"It's what I want."
I stared at the mustard-colored floor tiles of my father's VA hospital room. Like confetti-flecked scabs, two of the slip-resistant squares had curled back from their adhesives and all I could think about was that somewhere some government contractor was sinking a twelve-foot putt and laughing his ass off.
My father continued, "Look at it this way, the additional payout will go towards your daughter's education."
I raised my eyes. "My daughter's education? My daughter? How?"
Pop picked his chemo-ravaged scalp. "Honestly, I don't know," he said. "Those DOD hard-ons had a sophisticated word for it and all but with everything I got running through me, my memory is about as clear as a bowl of mud. Anyway, it's a solid financial vehicle, something that'll compound interest 'til she's of age."
"Like a trust?"
"Yeah. And if sweetness and light decides she doesn't want the money, the balance gets donated to that cancer thing, the VFW one already specified in my will."
It took some time to free the hot clench in my throat.
"But ... this is crazy."
"You're the one who pressed."
"You're not a solider anymore, Pop."
"My circumstances are what's important to the program."
"You've stage three Hodgkin's lymphoma."
"Having never served I can't expect you to understand."
"I understand this is totally nuts."
Pop glanced out the room's pollution-streaked tinted window and wheezed a reedy sigh. "Civilians like you, I guess it's easy to shut away and forget what those sons of bitches did down south."
"Oh, God. Please don't start with all this again ..."
"A veritable bloodbath right in the goddamn Disneyworld parking lot, that dirty bomb at that music festival, bunch of kids just having a good time ..."
I rubbed my eyes. "Agreeing to take part in something like this won't change what happened to those people. Christ ... why didn't you to talk to me about all this first?"
"Since when do you give a rat's ass what I do?"
He had a point. Up until his diagnosis lowered the boom, I'd pretty much fortified an arrangement to keep my daughter and my ex-wife as far out of Pop's cantankerous orbit as humanly possible. Like many father and son relationships ours was not a kind history; the recalcitrant head-butting since his cancer appeared tested the limits of my patience and resolve.
-March 12, 2063-
-May 15, 2063-
-June 12, 2063-
So it was.
For probably the twelve-hundredth time in my life I found myself amazed at how human decency and reason had tumbled to the bottom of deep, dark rabbit hole after nearly six decades of consortium-driven foreign policy and blind fanaticism. Take your pick. Iraq, Afghanistan, the Northern Cooperative Front, Africa, Iran, the cybernetic initiatives in the Philippines and now the schisms shredding our own crude and tenuous margins. There was no bottom or horizon. Of course maybe that was the whole point.
I tapped my ear and engaged the communication amplifier grafted to my temple. The com-amp went live with a small, burbling series of pongs as I stood.
[-What city, please?-]
My father's brow pleated like a concertina. "Now what are you doing?"
"I'm trying to reach them is what I'm doing. Whoever talked you into this freakshow I'm going to tell them this whole thing is off."
"You can't do that."
"I can't? Watch me. This is not the way it's supposed to be, Pop. I swear to God if Mom were still alive this wouldn't be happening."
"Your mother, may she rest in peace, supported every decision I ever made."
"Well, I think your family deserves better than this."
"What do you know about what people deserve?"
"I know what's sane."
My father worked his jaw like a billy goat feebly cutting a plug of tough cud. The automated voice chimed in my head again.
[-What city, please?-]
Everything in the worldthe stuffy, overheated air in the hospital room, the fluorescent lighting, the ambient noises and moans down the hallall felt sucked into a warm, pressurized nexus teed inside the center of my forehead. I could physically feel each second ticking away and a cold draw of terror chilling my blood. Tapping the side of my head again, I terminated the com-amp connection and shook a fist.
"Whatever happened at Khartoum, whatever happened to you during your time overseas, all that was twenty-five years ago, Pop. It's over."
Looking away, my father rocked back and forth like a four-year-old throwing a tantrum. "You. Pulling out on commitments, getting divorced, always taking the easy way out, bouncing from job to job to job, that's all you life is ever about isn't it?"
"This isn't about me."
He whipped arounda cobra striking. "Damn right, it's not. This is about me, son. It's about what I want don't you get that? Hell, the whole point to living is not to be on the side of the majority. The whole point of living is to embrace life's edge."
"Yeah. Marcus Aurelius paraphrased."
I hung my head and then glared at him. "So what was going to happen today then, emperor? What, you were just going to vanish and not tell me?"
"It was suggested."
"Suggested by whom?"
"The lieutenant colonel in charge of the program. Her and those special ops spooks from the Anti-Terrorism Battalion."
I crossed to the window shaking my head. "Oh, that is just rich. The Anti- Terrorism Battalion?" I turned. "When was this?"
"Two weeks ago."
"And you've been sitting on this information all this time?"
"The lieutenant colonel has arranged quite a few of these things. She explained it would be better to make a clean break. You weren't supposed to know. I really wish you hadn't come here today."
"We need to put a stop to this."
He raised a finger. "You can't. You see that clock above the door? A detail will be here in the next fifteen minutes from the barracks in Southeast. When they get here they're going to take me in van to Andrews."
"Are you kidding me? Fifteen minutes? Then what?"
My knees watered. "Oh, Jesus ... this can't be happening."
"Oh, it's happening all right."
"I won't let them."
"Son, don't be stupid."
"But this is your life."
"I know and it's nearly over. Trying to impede the process, you even backtalk to those coming to get me you're subject to legal action. The penalty for family resisting after a contract signature is three years federal, and I'm talking hardcore. No trial, no appeal. The lieutenant colonel was adamant about this. You want your daughter to visit you in prison?"
"No, but can't we"
"Son, listen to me now. My body has betrayed me. I may be sick, but I swear to you I'm of sound mind. I know we've had our differences, and I know I may not have always said or done the best things or been the best of fathers, but just do me a favor for once. Accept this. Pray for me and just accept this."
Three weeks later two Marines on notification duty came to my door.
Crisp and professional, they stood in my living room and passed quietly when I offered them bottles of water and coffee. Using carefully crafted sentences they then advised me of the lump sum termination gratuity with the additional special program trust attached. It was far more detailed than Pop described it that day in the VA hospital. Afterward they shared with me what they could about why my father would be receiving the Silver Star.
Skeletal and feeble as he was, I tried to picture my father disguised on his final missionhow he was loaded down with thirty pounds of plastic explosives and titanium flechettes and what he feltthe millisecond of intense light, the iron-melting heat, and the pure, roaring pressure that punctuated his life.
They said Pop took out several senior opposition leaders down in Texas.
Then again reports like that ... doesn't that always seem to be the case?
Copyright © 2014 Kieran Shea.
and speculative fiction anthologies. His debut novel KOKO TAKES A HOLIDAY will be released this June by Titan Books. He makes a mean soufflé and dreams about the ocean quite a lot.
Kieran Shea's fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, BEAT to a PULP, Word Riot and a mess of assorted crime