The sandy-haired millennial, sitting opposite my desk, wagged his finger. “I never said I was a ghost, Doctor. I just told you I died. Do ghosts eat, breath, go to ballgames? Because I do. But I’m also 101-years-old. Don’t look it, do I?”
I already knew the gist of his story, but I still had to play it professional to mask my incredulity. “I’d say you were in your early twenties.”
“Of course. I was when I died.” Schechter’s gaze fell on the framed photograph of my two little girls. “Cute kids. How old are they?”
“Six and seven.”
“They look like miniature versions of you.”
Maybe before the cancer and chemo took a toll on me, but I smiled politely.
Schechter placed a vintage cigar box atop my desk. He hadn’t needed his threadbare, army-surplus duffel bag to lug it here. What else could he have in that bag beside his chair?
I put aside my pad and pen to examine the box’s contents. Under rank insignia, a Purple Heart, another medal of some sort, and Pilot Wings, was Ensign Meyer Schechter’s yellowed Navy ID, which listed his date of birth as December 28th, 1920. The dashing pilot in the black and white photos could’ve been a twin of the man in my office. More likely his great-grandfather, if it wasn’t just my interviewee photoshopped onto some World War 2 stock photography.
Schechter got into character well, though. I’ll give him that. The manner of speech was spot on without a shred of contemporary lingo. His sweater was a beige, button down over a long-sleeved collared shirt. Slacks and sensible shoes completed the old-man dress. Even his cologne was something subtle my grandpa would’ve worn, not one of the sporty scents my male graduate students bathed in.
Before we’d met, Schechter warned me how young he looked, though he claimed to be at a loss as to how to take and send me a selfie. He’d talk over the phone but not face-time or text. I couldn’t help but picture someone in their seventies.
“These things looks real enough,” I said, “but you can’t prove they belong to you.”
Schechter’s expression darkened, and he looked to my bookshelf. “Ghosts and Ghostly Phenomena, Evidence of An Afterlife, Into the Light…”
“I’m aware of the contents of my own library, Mr. Schechter. Particularly the books I authored.”
“I’m just naming the ones I read,” he said. “Not much proof for the paranormal goings on in those books are there?”
My eyes narrowed. “If you read them, then you’d know that I’ve documented multiple eyewitness accounts–”
“Yeah, about those…” He sighed. “The Nevada hospital emergency room staff in 1968 saw something, but it wasn’t Death taking the soul of their patient. Man made out of shadow?” Schechter scoffed. “Please. That’s about as real a depiction of the Reaper as a hooded skeleton carrying a scythe.”
“And you’ve seen Death, as in the Grim Reaper?” This time, I let him hear my skepticism.
“Of course. I fought it during World War 2 when I was taken aboard a Japanese cruiser. Never did find out which one, though. Her captain had me pulled out of the water. ME, the American who sank his ship.”
I rubbed my furrowed brow. “How could they have brought you aboard their ship if you sank it?”
“Well, it was as good as sunk,” Schechter said with a sheepish grin. “Antiaircraft fire took out my bomber’s engine, but we’d already dropped our torpedo. I watched it hit the cruiser midships before I ditched in the water.” His smile dissolved. “My crew, Wallace and Abe, didn’t make it.”
“Sorry,” I found myself saying, though confident Schechter was recounting another man’s story, if not a complete product of his own imagination.
He shrugged though needed to wipe his eyes. “Anyway… I swallowed a gallon of the Pacific and had stopped breathing for a while. But I had my lifejacket on, so I figured I still had a chance at survival.” A bitter chuckle escaped his lips, and he opened his arms. “That’s denial for you.”
Schechter paused and looked away. When his ocean-blue eyes returned to me, a fire burned behind them. “I tried swimming with all my might away from that ship, but the current had its own ideas and took me in closer. She was listing pretty badly with the bow—that’s the front of the ship—already coming out of the water. Too tired to swim anther stroke, I floated right up to her hull. I made my peace with God and waited for the spray of bullets with my eyes squeezed shut. Something splashed next to me. I dared take a peek and thought I was hallucinating the life preserver.”
“When I finally stopped spitting up seawater, Japanese sailors walked me to the bridge tower. The already slippery deck sloped up what had to be forty-five degrees or more. With nothing to hold onto, I must’ve slipped a dozen times before I made it to the stairwell. Kimura was up there waiting for me.”
