Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (8 page)

BOOK: The Last Flight
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Eva had always been a survivor. But it was easy to be fearless when you'd already lost everything. “Tell me what I have to do.”

* * *

Dex's voice pulled her back to the present. “A bunch of us are going into the city tonight to hear this new band, Arena, play. Come with us.”

Eva shot him a sideways glance. “Pass.”

“Come on, it'll be fun. I'll buy you Diet Cokes all night long. You need to get out more.”

She studied the way his stubble was beginning to turn gray near his jawline. The way the ends of his hair curled up near his collar. She sometimes had to remind herself that Dex was her handler, not her friend. This was his attempt to keep an eye on her, not give her a fun night out. “I get out plenty,” she said.

“Really?” he pressed. “When? With who?”

“Whom,” she corrected.

Dex gave a soft chuckle. “Don't distract me with a grammar lesson, Professor.” He nudged her arm. “You need a social life. You've been doing this long enough to know that you don't have to hide from the world. You're allowed to have friends.”

Eva watched a mother sitting under a tree with her son, reading a book. “I'd spend all my time trying to hide things from them. Trust me. This is easier.”

But it was also what she preferred. She never had to explain anything, or answer the get-to-know-you questions that people always asked.
Where did you grow up? Where did you go to college? What do you do now?

“Is it easier, though?” Dex didn't look convinced. “What's that saying about work?”

“I never met a dollar I didn't like?”

Dex grinned. “No, the one about all work and no play.”

“All work and no play makes Eva a rich girl,” she finished. When he didn't laugh, she said, “Thanks for worrying about me. But really, I'm fine.” She pulled her coat tighter. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm meeting that new client in a half hour, and then I'm working a shift at the restaurant.”

For years, Eva had worked two shifts a week at DuPree's, an upscale steak and seafood restaurant in downtown Berkeley. The tips were great, and it allowed Eva to pay taxes, which kept her off the IRS's radar.

“I don't know why you bother with the charade,” Dex said. “You don't need the money.”

“The devil is in the details.” Eva rose from the bench. “Have fun tonight. Don't do any drugs.”

As she walked away, Eva glanced again at the playground. A small girl was standing at the top of the slide, frozen, fear plastered across her face. As tears began to fall, her cry grew into a loud wail that sent her mother running to help her. Eva watched the woman lift the little girl from the slide and carry her back to the bench where she'd been sitting, kissing the top of her daughter's head as she walked.

The girl's cries echoed in Eva's mind long after she closed her car door and drove away.

Claire

Wednesday, February 23

I wake early and let my body and mind adjust to my new surroundings. My first full day of freedom. My head feels foggy, desperate for caffeine. But when I rummage around in Eva's kitchen, I can't find a coffee maker or coffee of any kind, and Diet Coke is not going to cut it. My stomach gurgles, reminding me I also need more than just crackers to eat, so I go upstairs to use the bathroom and grab Eva's purse, again tucking my hair under the NYU baseball cap.

Back downstairs, I stand in front of the mirror that hangs on the living room wall, my reflection staring back at me, blotched from a restless night of sleep. I'm still too much myself, recognizable to anyone who might be looking for me.
But no one is looking
. The thought slices through me, a brilliant flash of opportunity, impossible to ignore.

The street is dark and silent, the sound of my steps bouncing against the dark houses and echoing back to me, until I hit the edge of campus. On the corner is a coffee shop, lights on, a young woman moving behind the counter, making coffee and setting pastries into the display case. I watch her from the safety of the shadowed sidewalk, weighing my need for caffeine and food against the risk of someone recognizing my face from the news.

But my stomach growls again, pushing me through the doors. Eclectic music swirls around the space, something Eastern and meditative. The smell of roasted coffee travels straight through me, and I inhale, savoring it.

“Morning,” the barista says. Her long dreadlocks are held back with a colorful scarf, and her smile is bright. “What can I get you?”

“Large drip coffee, room for cream, and a ham and cheese croissant if you have one. To go please.”

“You got it.”

As she begins making my drink, I look around. Outlets dot the walls, and I imagine the place later in the morning, crowded with students studying and professors grading. As the barista finishes up my order, my eyes are drawn toward a stack of newspapers.
San Francisco Chronicle
and
Oakland Tribune
. The headlines are hard to avoid.

“The Fate of Flight 477” reads the
Tribune
.

“Crash of Flight 477 Leaves No Survivors and a Lot of Heartache” reads the
Chronicle
.
Luckily, the editors have decided to go with action shots of the wreckage and not human-interest stories that would surely put my face on the front page. I hesitate for a split second, before sliding them both on the counter along with a twenty-dollar bill.

The barista sets my drink and a bag with my croissant next to them and hands me my change. “Sad, isn't it?”

I nod, unable to meet her eyes from under the brim of my cap, and shove the change in my pocket. Tucking the papers beneath my arm, I push out onto the dark street again.

