They were going through their morning ritual in the master bathroom when she tried to re-open negotiations.
“I’m not saying it wasn’t a nice birthday gift, but I know it cost a lot of money and we could use that money on other things, like a vacation.”
Karen considered her reflection, now forty-one years old, in the steaming bathroom mirror, wondering at the new lines and fresh gray hairs before joining Mark in the shower.
“Also, newer isn’t always better,” she watched shampoo and water sluice through the downy patches between his shoulder blades.
“It’s not about newer,” he turned, kissed her, and climbed out, still talking as he toweled off on the other side of the frosted glass. “Jordan and Ruth are starting to ask some tough questions. Right now, they’re three and four. Imagine how it’s going to be in six months, or a year.”
“Easier, I imagine,” she said, soaping up.
“You’re wrong, and you know it. Come on, Karen. We’ve been discussing this for months. You said you were waiting for the right moment, a milestone? This is it.”
Karen lost her grip on the soap. It smacked against her foot, and she muttered a curse. For a second neither of them said anything else.
Then Mark sighed. “You heard Ruth yesterday, right, asking why Grandpa doesn’t visit us anymore? I know how much your father meant — means to you, but don’t you think it’s time?”
Karen opened her mouth to tell him he was overreacting, that everything was fine, would be fine — she was almost ready, just — then she heard the bathroom door open and close.
Grumbling through the rest of her shower, she emerged in the oversized djellaba she’d bought for herself to find Mark already dressed and in the kitchen with their children.
She looked at the three of them, bright-eyed, ready to go, and her frustration increased. Mark already spent more time at home with the kids, thanks to his part-time schedule — a schedule they could afford thanks to Karen’s work at the Toronto Research Centre.
Most of his family was local. And still breathing.
Karen had lost her mother to cancer while she was still in high school. And then her father had died in a car accident three years ago on his way home from their house. Karen had been late getting home that night, which had held up dinner, so he’d left later than he would have liked —
She stopped herself, took a breath and forced a grin. Jordan ran over and wrapped himself around her legs, “Dad’s taking us shopping!”
Ruth followed, less enthusiastically. “He said we need clothes.”
“Well aren’t you two lucky.” Karen bent down and wrapped them up in her arms.
Mark gave her a hopeful smile. “We should be back in a few hours. Think about what I said?”
“I will.” Karen hesitated, giving Jordan and Ruth both a kiss before letting them go.
“Love you.” He shepherded their children out of the house.
She watched Mark pull out of the drive before starting the coffee maker. Then she leaned back against the black Formica island to wait — there was only one post-birthday ritual she enjoyed more than her first cup of coffee.
“What’s ESPN saying about the last Raptors game?”
“Give me a second.” His voice crooned from the expensive dot speakers she’d mounted to the ceiling.
“Sure. Also, could you start the washing machine?”
“Consider it done,” he said. “Okay, I’ve got a recap. Looks like our Raptors lost to the Timberwolves 98–96, even though our rookie point guard put on a show. Walker poured in 42 points and handed out nine assists. So, the future looks bright, but I guess it’s not the future just yet. Want to watch the highlights?”
“Sure, Dad. Thanks.”
A wall screen burst to life, and her father began narrating the big plays while she sipped steaming coffee from her cool porcelain mug. It was practically perfect — thanks to the innumerable hours she’d spent tagging different phrases, editing and synthesizing responses based on his videos and voicemails.
Then the highlight reel ended and in the silence, Mark’s words came back to her. We need to move on.
She set her jaw and walked into her home office. The gift was sitting on her desk.
It was a small stippled obelisk of cream-colored plastic, and it could do a hundred things their old, custom-modified unit couldn’t.
She couldn’t upload her father’s emulation without jailbreaking the device, and this new one would notify the parent company and then brick itself if she cracked or erased the OS.
Assuming she wanted to.
In the months after the funeral, after the shock waned into depression, when she’d realized she could transmute his digital remains, it had felt like a reprieve.
Mark had given her the space and time she’d needed and told her he’d understood. But now…
She leaned back in her chair and looked at the photos on the wall — Karen with her father at her first Raptors game; Karen and Mark on their honeymoon in Kyoto, faces glowing, Kinkaku-ji in the background; the two of them, a little older, holding hands in front of their new home.
Then Jordan’s cherubic smile, taking his first steps; Ruth’s first swimming lesson, her brown eyes alight with excitement and discovery. Each photo captured a moment of joy, and anticipation for joys to come. So much looking forward, frozen in the past.
She swallowed hard. “Hey, Dad?”
“Yes, Karen?” His voice responded to her words as it always did, regardless of how she was feeling. The voice of a ghost.
“I love you.” She said, walking to where she’d set up the old hub, in the corner of the office under a photo of his smiling face.
She wrapped her hand around the power chord.
“Love you too,” his voice swam through the room, beautiful and transitory.
William’s work has appeared in The Arcanist, Daily Science Fiction, Little Blue Marble, and other fine publications. You can also find him on Twitter at @DelmanWilliam, or on the mats at Fenix BJJ. If he’s not writing, tweeting, or training, he’s probably doing laundry.