Sunday, November 13, 2016

Designed For Greatness- Short Story

This is the companion to "Forty-Thousand Dollars," the post immediately preceding this one.

More info on these two stories here.

I hardly know who to blame for my problems, and I've got plenty.

On top of terrible pay, wage garnishments, and my rent being due, I've just broken up for the fourth time this year.

Melissa's on her way to her folks' place across town. I can't say I blame her. For such a smart guy, I'm impulsive, inconsiderate, and immature.

Actually, those were the exact words she used when she found me sitting on my couch this morning, playing video games in my underwear with a pile of beer cans around my feet. I think the last straw was when I told her I'd clean all this up later.

I haven't moved from that spot, sitting for roughly an hour with my head in my hands, and suddenly I'm aware of what a dump my apartment is. I can't shuffle my feet without some can or food wrapper rustling loudly. Melissa was right, just like Angela, and Fergie, and Teresa, and Selena, and Ilya, and about a dozen other girls since I was in high school.

I sigh and pull out my phone. I always hate this part.

The phone rings and I hear my father's voice at the end of the line. "Hey, Richard, what's up?" he says with a warmth I know I don't deserve.

"It's Melissa. She's left me, just this morning. I... I needed her to help me pay this month's rent, and now I can't afford it," I say, life dragging the words out of me.

"Sorry son, but we're having a hard time ourselves," Dad says. "The interest rate went up on the loan again, we just barely made the last payment..."

The loan. The forty-thousand dollars they paid for me. It was more like a hundred-thousand when all the interest was figured in, and Mom and Dad were still about ten years from paying it off.

Asking them to give me money was pointless; they were already spending as much as they could on me.

"It's OK," I say with a sigh. "Could you talk to Victor about it for me? Maybe he can help."

"Why don't you call him yourself?" Dad asks.

"He's cut me off, Dad. Won't answer his phone, won't return messages, won't reply to my emails... I know I was a jerk to him and all, but he didn't have to cut me off like this," I say, almost in tears.

"Look, your brother has a lot on his plate. He's on his fourth novel now, and he's got a deadline to meet. I'm sure he's just busy is all," Dad says.

"Could you at least call him for me, just to be sure?" I ask, trying to hide the desperation in my voice.

"Alright, we'll give him a call and see what's up," Dad says.

"Thanks, Dad," I say.

"No problem. Talk to you later," he says.

"Bye," I reply, hitting the red button on the front of the phone.

Dad used to tell me all the time how I was meant for greatness. Why does he just sound sorry for me now?

* * *

I'm I pose for my worst photo, the one I'll never want to show anyone. Worse than any photo they took of me in my two semesters of college.

It's a plain black and white shot that reveals every flaw in my features. I'm standing against a background that plainly gives my height as 6' 6", probably the tallest man in the whole place. My shirt is unbuttoned and slightly sideways and my face is as red as my hair from so much booze and embarrassment. In my hands is a black card with the story of my shame:

29808708
Burnside PD
Teversham, Richard
Assault & Battery
6-20-25

The flash sears my sensitive eyes, and I scarcely have time to adjust to the light in the room when I'm hustled over roughly and finger-printed before being taken to a cell with three guys who look like they mean business.

We sit there, tense and silent, each waiting for one to look at the other the wrong way. Two of the guys are wearing gang colors. Another is a scruffy-looking older fellow who smells like the dumpster behind a Wendy's, wearing clothes that haven't been washed in ages. He glares at me, making a slicing motion across his throat as he glares my way. I don't know if I should look away to avoid a confrontation, or keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn't cut my throat when I'm not looking.

A few hours pass, and they come for me again. I'm cuffed and led to a small interrogation room.

The room is very plain. There's a table, a couple of chairs, a two-way mirror, and a phone on the wall. Above, a single fluorescent light buzzes loudly. The officer who led me in leaves me there and I have a seat in one of the chairs, mindful of my cuffed hands.

I can't imagine what they'd interrogate me about. It was pretty open-and-shut case, wasn't it? I was in a bar, drunker than usual, and some asshole came up and started giving me trouble about being a ginger.

