Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor
Rumors of My Death
[p.253]I was sitting in my usual booth at my favorite diner, casually reading the Deseret News, while I sipped my sugar-free, imitation orange-flavored breakfast drink, when I spied a picture of myself on page B-5. Not the kind of guy to look a gift horse in the mouth, I decided to see what the News had to say about me this time.
They said I was dead.
This came as a bit of a surprise, so I read on to see just how my demise had occurred. According to the obituary, “popular columnist Kim Taylor”—that’s me—died in an aircar accident on the Bonneville Salt Flats two days before. I was survived by my “wife, Chris Taylor, who was currently out of the country,” and my urn “could be visited at the Little Cottonwood Crematorium for the next three days before being shipped to the grieving widow.” Apparently in my Instant Will I had bequeathed “all my assets and properties to Deseret Industries,” thus neatly avoiding death taxes.
Well, aside from the most obvious fact that I was sitting there, very much alive, reading all of this, it was perfectly clear to me that they had really screwed up this time. Not only had I not been to the Flats in at least a month, maybe two, I have an excellent record and have never wrecked my aircar. Well, not seriously. OK, not seriously enough to have killed me. Yet.
Also Chris wasn’t out of the country. She was simply on the other side of it, visiting relatives in Nantucket. Indefinitely. I don’t think she would have appreciated being billed as my “grieving widow” either.
[p.254]The tip-off that this was somebody’s idea of a joke was the idea of the crematorium. They had been promising us for years that the technology was “almost to the point” where someone near death could be frozen and later repaired and revived. I had signed up two years ago. I figured they’d have to practice on somebody and it might as well be somebody who didn’t care instead of someone who had a real reason to come back from the dead.
I did like the touch about having left everything to Deseret Industries though. I hadn’t thought of that myself, but I wished I had. Those people distribute things in their multistate thrift-shop network so efficiently that Chris wouldn’t be able to recover a fraction of her belongings by the time she flew back from Nantucket.
Well, I had enjoyed the practical joke, but it was time to find out who the perpetrator was so I could start planning my revenge. I popped out my phone, but there was no dial tone, only a mechanical voice repeating “This number has been disconnected” and instructing me to call the Cellular business office with any inquiries I might have.
Fine, that would be my second call. In the meantime I slid my Call-Anywhere card through the payphone reader to make what should have been a simple call. The vid-screen blinked through a series of messages about card privileges having been revoked and if I still wanted to make a call would I please insert the proper change into the machine?
I never carry cash.
Since I’m a regular customer, I was able to talk the waitress out of enough change to call the newspaper where I was given some song-and-dance about not being able to give out the information I was requesting over the telephone and if I would like to come to their offices in person, with proper identification as a relative of the deceased, and fill out the necessary paperwork, then perhaps my question could be addressed. Good God!
I put breakfast on my account (I guess no one at the diner knew I was dead yet), and headed to my aircar, both impressed with my tormentor’s skill at pulling off this joke and determined to do him one better, or her. But first I would have to determine the extent of the joke. I didn’t think the Deseret News would print an obituary without some verification that the deceased in question was actually dead, so I headed over to their business office to pull a few strings and find out who had submitted the obit.
[p.255]As a syndicated columnist I don’t really work for the News and therefore don’t rate a parking space. But I do have friends, and one of those friends owed me a favor once upon a time, a long time ago, and I’ve been one of the privileged few who doesn’t have to fight for parking in metropolitan Salt Lake City ever since. Until today. When I arrived at the garage, I found my usual parking spot all right, but there was some guy there putting somebody else’s name on it. Even as I sat there and watched him do it, another aircar pulled up, took my space, and settled down for its long winter’s nap, the owner strolling off to the elevators as though he owned the place. I was speechless, struck completely dumb for perhaps the second time in my entire life. Not one to let minor inconveniences slow me down, however, I maneuvered my aircar into the nearest empty space, hoped the guy was on vacation, and went into the building.
I stopped counting the number of people who did double-takes as I passed them after one of the newsroom secretaries threw an entire stack of papers in the air at the sight of me. Mumbling something to the effect of “not yet” to various incarnations of “aren’t you dead?” I traversed the circuitous route to my desk and did not stop to chat about it.
Whoever it was had gotten to my cubicle too.
A re-recycled paperboard container sat in the walkway, my nameplate neatly taped to the lid. Other than that there was no sign that I, or anyone else for that matter, had ever occupied the cubby. Even the whiteboard had either been bleached or replaced, because there were no stains from the times I had accidentally grabbed a permanent marker to write notes to myself. Every tack had been removed, the floor had been cleaned, and I was sure the tops of the cabinets would pass the white-glove test for the first time in several years. I didn’t have a glove, so I didn’t bother to try.
This was getting out of hand.
