Story by Brian Spiess
Illustration by Toeken
Below the Clark home lay the little town of Green, a quaint little village in the upper northwest section of the great state of Washington, nestled in the expansive bosom of a large and imposing mountain range. Known for its thriving lumber industry and weird urban legends about the crazy recluse scientist who lived just north of the town, it was the perfect place to go grocery shopping for a young man just about to enter society for the first time. At least, that’s what Amy Smith thought when she went on her weekly trip to the local supermarket.
Making sure that her auburn hair was still tied behind her in a ponytail, Amy walked down the different aisles of the local ShopSmart, wearing a pair of blue jeans, sneakers, and a My Hero Academia T-shirt she had gotten from a cousin for Christmas. Admittedly, she was never a big anime person, but the show was starting to grow on her – not that that was important as she continued to check items off her list.
As Amy moved from meat to dairy and back again, she went through her usual conveyor of casual greetings – given that she and most others in the town had been coming to the ShopSmart for years or even decades, she usually knew who was going to show up and who would be there to say hello to her. Whether it be Ms. Janofowitz and the ever-present discussion topic of the well-being of her cats, or Officer Williams and his eternal hunt for that jerk who kept littering all over town, she always knew who she would see and usually what to say to them. Even with Mr. Clark, the reclusive inventor who lived in the mountains on the edge of town, she could always expect a slightly awkward conversation about the weather and projects that he clearly did not want to give too much information on. It was always a routine she could trust, a pattern she could rely on – except for today. It was weird, she thought, that Mr. Clark wouldn’t be here. For the last twenty or so years, she would see him come into the supermarket for supplies – every Thursday afternoon, like clockwork, barely saying a word to anyone except her and the cashier before vanishing up into the mountains for another week. It was the kind of routine that makes an urban legend out of the slightly abnormal – after all, the rumors that she had heard about the guy certainly seemed like the basis for one. For a brief moment, Amy wondered what had happened to the old guy-
Wait a minute, that seemed like him over there! Though the man was standing with his back facing her, contemplating the condiments section, Amy would have recognized that old, way-too-formal-for-the-ShopSmart blue suit anywhere. Walking up to her old acquaintance, Amy tapped him on the shoulder in a friendly sort of way.
“Oh, hey Mr. Clark, what’s going on? I heard you were-”
The man turned around, and Amy was surprised to see it was not Jefferson Clark beneath that blue suit. In front of her stood a tall, exceedingly built man looking to be in his late 20’s, with broad shoulders and black hair cut in a military-style. He looked at her with what seemed like mild confusion for a good five seconds before going back to the problem at hand.
“OK, seriously, is there a difference between catsup and ketchup?” Danny Clark wondered aloud, holding two differing bottles in his hand as if weighing them separately.
“Oh, I’m sorry, you looked like someone I knew…”
Danny turned around again to see Amy looking a little embarrassed – clearly, she had expected to see someone she knew wearing his father’s clothes.
“Yeah, I think it was the blue suit…”
“Oh, this?” Danny gestured down to his blue suit. “I just thought I’d wear this into town. Belonged to my father. He ever come in here before?”
Slowly but surely Amy started to get the entire picture. “Well, if he did, I probably would have met him. His name wouldn’t happen to be Clark, would it?”
“Yeah!” Danny responded, an almost childlike light emanating from his eyes. Suddenly, as if realizing he had forgotten the proper social protocol in these situations, he reached out his hand for a handshake. “Sorry, where are my manners? – Danny Clark.”
“Amy Smith. Nice to meet you.” Amy shook his hand back, noting to herself that he had an oddly strong grip. “So, what’s up with the ketchup bottles?”
“Oh, I was just trying to figure out the difference between catsup and ketchup. In hindsight, I’m starting to think they might be the same thing just spelled differently, but then again I’ve never been here before.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure they’re the same thing too.” Any replied, leaning over to confirm her theory. “Yep, same thing, different name.”