I've dealt with it all my life. Gingers don't fight back, they say. This guy certainly believed it, until I broke that bar stool over his head. He shut up in a hurry.

Come to think of it, I did hit him pretty hard. What if he was in the hospital? What if he died?

Oh damn... I didn't mean to kill anyone!

I'm starting to panic now, and the fact that the card I held said "assault and battery" and not "murder" suddenly means nothing. It would make sense, wouldn't it? Why else would they leave me here? They wanted to get me nervous so they could make me confess to anything they asked. I could be grilled until I confess to Murder One. What then? Twenty years if I'm lucky! And if I think I have a hard enough time being a ginger now...

So this is what it's come to? 157 IQ, and no restraint whatsoever. Restless, impulsive, and unable to apply myself. They designed me to be the perfect mix of smart and aggressive, a go-getter who could take on the world and be a CEO or president; instead, I was born to be a drunken, restless bum who couldn't control his temper. I don't know who to blame; in the eyes of the law I'm the one who did the deed, but what about everything that led up to this? What about being told all my life that I was destined for greatness, or gliding through the first 12 grades of school with ease? What about the
way I was born, the way I was designed from birth? I didn't choose any of that.

But I did choose to be at that bar, and I did choose to whack some guy over the head with a bar stool.

That's the only bottom line the judge will be concerned with.

The door opens and that same officer steps in, uncuffing me. "You may use the phone to arrange for bail and an attorney, then you'll be taken back to your cell," he says. "Better hope you're as big and bad as you think you are, one of the guys in there stabbed a friend to death over a game of poker. I don't think he'd have any problem putting you in your place, son."

I avert my gaze and don't talk back, although the air is heavy with his disdainful gloating.

I walk over to the phone and call the first number I can remember.

What do you want?” I hear Victor's voice say.

Victor, it's me, Richard,” I reply.

Oh. Everything alright?” He sounds so condescending. He knows something's wrong. Am I still that predictable after all these years?

Listen, I kinda got a little crazy last night, I was out at the bar and had a few too many, got into it with some guys who were giving me trouble about gingers being ugly and all that...”

And you broke a bar stool over the guy's head?” Victor says.

Damn... was it on the news?” I said. I was pretty sure it wasn't.

I just know you too well. So, I bet you're going to ask if I can bail you out?” Victor says with a sneer that I can hear over the phone.

Well, yeah, I was kinda hoping you would. I mean, you being my brother and all...” Though I know perfectly well it'll be a cold day in Hell, I add bitterly to myself.

I would, but I can't right now,” he says. “Look, I'm in traffic, I've got somewhere very important to be, and I can't cancel. Can you... could you just, I don't know, wait a few more hours? I'll see what I can do.”

I don't like the look of the guys in here,” I say. I mean it. That scruffy guy has it in for me and I know it.

I'm sorry, I really can't help you now. Just... just hang in there, OK?” he says.

But Vic...”

I'll come get you later, which is more than you deserve!” he shouts. The line goes dead.

Even the cop shakes his head with dismay. "That's rough," he says. "Hope you can get someone on the line. Used to be just one phone call, now we give you three. You're down one, though. Better make these count."

Maybe Dad can get through to Vic. I've got nothing to lose by trying. I don't want to spend any more time in that cell than I have to.

* * *

I'm through with relationships. Done. After Ilya there is no point.

We met in the Louvre at an exhibit of early works by the Old Masters. She was a gorgeous Russian girl, pale with blond hair. Her eyes lit up whenever she was near me.

I can still see those deep blue eyes as I gaze out the window of the jumbo jet bound for home. I took a huge risk for her and I lost everything.

We'd been seeing each other for a while. I was studying abroad at the American University in Laon; she was in Paris, about two hours from me by rail, an exchange student from St. Petersburg.

She was intoxicating; her accent, her smile, her long hair, her gentle laugh... I had to be with her. I couldn't take my eyes off her, my heart yearned for her.

It got to the point where we saw each other every weekend. Then one day I brought up the idea of marriage.

