Authors: Mia Zabrisky
December 23, 1965—Boston, Massachusetts
Large ornate flakes swirled through the air, reminding Will Ballard of the randomness of the universe. He thought about his adulterous wife and how much he wanted to kill her. He held up his hand to catch a few flakes, each one unique, and they melted on his palm. He shivered and checked his watch. Her class was almost over. Any minute now. He glanced up and down the sidewalk and smoothed his fingers over the stubble on his chin. He’d forgotten to shave that morning. He’d been forgetting a lot of things lately.
Charlotte came strolling out of Randall Hall with a young male student, and Will’s breath froze in his lungs. She looked incredible—her coat was apple green and her cheeks were apple red. She was slender and beautiful with blue-green eyes and long auburn hair, and her young male student was tall and handsome and athletic-looking, a guy of about 20, and hell, they were laughing. They appeared to be exchanging cynical wry comments, and his wife seemed blissfully happy—and that shocked him, because he remembered a time when he used to make her laugh. Will liked it when his wife laughed; her whole face lit up, and she reminded him of the girl on the bus with the shapely legs who’d picked him up eight years ago, the girl with the prim mouth who’d spoken with such hopefulness and energy about her “embryonic career,” the girl who’d taken him home to her apartment and had led him into her bedroom and knelt down in front of him and slowly unzipped his pants. Her head lolling back. Those prim lips promising things.
Now he burned with jealousy. He waited until they were a few yards away before he stood up and met her impenetrable gaze. They were supposed to be in love, but maybe they’d never been in love? Maybe these past eight years had been nothing but self-delusion on his part? In what universe was this okay?
Charlotte stared at her husband as if she’d been hit in the stomach. “Will? What are you doing here?”
The young male student watched them nervously, while snow drifted down around them, creating white scribbles in the air.
Charlotte said, “Owen, this is my husband, Will. Will, this is one of my students, Owen Landry.”
“Hello.” The boy held out his hand. Adorable as a puppy. Anxious to please.
Will turned and loped away—like Frankenstein’s monster loping and staggering off into the blizzard.
“Will?” Charlotte cried with genuine anguish. “Where are you going?”
Three days later, they were a thousand miles up in the sky.
She had promised to love him forever. Him. Only him.
They had already booked their flight to Santa Barbara for the holidays and didn’t want to cancel. They were spending Christmas with the in-laws.
“As long as we’re there, let’s rent a car and drive to Solvang, okay?” Charlotte said soothingly, still trying to make it up to him. “I want to buy a bottle of that burgundy that Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman were always drinking in
Great. Now he was jealous of Cary Grant.
Will didn’t remember the movie, only his wife’s detailed recounting of certain scenes. He’d fallen asleep twice while watching
“Sure,” he said.
“Okay.” She nuzzled against his shoulder.
He knew that she’d once loved him. Truly loved him. Life was a series of moments—and Charlotte had loved him for many of those moments, but at some point she had stopped loving him, and the moments kept slipping away. Life was liquid—Will knew that now. Time was fluid. You couldn’t control what happened. The only constant was change. Except that he was developing a theory about how to reverse that. How to alter time and space. He was working on a quantum project with his partner—a secret project. Not even the boss knew about it.
Charlotte had the window seat, and she kept turning to look at the clouds with such intensity on her face, he suspected she wasn’t over Owen yet. It pissed him off, but he said nothing. They had declared a truce.
Her hand snaked toward him in the dark. She had made herself up with Cleopatra-like indulgence, and the hieroglyphics of her jewelry confused him. “Let’s start over, Will. Okay?”
“A fresh start?”
“Yeah, we could do that.” He squeezed her hand and tried not to hate her too much. He tried to believe her. They’d been arguing for days about his so-called jealous nature, and it had driven him to the brink of apoplexy. He didn’t want to fight anymore.
It was overcast and gray outside. They were halfway across the country, heading for a week of horseback-riding and wine-tasting with the in-laws. Already he missed the lab. He found his work to be so stimulating that he often forgot what time it was and worked until midnight. No wonder his marriage was falling apart. How was he supposed to fix this?
He loosened his tie, took off his reading glasses and tucked them into his shirt pocket. The man seated next to them in the aisle seat had a damp, nibbling, rodent-like face. He smiled indulgently at them, which only irritated Will. Some people liked to chat during long flights, but Will was not one of those people.
The flight attendant rolled by with the drink cart, and Charlotte sat up straight. “I’ll have a Coke,” she said, and the flight attendant popped the tab and started to pour it into a plastic cup. “Wait. I prefer Coke straight from the can, if you don’t mind.”
“But you can taste the aluminum,” the flight attendant said.
“Better than plastic, right?”
The flight attendant shrugged and handed Charlotte her Coke in a can.
“You’re welcome. And what would you like, sir?” she asked Will.
“Just a napkin.”
“Okay. Here you go. And you, sir?”
Charlotte glanced at her husband. “Just a napkin?”
He took out his felt-tip pen and started scribbling something down.
“Oh great,” Charlotte said. “Another brainstorm.”
He didn’t want to lose the thought—it had come with remarkable clarity in a blinding flash of insight. You could fold time and space over like a loop of paper. He was terrified he wasn’t going to get it all down.
“Will?” his wife whispered.
“Shh,” he hissed.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that…”
“Shut up a second!”
“Oh great. Just great.” She deflated beside him. “Shut up yourself.” She angrily plopped her wet can down on his drop tray, and some of her soda slopped out of the can and drenched the flimsy napkin he’d been writing his equations on.
“… the hell, Charlotte?” he shouted. “What are you doing?”
“Sorry,” she whispered fiercely, her face flushing crimson.
