Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (6 page)

Eva

Berkeley, California

August

Six Months before the Crash

Eva waited for him outside his dorm. It wasn't the same one she'd lived in, so many years ago, but a newer one, with softer edges and dark wood trim, as if they wanted students to feel like they were living in an Italian villa instead of student housing. Her gaze traveled upward, over windows that were open to catch the cool morning air, posters of bands she'd never heard of, taped picture-side out. From the center of campus, the Campanile chimed the hour, and students with early-morning classes passed by her as she stood on the sidewalk, leaning against a car that didn't belong to her. No one looked at Eva. They never did.

Finally, he exited, his backpack slung across one shoulder, his nose buried in his phone. He didn't notice Eva until she fell into step beside him.

“Hi, Brett,” she said.

He looked up, startled, and a flash of worry crossed his face when he saw who it was. But then he plastered on a smile and said, “Eva. Hey.”

Across the street, two men eased out of a parked car and started walking in their same direction, slow and silent. Trailing them.

Eva began. “I'm sure you know why I'm here.”

They crossed the street, past coffee shops and bookstores, and skirted the southern edge of campus. She stepped in front of Brett to stop him when they'd reached the opening of a narrow brick walkway that led to the entrance of a small art gallery that wouldn't open until eleven o'clock. The men behind them stopped too, waiting.

“Look, Eva,” Brett said. “I'm really sorry, but I don't have your money yet.” As he spoke, he searched the faces of the few people on the street this early, looking for a friend. Someone to step in and help him. But Eva wasn't worried. To anyone who might be watching, Brett was just a student, chatting with a woman on the sidewalk.

“That's what you said the last time,” Eva said. “And the time before that.”

“It's my parents,” Brett explained. “They're getting a divorce. They cut my allowance by half. I can barely afford beer.”

Eva tilted her head sympathetically, as if she could relate to a problem like that. As if she hadn't been forced to live on a minuscule per diem in her three short years at Berkeley, pocketing extra food from the dining hall to tide her over long weekends. No one gave her an allowance. Paying for beer had never been on Eva's long list of worries.

She pressed on. “That's a sad story. Unfortunately, it's not my problem. You owe me six hundred dollars, and I'm tired of waiting.”

Brett hitched his backpack higher on his shoulder and watched a bus rumble down the street, his gaze trailing after it. “I'll get it. I swear. Just…it's going to take some time.”

Eva reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of gum, unwrapping it carefully, and stuck it in her mouth, chewing slowly, as if she were considering what he'd said. The men who were trailing saw Eva's signal and began making their way toward them.

It took Brett almost no time to notice them. To see the purpose in their stride, to see that he and Eva were their final destination. He took a step backward, as if to run, but the men closed the distance quickly, boxing him in.

“Oh my god,” he whispered, his eyes wild with fear and panic. “Eva. Please. I swear I'll pay you.
I swear.
” He began to back away, but Saul, the bigger of the two men, placed a hand on Brett's shoulder to stop him. Eva could see his large fingers squeezing, and Brett began to cry.

She eased back toward the street, her part finished. But Brett's eyes stopped her, silently pleading with her to change her mind, and Eva hesitated. Perhaps it was the way the morning light slanted down on them, autumn just a hint in the air, reminding her of a new semester with new classes and new things to learn. Reminding her of a life she'd once loved, not yet snatched away from her.

Or maybe it was how young Brett looked. The way he whimpered, a pimple bright red on his forehead, the hair on his face still soft and thin. He was just a kid. And she remembered she'd been one once too. Making mistakes. Begging for another chance.

No one had given it to her.

She stepped back, allowing them to lead Brett down the walkway, away from the sidewalk.

A voice startled her from behind. “Had to be done.”

Dex.

He emerged from the shadowed doorway of a closed shop and lit a cigarette, gesturing for her to walk with him. From behind them came the sound of fists hitting flesh, Brett's cries, pleading for help. Then a particularly loud blow—perhaps a kick to the stomach, or his head slammed into the wall—and no more sounds from Brett.

Eva kept her gaze steady, knowing Dex was studying her. “What are you doing here?”

He shrugged and took a drag on his cigarette. “I know you don't like this part. Thought I'd swing by and check on you.”

A lie? The truth? With Dex it was hard to tell, but Eva had learned over the years that Dex didn't get out of bed this early unless their boss, Fish, told him to.

“I'm fine,” she said.

Together they ambled up the hill toward the stadium, passing another coffee shop, its white awning covering a patio of empty tables and chairs still stacked in a corner. The interior was crowded with professors and university employees getting their morning coffee before heading to work. Outside, a panhandler sat in a wheelchair playing a harmonica. Eva tossed him a five-dollar bill.