I should have taken her uncertainty as a warning. She certainly didn't say no to the idea.

And so I took a huge risk. I decided to drop all my classes and propose to her. Because she still had a student visa, if she said yes, I'd be able to stay with her in Paris.

Ilya said she wasn't ready.

I spent the next three months and what was left of my student loan money trying to convince her that I was the one, but she just got more and more distant.

Then one day, as I left the youth hostel I'd been staying in for my daily trip to meet her at the
local cafe, there she was with a local guy.

I lost it. I beat him senseless. It took Ilya and four others to pull me off him.

Then the police arrived and checked my passport, and discovered my visa was invalid because I was no longer a full-time student.

That was only 48 hours ago. They were quick to send me back the way I came, with a persona non grata stamp in my passport, the only thing I had to show for having found true love in a faraway land.

"Attention please, the captain has just turned off the seat belt warning light. You may now use
electronic devices, and you may move about the cabin if necessary, but we ask that you please remain seated if possible. Thank you," the voice on the loud speaker says.

I excuse myself as the man next to me pulls his netbook out of his carry-on, and make my way to the restrooms near the rear of the plane.

I shut the door and turn the lock, then sit down and take my phone out of my pocket. I thumb through the photos until I find that one I took a few months back in Orleans, with Ilya posed in front of a rustic half-timbered house. We were going to live in a house like that one day, I told her.

I begin to sob bitterly. I never had a chance with her, and I'd made damn sure to burn every bridge with her because I couldn't control my temper for just one moment. What was wrong with me?

I was the one who was supposed to be president one day. Why'd I bet my heart and my dignity on her? More appropriately, why did I let myself fall in love? What kind of genius does a stupid thing like that?

I'm no genius. I'm just an idiot, and I've got the stamp in my passport to prove it.

* * *

Freshman year has been a blast!

I'd heard high school would be so much harder than grade school. It's not. It's so easy! I barely have to study at all to get perfect grades.

It's prom night for the juniors and seniors, but why should they have all the fun?

There were about twenty of us together at David Lloyd's place earlier. We didn't think much about him at first. He barely said a word to anyone all school year. We figured he was just a geek or a wallflower, nobody really gave him the time of day.

Then a couple days ago, out of the blue, he said those magic words that none of us could resist:

"Party at my place. There's gonna be plenty of beer."

Now I'm riding home with Fritz Gottlieb, one of the best sophomores on the football team, and about four others. The entire car reeks of beer, but I'm too drunk to care.

We slew wildly through the streets. Now and then Fritz will throw the car around a corner at high speed, or play chicken with random drivers. I'm not scared though. I wish this would last forever.

It doesn't last forever. We go around a turn slick with water from someone's sprinkler, and Fritz loses it.

The rear end of the car passes the front end and it piles into the side of a parked car on the street.

No one's hurt, but suddenly everyone looks scared.

Fritz turns and looks at us, his eyes going narrow. "If anyone says anything about this, I will KILL you, do you understand?" he says.

We nod silently as he jams the accelerator and speeds away, leaving part of his bumper laying in the road next to the car he just plowed into. No one wants to have to explain why we were all in the car drunk.

Somehow, we get to my place without getting killed. I say goodbye to everyone and go straight up stairs.

Victor's light is on, and I can't resist the urge to let him know how much fun he's missing.

I burst in the door. There he is, bent over his math book, his little lamp on, studying hard as he can. He gives me a scowl trying to look fierce, but he just comes off looking like a spoiled brat with his big eyes glaring at me.

You're supposed to knock,” he says.

I'm also supposed to be studying. But I don't have to, I already know the material,” I say, giving him one of those million-dollar grins everyone but him seems to love.

You know you're going to be in big trouble if Mom knows you were out drinking,” he says, trying to look me in the eye and make me feel bad about myself.

You don't know anything about me or what I do, so shut up!” I say. Who does he think he is?

I storm off to my room and plug my phone into my speaker dock. I put on some Konkoxxion, the loudest, most obnoxious old-school thrash metal band I have, and zone out.