“Thanks,” Danny replied. “Don’t know what I would do without you.” He laughed softly a little before returning to an awkward position, hunching over ever so slightly while looking back at the condiments – discreetly sneaking peeks at Amy’s face and hoping that she didn’t notice.
By this point Amy would have probably walked away from the conversation, happily going about her business while getting groceries for that week, forgetting this mild bit of interaction she had with Mr. Clark’s boy before settling into the routine of her daily life. But as much as she didn’t understand it, there was something that compelled her to stay with him. Maybe it was the sense of innocence she thought she noticed in him or that glint in his eye that seemed to captivate her. But perhaps most of all it was the sense of awkwardness and loneliness that seemed to emanate from his entire being. Despite his friendly demeanor, Danny Clark seemed to be a complete stranger to the greater population of humanity. He said it was his first time in this supermarket, Amy thought to herself. Come to think of it, had he ever been in town before? Surely Mr. Clark would have brought his son down from the mountain at least once. Then again, the old man was an infamous recluse.
“Hey…after you’re done do you want to get a drink with me?” Amy asked before she knew what she was saying. “I know this great coffee place just down the street.”
“Um…sure!” Danny responded with a smile that betrayed just the slightest hint of naivety. “I’d love to – just let me get Solomon from the front and I’m good to go.”
“Awesome!” Amy said, walking with her new friend out of the ShopSmart, just stopping to pet his rather handsome greyhound before walking down the street once again. As she guided the eager young man to the coffee shop just on the corner of Gordon Street, Amy could hear Danny muttering to himself behind her – “What the heck is coffee?” Confused but deciding not to question it, for now, Amy continued.
The next few minutes were relatively uneventful, as Danny and Amy took their seats at the coffee shop known as Bean There, Done That – a new chain that was just starting to make its way around the area. While Amy ordered an espresso and a croissant, Danny stuck by a simpler order – just some kale chips and a bottle of water.
“Impressive,” Amy observed as she chewed on her croissant. “Not a lot of people go for the healthy option around here.”
Danny seemed to blush a little at the compliment. “It’s not that big a deal. After Dad made me stick to that diet for such a long time, you get used to it. Nothing but fruits and vegetables, zero meat, more-nutrients-the-better he always said.”
“Sounds like a real health nut,” Amy said without thinking – though Danny didn’t seem to notice.
“Well, at least when it came to me, he was – always trying to make sure I stayed in tip-top shape – not always the fittest fiddle himself, but I knew better than to question that. At least until the heart attack…”
Amy looked up again to see Danny stirring his water with a somewhat forlorn expression on his face.
“Not sure if this helps, but…I’m sorry about your dad,” Amy replied, patting Danny’s shoulder for a bit. However, after about a second or two, a question popped in her head.
“You know, it’s funny – I didn’t even know Mr. Clark had a son. Never talked to anyone in town, never socialized – I didn’t even know he had any family or anything like that.”
At this, Danny seemed to look off into the distance – as if remembering memories of a life gone by. “I was all he had. I mean, I wasn’t his son in… you know, the traditional sense – but in terms of family I was it.”
“You were adopted?” Amy asked.
“Something like that,” Danny answered. “I don’t remember that far back very well, at least not that far, but…he took me in when no one else would. Raised me as his own, trained me, taught me to use what I had, built me up when I was weak…at least, that’s how he put it. Always had a flair for words, my dad…”
Danny seemed to trail off for a bit as Amy continued to listen to him, almost enraptured by his story.
“Yeah, Dad was always big on training, all that self-improvement stuff. Honestly, I still don’t know what it was all for. I mean, at the time I knew better than to question him, but now…I’m not so sure. All that time spent in the mountains, lifting as much as I could lift, running as fast as I could run, studying until my brain was full to bursting – admittedly that last part didn’t come as strong to me as Dad would have liked, but then again nobody’s perfect. As much as I think he wanted me to be…”
Amy nodded as if to indicate that she understood. “Well…” she replied as she reached out to pat his hand. “I think you turned out fine.”
Danny blushed again as the two returned to their drinks.
