Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (28 page)

“How's your mom doing?”

Danielle looked toward the living room, where the sun streamed through the tall windows, laying patches of light on the hardwood floor. “Not well,” she said. “It's been hard for her to reconcile that Eva's really gone. That if Eva had just followed the plan they'd agreed upon and returned to Berkeley, she'd still be alive.”

I took a sip of hot chamomile tea, letting the flavor bloom in my mouth, knowing I could never tell Danielle or her mother about what I believed really happened to Eva. I would leave it up to Eva to reach out, if and when she ever wanted to. “Eva Googling me couldn't have been enough for you to know where to look.”

“It was the video,” she said. “There you were, in Eva's hometown, with hair similar to Eva's and…” She trailed off. “I took a chance. Looked up Eva's number on my mom's phone and hoped you'd answer when I called.” Danielle bent her head down, turning her cup slowly in her hands. When she looked up again, her eyes were wet with tears. “I had to do something, after all those years of staying silent. I'm so, so sorry I didn't do more to help you.” She let out a shuddering breath. “I thought that by keeping you on task, on schedule, I could protect you. If I worked hard enough, maybe he wouldn't have a reason to be angry.”

I reached across the island and put my hand on top of hers. “You helped me when it mattered most. More than I ever could have hoped for.”

She squeezed my hand, a silent apology. Late, but not too late.

* * *

The faint sound of a siren travels through the thick glass of Rory's office window. I look around the room, trying to picture the afternoon of Danielle's recording and where she might have dropped her phone in order to catch it. “One last question,” I say. “How did you know to record that particular conversation? Did you know what they'd be talking about?”

Danielle steps into the room and runs her fingers across the back of one of the chairs. “I'd just seen the video of you at the A's event, and even though Mr. Cook never said anything to me about it, his sudden trip to Oakland made me believe he had seen it too. I was hoping to record a conversation about their plans to find you, to give you an idea of where and how they'd be looking. I had no idea I'd end up with something so much better.”

“It was an incredibly brave and stupid thing to do.”

Danielle grins. “That's exactly what my mom said.” She checks her watch. “We'd better finish. Time's almost up.”

I close the drawer with a quiet click and follow Danielle into the living room, where we pack the last of my things.

Petra enters the room just as I'm zipping my bag closed. “Ready?” she asks us.

I give the room one last look. The thick rugs, the expensive furniture, all of it meaningless to me now, and I smile at them both. “Ready,” I say.


John F. Kennedy Airport, New York

Tuesday, February 22

The Day of the Crash

I hunch down on the ground next to the Jetway, picking up the scattered items from Claire's purse, my only view the shoes of the people in line around me, and shove it all back inside, save my prepaid phone. That I hold up to my ear.

My plan is simple. First, I'll ease sideways, as if I need to lean against the wall for balance. Then, I'll turn away from the straggling line of travelers, obedient and forward-facing. After that, it will be a simple matter of walking with purpose in a new direction.

I'm just about to speak into the silent phone, to launch into another fake conversation—maybe something urgent, requiring a little space, a little privacy, when someone says, “Ma'am, are you okay?”

The voice comes from above me, behind the crowd of travelers that block my view. Another gate agent materializes, and I slowly rise to a stand, my knees popping. “I dropped my purse,” I explain, pulling it back onto my shoulder, feeling the slight tremor of a closing door. A missed opportunity.

“Since you're scanned onto the flight, I'm going to need you to stay in line,” the gate agent says.

I reclaim my spot in front of the women who were complaining about the wait, the slope of the Jetway pulling me forward. Somewhere, Claire is already in the air, flying toward California, and I feel a stab of guilt. Not for the lies I told, but perhaps I should have at least warned her to be careful.

As the line to board the plane inches forward, I wonder if I'd met Claire under different circumstances whether we might have been friends. It feels wrong to be the last person to speak to her before she disappears, to be the only person in the world who knows what happened to her and still not know anything of substance about her. Who she loves. What matters to her, or what she believes in when she needs to believe in something. The specifics of the circumstances that have narrowed down to this single, outrageous option.