I'm having the time of my life, and my boring brother isn't gonna stop me.

* * *

I don't know why everyone said this would be so hard.

I've been spending most of my time at the spelling bee sitting in my chair. Just sitting. It's like being in school only ten times as boring!

It's almost over, though. It's just me and that girl from Forest Ridge Junior High.

She looks scared, but I can't really relate. For me, this is easy.

She goes up to the mic and the tall presenter steps forward. She's standing below the stage, but so tall that she's almost at eye level with me, and I can see that girl starting to sweat as the auditorium goes silent.

Contestant number eighteen, your next word is Clepsydra. 'Clepsydra,' as in 'Upon the emperor's mantle there sat a terracotta clepsydra.”

The dark-haired girl fidgeted as she stepped forward. From behind I can't really see, but I bet her eyes have gone as wide as saucers too. She's scared stupid and I know this contest is mine. “clepsydra. K-L-E-P-S-Y-D-R-A. clepsydra.”

Suddenly there's a murmur from the shadows in front of the stage, where the judges sit. In the bright lights I can't see a single face, but I can hear them as they whisper for the presenter to come to them.

The presenter turns to us, then back to the audience, looking a bit bemused (that was the word I won the first round with, by the way).

Please be patient, the judges want to discuss this one,” she says.

For the first time I start to wonder if it'll be that easy. If they give her this one, I'll have to spell another word, and it might- just might- be the one that throws me off. Or it might keep going back and forth, until we get on to some unbearable words. What will I do then? If it's technical terms with a Greek or Latin root I'm safe, but if it's something long or obscure or based on non-English phonics I might not get it.

I can hear the judges arguing. It sounds like two of them are doing most of the talking.

"I have personally seen it spelled that way in museum exhibits!" a male voice says

"Anecdotal usage means nothing. We're judging by dictionary spelling, nothing else," says a female voice.

It's a perfectly valid transliteration of the ancient Greek!” the male voice replies.

Finally a deeper male voice settles the argument. “We don't accept valid transliterations and you know it. It's still not the standard English spelling, we can't allow it.”

The judges quiet down. “We have reached a decision,” one of the judges says into her microphone. “Contestant eighteen has spelled 'clepsydra' incorrectly.”

It's show time.

The presenter turns to me, and now all eyes in the auditorium are turned my way. Suddenly, I'm standing there representing my school, my county, and my state, and they're looking at me. I'm the star of the show for one amazing moment.

Contestant number six, if you can spell 'clepsydra' correctly, you will represent our state in the Times-Tribune National Spelling Bee.”

I get up out of my chair, and it's as easy as walking to the blackboard in math class. My eyes are seared by the bright lights on me, I can't see anyone. It's just me, the presenter, and the microphone. This is like giving an answer in class, and I can't help but grin like an idiot when I think of it that way.

Clepsydra. C-L-E-P-S-Y-D-R-A. Clepsydra.”

That is correct!” the presenter says, clapping her hands and grinning broadly. Behind her I hear everyone- even the judges- clapping and cheering. All I did was give them the right answer, and they go nuts over it.

If this is all I have to do to get by in life, I'm going to rule the world before I'm 18.

The ride home sure makes me feel like I will, anyhow. The praise doesn't stop, and I still can't get enough. I'm riding high, I'm on top of the world, I feel like I can do anything. I want to be told I can do anything. Tell me that now and I'll be too excited to sleep tonight.

Son, you've got great things ahead of you,” Dad says.

"Yeah, I know," I say with a smile.

Keep saying it, Dad. Keep saying I'm good, that I'm worth it. They give me a hard time at school, they make me sit on my own because I'm just too different, I'm almost twice as smart as they are, I'm a ginger, and I'm a year younger than most of them. Give me the praise I don't hear from my so-called friends. At least my family knows I'm not weird, I'm gifted, and I was born to be great.

That was a really hard word. I didn't even know most of the words they were asking you to spell. Your grandma will be so impressed!” Mom says.

