The Last Word

by Roxana Ross

 

There’s nothing quite like starting your day off with the dead.

That was my thought every morning as I typed yet another obituary about some stranger whose entire life would now be summarized for all to see, usually in a few pathetic sentences. Truly, dead men tell no tales. And if you went strictly by the newspaper obituary sometimes, the dead apparently had no tale worth telling.

“He was a mechanic for thirty years.”

“He loved spending time with his family.”

“She was a member of First Baptist Church.”

How, I used to wonder, would I be remembered, hopefully many years from now?

I know, and everyone else knows, that there’s more to someone’s life than what’s written in the obit column.

It doesn’t tell you about their hopes and dreams, their fears, their secrets and their motivations. What they did when no one was looking. Who they loved. Loved, mind you—not married. Their regrets, their character flaws, the things that deep down set them apart from every other eighty-year-old grandfather of five who loved fishing.

But that’s not what an obituary is. If you want a longer, more thoughtful recap of someone’s life, it’s called a biography or autobiography. Again, I think that even those aren’t the truth, just someone’s version of it. I’m a firm believer in some truths being in the eye of the beholder, so there‘s always a few different versions: what happened, how one person saw it, and how everyone else saw it.

Besides, there’s not room for more than the bland facts that we get in most cases, anyhow.

Grandma has just died, and the family is sitting around the table at the funeral home, where a man is saying, “How would you like her obituary to read?”

Seventy or more years of life, and the best they can come up with is, “She was a lifelong resident of Worthington.”

I liked to speculate about the ones assuring the reader that Granny had gone to her Maker, where she would reside in all eternity. Or to her rest. The arms of the Lord. To be with her beloved husband, gone these fifteen years. To look down on us.

My money says that Uncle Joe, Grandma, and the rest of our loved ones are beyond mortal comprehension, and wouldn’t it be funny if they were somewhere the exact opposite of peaceful rest.

I had just finished typing a particularly pious version of the usual drivel one morning when I looked up to find a woman standing beside my desk who had “unhappy relative” written all over her.

I get them sometimes, when there has been a mistake, sometimes mine, sometimes the funeral home’s. I had learned early on that it was never wise to argue with a grieving family member who now had something to be angry about. Real errors were rare. Mistakes were usually typos that made it past the editor, but it didn‘t matter. Many people would happily take out all their anger over someone’s death on me.

It didn’t bother me much, since I knew some people couldn’t help it. I just tried to be as apologetic and kind as possible, inserting the phrase “of course we will rerun it correctly” into the conversation as soon as possible.

Looking back, I don’t think I could have handled it any better. I tried my best, but I—the newspaper, really—was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With my best smile, the one I thought showed a willingness to listen and be helpful, I turned to her and prepared to nod sympathetically and make apologetic noises when the expected mistake was revealed.

The woman was short, probably in her forties somewhere, and looked a bit frazzled. Her graying brown hair was tied back in a bun, which was losing the battle against the curly strands that wanted to spring loose. Old, oversized glasses that magnified watery brown eyes were perched high on her nose and decorated with a beaded string which hung around her neck. A thin mouth, pursed in what I took for frustration, was painted with a shade of coral that I hadn’t seen on anyone in more than a decade.

She wore blue jeans, canvas slip-ons, and a bright red t-shirt that said “Key West.” Her jewelry was mostly cheap and brightly colored. She could have been an eccentric aunt, but she also had something about her that reminded me of the manic street preachers I saw in college who liked to set up on the sidewalks to call damnation down on the student union. I couldn’t put my finger on why that was, though.

“Hi, can I help you with anything?” I asked, smile in place.

She pulled a newspaper cutout of an obit from her back pocket and thrust it at me.

“It’s my father. It says he has a son, but it doesn’t mention his daughter, me. I’m Caroline Marcos.”

“Oh, well, I’m sure we can fix that, let’s see…” I opened the filing cabinet beside me and pulled out a folder, flipping through until I found the fax that the funeral home had sent for that obit, which I quickly scanned.

Emil Marcos, age 87, of 592 Roberts St., died Jan. 19… Surviving are his wife, Angela Marcos of the home; a son, William Marcos of Florida; two grandchildren…

“Hmmm… it seems that the funeral home sent up the wrong information,” I said, suspecting all the while that it wasn’t necessarily true and that in fact, what we were dealing with was a “family issue” that I wanted no part of.

It happens sometimes. There’s wife number one and wife number two, or three, or whatever. Like battles and empires, the last one standing gets to write the history books.

A funeral home is a business, and if the customer wants to cut out part of the deceased’s past, that’s what the staff will do. It’s not like they know the difference anyhow. They’ll write down what they’re told.

“We’ll be happy to rerun it correctly, all you have to do is tell the funeral home to resend it to us with the new information,” I smiled again, this time adding a hopeful nod to indicate that she would, in fact, have to take it up with the funeral home. “It’s just the policy here, you know; we only accept information from funeral homes. I’m sure you understand.”

Her eyes narrowed some, but not at me. She was staring over my head, thinking.

“It was her, then, wasn’t it,” she muttered. “She wished my mother and I had never existed. All this time and she’s still a—” She stopped herself and looked back at me, apparently coming to a decision.

“It won’t matter. She’s handling everything now and apparently doesn’t want me to be a part of anything, just like she did when he was alive. Am I right? If I go over there and tell them to make a change, they’ll still do what she wants, won’t they?”

Making a face of commiseration, I handed her clipping back to her.

“It’s possible, if that’s the case… I’m sorry, really, but they’re just running a business.”

She snorted and distractedly tapped her fingers on the top of my desk. She didn’t seem angry at me anymore, which was good, so I didn’t mind letting her blow off some steam. I could smile and nod with the best of them. By now I’d had a lot of practice.

“You could buy an ad, you know, if you wanted. You could say whatever you want. Well, sort of. You can’t call this woman names or anything. Not specifically. But you could buy an ad and write up your own version of the obituary. It wouldn’t actually run in the obituary column, but it would run in the paper’s advertising section… I don‘t know what something like that would cost, but I could take you to the advertising department and get someone to help you.”

She didn’t seem to hear me. Instead she started talking again, and I went back to the smile and nod routine. I didn’t understand completely what she was talking about, but it didn’t seem to matter.

“She’s his second wife, you know.” I was right, and I hated it. “He married my mother when he was much younger. They made a terrible marriage, but he loved her. And me. But…” she sighed and shrugged. “I don’t remember much about it, but he always came to see me when he could. Even after he married her. She detested us. We were a reminder that her husband hadn’t always been the white collar citizen she helped make him. That, and… other things.”

She shot me a glance and looked speculatively at my computer before moving her gaze to the rest of the newsroom.

“I’ve never done anything to her, but she’s always been scared of me, I think. Well, now she’ll have a real reason. My mother would roll over in her grave, but hopefully she would understand…”

Leaning down, Caroline peered at my computer screen and let out a long “Hmmm,” before placing one hand on the top of the monitor, a few bangles clinking as she moved. She stood like that for a moment, intently looking at my open file of half-completed obituaries for the next day. Suddenly the screen flickered, as if it had almost lost power. The words seemed to shiver in that second, but they looked the same afterwards.

With a self-conscious laugh, she took her hand off the monitor and straightened up, putting her hands behind her back.

“It doesn’t seem to like me, does it?”

“Oh, the computers are all temperamental,” I said. “They crash all the time for no apparent reason, but it’s not like you can just touch them and make them misbehave.”

