(Before we begin: What follows is a short story that I (re)wrote around two and a half years ago. It is based on a very similar short story that I wrote a little before that, in a time that I sincerely wish I could erase from my life. Apart from previously unnoticed spelling errors and some formatting to clarify the text, none of what you see in this document has been edited or altered in any manner. I hope you find the content enlightening or even enjoyable.)
The Peculiar Visitor
a short story by Dean McIntosh
There were things that Arthur enjoyed about his work. One of them was the propensity of his workmates to clown around. One such incident had taken place today, in which four of the line workers had dunked the new apprentice into a barrel of the ink bottled at one of the factory’s numerous lines. There had been two apprentices lined up for this abusive ritual at the factory. The one who had not been inked, soaped, or whatever the elder workers dreamed up had gotten advance word of this pastime from his elder brother and brought the shift supervisor a gift.
Arthur was indifferent to this practice. He had managed to avoid falling victim to it by the simple virtue of having a large number of friends on the site. Still, he reflected, he would find better ways to initiate (or welcome) the younger ones to a career in watching machines sift chemicals, were he in charge.
Arthur let out a sigh of relief when the shift buzzer blared, signaling the end of yet another workday. His job on the line was to maintain and repair the machinery that put products together. Most of the time, this only mandated the occasional adjustment of a gear or the realignment of rods.
Today was not such a typical day, unfortunately. Three of the machines that kept the toothpaste line in operation had chosen to fail at different parts of the day. When Arthur opened them up and inspected them, they each chose to deposit their own unique blend of dust, rust, and soot upon him. Now, as he scrubbed himself in special soap to get these elements out of his skin, Arthur reflected that it was amazing just how dirty a factory floor could get.
The drive from the factory to his house was uneventful, as was the check of the mail and the unlocking of the door. The neighbourhood was not an especially active one, being a good distance out of the city and somewhat distant from the industrial sector. The occasional shout of children or the adults taking an interest in their activities constituted the only sign of life on the street.
Arthur was about to take his work boots off and put his feet up when he heard the ‘phone in the hallway ring. Resigned, he got to his feet and went to the kitchen where the ‘phone was mounted. Picking up the ‘phone in one hand and saying hello, Arthur was pleasantly surprised when he heard Nathalie’s voice greet him in return. He had been dating Nathalie for a little while now.
“Do you have the evening free?” Nathalie asked Arthur.
“For you, of course,” Arthur replied.
“I have something I need to tell you,” Nathalie informed Arthur. The seriousness with which she said this made Arthur nervous. “I will be at the front of my home at seven. I want to go somewhere a little quiet so I can explain everything.”
With that, they bade one another farewell and hung up. Arthur took a look at his wristwatch. The timepiece was thankfully clean due to having been left in his locker during the shift.
Driving from here to the house Nathalie occupied would take around twenty minutes, Arthur knew. Climbing into the car, Arthur briefly debated which route he would take to Nathalie’s place. The main roads would still be fairly constricted, he told himself.
There were people in the neighbourhood, mostly around Arthur’s age, who were proud of their cars. Arthur was not one of them. Arthur’s car was there for the simple purpose of getting him to work and back, or conducting errands like this one. Fuel was not terribly expensive, although the recent oil supply crisis had everyone holding their breath. The real problem was that Arthur’s car had a tendency to consume fuel in much the same manner as an infant would consume milk.
Taking the back roads, Arthur drove until he found himself outside Nathalie’s house. Opening the passenger door, he watched Nathalie climb in, buckle her seatbelt, and pull the door closed before driving away.
Fast food restaurants were still fairly new in the area, but Nathalie insisted that they go to one. She was hungry, Nathalie told Arthur, but she also felt a need to talk. The serious, urgent manner in which she said this made Arthur a little apprehensive.
Arthur parked the car in the small lot the restaurant afforded for the purpose. Climbing out together, he and Nathalie went to the counter and placed an order. Receiving a tray full of food that looked somewhat factory-fashioned, they sat down at one of the plastic-looking tables. Arthur began to eat immediately. The day had taken a bit out of him, what with the machines breaking down in chorus.
