Cashing Out by Kevin Kauffmann
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I… I’m not sure Jeane would have even gone through with the abortion if we could have afforded it. And I’m—”

“That’s enough,” Christina interrupted, throwing out her palm to stop the video playback. After that last minute of watching her father fumble through his explanation, she was grateful the hologram was a gesture-based program.

“Ms. Billingham—”

“I haven’t been a Billingham in about twenty years, so you can stow that talk,” Christina talked over the lawyer, a skinny man in a simple suit with his hair plastered on his scalp. The man stammered for a second, but eventually regained his poise.

“Ms… Nemitz, your father recorded this video just for you,” he said, gesturing toward the hologram. “It’s not very long, and I’m sure you would like to hea—”

“I don’t want to hear a damn thing that man says,” Christina said, crossing her arms over her ample midsection. She had stopped caring about her weight back in her teenage years. Staying fit meant nothing when rent was due in three days and interest was already out-of-control on inherited debts.

“Ms. Nemitz, I must insist. I’ve seen the video and I know what your father says. I’m sure it would help you grie—”

“Grieve? Grieve?” Christina asked, interrupting the lawyer yet again. “I can’t grieve for that man. I already did. When he left me and my mom, he stopped being my dad. He started being dead to me.”

“Nevertheless, Ms. Nemitz, Mr. Billingham has left you quite a fortune, and I’m afraid that one of the stipulations is that you listen to his will,” he explained, and Christina gave a frustrated smile at that. After shaking her head, she looked out the window to see Saturn’s rings peeking above the horizon.

“I don’t give…” she said, turning back slowly for emphasis, “a fuck about his money. I don’t need it; I’ve never needed it. Now? Twenty years later? I definitely don’t need that bastard’s help. I own my own company; I’m standing straight-up on my own two feet. That he thought that a check and a confession was going to bring me back around… that fucking man...”

“That wasn’t his intention, Ms. Nemitz, and you would see that if you watched the video,” the lawyer responded, and Christina almost thought she was going to jump up and slam her fist into his tiny jaw.

“I don’t care what his intentions were; I really don’t,” she stated, gesturing at the hologram with a flippant wave. “I don’t care if it was for me, for my mom… for any cause. What happened was that he got my mom pregnant and after three years—instead of staying with us and supporting us—my bastard father decided to fly off around the solar system and kill people. It doesn’t matter what people. It doesn’t matter how much money he made.”

“What matters is that I wanted a dad,” Christina said, getting up out of her seat and approaching the lawyer, needling him with her finger with every statement. “I needed a dad—my mom needed a husband and a partner and someone to depend on—and he wasn’t any of that. Caleb Billingham was a coward and a jackass and a bunch of fifty-credit curse words I can’t afford on someone like him.”

“If staying here and listening to him blather on is what I need to do for that inheritance, then I don’t need it,” Christina said as she turned and headed to the doorway. “I’ve been on my own for more than twenty years while he fucked off to any planet he wanted. I’ll be perfectly fine without him or his money.”

“Ms. Nemitz!” the lawyer shouted, prompting Christina to turn around. He was frustrated and breathing in ragged, and that was enough to earn her attention.

“What? What can you say?” she asked, crossing her arms and glaring at him.

“Caleb Billingham died a hero, no matter what else he did. He turned against his entire company and saved that colony, saved millions of people. You can’t give a man like that five minutes to explain himself?” he asked, but Christina just laughed.

“Why would I? That man chose to die for people who never knew his name, chose every day to put himself in harm’s way rather than live for his family,” she stated, venom lacing every syllable. “Why should I care what that man has to say?”

“Because he did it for you,” the lawyer replied, but it was a soft response, no confidence in the words.

“No, he didn’t. He did it for himself,” Christina claimed before turning back and touching the sensor near the door, watching it slide open as she worried her thumb with her other hand. As righteous as she was, this conversation was wracking her nerves and sometimes that was the only thing that helped.

She had forgotten where she learned it.

“He left all the money to you, Ms. Nemitz. If you deny your inheritance, it goes to the state. Is that what you want? Is that how you want to honor your father’s sacrifice?” the lawyer asked, obviously hoping it would have some effect on her.

