Story by Brian Spiess
Illustration by Toeken
It was dawn in the middle of January when Danny Clark buried his father.
To say that it was a small funeral would be nothing less than a horrific understatement – indeed, there was no one around except for the family dog, a grey mastiff named Solomon, and the occasional squirrel scuttling between the trees. No one, that is, except for the dutiful son himself, as he began to pile dirt on top of the simple pine coffin, shivering a bit in the winter wind.
At this time of year, the ground itself was pretty much frozen solid; hardly anybody could make a dent in the ground – at least not this high up in the mountains. Fortunately, this was no such problem for Danny Clark, who worked tirelessly and seemingly without much effort to the dirt he so often claimed to come from. For the longest time, Danny had looked upon that particular Bible passage with great confusion, but he knew better than to question his father, even after his passing. He always knew better than to question his father.
Soon enough, the job was done, and Danny Clark paused for a brief moment to mourn the man that had raised him all his life. There were tough times to be sure, angry times and sad times, but to say that it had been all bad would have been a lie on Danny’s part. To say that his father had been perfect would have also been a lie, but Danny knew the truth, at least the truth he had come to know – he had been raised and reared by a good man, and that was all that he needed to know. The gravestone he had chiseled was sparse, but said enough – a fitting memento to the kind of man that lay beneath it:
JEFFERSON D. CLARK
In hindsight, Danny’s father might have used a better word than beloved, something less “schmaltzy” as the man would sometimes say derivatively, but the grave was planted and the man was buried – nothing more could be done. Brushing the dust and snow from his jacket, Danny dropped the shovel and briskly lumbered towards home.
Not too far from the burial site of Jefferson Clark was a large Victorian abode, hidden away by trees near the top of the mountain. For the last twenty-five years, the house had meant many things to Danny Clark – the training ground, shelter, sanctuary – but most of all it was his world. Sure, there was always more that lay beyond, Danny knew that every day he would turn his head to the fields and towns below his mountain hideaway, but he was never to see it – he wasn’t ready, his father told him. Every day that’s what Jefferson told him – Danny wasn’t ready for the world below, and the world below sure as hell wasn’t ready for him.
Opening the door to the living room, Danny looked around, noting a sense of emptiness inside the house. Though he had only buried his father just a few minutes ago, he still could not believe that the man was gone. All his life, the house was built for two – now it only had to account for one.
“What?” Danny spun around, hearing the voice of Jefferson Clark call him to attention. Though he knew that his father was still dead and buried, he could not help but stand and listen. In times like these, he could use the guidance of a voice he knew to obey.
Enough living in the past, boy! His father’s words echoed in Danny’s head. Just because I’m gone doesn’t mean you’re just gonna mope around, is it?
Danny stood silent, hesitating for a moment despite the risk.
“No,” Danny answered, the words coming out of his mouth like clockwork.
Now what? As long as you live in this house, you put sir at the end of that sentence!
That’s better. Now, quit gawking around and listen to me! Now, remember what I told you to do when this day came?
“Yes, sir.” Danny knew his father had prepared for this day – the day when he would no longer be around to help his son handle the…talents he had.
Good. Now then, first thing’s first – you’ll find everything you need to get started in my room. Remember that, boy?
“Yes, sir.” Wiping the unexpected sweat from his forehead, Danny made his way through the house, as if taking his time to follow his father’s command.
Walking past the doorway to the backyard, Danny paused to look out at the makeshift training ground that his father had built for him all those years ago. Ever since Danny had come into his life, Jefferson Clark poured much of his energy into testing his son’s limits, pushing him farther and building him up into a person he could be proud of. It was hard and bitter work to be sure, but looking back Danny thought his father would be proud of the results of his labors. For years, decades even, the dutiful son had worked himself to the bone to make his father happy, and he would continue to do so even in the face of everything that had happened. Walking outside and letting the cold breeze hit him in the face once more, Danny slowly took each step down the porch, feeling the wood creak beneath him with each foot closer. Taking a stand on the cool grass below, Danny paused for a bit – standing before the training ground as if reluctant to return to the once-familiar place.
Boy! Didn’t you hear me before? I told you what to do, and you know what I’ve always said about hesitating!
