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.

 

Raifuku Maru

by Roxana Ross

 

1925, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean

Deep below the ship, something stirred. Vaguely female, she was as old as time and ached with a powerful, dark hunger. Alone in her watery prison, her influence could still reach out. It had been a long time since she’d had companionship and longer still since she’d been able to sate herself. Such was her nature that her emptiness and loneliness constantly gnawed at her, but she could not possess without destroying, and nothing she consumed or destroyed could satisfy either her hollow hunger or her desire for revenge.

Once a goddess, known and feared by every people that ever plied the seas, she was now reduced to a petty, slightly mad, and very trapped entity. She had been bound so long ago that even legends about her had passed from every collective memory except her own. She remembered.

It had been a much shorter time, just three days, since the Japanese freighter Raifuku Maru had left Boston Harbor and headed out to sea. It had been an even more recent time, a few hours before, since any of the 38-man crew knew where they were. Before that, after the coast had slipped over the horizon, a thick fog had risen out of the choppy Atlantic Ocean, despite it being a clear April afternoon.

Unaware of their peril, the ship sailed on without problem until the navigator fell ill, complaining of a massive headache. He stumbled off to his bunk, fighting blurry vision, dizziness, and an almost crippling pain behind his eyes. Unwatched, the needle of the ship’s compass spun around in circles for 30 minutes before anyone noticed.

1945, 20 years later

The roar of the radial engine was so loud that Tom O’Halloran could barely hear the pilot’s voice in his headset, asking for a check of their course. As one of five planes in a training mission, Tom didn’t see why the pilot couldn’t just follow the other planes, but apparently his fellow trainee wanted to do everything by the book to impress the old man. As the plane’s radioman and bombardier, Tom felt he was mostly just along for the ride this time. Today was Tom’s twentieth birthday, and a quick jaunt out and back in formation was not a bad way to spend the afternoon. Hanging out at the beach would have been better, but there was always tomorrow. Spending December in Florida was great.

Fort Lauderdale vanished behind them quickly, leaving nothing but dancing ocean and wide open skies visible from the rear of the plane. Facing backward as he watched the coast disappear, Tom didn’t see the dense, grey cloud until it was around them. The three-man crew soon found themselves lost in the sullen gloom with almost zero visibility. Far below the plane, something stirred.

1925

The ship’s cook, Satoshi, was an ancient, wrinkled, and nearly bald little man who made the sea’s best gyoza dumplings. While he worked in his cramped, steam-filled galley, he kept up a constant muttering of curses, prophecies, and blessings, emphasizing his incomprehensible statements by banging a wooden spoon against the edge of the iron stove.

“Not good, not good,” he moaned, wiping sweat from his brow with a dingy edge of his apron. In front of him a large metal pot of rice bubbled to the point of boiling over, then abruptly calmed. Gingerly, Satoshi lifted the pot lid with a chopstick through the handle. Inside, the rice lay uncooked at the bottom of the water. As he watched, the water began to boil again. This time he didn’t stay to watch, but ran to find the captain.

1945

“The cloud didn’t look this big when we were outside it,” said the pilot, Greg Yosten, his eyes narrowing in confusion. “I could see blue sky on the other side before we went in.”

“Come in, Flight 19, this is Tom. Seems Greg’s gotten this Avenger a little off course. Any of you guys still in the cloud?” O’Halloran heard nothing but static on the radio, which had fallen silent shortly after the bomber entered the cloud.

“All my gauges, everything, they’re all going haywire up here,” Greg’s voice sounded calm in Tom’s headphones. “When we get out of this mess, you may have to read me directions from your old Boy Scout compass to find a heading.”

Tom pulled a little leather box out of his jacket and flipped it open. Inside, the compass needle whirled around, seeking north but not finding it.

1925

Satoshi flung open the bridge door and hurried inside. At the shiny brass wheel stood the ship’s captain, Katsu, who worriedly stared into the endless fog on all sides of the freighter.

