Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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An Evening With Kaeding

by Stephen Frentzos


"I did it! I did it! I actually did it!" Luke Kaeding shouted as he burst into the laboratory one Thursday morning.

I was staring at the computer on the desk in front of me when he entered; I shot to my feet once I heard the commotion. Kaeding's animated appearance startled me, not because of its loudness or abruptness but because it was out of character for Kaeding to show so much emotion.

I had worked alongside Kaeding for the last eight years in our quantum-mechanical engineering laboratory, and I could count only a handful of times when he showed me what I construed to be a genuine smile, usually at times when a favorable development in our studies occurred. And even then his rare displays of mirth were always brief and restrained, as if he had left his soul exposed and realized it a second too late.

Now as I viewed Kaeding standing there, his chest heaving, his eyes wide and glistening, his arms stretched toward me with fingers curled into gnarled claws, I could barely recognize him. "What exactly did you do?" I asked.

"I can't just tell you!" he said, his hysteria cracking his voice. "I have to show you!"

I had learned over the years that Kaeding had very little time or patience for jokes, however clever or amusing they might have been. His focus rarely strayed from the task he was attempting to accomplish. And so, astounded by his excitement, I said as calmly as I could, "Please, Kaeding, we have a lot of work to do today. I'm not interested in whatever game you're playing."

"Who has time for work?" Kaeding exclaimed. "Don't you see? The laws of physics as we know them now cease to exist!"

"Did you have coffee again?" I asked. "I remember the last time you did. You didn't stop talking the entire day."

"Coffee? Coffee!" Kaeding blared. "You're talking about coffee while I'm talking about redefining the world around us!"

"Would you calm down before Alfredson sees you? He's going to think you've lost your mind. And to tell you the truth, I'm not convinced you haven't."

"I don't care if he thinks I'm a goddamn lunatic! I don't need him and I don't need this job anymore!"

"Kaeding, what the hell are you talking about?"

Kaeding's eyes took on a look of desperation. "Come to my house tonight at seven. You won't believe your eyes." He then turned to exit the room.

"Wait a second," I said. "Where are you going?"

"Home," Kaeding said. "There are still a few more preparations I need to make before tonight." He moved to leave again.

"Kaeding, I don't even have your address," I said.

Kaeding scurried over to my desk and scribbled his address on a scrap of paper, his hand trembling as he struggled to steady the tip of the pencil he clutched. He threw the pencil on the desk and hurried toward the door.

"Are you really quitting?" I asked just before Kaeding left the room.

He paused and swiveled in my direction. "By tomorrow I'll be in no condition to work here or anywhere else."

I saw in his eyes a haunting gleam, one that expressed both excitement and fear. It flashed for only a moment before he turned and left me standing there in confusion.

####

That day I found it difficult to concentrate. My thoughts invariably migrated to my encounter with Kaeding while my eyes drifted just as frequently to his empty chair. My mind was racing as I tried to sort through the possibilities of what Kaeding's frenzied rant could mean. By the time my usual hour of departure had arrived, I was as perplexed as I had been that morning.

As I drove home from the laboratory, I was more convinced than ever that Kaeding had discovered something significant. My reasoning was based solely on the fact that Kaeding had invited me to his house that evening. I had learned early on in our relationship that he valued his privacy greatly, kept his personal life closely guarded and allowed me only ambiguous glimpses of who he was outside of the laboratory. Back when I was unfamiliar with him enough to ask him a question about his family or his upbringing or the college he attended, he would always dodge my inquiry by feigning interest in a matter of concern that he claimed required all of his attention. And so I realized after several failed attempts to understand Kaeding better that it was best to think of him as nothing more than another sterile piece of equipment owned by our employer that was there to help me perform my job more efficiently.

I pushed open the door to my house and greeted my wife and two daughters rather distantly. In my head I was imagining the secretive compound where Kaeding lived. Tall iron gates, hallways guarded by laser beams, and a system of interconnected underground tunnels were just some of the features I expected to find. I changed my clothes, told my wife I was having dinner at a colleague's house, and kissed her goodbye.

I checked my watch as I strode out to my car. It was almost seven. My hands were as cold as ice as I climbed into the car and turned the key in the ignition.

When I arrived at the address that Kaeding had scribbled, I frowned. The house in front of me was of moderate size and white with green shutters. The yard was neatly trimmed, the sidewalk swept, and on either side of the large, inviting front porch were two white, cushioned wicker chairs. Everything looked so quaint, so...disappointingly normal.

