A desperate response to the devastating loss of a child, where a masterfully designed imitation has been crafted to fill the void of absence…
by: Jay Jones
Anderson Clarke sat across from his son, watching the boy feast ravenously on his meal. He hadn’t seen him eat with such fervor in many years, nor seen the glint that now tinged his pale blue eyes. He had to admit, observing his son’s narrow face and crop of brown hair, that the clinic had exceeded all his expectations with their work. Though they had avoided presenting an exact facsimile, its features were similar enough that this was, to every reasonable degree, Daniel Clarke.
“Enjoying it?” Anderson asked, apathetically prodding at his own meal. The boy raised his head and nodded, a wide smile forming across his face. For a fleeting moment after, he froze, all expression disappearing from his face. When he returned to his food, the boy’s sharp features morphed back into contentment, and he continued to eat with the same eagerness as before. To any other eye, the moment would have been insignificant, perhaps entirely unnoticeable, yet to Anderson it was glaringly obvious, sparking him with a flicker of concern.
Once dinner was finished, Anderson and Daniel retreated to the living room, allowing the evening to crawl glacially past as they lounged before the television. Daniel spread himself across the rug on the floor, engrossed in the colorful images dancing upon the screen. Anderson, seated behind him on a leather settee, focused entirely on the boy, his earlier concern still lingering as he scrutinized the young teenager. Not since childhood had Daniel spent so long in the company of another, instead preferring the solitude of his bedroom. Thinking of those private quarters, Anderson shuddered, causing Daniel to turn in puzzlement.
“You okay, dad?” The boy asked.
“Yeah, I’m okay, Danny,” Anderson reassured, trying to cast a ghastly memory from his mind. “Just a shiver.” The answer satisfied Daniel enough to return his attention to the television. Anderson continued his observation whilst the memory gradually faded.
With the approach of midnight, Anderson began to feel his eyelids falter. Succumbing to a heavy yawn, he peeled himself from the settee and switched off the television with the remote.
“It’s getting late, Danny,” he said, stretching the stiffness from his shoulder blades, “I’m calling it a day.”
“Sure thing, dad,” Daniel replied, springing to his feet with youthful agility. For a split second, Anderson again noticed a vacant mask, a momentary blank canvas that swiftly morphed into an expression of fatigue. Wearing this appropriate visage, Daniel regarded his father with a grin before heading upstairs, leaving Anderson alone in the silent living room, the cold fingers of uneasiness creeping along his spine.
The young teen was brushing his teeth in the bathroom when Anderson finally made his own way upstairs. Passing the master bedroom, he continued along the landing until he reached Daniel’s room, those dreaded four walls that wickedly whispered their haunting reminder. Throughout every waking moment, their words resonated through his skull, relentless in their torture. Tentatively approaching the doorway of the bedroom, he felt its frosty air grope at his skin, raising goosebumps as he leaned against the jamb and peered into darkness. Inside the room, shapes and silhouettes appeared to swell and contract against the chillingly frigid atmosphere, conjuring the unbearable memory that pierced Anderson’s brain like lightning slashing across a shapeless sky. Feeling nausea roil in his stomach, Anderson’s eyes drew themselves to Daniel’s bed, and its wooden frame that had scorched its image onto the forefront of his mind. With tears beginning to well, Anderson was suddenly startled by a small hand tapping his shoulder.
Anderson jolted sidewards, utterly rattled as he turned to his son, the boy clearly worried by the reaction.
“Christ, kid,” Anderson panted, clutching at his chest. “You scared the hell outta me!”
“Sorry,” Daniel chuckled, glancing at his father before entering his bedroom. Oblivious to any sense of gloom, the boy drifted into the darkness and flopped down onto his bed, his slight body sinking into the mattress as he bid his father goodnight.
“Goodnight, Daniel,” Anderson quietly muttered, before retreating to his own bedroom, thoroughly shaken. Once his nerves had calmed, he stripped to his underwear and crawled into bed. As every hour ticked past, Anderson found himself many miles away from sleep. Restless, he stared at the ceiling, recalling every moment he had spent with Daniel since the boy’s admittance from the clinic. Digging beyond physical features, he reviewed Daniel’s mannerisms, plucking each one from memory and inspecting them under a mental microscope. Every expression of speech or emotion had a positive flavor, seemingly fuelled by a jovial spirit that leaked into even the most minute of gestures. This spirit made it devastatingly clear, that no matter how much he had tried to convince himself otherwise, this simply wasn’t Daniel. With this thought echoing in his head, Anderson finally slipped into a shallow sleep against the burgeoning light of day.
Just before noon, he was awoken by a loud whirring drone drifting up from the kitchen. After untangling himself from the bedsheets and putting on the previous days clothes from a pile on the floor, Anderson hurried downstairs to find the teen with a vacuum in hand, dutifully pushing it along the kitchen tiles.
“M-Morning,” Anderson greeted him, taken aback by the scene.