“He’ll get no honor from me. He won’t even get anger or rage. After today, I’m completely done with him,” she said, stepping past the threshold. “Do whatever you want with the money. Hell, build an orphanage or something; just don’t put his name on it.”

“After today, I don’t want any reason to remember that bastard,” Christina said as the door closed behind her, finally and completely separating her from her father.

She knew it was exactly what Caleb Billingham deserved.


***


Caleb nudged the tripod over to the left, trying to fix the angle. If he wasn’t such a miser, he could have bought a Grigori—one of those floating cameras that would auto-adjust for lighting and angles and had a thousand other functions he wouldn’t use—but Caleb figured that he could just make do with an older holocamera. It was just going to be him talking into the camera anyway, evidence of fifty years of hangovers and caffeine stims weighing him down.

No need for higher resolution just so she could see all the scars.

Letting out an unintentional groan, Caleb massaged his lower back as he walked to the chair in the center of his living room. That whole muscle group had been damaged more than once over the years, usually with very bad timing. After a botched mission on Titan he had been forced to go into surgery, but that hadn’t stopped Saturn authorities from placing a bounty on his head before he recovered.

Though he couldn’t blame them; Caleb had blown up an assembly of Titan Union representatives just a week prior.

Twenty years later the back ache was still there, but the money from those missions was just a memory. Once Caleb sat down in the chair, he closed his eyes tight to deal with the pain that came with settling down. It wasn’t just his back anymore. His knee joints were swollen, his tendons were just barely holding on and there was a new problem every day.

Almost none of it was as bad as his stomach, though. At first, Caleb thought it was just ulcers—he had drank away almost half of what he had earned over the last three decades—but eventually the pain had gotten so bad that he had risked going to a back-alley clinic on Mars. Police chased Caleb on his way out of the atmosphere, but not before he got a diagnosis.

Of course it was stomach cancer. It only took a few minutes of moping in that back-alley for Caleb to feel like he deserved it.

As he looked into the lens of the holocamera, Caleb sank into memories and regrets. Despite decades of shilling himself out to anyone who needed a hired gun, Caleb never wanted to turn out like this, didn’t want to go this far.

So, more desperate than he ever could have been during a firefight, Caleb pressed the record button on his remote.

“My name… my name is Caleb Billingham,” he started, faltering once he heard his own voice. Over the decades it had changed on him; he remembered when it still held a bit of life in it. For a long second he considered starting again, but a jolt of pain from his abdomen forced him to realize that it would never be perfect, and it was pointless to make the effort.

“This is my last will and testament,” Caleb said, resigning himself to mediocrity. “I’ve done a lot of bad over the years—sometimes a little good—but that’s not the point of this thing. You don’t get to have any sort of moral stand when you sell your life to end others.”

“I’m not even trying to say it was worth it,” Caleb continued, rubbing his thumb and index finger along his jaw. He could feel the notches where it had broken during a brawl in the Kuiper Belt Colonies. Caleb had won that fight, but the surgery had put him in the red again, forcing him away from home even longer. “I’m not trying to justify this life.”

“I’m trying to justify my reasons,” Caleb said, worrying the knuckle of his thumb with his other hand. “I didn’t do it because I wanted to, or because I wanted to be part of political movements or to assassinate any warlords. I did it for the money.”

“I did it to support my family,” Caleb followed, hoping his audience would sympathize. “I did it because slaving away and shuffling papers wasn’t good enough; it barely gave us enough money to feed ourselves, much less the daughter on the way. You’d think that in this age we could have an abortion and live within our means, but we couldn’t even afford that. We couldn’t even survive working seven days a week.”

“I…” he trailed off, looking away from the camera and wondering how he could get back on the right track. “I’m not sure Jeane would have even gone through with the abortion if we could have afforded it. And I’m grateful, because you were the best part of my life.”

“You’re why I did it, Chris,” Caleb finally said, a tear forcing its way out of his right eye once he broke his staring contest with the floor. “I didn’t get to see you very often—I didn’t get to really know you—but I got into this line of work because you came into our lives. You’re the daughter I never knew I wanted, but I couldn’t stay on that planet and give you the childhood you deserved.”