Her face turned grim for a moment and then brightened. She smiled at me and looked much happier than she had so far.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry you had to listen to all that… People are always talking about ‘the power of the press,’ but it’s not just a saying, is it? Words have their own power. I suppose the trick is remembering to use your powers for good, eh? That can be hard sometimes.”

She shook her head and rolled her eyes.

“Don’t listen to me,” the woman added. “It’s all been very stressful. I’m sorry to go on about it. Thank you for listening, though.”

Hoping her next shopping list didn’t involve anything that required a three-day waiting period, like a gun, I suggested buying an ad, again.

“Oh, no, I don’t think that will be necessary. It’s fine, actually. I’m sure everything will be fine now.”

With a wink, she thanked me again and walked away.

I sat at my desk for a minute after she left, wondering what had just happened. She seemed harmless, though perhaps too willing to air her family’s dirty laundry to a stranger. Maybe she had only needed to rant. Maybe she realized that an obituary is just words. Words on flimsy newsprint, in ink that will come off on your fingertips. Nothing to get that excited about, in the grand scheme of things.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Nothing happened for the rest of the day. I typed up the rest of my faxes without incident and went home. The next morning was fine, until I got in to work and checked my messages.

“This is Bill, over at Smither’s Mortuary. I would appreciate a call back as soon as possible. If it was someone’s idea of a joke, we’re not laughing, and neither is the Carlyle family.”

“This message is for the obit clerk. There seems to have been a problem with the Parker obituary. Call Community Rest when you get this message.”

There seemed to be one for every obit I typed the day before. I had listened to several and had one message left when the editor, Max, strode up with a crumpled B-section in his hand, his face an interesting shade of red.

“Leigh, what the hell happened?”

Confused, I took the paper from him. It was folded back on the obituary page. At first glance, it seemed normal, so rather than read through it I looked at him for answers.

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? Are you kidding? None of this is what you typed, at least, not before I looked it over last night.”

At our small paper, everything went through Max. There were no section editors, just him. Almost every inch of local copy was read by him before it was put on the page.

Going back to the paper, I read the first obit—one 72-year-old Gertrude Shaker—with a growing fascination. It was what I had typed, mostly. It now included three children who had died as infants, an extra brother whose home town was listed as Folsom Prison, and a paragraph that detailed how she had lived briefly in California in her twenties while singing in a band before breaking up with the drummer and moving back home, where she eventually settled down.

The next one was worse. A 22-year-old man who died after being shot when he tried to steal some drugs from his dealer’s trailer. Needless to say, that is one of those details that is never included in an obituary. The story had run on the front page, so it wasn’t a secret, but it hadn’t been in the obituary.

I gave up after the third one. I got as far as, “John struggled with his pedophiliac tendencies every day,” before I dropped it on the floor.

“I didn’t write that. ANY of that. I mean, the parts that aren’t supposed to be in there. I didn’t do that.”

“Pull up the file on your computer,” he said.

I opened up the file I had typed the day before, praying someone in layout was playing a prank, which would mean my copy would still look the way I wrote it.

It was. It was the version that had last been edited by Max. It even said so.

Without a word, Max turned and headed for the layout desk, where Phil was already humming under his breath as he laid out a page for tomorrow’s paper on his computer.

“Open up yesterday’s obit page,” Max snapped. “If you thought it was funny, it’s not. A lot of people are very upset.”

Phil seemed to come out of a daze as he stopped what he was doing and looked at Max. Phil’s laid-back look of concern was no match for Max’s flushed glare.

“Uh… Ok, um… here we go… what did I do?”

He clicked open the file and the three of us nearly banged our heads together as we got closer to read the screen.

Max was beginning to pant now, and he loosened his tie. The page looked exactly like it should have looked, with none of the weird additions.

“What’s going on, guys?” Phil blinked.

Max took a step back and looked at the two of us. I guess we looked innocently confused enough, because he suddenly deflated.

“Someone played a prank, and if I find out who it was, they’re fired. Do you understand? This. Is. Not. Funny.” He waved the increasingly wrinkled sheet in the air. “When these families start knocking on our door, what am I going to tell them? They’re going to want blood.”

He was right. To my relief, he ran interference and spent the morning making phone calls, apologizing, promising retractions and reprints of the original obits. That afternoon, he wrote an editorial blasting the culprit, whoever it was, and publicly apologizing some more.

I had a suspicion, but I kept it to myself. The very last message on my phone was from a woman named Angela Marcos who was angry that her husband’s obit had been rerun that day, with some changes. Nothing very shocking was added to Emil Marcos’s obituary, but it did include information about a daughter, Caroline Marcos, and his first wife, Isabelle, whom “he loved until her death.”

I thought about how Caroline had touched my computer, the way the words had moved, and I wondered what the “other things” were about his first family that the second wife had disliked so much.

 

Man-Flier

Man-Flier

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Richard Wolkomir

 

EVENING ONE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife Sitting
on the Sofa in Her One-Piece Black Bathing Suit

She sat with her arms clasping her drawn-up knees. Tonight, a strand of reddish-brown seaweed entwined in her wet hair.

She stared quizzically at Lo.

He removed a bowl of left-over noodles from the refrigerator and ate a few bites. Then he changed from his office suit into his white flying robe. He went to the kite room.

A huge silk kite’s unassembled components leaned against the wall: scaly thorax, wings, coiled tail. Atop the workbench rested the final piece, a disembodied dragon’s head. You do not fly such a kite holding a string—you ride it into the sky. Lo touched the dragon’s black eye, encircled by rings of yellow and scarlet.

But the man-flier must not fly first. It flies third. The dragon ends it.

So he studied the smaller kites hung on the wall.

Perhaps the rat?

He had painted it fallen-leaf brown. For background, he chose gray, like late autumn’s stratus clouds, which bring winter’s first chill. The rat’s tail served as the kite’s tail: at its base, robust as a healthy newborn, but tapering to a point.

One year now gnawed away, as if by rodent teeth, all but these three final ceremonial days. And the rat signified time skittering by. But when he painted the rat’s black eyes, he impulsively sprinkled in powdered glass, so they glittered. Now he saw why: does not the rat peep out from hiding, possibly to venture forth, after morsels?

He cursed himself, hanging his head.

“A-minus?”

His father speaking, thirty years ago, scowling at his report card.

“Not A-plus? Why do you shame us?”

Besides, he should chop off the tapering tail at its thirty-ninth segment. But then the kite would fly improperly.

So he took down the fox kite instead.

Its square shape signaled a man flew it. But he had painted the fox a vixen, to show the man stood grounded, watching the woman soar. Dog fox and vixen hunt together. But time ultimately separates them. Then the dog fox hunts alone.

Around the kite’s perimeter, he had painted a band of black.

He carried the fox kite onto the balcony. A breeze out of the northern desert stirred it.

Mai now leaned dripping against the railing at the balcony’s far corner, looking down twenty stories to the street. Cars honked, and voices babbled up, reminding Lo of sixteen years ago, when he first saw his future wife in a little beech-tree park squeezed between noisy avenues, practicing in the pool with the provincial swim team.

Each succeeding evening he walked home that way, to see the lithe woman’s intense gaze as she dove in with hardly a splash and surged through the water to the pool’s far end, then somersaulted and kicked off from the wall and surged back, and climbed out of the pool dripping and laughing.

He looked at her now, and spoke: “I thought you an athlete at life.”

But she only looked at him quizzically again. On her wet arms, sand grains glinted.

He sighed.

Unwinding string from the kite’s spool, he closed his eyes and mouthed memorized ancient phrases. Then he presented the kite to the breeze, as a falconer might unfetter a hawk on his glove, thrusting it to the sky. He felt the kite shudder.