Almost instantly after I rang the doorbell the front door swung open and Kaeding's enthusiastic appearance greeted me. "Come in, come in," he said, stepping back to allow me by him. I glanced back and saw him look nervously down the road to his left and then his right before he closed the door behind him. "Would you like something to drink?" he asked as we stood in the entranceway.

"No, thank you," I said.

"Well then, let's not waste any more time. Come with me. There's someone I'd like you to meet."

I followed Kaeding down a short hallway, through the kitchen, and into the living room. Like the exterior of the house, the interior was subtle in its decoration. The furniture, the carpets, the artwork, all of it was -- simply put -- ordinary.

As soon as I entered the living room my attention was drawn to a little girl sitting at the end of a maroon couch. She looked to be six or seven years old and was pretty with long, straight brown hair and round blue eyes. The dress she was wearing was bright white and looked to be brand new.

"Henry, this is Anne," Kaeding said.

"Hello, Anne," I said cheerily.

"Hi, it's nice to meet you," Anne said as she hopped off the couch and extended her hand toward me. I shook it, momentarily staggered by both the mature nature of her gesture and the ease and clarity with which she spoke to me. I thought back to my daughters at that age and could only remember them acting shy around strangers.

"Won't you have a seat?" Kaeding said as he offered me the maroon loveseat adjacent to the couch with a wave of his hand.

I sat down on the loveseat as Kaeding and the girl took their places on the couch. "I have to admit that I'm a little surprised to be in your house right now," I said. "I mean, I didn't even know you had a daughter. She's lovely by the way."

Kaeding smiled at the girl before he said, "Thank you. She is beautiful, isn't she?"

Anne grinned as she looked from Kaeding to me, and in that moment when our eyes met, a chill traveled the length of my spine. It was the way Anne was gazing at me that unsettled my nerves. I got the sudden feeling that her intelligence was somehow superior to mine, that she was studying me the way one might gaze upon a goldfish swimming in its bowl.

I directed my stare back toward Kaeding. "She certainly is quite striking," I said.

"Let me get to the point of why I asked you here," Kaeding said. "By now you must know that I'm reticent by nature. I've kept very few friends over the years. The ones I've had I've lost contact with for one reason or another. The only constants in my life for the past decade have been my wife and my job...until today of course.

"One of the reasons I haven't kept up my social relationships -- the main reason, actually -- is because I've spent most of my nights in my garage, designing and constructing what was only a fantasy when I first started. I always knew that I had a gift when it came to science; that my mind was wired to understand matter and particles and how technology could influence them. I felt at a young age that I would live on forever as a result of the discoveries I was destined to make. And so I devoted my life to studying, to understanding the limitations of our world and finding ways to defy them. Is any of this making sense?"

I frowned. "Not entirely," I admitted.

"It was my wife who really encouraged me," Kaeding continued. "When I met her and fell in love with her, I was a bit hesitant about showing her what I was working on in private. I was nervous that she'd think it was a waste of time, or even worse, that I was some sort of madman. But I figured if we were meant to be together, she would find out sooner or later, and so I told her the truth of my experiment.

"You can imagine my relief when her response was enthusiastic. She offered me nothing but encouragement, and I'm certain that without her constant support I would have lost the will to proceed with my endeavor on the evenings when I experienced the worst of my setbacks. We married three years ago, and it was just about a month after our wedding that I had my biggest breakthrough. The rest of the pieces fell into place shortly after that."

"Your wife sounds like a wonderful woman," I said. "I'd love to meet her. Is she here?"

"She is," Kaeding said. "The three of us will have plenty of time to exchange pleasantries later, though. Right now I'd like to show you what I have in my garage."

Kaeding, holding tightly to Anne's hand, led me back through the kitchen and hallway to a door by the entranceway of the house. I followed them through the doorway and into what looked more like an architect's studio than a garage. A large metal workbench topped with scattered piles of paper and a number of pens, pencils, markers and rulers lined an entire wall. Sketches of various shapes covered with measurements and scribbled notes hung at disorderly angles from another wall as if they were placed there with what little care the constraint of time could afford whoever taped them there. Tall metal cabinets, most with their doors ajar and some seeping both wires and what looked like the parts of many engines, took up another wall. Above everything hummed a square of fluorescent lights.