We have one thing in common. Each of us is desperate enough to take the risk. To turn our backs on who the world demands we be. It isn't just what has been done to each of us—by Dex, by Claire's husband—it's a system that tells women we are unreliable, and then expendable. That our truths don't matter when set side by side with a man's.

I try to clear my mind. To focus on what will come next for me. Liz will worry when I don't call as promised, but it has to be this way. When Castro arrives on her doorstep, Liz needs to be able to say with confidence that I returned to do the right thing.

Perhaps a few months from now, Liz might get a small package in the mail. A Christmas ornament—with no card, no return address—from the ripe vineyards of Italy or the crowded streets of Mumbai. And she'll know that I'm sorry. That I'm happy. That I've finally forgiven myself.

As soon as I board, I'm going to ask to have my aisle seat changed to a window. I want to view the world—its wide vista expanding in a graceful arc below me—and imagine myself in it. My true self, the person Liz showed me I can be.

I hope that when the plane takes off, we'll fly straight into the sun, the light so bright it will burn away the last vestiges of everything and everyone I'm leaving behind. That it will carry me forward, higher than I've ever been, above the fear and the lies, tearing away a page filled with mistakes, the fragments scattering behind me like confetti.

And in its place, I'll create a new life built from the scraps of memory—some true, some the wished-for imaginings of a little girl who never found her place—constructed with luck and wide beams of gratitude holding it all together.

Maybe someday I'll dream of my life in Berkeley. Not the one I lived, with its dark corners and deceitful shadows, but the one I conjured up years ago, in a narrow bed above a dusty church in San Francisco. I'll visit again the light-dappled trails of Strawberry Canyon, high above the old stadium, with its view of a city skyline that seems to rise straight out of the bay. In my mind I'll walk along campus paths that wind among the redwoods, smell the damp bark and moss soft beneath my feet, listen to the stream tumble and jump across the rocks.

Ahead of me, the line starts moving again, space opening up between people, allowing me to breathe easier. Whatever was wrong has been fixed, and I can feel everyone around me relax, anticipating the vacation that waits for them on the other side of the four-hour flight south.

As I make my way down the Jetway, I feel as if I'm shedding my old self, piece by piece, growing lighter the closer I get to the plane. Pretty soon, I might not weigh anything at all. A laugh bubbles up, light and crisp, carrying none of the debris it usually does. In this moment, I have all I ever wanted. And for the first time, for the only time, it's enough. I hitch Claire's purse tighter over my shoulder and touch the outside of the airplane as I step over the threshold, for luck, and don't look back.

Reading Group Guide

1. What do Claire and Eva have in common? In what ways are they different?

2. How do you feel about Eva's decision to manipulate Claire?

3. Put yourself in Claire's shoes. How would it feel knowing that you've traded your life for someone else's? Would you feel guilty or fortunate? Why?

4. Describe the obstacles Claire faces once she escapes from Rory. Were there any difficulties that surprised you?

5. Compare Claire's relationships with other women in the book like Eva, Danielle, Petra, and Kelly. Are any of these women similar? In what way?

6. Discuss Eva's childhood. How does it affect how she behaves as an adult?

7. Identify some of the triggers Claire faces as a result of Rory's abuse. How do you think she can overcome them?

8. Claire makes the difficult decision to go public with her story, knowing full well that she may be met with criticism and disbelief. Why did she make this decision? Would you have handled the situation differently?

9. Liz is the only person Eva allows to get close to her. Describe their friendship. Why is it important to Eva? What does it mean to her?

10. Eva faces several huge difficulties in her life. Do you think her drug dealing is justified, given her circumstances?

11. Characterize Eva's relationship with Dex. Why does she feel betrayed when she learns the truth about him?

12. How did you feel after reading Eva's final chapter? Do you think there was anything different she could have done?

13. What do you think Claire will do next with her life? Will she be happy?

A Conversation with the Author

What inspired you to write
The Last Flight

I've been intrigued by the idea of whether someone could disappear from their life for a long time, and have often played out the various ways they could do it in my imagination. The things they'd need. How they'd get them. Where they might go, and what they'd do when they got there. What they'd have to be leaving behind. I knew early on that I wanted it to be a woman, and I wanted her to have an inner strength, even if her current situation didn't allow her to use it. What might be the tiny ways she'd fight back, fight for room for herself?