“Bless you,” the man said.

Dex rolled his eyes. “Bleeding heart.”

“Karma,” Eva corrected.

They stopped at the top of the hill, outside the International House, and Dex looked past her toward the bay, as if admiring the view, and she followed his gaze. The two men had emerged from the walkway and were moving west toward Telegraph Avenue. There was no sign of Brett, whom they'd probably left in a bloody heap. The gallery owner would come across him in a couple hours and call the police. Or perhaps Brett would somehow manage to get up and stumble back to his dorm. No classes for him today.

When the men disappeared from view, Dex turned back to her, handing her a small piece of paper. “New client,” he said.

Brittany. 4:30 p.m. Tilden
.

Eva rolled her eyes. “Nothing says ‘child of the nineties' like the name Brittany. How did you find her?”

“Referral from a guy I know in LA. Her husband just got transferred up here.”

Eva pulled up short. “She's not a student?”

“No. But you don't need to worry,” he assured her. “She's legit.” He dropped his cigarette on the ground and crushed it beneath his shoe. “See you this afternoon at three.”

He headed back down the hill, not waiting for confirmation from her. None was needed. In the twelve years she'd worked with Dex, she'd never once missed a meeting. She watched him until he was past the walkway, still no sign of Brett, and then she turned north toward home.

As she crossed through the center of campus, memories flitted along the edges of her periphery. The end of summer in Berkeley. Eva's own rhythms, so deeply tied to the ebb and flow of the university, now felt off kilter, pulled to the side by Dex, as she wondered what his true purpose was in joining her that morning.

From behind her, Eva heard someone say, “Excuse me.”

She ignored it and crossed over a small bridge covering a stream that wound its way through the center of campus.

“Excuse me,” the voice said again, louder.

A young girl, a freshman by the look of her—skinny jeans, boots, and what appeared to be a new backpack—stepped in front of Eva, panting. “Can you tell me where Campbell Hall is? I'm late and it's the first day and I overslept…” She trailed off as Eva stared at the girl, so bright-eyed, with everything still ahead for her.

Another Brett, not yet happened. How many months would it take before the pressure of Berkeley began to crack this girl in half? How long until her first failed test, or her first C on a paper? Eva pictured someone sliding a scrap of paper with Dex's name and number across a wooden study carrel in the library. How long until Eva was meeting her outside of Campbell Hall?

“Do you know where it is?” the girl asked again.

Eva was so fucking tired of it all. “
No hablo inglés
,” Eva said, pretending she didn't speak English, wanting only to be rid of this girl and her questions.

The girl stepped back, surprised, and Eva slipped past her and up the path. Let someone else help her. Eva wasn't ready to take her turn yet.

* * *

The unexpected appearance of Dex that morning was still bothering her several hours later, as she stood at the kitchen sink, washing dishes. As she rotated a glass under the hot water, it slipped from her fingers and shattered, sending shards flying into the porcelain basin.

“Shit,” she said, turning off the faucet and drying her hands on a dishtowel before carefully picking up the larger pieces and dropping them in the trash. She could feel things rearranging and shifting, the way animals could sense an earthquake, tiny tremors deep beneath the earth's crust, warning her to pay attention. Seek safety.

She grabbed some paper towels and swept up the rest before checking the timer she'd brought up from the basement. Five minutes left.

She tossed her empty Diet Coke can into the recycling and stared out the kitchen window overlooking the backyard. The green shrubbery and roses were overgrown and in need of pruning. In the far corner, she spotted a cat, crouched and motionless, beneath a low-hanging bush, eyes locked on a small bird splashing in a shady puddle left from the morning sprinklers. Eva held her breath and watched, silently urging the bird to look around, to leave the danger of the yard behind.

Suddenly, the cat lunged. In a silent flurry of wings and feathers, it grabbed the bird, pummeling it to the ground and stunning it with a few swift blows. Eva watched as the cat slunk off carrying the bird in its mouth and felt as if the universe was sending her some kind of message. The only problem was, she didn't know whether she was the cat or the bird.

The timer rang, jolting Eva from her reverie. She looked at the clock on the stove, then glanced one more time through the window at the backyard, empty except for a scattering of feathers on the brick walkway.

She pushed herself off the counter, past the rolling shelving unit filled with things she never used, a prop to obscure the door hidden behind it, and slipped down to the basement to finish up.