“Honorable captain,” the cook began to say.

“Not now, Satoshi-san. We’re having difficulties.”

“I believe our situation is worse than you know, captain.”

The captain, a striking figure in his starched uniform and cap, turned to look at the wizened man who stood before him, reeking of old grease.

“I don’t want to hear any more of your superstitions, Satoshi. Auspicious timing or not, our hold of grain is due across the Atlantic by a certain time. Nor do I believe whatever other nonsense you have for me today.”

The cook, who had joined on with the ship because he believed its name was a good omen, had begun to wonder if the name might also hint at a cursed existence they were now stuck in forever. In Japanese, the name Raifuku Maru could mean “coming full circle” or “returning perfection,” but the problem with circles was that they had no end, and the problem with perfection was that it could never be reached.

“What time is it, Captain? What direction are we going? How far is the nearest land?”

The captain’s watch had stopped shortly after the navigator, a long-time friend named Tomoharu, had fallen ill, but the captain didn’t notice right away as his concern for his friend was replaced with concern for his ship. Checking the clock on the wall, he saw that it had stopped, too.

“My rice pot has boiled three times,” Satoshi said. “Each time, when I check the finished dish, the rice is uncooked and the water cool. Something has happened to us in this fog, and I fear we are more than simply lost.”

Back in his bunk, Tomoharu tossed and turned in agony. Inside his head, a female voice painfully whispered words of loss, hunger, and a desire for a destruction of all things that were human. Convincingly, she told him lies and made her feelings his own. He was nothing in the face of such power. He should give himself, the ship, everything, to her.  To sink to the bottom of the ocean and be with her forever was a fitting tribute to her terrible majesty.

“No… no, I can’t. Stop it, stop it!” he cried. Now her insidious voice changed tone and spoke to him of eternity and loneliness, pleading, and cajoling. He could help. He must help. He was hers, to cherish or destroy.

Tomoharu suddenly knew what to do, but he would need to talk to Katsu. The captain kept the only key to the fuel supply room on his belt. There was enough fuel stored for their journey to blow a giant hole in the ship, big enough to bring them all down to his fearsome mistress. Katsu would understand the need to soothe such awesome pain and sadness, or Tomoharu would make him see. Anything to ease the monstrous agony Tomoharu now felt as his own.

1945

“How long can we go before we need fuel, Greg?” It seemed like they’d been circling in this cloud forever. They had to be circling, somehow getting separated from their formation and now out of radio range.

“Keep your shirt on, birthday boy, you’re not going for a swim any time soon,” Greg answered. He sounded jaunty, but he was beginning to feel a touch of fear. With no working gauges, he had no idea how much fuel they had. They could always bail out in a hurry, but he didn’t want to be known as the trainee who ditched his plane in the ocean.

Back in the turret, David Lorenzo, the plane’s gunner, finally chimed in on the conversation.

“I don’t want to hear any more about this stupid cloud, or fuel. Until the weather changes, let’s talk about something else. Anything else… Tommy, give us all a free Japanese lesson so when we get over there we can tell ’em to kiss our ass in a way they’ll understand.”

Tom had learned some Japanese from a neighbor when he was a child in Hawaii. Since Pearl Harbor, he’d brushed up his rusty phrases and taken a serious interest in learning the language until the Navy put him in a plane instead of an office.

“How about, ‘Hajimemashite,’ instead? That means, ‘nice to meet you,’” Tom said with a grin.

“Nice to meet ya,” David snorted. “Yeah, that’ll do. Right before we blast ’em, make sure you yell, ‘Hajimemashite!’ on the radio. Nice to meet ya, and sayonara!”

Tom began to feel a headache coming on, and he took off his headphones to rub his temples. When he put them back on, they increased the pain so much he almost took them off again, but before he could, he finally heard something on the radio.

“Danger like dagger now. Come quick!” The voice with its broken English on the radio wasn’t from one of the other planes. Not unless there was a Japanese pilot up here with them.

