Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Too Perfect

by Norman C. Stoker


"So, honey," Gabriel said in that thick English accent she found so sexy, "where would you like to go for our one year anniversary?"

Emma tossed her blonde locks to one side as she contemplated the question, knowing full well that her imagination was the only boundary and she really wanted to throw her royal husband a curve ball. "Hmm, how about since I am a princess, we could stay in a real life castle," she said as she snuck up behind him and enveloped him in a bear hug.

Gabriel smiled, "Ha, trying to stump me, huh? It just so happens that my family owns a castle in Wales. It's in good shape, wouldn't take much to have it cleaned up and staffed for a week-long visit."

Emma frowned slightly. She felt horrible, but all she wanted was a quiet evening with her husband. She was tired of the flights around the world, expensive champagne, and luxury treatment

"What's wrong, Em? You're not pleased?"

"Oh no, Gab, I just wanted you to scold me, tell me I was being unreasonable so we could just stay in and maybe order in... "

Gabriel furrowed a brow in confusion. "Such a mundane evening is not befitting our first anniversary. Not suitable to someone of your stature: an actress, pop-diva, lawyer, and model. Are there any other careers you've mastered in your young life that I don't know about?"

Emma shook her head with a laugh. "No, that covers it." At the tender age of twenty-four she had accomplished a lot.

"So... do you want to go to the castle?" Gabriel asked cautiously.

"Yes," Emma said after a thoughtful silence. "Sorry, Gab, I'm not trying to be difficult. Just been out of sorts lately."

"Perhaps, you're going stir crazy living a life of leisure here in Monte Carlo. Would you like to practice law, start up your music career again? You can do anything you want. We could even live on the moon; the family is developing part of the moon colony. You've always wanted to be an astronaut," he said with a smirk.

"I know I could take on any of my old careers and I'm sure it would come easily too..."

"What's that supposed to mean, Em?"

She shook her head again. "I'm not sure." She glanced at her Movado watch. "I have to go meet my father. We'll talk about this later."

####

The hover-limo glided to a stop in front of the outdoor restaurant. A valet held the door as Emma hopped out. Her father beamed, looking every part the obnoxious American tourist in his vibrant tropical shirt, waved enthusiastically. Expensive yachts and luxury cruise-ships bobbed in the port as Emma approached.

Her father ran up to greet her with the warm hug of a parent that hadn't seen his daughter in years, when in fact he made a weekly visit to any of the exotic locations she and Gabriel called home. They both sat as a waiter asked for their order.

"Wine," her father scoffed at Emma's order.

"It's noon, it's very European to have wine with lunch."

"Oh, of course, just seems like yesterday you were drinking milk and crawling on the floor, drawing pictures..."

"So, the life of a lottery winner seems to agree with you. You look ten years younger, lost some weight I see. Have any pics of the girlfriend and her two boys?"

Her father paused before reaching for his brief case. "Oh, yes, you asked me to bring some pictures for you."

Emma impatiently grabbed for the digital papers in her father's hands. She stared at blank pages for a moment, before pictures materialized. "That's weird, didn't you charge these before you left?"

"Uh, yes, you know how humidity and heat affect these things," her father said.

"Very nice," she said as she perused the pictures. "She's lovely and her boys are cute. I want to meet her soon. I'm glad you could find someone... after mother. It's been over fifteen years since the accident." Images flooded her mind. A dark night. Her mother next to her smiling. A black car without headlights speeding through an intersection. A drunken driver, she would learn later. Broken glass. Screams. An overturned, burning car. She survived without a scratch, but her mother... died instantly. Emma pushed the thoughts away.

Her father nodded slightly as if seeing the pain behind her eyes. "How about you and Gabriel?"

"Great," she said with a little less enthusiasm than the word deserved.

"What aren't you tellin' me young lady," he asked in his fatherly tone.

"He's great and all. Would do anything for me, but he's just too nice. It's just not normal.

"I wish I had that complaint, Mary nags me..."

Emma shrugged. "I feel terrible whining about this, but Gabriel puts me on a pedestal. Everyone I pass on the street knows me by name. Sometimes I just want a normal life. You're the only one that treats me like a normal person, not some walking Goddess or something."