It wasn't that hard,” I say without really thinking. I guess it might be hard to most sixth graders. And I'm only ten, so they're all older than me. But it wasn't a hard word, really.

Hey, Dad, can we stop somewhere? I've gotta go,” says Victor.

We're less than an hour from home, Victor! Can't you hold it for just a few more minutes?” Dad says.

I guess so,” Victor says.

I suddenly feel bad. Nobody's paying attention to Victor. But before I can say anything, Mom speaks up.

"So, Richard, now that you've won the state spelling bee, you're going to the national level. You
know what that means..."

"Study, study, study," we both say. I hate studying. It's so boring. But now and then I'll come across words that trip me up. It's usually the easy ones that get me, like "cosine" or "emancipate." I can spell antidisestablishmentarianism in my sleep.

"That's right. You've gotta be on your A-Game, mister! Can't let success get to your head yet," she says.

"Save that for when you win the national spelling bee," Dad says with a grin.

All the way home it's all about me. It feels good, but I feel kind of guilty. Victor's really smart, he does well in school, and he works hard for his grades.

He deserves to feel as good as I do. I just don't know how to say so.

* * *

I can hear Mama and Daddy talking. Daddy just got home. They sound happy. Today Mama talked to my teachers after I took some kind of test.

Honey, welcome home!” Mama says. “I've got great news, they're going to let Richard skip first grade next year!”

That just made my day,” says Daddy.

I just hope he can adjust,” Mama says. “You know what they say about age gaps, there's a big difference between first graders and second graders.”

I don't know what "adjust" means, but I know I can do it. Daddy says I can do anything if I put my mind to it, and Daddy knows a lot of stuff.

I'm sure he'll do fine,” Daddy says. “He's a smart kid, but he's also a strong kid. He walks like he knows he can handle anything. He'll be a leader some day, I can see it in his eyes.”

I'm really happy to hear that. I go running to him.

Daddy!”

He picks me up. “Mmph! Hey there, sport, you're getting big! Won't be long and you'll be too big for Dad's shoulders.”

I'm a big boy!” I tell him. “I'm going to big boy school!” He knows I'm a big boy, but I like saying that anyway. It's fun being a big boy.

Your mom told me! We're proud of you!” Daddy says.

I'm gonna be the best second grader ever!” I say. I want Daddy and Mommy to always be proud of me. I love them so much.

I tug on Daddy's hair and he lets me down.

I run off to my room and grab my cape. I'm not just any boy. I'm a very special boy. I was born to be smart, I was made different than my brother. I'm a real live super hero, and super heroes need capes.

I'm flying now. I'm fighting bad guys. I'm using my special smart powers! "Smartman to the rescue!" I say, flying off and punching the bad robots and scary bad guys. I'm gonna do this for real when I grow up.

* * *

Local Family Welcomes Area's First "Designer Baby"

BURNSIDE- The scene could be one out of any maternity ward in the country. Erin Teversham cradles
her newborn son, Richard. Her husband, Chris Teversham, and four-year-old son Victor, stand
by the hospital bed looking on lovingly. They could be any average middle-class family, and Richard could be any newborn baby.

But Richard is different. Part of a new trend in "designer babies" after a recent change in the law allowed private labs to give parents the option of choosing the traits of their children. Parents can now select everything from eye color to whether their child will be super intelligent, super fast, or an artist in the making. The Tevershams chose super intelligence for baby Richard and let nature take its course for the rest.

The service costs about $40,000, not cheap by anyone's standards, but Richard's father Chris, a small business consultant who only makes slightly more than that a year, says it's worth it.

"When he's president one day, no one will ask if it was a good idea," he says.

Richard's older brother Victor has a more immediate opinion of his younger brother.

"Babies smell funny," the precocious four-year-old says, wrinkling his nose as his brother begins nursing.

Funny smell or not, the whole family has their eyes on baby Richard. "I just hope he can deal with everything we expect from him," Erin says. "I just hope he knows that whatever happens, we'll be here for him."

Editor's Note: SynerGenetix, the lab that engineered Richard, currently has a five year waiting list and is not accepting new clients at this time.

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