Claire

Tuesday, February 22

Eva's house is so still, I feel as if it's watching me, waiting to see if I'll reveal who I am and why I'm here. When I open the fridge, the top shelf is crowded with cans of Diet Coke and not much else, just a misshapen take-out container shoved to the back. “Diet Coke anyone?” I mutter before closing it again, my gaze sliding over the shelves that line one wall, filled with cookbooks and mixing bowls, to the cupboards on the left of the sink. I begin opening them, revealing glasses, plates, and bowls, finally finding where Eva kept her dry goods. Ritz Crackers and a Diet Coke will have to be good enough for tonight.

When I've eaten enough to quiet my growling stomach, I move back to the living room. The clock on the wall reads six. I pick up the remote, trying not to think about Eva and her husband, snuggled under a blanket watching a movie or sitting in companionable silence scrolling through their phones, and I scan the room, looking for the evidence of a happy marriage. Photographs. Mementos from vacations. But none of it is visible.

I find the Power button and flip past the networks, finally landing on CNN.

The screen shows a close-up of the airport in New York, with an inset of the search and recovery team, a bobbing Coast Guard boat surrounded by dark water illuminated with floodlights. I turn up the volume. Kate Lane, political commentator, host of the show
Politics Today
, is speaking, her voice low and somber as the screen fills with an image of me and Rory at a gala function last year. My hair is swept up in an elaborate french twist, and I'm laughing into the camera, my face heavy with makeup. Kate Lane's voice says, “Authorities have confirmed the wife of philanthropist Rory Cook, son of Senator Marjorie Cook and the executive director of the Cook Family Foundation, was traveling to Puerto Rico on a humanitarian trip and was a confirmed passenger on Flight 477.”

And then my picture is replaced with a live shot of the exterior of the airport, the camera panning in on what looks like a restricted area behind large, plate glass windows. “Representatives from Vista Airlines are meeting with family members this evening, while off the coast of Florida, search and recovery teams work late into the night. NTSB officials have been quick to dismiss terrorism as a cause of the crash, citing unstable weather and the fact that this particular plane had been grounded just four months ago.”

The camera zooms in to show people hugging and crying, consoling each other. I move closer to the television, straining my eyes to see if Rory's there. But I needn't have bothered. As if on cue, the scene cuts to a bank of microphones, and Rory emerges from the room, stepping behind them. “I've been told we'll be getting a brief statement from Mr. Cook on behalf of the families.”

I pause the TV and study him. He's wearing an expensive pair of jeans and one of his button-down shirts in a shade of blue that looks good on camera. But his face is etched with grief, his eyes hollow and red. I sit back on my heels, wondering if he's truly devastated or if this is all an elaborate act, that far beneath the surface he's livid, having surely discovered the truth by now.

Leaving the TV paused, I grab my computer from my bag and take the stairs two at a time up to Eva's office. The internet router blinks its green lights from a corner of the desk, and I turn it over, finding the password on the back, praying she never bothered to change it. It takes me three tries to match the password with a network name, but I'm in.

I click on the window I opened last night and take a quick look through Rory's inbox while he's on live TV. There are several messages from Danielle, cc'd copies of emails she sent this morning, letting the Detroit hotel know Rory will be using my reservation, informing the school that Rory would be the one doing the event.

And one message exchange between Bruce and Rory, shortly after the news of the crash broke.

I think we need to delay the announcement.

Rory's reply was brief.

Absolutely not.

But Bruce would not be deterred.

Think about the optics. Your wife just died. There's no way you can announce next week. It's insane. Let the NTSB recover the body. Have a funeral. Then announce after that. Tell them it's what Claire would have wanted.

Even though it doesn't surprise me, the fact that they're worrying about the Senate announcement right now still hurts. Despite our problems, despite his temper, I know Rory loved me, in his own broken way. But underneath is a tiny thread of satisfaction that I'd been right to break away now. That if given the choice, Rory would never pick me over his ambition.

I open a new tab and Google
Petra Federotov
. A long list of what appear to be art catalogues pop up, with brightly colored graphics and names I can't pronounce. Page after page of them. I revise my search to
Petra Federotov phone number
, and the list grows slightly longer—a pizza parlor in Boston, links to sites offering people-finding software for a thirty-dollar fee. But I'm certain Nico has made sure their information is scrubbed from those databases, and most likely scrubbed from the web as well.

I leave my computer open and go back downstairs, where Rory is still frozen on the screen, his arm about to swipe a chunk of hair that has flopped over his forehead. In another lifetime, I would have reached out to smooth it back, my touch gentle and loving. I stare at his face, remembering what it felt like to love him. The early days, when he'd pick me up from the auction house and surprise me with a dinner at Le Bernardin or a summer picnic in the park. His mischievous smile as he'd sneak us in the back door of a club, the tender way he'd brush the edge of my lip with his thumb, right before he'd kiss me.

