Gateway to Tomorrow
0 / 0 / 4230 Celes Era

                The knock at the door shocked him; in the dark, quiet room, it struck like thunder.

                He hastily grabbed the TV remote and turned the volume down to nothing, then reached over to switch his table lamp off.  It made a loud click as he turned the dial.  He hoped whoever was at the door hadn’t heard it.

                A gnat flew in front of his face.  He swatted at it as he waited, listening, muscles taught.  The person at the door was not saying anything, which was unusual.  He growled as the gnat landed on his cheek, swatted again.  The gnats would disappear if he took out the trash.  He’d do it tomorrow.  It wasn’t important. 

                He pulled the blanket tighter over him and sank into the couch as the knocks at the door resumed.  He knew who it was.  Someone from the Agency.  Or someone from the govenrment.  Or someone from the press.  Whoever it was, it was someone who wanted something from him.  And he had nothing left to give.  He watched the scientist on the silent TV wave at the giant steel cylinder of the particle accelerator, talking and smiling. 

                The visitor was beating on the door now.  The force shook the wall.  The pictures that he had flipped over shook frenetically.  One of them, hanging awkwardly by the edge of its frame, fell, hitting the tiled entryway with the sound of a firecracker.  That one was the picture of him and Molly at the beach on their honeymoon.  How fitting for it to fall face down on the floor. 

                He stared at the TV, trying to read the scientist’s lips.  The chamber of the particle accelerator dwarfed him, making him mortal.

                Whap!  Whap!  Whap!  Whap!

                Gods in heaven! he thought, and he pushed himself off the couch.  His back was sore from laying there all day and his cloth houserobe stuck to his skin, itching with the sweat.  He scratched himself as he stumbled through the blackened house—jumping and yelping as he stepped on a half-full bag of potato chips that dug into the sole of his foot.

                Whap whap whap whap whap!

                He folded his houserobe to make sure he wasn’t exposed, then looked out the peep hole.  It was Tracy, his number two.  Official title: Resource Manager.  Unofficial title: Doer of Many Things.  She was pretty as ever with her brown hair in a ponytail, clad in white blouse and black skirt.  But her mouth was impossibly straight and her eyes, lit only by reflected moonlight, were bright enough to be a fire hazard.  She’d been cross with him before, but never like this.  He retreated from the peep hole as she raised her hand to strike again.  He considered hiding from those eyes by locking himself in his bedroom, but something in him made him grab the door knob.  He flicked the lock and pulled the door open ever so slightly.

                He leaned into the crack and looked out at the world.

                “Go away,” he said.

                “Let me in.”  She moved her face close to his so she could glare at him directly.

                He swallowed.  “No,” he said.  He started to close the door.

                Tracy put her palm on it and leaned into it.  She was short and skinny but she had enough weight to give him trouble.  He wondered how much of that weight was pure anger.

                “You can’t do this forever,” she said, hand firm on the door.  “You have to come back sometime.”

                “I don’t have to do anything,” he said. 

                “I’m keeping the project afloat for now,” she said.  “But we need you.  You’re the Director.  If you don’t come back soon, it will all go straight to hell.”

                “Everything else I’ve touched has gone to hell.  Why not that.”

                “You don’t mean that.”  She leaned closer.  “Let me in.  Just let me in for five minutes.”

                He sighed.  “I don’t really want to talk right now.  Or ever.”  But he let go of the door.

                She pushed it wider and squeezed through.  Shut it behind her.  “Then listen,” she said.  She fumbled around on the wall for the light switch, found it.

                Tracy flicked on the light and revealed his life, black trash bags leaning against the wall, half-empty bottles of wine toppled on the floor, fast food wrappers for carpet and pizza delivery boxes for tile.  The dresser in the corner displayed a collection of smashed knicknacks and cracked photo frames with the pictures removed.  The TV perpetually played its small version of reality.  The mangled remains of his cell phone dangled haphazardly from the kitchen counter. 

                “Ted!” Tracy said.  She sniffed as she swatted an attacking gnat.  “This is terrible.  I thought you had a maid.”

                “I fired him,” he said, retracing his steps to return to his couch.  “Wanted to be alone.”

                “This worries me,” she said, looking around.  “It’s not like you.  Your desk at work could be displayed in a museum.”

                “Well, I’m not at work,” he said.  “Not anymore.”

                “And that’s a problem,” she said, “Not just for us, not just for me, but for you, too.”  She walked over to the recliner and sat down.  It barely creaked.  She looked at the bed comforter draped over his couch and sighed.  “So, I’m here to get you back.”

