, he didn’t have any friends.
It hadn’t always been that way. Once Mr Ketchum had dreamt of adventures with ethereal beings who lived above the clouds. In his mind he designed a glider with solar panels in the wings to keep it aloft. He could cruise the stratosphere, communing with these life forms, part plant, part animal and completely unknown to humans. They had evolved wings so thin they were nearly invisible and drew sustenance from the sun, like plants.
“How about that?” said Ketchum with a happy smile.
“Good for you” came a whisper, like tissue paper rustling. “You’re getting pretty good at web design.”
“Thanks,” said Ketchum. He loved his ethereal creatures. Of course they didn’t really talk to him. They lived miles above in the sky. They communicated by mental telepathy. It just seemed like they were whispering.
Mr. Ketchum knew with all his heart that these lovely creatures existed. They had evolved over millions of years unseen by the primates who thought they were the only intelligent creatures on the planet. Wrong: his creatures had developed intelligence too, not to just to start fires and make tools but to predict the weather. High winds were deadly to their tissue-thin bodies. They’d learned to survive by travelling in ghostly flocks led by the most experienced members. Because sound didn’t travel well in the stratosphere, they learned to communicate by mental telepathy.
In their feathery voices they told Ketchum that pollution, global warming and the vanishing ozone layer were destroying their civilization.
Ketchum wanted to help. But couldn’t tell anybody: they’d say he was crazy. Maybe he was, but he could be useful to them, he knew it. Especially if he lived among them, far above the clouds.
On earth, Ketchum was inadequate.
His email bleeped. Had his client found something wrong already?
“Your chequing account has an unusually high balance,” said the email. “Why not open a savings account?” He was about to trash the message when he noticed something peculiar: no promises of instant weight loss or gigantic penises– only a suggestion that he save money.
The email continued: “You may check your account balance here. Enter your password.”
Mr Ketchum clicked, then keyed in his password.
He watched with admiration as the Java-enhanced website searched its database. He wished he could build websites like that.
Mr Ketchum stared at the figures. There must be a mistake. He finally noticed the caption balloon hovering beside the extraordinary figure: “Are you wondering why your balance is so high?”
“Because,” said the message, “we have discovered an engineering problem with your sky vehicle. We have paid an advance fee into your account against future consultation.”
Sky vehicle? Something in Ketchum’s brain shifted. Suddenly his mind was flooded with images, engineering drawings, calculations, test data and high resolution pictures of his very first sky vehicle, cruising so high he could see the curvature of the earth. How could he have forgotten?
There was even a picture of a sky vehicle on the screen, just like the one he’d designed. Right next to it, a tiny, pulsating question mark. Mr. Ketchum clicked.
“A recall of all sky vehicles is necessary. Please return to our engineering studios via the nearest teleportation machine.”
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The bank could not possibly know about the teleportation machine! It had been developed in total secrecy as an emergency method of traveling from the surface to the stratosphere. Even so, he heard its pneumatic sigh as the doors opened. The machine faded into view next to his desk. A soft, blue glow suffused the shabby office.
“Come in,” said the machine. “It’s been a long time.”
He knew that voice. It belonged to Charmaine, the unspeakably lovely girl who had transported him from oblivious childhood to tortured adolescence at 15, merely by walking past his pimply classmates to dance with him at a junior high sock-hop. Ketchum had never forgotten that moment, nor the miserable hours at the school prom as, paralyzed with shyness, he watched one rival after another escort her to the dance floor whenever they played the latest Bobby Vinton ballad. He had that ballad on his iPhone.
With slow deliberation Ketchum fashioned a pair of binoculars with his hands, and trained them on the computer screen. He had developed the binoculars several years earlier as an aid to concentration. They worked so well that his dog Spot could relieve himself in the corner, his wife could slam the door, his kids could scream and the TV could blare its toxic messages. He wouldn’t notice a thing.
Ketchum tried to concentrate. This was a warning. He’d been under a strain lately. He’d have to change his habits, maybe join an encounter group for workaholic businessmen or dreamers who had fallen back to earth. He’d been working too hard. He should get a real job. Maybe drive a cab. He could walk away from his business any time. There were lots of things he could do. He’d find a small apartment, maybe a girl-friend. Try to get fit. Make another life for himself.
Charmaine would be 50 now.
He saw the squalor of his office. Sure the couch was tattered and there was litter on the floor but worse, far worse, were the pictures on the walls. The young wife: they never spoke. The loving child: she never came home. The family portrait: they never wrote. And even more painful: the map, the satellite photo, the Picasso print. This wasn’t a home, this was pretense. I had a life, it said. I had friends and family. I had a reason to live.
“Come on, Ketchy,” said the machine. “I haven’t forgotten you.”
“On the other hand,” thought Ketchum, I could step right into this fantasy. I could go voluntarily out of my mind. I could stand up, walk into my teleportation machine and into Charmaine’s arms.
“Sooner or later someone would find my body. But I don’t care. I’d be working on my glider. Charmaine could help. I wonder what she looks like now?”
No contest. He’d never be any good at websites anyway. He stood up, put the binoculars away and walked towards the glow, a beautific smile on his fat face.