Last Words

A shadow filled Kate’s doorway.

“What.” Her voice came out more like a declarative than a question as she pounded away at her keyboard, the soft clicks barely audible above the hum of fluorescent lights and the rattle of the ancient heating system.

“It’s over.”

She stopped. Took a deep breath, let it out. So much for her story. She knew what her editor would be calling for, in about five minutes when he got the official announcement, so she pulled up the document for the final update.

“And?”

He slumped into the chair next to her desk. Answer enough for her. She resumed typing. Stories might change, but deadlines waited for no man or woman. Especially those of publications whose existence hung by a thread.

He smelled of hospital disinfectant, of bad coffee, of sweat. He wore the same shirt he’d had on yesterday. And maybe the day before, too. He leaned back, tented his hands together on his chest. “His last words were ‘fuck you.’ He was looking right at me when he said it.”

Kate looked up, readying a version of “What did you expect after you turned on him?” that wouldn’t sound coldly flippant. But the depth of pain and loss in his eyes stilled her tongue. “I’m sorry.”

He shrugged. “At least it’s done. Nothing left now but the shouting. And the lawyers, of course.”

She gazed into the copy on her monitor, imagining that shitshow. Not for the first time, she was grateful that she’d gotten out while she had the chance. Before it could destroy all her credibility. Before she became one more short-skirted blond Barbie doll off the factory line. She was broke, and it was pushing midnight and nearly everyone else in the newsroom had gone home, and while she wasn’t exactly happy, at least she could look into the mirror without hating herself.

Most of the time.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said. “That I could try to, I don’t know, justify why I did it. And then, crazy me, to apologize for it.”

She felt for him in that moment. He hadn’t been the first to try to make the world see the consequences of what the man was doing, all the pain he was causing—to his staff, his family, all the people he ordered around like living chess pieces in some bizarre plan in his head. Nor had he been the first to come sniveling back, although she would never throw that in her old friend’s face. Not now. Maybe later. But not now.

“You guys hiring?” he said.

She lifted a corner of her mouth. “Look around. You think we’re hiring? I’m lucky that I’m still getting paid.”

“I was joking.” He paused, looked at the ceiling. “Kind of.”

Her phone rang. She snapped up the receiver. “On it,” she said, and hung up. “I gotta finish this, and a few other things. You want to stick around, get a beer or something?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure. Call me when you’re done.” He got up slowly. Drifted toward the door.

She resumed typing.

“Hey, Kate?” One hand gripped the doorframe as if it was the only thing holding him up. “What he said to me…that’s off the record, right?”

“Of course,” she said.

His footsteps disappeared down the hallway, lost in the sound of her keyboard and the balky HVAC system and the lights. She finished the obit, adding the copy from the two-line official statement, and submitted it to her editor. He quickly responded with his okay and invited her to call it a night.

She was about to shut down her system but then stopped. She pulled up the obit again, disappointed with the boilerplate quality of it. More would come tomorrow, she was sure, but this was all she could do for now.

But she could do something else. Her eyes misting over, she made a copy of the document and edited the first paragraph to include “…the former president’s last utterance was to tell his unofficial biographer—a talented journalist and author who is also his son, although the family had disavowed his existence and paid her mother for her silence—to go expletive himself.”

Then she printed out the file for her dear bereft friend, tucked it in her pocket, shut down her computer and left. Maybe for the last time.

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