“I mean, a lot of people thought Mr. Clark was crazy – no offense – but you seem pretty cool, so…he must have done something right.”
Danny looked away from Amy for a second, remembering his father with a clear vision in his eye. Sure, there was the hardships, the bad times, the drill sergeant times, the pushing-him-to-move-till-his-bones-cracked times – but there was also the good times, the sitting and talking next to the sunset over the mountains, the roaring fires around Christmas-time, the rare-as-diamond pats on the head, when Danny knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had done something that made his father proud.
“He did his best.” Danny finally replied – a fitting answer for the man he knew his father to be. In life, Jefferson Clark could be a cold man, a hard man, a pushy man – but a man nonetheless, a man who took in a cold, starving orphan when everyone else had just left him in the mountains to die, a man who made him into something better than he was – and for that Danny found himself somewhat grateful. His father had tried his best to raise him right – and that was all he needed to know.
“Man, that espresso was delicious!” Amy decided as the two walked down the road, having finished their snacks at Bean There, Done That – both content at the late afternoon meal but also somewhat distracted by the blinking traffic light that lay at the end of the street.
“Is that thing always like that?” Danny asked, wondering to himself if this was how roads worked in town.
“No, that thing started to short-circuit a few hours ago,” Amy answered. “I think they’re supposed to fix it tomorrow; luckily people don’t usually drive out on the roads this time of day.”
. In her defense, this was more of the walking time for people, as could be seen by the dozen or so people out and about on the sidewalks beside them, talking with neighbors and enjoying the warm weather. It was indeed a pretty sight, especially as the sun was slowly starting to sink over the horizon, bathing the sunrise in a beautiful golden-purple glow as the day hid behind the mountains. “I’ll have to get you to try one when you come down again.”
“Again?” Danny looked nervous as she said that – and it was clear by her face that she could see his trepidation.
“Hey – are you OK?” Amy looked over at the young man, wondering what had made him so nervous.
“It’s nothing,” Danny answered quickly. After a few seconds of silence, Danny laughed a little in that nervous sort of way that Amy had seen before.
“You know, it’s funny – Dad never really wanted me to come down here in the first place. From what he always said, I don’t think he really had a good thing going with this place – probably just rubbed it off on me over time.”
Amy nodded at this latest comment – from what she heard about Mr. Clark; his work was always met with some sort of controversy by the town; with that kind of reception, it was little wonder he chose to live away from everyone.
“I don’t think it was really hatred,” Danny continued. “He always said he wanted to protect me from what was down below – figured they wouldn’t take to kindly to me, or at least less kindly then they took to him. Always said people were afraid of what they couldn’t comprehend – which would explain a lot with all that time we spent on the mountain.”
“Can I tell you something?” Danny turned to Amy and asked suddenly.
“To tell you the truth – when I said I had never been here before…I really meant it. First time I’ve ever come down to the valley and it’s months after he died.”
While Amy was a little surprised at this – she had to admit she might have seen it coming. This may have been the bachelor’s degree in psychology talking, but Danny’s demeanor betrayed a certain naivety about things that did not come from lengthy travel outside his home.
“That seems like a lonely way to live.” Amy finally responded.
“Well, I always had Dad – and Solomon of course…” Danny patted his dog’s head affectionately. “But yeah – my whole life it was just me and that house up there. Dad wouldn’t have had it any other way. I mean, he knew I could do great things, he always said so – but he was always afraid that people would reject me – I mean, once they found out what I could do, what I was…”
“What you are?” Amy was starting to get confused at this point – what was Danny talking about? Why was he so afraid of people rejecting him? And most of all – why had Mr. Clark kept him up there for so long?
Danny looked at Amy for another good few seconds, debating whether he should finally tell her. The secret of what he was and what he could do had been kept for so long – by him, by his father – but maybe she was someone he could trust. After all, his father was gone, he was his own man now – but could he really deny everything Jefferson Clark had taught him, everything he had ever known to be true?
Danny turned towards Amy and took a deep breath.
