Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (18 page)

My eyes track them as they move away from me and become swallowed by the crowd, the way his hand remains on her lower back, and how easily that can shift from solicitous to a shove.

* * *

Midway through dinner, a man approaches the microphone set up at the front of the room, and the crowd claps. I take my tray and stand alongside the back wall to listen. He has the voice of a radio announcer and talks about his years of working inside the booth at the stadium. But my attention is soon drawn back to that same couple, now directly in front of me. At first he's trying to silence her with what looks like platitudes and promises, but she's having none of it. Her anger spirals upward, and I tense, waiting for him to react.
Don't make him mad
, I silently plead with her.
You still have time to turn this around.
My palms grow sweaty, and my breath comes in short gasps that I try to elongate, reminding myself that all couples argue. Just because my husband used to hit me doesn't mean this man will hit her. And yet my body is reacting. Tensing. Preparing.

The man at the microphone draws another laugh, which covers the sound of their argument for a moment, but when it dies down again, their words slip into the silence.

Heads turn toward them. The woman begins to step away, but Donny grabs her arm, yanking her toward him, the people nearest them gasping.

I'm close enough to see the fear flash through the woman's eyes. It's just a split second, but it's long enough to tell me that this has happened before. That she knows what will come next.

Without thinking, I drop my empty tray to the ground and push off the wall, taking two giant steps until I'm between them, doing what no one ever did for me. I press my palm against the man's shoulder and say, “You need to let go of her.”

Surprised, his grip loosens, and the woman yanks her arm away. She rubs it, staring daggers at him over my shoulder and says, “You're a fucking liar, Donny.”

More people turn away from the speech at the sound of her voice and stare at the three of us.

“Cressida,” he says. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean it.”

“Don't follow me. Don't call me. I'm done.” She pushes past me toward the entrance, and I finally step back.

And that's when I see them. Three separate cell phones, pointing at us, recording.


Berkeley, California


Two Months before the Crash

Eva rewound the tape and listened again to Dex's voice.
He refused to do what he was told. I don't want the same to happen to you.

It still wasn't enough, so she began to keep a log, writing down the number of pills made and the dates she passed them over to Dex. She couldn't always risk recordings, and she didn't even know if Castro could use them. It was like trying to drive blind. She had to intuit her way toward what she'd need through instinct and guesswork.

And throughout it all, she tried hard not to think about what might happen if she was discovered. Despite her efforts to remain focused, images flashed like a movie behind her closed eyes, jerking her awake at night, sweaty and panicked, certain it would never work. Convinced they already knew. But she used that fear, allowing her to get even more work done, her sleepless nights growing more and more frequent as she waited to see if Castro would return. She could feel him out there, a heavy presence that lurked in the dark corners, biding his time, and she only hoped she'd be ready when he showed up again.

Downstairs, someone knocked on the door. She and Liz had plans to shop for a Christmas tree at a special tree farm Liz had found online. Eva had declined—not once, but twice—citing reasons that Liz stepped around. She'd badgered until Eva capitulated, rationalizing that it was easier to accommodate Liz than to keep avoiding her. Liz would only be there for another month, and then she'd be gone, back to Princeton for spring semester. Eva tried hard to ignore the sharp stab of sadness she felt every time she imagined Liz's apartment quiet and empty. But if all went well, Eva would be gone shortly after that and it would no longer matter.

She hurried down the stairs, reaching for her coat as she swung the door open. But it wasn't Liz. It was Dex.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

He didn't waste time with a greeting. Instead, he stepped into her house, kicking the door closed behind him, his expression hard. “What are you playing at?”

Panic pulsed through her, at the thought that somehow someone had figured out what she was doing. “I don't understand,” she whispered.

“Last week's package was one hundred pills short.”

“What? No. That's a mistake.”

“No shit it's a mistake,” Dex said. “What the fuck, Eva? Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

She shook her head, desperate to make Dex understand, desperate to get him out of her house before Liz showed up. “I'm tired,” she said. “I'm not sleeping. I must have miscounted.” She couldn't explain the bone-deep exhaustion that accompanied trying to be two completely different people simultaneously.

“You need to fix this.”

“I will.”

“Today,” he insisted.

Next door, she could hear Liz's footsteps descend the stairs, and Eva closed her eyes momentarily. “I can't today.”

Dex looked incredulous. “Do you have something more important to do?”

She looked down at the coat, still gripped in her hand. “My neighbor and I are shopping for a Christmas tree.”