"I'm your father, it's my right. You're one of the most famous people in the world. Everyone has heard of you and adores you. It's what you've always wanted."

"I guess the grass is always greener..." Emma's words trailed off as memories of her mother nipped at her mind.

They both enjoyed a leisurely European lunch as the conversation turned to mundane things like the weather and current events.

"Dad, I'm so glad you won the lottery, so you can make these weekly visits. Are you sure Mary and the boys won't take the flight with you?"

"Maybe one of these days," he answered with hesitation that Emma knew was deceit.

Emma started to suspect something may not be right with her father's relationship. Were they going through a rough patch?

A loud beep interrupted her thoughts. Her father unclipped a small square device from his belt. She recognized it: a beeper. No one used those anymore.

"I'm sorry, pumpkin', I have to go."

"But, Dad, we were supposed to go the casino and play the slots.

This sudden change of plans along with her father's reluctance to bring his new family to meet her aroused her curiosity. Thinking fast her arm shot out and knocked over the water glass before her. The water flowed over the table and cascaded into her father's lap.

She smiled sheepishly, the smile she knew always granted her instant forgiveness from her father. As her father gazed into her blue eyes she tossed a napkin over the beeper.

"No problem, pumpkin'." He went off to the restroom.

Emma glanced at the screen on the device as soon as her father was out of sight. "RETURN - Visiting hours over."

Emma pondered the cryptic message.

Her father returned, grabbed the beeper, seemingly thinking that he hid it. After all these years he still treated her like a dumb child.

"Please, just relax and enjoy life. Don't scrutinize things too closely; you may not like what you see. You may just open a can of worms," his voice again took on the stern tone of a father's warning.

Emma bit her tongue as she stifled the urge to retort her father's words.

As she sat in her limo watching her father's taxi meander away questions and suspicions sparked her into erratic action. "Martin, follow that cab," she ordered of the driver.

"Madam?"

"Do it," she ordered.

The hover-limo sped off to catch up with the taxi.

After a few turns a dreadful realization occurred to Emma. "He's not heading to Nice, to the airport," Emma voiced her thoughts aloud.

"Maybe he has another stop to make or plans to shop for souvenirs," Martin offered.

Emma stayed silent she watched her father jump out of the cab and head towards the Grand Casino, a large ornate gold building adorned with ornate statues and carvings.

"Why would he ditch me and then come here? This is where we were planning to go anyway." Emma pondered out loud.

She bailed from the still rolling vehicle without a thought for her own safety. Hitting the pavement with a hard thud, her left heel snapped off. She kicked both shoes off and continued her chase. She burst through the doors to the grand casino, breathless.

A door-man dressed in a tuxedo greeted her, "Bonjour, Princess Franklin-Calles are you here to gamble today?"

"No... looking for my father... partly bald...about five feet ten," she said between gasps.

"Sorry, no one of that description I see." He pointed at her bare feet. "You lose shoes? I can call for another pair?"

She flushed with embarrassment. "Not necessary, my car is right outside. Thank you," she said as she retreated towards the door.

"Come back anytime, Princess Calles, give my regards to the Prince," he called as she raced back to the car.

####

"How can a man just disappear?" Gabriel asked.

"I don't know, honey, but it happened! I'm getting tired of going through this with you. I called his cell phone and all I got was his voice mail. But, I've told you all this. We're just going in circles." She threw up her arms in frustration.

"Okay, Okay," Gabriel's hands shot up in mock surrender. "I believe you, but what can we do? A cryptic message and a quick exit aren't enough to confront him with.

"Help me figure out what is happening," she said with teary, pleading eyes.

Gabriel's body convulsed, his head quivering unnaturally. He fell to the ground. Emma ran to the desk to pick up the phone.

"Hang on, honey, I'm calling an ambulance.

As quickly as the seizure began, it stopped. Gabriel recovered.

"I'm fine. I think you're right. We should go see him. It'll give you a chance to meet his new family. I'm sure he's just nervous about you meeting them... after your mother and everything..."

Emma tried to wrap her head around the sudden recovery and Gabriel coming around to her point of view.

"Are you sure you're okay, Gab."