“Look, Amy – the truth is…I’m not exactly what you would think. My father-”
Suddenly, without warning, Solomon picked up his head and started barking towards a bakery stand across the street. Coming from a dog who had spent decades eating pure nutrients and homemade dog food for the past four or five decades, the smell of doughnuts and cupcakes were a siren song that he could not deny.
Barking like mad, Solomon ripped himself free from his master’s hand and ran into the street, leaping towards the baked goods like an oasis in an endless desert.
“It’s OK, Danny, I’ve got him!” Amy shouted, and chased the dog across the street before she had time to think. Reaching out as far as she could, she managed to catch Solomon about halfway across the road. Amy breathed a sigh of relief as it seemed like everything was going to be fine.
However, the truck speeding towards her might have deemed otherwise.
Misreading the defective traffic light, a truck from the local lumber mill had driven down this road like it would have any other day, not expecting to see a young woman and a dog in its path – much like the young woman and the dog would not have expected this turn of events to come around.
The next few seconds were a blur – a honking horn, a flash of light, a brief regret over never trying out for basketball – as Amy faced what seemed to be the end of her story. She closed her eyes and screamed – for a brief moment but enough to be heard – as her world was enveloped by the sounds of crunching steel, screeching brakes, and twisted metal surrounding her entire being.
How odd then, that Amy suddenly realized that nothing had hit her.
Grunting from the sudden impact of a six-wheeler against his body, Danny Clark realized this was probably the stupidest thing he had ever done. At least, that’s what his father would have said if he had seen the debacle that had just occurred. Danny could imagine the old man now – angrily screaming his name from the pearly gates, reminding his son of every rule he had broken in the last thirty seconds. Still, he thought – he had to do something.
Stumbling out of the human-shaped crater he had made in the front of the truck, Danny looked around and saw that Amy was unharmed- at least this wasn’t a total loss.
“Are you OK? I saw the truck and-”
Danny stopped talking when he saw Amy staring at him in stunned silence – whether fear, revulsion, or just shock at what just happened, he could not tell. Slicking back his hair to make sure that was OK, Danny looked down at his body and noticed two things: First, that his suit was in tatters – ripped to shreds by the sudden impact of the truck. Danny silently cursed himself for ruining his dad’s good suit, much as he no longer needed it – but it soon became clear that this was probably not the most important revelation at the moment. Looking down at his arms and chest, Danny gasped in shock and fear, knowing that the secret he and his father had kept for decades was blown.
Like the mask ripped off a certain Parisian phantom, the metal and wires under Danny’s prosthetic skin was exposed for all to see.
In Danny’s defense, it wasn’t all like that – just his primary muscle groups, his heart, and most of his skull enhanced by biomechatronic parts his father had invented. After the government and most of society had rejected his proposal for “the cybernetic super-soldier of tomorrow,” as the man himself had put it, Jefferson Clark figured he might as well reject the world below and try to find some good use for his inventions. The rest was history – give him a poor, freezing orphan dumped in the mountains, have him use advanced technology to save the kid’s life, just add a severe distrust of the outside world, and voila!
Danny looked back up to see that multiple others had joined Amy in her stunned silence – watching him with what could only be described as pure shock and inspiring a whole lot of fear in the guy who had just saved Amy’s life. This was just like his father warned him, Danny thought – they would always be afraid of him, he said, they would always reject him, they would not understand him, they COULD NOT UNDERSTAND–
Grabbing Solomon and carrying him over his shoulder, Danny Clark ran away from the group in a panic, desperate to get back to the one safe place he knew.
Meanwhile, Amy, watching her savior run away, managed to find the strength to get some words out of her mouth.
“Danny, wait!” she cried – but it was too late. Danny Clark had sped away from the small valley beneath his home, running faster than a bolt of blue lightning in a summer storm.