I suspected I was dealing with a pro, so I wasn’t surprised when I tried logging onto the computer and was rewarded with an “invalid password” message. But journalists are an inquisitive bunch, so I just typed in one of the many passwords belonging to other News reporters that I happen to have “noticed” over the course of my association with the paper. Once in I dug into the obituary files—they’re not locked because the reporters use them for research—I took a look at mine. It looked perfectly normal, complete with pertinent vital statistics, the [p.256]information the paper had printed about the accident, a partial transcript of the Instant Will, and the verification of death, which is all I had wanted in the first place, so I dumped a hard copy to the nearest printer.
I couldn’t get into the Personnel files, but I did take a look at my latest column, downloaded via the syndicated network for whom I officially am—was?—employed. It had a very touching editorial note appended to it:
This is the last column submitted by Kim Taylor before his tragic demise over the weekend. We will not only miss the wit and wisdom of his columns, but his actual presence around the Deseret News offices as well. The editorial staff joins with his grieving widow in wishing him the best of whatever the next life holds.
I couldn’t believe it. Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble. All of a sudden I got this chill—it started at the base of my neck and chain-reacted its way down my spine, spreading out along my arms and legs until it hit my fingers and toes. What if I was really dead, and just didn’t know it?
Dead people didn’t borrow money, drive aircars, and use computer terminals. At least not according to any theology I know. No, I was definitely not dead. And I wasn’t ready to admit that I was until I saw the coroner’s report. So I congratulated the assembled gawkers on their collective effort and asked how many of them it had taken to pull this hoax off. After being met with a bevy of blank looks, I headed off to the morgue in search of a “Dr. M. Jordan,” to see what he had to say.
Dr. Jordan, when I finally found him, was working on a body. I was hesitant about interrupting, but he seemed glad for the break. “It happens every now and again,” he said, rummaging through a stack of diskettes for the one with my death recorded on it.
“You talk to dead people?”
“Sure. Someone will come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m not dead.’ And I’ll say, ‘Sure you are,’ and show them their death certificate. I suppose you want a hard copy?” He was sending the document to print even as I nodded my response. “Anyway, they’ll look at the certificate, usually take a copy, then leave. I guess some people just don’t want to admit when it’s over.” He handed me my certificate, complete with his official seal and signature and reached for a new pair of rubber gloves.
[p.257]I looked at the certificate. It seemed official enough, but I still wasn’t about to take the word of a piece of paper and go quietly to my grave. “Who’s this?” I asked, pointing to the name of the guy listed as having identified my remains.
Jordan peered at it, then consulted his computer. “According to the police report, Steven Carter was the person on duty on the Flats when you wrecked. He identified you there. I never met him.”
“What about the body?”
“What about it?”
“Did it look like me?”
“I wouldn’t know. When they brought in the wreckage of your aircar it was mostly a blob of polyurethane with a few bone and metal fragments and a slightly damaged Instant Will chip sticking up out of it like a flag. I pronounced it dead. In other words there wasn’t much left for the crematorium to dispose of, and your urn probably contains as much of the car as it does of you.”
I sighed. Investigative reporting was never really my strong point. That’s why I make my living doing humor and satire. Still unless I wanted to roll over, I was now going to have to track down this Steven Carter guy and find out what made him think I was dead. I was on my way out the door when Jordan called me back.
“One piece of advice.”
“Stay dead. Once the system thinks you’re out, it’s a whole lot easier to stay out than to get back in.”
“I’ll remember that.”
Stay dead. Sure, Doc. There was one problem with that: aside from the occasional lousy moment, I rather liked being alive.
I dug up a telephone on the temporarily vacant desk of an out-to-lunch city employee. My vid-screen Tele-Directory search turned up listings for two-hundred and eighty-four Carters, but only twenty-seven individuals named Steven, not counting alternate spellings and individuals listed simply as “S.” I spent the next thirty-some-odd minutes calling each and asking if they were the Steven Carter who worked out at the Flats. When I finally struck gold, it turned out the guy was at work, and his wife said she didn’t expect him back until sometime that evening. Next stop, Bonneville Salt Flats.
Steven Carter was a college student who spent six hours a day, five days a week sitting behind the counter at the Flats, studying. Occasion-[p.258]ally the job required him to look up from his books and help someone. Today that someone was me.
“Oh, sure. I remember that accident,” he said. “It was a meltdown.”
“Yeah. The death certificate said you identified the body.”
“Mm-hmm.” He sounded wary.
“May I ask how you did that?”
“It wasn’t my usual shift,” he said as he reached for a large book on the counter and turned a few pages. “I was filling in for one of the other guys, and it was a busy day.” He tapped at the page, which had ‘Saturday 7/14’ written in big letters at the top. “Everyone who comes to speed-test has to sign. Here it is: ‘Kim Taylor, SLC, Sector 17, 2:30 p.m.’”
“At 2:30 p.m. last Saturday, I was losing a racquetball game. I was not at the Flats,” I said acerbically.
“Hey, look, I just showed the police the register. I’m not responsible for what they did with the information.”