“For chrissakes!” He tried to piece the drenched napkin together but it was too late. It was ruined. He could feel the revelation, the insight, slipping away—and he couldn’t let that happen. “Stewardess!” he barked, then turned toward his wife and said, “Do you have to have my complete, undivided attention every freaking second of every freaking day?”
“Is everything okay?” the flight attendant asked, leaning over them.
“No,” Will said harshly. “I need another napkin.”
“Another napkin. This one’s all wet.”
“I’m so sorry,” Charlotte whispered.
The engine stalled and the plane began to shake.
“Another napkin, sir?”
“Yes. Now. Quick. Give me some napkins. Just grab a handful.”
“Now!” he shouted.
The flight attendant handed him a fistful of napkins and hurried away with the drink cart. She was probably going to report him to the pilot. He tried to collect his thoughts, but he was so angry, his mind went blank. All he pictured was a reddish blur.
Now the plane was making an odd sound, like a strong wind billowing across a canvas tent—
pucka pucka pucka
. It was pitch dark outside the windows.
“Fasten your seatbelts, put your trays in their upright positions,” another flight attendant said as she hurried up the aisle toward the front of the plane.
There was a bright flash of lightning and a collective gasp as they bounced in heavy turbulence, and everyone automatically fastened their seatbelts and sat very still. The plane gradually filled with a worried silence.
Will glanced at his wife, the napkins bunched in his fist. “Fasten your seatbelt, Charlotte.”
“I can’t.” She struggled to secure her buckle, and Will had to drop the napkins in order to reach over and help her. “Shit.” He fumbled with her seatbelt, thinking how lousy his luck was. He had terrible luck. He didn’t want to forget the revelation—he tried repeating it inside his head. He forced himself to memorize what had hit him with such lightning-like acuity a few seconds ago.
He picked up the napkins. There was another flash, followed by a loud explosion, like a car backfiring. He looked out the window. A bolt of lightning hit the plane’s wing and tore it off. The plane was on fire. They went into a nosedive. Everybody screamed and covered their heads. There was a knocking sound, like a horse butting against a stall door.
Charlotte grabbed his hand and said, “Listen to me. I love you, Will. I don’t care what you think. You’ve been crazy jealous, and ridiculously busy, but I haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t sleep with anyone. I’ve been totally faithful to you. I’m a loyal person. I thought you knew that about me? I resent like hell your suspicions, but I love you. Do you understand? I love you, despite how crazy you act sometimes.”
People screamed as the plane plunged earthward.
He nodded, in complete denial. “We’re going to be all right,” he insisted. He could feel the blood rushing out of his face. He could feel his stomach drop. A bunch of brightly wrapped Christmas gifts catapulted around inside the cabin, cards and boxes flying like projectiles. The screams became unbearable. Will could hear the horror and desperation in people’s voices—nobody wanted to go like this.
The intercom crackled. “This is the captain speaking. Brace for impact.”
Oh Jesus. They were going down.
As they plummeted to earth, the other wing came off, leaving a hole in the fuselage through which his wife disappeared. She was sucked out of the plane.
“Charlotte!” he screamed, his agony surreal. He couldn’t believe it. His mind kept trying to put her back in the seat next to him.
There was a toxic smell, like burning upholstery, and he realized this was it. He was going to die. He bent double, drew his knees to his chest and braced for impact. The plummeting plane shook so violently it began to break apart in midair. The noise was deafening. Pieces ripped off and went flying into the stratosphere.
The plane hit the trees with an earsplitting succession of crashes that ripped his entire row of seats from the fuselage, and suddenly Will was catapulted into the misty air.
He couldn’t hear anybody screaming anymore—just the wind whistling in his ears. His wife was gone. The rodent-faced passenger was gone. He was alone in the gloomy evening air, tightly buckled into his row of seats, which kept spinning around in a slow clumsy tumble, following a wilting trajectory. Below him, the ground rotated like a roulette wheel.
Will let the napkins go, and they flew into his face and whipped away. So much for that. The row of seats bounced through the treetops and landed in the dense brush. The impact slammed him forward and back, his belt buckle snapped open, and he was thrown viciously into the nettles and knocked unconscious.
When he woke up, he had no idea where he was. He was in the woods somewhere. Tall pines. Cold air. He got to his feet.
His shirt was torn and spattered with blood. He had gashes and cuts on his arms and chest and scrapes on his hands. One of his fingers was broken and he’d sprained his left ankle. Otherwise he was okay. Hell. He was alive. He could walk.
The ground was frozen. He was shoeless. He limped through the woods and saw charred corpses and dismembered body parts. A plane crash. The woods were strewn with burning wreckage and dead people. He must have been aboard that plane. He couldn’t remember anything that had happened. He didn’t even know his name.
Suddenly the engine exploded about 100 feet behind him. Molten metal shot up into the air and scattered across the ground, huge metal chunks slamming and cart-wheeling toward him. He ran from the flaming debris as tiny metal pieces whizzed past his head like bullets.
He stumbled upon an obese woman with third-degree burns over her entire body. She was babbling incoherently. He knelt down beside her and said, “Are you okay?” He saw that she had no legs. “Stay here. I’ll go get help.” He was lying. She wasn’t going to make it.
The woman gratefully closed her eyes.
He stood up. It was eerily quiet. He began to shiver.
He kept moving.
The silence was terrible.
“Hello?” he shouted. “Hello? Anyone?”
He found a dead man sticking out of the ground. He was dressed in a business suit. He’d landed headfirst in the dirt and was buried up to the shoulders. Will stood for a moment, debating whether or not to take his shoes. In the end, he took them.