He woke with a start and sat up. It was still dark outside.
He looked to his side to find his wife still sleeping.
He listened attentively, not moving a muscle.
He relaxed and let out a tired sigh and slowly got his legs out from under the sheets, careful not to wake Mary.
Suddenly, a sound coming from downstairs made him freeze—a sound like broken glass shards scraping the porcelain. He looked at his bedside clock: 5:30AM.
He leaped off the bed, bolted out of the room and down the stairs. Heart pounding in the darkness, he searched frantically for a light switch along the wall. When his fingers caressed plastic he pushed. The room filled with a burning white light that made him squint his eyes momentarily.
The room gradually came into focus and he saw wide, tear filled eyes staring back at him in shock.
“Oh honey,” he said as he scooped his daughter up and away from the glass on the floor. “What happened?”
“I was trying to make breakfast for you, daddy,” Linda blubbered. “But I dropped the glass.”
“It’s okay. Shh, it’s okay.”
“I wanted to fix it,” she cried.
“It’s just a glass. Shh. It can’t be fixed,” he whispered as he caressed her head. “Are you hurt?”
She shook her head.
He sat her at the table and she watched him clean up and make breakfast. The mood slowly lightened as the sun peeked over the horizon and through the trees.
“That is mommy’s favorite cup,” he finally said, chuckling.
“Was,” his seven year old replied. He laughed.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get her a new one today. Ok?”
Nervous excitement filled his veins as he sat at the table with his family, early one morning. He watched the sun rise from its slumber as his emotions grew with it, an internal buzz towards the unknown and the new that fluttered in his insides.
“Leaving early?” Mary said as her husband rose from his seat with a toast wedged in his mouth and his briefcase in hand. He nodded as he swallowed the bread with difficulty.
“I have an important meeting. Some project I have to build.”
“Are you allowed to tell us?” Linda asked, smiling. He shook his head and kissed her forehead.
“I call it ‘The Machine’,” he replied and she giggled.
“Can I also get a kiss from my favorite scientist?” Mary asked, standing up to embrace him.
“I love you,” he said, giving her a kiss and making his way to the door. “Oh,” he turned, facing Linda. “It might be able to fix mommy’s cup.” He winked. Linda smiled with a joy of confusion and love.
He sat at his desk listening to the government representative. Frustration began to simmer inside him as the agent droned on about how the project would serve their country and help save society.
They were hiding something from him and he knew it—not all the pieces fell perfectly into place.
“This is science, not politics,” he interrupted. The agent faked a smile, “Of course it is. As long as you do your job.”
The representative left the room and he let out a long and tired sigh. His secretary came in and eyed him, concerned.
“They never even mentioned how they are going to use it. If we ever build it… It’s insane,” he said to her.
“Do you think it’s possible?” She asked.
“I don’t know. But we have to try. Even if they only give us two months, we have to try.” He got up, grabbing his coat.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to go buy a cup.”
He groaned in exhaustion. He longed to be back at home with his wife and daughter. His mind bounced between time, the machine and his strong emotions. All fueling his anxiety and building up a loathing towards himself and everything around.
“This is serious work,” he had argued with Mary one night. “I don’t want to let everybody at work down.”
“So you would rather let your family down?” She had replied angrily.
“No! I just…” He shuddered with fatigue and annoyance. Mary took a deep breath.
“Linda misses you,” she whispered, stroking his shoulder and looking up at him.
“I have to go.” He said abruptly.
He had left and spent the night at the office, deeply regretting it.
Harry walked in, interrupting his thoughts and relaxing him. “Hey, doc.”
A friend more than a colleague, Harry was his lifesaver at work. His negative emotions diminished every time they spoke.
“Hey,” he replied as Harry sat down and stared at his tired eyes. “What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing. Just taking a small break off this stupid idea of a project.”
They laughed together.
“Any news?” He asked Harry.
“Yeah, there’s been this crazy accident on the highway close by, the presidential debate is on as we speak, and meanwhile I’m thinking of moving to Mars.”
He chuckled, “I meant about the project.”
“Nah, of course not. But as long as we keep working, they’ll keep extending the due date. But the closer we seem to get, the further we drift from the past,” Harry said.
“Well, that’s how time works,” he replied.
“Hey. I’m on my five minute break, don’t start talking to me about time.” He smiled.
They both stood up and he grabbed his coat. “I think I’m going home.”
“Good for you!” Harry said, relieved. “It’ll be great for you. Maybe you can even come back with the machine built.”
He smiled as he walked to the exit. “I’ll see you on Monday, Harry.”
His balance between family and work had been ruptured. His work had begun to take its toll on him, leading him down the winding road to dependence.
Yet he would allow nothing to take his family from him. He loved them and would do anything for them, but the machine called to him, too.
Opposite thoughts and desires fought, battling for his attention, slowly wearing him down. But his family was stronger, his steel foundation; without them, his science was worth nothing. And now he was making his way back home—forgetting work, forgetting the machine.