It flew.

He let out string, watching the fox rise into the golden evening sky. Nothing in the ritual tomes said when to sever the string. The flier chose.

He let out more string, so the rising kite dwindled southward along the long row of apartment buildings, toward the sea.

“Enough?” he asked Mai.

She looked at him, sadly amused, as you might regard a beloved child toting a poorly wrapped bundle, who proclaims he is running away.

On the balcony’s little table, beside his binoculars, lay his knife. As he reached for it blindly, while peering at his distant kite, he saw something fly out from a building down the line.

He put the spool of twine on the floor and stepped on it, to hold it. Then he raised the binoculars, twirling the focus knob. It was a kite, sent out by another apartment dweller to fly beside his own.

He scowled: to intrude on another’s ceremony! Barbarism!

He glanced to see if it offended Mai. She now leaned her back against the railing, studying the distant kites. Then she turned her eyes on him.

From her hair, she pulled the strand of seaweed. Still looking at him, she put it into her mouth. Slowly, she chewed. She swallowed.

“I do not understand,” he said.

She looked back toward the distant kites.

Upset, he looked through the binoculars at the interloping kite, and saw it was triangular, so flown by a woman. At its center, a large black circle signified loss, despair. Yet, the kite’s background, pale blue, like the dawn sky, suggested hope.

Lo sighed.

He put down the binoculars on the small table. He picked up the knife. He gazed down the row of buildings to the fox kite, a dot, ignoring the interloper beside it.

Mai, leaning against the rail, watched him unhappily, as when he defied his doctor and brought home deep-fat-fried chicken.

He cut the string.

Now he put down the knife and again raised the binoculars. He saw the fox kite gliding free down the row of buildings, toward the shore. But the intruding kite, too, was cut free. It chased after the fox. He watched through the binoculars as both kites dwindled and then disappeared.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked Mai.

But she only looked at him silently.

EVENING TWO:
Mr. Lo Comes Home to Find the Living Room Empty,
but Knows His Wife Has Not Gone

He ate some of the left-over noodles. Then he changed into his white flying robe and went into the kite room.

Mai sat in a corner, in her black bathing suit, dripping. She had tipped back the chair so that her shoulders leaned against the wall, and her legs sprawled to either side, her feet resting on the floor. She looked at him, he thought, with reproach.

A memory, from their marriage’s first year: he arrived home from work to find Mai and her swim-team friends draped in the apartment’s chairs like otters and muskrats, their legs dangling over the arms, each woman sipping tea or a soda. They stopped talking when he came in, amused.

Afterwards, in an angry voice, he had scolded Mai for letting her friends take up all the chairs, so he had no place to sit after another dreary day at the bureau, and because she and her teammates offered no respectful greeting, as if he intruded in his own apartment. And what amused them? And when they traveled to meets, and she was away, what happened there?

At first she had looked angry. But then she seemed to feel sad for him. Later he felt small, a fool, because he feared she preferred her friends to him. Her black eyes still reproached him, down the years.

“Which kite for this second night?” he asked her.

She shook her head. So he studied the remaining kites hung on the wall.

Ox?

Did her lips imperceptibly curl up? Sometimes he would dryly comment about his office travails, perhaps likening his superior to a god of ineffectuality, duck headed. Mirth would rise in her eyes, and it warmed him.

“Ox, then,” he said.

A large, boxy kite, of paper. He had shaped its prow as an ox’s thick head, with horns and a nose ring. Oxen plod, without imagination, doing their work. They mean no harm. But they can step on your foot inadvertently, or move their bulk and crush you against a fence. They have no flare for life. If an ox dies, only its labor is missed.

“Do you wish you had married a racing stallion, or a tiger?” he asked.

She spread her hands, palms up, exasperated. Her black bathing suit dripped salt water. He saw, clinging to her wet arms, grains of sand, and he shut his eyes and moaned.

One year ago tomorrow.

At the beach, side-by-side in their canvas chaise lounges, he reads a newspaper, letting the office week’s acid drain from him. Mai, glancing at him, sees the office still fuming in his head. She tosses down her novel onto the sand. She stands, stretches.

“Lo, swim with me,” she says.

But he studies a report on steel-production shortfalls, which peripherally affect his department’s work.

“Not now,” he tells her, not looking up.

When he finishes the article, he does look—her head bobs far out, beyond all the other swimmers, and she surges through the sea as if it were a pool. Minutes later he looks again. He cannot see her. But then he does see her, just the dot of her head, far out, too far, rushing away, too fast…

Riptide.

When he finally returned to the apartment that night, he did not switch on the light. All night he sat still, back straight, hands clasped in his lap.

“An ox cannot swim,” he told Mai now.

He opened a jar of red paint. He dipped in his brush. Then he stabbed the brush at the kite, where the ox’s heart might be, leaving a puncture in the paper, which dripped crimson.

He carried the kite out onto the balcony. He mouthed the second evening’s phrases, which he had memorized from the book of ancient rites he found in the library. Then he held up the kite, offering it to the wind.

Mai came out. She regarded him, hands on hips, elbows out. After retiring from competition to coach, she had often stood just so, frowning at a protégé in the pool, whose arm strokes missed the proper rhythm.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked.

She knitted her brow at him, as if frustrated he did not understand.

He let the ox free. It lifted from his hands, then faltered. He pulled the string, swinging it into the wind. Now it plodded upwards. As he let out twine, it lumbered south down the row of apartment buildings.

Just as happened yesterday, far down the row, another kite flew out. It bobbed in the air beside his own. He raised the binoculars, frowning.

This kite, triangular, displayed the image of a white hare, evoking timidity. A hare hides under bushes. Danger is everywhere. Yet, fearful, the hare ventures into the meadow. It feels the sunshine as it nibbles flowers. It is weak, but its appetite is strong. It is fecund. This kite’s perimeter was black.

Lo, upset, looked back to see if the intrusion troubled Mai. She stood studying the distant kite. Then she regarded him thoughtfully.

Sometimes, when he came home depressed, Mai would gaze at him that way and then announce: “Poker.” She would get out the cards. Assuming her riverboat gambler face, she would shuffle the cards, making them arc between her hands, defying gravity, or she would work them like an accordion, pulling them apart so they hung momentarily in the air, then squeezing them back together, and all the while she would look droll. And he would laugh.

“I loved…”

His face contorted. He composed himself.

Expressionless now, he cut the string. Through the binoculars, he saw his boxy kite plod southward toward the ocean. He saw the hare, also cut free, chase after his ox. He watched until both shrank to nothing.

EVENING THREE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife in
the Kite Room, Examining the Dragon Man-Flier

She stood studying the dragon’s unassembled components. As always, she wore the black-one piece bathing suit she had on that afternoon at the beach, and her wet hair hung in sodden strands around her ears.

Looking from the kite to Lo, in his white flying robe, she knitted her brow, squinting quizzically. He remembered once telling her he would resign, because the better he performed, the more his superior resented him, and sniped. She had squinted at him then, with this same quizzical expression.

“Find a better way to kick,” Mai had told him. “Don’t let him be your father.”

Lo carried the dragon’s head out to the balcony and set it down on the slates. Mai followed him out, and they both looked down at its face, yellow, with blue eyebrows and green leaflike appendages and red tendrils. Grinning, the dragon displayed peg-like white teeth, the canines sharpened.

A year’s work for Lo, every night in the kite room. His fingers remembered the feel of stretched silk.