Hearing these words echo once more in his head, Danny looked back at the house, then to the field, remembering why he came here…
Several Years Ago…
It was summer then; the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and Danny Clark laced up his racing shoes to go around the track once more. Hearing the bark of the family dog, he looked up to see Solomon racing towards him. Pouncing on his master and licking his face at a rapid pace, the grey hunting dog had been Danny’s friend and companion for most of his life – a sentiment that Danny Clark heavily reciprocated.
“You almost ready, boy? Time’s a-wastin!”
Sending the dog away with a pat on the head and the promise of treated after lunch, Danny looked up to see his father, grey-haired, sullen-eyed and wearing a blue tracksuit and white lab coat as he walked towards the tall young man in the backyard, holding a newspaper and adjusting his glasses.
“Did you hear me, boy? I keep telling you, time waits for no man; now let’s get moving! Your training isn’t gonna finish itself!”
Danny had always wondered what his father had meant by that, but then again, it was a training regimen that he had known for his entire life. He knew better than to question something that constant – much as he knew better than to question his father.
“Yes, sir.” Danny finished lacing up his shoes and walked over to his father, who was inputting some calculations into his pocket calculator and talking into the tape recorder that he carried with him at all times.
“OK, let’s see…subject has surpassed his bench-pressing ability from six months ago, and we are about to test his speed capabilities. If he can beat his record from the winter, only time will tell…”
“Dad?” Danny gulped with a bit of nervousness. He had been working up the courage for several hours to ask his father this question – and as much as he knew what the answer would be, he could not help but be foolish enough to ask it anyway
“Look…I know what you said, and I can understand your sentiment, but I was wondering…would it be possible for you to let me run through town today? I think I’m old enough, and if I’m careful I think I can-”
Danny was quickly cut off by an annoyed look from the elder Clark. To be fair, he had seen this coming, but his defense always fell whenever he was faced with the ire of his father. The hand that held the newspaper raised and Danny flinched – but watched as his father put the newspaper down and walked past him towards the field. Danny breathed a sigh of relief – true his father had never gone that far in disciplining him, but the second he saw that look in his eyes he knew not to question Jefferson Clark.
“You know, I’m getting really tired of you asking me that, boy.” Jefferson sat down and waited for his son to join him on the field.
“Yes, sir, but-”
“But what? Don’t be a fool, boy; I’ve told you time and time again what the rule is – You. Don’t. Leave. The. Mountain. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times.”
“I don’t leave the mountain – I know, sir,” Danny repeated back. This seemed to satisfy the elder Clark, who motioned for Clark to sit on the bench next to him.
“I know you’re curious about the world below – not sure why though, I could have sworn I left that out somewhere…”
Danny was curious about that last part but let him continue.
“What I’m trying to say is that…the people down there ‘ain’t very understanding of people like us. Those damn idiots never did believe in me or my work…turn against everything they don’t understand, genius, the future, a ticket to a better tomorrow!”
The elder Clark paused for a bit, took a deep breath, and returned to his son.
“What I’m trying to say is…you’re a lot like me. Sure, you never took well to the sciences, but I created you to do a lot of great things with what you’ve got. But the people down there…well, to show them greatness scares them most of the time. It’s the reason I moved up here – they weren’t ready for me, they’re not ready for you…and you sure as hell aren’t ready for them. You understand me, boy?”
Danny nodded, eager to reconcile with the old man.
“Good. Now then, no more of this down-below talk and let’s get back to work. You ready to get back to the track, boy?”
“Then let’s get right to it. Three…two…one…GO!”
Jefferson Clark blew his starter whistle, and Danny took off, faster than a bolt of blue lightning in a summer storm.
Time passed after the day of the burial – the seasons changed from winter to spring, the days became longer, and life continued for the son of Jefferson Clark. Ever since the death of his father, Danny had gone through with what his father would have wanted – continuing his training even without someone to guide him along and keeping track of the house in his father’s stead. Every day it was the same, planned down by the late elder Clark to the very second:
7:00 – Danny would wake up to the sound of roosters crowing on the horizon, getting out of bed with a cold efficiency that his father had programmed into him from an early age.
7:30 – Breakfast would be served, always with a side of fruit and an egg or two. Danny always enjoyed this part of the schedule, where he could sit on the porch, Solomon eating a plate of dog chow by his side, and watch the sunrise over the mountains, a twinkle in his eye and a blue sky on the horizon.
