Mark only has twenty-four hours to put his affairs in order - written for What A Character
|Mark Johnson fiddled with his peculiar, twenty-first-century necktie and tried to relax as the maître d' dressed as a clown—Ronald McDonald, he believed—led him toward the rear of the exclusive retro restaurant. He scanned the tables until he spotted his ex-wife and son, then his steps faltered. Judy glanced up and offered a tight smile. The years had been kind to his childhood sweetheart from Kansas City High. She wore a blue cheongsam with her crimson hair swept up into a bun. As he neared, the floral scent of Chanel No. 22 teased his senses. She was reminding him of what he was missing, and it hurt.
“Daddy!” squealed little Jimmy, looking cute in his holographic Donald Duck T-shirt and Kansas City Royals baseball cap. Months had passed since Mark was last permitted to take him to a game.
Mark tousled Jimmy's blond mop, then turned to Judy. He struggled to find the right words. “Thanks for coming.”
“Your lawyer was very persuasive.” She avoided eye contact. “Sit.”
“As much as I appreciate the first-class airplane tickets, why did you drag us to Paris?”
A waitress dressed as a canary appeared and interrupted their conversation. She curtsied in a comical fashion—the only way she could while wearing a costume that turned her arms into wings—and produced e-paper touchscreen menus featuring Egg McMuffins and other culinary delights. “Monsieur and Mademoiselle, this is the breakfast menu. Click the icon below your choices, s'il vous plaît.”
“Are we restricted to the breakfast menu?” asked Mark.
“Mais, non. Click the Main Products icon for our all-day options.” She produced a handheld scanner. “May I download your med-info?”
He raised his hand to allow access to his all-purpose wristband. Neither he nor Judy suffered allergies, but Jimmy had a nut intolerance. “You may as well extract my bank details, too. While we're waiting, could you entertain our son in your play area?”
Judy gripped Jimmy’s wrist. “Is that safe? We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
The waitress smiled. “Ne t'inquiète pas. Our playroom is supervised by experienced staff and a qualified pediatric nurse.”
Judy released Jimmy. “Okay, honey. Go have fun with the birdie.” Once their son left, she addressed Mark. “I always dreamed of eating in a Parisian restaurant, but this isn't what I had in mind.”
“I thought Jimmy might like it.”
“It's certainly unique.” She studied the menu. “Is it true they use real meat?”
“They claim nothing came from a vat. Even the salad grew in soil.”
Her mouth formed an O.
“Yeah, I know. Decadent.” He glanced around at the twenty-first-century decor. Did his great-great-grandparents eat in places like this? He selected a Happy Meal for Jimmy and a Big Mac Meal for himself. He left Judy to make her own choice.
“Must be expensive,” she noted. “Suppose that's why there are no prices on the menu.”
“I can afford it.”
“I guess so. Twenty years' advance pay, right?” She reached for his hand. “I know we parted on bad terms, but isn't this an extreme reaction?”
He yanked his hand back. “Extreme? You mean like a restraining order?”
She scowled. “You broke John’s jaw.”
“I was out of the house less than two weeks when that sleazeball made his move.”
“There's nothing going on between John and me. He was being friendly, and you overreacted…again. Anyway, you forfeited your right to judge.”
He clenched his fist. “Clearly, there's nothing left for me here.”
“You’re a talented engineer. You could start over fresh in Asia or Africa.”
“If I remain on Earth, I won’t be able to resist stalking you on social media. I couldn't bear to watch Jimmy grow up without me.”
She sighed. “When do you ship out?”
He nodded. “I have a nine a.m. appointment at the Hôpital Saint-Louis. The European Space Agency cryonic staff will put me into a chemically induced coma. If all goes well, when I regain consciousness in one-hundred-and-sixty years, I’ll be on Luyten-B, twelve light years away.”
“You don’t get to see inside the spaceship?”
“Sadly not. With ten thousand colonists aboard, providing amenities—toilets, seats, meals—would add tonnes to the weight. It's more practical to treat us as cargo—popsicles flying through space.”
She barked a laugh then immediately sobered, averting her gaze. “And if something goes wrong?”
“I probably won’t feel a thing.”
“You've read the statistics?”
“Of course.” He shuddered but tried to keep his expression void of fear. “Half will likely die in transit. Those who survive to make landfall have a one-in-three chance of surviving two years. It's eerily similar to the first European settlers in America.”
“It's a virtual death sentence?”
“It’s grasping the possibility of a new life.”
“New life? You think you might…?” Judy raised an eyebrow.
“It’s complicated.” He hesitated, wary of her judgmental views. “For those who survive, family units will be…flexible.”
“Well, the initial colonists will be more like the Louisiana Casket Girls than the Conquistadors.”
She shook her head. “What do you mean?”
“Women outnumber men five-to-one and on average are ten years younger.”
“Why…?” Her eyes lit up. “Right. Never mind.”
“The men will have a good time on Luyten-B.” She rolled her eyes.
“You think? With a ratio of five-to-one, the emerging society will be matriarchal.”
“Then it will be a better world than this one.”
He leaned forward. “Actually, that’s one of the reasons I’m passionate about this program.”
She gestured for him to expand.
“Twenty billion people is too many for one planet. Scientists have performed miracles with synthetic meats and genetically enhanced plants, but the Earth is nearing flashpoint. If humanity is to survive, if Jimmy’s great-great-grandchildren are to have a better life, we need alternative homes.”