He returned to the kite room to carry out the dragon’s thorax and its wings, stiffened with bamboo struts to bear the combined weights of kite and flier. Finally he brought out the segmented, coiled tail, so long it could straighten only in the sky.

Lo attached the head to the body, using dowels and silk twine. Then he attached the wings, and the tail.

He showed Mai the levers he had affixed to the bamboo handlebars, hidden in the dragon’s body—when he squeezed the levers, strings would pull out the dowels holding on the wings, and the wings would fold. He would then be over the sea.

As he tested the kite’s bamboo frame for tightness, Lo spoke to Mai without looking at her.

“I could not swim, so I stood like an ox, and I watched the riptide take you away,” he said.

He kept his eyes on the kite as he worked.

“I should have run in, let the ocean take me, too,” he said. “But I stood like an ox.”

And he said. “I am shamed.”

He lifted the kite and found its lightness amazing, although he had created it. He raised it up over him and down, so that his head fitted inside the dragon’s head. He looked out through eyeholes, placed all around. He gripped the handlebars, where his hands could easily find the levers by feel.

As he carefully climbed onto the balustrade, the long tail began to uncoil behind him. Balancing, he stepped over the low railing, first one foot, then the other. He looked down at the tiny people and toy cars.

Mai frowned at him.

“I’ll fly over the ocean,” he told her.

She looked down, shaking her head in exasperation, as she did when a swimmer she coached failed to grasp some technique, such as correctly cupping your hands.

Closing his eyes, he mouthed the final memorized phrases.

He stepped into the air.

He plummeted.

But he leaned back, even as the street rushed toward him, angling up the dragon’s wings to catch the wind. And the kite steadied. It rose, until he hung suspended before his apartment’s balcony, where Mai stood looking at him, shaking her head.

She pointedly looked southward. He followed her gaze: far down the row of apartment buildings, something flew out. And, when he turned back to Mai, he thought she looked thoughtful.

Gazing toward the distant kite, she held up her hands, dangling them from her wrists, making forward motions. It was a gesture she made at meets, to coax a protégé to swim intensely, to vie.

A gust sped the dragon kite along the row of buildings. Now he made out the other kite: a man-flier, like his. It took the shape of a luna moth, the palest of greens, its wings delicately rounded, tapering in back into long lacy tails.

A luna moth is almost air. It must go where the wind pushes it, perhaps into a bat’s mouth, or perhaps to a safe perch, where its beauty might be perceived. A luna moth can only flutter and hope.

He looked back and saw Mai watching him from the balcony, her hands still motioning him forward.

“You lie in seaweed on the ocean floor,” he shouted back to her. “You ate it to show acceptance.”

With her hands she motioned him on.

A second gust: he surged through the air, as Mai had surged through the pool. It exhilarated him. He looked back to see if Mai saw. But she was gone.

 

The Day You Died

by Jonathan Doctorick

 

I

This was the hour the collective world was to die while living to know another day. One of those forever kinds of days, where man played God.

Dr. Brigham, tense with this knowledge, asked in a soothing, nearly whispered way: “Are you in pain?” The hooded lamps the reporters had erected caused the beads of sweat to glisten on his forehead. The doctor’s aides scuttled in and out of the hospital room.

Around Mr. Kapila’s bed, pencils and pens frenetically scritch-scratched, microphones recorded, three cameras stood on tripods and transmitted. Objective: catch every nuance of sight, sound, movement, emotion. Every last spoken word and sighed breath was jotted down to be catalogued, reviewed, and experienced by more people than were watching live. The viewing audience, though, could not perceive the singular scent of ethyl alcohol, Lysol, fresh flowers combined; a sterilized-funeral-parlor aroma. The media described such superficial items with well-written and spoken accounts, and allowed the world to become intimate with the scene. Admittedly, only the kin truly experienced the day’s full range as Mr. Kapila’s death clock ticked and tocked, his life strung out behind in one endless experience, leaving the world as he entered it—helpless in a hospital room.

This day was promised to be remembered more so than the infamous inferno of Hindenburg, the media’s declaration of VJ-day, or that dark day in Dallas with the slain JFK. The ratings challenged those of the replayed vaporization of Challenger, Columbine, and suspected O.J. with glove and chase scene. More sat captivated than had watched the invasions of the Middle East that had started with Iraq. The audience was bigger than any Super Bowl’s. It even overshadowed the revelatory days when the world, with lightened hearts, heard of the cure for cancer, the cure for AIDS.

Some feared the shaft of the abyss was being needlessly pried open with a medical hand. They claimed we were, once more, daring God—playing God, being God—to lay down our race in eternal slumber, setting us to dream apocalyptic dreams. Others felt it was a vital, natural, and logical step as they embraced the technology’s—now as common as cloning—potential. Both polarized sides had one underlying thought they in common shared: with curiosity, they wanted to know what was next. In some ways, humans never changed.

“No,” Mr. Kapila said. “S’okay,” between shallow, mechanized wheezes. “S’fine.”

Scratch, record, and video tape; live feed, satellite dishes, and Internet simulcast: experience and remember. Die with him today. The four reporters encircling the bed at the four points of the compass were the heralds for the U.S., Asia, Europe, and UN. A lottery, a name pulled out of the electronic hat, allotted each the role of hospital-room, historical scribe. The European rep was scolded, however, when later seen on replay secreting away a washcloth that had been removed from the patient’s head and put at the edge of the bed. He returned it to the family, publicly apologized, and chastised himself for not blocking the shot; the rag would have brought him a small fortune if sold at electronic-auction.

Mr. Kapila’s breath hitched once (the rest of the room’s breath drew in with a start), twice; a third time then caught. Rhythmic and paced it resumed again. All eyes together shifted to the screen mounted left of his bed. They could see themselves as he perceived them. He was, in a way, an organic mirror.

“Mr.—” Dr. Brigham began, watching himself as he nervously fidgeted. Only recently had he become immune to the peculiar situation in which a patient was transformed into a camera.

“Goin’ soon, I think,” Mr. Kapila interrupted.

His two children quickly bent over the bed. His frame was so gaunt, his skin so stretched and shrunken, nearly translucent (liver spots and cobalt veins the only dark coloring), that his sex seemed indeterminate. The walls of his failing heart were, like his skin, trace-paper thin, every beat one more (and one less) in his life. It seemed a brief, puffed breath could have blown to fine dust his body matured one hundred and one years, scattering it like dandelion spores floating on a balmy, summer zephyr.

Reuben, the son, brushed a hand across his father’s cool brow. A tear threatened, fell, one bead rolling to his lip. A camera caught this in high definition. Mr. Kapila’s daughter, Madison, next of kin, made the same motion, pushing back two thin wisps of hoary hair. Her hand stopped short of the wire threaded into an opaque, dime-sized bandage on her father’s temple. The skin-toned wire was taped across his head, draped behind the ear. It ran to a small computer standing vigil beside Mr. Kapila’s bed. The computer translated with a quiet whirring of internal hardware the meaning of the input. It transformed the information into comprehensible pictures which flowed across the screen beside the bed like a familiar film. Mr. Kapila could not see the screen as he could not twist his head.