                “No shit,” he said.

                “Don’t be rude with me,” she snapped.  “You know why I’m here so late?  Because I had to pull a twelve-hour shift, doing your job and mine.  And after that, instead of going back home and hugging my dog, I drove all the way across town to see you.”

                “Don’t be rude, says the woman who pounds on my front door like a demented caveman.”  But he gave her a look to show that, at least as far as he was capable of it, he appreciated her.

                “Well, if you had opened it when I knocked the first time,” she said sweetly, ”I wouldn’t have had to.”

                He rubbed his forehead.  Thinking.  Then he sat up.  “Look, Tracy.  I get it.  I really do.  I know you need me.  I know the team needs me.  I know the Agency needs me.  I got a call from the Vice President the other day.  Not of the Agency.  The Vice President of the country.  He called to express his condolences, he said, but I know why he really called.  Men with that amount of power do not make phone calls to make people feel better.  The government wants this space elevator built.  Everyone wants this space elevator built.  And not so long ago, I did too.  But now I just don’t care.”

                “I know this is a difficult time for you, Ted.  But you have a job to do, and you’re the only one who can do it.  New Horizons is your project.  You can’t just…stop caring.”

                Ted sank into his couch.  Looked around.  Swatted a gnat. “I seem to be doing pretty well so far.”  In the distance, a dog barked for no reason.

                Tracy clasped her hands together over her lap.  A part of him was embarassed to show his weakness to anyone, much less Tracy, a woman he respected.  But the rest of him didn’t care.  It didn’t matter.  “I’ve never had children,” she said, “so I can’t understand—“

                “No, you can’t,” he snapped, “and I’m tired of hearing people tell me they can’t understand but even so I should get over it and live my life like a normal person.  If you did understand, you would know that I can’t do that!”

                Tracy raised her voice in return.  “What would your son think if he were here, Ted?  What would he say?  How would he feel if he saw you running away from your life like this?”

                “Get out,” he snarled, stabbing his finger at the door.

                “No,” she said, crossing her arms.  “I’m sorry, but I can’t leave you like this.  I know you’re sad, I know you’re beyond sadness, but the life you’re living is only going to perpetuate it.  The longer you live in the dark the more dark you become.  This reminds me—“ she paused.  Set her jaw.  “This reminds me of when I was abused by my husband.  After he left for work, I would do what you’re doing now.  I would turn all the lights in the house off and sit on the couch all day watching Starsight and New Science and wishing that the pain would go away.  But the longer I did that the more hollow I got.  I lost sight of the good things.  Both in the world, and in myself.”

                “The good things in my world have left me,” he said.  “And the good things in myself left with them.”  He saw Tracy watching him, quiet.  Listening.  No one had actually listened to him in a long while.  He took a deep breath, then let it all out.  “I dedicated my life to completing the project, to building our space elevator, because my boy wanted to see space with his own eyes.  And he didn’t have much time.  To give him that, the one thing he wanted, I lived at the office.  I didn’t see him.  I didn’t see my wife.  They spent all their time here or at the hospital by themselves while I was at work organizing my god damn desk!”  He shocked himself with the sudden outburst.  Where had it come from?  Had he been waiting for her?  Had he been waiting for someone, someone he could trust, and talk to?  Someone who wasn’t only interested in deadlines, and budgets, and PR?  Someone who cared if he lived or died, smiled or cried?

                A friend?

                He breathed in again, looked at this lap, his trembling fingers.  Exhaled slowly through pursed lips.

                “Now my boy is gone.  He died while I was sitting at that desk.  He wasn’t supposed to, not yet, but he did.  And I wasn’t there for him.  I wasn’t there holding his hand when he needed me.  I failed him as a father and I failed him as the Director of New Horizons, too.  He never got to see space.  He never got to ride the space elevator that I bragged about day after day. You’re going to be the first little boy to do it, I told him, the first boy to ride an elevator right out of the world.  You and me and your mom will go together and we’ll ride it all the way to the top and we’ll look out the window and the whole earth will be down below us and you’ll see it all just like the astronauts do, but make sure you hold on to the handlebars because it’ll be in zero gravity, buddy.  You’ll be flying.  I showed him and Molly the promotional poster, the concept art and said, look, this is what it’s going to be like when we go together.  I’m working on this, that’s why I’m always away.”