9:30 – Training would begin for the young Clark as early as possible. He would begin with the weights, probably the hardest part of the workout, but as soon as he was done, he would get right to the track. Running was probably the best part of Danny Clark’s training; even during the times when his father supervised, he loved the sense of freedom that it gave him. True, he knew he would never get anywhere except around the track and back again, he could always dream of running beyond the house, beyond the forest, even beyond the mountain. Sure, his father had said no to that almost immediately, but for now, he could always imagine.
11:00 – Once Danny’s training was over for the morning, he could look forward to a heavy lunch, Solomon once again joining him after serving as the sole and single spectator for his track and field exploits. Walking back into the house from the backyard, Danny ran into the kitchen, eager to experience the lifesaving meats and cheeses he always annoyed after a hard workout.
“Calm down, boy, I’m getting it!” Danny reassured his excited dog, reaching into the wooden cabinet to find…
“Nothing?” Danny looked up and down the pantry, hoping and praying that he was wrong. Unfortunately, his theory was right – in the months since his father’s passing, the house had run out of food. Nothing in the cabinet, nothing in the fridge – though there was a bit of celery in the freezer which Danny took as a consolation prize.
“We can’t be out of food; Dad went shopping just a few months ago!” Danny rationalized to himself. Had it really been that long since the funeral? What was he going to do now? What would his father do? –
Quit your panicking, boy!
“Dad?” Danny jumped up and looked around, wondering who was talking for a few seconds before realizing the sound was coming from his own head. Ignoring this implication of inserting insanity, Danny paused and tried to focus on what he knew to be a voice he could trust.
What have I told you about hesitating, boy? It’s gonna get you nowhere if you don’t sit still and listen to me! Now, are you gonna pay attention or not?
“Yes, sir.” Danny stood up, not knowing quite what to do.
Alright then…boy, I know that I’ve told you a lot of things in my life, some more confusing than others, but this time you need to take my word for it. You’re gonna must go into town to get some more food.
“Town?” Danny had been waiting all his life to hear those words, but now that they had finally become reality, he had no idea what to do with them. “But you said that- “
I know what I said, boy!
Danny winced at the thought of his father raising his voice. Even when the man himself was dead and gone, Danny knew to fear the ire of an angry Jefferson Clark. Luckily, the voice in his head seemed to catch itself and calm down a little.
Boy…I meant what I said, the world down there wasn’t ready for you…
Danny hung his head, remembering his father’s words well.
…But maybe you’re ready for them – if you’re careful, anyway.
Danny nodded his head.
If you’re gonna go down there, you’re gonna must be careful about showing them…what you can do. If they see exactly what you are…well, I can’t be held responsible for what they do.
Danny gulped at this thought – his father had spun quite a few horror stories about the world below – and how they tended to react to stuff they didn’t quite understand.
“I understand sir.”
Good. I know you’ll do good, boy – it’s what I made you for. Now go do what you’ve gotta do.
“Sure thing, dad.” Danny smiled with newfound purpose as he prepared himself for this newfound quest – though pausing to realize that he seriously needed a new change of clothes.
Ever since the death of Jefferson Clark, Danny had been making use of his clothes to make his away around the grounds of their house. Rifling through his father’s closet, Danny pushed aside several shirts and pants before deciding on a blue suit, tucked away at the back of the old man’s wardrobe. Slipping it on with impressive speed, Danny was surprised by how well it fit him. Though then again, Jefferson was around Danny’s height, and the cut of the suit implied a broader build in the old man’s youth, so measurements didn’t seem to be a huge problem for now.
His new wardrobe fitted on and his hair combed, Danny walked back downstairs and whistled for Solomon, the faithful hound running up to him in less than a second.
“Come on, Solomon…we’re going into town for a bit.”
With these words – long dreamed of by the young Clark – finally spoken, Danny leashed up his dog, laced up his shoes, and walked out the door, closing it behind him with a final thud.
— ♦♦♦ —
Two brothers…hobos, attempt to make their way to Kansas City with a sack full of rarified-nickles. If they can make it, they’ll be richer than they’ve ever imagined. But with Pete Schuman and brakeman Willie Jones riding the rails, it would be the most danger they’ve ever encountered.