Not that Arthur minded. If the machines worked perfectly, he reminded himself, he would need to find another job.
Nathalie took a while to speak. As Arthur looked at her, she brushed the stringy auburn hair out of her face. Nathalie had often complained about her hair. It struck Arthur as odd that she would pay money to have her hair styled into the unruly, unmanageable fashion in which his grew naturally.
Nathalie’s eyes told Arthur that something was bothering her a good deal as she began to literally devour her food. Wolfing down hamburgers and fries in this manner was very unlike Nathalie. Perhaps she had been infected with some form of parasitic worm? Though unusual in this part of the world, they certainly were not unheard of.
When Nathalie rose from the table and went to the counter, Arthur suspected he was not being told something. When Nathalie returned with what appeared to be an apple pie in her hand, he began turning over possibilities in his mind.
“I’m pregnant,” Nathalie told Arthur at last.
“That explains your determination to devour everything in the store,” Arthur joked, somewhat defensively.
“I am serious,” Nathalie continued. “If what the doctor said to me is correct, I am in my third week.”
Arthur had no idea what to say next. A powerful feeling of descent, like he had been thrown from the back of a plane, took hold. He knew very well that this child was his, and he knew that his world was now going to change forever.
Arthur had no intentions of leaving his present job, but he did feel a certain fatigue with the routine. Now, he was going to need to weigh up costs and benefits before he sought out another. The job market was still somewhat healthy, but now he was going to be taking responsibility for the welfare of two others in addition to himself.
Arthur was about to ask Nathalie if she had made up her mind exactly what she was going to do. Then he thought better of it. What Nathalie was going to do about expecting a child was probably a redundant question. Although neither he nor Nathalie were particularly religious, Nathalie had been raised in a Catholic family. Helping her carry this baby to full term was the only choice he had.
As he reflected on this extreme lack of choice in his immediate future, Arthur finally noticed the man standing in the restaurant, several rows behind Nathalie. This strange-looking man looked as if he had been cut from a film and pasted into this place.
For a transient second, Arthur felt an urge to ask this man if he needed help. The urge faded when Arthur looked into the stranger’s face. The eyes seemed to stare blankly ahead. It was clear from the manner in which said eyes were cast in Arthur’s general direction that the stranger was not blind, but the stranger seemed to be looking right through Arthur, rather than at him.
And then the stranger walked towards Arthur and Nathalie. There was an urgency in his stride, as if he needed to be in the place he was walking to at this very second.
When Nathalie looked up at him, she mistook the stranger for one of Arthur’s brothers at first. The head shape, eye line, and shoulder breadth of this person matched Arthur’s perfectly.
“Would you mind if I joined you for a moment?” The stranger asked Arthur and Nathalie. His voice was so warm and friendly, yet so deep and authoritative, that it was hard to say no.
“Who are you?” Arthur asked, alarm readily apparent in his voice.
“My name is David, and I have some things to tell you,” the stranger replied whilst taking a seat.
Arthur and Nathalie looked at each other for a moment. Nathalie still wondered if perhaps this were not one of Arthur’s brothers playing a joke on them. David’s voice sounded enough like Arthur’s that he could be related.
Arthur was less doubtful concerning this stranger’s origins. He had never seen this man before in his life. Sure, the voice, face, and general body type looked familiar, but the manner in which David moved, spoke, and inhabited space were completely mysterious. It was as if David needed to be in constant motion, with no segment of his upper body going unscratched or unflexed for more than thirty seconds.
Then there was the question of David’s attire. Neither Arthur nor Nathalie kidded themselves that they were the most stylish people in the world. But the light, occasionally pastel-coloured clothes they wore were the expected norm in this place and time.
