Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (13 page)

Eva

Berkeley, California

September

Five Months before the Crash

“Put on your shoes,” Liz said one sunny Saturday in late September. “I'm taking you to a baseball game.”

Eva and her neighbor attend a baseball game.
“Baseball?” Eva asked.

Liz said, “Not just baseball. The Giants. At home.”

“We live in the east bay. Shouldn't we be going to an A's game?”

Liz shrugged. “My department chair has season tickets. She invited a few of us, and I asked if I could bring a friend.”

In the three weeks since Eva had been on hiatus, she had been enjoying her very first vacation. Working extra shifts at DuPree's and spending a lot of time with Liz, she felt the way she imagined a bookkeeper or an accountant might feel on a long-overdue holiday, how they might forget the spreadsheets and financial records after a few weeks on the beach somewhere, the heat of the sun leaching the stress from their body.

But the threat of Castro was never very far from her mind. She found herself playing to an audience of one, walking slower, laughing louder, lingering longer. She made it a game. Every time Liz invited her to do something, she had to say yes. A tour of the UC Botanical Gardens. A movie and shopping on Solano Avenue, pizza at Zachary's afterward. Every invitation, an opportunity to show whoever was watching that she was no one special.

They talked about philosophy, politics, history. Even chemistry. Eva had shared the bare bones of her own past, what it was like growing up at St. Joe's, sticking to the truth whenever she could, to better keep track of her lies. She'd made up a story about why she'd never finished college—the money had dried up because of a problem with her financial aid. But this allowed Eva to talk freely about her time as a student at Berkeley, and the two of them bonded over what campus life was like. The various quirks of the community, the ferocious rivalry with Stanford, traditions that wouldn't make sense to anyone who hadn't lived inside of it.

“Do you have a family back home?” Eva had asked one evening.

“My daughter, Ellie,” Liz said, staring into the flickering flame of a candle. “I raised her on my own—her father left when she was seven.” Liz had sighed and looked down into her wineglass. “It was hard on both of us, but now, looking back, I think we're better for it.” Liz described her ex-husband's exacting nature, the precise way he'd demand his steak to be cooked, or the unrealistic expectations he placed on his young daughter. “I'm glad she didn't have to grow up with that kind of relentless pressure.”

“Where is she now?” Eva had asked, curious about the woman who was lucky enough to be Liz's daughter.

“She works for a nonprofit. Long hours, rarely a day off. She sublet her apartment in the city to housesit for me while I'm in California, but I'm worried she'll isolate herself out there in New Jersey, away from her friends,” she'd said, giving Eva a sheepish smile. “A mother's heart is always worried.”

Eva had stared at her, wishing it were true.

Other times, Eva would ask Liz questions about the classes she was teaching and then sit back and let her talk. Liz was a gifted teacher, able to make complex concepts seem simple, and it was like being back in college. Maybe better. Dex, who had been a daily presence in her life, had all but disappeared, replaced by this talkative, diminutive, brilliant woman from Princeton.

So when Liz stood before her on this bright September Saturday, two baseball tickets in her hand, Eva was ready to say yes again. Maybe even happy to.

“Sure,” she said. “I just need a minute.”

She left Liz in the living room while she raced upstairs to change. As she slid her feet into tennis shoes, she glanced at her phone and saw a text from Dex.

It's fixed. F wants you back to work immediately. Plan to meet at Tilden Monday with full supply.

She stared at the message until the Whispr app made it fade and disappear.

Eva sat down hard on her bed, surprised that the first feeling she had wasn't relief but sadness. This was what she'd been waiting for. All her time with Liz had been to get this exact outcome—Castro gone, and Eva back to work. But it felt like an empty victory, one she no longer wanted, now that she had it. Her gaze flicked toward the doorway, where Liz waited downstairs, unaware that she was no longer necessary.

But Eva would go to the game and play the part a little longer. She tossed her phone onto the dresser, harder than necessary, surprised by the sharp sound it made as it slid across the polished wood and hit the wall.