“He was the ship’s captain. I thought Kimura had a red uniform at first, but blood had soaked through almost every inch of white fabric. His officers didn’t fare much better. Their bridge must’ve taken a hit. Steel that once belonged to the surrounding wreckage jutted from their flesh like pieces of fractured silver bone. A huge chunk of metal had buried itself in Kimura’s neck. If it was pulled out, there wouldn’t be enough neck to hold up his head. You know how you don’t take the nail out of a car tire that stayed inflated?”
“Same idea. I don’t know how any of them were standing, never mind talking. Kimura spoke to me in good English. Spent time in America, I guess. He had me brought aboard because he figured I was dead. He needed to know if I saw it, too. A lot of his men couldn’t. They weren’t so bad off.”
“Saw what?” I sat back when I realized I’d moved to the edge of my seat.
“Death,” he replied, matter-of-factly. “It snuck in from off the port side, looking like a wall of storm clouds. But a real storm at sea is louder than battle. Thunder crashes and the wind wails like a behemoth. A 25-ton aircraft carrier becomes a toy boat tossed around in a tub. A storm’s a killer for sure but indiscriminate and impersonal. This storm was a silent predator. It turned the sea to glass as it crept closer on panther’s paws.”
Schechter crossed his arms as though warding off a chill. “Men–and women,” he added in deference to me, “who have to fight for their lives can’t know what true fear is. No offense.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why would I be offended?”
“Because I know you’re losing your fight for life, and it’s got to be frightening.”
Lost for words, I could only use my eyes to plead with Schechter for an explanation. My amateur application of makeup couldn’t give me the semblance of health, but how could he possibly know just how sick I was?
“But that ain’t nothing compared to what comes next,” he continued, indifferent to my confusion. “Being dead and having to fight back TO life. Kimura knew. That kind of desperation twists a man’s face until it doesn’t look human anymore.”
“Before we entered those clouds, we saw movement inside them, long, dark shapes wriggling around. I didn’t need to speak Japanese to know what orders Kimura gave. The ship’s guns that were still above water opened fire. I held my breath waiting for those shells to detonate. They didn’t. The shells hit nothing, or what they did hit snuffed out the explosion like a match flame between my fingers.”
I found my voice, but it trembled. “The captain didn’t try steering away?”
Schechter snorted. “Steering away? His ship was dead in the water! The clouds swallowed her, and tendrils, black as pitch, fell on us like the branches of a leafless weeping willow. Their pointed tips poked through the steel roof as if it wasn’t there.” He swallowed. “The wails of the damned rose up from the deck below. I had to escape the bridge, but some crewmen rushed the hatch, too terrified to notice their captain waving his fist and shouting commands.”
“A different tendril for each man pierced his heart then slithered back out through the ceiling. Once the men’s screaming stopped, they were down for the count. The Japanese with sidearms shot at the tendrils, but the bullets passed right through them, tearing into the bodies of men who were still alive. As soon as each died, another tendril slunk into the bridge and pierced his heart.”
Schechter’s faraway look and hushed tone mirrored the horror. The story was real to him, at least. “How did you escape?” The scientist in me ached for evidence, but I was emotionally vested in this battle with Death.
“Kimura drew his sword. Like him, some of the officers were descended from samurai. They carried swords passed down for generations. The weapons had to have souls by then.”
“Or carry the psychic imprints of everyone to ever possess and revere them,” I said softly, more to myself than Schechter.
“A rose by any other name, Doctor. I’m just telling you that when one of those damn tendrils came for Kimura, he sliced right through it. He couldn’t sever something made of smoke, but the blade did something to it. The thing vanished into the roof. Kimura watched it go with eyes wide as saucers.”
“I was a twenty-three-year-old kid with a lot of living left to do. So, I took a sword off one of the fallen officers. I swung it like Babe Ruth’s bat through the tendril meant for me. It slipped out of sight, and that was the last of them.”
“Death’s work done, it released its hold on the sea. In seconds, the deck below was beneath the surface and the water rose to the bridge. The pressure shattered the forward windows panels, and the deluge swept me out through the gaping hole.
“The next thing I knew, I was bobbing in the water my hands still clutching the sword. There was nothing but blue sky in all directions. No sign of the Japanese ship, Kimura, or any of his crew. Just my savior, a destroyer flying the stars and stripes. The war ended before I was put back on active duty.”