Dex looked up at the ceiling, as if he couldn't believe what she was telling him, and swiped his hand across his jaw. “Jesus Christ,” he said. Then he looked at her, his gray eyes piercing through her. “Do you realize how hard I had to work to convince Fish to let me handle this? How close he came to sending someone who wouldn't ask questions or give a shit about a fucking Christmas tree?” His voice was growing louder, and Eva worried that it would travel through the wall. Or onto the front porch, where Liz would be any minute.

As if on cue, she heard Liz close her front door and lock it.

“You need to go, Dex. I'll take care of it. I promise.”

He looked at her, as if he were trying to see beneath the surface, to glean whether something bigger was going on. “By tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow,” she agreed.

He pulled open the door and came face-to-face with Liz, startled, her hand raised to knock.

“Hello,” she said, her gaze traveling between Dex and Eva, curious.

Dex's expression shifted into an easy smile. “I hear you two are shopping for a tree. Have fun.” He gave them a wink, ever the performer playing his part, before bounding down the stairs and striding away.

“Who was that?” Liz asked. “He's handsome.”

Eva tried to gather her wits, to lighten her expression to match Dex's friendly tone. The last thing she wanted to do now was shop for a tree, but if she backed out, Liz would have a hundred questions. “That was Dex,” she said.

“Are you two…?” she said, trailing off.

Eva pulled her door closed and locked it. “It's complicated,” she said. “Let's go.”

As they drove north toward Santa Rosa, Eva let the miles put distance between herself and what happened, compartmentalizing it into a tiny ball, where it sat, like a pebble in her shoe. She was furious with herself for being so careless. For working herself so thin she'd made a mistake like that. She couldn't risk any kind of targeted attention, and yet she'd invited it in.

By the time they reached the tree farm, she'd worked out a plan. After they returned to Berkeley, she'd work all night. Again. She redoubled her efforts to focus on Liz, who was describing the tree they'd buy, a special one they'd plant in front of the house instead of propping it in a stand of water for a few weeks.

“You won't believe how beautiful it will be,” Liz told her as they walked between rows and rows of tall, majestic pines. She examined each tree, checking to see whether it was full all the way around, before moving on to the next one. She spoke softly, carried somewhere else by memory. “My dad and I used to do this when I was a girl. Every place we lived—and there were many—the two of us would look for a new tree to join our family.” She reached her hand out as they walked, brushing the pine needles with her fingertips. “He made Christmas magical.”

When Eva was little, when she thought there was still a chance they'd come back for her, she used to fantasize what Christmas would be like if she'd grown up with her birth family. If her mother hadn't been an addict but instead the kind of parent who would insist Santa was real, staying up late assembling toys and filling stockings. And when Eva woke, she'd race to the tree and tear off wrapping paper, each present bigger and better than the last, always exactly what she wanted. Maybe her grandparents and extended family would come over. Perhaps there would be cousins, other children to round out the image of her perfect family. But now that picture had shifted, carrying with it the knowledge that those Christmases would have been heavy with her mother's absence.

“Will your daughter be coming for the holidays?” Eva asked, unsure how she'd feel about meeting Ellie, of being displaced by the daughter of Liz's heart.

“She's working,” she said. The finality of her tone made it clear that she didn't want to discuss it more.

Liz slipped between two trees and into another row. “This one,” she called, her words muted by the thick pine needles surrounding them and underfoot.

Eva followed the sound of her voice and found her in front of a tree, nearly eight feet tall and perfect in shape. “How are we going to get it home?” Eva pictured the two of them driving down the highway with this massive tree strapped to their roof, its roots dangling behind them.

“They'll deliver it,” Liz said, walking around the tree slowly, looking at it from all angles. “We'll string it with lights that will sparkle. We can bundle up, make some hot chocolate, and sit on the porch and admire it. The best part is that the tree will be here, year in and year out. No more dead trees by the curb at New Year's,” she said.

As if Eva had ever dragged a dead Christmas tree to the curb. “What if it rains?”

Liz shrugged. “Outdoor lights. Glass and ceramic ornaments. I have boxes of them at home in New Jersey. But I couldn't stand the idea of a treeless Christmas so I packed some of my favorites and brought them with me.”

Liz took the tag that they'd been handed upon entering and hung it on the tree, claiming it as theirs, and removed a different one that they would take with them to the front of the tree farm to pay.

The daylight was melting into evening as they pulled out of the lot and headed south toward home. Eva leaned back in the seat and stared out the window as the warm glow of the afternoon began to fade, thinking of the long night ahead of her.