* * *

They took the BART across the bay, walking with crowds of people toward the stadium. As they waited in line, Liz nudged her toward a photo station, where people could pose next to cutouts of players Eva didn't recognize. “Come on,” she said. “It'll be fun. My treat.”

Eva hesitated. She wasn't the kind of person who had her picture taken, aside from school photos that no one ever bought. She couldn't remember a time anyone had pointed a camera at her and said
Smile.
But Eva went along with it, a small part of her glad to have a souvenir.

Inside, they found their seats, Liz's colleagues from the political science department greeting her warmly. There was Liz's closest friend, Emily, and her partner, Bess, plus their department head, Vera. Eva took the seat on the end and let their conversation flow around her—gossip about who was getting grants and who wasn't, who was getting published and who wasn't. Complaining about who always burned popcorn in the office microwave.

To Eva, it was like getting a glimpse into the life she'd once dreamed she'd have herself. There had been a time, before everything went wrong, that she'd imagined herself a professor at Berkeley. Delivering lectures in Gilman Hall. Supervising graduate students. Striding across campus, smiling a greeting as students said
Hey, Dr. James
.

Eva felt a sharp stab of regret, surprising her after so many years of believing she'd made her peace with how things turned out. That was the funny thing about regret. It lived inside of you, shrinking down until you could almost believe it had vanished, only to have it spring up, fully formed, called forward by people who meant you no harm.

Eventually they turned their attention toward the game. Vera kept score, talking about player statistics and upcoming trades, while the rest of them debated whether spitting sunflower shells was any better than tobacco juice. Eva cheered when the Giants scored, drinking a beer and eating a hot dog. It was a slice of life Eva thought only existed in movies, this idea that everything could be so perfect—the grass, the sun, the players in their crisp white uniforms, hitting home runs over the fence and into San Francisco Bay, where a cluster of people with baseball gloves in kayaks waited to catch one of them.

Right before the sixth inning, Emily leaned over and said, “I'm so glad you could come today, Eva. Liz has been talking about you nonstop for weeks.”

A ripple of pleasure passed through Eva, but she offered her shyest smile, the one she reserved for bank tellers and police officers. “Thanks for inviting me,” she said.

Liz was quick to jump in. “I've seen a lot of brilliant minds in my time, but Eva's is one of the sharpest I've ever encountered,” she said. “The other night, she nearly had me convinced Keynesian economics might be better than free market.”

Emily looked impressed. “That's no small feat. Where did you go to college?”

Eva hesitated, imagining the questions they'd have if she said Berkeley.
What was your major? Who were your professors? What year did you graduate? Do you know Dr. Fitzgerald?
And how quickly one of them would discover the truth—an innocent comment at the faculty club, someone quietly recounting her story. The chemistry department was small, and people didn't move on from Berkeley to better jobs elsewhere. There were probably several people still there who would remember her.

Luckily, Liz must have sensed her discomfort. “She studied chemistry at Stanford,” she said, giving Eva a tiny smile. “Try not to hold it against her.”

* * *

“You didn't have to lie for me,” Eva said later, after they'd said goodbye and were strolling along the Embarcadero, making their way back to the BART station. The evening air was gentle on her skin, faint traces of the afternoon sun still present.

Liz waved her words away. “They're all a bunch of aunties. They would have given you a ton of unwanted advice about going back to school and finishing your degree. It wouldn't have mattered to them that you're smart enough to have figured out how to do that if you wanted to.”

Eva thought about what was waiting for her on the other side of the bay. Certainly not the possibility of going back to college. That would never be an option for her. Until Liz came along, Eva had been happy. But now there was a hunger rumbling deep inside of her, a desire for more time with Liz and her friends. But not as a visitor passing through. She wanted to be a part of it, to live inside of it. Eva wanted to complain about why women didn't have the kind of grant opportunities that men did. She wanted to feel the thrill of announcing another article placed in a peer-reviewed journal. She wanted to be the one who burned popcorn in the office microwave.