"Sure, Em, let's go..."

Emma though about forcing him to see the doctor, but curiosity gnawed at her. She had to get to the bottom of her father's strange behavior. Maybe he was just anxious about her meeting someone who was basically a replacement for her mother, but maybe it was something else. Maybe Mary sent the message, maybe she was jealous of Dad's visits to her. Either way, she was going to get to the bottom of things

####

Emma studied the screen of flight numbers and destinations.

"I'm sorry, Sir, the flight is full. There's another Rocket-plane to New York tomorrow," the tidy looking attendant stated.

Gabriel unrolled a roll of hundred euros. "I'm a man of means; surely there is a way to get us on this flight."

"Oh, I should tell two ticket holders that they've been bumped for richer patrons?" the woman quipped.

Gabriel sighed, "No, I don't wish to inconvenience others, but this is important!"

"And others' plans aren't..."

"Just put us on standby, we'll wait at the gate," Emma suggested.

"No, only ticket holders are allowed at the departure gate. It's a security mandate," the woman said.

"Since when?" Emma asked. "The anti-terrorist regulations were revoked in twenty-eighteen, I should know, I practiced law."

"Fine, but you may be waiting a long time," the attendant said.

She saw a large sign above her in French guiding her towards her destination, Portail 12. That was the plane to New York. She was getting closer to her answers. She urged her feet faster as she turned the corner. Her eyes went wide in horror, but it was too late to stop as she found herself tripping over orange cones and plowing through a large plastic sign that stated caution in three languages, toppling over it and crashing to the tile floor. Gabriel picked her up. She was unhurt and realized with some surprise that she couldn't remember the last time she suffered any injury.

An army of janitors armed with mops greeted her with annoyed scowls. One of them noticed who she was and at once their demeanor's softened. "We'll be done in a few minutes, Princess Calles," someone called. She craned her neck to see her destination, but three large floor-scrubbing vehicles blocked her path and her view.

"I have a flight to catch and I don't even have a ticket yet," Emma said with gritted teeth, but the friendly janitors just stared at her admiringly, making it impossible to maintain her anger.

Emma stopped to catch her breath, but found she didn't need to. The janitors continued mopping the floor with atypical glee, waving at Emma sheepishly, oblivious to Emma's frustration.

"They're doing this on purpose. I'm going. I need to get on that flight, see my father, and get some answers." Emma began to march through the barriers of cones and caution signs.

Gabriel grabbed her arm and spun her around so fast that she fell into his arms. "I can't let you do that," his voice was stern, desperate. "You'll ruin our life together, you'll destroy everything," he pleaded as teardrops welled in his eyes.

Ignoring Gabriel Emma ran around the side of the floor-scrubbing vehicles, bracing herself for an array of horrors ranging from fiery pits to monsters, what she saw was far more terrifying -- An empty blackness spotted with green speckles -- the glittering unknown.

Gabriel caught up with Emma. At the sight of the void he snapped her up into his protective arms as if fearing the void were a black hole, which threatened to consume them. "What is that!?"

"Don't you know?" Emma asked. "You're one of them... whatever or whoever they are."

Gabriel furrowed his brow. "All I know is my orders...my program," Gabriel admitted somberly.

Emma played with her hair nervously. "I was praying that at least you were real." She felt cheated, stupid, and terribly alone in that instant.

Gabriel held her closer, tighter, as if the pressure could make her problems go away, but his embrace no longer felt reassuring, only cold and counterfeit. She pushed him away.

"What are you? Some kind of robot? This is like that old Michael Crichton theme park movie with the robots -- or some kind of virtual reality thing! You're not real. My life isn't real. Has my life ever been real?"

As if on cue, the busy terminal melted away, engulfed by the void; the people, chairs, and the floor itself were all gone? Gabriel? He was gone too. Now, she was alone in the void. Tears cascaded down her cheeks as a mournful sound escaped her lungs.

"Naw, don't cry, please," an anonymous voice urged. "I hate it when girls cry."

"Are you God?" she asked.

"Uh, Naw, but I kinda' like the sound of that. Uh, I better let your father explain."

"Dad? Are you there?"