2 weeks later…
Time had passed, the days got a touch warmer, and Danny had returned to his normal routine. After repairing his synthetic skin and making sure the mechanical arms and chest muscles were working properly, it was time to get back to basics. After the debacle down in the valley, he was more than happy to return to the sanctuary he had called home all his life. Sure, sometimes it could be his prison, but at this moment, iron bars, locked doors, and a tight-fisted schedule were all he needed to get back on track:
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 and a spare croissant 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, Solomon watching him from the side. Running was probably the best part of Danny Clark’s training, but after what had happened below, he no longer dreamed of running beyond his track and out into the world. Perhaps his father was right in the end – the world wasn’t ready for Danny, and he sure as hell wasn’t ready for the world
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 enjoyed after a hard workout-
Ding dong! Danny could hear Solomon bark at the ringing of the doorbell.
“What the heck…” Danny said to himself, trying to comprehend even the slightest possibility of a visitor to the house. It was impossible, he thought – Jefferson Clark had made sure the house was almost invisible among the trees and rocks, eternally hidden from anyone he wanted to hide from – the police, government agents, Jehovah’s Witnesses…
Ding dong! The doorbell went off again, and Solomon’s barking became even louder.
Wondering who could have possibly found his home, and further pondering why they would even want to be out here. Danny zipped up his tracksuit and slowly walked towards the front door, his legs trembling like leaves in the wind as he got closer and closer to solving this mystery.
Taking the doorknob in his hand, Danny was instantly hit with the sudden fear of who it might be. What if they knew what he had done in town? What if they called the government? What if it was the army trying to take him away – or worse yet, scientists!? WHY DID THEY HAVE TO EXPERIMENT ON HIM; HE COULD JUST SHOW THEM THE BLUEPRINTS! –
Danny flung the door open, expecting the worst – only to find something better.
In front of him stood a girl in her mid-twenties, wearing blue jeans, hiking boots, and a green t-shirt, holding a gift basket full of baked goods in her arms as she stood on the doorstep.
“Amy?” Danny asked in curiosity. “What are you doing here? H-how did you find this place?”
“It actually wasn’t too hard,” Amy said. “You left some pretty big footprints running up here.”
Danny looked behind her to see a massive path of destruction – two-foot-wide craters, knocked over trees, and footprints a mile long, leading all the way back to the town of Green. “Oh…”
Before he could explain, Amy handed him the gift basket. “Sorry I surprised you, my mom made this – wanted to thank you for…you know, saving me. If you hadn’t stopped that truck, I would’ve been a pancake.”
As much as Danny was flattered by the bountiful display of pastries, he could not help but be confused by the gesture. “Your mom made this?”
“Yeah – after I told her what happened, she figured you deserved a thank you. We all did – I mean, it’s not every day a stranger saved one of our lives.” She smiled and straightened her shirt.
“Anyway, I also wanted to ask you – did you maybe want to come over our house tonight for dinner? My family’s making baked potatoes.”
Danny felt his stomach grumble at the thought. “I like potatoes…”
“Awesome!” Amy pulled out a piece of paper and pen to scribble something down and handed the note to Danny. “If you get lost, just text me; I’ll find you.”
To be fair, Danny didn’t own a phone, but at the moment he didn’t really care. But as she started to turn from him, he could not help but ask something that was digging at his mind.
“Wait!” Danny called, getting Amy’s attention. “I have to ask – after…you know, what happened, the whole…metal body thing…you’re inviting me to dinner? Why?”
Amy turned back to Danny and smiled.
“Well, you seem like a cool guy – I mean, you saved my life and all. And honestly…I think you and I both know you’ve been alone up here long enough.”
Danny smiled back at Amy, trying to hide his blushing as she turned to go.
“Dinner’s at 6, don’t be late!” Amy shouted from a bit down the hill. “Oh – and make sure you bring your dog too! I think the family’s gonna like him!” She turned to go, crunching leaves as she went, and soon the girl was gone.
Huh…I ever thought I’d say this, but maybe Dad was wrong after all, Danny thought, eagerly anticipating the meal to come and wondering which suit he would borrow this time as he closed the front door behind him.
— ♦♦♦ —
A traveling group of con artists, disguised as a vaudeville act, come to Laredo with one thing on their minds – escape. Can they go out with a bang, or will the lawmen of the Wild West finally bring them to justice?