And in the center of the room, standing atop a small blue square of carpeting and connected to the wall by thick black cables, was a stout metal box that was slightly bigger than a refrigerator. The sides were a dull gray, stained darker or lighter in certain areas. Mounted on the heavy, lusterless door beside a shiny silver handle was a small keypad with sixteen gray rubber buttons arranged in a square.

"What is this?" I asked as I stared at the looming contraption.

"This," Kaeding said as he placed his hand on the side of the box, "is the machine that will make me immortal." He looked at Anne and smiled. She smiled back.

"Kaeding, I have to be honest with you, I listened to your rant this morning and I've been listening to your vague ramblings for the last twenty minutes and I've just about run out of patience. I'm tired and I want to go home and see my wife and daughters. So unless it's actually worthwhile for me to --"

"Let me show you something," Kaeding interrupted. He walked over to a filing cabinet in the corner of the room and removed from it a manila envelope. His hand groped around inside the envelope for a moment before he pulled from it a pair of photographs. "Look here," Kaeding said as he approached me, holding out one of the photographs.

I took it in my hands. There in the photograph was an attractive woman with straight brown hair and blue eyes. She was wearing a thick blue robe and standing in the dark cavity of the machine whose door was wide open. On her face was a small, nervous smile.

"That's my wife," Kaeding said. "That picture was taken last night." I nodded as he held another photograph toward me. I put it on top of the first. "And this is a picture of my wife that was taken when she was seven years old."

I looked at the photograph, studied it for only a moment before my stare turned to Anne. She was grinning at me. "She looks just like your daughter," I said.

Kaeding shook his head. "I don't have a daughter."

The air left my lungs, vacated my body and took my balance with it. I nearly fell to the ground before I caught myself. "Do you mean to tell me..." I said before trailing off.

Kaeding nodded. "Now that you know my secret, there's a favor I have to ask of you," he said as he walked to one of the metal cabinets. I could see him remove something from a large wooden box within the cabinet. He turned and held out a small black pistol.

I took a step back. "What are you doing with that?" I asked.

"Let me explain. The bulk of the labor to build this machine was completed over a year ago. For the last fourteen months I've been continuously testing it and working out the last few flaws."

"Testing it?" I asked, putting aside my awe for the moment. "On what?"

"Rabbits, mostly," Kaeding said. "A lot of them. I took the necessary precautions to conceal any suspicion that might have arisen, though. I never bought rabbits from the same location twice, and when I paid for them I used cash."

"What happened to them?" I asked.

"There were a number of different results," Kaeding said without displaying any emotion. "Most died immediately. Some died days later, and some were visibly deformed. It wasn't until two months ago that I was able to consistently return the rabbits to the beginning stages of their lives without any harmful changes to their health. Soon after that Anne begged me to test the machine on her. I was reluctant, but she insisted she was willing to accept whatever consequences came with it. And so I finally agreed to test it on her last night. As far as I can tell it was successful."

"And what about her mind? Was it reset to its six-year-old state?"

"From what I've observed, she's retained all of her former memories. That was what I was concerned about the most, and obviously something I couldn't ascertain with any certainty from the rabbits. As far as I can tell, her cognitive function doesn't seem to have diminished very much if at all, and the fact that she can recall past experiences is, in my opinion, a miracle."

"If that's your miracle, then what do you consider this machine?" I asked.

"A product of science."

I shook my head. "And the gun?"

"Tonight I will be joining Anne in her regression. Last night I was ready to end her misery were she to emerge from the machine with some sort of abnormality. Anne, however, has told me that she couldn't bear to do the same for me. And seeing as you're my closest acquaintance and someone I can trust with this significant a responsibility, I was hoping that you'd agree to use that pistol if I wind up a monstrosity." He offered me the gun. "It's a small price to pay to witness what this machine is capable of, wouldn't you agree?"

I pondered Kaeding's words. The thought of shooting anyone, no less a helpless, disfigured child was reprehensible in my opinion. But my curiosity, my perverse need to see what would happen to Kaeding once he stepped into that machine, far outweighed my objections to violence. And so I took the pistol in my hand and nodded to Kaeding.

A smile formed on his face. "Thank you. I truly appreciate it," he said. He walked over to Anne, kneeled down, and hugged her. After a moment he stood, his eyes filled with tears, and said, "Let me go change and I'll be right back."