She heard some talking in the background before her father's voice boomed through the nothingness, echoing eerily like the voice of a God. "Em, I wish it hadn't come to this. I knew you were curious and as stubborn as your mother was. I shoulda' known my warnings would only make you more suspicious."

"What is this? Why can't I see you?"

"Let her see reality, all of it, Rick, us as well. Put one of those cyber-helmet things on. Tap into the security cameras and give her a live feed of the room," her father ordered.

"Uh, can I air edit my pimples out?" Rick asked.

"No, let her see us warts and all," her father said impatiently.

The green stars winked at her as the void melted away. She found herself in a hospital room. A balding man in a white coat, a doctor she presumed, stood next to her father who stared absently at a motionless figure lying in a hospital bed. A younger man, barely nineteen, she guessed, stood behind a large wall of computer towers and an array of technological gadgetry.

Her father tore himself away from staring at the still figure and looked at Emma. "You're in a coma..." His words trailed off as if embarrassed.

"And..." she pressed her voice tight with frustration.

"I don't like your tone young lady," her father warned.

"My tone, I don't care about my fuckin' tone right now."

Her father shot her an icy frown as she swore, but kept quiet.

Emma's teary eyes pleaded for answers. "I want to know what this is. I think you owe me that much."

Her father's stoic face softened. "Rick here," he pointed to the pimply faced teenager, "is a tech here at TrueLife, a hospice for comatose and the terminal ill.

"TrueLife provides its residents with their heart's desires -- and allows family members to visit their loved ones in their ideal worlds," Rick delivered the company line with rehearsed precision.

"My life is a dream," she surmised with a pout.

Rick emerged from behind his sanctuary of computer components. "More than a simple dream Princess ... Mrs. Calles... Uh... Ms. Franklin... Uh... Emma. The subject... you that is... guides the world, shaping it, but all the images come from your mind. My computers download real world information, like your law degree for instance is based on real life information. Of course outcomes are based largely on what pleases you. "

"The best part," Mr. Franklin said, "is I can visit you via the digitization interface." Her father hoisted a skeletal hat, which resembled a virtuality interface. "All of us are wearing these, but the software blocks you from seeing em' on people. That's really me when I visit -- but sometimes I morph into a passerby and watch you and Gabriel walk your dog in the park."

Emma's face went ashen at the disturbing revelation, wondering with a shudder just how far her father's voyeuristic tendencies extended.

"There's so much of your mother in you," Mr. Franklin said. "You do her a tribute every day you age and subconsciously decide to take a step closer to her likeness."

"So, it's all about you having a piece of Mom to hang onto as you watch me in my fake world," she hissed.

Her father visibly bit back his anger at his daughter's disrespectful behavior. "Maybe, but it's for you as well. You're happy, you have your dream..." he paused at the pun and continued. "... life. Everything you ever wanted with no limitations."

"It's not real!" She composed herself and continued. "Yes, you're right, but have you any idea how hollow victories are when they come too easily?" She asked.

Mr. Franklin quietly pondered the question.

Emma took a step closer to her father, a step closer to the bed-ridden figure, her true self. She could see tubes connected to the nearly lifeless figure; further details were obscured in a harsh glow emanating from the window. She could hear the rhythmic beeping of the heart monitor. She could smell the stench of human waste and burnt flesh mixing with the overpowering odor of bleach wafting from the recently mopped tile floor.

Rick noticed Emma sniffing. "How's the sound, the smells?" Rick asked excitedly, selfishly ignoring the heated argument between father and daughter, wrapped in his own technological world.

"Perfect," she said with a tinge of annoyance. "Too perfect."

"I learned a lot from this session. You almost stalled my program a few times when you asked the Gabriel program to help you; his two directives of maintaining the world you created and to serve you unconditionally were in conflict. I'd like to interview you later, just to see where I can improve..."

Emma shot him a fierce glare that stopped his words in mid-sentence. She turned to the white-coated gentleman. "I assume you're my Doctor. How am I?" She asked, looking at the sickbed with a surreal feeling twisting her stomach in knots.

The doctor, clutching his clipboard like a shield, stepped closer. "Well, your father has been keeping you comatose. You've been able to breath on your own for months now."