“You think colonies are the answer?”
“As a species, we can't continue to keep all our eggs in one basket.”
She straightened. “Okay, I get why you’re going. But you still haven’t explained why you invited me here? Do you want me to feel guilty for blocking you out of our lives? I don’t. You deserve everything that happened.”
He nodded. “It was completely my fault.”
“And with a teenager. How could you, Mark?” Tears welled in Judy’s eyes.
He refused to rise to the bait. There was an age gap, but the girl was twenty-two, not a child. Even so, he couldn't escape the fact he'd betrayed his wife. If only he hadn't gotten so drunk that night. If only the girl hadn't been so cute. If only she hadn't fallen pregnant and chased him for child maintenance.
Judy dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. “My confidence was shattered. But then I thought, ‘Do I want to be stuck in a relationship with a dick who thinks what's between my legs is more important than what's between my ears?’”
He flinched. “I know. You’ve always been too good for me.”
The waitress reappeared, a tray between her wing-covered arms. She dished out food in cardboard containers, like something from a museum. The unfamiliar aroma was exotic and mouthwatering. “Shall I bring back your son, Mademoiselle?”
“Give us another ten minutes, please.”
As the waitress waddled off, Judy looked him in the eyes. “So…why are we here?”
He loosened his tie. “This is my last day on Earth. I want to leave you two with happy memories of me.”
“That bridge is long burned.”
“Please, hear me out.” He leaned across the table. “Just for one day, let's imagine I'm not a terrible father and an even worse husband. Let's forget I fucked up. Let's pretend we're happily married and spend this day as a family.”
She snorted. “I can't do that.”
“You said yourself this voyage is a suicide mission. Think of this as my dying wish.”
“You're asking too much.”
“Am I? Think of Jimmy. In less than twenty-four hours, he's going to lose his father. Would you deny him a final happy memory of his daddy?”
“That's emotional blackmail!”
“Please…let me tell you what I have planned.”
Judy folded her arms across her chest. “Go on.”
“I have tickets for Disneyland Paris.”
She gaped. “No! How…?”
“Benefits of the space program, baby. When you’ve only twenty-four hours left, they let you skip the three-year waiting list. And you know how much Jimmy loves those Disney holos.”
“He really does, but—”
He held up a hand. “This is a one-off, no-strings-attached deal. Give me today, and I’ll give you both the best day you’ve ever lived…no expense spared.”
“How can I say no to that? Jimmy will be over the moon.”
She bit her lip, indecision in her eyes.
“I’ll throw in a genuine French restaurant on the Champs-Élysées…and a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.”
“You know I’m a pushover when it comes to Ben & Jerry’s.”
“You’ll do it?”
She waggled a finger. “Don’t expect more out of this than dinner and a playdate. You’re not forgiven.”
“Don’t expect to be. I understand your feelings. Your father repeatedly cheated on your mother, and she always took him back. You don't want Jimmy to suffer a childhood like yours.” He produced an envelope and passed it over. “Can I beg one more favor?”
“A letter…for Jimmy when he turns twenty-one.”
Judy nodded and put the envelope away as the waitress reappeared with Jimmy in wing.
“Mommy, Daddy! This place is awesome. What are we gonna do next?”
Mark gave him a serious look. “You’re going to eat your food before it goes cold, James Tiberius Johnson.”
Jimmy sat and began demolishing his Happy Meal. With a mouth full of fries, he mumbled, “But what’re we doing after this?”
“Don’t speak with your mouth full.”
“Yes, sir,” he said, chewing on a nugget.
Mark looked over at Judy. “Why don’t you tell him.”
She smirked at their son. “How would you like to spend the day at Disneyland?”
Jimmy’s eyes bulged. “Really?” He bounced in his seat, nearly knocking over his drink.
“Yes…but we’re only going if you eat up all your food.”
Mark had eaten burgers, but none like this. The bun was white, not blue, and the meat brown, not red. He tentatively took a nibble. A rich savory taste exploded on his tastebuds, juxtapositioned with the sharp bite of pickles and a sweet hint of ketchup. Man, this was the best burger ever. He looked across to see what Judy thought of her retro meal but found her focused entirely on their son, who was demolishing his fries with gusto. Mark caught her gaze, and they shared a smile.
After the waitress cleared their table, he turned to Judy. “You know the expression, ‘You can't take it with you’?”
“Check your bank balance.”
She raised her wristband, and her eyes widened.
“Twenty years' wages add up, especially with the signing bonus and danger pay.”
“Mark, I didn't ask for this.”
He shrugged as if it meant nothing but inwardly rejoiced at her obvious pleasure and shock. “Maybe you two would like to see the world. Jimmy should go to college. Hopefully, we'll have grandkids. I'm sure the money will come in handy.”
She reached over and squeezed his hand. “Thank you.”
He tensed and studied his knuckles. She might not receive his next piece of news so well. “I also started a trust fund for my daughter. It's not her fault her mom’s a slut and her father an asshole.”
“I’m glad you did. The poor child will grow up without ever knowing her father, but at least she won’t have financial worries.”
A wave of relief swept over him. “Thank you for understanding.”
Judy glanced over at their son. “I think our scamp is just about done. Let’s boldly go where no Johnson ever went before.”
Jimmy grinned. “Yay, Disneyland!”
WORD COUNT: 1999
WRITTEN FOR: "What a Character! : Official WDC Contest"
IMAGE: ESO/N. Bartmann/spaceengine.org [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]