* * *

Their tree was delivered two days later, its roots wrapped in a burlap bag. It came on an enormous truck that also carried equipment to dig a hole deep enough to plant it. Liz supervised the entire thing, choosing a spot in front of Eva's side of the porch. After the tree had been planted and the workmen paid and tipped, Liz opened her front door and carried out a box labeled

With Liz's stereo blasting carols, the two of them got to work. First they strung the white twinkle lights, and then came the ornaments. Liz had a story for nearly every one of them. Gifts from colleagues and former grad students, whom she remembered with vivid detail and fondness. Handmade ceramic ones from when her daughter, Ellie, had been a little girl. “I'm probably the only visiting professor who ever packed a box of Christmas ornaments for a six-month post,” she said. “But I've never had a single Christmas without a tree.” She set aside a clumpy wreath constructed out of dough, the name
written on the back, a quiet sadness on her face that Eva pretended not to notice.

As they worked, Eva found herself wanting to slow things down, to draw the evening out. She thought ahead to this time next year, when everything would be resolved, one way or another. She'd either be somewhere far away or dead. And Liz would be long gone, her short time in Berkeley a distant memory, Eva just another name on a holiday card list.

When the last of the decorations had been hung, Liz disappeared inside and returned carrying something wrapped in tissue paper. As she handed it to Eva, she said, “I wanted to be the one to give you your first Christmas ornament. I hope that from now on, wherever you are, wherever you go, you will think of me when you look at it.”

Eva unwrapped the layers of tissue paper, revealing a handblown glass bluebird.

“The bluebird is the harbinger of happiness,” Liz said. “That's my Christmas wish for you.”

Eva ran her finger over the smooth glass. The detail on it was amazing, with deep swirling blues and purples, fading into almost ice white in some places. “Liz,” she whispered. “It's incredible. Thank you.” She reached down and hugged Liz.

Liz pulled her tight, embracing Eva in a way she'd always imagined her mother might, and she nearly broke, so strong was her desire to be known. To be seen, instead of constantly protecting herself, measuring her words and actions against discovery. It all felt like too much to carry alone, and Liz was the sort of person who might help Eva out from under it. The words rested right behind her lips, trembling, waiting to break free, but Eva swallowed them down. “I didn't get anything for you.”

“Your friendship is gift enough,” Liz said. “Let's turn on these lights and have a cup of hot chocolate.”

They carried chairs from Liz's dining room onto the porch and sat with their feet propped up on the railing. The tree lit up the dark night, its lights glowing as if from within, cloaking everything else in shadows.

“I found out my mother is dead,” Eva said, her voice just a whisper in the dark. She couldn't give Liz the truth about her life, but she could give her this. “She died when I was eight.”

Liz turned sideways in her chair and looked at her. “I'm so sorry,” she said.

Eva shrugged, trying to steel herself from the pain she still felt at the discovery. “I'm trying to tell myself this is better. Simpler. At least she had a good reason for not finding me.”

“That's one way to look at it,” Liz said, turning back toward the tree. “Will you try to find your grandparents?”

Eva thought about how the discovery of her mother's death had crushed her, and she wasn't sure she had it in her to be disappointed all over again. “I don't think so,” she said. “It's easier not to know.”

“It's easier until it's not,” Liz said. “Which is kind of how life goes. When you feel ready, maybe you'll look again.”

With every conversation, with every confidence Eva shared, she was drawing Liz closer to her, to the truth of who she was. She wanted to both push Liz away and inhale her at the same time. It settled something inside of her, to set some of her secrets down. To know that even after she disappeared into a new life, someone would hold the pieces of her old one and remember who she'd been.

In the distance, the Campanile bells chimed the hour. When they were done, Liz said, “That man from the other day. Tell me more.”

Eva hesitated, so tired of lying. “It's nothing,” she finally said. “He's just a friend.”

Liz sat with her explanation for a few moments before asking, “Are you safe?”

Eva shot her a look. “Of course. Why?”

Liz shrugged. “I thought I heard yelling. And his face, for a split second…” She trailed off. “My ex-husband used to do that. Be angry one second, then the next it was as if a mask had slipped over his true self.” She shook her head. “It just triggered something in me, that's all.”

Eva considered telling Liz a version of the truth. That Dex was a colleague. That she'd made a mistake at work and put him in a bad position with their boss. But that was the tricky thing with half-truths. They led so quickly toward bigger revelations, like sliding down a hill, gaining momentum with every one.

Liz turned in her seat again so that she was facing Eva, watching her, waiting for her to explain.

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