                He shook his head.  “But it didn’t happen.  He died of that damn disease and Molly left me because I wasn’t there for him or for her and every time I think about the project or the paperwork or the milestones or that desk all I see is his grave and the moment after we buried him when Molly let go of my hand and walked away to that waiting car.  I haven’t seen her since.  I want to call her, I want to talk to her, I want to apologize, but I can’t, and not just because I broke my damn phone with a hammer but because there are no words to express what I’m feeling and there are no words good enough to make her love me again.”

                Was he crying?  He wasn’t supposed to cry.  He wasn’t supposed to cry in front of anybody, especially a pretty woman or a coworker.  His nose was running, which made no sense, because what did snot have to do with sadness?  But there it was, one of the million things in the world which did not belong.  He wiped his tears and sniffed.  Tracy got up, navigated a path into the kitchen, and returned with a roll of paper towels. 

                “Thanks,” he said as he took the roll from her and cleaned himself up.  “I’m sorry…I’m sorry the house is such a mess.  You deserve better.”

                “Like I said,” Tracy nodded, “I’ve been here before.  I can’t say I’ve felt the same kind of loss…but I’ve been through hard enough times.”

                He considered for a moment.  “You see how I am, now.  You can’t possbly expect me to go back.  I’m a mess.”

                “Work from home,” Tracy said.  “I’ve got a laptop in my car with VPN, a webcam and a good headset.  I got IT to set it up for you with a clone of your hard drive.”

                “I didn’t approve that,” he said, half-joking.

                “And I don’t approve of this,” she said, waving her hand at the living room, which appeared as if it had been bombed.

                “Fair enough,” he said.

                “I have my own laptop,” she said, “And I can set up on this table here if you need company now and then.  Provided you clean this place up.  I’ll get you another phone and set you back up with the cleaning guy.”

                “Hold on, now,” he said.  “I haven’t agreed to anything.”

                “You’re going to do this,” she said, putting her hands on her knees.  “This is my prescription for your well-being.  You’re a man who needs to work.  You need to accomplish things.  You’ll lose yourself if you forget that.”

                “I’ve already lost myself,” he said. 

                “You’re sitting right in front of me,” she said.  “You’re not lost.  Not yet.  Not to me.”

                “I can’t go back like nothing ever happened.  I still need…to mourn them.  To mourn them both.”

                Tracy touched his hand.  “Of course.  You have to.  You should.  But you can’t spend every moment of every day steeped in despair.  It’s no good for you.  You need to do something.  And Ted, we need you.  I need you.  Decisions are piling up, decisions I don’t have the right or the will to make.  And I wouldn’t trust them to anyone else.”

                 “I don’t know—I don’t know if I have it in me,” he said.  “Even if I work from home.  Even if I don’t deal directly with people.  I don’t know...if I can do it anymore.  I don’t want to agree to this, then self-destruct and fail everyone a second time.”

                “You won’t self-destruct,” said Tracy.  “Because I won’t let you.”

                He rubbed his forehead.  “Thanks. I just...can I get a little bit to think about this?  A couple days, maybe.”

                “No,” said Tracy.  “We need you now.  And you’re just going to dig up more reasons to say no.  Say yes, Ted.  Say yes and pull yourself out of this sullen nightmare you’ve trapped yourself in.  Make yourself useful again—it feels good.  Use your mind to create again—it feels good.  Talk to people again—it feels good.  Feel hope, and pride, again—it feels good.”

                “Tracy—“

                “Say yes.”  She folded her arms and stared at him.  It was funny, how imposing a person could be while sitting in a recliner.

                Ted looked at the coffee table in front of him.  Waved his hand to clear it of half-empty potato chip bags.  They fell into the floor, but he would just get the cleaning guy to pick it up later.  He’d always hated cleaning.

                “If you don’t mind,” he said, “grab me that laptop and hook it up right here.  I’m not making any promises, but I’ll at least check my email.”

                “Ahh, email,” said Tracy, rising, “The workaholic’s favorite drug.”

                “Shut up,” he said.

                She left, leaving him alone with his thoughts for a moment.  He remembered how his little boy had sat next to him on this couch, watching space documentaries.  His son was gone, but, painful as it was, his dream remained.  Ted could still make it real. 

                Tracy said nothing when she returned.  She just plopped the laptop down on the table, and set to work hooking up the power.  Once done, she hit the button, then sat next to him—in his son’s old seat—as they watched it boot up together.  VISION, the operating system said.  “Gateways to Tomorrow,” sang the motto.

                Light flashed, and Ted leaned forward, feeling that familiar itch to click and control, to decide and do.  Tracy watched him quietly as he opened his email and began to work.

 




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