Full Stop

Life ring

The four of us were fairly subdued from watching the reports on TV, and the conversation between was limited to little things that weren’t reminders of the war. I wasn’t hungry, but I ate to feel normal. I glanced at Kenichi as I sipped a bit of miso soup from the bowl. He wasn’t eating. He wasn’t even looking. Since we’d seen the reports he’d developed a limp, unfocused stare, broken only by an occasional tremor or weary sigh.

“Kenichi,” I said, breaking the silence. “Your sister… there’s still hope for her.”

He didn’t understand. Takeshi adjusted his thick, black glasses, and translated. “Hope,” he said in English, then spoke the Japanese equivalent. Yumi looked at her hands.

Kenichi’s eyes darkened as he shook his head. “No. No hope. L.A. shinda. Yukichan shinda.”

I looked at Takeshi.

Shinda,” he said. “It means dead. L.A. is dead. And his sister, Yukiko….” He looked down without finishing.

“No, no, Kenichi,” I replied, leaning toward him. “We don’t know anything yet. She could have survived. My parents, my friends, they could have survived. We have to be strong while we wait for more information.”

Takeshi spoke the translation in a soft voice.

Dahmeh!” Kenichi screamed, and with a sudden swipe of his arms, he scattered his lunch onto the floor. The already quiet room went cold. “Dahmeh, Dahmeh!” he repeated. He jumped out of his chair and bolted from the dining room. I immediately got up to follow, but Takeshi yanked me back. “No. Respect him. Let him go.”

I shot a look of disbelief at Yumi, and she nodded. “Daijyoubu,” she said with soft eyes, gently motioning for me to sit.

I took my seat and pushed my tray forward. Yumi watched me for a little while, then went back to her lunch. A few moments later a worker came by to quietly clean up Kenichi’s tray. As I watched her picking up the bits of fish and rice with her hands, my thoughts began to wander to my own family and friends. Because we new almost nothing about the casualties on the ground, I hadn’t fully considered the possibility of all of them perishing in the blasts. I still held out hope that they were somewhere safe, that they’d had some kind of forewarning. Perhaps I was being dense. Perhaps, like Kenichi, I needed to start the grieving process.

“Wayne-san!” Said a gruff voice, interrupting my thoughts.

I looked up. Takeshi and Yumi were already getting out of their chairs, bowing to the gray-haired captain. He was flanked by two very serious looking, blue helmeted men.

“Yes?” I asked, rising from my chair.

“You come with us,” the captain said. He gestured to his men, and they circled around each side of the table, grabbing my arms.

“Hey, what the hell?”

Yumi’s eyes widened. She flashed a confused look at the captain, but he ignored her, and she didn’t push it. Takeshi also questioned the captain’s actions and he was given a terse response in Japanese. He looked at me askance, then nodded as if he understood.

“What’s going on here?” I said, stumbling over the leg of a chair.

“You are North Korea spy,” said the captain.

“What?!”

“We hear your phone call. You are spy.”

I laughed. “No, no, that’s insane. I am just a scientist. Telders, the guy on the phone, was only setting up a radio telescope in North Korea. Just like the one in Hokkaido. Nothing to do with the government. I didn’t even know he was there!”

“No more lies!” The captain shouted. He barked at his men and turned to go. They shouldered me to follow.

“Hold on!” I tried to hold my ground. “This is a huge misunderstanding!”

The guards shoved me forward. “Move!”

“Okay, okay, Christ,” I said. I didn’t want to make a scene. Yumi’s mouth hung open in disbelief as the guards dragged me away. Before we excited the dining room, I heard her voice, followed by a sharp rebuke from her brother.

We followed the captain up the stairs at the end of the corridor, heading in the direction of my room.

“This is a only a misunderstanding,” He didn’t even look at me. I repeated to the guard on my left. I checked the one on my right. “A translation problem, perhaps.” Nothing.

The guards escorted me to my little room. The captain stopped and turned to face me.

“Captain Moriyama, please,” I said. “I’m no spy.”

“Japanese police waiting you in Tokyo. No more talk. You are prisoner.” The captain waved his hand. “Sayonara, Wayne-san.”

He turned to go. He was just around the corner when the loud hum of the engines suddenly cut out, and an ear-splitting horn sounded throughout the ship. The captain spun back around and yelled something at the guards. One of them immediately took off, and the other squeezed my arm and yanked me forward. He ran fast, and I stumbled trying to keep up with him.

“Run!” He yelled in my ear.

“Why?! What’s going on?” I screamed over the wail of the horn.

“Run!”

“But…”

He loosened his grip so I could run freely. We cut through lower-deck toward the bow of the ship and clamored up the stairs. I briefly considered taking off, but I had nowhere to go. Plus, if we were all about to die or something, then that tactic might just work against me. I had no choice but to follow.

We broke out into the evening air. At the bow, a crowd of frantic sailors had formed at the rails, scanning the ocean. The sun was low in the sky and giant spotlights from atop the ship were searching the waves. The withering horn continued to blare: man overboard.

The guard took off, but I joined him at the rail and started looking. The sea was raging. I didn’t know how long whoever had been in the water, but he wouldn’t last long. The waves crashed hard against the prow, tall, vicious crests followed by brief, deep troughs. Nothing but water. I ran to the other side of the bow. Someone handed me a bright orange life ring and I slung it over my shoulder. Same story on the port side. I started scanning in ten degree increments. In the distance, the rest of the whaling fleet, three other ships, was slowly closing in, sounding their horns in unison.

Someone screamed. It was Yumi. I ran to her side.

Ah-re! Ah-re!” She yelled.