“I don’t suppose you remember the name of the officer who made the report?” I was fishing, but it was worth a try.
I was beginning to see what Jordan had meant about it being easier to stay dead. Steven and I consulted the Tele-Directory and found a number of Taylors—not quite as many as there had been Carters, but a sizable number nonetheless. Probably the result of years of polygamy. My listing had already been deleted, and there were no other Kim Taylors listed, which probably explains why the police had decided I was the deceased in question. There were five other “K. Taylors,” however, so we called them. The first four were Karla, Kathleen, Kathryn, and Keira, none of whom had ever even been to the Flats. The fifth was picked up by a sultry-voiced answering machine which informed me that “Kim wasn’t able to take my call just now, but if I’d like to leave a message she’d get back with me as soon as she was able.”
“Hello, Kim Taylor. This is Kim Taylor,” I said to the machine, “and theoretically one of us is dead. I don’t think it’s me. I hope it’s not you. I’d leave my number, but the phone company thinks I’m the dead one. I’ll be calling you; hope you’re in.”
I made a note of her address.
Steven couldn’t tell me anything more since the other Kim Taylor [p.259]had checked him- or-herself in while he was outside talking to another driver. But that and the voice on the answering machine got me to thinking. It had never occurred to me that the occupant of my urn might be a female Kim. Why couldn’t my parents have jumped on the Jacob-Jared-Jason-Joshua bandwagon, anyway?
At least now I knew this wasn’t somebody’s idea of a joke. There was actually a dead body, and it wasn’t mine. I even had a pretty good idea whose it was. All I had to do now was convince the entire U.S. government that they’d made a mistake. Simple.
By the time I got back home, the utilities had been shut off, and Deseret Industries workers, with their usual industriousness, had cleaned the place out. Everything was gone, including the partial roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. As I sit here writing this, I am indebted to the computer industry for making notebook computers with lightweight, long-lasting batteries, and to my foresightedness in always carrying mine along.
The ATM swallowed my cash-card.
My Master-The-Possibilities card was confiscated when I tried to get a cash advance.
I don’t carry American Express, but my guess is that it would have been revoked too, since I left home without it.
I finally went to Kim Taylor’s apartment. The other Kim Taylor. It seemed the logical thing to do. She still had a functioning telephone. And a well-stocked kitchen.
I called my lawyer. I called my accountant. I called every public official I knew, to no avail. They all tried to be helpful, saying nice things like, “I’m really sorry about that, Kim. Maybe if you called so-and-so over in such-and-such a department they might be able to help you.”
I even called Chris. I got through this morning.
“I thought you were dead.”
“A misconception, it seems.”
“What a shame. I rather liked the idea of being a rich widow.”
“Not so rich, I’m afraid. My possessions were left to D.I. They collected them while I was out researching my demise. Didn’t you read the will?”
“Well, what about my possessions?”
“They took those, too.”
“Thanks a lot!”
[p.260]“Anytime. Look, Chris, I’d love to sit here and bicker with you, but this is long-distance—”
If you’re dead, who’s paying for the call?”
“I don’t suppose you’d care to explain?”
I explained. I don’t think she believed me at first, but she had already deposited the check for the life insurance and wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of having to give it back. Or the new car.
“Well, sweetheart, as much as I wish I could help you out, just talking to you could get me thrown in jail for insurance fraud.”
“Where would you like your ashes scattered?”
“Chris, this is serious!”
“Really, Kim, it was so nice of you to die when you did. Saves me the cost of a messy divorce. Besides it’s much more fashionable to be a widow than just another divorcee.”
“And you left me so well cared for. The insurance ought to be enough to replace all that stuff the D.I. people took.”
“Chris, will you be reasonable?”
“I think I’m being perfectly reasonable. Good-bye, darling. Have a nice afterlife.”
She hung up.
I suppose it could have been worse. I mean, I could have really been dead and she could have been grief stricken and all that. At least this way I get to have the pleasure of haunting her occasionally and letting her explain me to her friends.
I haven’t figured out what I’ll do next. I can’t stay here indefinitely—sooner or later someone will come looking for the other Kim Taylor. Besides I’m running out of groceries. I continue to submit my daily column to the network in hopes of getting my old job back, but I haven’t seen any of them in print.
The Instant Will people are advertising their chips as a next-generation product that can take a meltdown and using a photo of my melted remains in their current campaign. I called to let them know that their chip wasn’t accurate, but they said since I was dead I didn’t have any legal rights in the matter. Nor was I entitled to royalties.
In school our teachers told us of the old days when bureaucracies got bogged down in the shuffling and filing of pieces of paper stuck [p.261]together with red tape. Now a person’s life can be erased in the time it takes to type DECEASED next to the nine-digit number that represents everything you have ever done. Maybe Dr. Jordan was right after all. Lose your number and you cease to exist. Still there are ways to get other numbers. Perhaps I’ll just stay dead and create a new identity. Maybe one named Jared.