Something was bothering him in the back of his mind. He had tried to cast it away, relating it to work, but it persisted.
Now’s the time to relax. Time. Family.
He was stuck on the highway, slowly making his way home. The traffic was colossal,
something about an accident…
and the cars hardly budged every minute.
The more time he spent trying not to think about the machine the more it invaded his thoughts, and the pool of anxious drivers wasn’t helping.
His phone rang, making him jump in his seat, his wandering mind crashing back into the present.
That’s the third time in the past hour.
He decided to answer this time.
He made it to the building. He had been running the whole way, leaving his car and work behind. His clothes were drenched with sweat and his chest expanded violently as he panted and bolted into the hospital.
“Where is she?!” He screamed at the receptionist. “Where is my wife?!”
The lady looked back in shock and fright at the insane man. All eyes in the large room had turned to him, quiet and curious.
“Daddy?” A small voice called out from across the white hall.
He turned to the voice. Linda.
“Where were you, daddy?”
Those words entered his soul and chilled him to the bone. They left a deep wound on his mind and froze his muscles. All he could do was stare in horror at his crying daughter.
“I don’t know,” he managed to croak.
Everything began to seem distant, abstract. He felt numb. The pieces were clicking together, matching perfectly, but he couldn’t respond to it.
Work. Family. Fighting. The news. The car.
Like when finishing a puzzle, what the incomplete image provokes deep inside is nothing compared to the joy of building the final pieces. But this had no joy, now he could see the full picture, and he wished he had never built it.
Reality came collapsing down and he fell to his knees, embracing his daughter.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed.
He let himself be led down like an oblivious child, grappling with fear at the sense of security his work gave him. The machine became the cause and now he had convinced himself that it was the only solution. His desire to build it exceeded his superiors, who had kept pushing the deadline of completion, and he worked himself to unconsciousness. His mind became clouded with loss and despair and he replaced confusion with more work, almost never spending time at home.
“Dad,” Linda called as she walked into his workroom. It had been two years since her mother’s death. Her father groaned himself out of his deep slumber.
“Hey honey,” he mumbled, half asleep. “What’s up?”
“I…” she stuttered nervously. “I want you to stay tomorrow.”
He closed his eyes and rubbed his face with his palms. “I have to work.”
“Please,” she looked down. “I… miss you.”
He sighed and kneeled next to her. “I’m always here,” he said, trying to reassure her and himself.
“No, you’re not,” she replied, raising her voice. “You’re never here! Ever since mom left…” tears welled up in her eyes and she began to whimper.
He hugged her, also beginning to cry. Any mention of his wife would weaken his resolve, making his voice stiffen with hidden sobs and his body tremble in sadness. His daughter was growing up to look more like her everyday, and it became harder to look and not see his wife staring back.
“I will stay tomorrow. And the day after. I will stay as long as you want,” he said through his shaky blubbers. “I love you,” he tightened his hug.
“I love you, too.”
He stayed, for a while. However, once the door into obsession opens there is no turning back. It wasn’t long before he found himself spending many days at a time in his cramped office, leaving his wife away from his thoughts and his daughter away from himself.
The workplace had changed over the years. His colleagues had started to worry, recognizing his unhealthy behavior, and had tried to relieve his workload—only for it to backfire as the obsessed man simply found more things to do. Pressure began to mount as superiors pushed the team to their limits—lots quit, some were fired, yet the scientist stayed, refusing to give up.
One night he asked himself
why am I doing this?
He was sitting at his workroom desk at home, trying to keep his heavy eyelids open and his head off the desk.
Because it’s almost done. I can feel it. Once the machine is built I can fix what it has ruined.
“Life is a glass, dad. And you’ve let yours drop.” The words echoed in his mind and slowly brought him out of his dream.
He waved his work away and focused on why he had come home: to see his daughter.
He pulled himself together and stood.
“Linda?” He called. No answer.
He walked to her room. “Linda?” Nobody.
He took out his phone and dialed her number.
Straight to voicemail.
He walked to the front door and found a single slip of paper stuck to the wood.
“Linda!” He cried.
What has it ruined?
My family. I blame the machine. And now I can’t turn back. I have nothing behind me, nothing to turn back to. The machine killed my wife and kidnapped my daughter.
It was like any addiction. The bottle becomes a cause of ruin that, in time, morphs itself into a salvation in the eyes of the alcoholic. For the scientist, the machine must be built because the stakes that came with it had to be justified. His own efforts that had ruined his life have to be reversed, because now he had nothing—except the machine.
“Did you hear me?” A muffled voice called to him.
He pulled himself out of his daydream. “What?”
“I said they are pulling the plug,” Harry snapped.
“What?” He replied, confused. “They can’t! We’re almost there!” He said desperately—pleading, begging.
“No we aren’t!” Harry screamed, silencing him. He sighed and looked at him with pity. “It’s been fifteen years, doc. I have tried to keep this going for as long as I could, but now it’s finally over. Look at me, I’m exhausted. For heaven sakes, look at yourself!”