Those memories aren't lost. Just buried. Maybe someday I'll be able to pick them up again. Hold them in my hand and examine them objectively, keeping the good ones and discarding the rest.

I press Play. Rory clears his throat and says, “This morning, like many of the families behind me, I kissed my wife, Claire, goodbye for the last time.” He pauses, taking a deep, shuddering breath before continuing, his voice cracking and wobbling over the words. “What was supposed to be a humanitarian trip to Puerto Rico has thrust me, and the families of ninety-five other passengers of Flight 477, into a living nightmare. Be assured we will not rest until we get answers, until we fully understand what went wrong.” He swallows hard and clenches his jaw. When he looks into the camera again, his eyes shine brighter, filling with tears that tip over the edges of his eyes and slide down his cheeks. “I don't know what to say, other than I'm devastated. On behalf of the families, we thank you for your thoughts and prayers.”

Reporters shout questions at Rory, but he turns away from the cameras, ignoring them. I think about how effortlessly he lies. He didn't kiss me goodbye. He didn't say goodbye at all. And I realize, now that I'm dead, Rory can tell whatever story he wants about me, about our marriage. There is no one left to refute it.

The scene shrinks to an inset, and we see Kate Lane again, her familiar short gray hair and black-framed glasses filling the screen. I'd met her several years ago when she was interviewing Rory for the segment she was doing on Marjorie Cook's legacy, and I remember being struck by how cool she'd been toward Rory. She'd smiled and laughed in all the right places, but I sensed a part of her watching him, as if from a distance. Examining all his shiny surfaces and flourishes, and deciding they weren't real.

Her expression now is both somber and steadying. “Mr. Cook has been a frequent guest on this show, and I, along with everyone else at
Politics Today
, extend our deepest sympathies to the Cook family and all of the families affected by today's tragedy. I've had the good fortune of meeting Mrs. Cook on several occasions, and I knew her to be a smart and generous woman, a tireless advocate for the Cook Family Foundation. She will be deeply missed.” In the inset picture over her shoulder, a man appears at the bank of microphones Rory just left and Kate says, “It looks like the director of the NTSB is going to answer some questions. Let's listen in.”

The crowd of reporters begin shouting questions, but I silence the noise by turning the television off and, staring at the faint outline of my reflection in the dark screen, wonder what happens next.

* * *

I carry my bag back up the stairs and into the master bedroom, pushing aside a discarded pile of clothes on the bed—a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt—and sit. A dark wood dresser, drawers tightly shut, and a closet door that isn't closed all the way, revealing a jumble of clothes inside. And that's when it fully hits me: Eva will never laugh, or cry, or be surprised again. She won't grow old, with sore hips or a back that aches. Never lose her keys or hear the sound of birds in the morning.

Yesterday she was here, a beating and broken heart, a mind with secrets and desires she kept to herself. But today, every memory she'd accumulated across a lifetime has vanished. They simply don't exist anymore.

And what about me? Claire Cook is also gone, lifted up in the memories of those who knew me, no longer walking among the living. And yet, I still get to carry everything that belonged to me. My joys, my heartaches, memories of people I loved. And I feel a sense of privilege I don't deserve. That I get to keep it all and Eva does not.

I press my fists into my eyes, trying to stop my leaping thoughts, ping-ponging from moment to moment—the maid unpacking my suitcase. The phone call to the hotel in Detroit. Petra's voice on the phone at JFK. And Eva in the bathroom stall, handing me her bag, believing I was the solution to her problems, as I believed she was the solution to mine.

I need to sleep, but I don't think I can bring myself to pull back the covers and climb into the bed. Not tonight at least. Instead, I take the blanket and grab a pillow, carrying them back downstairs to the couch. I kick off my shoes and settle myself, turning the TV back on for company. I flip away from the news channels until I find a station showing
I Love Lucy
reruns and let the canned laughter carry me to sleep.

* * *

I'm yanked awake by the sound of Rory's voice, speaking quietly in my ear. I leap off the couch, the dark room flickering in the blue light of the television screen, confused and disoriented, forgetting for a moment where I am and what happened.

And then I see him on the screen of the TV, smaller than in real life, but no less terrifying. A replay of the press conference. I collapse onto the couch again, fumbling for the remote to turn it off, letting the sounds of Eva's house—the low hum of the refrigerator, a quiet dripping from the kitchen faucet—slow my heart rate. Reminding myself that there's no way Rory could know where I am.

I stare at the ceiling, watching shadows from the streetlight dance across it, and realize how hard disappearing will be. It won't matter where I hide or what name I use. Every time I turn on a television, open a newspaper, or flip through a magazine, Rory will still be hiding there, waiting to leap out at me. He will never go away.

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