The corners of Ajax’s mouth were turned down distinctly. It was unclear what he was frowning at; in front of Phoenix, he was only a head, captured in the exact middle of the living room. Parts of his face would go into darkness when a particle of dust flew between the projector and the receiver.
Phoenix stuck his thumbs in his pockets so that his fingers covered the dirt on his pants, but the sweat from his palms only made the dirt stick to his hands. He knew that, in the mind of his father, he was a wiry, impulsive little boy, and that this was what he was seeing right now. Neither had even spoken yet.
“I hear that you were admitted to Dr. Latimer’s office today,” Ajax began.
“You heard correctly,” Phoenix replied with a grin.
Ajax smiled, lips closed, and shook his head. “Do you care to tell me why?”
Ajax sighed for his son’s benefit. “Phoenix,” he said, “Were you up at the surface again?”
Phoenix shifted his gaze upwards and tapped his chin, as if in deep thought, and then, having found his answer, looked back at the hologram. “Of course not,” he laughed. “That would be ridiculous. You distinctly told me to never go back up there without telling you first.”
The arc of Ajax’s mouth became even more defined, and his eyebrows drew together as if someone had pulled them with a thread. “Really, Phoenix. Is there something you should tell me?”
Phoenix shrugged and looked away, even though his father wouldn’t have known whether or not he was making eye contact. Keeping his arm tucked in to his chest, he scratched at an imaginary itch at the base of his neck. “I don’t know, dad,” he answered. “I just really like it up there. It’s so peaceful.” At least that was part of the truth.
Ajax sighed again, although this time it was authentic. “Fine. But please, please let me know next time.”
Phoenix nodded. “Okay, dad.”
“Can you promise me that.” It was a command with the structure of a question.
Phoenix rolled his eyes spectacularly. “Okay, dad. I promise.”
Ajax nodded awkwardly as he ran out of things to say. Fortunately, his son had him covered.
Despite his reasons for asking, Phoenix managed to maintain some innocence when he asked, “How is the Surface Dwellers bill coming along?”
“Not too badly, actually,” Ajax answered with a tone of pride. “There are only a few supporters, and hopefully it will be cancelled after the next session. Maybe then people will understand that we are not wasting any of our precious resources on the ones that stayed behind.”
Phoenix hid his cringe behind a forced smile and shoved his shaky hands all the way into his pockets. “Maybe then,” he agreed with a weak voice.
Ajax’s mouth flat-lined, the closest it ever came to smiling. “Thank you, Phoenix. I’ll see you next week.”
Phoenix gave a halfhearted smirk and saluted his father. “Alright. See you then.” The words were barely out of his mouth before the image blinked and disappeared.
Taking in deep breaths through his nose, Phoenix reclined into the white leather sofa. Glancing out the window, he watched the Store power down for the night as the street emptied. As the minutes went by, the tree was left in a void in the courtyard, spiraling up to his living room window, inviting him to climb down.