Short Story 1500 - Shortlist
Erin's father-in-law had been at the sherblat fuzz again. She could tell by the purplish tinge to his lower lip. He was also unusually quiet, concentrating on keeping his tongue from lolling out his mouth. So much the better, she thought, he's not going to like what I have to say one bit.
Erin squeezed Jolene's knee under the table. She felt her tense up in response and move her leg away. “Dad,” Jolene gushed, “that was great! I haven't had dragon-breath compote that good since the last time I was here.”
He smiled broadly, his tongue protruding as he did so. He pulled it back in and nodded, accepting his beloved daughter's compliment at face value. Erin twiddled between her thumb and forefinger the crystal of unreacted pudding mix she had discreetly removed from her mouth halfway through dessert. The smaller bits she had just gulped back with the rest.
“Yes, it was really... memorable,” Erin chipped in. Ignoring the pointed eye flick of Jolene, she decided to get it over with. She squeezed the crystal hard so that it crumbled to a sticky dust and flicked it away with a snap of her fingers. She opened with, “Thanks for going to all that trouble with the meal. I expect you usually just have something simple to eat now that it's just you here.”
He shrugged and nodded, the corners of his wide mouth turned down in sad acknowledgement. “Mmmhh...” he managed, sweeping a few crumbs across the smooth metal table top with his fat, splayed fingers.
“That's just what Jolene was saying, about how lonely you must be here on your own. I hope you don't mind, but we looked up your social stats, and they were pretty low. Rockbottom, to be honest.”
He raised his eyebrows and his face stretched up into mild surprise. Then a smile and a shrug. Cheez, he was way out of it. Maybe he wouldn't make a scene after all.
Erin pulled herself straight and glanced at Jolene. She was tracing her finger in the syrupy salmon pink liquid left on her plate. She lifted her finger up and licked it delicately, then her finger went back again to the plate, wiping clean another curve. Just like she was all by herself. Erin took the cue to continue.
“It's a question of resources, see?” Should she call him dad? She never had before. She had never called him anything to his face. “Dad?” she slipped in. His eyes darted at hers, with a tightening of the brow. She steamed ahead. “Dad, me and Jolene both know how important resource management is to you of all people. I know you've always been -” she searched for a positive word, “enthusiastic about the reallocation of resources for the good of the many. Remember those ads you used to write for the Governers? “Too much is too much”, “Everything is for everyone”, “Only the bad die old”? They were great. And “Are you worth the food you eat?” That one really got me. I took those all to heart. We all did. You know that.” She was doing well, she was getting there, speaking out, doing the right thing. She maintained steady eye contact, looking away to gather her next phrase and then back, eye to eye. His face had frozen, but she kept going; she had momentum on her side. Jolene would be proud of her; she was getting the job done. She was staying calm, friendly even, which was way more than the bastard deserved.
“So we've put your name forward for reallocation!” she announced as though he had won a prize.
At her side, she heard Jolene inhale a panic breath and hold it. Then release, “That's right, Dad, we did. Erin did. I said that was OK. It would be what you would want.”
Erin turned to Jolene and gave her her best smile. Jolene gave a half smile back and then looked at her father. “You don't mind, do you Dad?”
“Mind?” He looked down at his plate. Erin noticed how thin his hair had become; the overhead light reflected patchily off the mottled brown skin between the short white hairs. “How could I mind?” he added quietly as though to the plate in front of him.
In the silence that followed, the walls of the little apart seemed to close in on them and Erin tuned into the quiet hubbub from the aparts above, below and either side of them: children's voices, some food machinery intermittently whirring on and off, the commentator of a ball match peaking in excitement then tailing-off.
“That's great, Dad,” Erin found the term sounded easier to say second time round. “We thought you'd see the sense in it, didn't we Jolene?”
“Yeah. And they've just started using the new carbon separators which are loads more efficient than the old germanium ones. I think they're up to around 92% now, which is incredible when you think about what it was like when they started reallocating. Gosh, that must have been around what... twenty years ago now, Dad.”
“Twenty-three years, Jolene, this September.” He looked up at both of them. Erin smiled harder. Her cheek muscles were feeling the strain. “Well, what slot have they given me?” His tongue moved thickly through the words but they were clear enough. The effort of speech let a little line of dribble pass from the corner of his mouth. He didn't appear to notice it as it made its way down his chin.
Erin brought out the small white card that the service had given her when she made the booking. Making it from paper was a nice formal touch, she thought; it gave the whole process an air of dignity. Jolene's signature was already there at the bottom, in the careful calligraphy she had learnt at private school. Underneath was a dotted line for the donor. “It's next Tuesday at 10.30 in the morning. We thought you'd like a bit of time to tidy things up. It just needs your signature down here.” She pushed it across the table to him and pointed at the blank space. “I brought a pen with me.” She fished in her bag and pulled out the one she had bought on the way, laying it on the table next to the card.
He slid his plate away to one side and drew the card towards him. He studied it for a long time. Beyond the address of the regional service (South West region reallocation service, 102 Bevan Drive, Bristol, BS127 15EU) and the appointment details, there wasn't much to read. Erin held her tongue. He cleared his throat but uttered nothing. He rubbed his chin and pinched his lips. Then he lifted the pen and poised his hand to sign. Pause. He put the pen down and scraped back his chair. He got to his feet, pushing down heavily on the table for support. “Excuse me,” he said indistinctly and turned and shuffled out the room, heading down the hall to the bathroom.
Erin looked at Jolene and mouthed “Don't worry”, squeezing her hand. The neighbourhood sounds returned: high-energy dance music, laughter, the background murmur of vehicles far below. Erin looked around the room: white walls, a smallish Skrene, a wooden bookcase, two ancient armchairs made from actual leather (imagine sitting there on the skins of dead animals...). They'd have to clear all this out of course. Thank goodness he wasn't a hoarder like her mum. That had taken forever. Somewhere nearby, a phone rang.
“Is everything OK, Dad?” Jolene called out. No response. “Dad? Are you OK in there?” She got up and went to the bathroom door. She knocked. “Dad? It's me. Are you OK? Dad!” Erin got up too. They looked at each other.
“Try the door?” suggested Erin quietly. Jolene turned the knob and pushed the door open a crack.
“Dad, can I come in?” she said through the gap. Nothing. She slowly pushed the door open more. The first thing Erin noticed as Jolene ventured in, was the window swinging wide in the breeze. The second thing was Jolene’s dad sitting on the toilet with his head in his hands. “Dad!” cried Jolene and she was there already, kneeling in front of him, taking those flaccid, grey hands in hers. “Don’t worry, Dad, you don’t have to do it. We just thought… Dad, it’ll be fine.” The two of them were both crying now, holding each other. Erin, resigned, gazed out the window at the monochrome urban landscape that stretched on and on under an orange sun.