Which of the two women—Eva or Claire—did you enjoy writing more? Did you find either of them more challenging?

I love both of my characters for different reasons. I love how scrappy Claire is, how she can look at a situation and figure out how to make it work for her. And I love Eva because she's so flawed yet lovable. I enjoyed writing them both. I would say writing Claire was more challenging, because I was pushing her forward in time, having her act and react to things she didn't know yet. Eva felt more natural to me, living in the past, filling in the blanks. With Claire, the tension had to be immediate, the pacing had to be tight. With Eva, I was allowed to sink more into emotion, to flesh out her backstory and how she ended up where she did.

We're in an era where women are finally starting to feel safe sharing their stories. How does this book relate to the #MeToo movement?

I wanted to acknowledge how hard it still is for women to come forward with their stories. Even in this era of #MeToo, the cost remains high both personally and professionally. Just because we have a name for it doesn't mean it's fixed.

Can you talk a little bit about the systemic forces of oppression that both Claire and Eva face? What made you choose to write about these topics?

As an educator, I feel like it's my obligation to shine a light on what still isn't working in our society. The way a woman's truth is sometimes held to a higher level of scrutiny than a man's. The benefit of the doubt that so often goes the other way. I've known people like Claire, and I've known people like Eva, for whom things don't always turn out okay. In the United States, we like to talk a lot about progress; however, change—not just for women but for all marginalized groups—is slow. Too slow.

What does your writing process look like?

I wake up early in the morning to write. During the workweek, I'm up at 3:45 and write until 6:00. Then I teach a full day of school and shuttle my kids here and there after school, making dinner, supervising homework. Early mornings—with a large pot of coffee—is my most productive writing time. My process is somewhat old school. I favor drafting with paper and pen, especially if I'm having trouble. It slows my brain, it allows me to put down words that “don't count,” and it allows me to get warmed up before committing words to my computer. I draft pretty fast—I think I had a first draft of
The Last Flight
done in about three or four months. Then I like to spend a year or more revising and rewriting.

As a genre, suspense is huge right now. How do you think this story sets itself apart from other books in the space?

I feel like this book has the commercial appeal of the suspense genre, with the emotion often found in upmarket women's fiction. But what really sets this book apart from the others on the shelves is the fact that I wanted both of my protagonists to be strong, savvy women. There's nothing crazy or unstable about Claire or Eva. It's important that the stories we tell reflect the strong women in the world today.

How did you map out all the twists and turns that happen throughout the story?

With lots and lots of note cards! It was really challenging to be writing a dual timeline and then weave it all together. It helped to have a clear vision for how the book would end, and I knew the ending pretty early on. From there, I mapped out Claire's and Eva's story arcs—what I wanted each of them to overcome, what I wanted each of them to learn.

What is the importance of female friendship in a narrative like this one? Have you found friendship with women to be just as important in your life as it is in Eva's and Claire's?

Female friendship is incredibly important in this story. We can all think about that one friend who showed up right when we needed her, giving us exactly what we needed to push us forward. I have been lucky enough to have some amazing female friendships. And as a single mother, it's especially important to have those touchstones. My friends keep me sane. They make me laugh. They listen to what I'm struggling with and step in to help in innumerable ways. Humans are, by nature, social animals. And while I'm a dedicated introvert, I rely on my friends every day.

Why did you decide to set a thriller in Berkeley?

After college, I landed a job in the Cal Athletic Department. I worked in fundraising, so I spent a lot of time at Memorial Stadium, as well as Harmon Gym (which would later become Haas Pavilion). It was the best job for a just-graduated-from-college person who wasn't entirely sure she was ready to have a “real job” yet. I loved my years in Berkeley, made many great friends there, and often dream of moving back someday. I decided to set
The Last Flight
in Berkeley so I could revisit it in my imagination. Go Bears!

What are you hoping readers gain from
The Last Flight

I want readers to be inspired by the courage of both Claire and Eva, who did what felt impossible to each of them. No matter the circumstances, there's a way out. As Claire's mother put it:
If you pay attention, solutions always appear. But you have to be brave enough to see them

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