The idea of resuming work—the hiding, the lying, the vigilance that accompanied her every time she left the house—descended, pressing her into a tight knot, and a grief she hadn't felt since her expulsion from Berkeley swirled around inside of her, as a part of her brain began to map out what needed to be done. Buy more ingredients. Clean the equipment. Start setting the stage for her withdrawal from Liz. She'd have to start talking about picking up more shifts at the restaurant, or perhaps invent a boyfriend who would soon consume her free time.

But there, in the darkening twilight, the water of the bay lapping against the pier pilings, the lights of the Bay Bridge sparkling in a graceful arc above them, shooting like an arrow into the dark, Eva felt the urge to reveal something more of herself. To tell Liz something completely true. “My last foster home was just on the other side of that hill,” Eva told Liz, pointing west, toward Nob Hill.

Liz looked at her. “What happened?”

Carmen and Mark had been the closest Eva had ever come to having a family. When she was eight, the couple had come to St. Joe's, interested in adopting a young girl. They were accompanied by her social worker, Mr. Henderson, a pasty man with wispy hair and a briefcase full of files. The woman, Carmen, was bright and vibrant. When Eva met her, she seemed to glow with energy. Carmen's husband, Mark, was more reserved and deferred to his wife, keeping his eyes down. Eva wondered if he, too, knew that it was best to always hold a piece of himself separate from others.

“Carmen and Mark,” she told Liz now. “At first, it was great. They pushed to get me into the gifted program at school. Bought me tons of books, clothes, took me to museums and the science center.”

“They sound wonderful. What happened?”

“I started stealing. First money, then a charm bracelet.”

Liz gave her a sharp look. “What made you do that?”

This was the tricky part. Eva wanted to explain it to Liz, to help her see an essential part of who she was. That she had depended, from a very early age, on being able to hide behind a curtain of lies, never trusting anyone enough to let them see who she really was.

“Being unwanted is a heavy burden,” she said quietly. “You never fully learn how to engage with the world. To allow others to see you.”

A large group of people walked toward them, laughing and talking over each other, and Eva waited for them to pass. How could she explain the way it made her feel, to listen to the way Carmen and Mark bragged about how smart she was, how lucky they were to have her? It had felt like they were covering her in plastic wrap. People could still see her, but the essence of who she was got trapped beneath their expectations, and she worried about what would happen when the truth seeped out. “It was easier to push them away,” Eva finally said. “When they looked at me, they saw the child of an addict. Everything I did—good or bad—was viewed through that lens, and as long as I was with them, that would always be my whispered story.
It's amazing how much Eva has overcome in such a short time,
or
You can hardly blame her, considering what she's gone through.
I needed to show them they couldn't fix me. That I didn't want to be fixed.”

“You wanted to be the one to define who you were,” Liz said. She linked her arm through Eva's, and Eva leaned into her, loving the solid feel of Liz's shoulder against her own, wanting to drag that moment out until infinity, to never descend into the BART station, to never return across the bay to her old life, stale and rotten at the center. “And so you stayed at the convent until you graduated?” she asked.

Eva nodded. “Until I turned eighteen and started at Cal.”

Wind whipped up from the bay, growing stronger as it funneled between the tall buildings, and Eva hugged her other arm tight around her, thinking about the family she'd almost had, if she'd been a different person. A better person. But that possibility had fractured long before Carmen and Mark showed up. Cracked down its center, the pieces rough and jagged. She'd insulated herself from the sharpest parts, but Liz had reached in and gently unwrapped them, showing her she didn't need to be afraid to think about her past. That she could hold the pieces in her hands without hurting herself. That she could do something with them if she wanted to.

They were quiet as they descended the stairs and passed through the turnstile and onto the platform. The faint sound of a far-off train carried through the dark tunnel, and Eva pictured the people on the street above them, driving, walking, working in the high-rise buildings of the financial district. It was a miracle the whole thing didn't come crashing down on top of them.

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