I cross the empty road and follow a sidewalk that leads me into the center of campus. Beautiful redwoods tower over me, the sidewalk dotted with lamps still illuminated, casting pools of light beneath them. I follow a path through a thick stand of trees and emerge onto a wide expanse of grass leading down toward an enormous stone building. I settle on a bench and sip my coffee, letting it heat me from inside out. The place is deserted, though in a few hours it will probably be crowded with students, making their way across campus to morning classes or study halls. I open the bag and take a bite of my croissant, my mouth aching from the rich flavors. It's been nearly twenty-four hours since I've had anything substantive to eat, and it's been years since I've had anything as heavy as a ham and cheese croissant. I finish it quickly, then crumple the bag in my fist.

The birds in the trees around me begin to wake up, soft at first, but growing louder as light creeps over the hills to the east. Behind me, a street cleaner makes its way up the empty road, while overhead, a plane flies, its lights blinking. I think about the people on board, no different than the ones on Flight 477, who got on a plane thinking they'd get off at their destination, a little tired, a little wrinkled, but no different than taking the subway from point A to point B, trusting they'll arrive where they're supposed to.

The plane passes behind the trees, and I study the buildings that surround me and think about my own years at Vassar. My mother had been so proud of me, the first of our family to go to college. Violet had sobbed when I left, holding on to me so tight my mother had to pry her arms from around my waist.

I'd been ten when Violet was born, the product of a short and volatile relationship with a man who left town shortly after my mother told him she was pregnant. I was relieved, and I think my mother was too. She had a talent for finding unsuitable men whose only skill was their unreliability, like my own father, who disappeared when I was four.
I got the better end of the deal
, she'd always say. My mother never seemed to think we needed anyone but the three of us. But I always wished she had found someone to share the burden, to make us feel more like the families I read about in books and saw on TV. I knew she was lonely and often worried about money, exhausted from working two jobs and doing everything on her own.

And so I tried to make things easier for her. I was a hands-on sister from day one, feeding Violet, changing her diapers, carrying her for hours when she fussed. I watched her while our mother worked, taught her how to play Monopoly and how to tie her shoes. Leaving home was the hardest thing I ever did, but I needed to see who I might be, apart from a dutiful daughter and devoted sister. My high school years had been rough, and I was eager to reinvent myself as someone new, to build the life for myself I'd always dreamed of. I feel the weight now, the cost of wandering too far away from home. Of wanting too much.

I could have gone to college locally. Worked part-time. Spent the evenings with my mother and sister around our wobbly kitchen table, where we could have sat in the warm, yellow light, my mother doing a crossword while Violet and I played endless games of gin rummy.

Instead, I'd left, and I never went home again. Not in any real sense.

* * *

The sky is streaked with pink clouds, and the lamps on the walkway flicker off for the day. It would be easy to sit here and wallow—to rail against all that has happened to me—but I don't have that luxury. I need to stay focused and make some decisions. What do I need?

Money, and a place to hide
. One out of two isn't bad.

I won't be able to stay at Eva's for very long. As soon as Eva doesn't show up downtown next week, people are going to come looking for her, and I want to be gone by the time that happens. But for now, it's my best option. It's free, and it's safe.

I stand and toss my empty coffee cup and crumpled bag into a nearby trash can, making my way back toward the edge of campus, the newspapers tucked into Eva's purse. Behind me, bells toll the hour, and I pause, listening. The chimes seem to vibrate through me, and I think of what it would be like to live here. To walk these streets on my way to a job I don't yet have, living the quiet life I always imagined for myself when I dreamed about leaving Rory. Of all the scenarios I imagined, the glitches I prepared for, the mistakes I knew were inevitable, I never imagined a break as clean as this. Not a single person knows what happened to me, and I have to guard this opportunity—for that's what this is, an incredible and heartbreaking opportunity—with every ounce of cunning I've got.

* * *

I find a twenty-four hour pharmacy a few blocks west of campus. The bright lights assault my eyes when I enter. I angle my head down, keeping my cap pulled low, and find the hair-care aisle. So many different shades, from bright reds to jet blacks, and everything in between. I think of Eva's blond pixie cut and choose something called Ultimate Platinum. On a lower shelf is a complete hair-cutting kit—
Easy to use clippers! Color-coded combs! A step-by-step guide to the most popular hairstyles!
—on sale for twenty dollars, and I grab that too.

At the front of the store, there's only one person working the registers, a pimply undergrad who looks half-asleep at the end of his shift, with glazed eyes and earbuds shoved into his ears. I set everything down on the counter and mentally calculate how much of my meager savings this will eat up.

I hesitate before sliding Eva's debit card out of her wallet, tracing the edges of it, wondering if I can use it as a credit card. I cast a quick glance around the empty store before I slide it into the machine. It's not like Eva's going to come back and accuse me of stealing from her.

I bypass the request for a PIN and select credit, my heart beating out a frantic rhythm I'm certain this kid can hear through whatever music pounds in his ears.

