Past Due

Reading Time: 4 minutes

 

My heart aches as I walk into Dad’s kitchen. He’s sitting at the table reading a newspaper. I take the seat across from him. The room smells like bacon and toast. The plate in front of him is yellow from egg yoke, peppered with breadcrumbs.

When he turns the page of the paper, he notices me.

“Oh. Good morning, kiddo. What brings you here so early this morning?” He folds the paper in half and lays it off to the side.

I half smile, sit across from him. I don’t have a lot of time. Not the kind of time this conversation needs.

“I can’t afford the rent for Kenny’s hologram unit.”

His silver eyebrows knit together. I know he’ll be trying to think of a way to make it better. But I’m on my own for this one. Dad doesn’t have anything left.

“What about the money I gave you?”

(Image by Stefania Buzatu from Pixabay)

I let out a ragged sigh. Swallow, trying to dislodge the lump. “It’s gone. I went into debt trying to pay for the holo rent and all the medical bills left behind. It put me in a bad way. Had to sell the house to get out of the hole, but even that money’s dried up too.”

He lets out something like a whistle and leans forward, taking my clammy hand in one of his warm ones. Dad and I rarely talk about money, but he has that expression I’ve only seen the last time we were in dire financial straits and he sold his shares to afford a holo unit. He’s mentally going through the options; the impossibilities. “What happened?”

“My job at Holotech paid me really well. But,” I hesitate, not wanting to disappoint him, “after Kenny died, I was so lost. I didn’t turn up to work consistently, and I broke…emotionally. Hologram units are expensive to rent, but I can’t stand to live without him, Dad; I need him to still be in my life. So I picked up a second job at Realmshift to pay for his unit. It worked for a while, but they’re competitors with Holotech. One of my coworkers reported me.” I look down at our joint hands, then pull mine away from his warmth, ashamed. “I lost both jobs.”

He breathes in sharply. “Are you okay? You know you always have a place to stay here.”

“Yeah, I’m okay. I got a new job in the holo field but I’m going to have to work my way up again. I was a manager at both of the previous places, so I’ve taken a huge pay cut.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Kenny’s holo unit also allows people to live there. I, uh … I think I’m going to just move into his holo room at the Holotech complex, so I don’t have to pay for rent in my apartment. It will cut my living costs down dramatically.” I look down at my hands, then to his, wishing I can hold his hand again and feel the same security it gave me when I was a child. When, in youthful innocence, it always felt like your parents could solve the problems of the world.

His voice is quiet, barely audible. “Will it be enough?”

I shake my head. “No one wants to take me in a managerial role after my double termination and I won’t make half of what I’m making now if I try and look outside the holo field with only a B.S. in Hologram Design. After all the debt I ran up, my credit isn’t worth shit.” I shift in my seat, and then wipe the back of my hand across my eyes. “I … don’t have anyone to co-sign a loan with me, Dad. And even if I did, I still can’t afford to make the payments on Kenny’s holo environment, just by canceling my rent.”

Dad’s hands shake, barely perceptibly. “So how are you going to pay for Kenny’s rent?”

It feels like my heart is clenched in a vice of my own guilt. My guts are tied in knots.

“I think the only way I can do this—the only way possible—is if I am only paying Kenny’s rent, Dad. If I pay for just that, live with him, and keep my job … I think I can afford it.”

I also recognize the new expression on his face. I’ve seen it twice before. The first time he made it, the doctor told us he had cancer. The second time was when they told us his cancer was back. Stage Four.

Now he is the one wiping the back of his hand across his eyes. “Ah. I see. How long do we have?”

I feel like a selfish ass. I ask myself for the thousandth time if there’s really no other way. I wish there is.

“The Holotician said he’d only let me in long enough to tell you.” The tears run in earnest down my cheeks now. “I … I haven’t been able to pay this month’s rent. Your account is in foreclosure; due for wiping, so the room can be reused. I’m sorry, Dad. So sorry.”

I sob and lay my head on the table. He reaches over and clasps both of my hands in his. He holds them firm, full of love for his child.

“I understand, kiddo. You’re a father. Your priority is to your child.”

I look up into eyes that are the same color as mine. The same color as his grandson’s. “But …”

“I know, son. It’s why we set up my holo at first—so I could still be here for you after I died. Support you in your time of need. Now he needs you.” He squeezes my hands as I lower my head again. “I can’t imagine how hard this has to be for you. I love you.”

I close my eyes. “I love you, daddy.”

I can’t feel his hands anymore. When I look up the room is empty. Flat, octagonal holo projectors cover the wall. This unit is well designed. High end. The rent here was expensive.

Hot tears streak my face. I didn’t get enough time to say goodbye.

 

This story first appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, 2022.
Edited by Marie Ginga

 

Eric Fomley's stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy's Edge, and other places around the web. More of his stories can be found on his website Eric Fomley or in Flash Futures, a collection of his stories.