The scientist was lost for words, he opened his mouth, trying to say something, but couldn’t.
“They’re pulling the plug tomorrow,” Harry continued. “You have until tomorrow morning to get your things together, so you’re out by dawn. I’m sorry, but it’s over.”
Harry stormed out of the office and left the building, leaving his friend alone, forever.
What have I done?
He sank into his chest, tears staining his shirt. He cursed the machine and all the consequences that came with it.
He looked at his watch: 4:00AM. He was still in the office, alone. He worked uncontrollably, mind racing, muscles throbbing, trying to finish what he had started.
He stepped back and looked at his completed project, the finished puzzle, the machine.
Here we go.
He pushed the button. Suddenly, the metal contraption surged with electricity, blowing all the papers into the air and making the scientist’s hair stand on end. An electric rumble shook the concrete and deafened him as the machine’s thirst for power grew.
He stared in awe at his invention and his worries dissipated. He was a man looking at his newborn for the first time, a child staring at his first movie on the big screen, a baby watching the first snowflakes fall. It was beautiful.
He closed his eyes and let the power surge through him. He could feel his heart pounding, threatening to burst out of his chest, shaking his whole body with rhythmic power.
I blame the machine but I know it’s my fault.
He watched the sun from his bed. He was in a very white room: white walls, white lights, white sheets. The orange glare coming from the window reflected off the white surfaces and gave his dull room a pleasant look. Only two times a day he got to enjoy the sun’s beam: sunrise and sunset. He had two windows on either side of him, perfectly displaying those moments, and he followed the sun with his permanent gaze all day
And closed his eyes at night, welcoming the dreams with open arms.
They told him it was a heart attack. He didn’t care.
I just can’t believe it didn’t work.
So he remained in his hospital bed, waiting to die.
He chuckled as he thought to himself.
I wish I had more time to learn to control time.
He looked out the window on his left with regret, recalling his perfect life and how he had disregarded it all. The machine hadn’t worked, but he didn’t blame it any more. He took full responsibility for his actions with anguish as he watched the sunset.
Tears flowed freely down his ragged features and he followed the last ray of sunlight until it vanished under the horizon.
He closed his eyes and dreamed.
He was in a desert. The hot, coarse sand scratched and burned his bare feet. He was stumbling as he pushed through the yellow, trying to reach the two shadows ahead: his wife and daughter.
He reached them and fell to their feet.
“I’m sorry!” He bawled and lowered his head to the ground. He felt a hand caress his head.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Mary said.
All of a sudden, the sand began to levitate, carrying his family away and leaving him behind.
He watched them leave.
The hourglass fell and the sand rose. Past and present collapsed into one and the man opened his eyes.
Remnants of the dream danced in his mind as he stared at the first rays of sunlight. He hadn’t moved all night.
was coming. His body began to fail him, his mind raced forward but the rest of the world faced the wrong way. He heard the machine’s hum echo in his head and felt its power surge through his frozen body.
All moments crashed into one and stretched inside out. Time stopped and turned in the other direction.
Suddenly, as he watched in astonishment, the sun rose in the west and set in the east.
Darkness engulfed him.
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This is enchanting. Your stance of the prompt was so unique. This is emotional and raw and I loved reading it “Life is a glass, dad. And you’ve let yours drop.” - What a beautiful line and reference to the first part of the story.
Thank you so much! I love that you caught that reference!
I really enjoyed that story. I'm always impressed how different authors take the different prompts in different ways. Heartbreaking story. Keep writing. Please.
Thank you so much for the encouragement! I will try.
Dear Michael, I like this story. I loved the beautiful descriptions of the MC's inner anguish. I also enjoyed your work because it reminded me of Richard Matheson's writing in I am Legend. Thanks for the enormous amount of work that went into this piece, and I am looking forward to reading what you write next. Have a great day, Ruth
Thank you so much Ruth! It really means so much to me that you enjoyed it! I wish you a great day, and I hope not to disappoint on my next stories!
This is so cool! your story is really engaging, and really speaks to a sense of humanity and the balances we struggle with. Would you mind giving my story a look and giving me some feedback? It's called "As Clear as the Sun Speaks".
Thanks!! Sure, I'll check it out.
Wow. This is beautifully written, with wonderful comparisons. You made this story believable and the man's feelings really brought us down into his despair and then back up at times. Good job!
Many thanks! So happy you liked it!
This is quite well-written. I understand the need for gaps in the plot as it's a short story, but it would be nice if you could expand on those gaps in a longer format. Perhaps a novella. I'd really appreciate if you read my submission, "The Big Apple."
Thanks! I feel that the gaps give it a certain quick time-passing feel to it, don't you think? I'll give your submission a read!
True. It's a story over several decades, but it still flows nicely.
Loved it! I can tell you put a lot of time and emotion in this. Great story line and plot.
Thank you! I'm happy you read it and loved it!
Nice story! I like how you started and ended the story with "Crash!" In the beginning when you used "normal," I was able to tell something was up - great foreshadowing!
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!