Outside the hospital room in the neuroscience ward, billions kept watch as well. The Mind’s Eye Cam, patent pending, would win Dr. Brigham a Nobel Prize. With Mr. Kapila’s eyes open, the world saw his room, saw through his eyes. The viewer could see the family, the reporters, Dr. Brigham; wherever his glance fell. With closed eyes, any scene was possible, limited only by his mind. Understood in functional detail by few—Dr. Brigham and aides could hardly explain in lay terms the workings of the MEC—that slender wire, inserted deep into the gray, spongy tissue of his brain (no pain), gathered up cognizant thought and conscious perceptions. Packets of pulsed electronic data shot down the wire, permitting all to see what he experienced, reality or not. His eyes, dreamy (yet bright and aware) with drugs, slipped shut. A hush befell the hospital room, dorms, dens and offices, family rooms and kitchens, school houses and diners, every one tense, as if God’s hand was squeezing tight the globe.

“It’s working,” Dr. Brigham said, sighing relief. “Wonderful, simp—”

“It is,” Reuben and Madison interrupted gently.

“Amazing, Doctor,” the UN rep said.

“Shhhhhh,” the rest pushed out between tight lips, like a patched rubber seal leaking.

His unfolding thoughts, unreality seen on TV: A white, cube-like space, a serene room overly bright yet not harshly lit. Edges defined at right angles, perpendicular lines somehow seen. An elderly woman, standing still, smiling. Her gaze seemed trained on the viewer. The kin recognized her at once. Her garnet lips parted, moved, shaped words. Her tongue worked behind her teeth, creating soundless syllables and speech known only to him, Mr. Kapila.

“Missed ya, too,” Mr. Kapila whispered, his speech feather light. “Comin’… home.”

“It… it works. My God—” Reuben said.

“It’s Mom!” Madison cried out. “Doctor, we can see what he sees!” Rivulets of hot tears rolled down her cheeks, pattering drops on the linen draped over her father, drawn to mid-chest.

“Indeed, we just can’t hear what he does,” Dr. Brigham said. “Yet, anyway.” Onto his face worked a broad, proud grin.

“Missed… you…” drifted on Mr. Kapila’s last, aided breaths.

The reporters were speechless.

Mr. Kapila’s eyes opened, the white room vanished, their images seen on the screen once more. “See her?” he asked.

“Yes, Dad,” Reuben said.

Madison: “Oh, thank you. Thank you, thank you.”

“We did,” added Dr. Brigham.

“How’m I doin’?” Mr. Kapila asked, beryl-blue eyes taking in the room.

“Doing just fine.”

“I’ll be… remembered?”

The reporters nodded, not a dry eye among them.

“You will,” said Dr. Brigham.

Reuben said, “Of course, Dad… of course.” He patted his father’s dry, limp hand. “For all time.”

“We thank you,” Dr. Brigham said, blotting his brow and eyes with a handkerchief. He sidled next to the bed. “The world thanks you.” Madison and Reuben tilted their attention up to Dr. Brigham, both smiling through joyous tears. “You have provided a great service.”

“Water, please,” Mr. Kapila said. He swallowed a small sip from the waxed paper cup his son held to his lips. His inhalations became ragged, irregular. His chest began to spasm, jerking out each phrase: “I think… then… that it’s time… for me to… to go.” A weak smile pulled up the corners of his lips. “Son?” He lifted up his hand, as if in blessing, and touched Reuben’s cheek.

“Yes, Dad.”

“Love… always.”

“I will, Dad. I love you.”

“Daughter?”

“I’m here, Dad.”

“Don’t fear… death. He spoke… of it as… a rest. Sleep. Love… always.”

“Always Dad, I promise. Hey, say hi to Mom, okay?” She managed a cracked laugh.

“I’ll.”

“Give regards to God.”

On his last exhale he said, “I—”

His chest did not rise again. His life—running down the corridor of existence non-stop since birth, this the culminating, set point to which every choice and decision had lead—ended. All eyes in the room and the world over jerked to the screen beside the bed.

 

First you saw blackness. A void so total it suggested only the infinite. Like a creeping dawn, grey began to filter in. Then the picture was white, a blinding white, as if showing a silent, cataclysmic destruction of a star. It lasted one infinitesimal moment.

 

II

What was seen by those watching TV during that moment: in Orlando, a terminal cancer patient saw a stunningly grand, snowcapped mountain range. The sky was washed in the velvety purple of twilight. Evergreens climbed the sides of an immense valley carved out of the rock below. It was beautiful. In Pittsburgh, a mother saw an azure sea marching out into the distance from white sand, merging with the heavens at a point unseen. Sunlight shimmered across the tops of swells in bursts of fool’s gold, and seagulls—only Vs in the distance—glided on the steady breeze. The clouds looked like soft cotton balls glued to the sky. Her breath caught. Her daughter, cross-legged in front of the TV, saw the circus. High-walkers tip-toed, trapeze artists flew through the air. In Santa Monica, a teen saw a misty forest of Sequoias, stretching forever upwards, disappearing like the legs of giant, placid sentinels into the morning fog. He could smell the damp carpet of needles and leaves, almost feel drops of cold dew forming on his skin. In Anchorage, a woman swam with orcas, touched their smooth skin, hunted with them, called to them, was them. She smiled. In Tokyo, a businessman saw a towering waterfall spilling over a ledge far above his head, and all around was dense foliage, the air heavy with tropical humidity. The roar resonated in his ears while a caul of mist caught the sun and exploded into a rainbow, coloring his vision with a heavenly, kaleidoscopic spectrum. In the languidly moving river at his feet, innumerable numbers of koi swam in flashes of orange and white speckled with black. His mouth momentarily dropped open, and only when the picture left his mind a split second later did he think to close it.

In Paris, a man howled in alarm and clapped his hands over his face, dropping the garrote he had been fondling. He saw the girl he had been stalking for weeks, all the while plotting and fantasizing. She was stripped nude, her face was purple and bruised, and there were ligature marks on her throat. The flesh there was scored open. She pointed an accusing finger. He would not follow her again.

In New York, a firefighter winced as he saw the charred out remains of what he thought was an abandoned apartment building. One crisp, blackened body was curled upon the floor. Its arm was turned up, fingers bent into a claw, the mouth forever open in a painful scream. Cracks covered the scorched skin, the red muscle underneath exposed and forming a gruesome roadmap. He deserted all thoughts that his pyromania told him were sane.

In Columbus, a man saw clouds and white; in Boulder, a woman saw an inferno and black.

Reuben, Madison, Dr. Brigham, eyes wide, gasped and smiled broadly. The reporters cried out in concert, two in terror, two in ecstasy.

What he, Mr. Kapila, experienced: The brilliant flare of white ceased. The white was the boundless infinite, a reality beyond human comprehension, all. He now knew his erstwhile world, where billions glimpsed what could not be seen or understood with mortal perceptions, had been a façade stretched like a piece of canvas over the white. Now part and particle of the white, fused into it like a drop of water in an endless sea, an overwhelming sense of completion, an end so sure and gracious, became him. Like his audience, not able to perceive of the white’s true form, foreign to the finite human mind, limited by the confines of lived experience, he understood and became the Truth in a way forced by structured conception: stretching out beyond his vision, surrounding him in total, was a scarlet sea. Roses; every rose; a floral carpet over all. The ground’s crimson pelt wavered in the gentle wind which peacefully sang in his ears like a conch. The red sea became one with a cloudless sky without a definitive horizon. The heavens above were of a blue so deep it looked thick enough to touch. The air’s sweet florid incense was not overpowering, but soothing and right and the apotheosis of every humanly sense. Arms lowered, palms outstretched towards the copious flora, he felt the silky tops of the blooms tickle and comfort. He saw it all, felt that it was good. Triumph filled him, he was happy. He began to walk. Like the breadth of his eternal panorama, the moment is forever.