Tom hastily tuned the radio equipment in hopes of finding the voice again. The first sentence didn’t make sense to him, and he mentally translated the word “dagger” back to Japanese while he waited for more. In contrast to the quiet panic that had been building inside him when the plane seemed alone in a void, his found his mind calming down as he went through the possibilities. Futokorogatana meant dagger, but it also meant “right-hand man,” like aikuchi meant “dagger” or “friend.” Oddly, all the words that he knew for dagger also had other meanings. A tanken was a dagger, but also a word that had something to do with time, or exploration, and a tantou was either a weapon or a charge. Dagger was a tricky word.

1925

Tomoharu walked purposefully through the door and stared at the captain, who was sitting at a desk with his book of English phrases, carefully puzzling out a distress message that he planned to broadcast on the radio. When he saw his friend, Captain Katsu felt relief burst inside him.

“Feeling better, Tomo-san? I’m pleased to see it. I need you to help me translate and then we need to figure out how to escape this unnatural fog.”

“We must make a sacrifice to her,” Tomoharu said.

“Have you been talking to the cook? That sounds like something crazy he would say.” The captain set down his pen and took a better look at Tomoharu. “You don’t look well, now that I really look at you. Perhaps you should go back to bed.”

“You don’t understand! She’s out there and she’s alone. Horribly alone. But we can go to her and then she won’t be so sad. By giving ourselves, our ship, to her, we will make her happy.”

“What are you talking about? Are you feverish?” Katsu stood up to feel the navigator’s forehead but jumped back when Tomoharu lunged at him.

“Give me the keys! I’ll show you!” Tomoharu was enraged now, as the voice in his head fought to take control of him. “She wants us, everyone! This ship will be hers, too. Hers to destroy!”

The two friends grappled for a moment before the captain broke free and ran out the door. Outside, the deserted deck was slick and water dripped from every surface in the dense mist. Tomoharu was right behind him and skidded slightly as he gave chase.

“What has come over you, Tomoharu? Why are you doing this?”

The evil grip on the navigator’s mind eased slightly as the pleading of his friend almost broke through to him.

“We—we—we have to… go to her.”

Before he lost complete control again, Tomoharu decided to sacrifice himself in hopes that it would be enough to save his friend and the others on the ship. As Katsu watched in fear and horror, Tomoharu ran straight at the edge of the deck and threw himself over the railing.

For a moment Katsu was paralyzed, and then he dashed to the railing himself, but it was too late. His friend was gone.

The fog, however, was still there. Not fully understanding, but mindful of his duty, Katsu slowly walked back to the helm and shut the door behind him. He had a distress call to make but little faith in its usefulness. Tomoharu had been the one with decent English.

1945

“Katsu…” with a rush of nausea, Tom O’Halloran had visions of another time, another life, when he’d also felt smothered in a grey miasma, so similar to what wrapped the bomber now. Sweat rolled down his face as he turned to look out the window, knowing and dreading what he would see. He could feel her, now, at the edges of his mind.

“Hot damn!” Lorenzo saw it, too. There was a clearing in the fog. And not just a sucker hole, either, but a space that showed all the way down to the ocean. And there, sitting, almost waiting for them, was a big, grey ship flying the Rising Sun flag, the Raifuku Maru.

Like a tunnel meant just for them to find and sink the freighter.

“It’s not a war ship,” Greg said. “What do we do?”

“Hell, it’s a stinkin’ Jap ship, and it’s in the wrong ocean. It could be a spy, or maybe they’ve made up one of theirs to look like somethin’ harmless.”

“We’re coming in range. We can drop a few on them,” Tom said the words with a twist in his gut. He knew now that they were all doomed, but maybe, just maybe, if he gave her the Raifuku Maru this time, as he had refused to do before, she would let them go.

“Ok,” Greg said. “Let’s do this.”

The Avenger’s bomb bay doors creaked open. With a sob, Tomoharu sent down gleaming death into the past to save his present. Hajimemashite, sayonara.