David, on the other hand, clothed himself like light was his enemy and he felt the need to consume it all within his immediate space. Under a heavy black trenchcoat, he wore a mild business suit that was entirely black. The shirt in particular had a strange, silky texture to it that confounded Nathalie’s senses. She did not believe that she had ever seen material like this before in her life. Arthur did not even think it was possible to purchase black business shirts.
Nathalie was about to say good trick, William, to this stranger. William was one of the two younger brothers Arthur had, and the one she had met the higher number of times. Although she did not believe any of Arthur’s siblings were particularly clever, this man being one of them in an elaborate disguise was the saner explanation she could come up with.
And then Nathalie looked into David’s eyes. David’s eyes were a light, watery blue with lighter streaks in endless gradients. Nathalie felt a shudder of horror when she realised where she had seen them before.
I am looking into my own eyes, Nathalie thought to herself.
David reached into the pocket in the side of his coat and pulled out a square, plastic-looking device. It was roughly the size of a notepad, but much thinner, and likely lighter if the manner in which David held it was any indication. When David’s bony, claw-like fingers shook, the device shook with them.
“I want to show you this device so you have some indication that I am not having you on,” David told his audience as he put the device down. “Go ahead, pick it up and open it.”
Arthur followed David’s instructions. Taking the shell-like object in his hands, he carefully pried open the halves, opening it up like a book. Inside one half of the shell was a very small screen, like a tiny television. Inside the other half was a series of buttons with numbers, letters, and strange functional symbols printed on them.
“The display in the top of the casing will tell you that it is not getting a signal,” David said rather matter-of-factly. “In a moment, I will tell you a sequence of keys to press. I want you to press them, as this will cause the device to show you something that was recorded in what is some time ago from my perspective.”
Arthur’s curiosity shot through the roof when he heard the word “recorded”. He had been visiting home electronics stores repeatedly in past year. Of the greatest interest to him had been the home video recording devices that various companies had been bringing to market. Perhaps this clamshell-like thing in his hands performed a similar function, he thought.
As David recited a series of keys to press, Arthur obediently pressed them. Arthur’s fear of David’s possible ill-intent had given way to insatiable curiosity. And as the sequence was completed, the screen at the top of the shell turned black.
The screen itself was an interesting exhibit. Arthur was not the most technologically-savvy person in the world. He did know enough, however, to know that the engineers in the country where all the video recorders and televisions were being made would kill their mothers to get their hands on this device. The screen itself was barely thicker than a toenail, and a little more than three quarters wider than it was tall.
The most modern television Arthur had seen on display in the electronics stores near his workplace, by comparison, was a third wider than tall, and the better part of two feet deep.
And then a face appeared on the display screen Arthur held in his hands. The device itself was no more than six inches tall, but it showed the ghoulish face in so much detail that Arthur could tell what this person had eaten before photography had commenced.
As the camera moved slightly, the ghoul on the screen moved to reveal a figure sitting behind him. As the camera zoomed in, the figure was revealed to be a woman, presumably one of some fame wherever David was from. The woman squirmed uncomfortably in the chair she was tied into. Tears streamed out of her eyes as she screamed muffled, unintelligible things to the ghoul standing in front of the camera.
The ghoul began to ask the young actress a series of questions. The answers all came in the form of unintelligible, muffled screams. After a few questions, it became obvious to Arthur and Nathalie that the ghoul cared nothing for the actress’ answers. The questions were the important thing.
And then the ghoul shushed the actress before picking up the camera and holding it mere inches from his face. Although the ghoul had painted his face white with ash-black “highlights” around his eyes and mouth, the same uncomfortable familiarity Arthur and Nathalie felt with David arose.
And as the ghoul began to recite a list of demands, each punctuated with the statement that he would kill one “normie” for every day they were not met, the familiarity began to make them both sick.
“The command key and the letter Q will turn the video off,” David told Arthur.
Arthur took a good look at David, sizing him up. David was an inch or more taller than Arthur, but it was the finer details of his appearance that were the most frightening. Down the side of his face, David bore a prominent scar that looked like either radical surgery or a bar fight gone horribly wrong. At the top of David’s head, near the hairline, was a linear scar that suggested David had close, personal contact with a solid object. A wall, or something equally immovable, came to Arthur’s mind.