 

Imagine what you love most; you saw it that day. Or imagine your keenest, whetted hate; you might have seen it that day. Each person’s interpretation of the white was there and gone so quickly that most were merely left with a feeling lacking explanation.

 

Then, ending almost as it began, the white on the screen beside the bed where one man had breathed his last breath gave way to the frantic electronic snow of a channel’s signal lost. Silence. Memories already fading like early morning dreams drowned under conscious thought. Around the world, video tape replays were being queued. They showed black… grey… white. Simple colors, and nothing more.

 

III

“Thanks for sticking with us through the break and welcome back to Morning Views,” the anchor said. A cheerful smile exposed straight, bleached teeth. “With me again is the creator of what ya’ll remember as the Mind’s Eye Cam. So, as you were saying Dr. Brigham, you still have hopes that we may one day get a glimpse of what waits for us, if anything?”

“Of course. We haven’t been successful yet, but I’m sure with some more refinement of the process, we’ll one day have a glimpse of someone’s last thoughts,” Dr. Brigham said.

“The world was sure ready that day almost a year ago when you first televised your MEC in action. When,” the anchor paused, looking up at the teleprompter as the name slipped his mind, “oh yes, Mr. Kapila let us in on a very private occurrence.” He chuckled, “Sorry… name almost got away from me there.”

“It happens,” Dr. Brigham said. “But yes, we were very grateful of him to let us broadcast one of the first trial runs of the MEC.

“Any more volunteers since then?”

“A few, but most are still quite young. It’s something very personal to lay out in front of the world, you know?”

“Very tough indeed. In the meantime, any other uses for the MEC?”

“Psychologists everywhere are making great use of it,” Dr. Brigham said. “Very useful for learning more about the dream process. That’s really the main reason I was honored with the Nobel Prize.”

“Ah yes, I can imagine. We only have a few moments here, so let me just wrap up by asking what you think happened that day with Mr., uh—”

“Kapila.”

“Yes, Mr. Kapila,” the anchor said, smiling.

“Honestly, I’m not very sure. While he was still living, after we had implanted the MEC, we were able to see whatever he saw with eyes open or what he conjured up with his eyes closed. Remember watching as he showed us his wife?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Well, when he passed on, the signal just sort of cut out. So at this point I don’t think we’re sure enough to comment.”

“Here’s a quick shot,” the anchor said. Footage of Mr. Kapila’s eyes closing, chest settling one last time, cut into Morning View’s live feed. The screen beside his bed goes from black, to grey, to white, then to electronic fuzz. Dr. Brigham and the anchor reappeared into view.

“But wouldn’t it be plausible that we should’ve been able to see any sort of thoughts his mind created, or experienced, right after death?” the anchor said, weighing the last three words.

“Certainly. The brain functions for a few minutes after the heart has stopped.”

“But nothing.”

“Correct, signal lost.”

“Not to bring down the importance of your wonderful invention—it certainly is a feat of modern science—but doesn’t that suggest something to you?”

Dr. Brigham hesitated, then said: “Not… yet.”

“That day sure showed us something, I suppose. Something so… final in that black then nothing at all.”

“I suppose.”

“Well, I almost forgot to congratulate you on your Nobel Prize—!”

“No harm done.”

“—and I’m sure you’ll have plenty of success in the future, Dr. Brigham.”

“Thank you.”

“Thanks for being here.”

The camera swung away from Dr. Brigham, leaving just the anchor in frame. “Well,” he began, “we certainly appreciate the Doctor being here with us today to talk about the creation of the MEC. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt that day, being able to peer into the mind of a fellow man. Our thanks go out to the Kapila family as well. Though we weren’t able to catch a glimpse of an afterlife,” he said dully, “only time will tell.”

The camera changed angles, and the anchor twisted to face the audience. His somber tone turned cheery as he said, “Coming up next on Afternoon Spotlight with Jennifer Lynn Rice is a segment about the inexplicable drop in global crime rates, which have been plummeting now for months. It’s an intriguing story, so make sure to stay tuned through the news at the top of the hour. As always, it’s been a pleasure. I’m Neil DeHubris, see you tomorrow.”

The Chest

by Joseph DeRepentigny

 

Dexter was everything he wanted to be. He was successful, rich, and handsome. His life was the dream others wished for and he knew it. Dexter lived in a $100,000 a year apartment in the most fashionable district of Atlanta. He drove a different car every day of the week and wore suits to match the color schemes of his cars. In a word, he was the paragon of new wealth in the new south. He’d come from somewhere else and built a company that bought land and built tract housing. He was the most powerful land developer in the state, if not the entire south.

On this bright sunny day in Atlanta, Dexter had a mission to accomplish. Dexter had only dealt with the tax assessor over the telephone or through meetings at his midtown office. At first, he planned on having a flunky do all the legwork but his lawyer insisted that the work be done privately because the situation, though legal, was questionable. The plan was simple, Dexter remembered from that last meeting with the tax assessor—a young man named Nathan.

Nathan was a tall skinny man in his late twenties. He spoke with a slight southern accent that was subdued by years of elocution lessons. “No, I got the old man over a barrel. His taxes were a few cents short thirty years ago. With interest and penalties he now owes the county $15,000. I am allowed to sell the debt to a broker for ten cents on the dollar. That, by local law, would give you ownership of the property and the old man would have thirty days to move or go to jail,” Nathan said with a grin.

“What if he pays off the debt?” Dexter asked.

“He can’t. He was given the chance by mail several times over the last year, but he never responded,” Nathan said, smiling broader. “Almost like the letters were never sent.”

“So, what do I do?” Dexter asked.

“Sign the papers and write the county a check. When the check clears, you own the land.”

“And what do you get out of this, other than an increase in tax revenues?” Dexter asked, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Ten percent of the home sale and a small kick-back from your construction company,” Nathan said with a wink. “All of this is legal in this county. Our ethics laws are real liberal.”

That had been a week ago. Now Dexter found Nathan and another young man in a police uniform leaning against a police car. They were parked in front of a rusted old mailbox. Dexter looked around; the place didn’t look like much to him—weedy old-growth woods and an old tar and gravel road. A stream meandered through one side of the property. Shaking his head, he thought to himself, “What a waste of perfectly good real estate.”

“Hello, Dexter!” Nathan shouted. He walked toward the car, waving the cop to come along. “The deputy is here to ensure legal enforcement of the eviction. Your lawyer insisted he be here.”

The deputy smiled and nodded at Dexter. Then he went back to a businesslike scowl. Dexter immediately liked the man. An underling that didn’t talk unless spoken to, the perfect servant in Dexter’s mind.

The three of them walked up the driveway toward the old tin-roofed shanty. The house, if it could be called that, was a single-story affair badly in need of painting. The deputy indicated to Dexter and Nathan to stay behind while he served the notice. He knocked on the door and announced himself. No one came to the door. The deputy then looked in through a dirty window and swore to himself. He turned and spoke quickly into the walkie-talkie he had on his hip.

“What’s wrong?” Nathan asked.

“Old man Hill is dead,” the deputy said curtly.

“What, are you sure?” Dexter asked. “Maybe he just passed out.”

“Take a look for yourself,” the deputy said, smiling evilly.

Dexter climbed the three steps and looked through the dirty window. Inside he saw a bloated fly-covered corpse. Even from outside, he could smell the rotting flesh through the closed window. He nodded and walked back to the deputy. “He’s dead alright.”

A little while later, an ambulance and several police cars arrived on the scene. Dexter thought it was odd that they brought an ambulance. After all the rushing around and interviewing, the local sheriff told Dexter to stay in town until a cause of death was determined.