“Afternoon,” Daniel turned to him with a well-rehearsed smile, then pointed at the clock hanging near the fridge. Without another word, Anderson departed the kitchen, entering the adjoining living room where he planted himself into the settee and watched the boy occupy himself with chores. After cleaning the kitchen floor, Daniel moved up to the worktops, scrubbing each surface with vigour. On occasion, he would look over to his father, addressing the man with yet another smile before returning to his task. The longer Anderson observed, the more alien this small figure became. For every smile it shot at him, Anderson had to force one out in return, each time recognising less of Daniel in this meticulously crafted replica. When he could bear to watch no more, Anderson excused himself and went outside, to the farthest corner of the garden. Out of earshot from the teen, he took his mobile from his pocket and dialled the clinic.
A month later, Anderson found himself in the clinic’s waiting room, his restless leg jackhammering up and down as he glared irritatingly at the clock. At times, he rose from his seat to pace the area, much to the growing disapproval of the receptionist. After enduring over an hour in Anderson’s unsettled company, she visibly breathed a sigh of relief when the security doors adjacent to her desk parted with a mechanical click and a middle-aged man in a wrinkled cream suit stepped through.
“Doctor Zeckis,” Anderson exclaimed, darting over to the man with an outstretched arm. After reluctantly shaking hands, the doctor ushered Anderson down a long and featureless corridor, its sterile white walls bathed in harsh halogen light, and into a tiny elevator. After a quick descent, the steel cube shuddered to a halt and the doctor guided his client down more pristine corridors. Walking together, Anderson finally broke the silence. “I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate this.”
“And we appreciate your participation in this project, Mr Clarke. However, I was disappointed to hear that you weren’t satisfied with the prototype.”
“It wasn’t dissatisfaction, doctor,” said Anderson. “It was just…it just wasn’t Daniel. Who he was, I mean.”
The doctor guided him through a set of security doors leading to a steep stairwell. Descending deeper into the clinic, Doctor Zeckis replied, “Of course, you understand why adjustments were necessary, given the situation. I hope that you can also understand the potential problems that may arise in Version Two, given the requests that you specified.”
At the bottom of the stairs, the pair halted outside more security doors. Parting them with a swipe of his key-card, Doctor Zeckis turned to Anderson, his fatherly features radiating reassurance as he said, “You must realise, Mr Clarke, that finding a balance between authenticity and longevity in our prototype is a challenging endeavour. Given Daniel’s delicate case, I must advise you not to have your heart set too firmly on achieving both.”
With the doctor’s words still echoing around his mind, Anderson exited the clinic shortly before sundown, a modified Daniel now following a few paces behind. Upon reaching his car, Anderson watched the boy flop into the passenger side seat, the energy of the prior version absent as Daniel buckled himself in. Once positioned behind the wheel, Anderson couldn’t resist another glance, peering into the boy’s deep-set eyes. A darker shade of blue than before, they stared ahead with an unfaltering vacancy that Anderson so strongly remembered.
Besides the drone of the engine, the journey home was silent. Unlike the previous Daniel, this one had no urge to ask questions or flash Anderson the occasional smile. Instead, his eyes remained glued to the windshield, hollowly watching the passing scenery. When they finally arrived home, the boy kicked off his trainers and hastily retreated upstairs to the comfort of his bedroom.
Daniel emerged a few hours later to join his father at the dining table, where more silence hung between them. Anderson again observed Daniel as the teen prodded at his plate, traces of disgust creeping across his face. Though physically unaltered from the previous version, this face seemed more sullen and sapped of color.
“How are you feeling?” Anderson eventually asked, his own meal mostly untouched.
“Better now,” Daniel mumbled, rubbing the fake appendix scar that the clinic had branded across his skinny stomach. He offered no further reply, instead forcing down a mouthful of food with a tortured expression.
“I’ve told you before, Danny,” Anderson spoke as he watched the boy’s jaw painstakingly chew, “if you’re not hungry, don’t force yourself.”
“I’m not,” Daniel mumbled again. After swallowing another mouthful with great effort, he placed down his cutlery and stared off into the living room. Feeling no desire to finish his own meal, Anderson rose from the table and collected the boy’s plate. Whilst scraping both his and Daniel’s leftovers into the trash bin, the teen departed from the kitchen and quietly drifted back to his bedroom. Daniel’s phantom movements always amazed Anderson, and he wasn’t at all surprised when he turned back to the dining table to find it entirely empty.
The evening, as with every other, oozed sluggishly towards midnight with Anderson languishing in the living room. Accompanied only by the flickering glow of the muted television, his mind rewound his experiences, anchoring itself to the loss of his wife. Daniel had been no older than five, a doe-eyed child who had confronted the death with sorrow and confusion. Though he had developed with no particularly concerning effects of trauma, Anderson wondered whether it was this tragic event that had planted the seed for the boy’s decline. Anderson scoured his mind, unearthing whatever memory he could to pinpoint the exact moment the generally cheerful child morphed into the melancholic teen with a seething hatred for life itself. Yet there was no moment to be found. The transformation had been gradual and insidious, camouflaged behind the typical moodiness expected of the adolescent years. The emotional lows, Anderson had blamed on hormones, and the shifting personality was, from his perspective, nothing more than Daniel struggling to find himself as he made the awkward transition into adulthood.