“There is a reason I showed you this,” David continued. “In a moment, I am going to tell you some things about the future. Whether you think that I am a lunatic or not is entirely up to you. I do wish to make it very clear that I have a good reason for telling them.”
“You are giving me a good reason to ask you to leave us alone,” Nathalie chimed in. “You are scaring me.”
“I do not mean to scare you,” David replied sadly. “I do know, however, that you are three weeks into your first pregnancy, and that Arthur is the first person other than your doctor to know.”
David became silent at this point. He sat back and watched the couple, giving this latest piece of information time to sink in.
“How can you possibly know that?” Arthur asked, the apprehension announcing itself in his voice as a shaking, uneven emphasis of the “wrong” syllables.
“I come from a place where anyone can literally find out anything about anyone, should they possess the time and inclination.” David said in the same matter-of-fact manner that disturbed both members of his audience. “In this place, people can contact one another from across the planet for no more than the cost of a ‘phone call. Less, if they are willing to pay for a premium service.”
Arthur and Nathalie looked at one another. The incredulity on their faces was about what David had expected. The sort of technology he had just described would not even be widely available in this land for another seventeen years.
“It is vitally important that you understand that what I am about to tell you may be the most important thing you ever hear,” David continued. “I know a lot of things about the son you will have in nine months, and I need to tell you about them.”
Arthur’s first impulse was to hit David and call him a crank. After all, how could he know so much? This impulse was partially held in check by David’s heavy, warlike appearance. For another, David’s manner of telling his story, combined with the small pieces of evidence he presented, were just so very convincing. Arthur had seen pieces of technology like the screen of the clamshell device being displayed at electronics fairs in the city. The exhibits at these fairs were, by comparison, crude and prototypical, but there was a frame of reference.
Nathalie wanted to cry. She was a few years younger than Arthur, and young enough that the news that she was carrying a child was like an earthquake in her consciousness. The way she saw it, nobody would go to this much trouble to tell her something about the child she was expecting unless it was going to be devastating.
“Your son will be born perfectly healthy,” was the first thing David said. When Nathalie lifted her head and faced him more confidently, he continued. “Physically, at least. What is more important to know is that he will be born with a significant physical difference in his brain.”
David briefly considered telling the young couple that he was born with the same kind of physical difference in his brain himself. He rejected the idea when he considered that he needed them to take him as seriously as they could. This meant he had to hide his actual identity from them as much as he could.
Nathalie burst into tears. Thanks in no small part to the culture of the present day, the phrase “a significant physical difference in his brain” could not be separated from retardation in her mind. David already knew this, and had long ago forgiven her for it. The culture of this present time did not allow for a lot of variables along this line. David gave her a minute to calm down as Arthur gently held her and ran his fingers through her hair.
In a way, it was reassuring to see this couple in such a gentle, loving state.
When Nathalie stopped crying, David tried to compose himself and begin the next part of his speech. For a moment, he was lost as to what he was going to say. He wanted to change the manner in which these people thought of themselves, but he knew that aggressive techniques would never accomplish this until it was too late.
Arthur was not a tall man, but he was quite heavily built, as were all the men of his line. David was therefore disinclined to fight with him, so he chose to be gentle with his next few statements.
“By a physical difference, I do not mean your son will be retarded,” David said quietly. “Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. I know that Arthur here has seen computers at his work, and at demonstrations. I will use computer terms to explain what I mean. Retardation generally means a slow processor. Your son will be born with an extremely fast, powerful processor that will enable him to learn certain things with astounding speed. He will be reading at what the jokers in the education department call an adult level before his fourth birthday.”
This last statement calmed Nathalie down somewhat. It replaced the nauseating dread with a kind of fascination and hope.
“It is not all good news, is it?” Arthur asked, unable to contain his curiosity.