Dexter left the scene and went to the best hotel in the area. A franchise operation noted for appearing in episodes of that reality police show. Still, after the day’s events, Dexter welcomed any rest. He lay down in bed in a room that was slightly smaller than his bathroom back home and went to sleep fully clothed.

He awoke the next morning, hungry and confused. He looked around and saw the tan telephone on the nightstand. “Room service,” he said, after dialing the front desk. A voice on the other side politely informed him that they didn’t have room service. Dexter slammed the telephone down, swearing to himself. He did not look forward to dining with the local rabble. Cleaning up best as he could without his shaving kit, Dexter went outside to a local diner that was across the street. Inside were just three other patrons, gathered at one end of the lunch counter. That suited him fine. He could sit away from them and have a cup of coffee and a danish.

The waitress smiled and said, “Hello, sugar. That end’s closed but I can take care of you down here.”

“I need a little privacy,” Dexter said, feigning weakness. “I found a dead man yesterday.” The corpse was in fact not the first one Dexter had ever seen or was it the most decayed. Dexter often boasted to his friends about finding his mother and father dead after coming back from a trip to London.

“You just sit over here and we won’t bother you too much,” she said.

He was served plain coffee and a freshly thawed pastry. He took a sip and frowned. Probably a blend of cheap and cheaper coffee, he thought. While he was forcing the coffee down, he listened to the general conversation.

“They say old man Hill passed on last night,” a man in coveralls said, sipping his coffee.

The waitress tilted her head and looked at Dexter funny. “Did you say you found a dead man mister?” she asked.

Dexter was not in a mood to talk to illiterate scum. Still, he knew he was out-numbered and his cell phone was back in the room. “Yes, I did and he was not freshly dead either. He’d been laying there for a week or more.”

“Serves the old man right,” one of the other patrons responded. “He was never right with Jesus. Besides, all that money and he never spent a dime on his wife or boy.”

“What did you say?” Dexter asked.

The waitress smiled, “Oh, there’s a silly old story that Ben Hill came back from the gulf coast when he was around twenty and had a pirate chest full of gold coins.”

“No, not that, the wife and son you spoke about,” Dexter asked again, his irritation showing slightly.

“He has a boy who lives in town. Works as a janitor for the hospital,” the patron wearing coveralls said. “Neither Hill or his son was ever baptized. Never went to church either.”

“His wife died years ago,” the other man said, nodding. “She was a good Baptist to the end.”

Dexter paid his bill and rushed out of the restaurant. He knew that an heir could mess up his plans. The whole tax issue could be brought to court and the kid could have millions entitled to him for a mere $1500. He called Nathan on his cell phone and asked to meet him at the hotel.

Nathan showed up, wearing a simple suit and tie. He looked haggard. “What’s so important that you called me this time of day?” he asked.

“Hill had a son,” Dexter said quickly, a little annoyed that this hillbilly was being gruff with him.

“Yes, I know about Benny. He’s a simpleton that cleans toilets at the local clinic,” Nathan replied.

“Well, that simpleton now has the right to appeal the eviction. He owns the property, not me,” Dexter said loudly. “He can have us both over a barrel.”

“No, he won’t. I already talked to him. He’ll give up the land for $300 cash,” Nathan said, smiling. “I have the money here. You want to come along?”

They met with Benny at a small pool hall in town. The sign out front said billiards but there was only one table. The establishment had six booths and a bar along the far wall. The light was dim and the room smelled of stale beer and cigarette smoke. A jukebox was playing softly in the background.

Benny was a squat man with mottled skin. He looked like a leprosy victim. His hair was a greasy brown mess that needed combing and delousing. He wore a single filthy brown jumpsuit that was designed for the dirty work he did. He was eating a sandwich with grimy hands that left dirt prints on the white bread.

“I works nights because no one likes to see me,” he said in a wheezy voice.

“Your daddy died you know,” Nathan said to Benny.

“Good for him,” Benny said, smiling through brown teeth. “I never liked the old coot. He hit me all the time.”

“This man is willing to buy your daddy’s property for cash money if you’re willing to sell,” Nathan said.

“Good enough!” Benny said loudly. “Just promise you burn the shack down to the ground. I can’t go in there or near the place.”

“Too many bad memories?” Dexter asked, speaking for the first time.

“Yeah, that too. I also still ain’t allowed in there,” Benny said looking directly at Dexter. “You gotta promise to burn the house and barns down. They is bad and awful dangerous.”

Dexter looked Benny in the eyes. These were the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. It was like looking into the depths of some primordial sea. Dexter shook his head to clear his mind and said, “I promise, by next month you won’t recognize the place.”

Benny patted the table asking for the money. Nathan handed the young man a brown envelope filled with money. He also pushed a contract toward Benny and told him to sign it. Benny scrawled his signature along the bottom line. Dexter called the bartender over and had him witness for twenty dollars.

“Benny, aren’t you concerned about the treasure?” the bartender asked, looking at the contract.

“Oh, there ain’t no treasure in that there chest,” Benny said as he took a bite of his sandwich.

Outside, Dexter looked at Nathan, “Why is he so blemished?”

“No one knows. His daddy was a pale white man and his mama was normal. There aren’t any other people around here who look like him so we know Mrs. Hill was faithful to Mr. Hill,” Nathan said. “Anyway, she died giving birth to Benny. That’s why the old man beat the kid to idiocy.”

Dexter nodded. “I’m going back to my room. Call me on the cell when the autopsy is done. I want out of this place as soon as possible.”

While walking, he thought about Benny’s last words. He had said that the chest was empty. That didn’t shock Dexter. He expected as much from a simpleton. The others at the diner seemed certain the money was there. Dexter shook his head. There probably was no money on the farm. Yet he feared some migrant laborer or a menial in his own firm would find something of value and keep it for themselves. The contract said that the land and everything on it was his. Dexter decided that he’d explore the property before any of the locals or the cops had a chance to poke around and steal what was rightfully his.

Dexter drove out in his Aston Martin to the old Hill place. He expected to see a cop car watching the place. Instead, all he saw was a strip of yellow tape across the driveway. Dexter didn’t want to break the tape and alert the cops to his presence. Therefore, he parked a little ways up from the driveway. He figured that they would assume someone was fishing in the stream.

Dexter then cut across the pasture to the old farmhouse. The door was sealed as well. Dexter cut the tape and opened the door. Inside it stilled smelled of rotted corpse. It took Dexter a minute to get used to the smell. He smiled and thought to himself that his parents’ home smelled a lot worse when he found them.

He poked around the house, surveying it quickly. There were four rooms in all—a living room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. The house was immaculate, very different from the outward appearance. Dexter wondered where the bathrooms were, and then he noticed a small outhouse through the kitchen window. He chuckled and shook his head. He was truly in the dark ages here. A quick search around the house showed no place for hidden panels or even a secret door. Dexter was beginning to think that the trunk didn’t really exist after all when he noticed a small door in the kitchen near the sink.

The door was a simple affair with a painted white knob. It looked like a fuse box panel. He opened it slowly, expecting a trap. Instead, inside he saw a simple key on a hook. Taking the key he looked around for the padlock it went to.

Nothing was padlocked inside the house so Dexter went outside, searching. He cringed, hoping that the outhouse wasn’t the location of the chest. His luck held. Going around back, he saw a basement entrance on the side of the house. It was a wedge of two red, rusted steel doors. They were locked with a simple padlock. He examined the doors closely. They hadn’t been opened in years. Spider webs and debris covered the doors. Dexter tried the key and it fit perfectly. It took a few tries but he eventually unlocked the old lock.