Mr. Franklin eyed the doctor fiercely.

"She deserves to know the truth," the timid doctor said, finding the strength to confront the obsessed father.

"Why? I want a real life. Why are you doing this to me? Keeping me in a fishbowl for your own amusement." Emma was now in tears.

"It's complicated. They're are reasons," her father assured her. "I only have your best interests...'

"I should have power of attorney over myself," Emma spat. "You can't treat me like a kid anymore. Revive me!"

The doctor waved his clipboard to get Emma's attention. "It's not that simple."

Emma shot him a confused look.

The doctor waved to the bed. "You have to see for yourself."

Emma slowly walked closer. She now noticed flowers on the nightstand. In a cage next to the flowers, her pet hamster, Bucky treaded merrily on his wheel, but it couldn't be him, he would have been long dead. Dad must have gotten her a replacement. Pictures she drew as a child were taped to the wall depicting her aspirations for the future: Lawyer, Princess, Actress, Astronaut, and Singer.

Emma snubbed her nose at the pictures. "Why do you always insist on treating me like a ..." Emma stared in terrifying bewilderment. "...child," she barely said. "I'm a child!" She said, noticing the small stature of the covered figure. Her trembling hand tore the bandages away from her face.

She dropped to the floor, the face, her face looked like a picture she was saw of Mars. It was her face as it was twelve years ago, but it was red, blotchy, scarred, and pot marked. Clear discharge oozed from her face.

"I'm sorry, Emma. You were in the car with your mother and were badly burned. And you are still a child. Your father is still your legal custodian," the doctor noted.

The news hit her like a boxers one two punch. "No! How is this possible?" Emma demanded. She turned to the window and saw vehicles slowly moving along the pavement. On the pavement. Not above it. "No hover cars?"

"Emma, it's twenty-twelve, not twenty twenty-four," her father said.

"Your dream world moves faster than our world does," Rick said. "A lot of the routine stuff gets skipped, and you spend less time 'sleeping' than you think you do, so..."

Emma pulled herself to her feet as she surrendered herself to the truth, noticing for the first time that her father looked younger, but without the machines filtering he looked old and haggard.

"I used my settlement from the accident to hire the best plastic surgeons, but your injuries are beyond their abilities to repair," her father said. "It's better this way. You would be in constant pain, other kids would taunt you endlessly. Can't you see this for the best?"

Tears welled up in Emma's eyes. "But, my life after Mom died was ordinary enough."

"Your goals were mundane then, doing well in school and being popular," Just think, I'll be able to see you and Gabriel have a family of your own," Mr. Franklin said, attempting to change the subject.

Emma pounded on the sickbed's rails. "I don't want this. Just let me live or put me out of my misery like we did with Rover," she said. She fought back the tears and tried to maintain her strength, but failed. She crumpled into her father's caring embrace.

"I can't..." he whispered into her ear.

"I can increase the difficulty so things aren't that easy," Rick offered.

"Can you make her forget ... again," Mr. Franklin said.

Rick shrugged. "Yeah, I'll just reroute this event to the semantic memory, the part of the brain that stores dreams, they're easily forgotten, just like last time."

"Make me forget 'again'? 'Like last time'?" Emma queried.

Mr. Franklin produced an apologetic smile.

Her father ignored her and motioned to Rick. The void once again crept in, dissolving her reality.

"I love you," her father said.

"Can you love something that's only a few brainwaves and a computer program?"

Her retort stung, but Mr. Franklin persisted. "Don't increase the difficulty, I want everything to be perfect for her," she overheard her father say to Rick as he flickered into nothingness.

Emma screamed inaudibly into the emptiness as her she materialized in her bed, Gabriel's prone form by her side. As her memories faded she thought of Bucky, the hamster treading on his wheel, but one day she would be old enough to break away from her gilded cage.

THE END


© 2008 Norman C. Stoker

Bio: Norman Stoker works as a warehouse inventory reception supervisor for a steel supply warehouse in Connecticut. He studied literature and journalism at Eastern Connecticut State University and served in the National Guard. For more on his life and writing projects, visit Storman Norman.

E-mail: Norman C. Stoker

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