“I am afraid not,” David replied. “This physical difference does speed up a lot of tasks, but it also breaks certain things. The input-output arrays that would normally enable him to understand interactive functions with other children, or indeed other people, will not work normally.”
“He will also feel quite isolated by the speed of his learning. School will be an intensely frustrating, even painful, experience for him. His teachers will be at least a step behind him in many ways. In others, he will feel weighed down.”
“What you really must look out for, though, is his senses. Sounds, lights, and even routines will affect him in ways you cannot currently imagine, and the effects will vary in severity. Changes in plans will give him headaches. He will not express himself in the ways expected by either his peers or his supervisors. Statements will issue from him that make no sense to you, or them, but seem perfectly obvious to him. And that will make him angry at times.”
By this time, Arthur had gone from a place of extreme hostility to one of genuine sympathy. What David was describing sounded like he knew the subject all too intimately.
“You make it sound like his life will be hopeless,” Nathalie blankly opined.
“I will get to that point shortly,” David replied. “It is true that what I am describing will seriously hamper the child’s ability to get along with others. He will grow up feeling estranged from everyone around him.”
“I will save you a bit of time and tell you that the bright, amazing future you have seen predicted in some television shows is not going to happen. Problems will get worse, people will get poorer, and the only serious change is in how people will cope with it. Doctors of a specialised area will begin treating people for something that they call technology-related anger.”
“Your son will be hit especially hard by the lack of change. When the world at large becomes aware of what makes him different from them, they will start campaigning to develop what they call a cure for him. Or worse still, they will start development of a test that will detect his kind before they are born, so that doctors can start scaring young women into aborting him. In the absence of the right kind of support, his world will quickly become one of fear.”
The acceptance that Arthur and Nathalie had exhibited before reverted to revulsion. What David was telling them now was so horrible that it defied belief.
“You make it sound as if my child would rather not be born,” Nathalie whimpered.
“I would not blame him,” David sighed. “There are some things you should know. In years to come, when people start to investigate this configuration properly, they will discover some rather startling things. Many individuals who are associated with the progression of the Human race will be discovered to exhibit similar associated behaviours. One of them still alive about twenty-five years from now will be one of the greatest directors in the history of the entertainment industry. Another will unify the electronic data industry in such a manner that expensive personal computers will become a common household item.”
“My personal favourite amongst them is presently working as an animator. Around ten years from now, he will start directing feature films. He will dramatically change the manner in which comic book heroes are depicted in feature films. Hell, he will dramatically change what we see in feature films, period. He will not be as celebrated as the other director I just mentioned, but he will change the way films are made just as much, if not more so.”
Nathalie and Arthur stood still and silent for a moment. What David had told them this evening was the heaviest news they had received in their lifetimes. David knew that the death of Nathalie’s father a little over twenty years from this point would barely register as a blip by comparison.
Arthur’s focus shifted back to the terrible video he had seen on the viewing screen a little while ago. His son would have a fascination with motion photography, from the sound of it, and whomever shot that video certainly knew how to use them in order to scare the audience into paying attention.
“If I understand you correctly, you are telling me that my child will be part of some sort of new super-mutation race,” Arthur ventured.
“I would hardly describe it as being new,” David corrected. “People like this have been around since the very beginning of the Human race, if not sooner. One clinical expert I spoke to about it told me that if it were not for men like your son, Humans would still live in caves and hunt tigers. But you are correct in one sense. People like your son have been, are, and always shall be, a people apart from what you are used to.”
“What if he does not want to be like this?” Nathalie asked before taking a bite of apple pie.
“Nobody asked Julius Irving if he wanted to be two metres tall,” David replied. “Nobody asked Christopher Lee if he wanted to sound like he was at the bottom of a well when he spoke. These things just happened, and they happen more often than one might think. They change the manner in which the world turns.”