“Yumi! Where? Where?”

“Ah! Wayne-san! Mi-te, mi-te!” Yumi pointed at a giant wave. I watched, and after it had passed I saw a flash of white. A shirt. “Kenichi!” She hollered. “Kenichi!”

Oh God. Kenichi. I didn’t have time to think. “Move!” I shouted. Yumi jumped aside and I waited for the next trough, then flung the life ring into the hole. It landed only a few feet from the body, but Kenichi wasn’t moving. Panicked voices shouted, and few more life rings went out, peppering the water. Another wave crested over him, and he vanished.

“Kenichi! Kenichi!”

There was still a chance. I kicked off my shoes, climbed the rail, and dove.

I sliced into the freezing water and nearly sucked in a lung full of water from the shock. I tried to move as quickly as possible, but my muscles resisted. For a second I had no idea which way was up—the momentum had carried me farther down than I’d expected. I struggled against the icy water until I caught sight of a spotlight. I broke the surface at the prow, gasping for air. A sudden, giant wave slammed me into the hull, knocking my body against the hard steel. I tried to catch my breath, but a trough followed, and I knew I had to go, quickly. I dove into the base of the coming wave and let it crash over me. I came up to a chorus of excited voices from above. They were pointing toward the spot where they had last seen Kenichi. I dove under again and swam underwater for a good minute or so and came up underneath a life ring. I looked back to the ship for direction. The crowd was pointing straight down. I was in the right spot. Yumi and her brother were drawing out ladder. They tossed it over and started to lower it along the side of the ship. A flurry of life rings followed.

No time to waste.

I took another full breath and dove. The searchlights weren’t helping much beneath the water. I fought the current, reaching out, searching with my hands. Nothing. I surfaced and the waves blew me back to my original position. I was already exhausted. My skin felt like rubber. I cursed and I took another breath, then dove again, straining to swim out farther, deeper, frantically kicking and swiping the depths with my arms. My chest started to burn. I headed back up for air.

The current had carried me along the starboard side of the ship and I found myself dragging along the side of the hull. My shoulders exploded in pain as a row of barnacles ripped into my flesh. I howled and grabbed onto a cluster of them to catch my breath. I almost had nothing left.  What the hell was I doing? There was no way Kenichi had survived this long. No way.

Suddenly there was a scream from above. I whipped my head around and caught a flash of Kenichi’s white shirt. With quick breath, I pushed off from the hull and dove toward him with my arms out. I grabbed his limp body from behind and kicked my way back to the ship. The sailors above were moving the ladder toward us. I reached back and caught it with one arm, fighting to keep Kenichi’s head above water. The waves pounded, repeatedly throwing us against the hull. It was all I could do to hold on. I had nothing more. I felt the ladder jerk, as they tried to reel us in, and Kenichi’s body slipped. I tried to hold on, but my muscles protested. I couldn’t do it.

Kenichi fell, and I followed. I barely held on to him in the ocean, just enough to keep him close. There were a dozen life rings around us, and a few more dropped from above. I finally caught one and wrenched his legs through the hole. I managed to get another and wrapped it around his right arm and head, then turned him over. Kenichi’s face was still and white.

“Come on, Goddamnit!” I shouted.

The waves pushed us in toward the hull and down along the starboard side. More rings sailed through the air as they tracked us from above. I caught another one floating by, and hung on to it.  With my free arm, I grabbed Kenichi around the back of his neck, pinched his nose, and blew into his mouth. Nothing. I tried again. No response. I didn’t have any kind of leverage to do CPR; I tried to brace him against my knee and push on his chest, but it was impossible. I checked his pulse. “Goddamnit,” I whispered.

I floated in the water with him until the Nisshin Maru’s zodiac came for us. The two sailors in the boat pulled him in first, and then helped me up. They worked on him for a while, then shook their heads. Kenichi was gone.

They brought their Zodiac up with a giant crane on the stern. Kenichi’s body was moved to the deck. Takeshi and the captain stood over him as the ship’s doctor finally made the call.

A few of the sailors bowed to me as I staggered away. I found my way to the back of the crowd where Yumi waited. She covered me with a thick blanket.

“I should have gone after him,” I said. “In the dining room. I should have followed him. This would have never happened.”

She shook her head. “You are good man, Wayne-san. You did all you could.”

I looked back to the body on the deck. “No, Yumi, I didn’t. I was slow, weak, and I failed.”

A sailor brought out a green tarp to cover the body. Captain Moriyama looked up, caught my eye, and gestured to his guards.

I sniffed in response and leaned my head against the cold steel hull, watching as Takeshi and another sailor wrapped the body in the tarp.  The wind was blowing hard and they had to struggle to keep it from flying away. The captain handed them a roll of electrical tape and Takeshi held the tarp in place with his knee as they ripped pieces from the roll.

Yumi smoothed out a few wrinkles in the blanket. “They are wrong about you,” she said. “You are not spy.”

I took a deep breath and exhaled loudly as I watched the guards weaving through the crowd.

“I don’t know what I am anymore,” I breathed.

The wind kicked up and blew Yumi’s long hair into her face. She tucked it behind her ears, then moved closer to me and took my hand. “I fight this,” she whispered.

The guards closed in. “Okay,” one of them said, grabbing my arm. I didn’t fight it.

Saite!” Yumi barked.

The guard rattled off a few sharp words in Japanese. Yumi met him with a sneer.

“Let’s go,” he said, and yanked on my arm. Yumi flinched, and the other guard immediately flashed his palm at her. Don’t.

Baka!” Yumi growled at them as they pulled me away. “Baka! YAMERO!