“I wouldn’t have been there anyway,” he continued, some fight building up in him with each statement. “If I had stayed there, I would have been working ninety hours a week doing absolute horseshit for bosses I hated and we would have been scraping by! We’d be living off protein supplements and green mush that you would have thought was real food; you would have thought that was normal!”

“And I couldn’t have that for you,” Caleb almost shouted, shaking his head and flinging away tears that would have poured down his weathered face. “I couldn’t be your father and let that be your life, so when I saw the flyers and the notices and all the fucking advertisements for the private sector, I jumped at it. I figured being off-planet for a couple weeks a month was worth it if you got to have a decent fucking meal every once in a while!”

“But we know how it all went,” Caleb surrendered. “I wasn’t gone a couple weeks a month. I wasn’t gone a few months at a time. It became normal that I was only there a couple weeks a year. It was normal to miss all your important moments. And every time I left and came back, I saw the pain on your face. I saw that happiness when I came out the cargo bay, but it would immediately sour on me.”

“And your mom… your mom tried,” Caleb said, sniffing back mucus and feeling rumbling in his stomach because of it. “She believed in me for a long time until… until she didn’t. I wasn’t surprised when she told me to stay away from you.”

“I don’t blame her,” he muttered as he looked away again, running his fingers through greying hair. When he looked back, he remembered Jeane as she watched him walk out of their life, remembered that cold posture and unwavering resolve. “That woman was much stronger than anybody would give her credit. Not going to her funeral… that… I’m always going to be ashamed of that.”

“I’m not sure how much of the money I sent ended up going to you,” Caleb said, watching as his foot started twitching outside his control. He panicked once he realized what was about to happen, but the flashback came on anyway. In an instant he was back in the trenches on the Moon, looking down at his foot and seeing where three of his toes used to be before a grenade exploded in his dugout.

Then he was back in the present, feeling the phantom pain even through his cybernetic foot, and he had to take in a sharp breath. After a moment Caleb remembered what he was doing and tried to collect himself, even though he knew his dignity was beyond saving. Rubbing his thumb again to calm his nerves, Caleb tried to pick up where he had left off.

“I know it must have been tough. Only having your mom around, only having one parent… it must have been Hell. It must have been a whole different kind of life than what you wanted,” Caleb said, his forearms trembling. “My contacts tell me you’re doing well in the robotics circuit these days, but that won’t ever get rid of this guilt.”

“I should have been there for you; I should have been there for Jeane,” Caleb stated, firmly believing in it. “But I wasn’t. Nothing’s going to change that now.”

“What I can do now,” he said, grimacing as he shifted in his seat and felt his insides reorganizing, setting off a cascade of abdominal pain that felt like knives tearing through him. “What I can do now is make it so that the rest of your life isn’t the piece of shit I gave you. What I can do is leave you what I earned, and you can figure out the rest.”

“It’s not… it’s not going to be much longer before I do something stupid,” Caleb admitted, talking more to himself now. “There’s gonna be some cause—some starry-eyed kid who gets the better of me—so I knew I needed to make this video. I needed to make sure that all the sacrifices weren’t in vain; I needed to make sure that even if you don’t forgive me, that you understand. I didn’t want you to remember me as that deadbeat dad who abandoned you and your mom.”

“I wanted you to remember me…” Caleb trailed off, his view of the camera obscured by the tears in his eyes. “I wanted you to know that I didn’t leave because I didn’t love you.”

“I did it for you and your mom. I just lost myself along the way,” Caleb admitted, burying his head in his hands for just a moment. When he closed his eyes, he saw men and women screaming and shouting as fire and bullets rained down upon them, but he banished the thought and tried to remember the happiest day of his life. In that moment, he saw his ex-wife holding an infant girl, heard Jeane say her name, remembered the promises he had made.

“I’m sorry, Christina,” he said, staring into the camera. “I’ve been sorry my entire life. Thanks for hearing me out.”

Knowing he was finished, Caleb hit the record button on his remote and hoped it would be enough.



End

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