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 the last 20 lines of computer code, looking for the missing semicolon or unpaired bracket, which had brought a website to its digital knees right in the middle of a progress meeting with the client.
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 wait much longer for Mr. Ketchum, and, though a pathologist might try to slap the cause on 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 computer code and licked at the traces of Boston cream on his mustache.
“Aha!” said Ketchum, eyes widening at his 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 with the website he was paying him to build. He had descended, unbidden, into the office that very morning and threatened to wait until it was finished.
“I think so,” said Ketchum, typing a semicolon at the end of a line.
Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Ketchum’s 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 deft keystrokes he instructed the server to reveal his creation to the world. The mortgage broker beamed. “Send me your bill,” he said and headed eagerly towards the door where there lived practical people with schedules and tidy lives.
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 grown like a cancer and 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 donuts and slept on his couch. Showers, when he found the time, could be had at the local swimming pool, not that Mr Ketchum was concerned with personal 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 high-flying adventures with ethereal beings who lived in the brilliant clouds. In his mind he designed a glider that he called the Gossamer Explorer, 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 like plants from the sun.
“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 site design.”
“Thanks,” said Ketchum. He loved his ethereal creatures. Of course they didn’t really talk to him. They lived miles above his head 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 rarified air of 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 how could he tell his fellow humans about them? They would say he was crazy, and maybe he was.
Ketchum wanted to live among the clouds with those sky creatures. They needed him, not like the creatures on earth.
On earth Mr Ketchum was inadequate.
His email bleeped. Had his client found someting 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 email when he noticed something peculiar: no promises of instant weight loss or gigantic penises– only a sober suggestion that he save money.
The email continued: “You may check your account balance here. Please enter your password.”
Mr Ketchum clicked, then keyed in his password.
He watched with reluctant admiration as the Java-enhanced website searched its database for his name and password. He wished he could build websites like that.
Mr Ketchum stared at the figures. There must be a mistake. He finally noticed the java-powered 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, pulsing question mark. Mr. Ketchum clicked the mark.
“A recall of all sky vehicles you designed will be necessary unless you are able to correct a flaw. 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 travelling from the surface to the stratosphere. Even so, he heard its pneumatic sigh as the doors opened and the machine faded into view right next to his desk. A soft, blue glow suffused the shabby office.
“Come in,” said the machine. “It’s been a long time.”
That voice! It was 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 nearly 50 years ago. Ketchum had never forgotten that moment, nor the miserable hours the following Saturday night 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 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 stared at the screen and 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. I had a family. I had a reason to live. I was important.
“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 wouldn’t care. I’d be working on my glider. Charmaine would help. I wonder what she looks like now?”
No contest. He’d never been any good at websites anyway. He stood up, put the binoculars away and walked towards the glow, a beautific smile on his fat face.