Reflecting on the past was always done through a lens that distorted each memory until they presented Anderson with different images entirely. Conversations were replayed in altered tones, their words stinging him with new meanings. Moments were recoloured in different contexts and viewed from alternative angles. As he reminisced, scrutinizing all that his mind brought forth, Anderson felt his heart clamped by claws. They tugged heavy at his chest, making him suddenly breathless and tense. He had become all too acquainted to this sensation, the sinister beast of blame. It was an inescapable reminder that he, Anderson Clarke, had failed in his sole purpose as a father; to protect his son, his beloved flesh and blood. Maddeningly, he could only sit and suffer, his frantic brain now trying to scrape together the pieces of where he had gone wrong, struggling to craft the collage that would finally reveal his ultimate failure. Now, as it had always been, Anderson’s brain merely found itself scrambling for an answer he knew that it would never find.
Shortly after 3am, Anderson dragged himself upstairs to bed. On the landing, he paused outside his own door to glance over at Daniel’s bedroom. He wondered if the boy was asleep. Probably not, Anderson thought, picturing the teen sprawled across his bed with headphones blaring in his ears and his bloodshot eyes locked onto his laptop screen. For a moment, Anderson was tempted to burst through the door and demand why Daniel had done it, to seize the boy by the shoulders and shake from him an answer. Yet he knew that such an action would be foolish. The clinic had been thorough in their insistence to avoid such a question. It was essentially a paradox, something that would potentially destroy the boy’s programming by raising too much confusion about his own existence. Besides, Anderson thought as he turned back to his bedroom, if this was an accurate representation of Daniel’s authentic self, he knew the boy would never give him an answer. At best, he could only surmise Daniel’s thoughts and feelings by whatever peeked through the boy’s stoic shell, and in time hope to gradually dismantle the unseen barrier between them.
The rain-soaked gravel crunched underfoot as Anderson walked between the headstones. The barrier that he had hoped to shatter had remained resilient, and Version Two of Doctor Zeckis’ prototype had proven itself a genuine imitation of Daniel to the very end. Two months later, and the image still dominated his mind, a haunting portrait that plagued his every waking moment.
The evening had been identical to any other, and Daniel had given no sign to indicate otherwise. Yet when he had entered the boy’s bedroom, it was as though he had stepped through a rift in time, yanked back to that agonizing moment. On this occasion however, there were no wailing screams. There were no desperate pleas for the boy to wake up, nor any attempt to squeeze life back into his cold and flaccid body.
Instead, Anderson had approached the dangling figure and unbelted it from the bedpost as all color and sound drained from his surrounding reality. With his soul simply numb, instead of the crushing agony it had endured before, he had called the clinic directly. Alongside two employees, Doctor Zeckis had promptly arrived at Anderson’s home, both to offer his condolences and to retrieve his malfunctioned project.
Continuing through the cemetery, Anderson felt no pang of devastation at this loss. In truth, he realized that Daniel had never been resurrected. He had killed himself, and in his absence two masterfully designed imitations had been born. Yet for all of their programming, for all of the clinic’s expertise, they never had a chance in filling the void that Daniel had carved into Anderson’s existence. Anderson knew the doctor was right, that an authentic Daniel would always pursue the same ending, and any version of Daniel that strayed from such a path simply wasn’t Daniel Clarke at all.
Finally, Anderson arrived at the headstone of his child, an ivy granite slab bursting out from the sodden earth. Staring down at the stone monument, Anderson let his tears flow free as his stomach lurched in queasy protest. What lay beneath that ground would never resurface, regardless of any hopes or prayer. To think otherwise, Anderson realized, was a reckless delusion that had driven him to such desperate lengths as Doctor Zeckis. From the miserable sky, a light rainfall began to drizzle down, and Anderson walked onto the grass until he was able to squat down and place a hand atop Daniel’s headstone. Sensing the boy resting peacefully below, Anderson looked at his headstone and spoke through heavy sobs. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, Danny,” he shakily uttered, “but I can’t blame myself for what you did.” Taking a deep breath, he continued, “What you did will forever haunt me, and I know that I may never understand. But I hope that you understand, and I hope…” Anderson froze, letting his voice dissolve in the breeze. Lingering on that final word, standing over a child deceased by their own hand, Anderson struggled to think of anything that a father could possibly hope for.
Overwrought with a lumbering sense of defeat, Anderson rose and returned to the cemetery’s gravel pathway. The bloated black clouds that now shrouded the sun unleashed a merciless downpour, leaving Anderson thoroughly drenched by the time he returned to his car. Daniel had chosen his fate, and in doing so, had buried his father beneath the suffocating fallout of his actions. Jolted by the thought, Anderson began his journey back home, still plagued by the question of hope as those vicious claws groped his heart once more.