Kaeding returned a minute later wearing the blue robe from the photograph of Anne. "So I'm not left wearing clothes that are too big for me," he said as he passed me. I watched him inspect the machine and press a series of buttons on the keypad. He then followed the cables to the wall where he bent down and flipped two switches on the dark metal box into which the cords disappeared. He moved back to the machine and pressed more of the buttons on the keypad.

A gentle humming like that of a small space heater resonated from the machine. Kaeding swung open the door and stepped inside. Anne approached him, and after he bent and kissed her, he asked, "You remember which buttons to press?"

"Yes," Anne said in her six-year-old voice. She shut the door, secured it in place with a thin silver lever and pushed four buttons -- the final two at the same time.

Anne stepped back as the lights above us dimmed. A low metallic whirring replaced the humming and a soft yellow glow trickled forth from the tiny gaps between the edges of the door and the frame of the machine. The whirring grew louder with each second that passed, and after a minute it developed into a high-pitched howl similar to the noise of a jet engine. I covered my ears and looked at Anne. She, too, was covering her ears with her small, delicate hands, but her grin assured me that this clamor was normal.

In another moment the soft yellow glow oozing from the machine turned bright white, as if the light within had undergone a meticulous purification process. It was blinding, its radiance expanding, the hazy, feathered edges of resplendent white appearing to shrink the door to the size of a sewer grate. The light pulsed once, and a wave of heat washed over me. I looked to Anne again. She was still grinning.

The sudden shaking of the machine both startled my attention back to the now vibrating box. It was moving from side to side, rhythmically, in short jerking motions like an old washing machine might. The white glare was pulsing at regular intervals. I couldn't decide whether to shield my ears from the incredible noise or shade my eyes from the searing light. My senses were overwhelmed. "How much longer will it take?" I shouted to Anne, but couldn't hear my own words. They were lost, swallowed whole by the din that seemed to echo to the farthest reaches of the world. The intensity of the noise and light was too much to endure. I eyed the exit, and just as I was about to run toward it the pandemonium stopped.

The whirring of the machine wound down to a mere whisper in a slow, dying wail as the machine turned dark again and the lights above returned to their usual brightness. I stopped and watched Anne approach the machine with my heart pounding in my chest. She lifted the silver lever and turned the metal handle. I moved to get a better view of whatever was inside the shadowed cavity.

That was when I saw, immersed within the thick blue robe, a boy of six years old standing there inspecting his arms and legs. It was Kaeding -- a much younger Kaeding. I put the gun down on the bench beside me and collapsed to the floor while Anne embraced the child.

My bewilderment never left me that night and still hasn't to this day, but I was able to ask Kaeding through my debilitating wonder what he and Anne were going to do. He told me they planned to live forever together, that neither of them were convinced enough of an afterlife to allow their earthly bodies to perish. They had enough cash, Kaeding estimated, to live for the next two hundred years at least. And they would make more when they advanced into their adult years if they needed to.

They told me that they would keep the machine a secret. Kaeding said in his high voice that he didn't think the planet was ready for the technology. He doubted it ever would be. "They would only abuse it," he said to me that night. "They would use it for reasons of greed. And that's after they ran countless experiments on Anne and me."

I haven't mentioned a word about the machine to another soul. That's why it was so difficult for me to sneak out of my hospital room in the middle of the night when I was dying of cancer two years later, take one last look at my wife and daughters slumped together on a couch in the waiting room, and leave them without saying goodbye. They never would have believed me if I told them where I was going.

I've been by my house a few times since that night in the hospital. What I see is a family in mourning, all of them confused by the disappearance of their husband and father. What they see is a curious child roaming the neighborhood. Kaeding has forbidden me from letting me tell them I'm that child, but that won't matter soon enough. The pistol I took from Kaeding's garage earlier today is loaded, and I'm expecting him and Anne back at their house at any minute.

THE END


© 2011 Stephen Frentzos

Bio: Stephen Frentzos grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from Boston University with a degree in Mathematics. Since then, he has taken several creative writing courses and has been developing his skills in the best way: by writing. His stories have appeared in Encounters Magazine ("The Crash of Flight 1217", Spring 2010); Midwest Literary Magazine ("To the Parents of Jennifer Adams", also featured in Hanging By Threads, Spring 2010); Literary House Review ("The Hunting Trip", December 2010); The Adroit Journal ("The Reunion", June 2011); and Ink MOnkey ("Another Day in Paradise", Summer 2011). When he is not writing, Stephen works as a fund manager at a large financial firm in Boston.

E-mail: Stephen Frentzos

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