The doors opened with loud metallic creaks and groans. They revealed stone steps going down to a dirt floor basement. Dexter went down the stairs, brushing aside cobwebs. At the bottom he couldn’t find any light switches and it was too dark to fumble around looking for a light switch. He remembered he had an emergency flashlight in his car’s trunk. So he ran to the car and ran back in minutes. When he got to the house, he was out of breath. This was the most running he’d done since he was a young man.

The flashlight revealed a simple basement filled with various items. An old table, a couple of packing crates, a crib and children’s toys. It looked almost like a nursery from some bad horror flick. Poking around he saw a small chest on one of the tables.

The chest was made of bronze and was sealed with a flimsy silver cord instead of a lock. Dexter smiled. Everyone talked about this treasure chest. Here it was, just an ornament for a child’s room. The chest was around two feet wide and six inches tall. Dexter lifted it up, surprised at its weight. The box actually seemed to shift around when he moved it, telling him that something heavy was inside. Putting the flashlight to one side, he used both hands to carry the box upstairs to the sunlight.

The weight was unbelievable. It took Dexter over an hour to get the chest to his car. As much as he wanted to see what was inside, he figured it was best to open it when he was someplace safer. He rushed back to the house and covered all signs that he’d been there and ran back to his car. When he got to his hotel room, the police were waiting for him.

Figuring they saw him taking the chest, he prepared for the worst. Instead, they had the coroner’s report that stated that Mr. Hill had died of asphyxiation.

“Asphyxiation?” Dexter asked in shock.

“Yeah, apparently he swallowed a peach pit and died a week ago,” the police officer said grimly.

“Then I can go home?” Dexter asked.

“Yes, sir,” the policeman said and left.

That night Dexter was in his apartment in Atlanta. He was going to go out on the town and celebrate his triumph. Still he wondered about the chest. He’d brought it up to his apartment via the freight elevator and set it on his dining room table. The bronze was quite old. It was covered in engraved drawings, depicting hybrid sea monsters. Half-men, half-lizard or octopus, the etchings were hard to concentrate on. Shaking his head he cut the thread of silver and opened the chest.

Inside was a pool of water. Steam started to rise from the water.

Dexter reached in and felt something soft and pliable touch his fingers. A deep revulsion hit Dexter with a might he’d never felt before. It was an ancient, near instinctual fear of what he touched that gripped him. He immediately pulled his hand back. Suddenly a large tentacle darted out and enveloped Dexter. He screamed for a moment and was silenced.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that his lawyer had found Dexter dead in his apartments. Every bone in his body had been crushed. The police suspected that someone he’d swindled in the past had killed him. Nothing was stolen from the apartment, the police had no suspects, and no solid leads.

Benny was sitting in the billiard hall with a new friend when he heard the news. He lifted up his bottle of beer and said quite loudly, “To Dexter.”

The friend who could have been Benny’s twin brother raised his beer and said in a slurred voice, “To Dexter!”

Question Everything

by Catherine E. Twohill

 

Waiting. Shifting from one foot to the other. Leaning against the cold tile walls, my backside is growing numb. Come to think of it, my hands are, too.

Originally, I was only here to be a spectator. A witness. You know, everyone loves to see what’s going on—better than the evening news. The naked eye beats the electronic eye any day. Rubberneckers. Slowing down in false tribute to safety. We only get peeved when we’re in a hurry, otherwise, we’ll slow down, too. Just for a glimpse. Is it gruesome? Is it bloody? Do I know anyone

But now I’m not so sure I’m a spectator any longer. I’ve been waiting too long and have seen nothing that should be seen. By definition then, I’m a “waiter.” Would you care for fresh ground pepper, sir? Just say when.

Concentration camp detainee is the mood of the moment. It’s part of the fashion scene and reflected in the eyes of my fellow waiters. Unable to feel. Uncertain of the future. Unaware of our fate. Oh wait—we’re moving. Our hollow line marches forward and the doorway ahead becomes clearer. As does the sound.

Click click click click click click thwump

Brows furrow. Heads turn sideways, swiveling question marks.

Click click click click click click thwump

Straining toe-to-nose to see above the crowd, I catch sight of the source. A large bull’s eye with a wooden arm resting in the center hangs on the far wall visible through the doorway. An attendant stands beside it. Respectfully solemn. Robotically, he turns toward the device and pulls the arm downward in one fluid movement. He’s well practiced. The arm locks into its own mechanism and, after a moment’s hesitation, begins its methodical trip upward, one click at a time.

THWUMP

To the average spectator, the sound means nothing but to me, the waiter, it now means everything. This is it. This is how it happens. Accidents don’t do it. Cancer doesn’t either. Neither do guns, suicide, AIDS, or bad shellfish. When it’s your time, you’re herded into a great line and forced to stand in a dark clammy corridor—not unlike the hall leading to your high school gymnasium—and made to wait. Wait for the thwump.

I wonder if everyone else in this line knows why they’re here. Probably not. After all, I’m pretty darn clever. More clever than most. But I suppose if I were truly clever, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Or perhaps I’m mistaken. How could this be right? Why would I be here? I’m young, strong, and healthy. My number cannot possibly be up. I’ve got way too much going on to be here right now. Is this like jury duty? Can I get a waiver or something?

Excuse me, but who might be in charge? I believe a terrible mistake has been made. You see, my life is finally on the right track, things are going very well and I’d like a little more time to see how everything turns out.

Damn it! Who is responsible for this? I promise you, heads will roll. You have NO idea who you’re dealing with, here. Don’t make me come back there.

Okay, I’ll make you a deal. If you let me step outside for some fresh air, I promise I’ll come back. Really. I just have some unfinished business to attend to. My mother always said, “When you start something, you’d best be prepared to finish it.” So, how come I can’t?

No one’s listening. No one cares.

The line is narrowing and dwindling down to just me. I’m not sure now if I’m going with the flow or if I really want this to happen. Rapid eye movement is a tricky state—is it a somnambulist’s bliss or cold, hard reality? We all want to know what happens when we die. Will we remain cognizant of the world around us or will we be thrust into a world beyond our own in sound, smell, and touch. What about those who die and return to their corporeal state to tell tales? Are those stories only so because they came back? Is the experience different if your ticket is punched for a return trip? And what if it happens within a dream? I’ve heard that if you experience death during sleep, you will die in reality.

The room is much too bright. The blinding fluorescent light descends from massive fixtures flooding it into a sterile cube. Dozens of men without faces line the cinder block and tile walls, politely whispering their condolences to anyone who will tolerate their banality. They are the disposers; cleanly and efficiently ridding society of the festering remains.

In the center of the room sits a large wooden chair connected by overhead wires to the bull’s eye on the far wall. As I walk to the chair, one irony-laden thought exists: I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life. What a story this is going to make!

Do I subconsciously know that this is not really happening? Am I dreaming? It’s all so real, I’m not certain any longer.

Oh my God, he’s just pulled the arm down. Why is everyone staring at me? Don’t you all have something better to do? Go rubberneck somewhere else and leave me alone. This is my moment; let me experience it in its finality.

Click click

Death. I’m not sure that I’m ready to embrace it yet. This is unbelievable—it’s happening so fast and there’s no time left to stop it.

Click click click

Life. No matter how you look at it, death is the final reality. So, go with the flow, huh?

Click click thwump

Cold. Like a dry ice fog on a warm summer’s day. Am I floating? I can’t tell. Perhaps I’m only riding on a cloud of percale and down. A 200-thread count nimbus to call my very own.