“Like everyone else, I went home, married, raised a family. Except I didn’t age. My wife helped me hide it, makeup, hair dye, and such worked for a time, but eventually I had to live my life apart from everyone I loved.” He sniffled and rubbed eyes.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “That’s some story, Mr. Schechter, but—”
He reached into his bag with both hands and stood up with a long object wrapped in a thick blanket. “Clear a space, please.” I got up and moved the cigar box and other items off the desk to make room for his bundle.
“Your sword, I presume? Even if I were to have it authenticated, it doesn’t prove—”
“Authenticated?” Schechter scoffed. He slowly unwrapped the Japanese sword. The hilt looked time worn, but I was sure the polished, curved blade could still take someone’s head off. “It’s for you to use!”
“I-I don’t understand.” My blood turned to ice. Did Schechter want me to help him commit suicide? He was so psychotic as to believe his story, believe he’d lived too long. I picked up my phone to dial 911.
“You deserve to see your two little girls grow up,” he began, his tone grave, “but your cancer is terminal. You don’t have much time left.”
I dropped the phone. “H-How do you know that? No one knew, not my mother, not my friends. Certainly not my girls or my ex, who the court kept them safe from.
Schechter lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry. I truly am. Not just because you’re sick. But for not being upfront with you. I did come here to tell you my story, but that wasn’t the only reason. This is the part where I’m supposed to text my granddaughter to come in.”
“You can’t have a granddaughter.”
“I can’t be alive.” He shrugged. “She’s waiting in the car outside.” He retrieved a flip phone from his sweater pocket. “I’m no good at texting, so I’m calling her.” Apparently not having mastered the concept of speed dial either, I watched him tap out the full number. “Deborah, it’s time.”
The knock at my office door came a minute later. “Come in,” I managed in a small voice. My heart stopped at the sight of my oncologist. “Dr. Green? Y-You told this man about my cancer. Why?” I fell into my chair. Tears stung my eyes, but shock kept me from processing the enormity of the betrayal and its brazen illegality.
“This man’s my grandfather,” Dr. Green said. She stood beside him and took his hand. The resemblance was undeniable, most prominent among their shared features was the sandy hair, though hers was graying, and ocean-blue eyes. But being in her fifties, Dr. Green was most likely Schechter’s mother.
“Green’s my son-in-law’s name,” Schechter explained. “Her father.”
“What kind of sick joke—” I began.
“I’m risking my career because there’s a chance for you to make one last stand in your battle against cancer,” she said, her expression stone. “I’ve had other patients whom might’ve used my grandfather’s secret to save themselves, but had I told them they wouldn’t have believed me. I’d promptly be reported and no longer practicing medicine. They’d have died just the same. I assumed your being a parapsychologist opened your mind to extreme possibilities. I can’t know if you’ll have the opportunity to wield the sword…”
“I don’t know why I did,” Schechter said.
“But I knew you’d at least listen to my grandfather’s story,” Dr. Green continued. “Now, your only chance is if there’s a moment between your body’s death and when Death itself comes to claim your soul or whatever it was that happened during the war. I say ‘moment’ for lack of a better word. What my grandfather and those other men experienced may well have occurred outside of time.”
I rose to my feet and picked up the picture of my girls. Tears fell on the glass. “I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to outlive my children, either.”
“Nor do I,” Schechter said. “I have a plan to fly alone out to sea and keep going until my fuel runs dry. I’m not bringing the sword with me. When the time comes, you can choose your own way to move on.”
Dr. Green briefly bowed her head then locked eyes with me. “I can see to it the sword is under your mattress in hospice. No one will know it’s there but us.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have any experience wielding a sword, would you, Doctor?” Schechter asked.
“No, but I played softball in high school and college.”
He smiled. “That’ll do.”
I carefully wrapped the sword back in its blanket and handed it to Dr. Green. “Under my mattress, right?”
She nodded solemnly. “It’ll be there.”
Schechter collected his things and offered me his hand, which I somehow had the wherewithal to shake despite being in a daze.
After they left, I stood in silence for a time before walking out from behind my desk. I assumed the batter’s stance and, imagining the sword in my hands, practiced my swing.
Credit: Dr. Jason Gorbel
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