“What your son feels when he is a grown man will depend very largely on the choices you make from here on in. What I am trying to tell you is that he will be born in such a way as to make standard ideas and methods a lot less useful with him. Many questions will need to be answered during his early life, and these questions are not like those asked when servicing a machine. The simplest explanation where your son and these questions are concerned will usually be the wrong one.”
David stood up. With a series of quick, awkward gestures, he picked up the shell-like device in one hand and closed it. Slowly, he began to move away from the table.
“Just make sure that you listen to him,” David told his incredulous audience. “I do not mean just take note of the words. Really listen to what he says and think about what it means.”
Nathalie sat still with a cold look of incomprehension upon her face. Arthur turned to her and told her that he would be back in a moment. There was something so chilling, yet so compelling, about David’s story that Arthur could not let it go without asking some questions first.
As David walked out of one of the exit doors and entered the parking lot, he was surprised to hear Arthur call after him. As the rain began to pour, David turned about, surprised to see the shorter, heavier man running to him. Stopping toe to toe, the two men looked one another in the eye for a split second that felt like an eternity. David felt an acute dread that he was not being taken seriously. He had no real idea of what to do.
No man should ever know too much about his future, David had been warned. Yet his whole purpose in coming here had been to tell this young couple about the entire gameplan. David really had no idea how he had arrived in this place to begin with. Once he had realised what had happened, however, he had been overwhelmed with the desire to change the future, even if it was only a little.
“My girlfriend is almost vomiting with anxiety now,” Arthur told David. “So I need to know. Is this just some elaborate practical joke, or do you really believe what you have told me?”
David said nothing for a moment. He simply stared into Arthur’s face, suppressing a maddening urge to shoot the older man. As he brushed the rain-soaked hair out of his eyes, David watched Arthur carefully. A sense of satisfaction arose when David noticed that Arthur noticed the one thing that had kept Nathalie listening this whole time. That David’s eyes looked more or less identical to hers.
“I know you are going to have trouble believing me for a long time,” David said finally. “I want you to remember this. In about five years, your son will develop a bit of a habit of running into walls and headbutting them. He will even go so far as to introduce his head to a brick wall, and he will require stitches. At that moment, a lot of morons posing as doctors will offer you all sorts of suggestions regarding what you should do about it. Do not believe any of the ones that they offer you at that time.”
Arthur stared at David’s face, quizzically. He was sure this overly real fragment of fancy that looked like a British punk’s worst nightmare of reality was weeping. The tears washed away in the rain almost as quickly as they formed, but they looked real enough.
“An Austrian man has already written the correct theory to explain what will happen,” said David. “For the last thirty or more years, his research has mostly been ignored by the English-speaking world. A culture that holds it acceptable to abuse one’s children into submission has formed. Twenty years from now, people will learn too late that it produces a culture of violent, hurtful young adults. One of my favourite complaints about where I have been is that Oldies love to whinge about what they themselves have provoked.”
Arthur found this statement puzzling. If anything, this man standing in the rain in front of him was a little older than he.
“You have done a great job of convincing me that my son is doomed before he is even born,” said Arthur. In his mind, he felt a lever tipping back and forth between feelings of grief and rage.
“You have a couple of albums in your collection,” said David. “They were recorded by a particularly powerful bunch from England. You will know the band I mean when you go looking. Their influence over other musicians will become even more pronounced when your son is the same age that you were when these albums were first released. Play them for him when he is a little older. Just remember to back off a little on the volume. He will literally be able to hear cars backfiring on the opposite side of the block as if they were right next to him.”
Unable to continue, David strode away from Arthur and wandered out into the parklands. In another ten years, he reflected, this unused land would be so filled with houses that a resident would be able to urinate on their back fence whilst standing in their back doorway.
Walking along, David held out his arms and put his face up into the rain. He had no idea where he was going to go, or what he was going to do.
It needs work, I know. There are bits and pieces to it that I plan to tinker with if I ever get around to revisiting it or retooling it for a longer story. But for the time being, suffice to say that this piece is incredibly person to me and was not easy to dig up again. If you have read this far, thank you.