But then the register does something I can't see, drawing the kid's attention back. “Credit? I gotta see your ID,” he says.

I freeze as if I've been caught in a bright headlight, every vulnerable inch of me exposed. Thirty seconds. One minute. An eternity.

“You okay, lady?” he asks.

Then I snap back. “Sure,” I say, and pretend to search through my wallet, finally saying, “I must have left it at home. Sorry.” I tuck the card back into my wallet and quickly pull out cash to cover the cost. When he hands me my receipt, I scramble out of the store as fast as I can, my entire body vibrating with tension and fear.

* * *

The brisk walk back to Eva's steadies me, and when I get there, I take everything upstairs to the bathroom and strip off my clothes, propping the directions to the hair clippers against the mirror, noticing for the first time the expensive hand lotions that line the counter. I open the cap on one and sniff—roses, with a hint of lavender. Then I peek in the medicine cabinet, expecting to see numerous prescriptions leftover from her husband's illness. Painkillers. Sleeping pills. But it's empty. Just a box of tampons and an old razor. I close it with a soft click, uneasiness poking at me, like a minuscule burr in my sock, a flash of warning and then gone, impossible to locate.

I take a last look at myself in the mirror, the way my hair tumbles and curls around my face, and take a deep breath before attaching the medium-sized comb to the clippers and turning them on. I remind myself that even if I mess up, it won't matter. Eva's words about Berkeley come back to me.
It's easy to blend in because everybody's a little weirder than you are.
No one will look twice at a bad haircut.

I'm surprised by how easy it comes off, leaving an inch and a half of hair resting against my scalp. My eyes look bigger. My cheekbones more pronounced. My neck longer. I turn one way, and then another, admiring my profile, before turning to the box of hair color. Not done yet.

* * *

The dye has to stay on for forty-five minutes, so while I wait, I spread the newspapers open on the coffee table and read, my scalp tingling and burning, the sharp smell of chemicals making me dizzy. The articles are filled with details of the crash, though they're incomplete, gleaned only from radio communication with the air traffic controllers. But it's enough to chill me, to force me to reckon with what I've done. Approximately two hours into the flight, after they'd crossed Florida and were over the Atlantic, one of the plane's engines went out. The pilots tried to turn around and radioed Miami, requesting an emergency landing. But the plane didn't make it, instead crashing into the water thirty-five miles off the coast. The article is filled with statements from NTSB officials, and of course, Rory's representative on behalf of the families. No details are given yet about recovery, other than to say it's ongoing.

I try to imagine my bag, my phone, my pink sweater, torn from Eva's body and floating in the water, waiting for someone to scoop them out and identify them. Or nestling onto the sandy bottom of the ocean, where they'll soon be lost forever. I wonder whether they will try to recover remains, or if that's even possible. And what might happen if they come across someone whose dental records don't match anyone on the flight manifest.

I take several deep breaths, focusing on the biology of it. Oxygen entering my bloodstream, feeding my cells, then releasing carbon dioxide into the quiet space that surrounds me. In and out, again and again, each breath a reminder:
I made it out. I survived.

* * *

Forty-five minutes later I stare at myself in the mirror of Eva's bathroom, astonished. Taken on their own—my eyes, my nose, my smile—I can still see my old self, looking back at me. But as a whole? I'm someone completely new. If I seem familiar to anyone, they're going to search different corners of their mind, different parts of their life—someone from work or college. Perhaps the daughter of a former neighbor. They won't see Rory Cook's wife, who died in a plane crash.

The look suits me, and I love the freedom it offers. Rory always insisted I keep my hair long, so that I could wear it up for formal events and down for casual ones, arguing it was more feminine. I grin, and am surprised to see flashes of my mother, of Violet, smiling back at me.

* * *

On the nightstand next to Eva's bed, the clock flips to seven o'clock, and I can't help but think about what I'd be doing right now if I were still living my old life in New York. I'd be sitting across from Danielle in my office, outlining our schedule for the day. Morning Meeting, she called it. We'd discuss the calendar—meetings, lunches, evening events—and I'd give her the tasks I needed her to work on for the day. But if my plan had worked, I'd be somewhere in Canada. Maybe on a train, heading west. I'd be scouring the news for any hint of my disappearance, the plane crash just a sad story that might have caught my attention for a moment. Instead, it's the turning point for my entire life.

I return to my computer and pull up the CNN home page, clicking on a short human-interest piece titled “Rory Cook's Second Heartbreak,” with my photo alongside Maggie Moretti's. They rehash her death over twenty-five years ago and the subsequent investigation into Rory's involvement, and for the first time I realize how similar Maggie and I are. Some of the information I'd already known about her—she'd been a track star at Yale, where she'd met Rory, and she, too, had come from a small town. But I hadn't known that her parents had also died, when she was even younger than I was. Looking at us side by side, it makes me wonder if Rory had a type, zeroing in on women alone in the world who might be eager to join an established family like the Cooks. I know I was at first.

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